Several times on this trip, as I have enthusiastically recounted my itinerary to someone, they pause to digest the details, then a knowing smile spreads across their face: “You’re having an Eat Pray Love experience!”
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that recently, I’d be a rich woman. Anyone who knows me well would laugh uproariously at the very idea! Can a woman travelling in her late thirties/early forties really be so pigeonholed? It’s bemusing to me that Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book has somehow defined any long-term multi-destination travel by solo female adventurers. The concept that there must be a higher purpose behind the trip, rather than a need to just explore and experience other cultures, or, in my case, because I have consistently itchy feet and I like seeing stuff. Even people who haven’t read the book but have seen the film are suddenly experts on why women my age travel. I have to sigh, and explain that travel is intrinsic to me. Elizabeth Gilbert grew wings on her time-out. I already had ‘em. I’m not running away from anything. I may not know exactly where I want to be at the end of it, but nothing has changed there for me either. Move, work, travel, has been my life for many years, to the point that that I could be categorised a creature of habit.
But let’s break it all down a bit, just for shits and giggles and any naysayers that may be rolling their eyes. Firstly, I should say I am not criticizing Liz Gilbert in this blog entry. However I am clarifying that her journey is very different to my own. She’s an inspiration to thousands of women and rightly so, but her experiences have been reshaped for the masses, the hopeful, no doubt by her editor who wanted to glam it up a bit and make it all the more dramatic. Elizabeth Gilbert: unhappy marriage, finds God on her bathroom floor, gets a younger lover, goes through a messy divorce, eats herself happy in Italy, soul-searches in an Ashram in India, travels to Bali to study with a medicine man she met there years before who offered her some spiritual advice at a time she needed it, and there meets the man of her dreams. Three of those experiences could apply to me (Clue: I’m not religious, never been to an ashram, don’t know any medicine men and haven’t gone to live in Italy, and the man of my dreams eludes me if he exists at all). It ends there. I’m really just a backpacker. This is my second long-term trip, but I also try to travel to a new destination for 2 months every couple of years. It keeps me inspired, provides food to my soul (shallow and fickle that it is) and makes me happy.
When I read Liz’s book, some of the emotions she felt during her disastrous marriage resonated with me. Of course they would. Many women I’ve met who have been divorced have gone through a similar thing. Liz just articulated it well. That she got out is commendable, so few make the break, and this is the part of the book that I applaud the most. In fact I’m gutted she threw God into the mix as I believe it was her own inner strength that got her through.
Are there still similarities to Liz’s journey and my own? Let’s now break it down by category.
Eat. I do not travel to eat. In fact, my current waif-like stature is testemount to that – I’ve lost over 25% of my bodyweight in a year through sacrifice, exercise and conscientiousness. I have little interest in travelling to experience culinary delights. I can’t eat spicy food, don’t like eating meat at the best of times due to a worry about animal cruelty and especially not in countries where the origin of said meat is dubious, and I can’t stomach fried food. Call me Fussy Manzano. China, Vietnam, India, Nepal and parts of South and Central America were hard for me as I couldn’t find anything on a menu I liked. I lived on dairy, bread and vegetables. Even in New York I tried to eat healthily, I don’t want to get into the habit of massive greasy, fat-laden meals. I haven’t put on a pound since I arrived in New York 9 days ago despite indulging at some fabulous restaurants because I’ve walked, worked out and made healthier choices the rest of the time. If Liz let herself go in Italy then hats off to her. Mind you she knew her next destination was India and anyone that’s been to India knows that you are only one dodgy curry away from supermodel thin. Very unconvincing in the film though – Julia Roberts eating pizza and getting fat?! You walk and sweat so much in Rome that keeping the weight off shouldn’t really be hard if you are doing it properly. Not every meal has to be a gastronomic calorie-fest – they have salad in Italy too, it’s called ‘insalata’ on the menu. NEXT!
So there goes the Eat category. Let’s move to Praying. I’m an aethiest. Liz may have needed some spiritual guidance by visiting an ashram in India and trying to understand the ramblings of her Balinese medicine man, but I prefer to blunder through life, making mistakes and figuring it out on my own. A lot of people travel to India because it’s a spiritual mecca, but they don’t get it. The minute they shrug off their feral 50c hippy clothes and go back to a 9-5 job, any insight they might have learned will soon be crushed by corporate brainwashing. Why can’t they just admit they want to go and live in a hot country, grow their hair, not wash, have sex with other equally smelly people, and smoke drugs? Half the hippy travellers I met who were smug in their yoga bodies, baggy hemp clothes and inner eyes, didn’t go to India to find themselves: they went to find the nearest drug dealer. Pushka, apparently a spiritual mecca due to the abundance of temples and holy-water-filled ghats (Batman!), was full of this hypocrisy and was one of the most commercialized towns we visited in India. Spirituality is India’s biggest seller: a business built up by the fact that people will pay thousands to get blessed and feel that they’ve moved onto some sort of higher plane of being. It’s as much of a product as evangelism, and equally as mass-marketed and exploited. Call me cynical, but I found the middle part of Liz’s book kind of pathetic, not inspirational. Frankly, if I had to scrub floors to find some higher meaning I’d get a job as a cleaner. Yoga is great for physical fitness and probably necessary for achieving 90% of the sexual positions in the karma sutra and it’s nice to be bendy and guys dig it. Meditation can be achieved with a beer and flopping down on the couch in front of Gray’s Anatomy. NEXT!
Love. Aaah, lucky Liz who found her Romeo in EPL. Let’s face it, the Love part is the reason it was a bestseller. A chick gets divorced, goes to Italy and gets porky, finds spiritual awakening in India then goes back to NYC?? Boring! The Love part is what everyone held on for… the possibility that after all that soul-searching the man of your dreams can literally knock you off your bike into a ditch, then sweep you off your feet. Blech. If this actually happened you can bet he won’t look like Javier Bardem either (and if he does his equally skinny and glamorous wife will be in the car with him). Check out Liz’s EPL website if you don’t believe me - there’s photos. Saying that, of course I’m open to meeting the next love (notice I don’t use the term “Love of my life”) on this trip. I’ll let you know if I run into him on a bench in Central Park, trekking in the Grand Canyon, as I peddle my way round an idyllic Greek Island; if he sits down next to me in a café in Paris, or our eyes meet across a crowded, sweaty nightclub in Amsterdam. Until then, what constitutes as my current love situation can be summed up in a lyric: “If you can’t love the one you want, love the one you’re with”. Thanks Kath! Romance can be fleeting, and found in the arms of a beautiful stranger: microcosm moments that can be just as breath-catchingly perfect in their brevity as finding an engagement ring in your glass of bubbly, or as familiar as making love to a man you’ve been with for 20 years. Naysayers: don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. Liz’s romance is rose-coloured glasses tacked onto the end of a book to round it out. Yes, they got married, and you can bet now they argue about who does the washing up and takes out the trash. She’s written another book about it. My mother read it and was disappointed and it won’t be on my holiday reading list: I’m onto Game of Thrones and next up is Chelsea Handler’s “Are you there, Vodka? It’s me, Chelsea”.
Conclusion: I have more in common with Chelsea Handler than I do with Elizabeth Gilbert.
I get told I should write a book. Perhaps it should be called “Prey, Love, Eat: A Cougar’s Tale”*. Ha! I am thinking about it. All I can say is that I feel incredibly privileged to be doing what I’m doing, that I’ve had the opportunities to really live my life the way I want to, despite some recent hardships. To have this wonderful sense of freedom, without putting myself under pressure to define it, is something few people get to experience in a lifetime, and I don’t take it for granted. I actually quite like corporate life in the big city and creature comforts, strange though that seems, because I enjoy a dynamic lifestyle and I am looking forward to the next stop, wherever it may be. The one thing I have learned over the past few years is that I can never live in suburbia and settling down in the true sense doesn’t suit me. Liz did it her way, and I’m doing it mine, and as I put the knowing stranger straight, I take a little comfort from the fact that hopefully there are a few people who are finding some inspiration in my method too.
*”Prey, Love, Eat: A Cougar’s Tale” may or may not ever appear in a bookstore near year, but I’m bloody copyrighting the title in this blog!