Saturday, April 26, 2014

Travel Dreams: All Over the Map and Wanderlust

I'm in the mood for an adventure.  The kind that involves a passport.  I've been wanting to go somewhere for awhile but cannot seem to decide on a destination.  In effort to come up with some kind of plan of action I've been skimming through travel books, planning sample itineraries, and browsing travel websites.  Hawaii, Sweden, Iceland, Toronto, Texas, and the California coast all seem like fascinating possibilities.

I grew up in a medium sized city in California with inexplicable dreams of seeing the Eiffel Tower in person and eating real French baguettes.  While my more sensible friends and family studied Spanish or Chinese in school (sensible because there are large populations that speak these languages in my home state), I opted to study French.  It took awhile but I eventually made it to France.  But that was not my first international adventure. The first stamp in my passport was for London.  Actually, my first true cross-border trip was to Mexico but growing up in California, going to Mexico wasn't much different than going to Nevada.  It used to be that you didn't even need a passport, at least not if you were only going for a short trip. 

Before I crossed an ocean I went to Boston for college.  That might not seem like a big deal but for a girl who had never been farther east than the Arizona desert, the East Coast was a giant step toward France and the rest of the world.  Later, after completing undergraduate and legal studies, I spent a month backpacking in Europe.  I stared upward at Michelangelo's masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  I was overwhelmed into tears at Dachau.  I discovered Stroopwafels (caramel cookie waffles) in The Netherlands. 

One of my favorite trips turned out to be in my own country.  Years later I am still awed by Alaska.  It remains one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen.  In addition to traveling around the world I would like to visit each of the fifty states that make up the United States.  So far I'm about half way done. 

Unfortunately I haven't done much traveling in the past few years and I'm itching to get on a plane, a train, or whatever will take me somewhere new.  In my quest to find an affordable but exciting trip I came across a website hosted by Nomadic Matt.  Matt spent over six years traveling, mostly solo, around the world before deciding he needed to put down roots somewhere.  Though I admire his wanderlust I understand his need to settle down.  I am not sure I would like traveling as much without having a home to come home to, even if it is only a rented apartment.  More importantly, Nomadic Matt has convinced me I can travel more while on a budget.  However, I still can't seem to decide where to go next or how to get started.  In an effort to make a decision I turned to travel memoirs for inspiration.

All Over the Map  The first travel memoir I read was Laura Fraser's All Over the Map.  At age 40 Laura found herself divorced and childless.  It was not the life she expected.  Not that her life was all bad.  Far from it.  She travels the world and gets paid to write about it.  As much as she yearns to settle down with a husband and a child, Laura loves her work and traveling.  I was/am envious of her worldwide travels.  I also could relate to life not turning out precisely as expected.

Laura's writing is thoughtful and honest.  As she travels in search of stories and to visit friends, Laura constantly challenges and reevaluates herself.  She goes on an Outward Bound trip.  She contemplates buying a tiny house in Mexico.  She subjects herself to a meditation trip even though she finds it difficult to sit still and not talk for long periods of time.  She interviews genocide widows in Rwanda.  She tries to come to terms with the choices she's made and finds a way to navigate going forward.  Her attempts are not always successful but she keeps trying and keeps traveling.  All Over the Map made me want to pack my bags but also made me think about my choices and being more deliberate about those choices.

Random Fun Fact:  On Laura Fraser's website she lists all the books she's read since 1974.  Love that!  Another thing I noticed as I was re-reading this section was that I referred to Laura Fraser by her first name.  Last names are the norm in my blog posts.  Something about Laura Fraser's writing invoked a sense of I'm not sure of the right word - friendship or understanding maybe - that made referring to her by her first name feel right. 

Travel memoir doesn't seem quite Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents adequate to describe Elizabeth Eaves's Wanderlust.  It is as much a documentation of the author's emotional and sex lives as it is about her actual travels. I equate traveling with joy, personal and intellectual growth, adventure, and curiosity.  Though Eaves's adventures around the world make for an impressive list - Yemen, Egypt, Papua New Guinea, and Australia are just a few of the places she has lived - Wanderlust elicited feelings of adventure and curiosity, perhaps some degree of growth but oddly, not much joy. 

There is a thin line between running away from responsibilities or difficult situations (especially emotional ones) and running toward something - toward exotic cuisines in exotic locales, toward experiencing the world up close and in person rather than reading about someone else's experience, or toward facing one's fears.  Much of time I wasn't sure which side of that line Eaves was on.  She definitely is adventurous but for her adventure seems to equal escape.  She repeatedly invokes Harry Houdini and his daring escapes from life threatening situations.  Likewise, the stamps in Eaves's passport could be interpreted as evidence of her escape from some imaginary prison.

Eaves floats from one man to the next but even her long term relationships appeared to have little to do with love, romance, companionship, or even emotion.  It was more like she needed an excuse to travel and the excuse needed to be in the form of an escape from whatever self-imposed box she had put herself in.  As she readily admits near the end of her relationship with an Englishman (never got his name, not sure if it was there and I just missed it or if his name was never revealed), as soon as he consents to stay with her in one place for awhile, she immediately ceases to want him.  For Eaves travel seemed not to be about the destination or even the journey, but rather about the act of freeing herself from any kind of obligation.  Buying a house, signing an apartment lease, or maintaining a job may as well have been shackles the way Eaves chafed under them.  I sort of get how buying a house could feel like a prison.  It is a huge commitment that can dominate one's life and finances for decades, but even an apartment lease was too much for her.  Anything that suggested commitment terrified her.

Towards the end of the book Eaves decides it is time to stop juggling multiple boyfriends across multiple continents.  She starts making moves to settle down with one man.  This doesn't mean she is bound for a house in the suburbs or has to give up her passport - his State Department job means Eaves's travels will continue.  It only means that her solo trips will decrease in number and her long distance relationship pattern will be replaced by actually being present for the relationship.  At first this seems like a happy compromise as she enters her 30s and starts to feel the need for some stability.  It is foregone conclusion that this relationship is unlikely to last since Eaves enters into it partly out of love but mostly because her nomadic lifestyle has left her emotionally and financially unstable and she needs someone to be her anchor.  As I write this I am beginning to think that this might be the saddest travel memoir I have ever read.

Recommendations and Final Thoughts:  I wholeheartedly recommend All Over the Map, especially if you are over 30.  I suspect those who have entered their third decade (like myself) or beyond will readily relate to Laura Fraser's book no matter their particular life circumstances (married or not, parent or not). 

I found Eaves's book less satisfying.  While her travel experiences were off the beaten path and interesting to read about, ultimately her book left me feeling sad, though not sad enough to silence my own wanderlust. 

Postscript: I'm leaning toward a trip to Nashville.  Tennessee is a state I have not yet visited and a recent episode of the show Nashville reminded me of how much I would love to see Grand Ole Opry and the rest of the city.

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