Traveling The World — By Proxy
Right now, I feel tethered. I’m always holding someone, wiping someone, feeding someone. Someone is always sick. I go to the fridge, I lift my shirt, I put away the laundry, I type, I TiVo. There are days that I don’t go outside. (Seasons? What are these seasons of which you speak?)
’Twas not ever thus. The summer I graduated from college, I was a writer for the Let’s Go budget-travel guides. I traveled all around the Greek islands, alone, on ferries and scooters. One night I slept in an old chicken coop. In the mountains of Crete, an old man who spoke no English pressed three tiny, perfect pears into my hand. But those days are long gone. Now even a trip to Miami seems daunting. Max is still too young for sunscreen, and Josie would scream, “Bury me up to my neck, Mommy! Make a sand-aardvark, Mommy!” Sure, we’ll travel again someday, but my chicken coop days are over.
So you’d think I’d be into living vicariously, hearing about other people’s travels. You’d mostly be wrong. Because most travel writing is boring as all get out. It’s usually a festival of adjectives and adverbs all piled up like tourists in a moped accident. Or it’s a plod through a landscape of exotic differently hued peoples and their exotic foodstuffs in their exotically shabby homes. Most travel writing is “Mad Libs”: Fill in your destination; talk about the scent of spices; oh, look, there’s a mountain.
And why do all the big-time travel writers seem to be male? Not to get all womyn’s music festival, I-sing-of-my-uterus about it, but it’s women’s perspectives I usually crave. My last favorite book about travel was Deborah Copaken Kogan’s “Shutterbabe,” about the writer’s work as a photojournalist in dangerous and sad places. What I liked most about it was that Kogan has none of that self-congratulatory, superior-boy-writer voice. She knows she’s flawed, and she reports honestly on her screw-ups and bad judgment. She hooks up with inappropriate men. She admits to being frequently clueless. And I especially enjoyed her description of being a young woman disguised as a boy, bouncing around the back of a truck in a caravan of Afghan freedom fighters… and getting her period.
Kogan is like a friend you want to smack some sense into. Gayle Forman is like a friend you want to spend hours with, digging in thrift-store bins, listening to Jonathan Richman CDs, talking about love and kooky relatives, and being a teenage drama geek. Actually, she is a friend I do those things with. Or did, before we both had kids and became so dependent on phones and e-mail.
When Josie was just a few months old, Gayle took off on a yearlong ’round-the-world trip with her husband, Nick. This was before her baby, Willa; before the loft in Brooklyn; before she and Nick moved out of their grubby Hell’s Kitchen walk-up. I cried when she left.
But Gayle’s e-mails from the road — from the Internet cafés that have popped up like freckles in the most seemingly remote places — made me feel like she was sitting right next to me. I could hear her voice describing the fakaleiti, the “third sex” in Tonga. (You and I might call them drag queens, but they have a sanctioned place in Tongan society, as I learned from Gayle.) She hung out at their beauty shop, had them over for dinner, watched them play sports and “do that hand-flappy thing girls do when they run.” But in typical Gayle fashion, she got to know some of them truly well, invited them for dinner (which she cooked in her little backpacker guesthouse kitchen), and had late-night confessionals with them about love and the future.
That’s Gayle in a nutshell. She connects. Growing up as a non-Valley-Girl in the San Fernando Valley, she always felt like an outsider. So she’s spent her adult life creating her own community, which she continued to do on the road. “I don’t really care about museums and paintings and monuments,” she said. “I care about the moment when the man at the tea shop remembers your name. And you feel the world is smaller and not so scary and you can make a connection, however ephemeral, with someone so different from you. That’s so nourishing. And that’s why I travel.”
As Gayle and Nick made their way around the world, the e-mails filled my inbox. Gayle sought out people on the fringes: Cambodian street kids, a klatch of Bollywood musical extras (she became one for a while), a society of nerdily obsessive JRR Tolkien fans dressing as wizards and warriors in all-night role-playing games in the mountains of Kazakhstan, sex workers in Amsterdam and Vanilla-Ice-influenced Tanzanian hip-hop artists. My favorite installment involved her visit with the Lemba, the Bantu-speaking
Southern Africans who believe they’re descended from the lost tribes of Israel. By the time a Lemba elder found acceptance from a modern, upper-middle-class white South African Jewish rabbi (Gayle facilitated the introduction), I was bawling. Her stories were full of such moments, thanks to her preference for staying in place
long enough for people to trust her, rather than doing that travel-writer-y thing of jetting in and jetting out. (Or worse, yammering on endlessly about one damn farmhouse in Province. Shut up, shut up, shut up.) When Gayle described the people she met, she used so much humor, love and self-deprecating Gayleness, I fell in love with them, too.
But as the months went by, I started dreading the e-mails as much as I looked forward to them. With each dispatch, it seemed that Gayle’s relationship with Nick was getting worse. Their fights were breathtakingly cruel — a writer and a librarian know how to use words to hurt. And I knew from simply hiking around Kauai with Jonathan that travel can be stressful, even when you have a beautiful lanai and a pitcher of Mai Tais to go back to. Gayle and Nick were unmoored.
Did their relationship survive? Read the book. (Hint: Baby Willa’s existence should tell you something.) Yes, Gayle’s e-mail dispatches eventually became the brand-new “You Can’t Get There From Here: A Year on the Fringes of a Shrinking World” (Rodale Books). Her openhearted response to the world, her detailed portraits of people, her analysis of globalization as a positive force that can bring fellow oddballs together as well as an insidious one that puts a McDonald’s on every street corner of the planet… well, as Erik Torkells of Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine put it, Gayle’s “the kind of person you wish would sit next to you on an airplane.” And the story of Nick and Gayle in transition is a page turner. I don’t think I’ve read another travel book that analyzes, with such brutal honesty, the way intense travel can turn lovers into enemies… and back into lovers.
So now Gayle’s back home. Willa’s a couple of months older than Maxine. We talk about baby carriers and sleep training and finding quiet time to write. But Gayle’s wanderlust is starting to kick in again. “I want Willa to have a love of travel, too,” she said. “I’m thinking about spending a couple of months tooling through Latin America with her. And I speak really good Latin.” Ba-da-bing. More seriously, she said, “Writing the book was so gratifying, in part because I was pregnant at the time. Creating it while my body was creating was profound. I’d like to keep traveling and creating and procreating and making a nice big traveling Jewish family.”
Write to Marjorie at [email protected].