Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Where in the world is Juanita Harrison?

She had me at the title, really.
I love reading travel journals; the older, the better, and extra great if it was written by a woman. I came across Juanita Harrison's book by accident, but even before I clicked on the free ebook, the title already sold it:

There is so much love and joy in that title, there was no question whether I was going to like this book.
And then it got better.

Here is what we know about Juanita Harrison: She was born around 1891 in Mississippi, she was a woman of color, she worked various jobs in the US and Cuba, until in 1927, at the age of 36, she decided to travel around the world, so she packed up a suitcase, got on a ship, and set out on a 7 year adventure.

And then it gets even better.

Here are some things I absolutely adore about Juanita:
(Yes, this book is the grammar pedant's worst nightmare, which makes it even more awesome)

1. She is not a rich lady waltzing around the world. She calls herself a "rover"; she freelances wherever she goes, taking odd jobs to earn money. Whenever she has enough for the next leg of the journey, she quits immediately, and "loafs around", enjoying her vacation, until the money runs out.

2. She values fun over objects. She regularly gets rid of her entire suitcase (once she gifts it to a maid at a house she works at), and she only ever mentions buying two frivolous things: Postcards, and books. See why I like her yet?

3. Talking about books: Wherever she goes, Juanita visits the local library to read about the places she is visiting. She also spends time in various libraries for fun.

4. In general, she spends on adventures rather than things:

"I left New York with a ten dollar hat on my head but it rained so often in London and Scotland that it have taken all the life out of it I thought of buying another but for that money I can go into so many grand old castles and manisons that I can still see beauty in it."

She runs to save the taxi money for the opera, and when she finds some coins on the ground, she goes back to the world fair a second time to look around. She takes dance lessons in Spain, goes to public baths in Japan (and shows off her pink bra), visits cabarets and festivals, and especially enjoys crashing local weddings and funerals to see what they are like...

5. She claims her space and she does not apologize for it.

"I got a passage on the Orient Line on a lovely boat and they say the 3rd Class are as good as the second on the other lines. I gave my likes and dislikes a Cabin without children and uper berth, and will be ready to fight to get what I want once on boad so no one need piety me."

6. She sets her boundaries and sticks to them.

"I dont want anyone fooling with my room rent, my room is my personal self they can give me my food or little presents but I dont want any one to be able to come to my room."

7. She decorates her spaces, even when she only lives in them for a few days; she hangs curtains, buys flowers, and scrubs the floors. The short time while she works at a mental institute for children in Spain, she makes sure they get new, nicer pots.

8. She has a great deal of common sense. She sews pockets to her "bloomers", never lets her passport out of her hand, scrubs washing basins before she uses them, shops at local markets, and always pretends to stay at a hotel when someone walks her "home."

9. She punches men who try to hit on her too aggressively. Apparently, she has a mean upper cut.

10. She does not hate men, however, and is also not afraid of them. In fact, she enjoys flirting, and makes comments about the men of various countries, especially the really hot ones.

"I like best to tease with the handsome blue caped policeman, because when I have heard enough I can step away from his beat which he can not leave."

11. She takes deep, absolute, and pure enjoyment in everything she does. She walks barefoot in the grass around the Taj Mahal, and takes a nap in the shade. She drinks fresh milk in the Netherlands while watching the sunrise. She takes everything as an adventure; she climbs a lamppost to get a look at the Spanish Queen, laughs herself silly on a ship tossed around by a typhoon in Japan, and seriously considers getting arrested in Germany just to see what that's like. Even seasickness is registered as "fun" in her journal.

12. She is perfectly happy and content with traveling alone. She turns down several traveling companions (men and women alike), and does everything on her own time, in her own way, and exactly as long as she wants to.

13. She never has a bad word about any nation or culture. She calls most of them "gentle and kind," and goes out of her way to spend time with people, even when they try to put her with the "European" passengers. She prays, but she always prays in whatever church, temple, synagogue, or mosque is the nearest; she is open to learning about other people's ideas.

"another Gentlean a Very smart Professor and a strong Buddish He talked for 2 hours to me on that faith and I was so thankful it was just what I wanted to hear I sat very quiet and took it all in he spoke about it said I was a good listner as most Christians argue."

14. In 1935, she settles down in Hawaii. Her way of settling down involves buying a tent (grandly named Villa Petit Peep) that she can carry in a bundle on her head, and moving around whenever she feels like it. This is what she says about settling down:

Well never in all my life have I slept so wonderful as in my Tent the 4 holes in each of the windows where the ropes drow up the Shade make 12 holes and when the light is out and the door and Windows closed the lights of the street shine through the holes and on to the Top of my Tent and it look just like the Stars. I'll get a serfe boad and Take a few Hula lessons just to add gayness to that list of things the check bought. 
 I want alway to be where wealth health youth beauty and gayness are altho I need very little for myself I just want to be in the midst of it. 1 have reversed the saying of Troubles are like Babies the more you nurse them the bigger They grow so I have nursed the joys.


Just as she appeared on the stage of world literature, Juanita gracefully stepped off of it. We don't know what happened to her after the book was published. We don't even have a picture of her. She wandered the world for 7 years between the two world wars, seeing it as the most beautiful place to be, living every day as the most beautiful day to be alive.

We should be teaching this, for so many reasons. Juanita Harrison should be on reading lists everywhere. We should be talking about a world traveler who did not discover, research, or exploit; we should be talking about a woman (of color) who traveled alone by choice and was not ashamed or afraid for one minute of it. We should be talking about how she had no grammar or punctuation, and yet she lived for libraries and the opera. We should celebrate her empathy and her friendliness, her confidence, her sheer joy and her insatiable curiosity.
Or, at the very least, some Literature major should look into what happened to her after she landed in Hawaii. I would love to know.

Let's remember Juanita Harrison.


  1. I love the way you highlighted Juanita Harrison's travel journal. I agree, her attitude sounds wonderful. Maybe someday I'll make time to find out what happened in Hawaii.

  2. Your post is really nice, highlighting all the special qualities of her travels and her book.
    In 1940 she went to Latin America (embarking in Brazil), where she remained for at least 10 years, including 7 in Buenos Aires. She is buried in Honolulu, where she died in 1967, aged 79. She often took four years off her age.
    The cover of the first edition of her book includes a collage of photos of her, dressed up in various costumes (veil, head-dress, bathing suit). Goodreads shows a thumbnail portrait of that cover in "other editions."
    I am soon to publish a book that gives more biographical information about her, and I also have chapters about her in my two previous books.
    Best wishes,
    Cathryn Halverson

    1. Wow! Thank you for the information! :)

    2. I'm reading it now. The book I'm reading was added to the Minneapolis public library the same year it was published. Library binding so no photos on the cover.

  3. Thank you for information this is the first I am hearing of the wonderful adventurous woman.