How I Travel Sandra Cisneros Packs Jewelry to Embody a Character
Style & Culture

How I Travel: Sandra Cisneros Packs Jewelry to Embody a Character

We peek into the airport routines and bizarre quirks of the world's most well-traveled people.

Someone must have told the legendary writer Sandra Cisneros that I’m calling her from Taiwan because she greets me with enthusiasm. “I just love Taipei because you can get a foot massage in a public place with a whole bunch of other people next to you and it doesn’t feel creepy. That is so civilized!” says the author of the classic novel The House on Mango Street, who resides in Mexico and has just released a new poetry collection, Woman Without Shame: Poems. “​​I bought a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes at the flea market there for 20 bucks. Woo-hoo! I've never worn them, but who cares? They look so nice you could put them on a cake.”

Cisneros was similarly ebullient when discussing her travels through Sarajevo, Istanbul, and Venice. Ahead, she shares the pieces she always packs, the feature she needs in a hotel room, and how Americans could behave a bit better when visiting Mexico.

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How she absorbs a new place:

I take notes. I love mistranslations. I take pictures of mistranslations, when things are translated into funny English. I take notes about how places make me feel. I was in Istanbul in May, and just the names of places are so beautiful. Everything sounds like poetry to me. I'm usually seduced by the sounds of words. I can't always remember them unless I write them down. It's all of the senses, but especially words. I've learned so few words in Turkish because they were always so complicated, but they're beautiful. No wonder Rumi wrote poetry! It's just the kind of place that is very conducive to poetry. But every place is conducive to poetry, because poetry's about being very present in the moment and paying attention. That's the same thing as a tourist, isn't it?

Her approach to packing:

I telescope a lot of bags inside bags, or I have to have a bag that expands. Everything has to function three different ways. I like to travel with Mexican shopping bags inside my suitcases, and I don't use a purse; I'll use a flat cloth bag. The Mexican shopping bag is for all my books. I don't understand people that travel with one little suitcase, because I don't want to live with regrets. I want to take things home.

What she keeps in her carry-on:

I always have my laptop, and I carry a little basket with my jewelry that I wear to become “the author.” I don't carry much jewelry if I'm just traveling as myself, but if I have to be “the author,” then I have my favorite turquoise cuff, or something that has to do with my culture. I always have a rebozo silk shawl or some silver Taxco earrings or bracelet, something that can empower me when I speak, but also educates the public about my culture.

Her favorite mode of transportation:

A boat would be like torture for me. My idea of hell is being with a lot of people I don't know. Chatting with people is the most difficult thing, and I do it for a living and it wears me out. I don't want to see other people and I don't want to chat with them.

But on the other hand, I was [once] on an Amtrak ride from New York to D.C., and I had the most pleasant time talking to an elderly, retired train employee who was going to visit his son in Philadelphia. And I met a beautiful person once on the train from Portland to Seattle. I think I like trains best. I don't get to travel on trains enough. I'm frightened on planes and I pretend I'm not, and I'm frightened in cars. I hate being in boats because I'm afraid of water. But there's something about trains. You can look out the window and write poetry, or you think: Who lives there? What would it be like to live in that house? I got that from growing up and living in Chicago and being on the El train, which takes you through the backsides of buildings. I'd write poetry on those.

On the difference between business trips and vacation:

I never travel for leisure, because every trip is leisure and business. I could go on a trip that I think is leisure, but then I'll wind up writing. I never stop writing.

The suitcase she’s searching for:

I wish someone would ask me how to design the perfect suitcase. I haven't found a suitcase where you can put your toiletries and your clothes in the same bag without risking your toiletries breaking open. We used to have one like that—it had a separate compartment, zippered on the base where you could put Champagne or tequila or your toiletries, but they change the designs every year and then you can't find that anymore. Part of the reason that I am traveling with more bags than I should is because one has my clothes, then I have a whole other bag filled with books and facial masks, and then gifts I buy for my employees. I always bring gifts because I live in Mexico and Mexicans: we always arrive bearing gifts.

The items she has to have with her:

I always take with me my necessary luxuries. There's certain things I have to have, because traveling is exhausting. I want to have my own soap, and it's got to be a really nice one. I like to have my one flannel pajama or flannel robe, but not both because they take up too much room. I want the cashmere sweater with the hole in it. I want to wear it inside my hotel room. And I like the one with the hole, because then I own it. It doesn't own me. And one thing I learned to travel with: my friend's a clothing designer and she always travels with a spray bottle. Just fill it with water and hang up your clothes as soon as you get there on the shower rod and mist them. They'll unwrinkle.

Her affection for foreign grocery stores:

I buy things and I don't even know who I'm buying it for. I love going to flea markets and antique markets and candy stores. I hate grocery stores in the United States, but I love grocery stores in other countries. I don't even [understand] what is inside but I buy it because I like the wrapping. Isn't it fun?

The destination she will never tire of:

China, because China loves poetry. They respect poetry, and they believe in ghosts. Those are the two things I know exist: poetry and ghosts. I feel like the Chinese are cousins to the Mexicans. They talk really loud, they have all kinds of strange food, they revere jade, and they revere their ancestors. So we're cousins.

I've only been one time, on a book tour. I started in Shanghai, but I think that's really where you should end. I ended in Beijing; you should do Beijing first, because that's the ugliest part. I went there after my mother had died and I was heartbroken. Maybe that's why it affected me so much—because when your heart is broken, you feel things so deeply. I felt like mother China took me in. The people, I'm not talking about the government. China's maternal. Some countries are masculine and some are feminine, and China's a woman. I felt like I was embraced spiritually by the land and the culture.

The passport stamp she’s proudest of:

A place I go back to a lot is Sarajevo, because I lived there one summer. I went before and after the war, so I've seen it change a lot. The former Yugoslavia and now it's Bosnia and Herzegovina, a different country. I have a lot of stamps from going way back—from my trips to visit my spirit sister, a Bosnian woman who's been like a sister to me since we met in 1983. We were supposed to meet last year, but then there was a COVID variant and so we couldn't. We couldn't go to Italy; they wouldn't accept her, since her country was not all vaccinated. That's how I wound up in Istanbul: It was a country that would accept her and accept me. We had a great time.

The hotel amenity she cares very much about:

Bathtubs. I need them, because I got hit by a cab earlier this year, but I also needed them before I got hit by the cab. Bathtubs help me to surrender myself and inspire me creatively. If I'm performing, I need to take a bath before the event to meditate.

How Americans could be better tourists in Mexico:

One of the horrible things about American tourists is they talk too loud. They don't realize they're talking that loud and they shout in the street. I've had to tell people, "Please, it's Sunday. People are taking a nap." Especially young people, they talk really loud at the Starbucks, shouting to each other. They want people to notice them, and I think that's disrespectful. If they would please not talk so loud!

The city she is headed to this winter:

I love being in Venice when I finish a book. I had to defer that this year, so I'm going in January. I just want to walk around Venice, and go into [Teatro] La Fenice and think, “Maria Callas sang there. Maria Callas sang here.” I've never been inside La Fenice, and that's my goal. January is the best time to be [in Venice] because nobody's there, and sometimes if you're lucky it will snow. To be in Venice when it's snowing, it's like being in a snow globe. It's magical.