[Note: this review is also posted at our non-travel blog, Steph & Tony Investigate!]
For me, the very best books, regardless of genre, are the ones that whisk me away from my own life and allow me to see and understand the world in a way I hadn’t before. If there’s one type of book with an innate affinity to do this very thing, surely it is the travel memoir! The very best of their kind aren’t just about traveling around in strange lands, encountering odd social customs and nibbling on questionable foods—though those anecdotes are fascinating in their own ways—but are about the personal transformation that occurs when we venture out of our homes and leave the safety and security of the familiar behind.
As my own big trip looms larger with each passing day, it’s no surprise that I’ve been increasingly drawn to travel writing these past few months. Maybe I’m hoping to pick up tips and tricks along the way to ensure my trip is more successful, or maybe I’m hoping for inspiration… deep down, I think I just want reassurance that Tony and I aren’t alone in this dream and that leaving our current life to travel will turn out ok. I know that even in the pages of books, happy endings aren’t guaranteed, but I still can’t help but search for them nevertheless. To this end, I’ve been really gratified to find that the Nashville Public Library system has an awesome digitial travel collection, the irony being that now I can travel the world without even leaving the comfort of my home, not even to get a book! If that’s not the best of both worlds, then I don’t know what is. Anyway, NPL has a pretty bitchin’ selection of titles, ranging from actual travel guides to help you plan your stay, to memoirs and pieces of writing to inspire you to get off your lazy butt and actually go somewhere. This is how I stumbled across The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost (known as TGGG henceforth).
TGGG begins by recounting author Rachel Friedman’s experience traveling to Ireland the summer between her junior and senior years of college and the subsequent wanderlust it triggered in her. As someone who has always been incredibly driven and subscribed to the notion of the five-year plan, Rachel has lived a relatively sheltered life. In Ireland, her eyes are opened to a whole host of possibilities when she encounters numerous individuals who have forsaken traditional career paths in order to just dwell in the world for a while. The seed of possibility is planted in Rachel’s mind and when she returns home to the States, graduates a year later and finds herself at a crossroad, that possibility suddenly bursts into bloom. Rather than following in her father’s footsteps and continuing down the well-trod road to graduate school, Rachel decides to pack her bags and head to Australia on a working holiday visa to visit her friend Carly, whom she met and lived with in Ireland. After six months in the land Down Under, the dynamic duo head off to South America, with nothing more than the packs on their backs and a plan to travel until their money runs out.
Superficially, it’s pretty clear why Rachel’s story would appeal to me, since I am currently planning to bow out of the rat race and spend at least a year traveling the world. But the more I read, the more I felt like in many fundamental ways, Rachel’s story was my own, just 7 years delayed. If you spend any amount of time poking around travel blogs, you’ll find that people travel and approach life in a variety of different ways. Even if we’re united under the common titular umbrella of “nomad”, world travlers are still a heterogenous bunch; personality, perspective and philosophy are not a one-size-fit all kind of thing, not even in the world of travel. So it was really wonderful to read about someone’s journey that so closely mirrors my own. It’s weird to say this about a memoir, I know, but as I read about Rachel’s life and her worries and her struggles, I felt as though I could have easily been the one writing this story. As I read, I was constantly highlighting passages that I felt were plucked directly from my brain, which is unusual because I rarely annotate as I read. Some of these passages are so tightly tied up with my own identity that I would likely be hard-pressed to forget their sentiments, even if I tried, but I didn’t want to risk it!
I think there are two particular ways in which Rachel and I are identity twins:
1) We’re both Type A overachievers who are obsessed with achievements, particularly of the academic variety (and a huge chunk of our identities are defined by school)
2) We are people pleasers who thrive on approval, particularly from our parents
These two things are necessarily entwined to some extent, since I am sure that my need for approval is part of why I cling so tightly to academia, where hardwork is not only rewarded but quantified. Most people hate taking tests or writing papers, but I love them because I like knowing just how much I know, and consequently, just how smart I am. My parents put me in school when I was three, so I’ve now been a full-time student in some shape or form for 26 years! Of course I love to learn, but I’d be lying if I didn’t also say that part of why I love school is because at this point, it feels safe, and also, it’s been a huge source of validation and gratification for me. With this in mind, I wouldn’t blame you if you thought some of the following passages were penned by me. I promise, all of these were written by Rachel, even though they pretty much exhume the very core of me:
I genuinely loved school, where the formula for success was straightforward. Study and you get good grades. Simple, safe. But no class has prepared me for the post-student leap I am facing now, and being an eternal over-achiever who bases her self-worth on her GPA, I am woefully ill-equipped to take on the unpredictable, unscheduled life awaiting me after college graduation. I am terrified of this unknown.
* * *
I’ve developed a complex about being branded a quitter. I have incorrectly concluded that quitting is not a choice of one thing over the other but rather a comment on one’s character, no matter how trivial the commitment or how great the opportunity on the other side of quitting is. I’m also a die-hard people pleaser, and the idea of disappointing a restaurant manager I’ve spent a grand total of five minutes with sends shivers through me.
* * *
It’s not that Carly’s life is entirely free of pressures. It’s just that she has a totally different relationship to her parents’ approval. She wants to please them, but it’ not the all-encompassing stressor it is for me, and she would never dream of giving up her own desires to make them happy… [Carly’s parents] often tell Carly, ‘We want you to do what makes you happy.’ Although my own parents provided me the best education, the highest-quality music lessons, and an abundance of financial support, I never heard them utter these exact words. It is in Australia that I realize I will have to garner the strength to speak them to myself.
Months of therapy would probably just scratch the surface of all the issues that lie seething beneath those quotes. Typing them out and sharing them with you, I feel vulnerable and scared, because I feel like they strip all artifice away and allow you to see me for who I really am. I like school because it reassures me that I am a good, worthwhile person. It gives my parents a tangible reason to be proud of me, and the thought of disappointing them makes me feel sick. To this end, I will keep at something well past the point of reason and even at the cost of my own sanity and happiness because people in my family don’t quit. Seven years spent in grad school is a testament to the fact that when it comes to making decisions, I put my own needs last, and I am very good at doing things that make me unhappy, and very bad at doing things simply because they do make me happy. Unlike Rachel, I didn’t have to face these truths when I was 22, because I jumped from one academic degree into another and it let me hide. In many ways, I should be past these things: I am 29, I am married, I am financially independent, I have two dogs, I own a car… and yet I sometimes feel like I am still a child who has no control over her life, knows nothing about the world, and worse, nothing about herself. This is tough stuff, and one of the many things I hope I will gain on our big trip is the courage to truly embrace the notion that choosing to be happy is valid, and the only person I really need to hold myself accountable to in this lifetime is me. Taking our big trip is just the first step on this journey, but it’s a vital one, I think.
For most people, TGGG will be a light, frothy travel read that sometimes entertains and sometimes annoys. Obviously, for me, this book hit a nerve. It may not be spectacular, objectively speaking, but it was exactly the right time for me to read it. Of course, for those of you not looking for existential angst, it is still a really inspiring read even just focusing on the travel-y bits. My dreams were filled with Incan ruins and sandy, Aussie beaches during the week that I read this, and even though Tony and I aren’t planning to hit up either Australia or South America on this trip, I loved getting to visit them through Rachel’s writing and flagged many places to see and experience when we do finally make it there. There were a few parts of TGGG that rubbed me the wrong way or that I flat-out disagreed with, but really, the only thing I took issue with was Rachel’s claims that this book wasn’t a love story. This was made in reference to a romance she had while in South America, but I would argue that TGGG is a love story, just not in the conventional sense. It is a story about falling in love with the world, travel, and with your own life. Also, cheesy as it may be, it’s about discovering yourself and learning to love that person as well. For me, it was these elements that made this one of those travel reads that transcends its genre and makes its appeal broader.
If you’re at a crossroad, or just feeling restless, I can’t recommend TGGG highly enough. This wasn’t a book that just exposed my own foibles and insecurities, it also emboldened and inspired me as well. I still get scared when I think about how much my life will change in the coming months, and when I do, I turn to books and writing for comfort. Thankfully, Rachel’s got my back. I’ll leave you with three quotes that, in times of doubt and uncertainty, help me shore up my courage and keep me moving towards my goal:
The planet has not imploded because I, the girl who has always done what is expected of her, decided not to, just this once.
* * *
You can’t get lost when you have nowhere to be.
* * *
“But why are you traveling?” I want to pinpoint her goal, to figure out how she is justifying this diversion from her studies.
“Why? To travel. To see the world. What do you mean, why? Because I want to.”