Eat, Pray, Love is a book to which I am very resistant. It came on the scene around the time that I first moved overseas and started traveling internationally. One of the places I got to go to, because I was living within a “reasonable” vacation distance is Bali.
Bali is a great place for a vacation. It is inexpensive, and there are several different types of experiences to be had on a relatively small island. There is amazing surfing on Kuta Beach. You can move to another part of the island, near Seminyak, if you want to enjoy water sports that demand calmer water, such as wind surfing. There are rivers on which to enjoy rafting inland along with beautiful scenery and cultural Mecca Ubud. The weather is warm and perfect for swimming and sunbathing. The best part is that it’s all extremely inexpensive. When I went, a four star hotel was about $100 US a night, and I stayed in several clean, decent hotels, with pools, for less than $30.
But let me tell you, while going to Bali is a great vacation, it is not adventure travel. Bali is extremely touristy. Good English is common. In August, when I went, the island is regularly overrun with Australians and New Zealanders, so things (like more countries than you think actually) are set up to accommodate English speakers. If you’re American, the “exotic” part might be that you are being treated like you are from Down Under, that’s it.
The Balinese have seen many foreigners before, no question, and they see us coming too.
I will never forget a local who, trying to sell me a sarong, told me it was $1.00, and in the next breath she told the Japanese woman who was behind me on the path that it was “Sen yen”, which means 1,000 yen or about $10.00. My daughter and I both understood that much Japanese, and yes, we were shocked.
The point of this story is to communicate that when Elizabeth Gilbert went to Bali, she wasn’t going to some unspoiled, exotic location. She was going to a very popular, if distant for an American, tourist destination. It’s kind the equivalent of an American going to the Caribbean.
The people she encountered there were shrewd. Elizabeth Gilbert might have been having an epiphany of some kind in her head, but she really was having a very extended vacation in some very nice spots while being taken advantage of by some very nice people.
And apparently being taken advantage of quite a bit. I don’t care about that because frankly, I’m ok with the locals taking what they can get from someone like her. She kind of deserves it by going in with such a patronizing attitude and just being so…clueless. But it’s not good for cultures and people in the long run. It’s not responsible tourism.
And then she goes on to have an affair and try to turn it in to the love of her life. Snicker. I’m relieved to discover upon reading this book that actually she took up with another expatriate, not a local, but I can tell you from my time in Bali, that detail has been lost in translation.
Before I went to Bali, I heard that Gilbert’s book had caused some problems there because it had encouraged the men to try to start relationships with foreigners to leave Bali, which isn’t good. It’s not great for people, in this case usually women, who get entrapped in them either.
Having an affair on vacation is fine, but most people who have been overseas for extended periods learn quickly that for most people, life is not real when they are away from home…even if it’s been for years. It is important to always be careful. If you take people at face value, don’t take them seriously, if that makes sense. Assume that they may be hiding something, possibly intentionally, possibly from themselves. Enjoy the time you spend with them, but if things start to feel uncomfortable or weird, get out fast. If they ask you for money in any way, shape, or form, you should feel uncomfortable and weird.
Ask yourself what you would think if your next-door neighbor at home told you the same story, and act on that. Don’t let the locale confuse you.
Basically, it’s not a good idea to bring a relationship with a foreigner home from a vacation anymore than you would bring an exotic pet home. One way or the other, you are probably going to cause yourself some trouble, at best because the person may not be the person you think he/she is, and at worst because you might be the victim of an out and out scam. And it’s not just the countries you think. You’d be surprised.
Each country’s laws has its own loopholes, and there are people out there just waiting to exploit them.
The whole world has the Internet, my friends.
For just one form of this scam, read this article from NBC News in Washington, DC. Different forms vary widely from situation to situation and country to country. They also depend on whether the marriage has taken place or not.
Finally, I found Elizabeth Gilbert’s fascination with religion at best silly: she is playing right into a common fraud, and at worst, sacrilegious. I cannot believe that early in her book, she puts the Judeo/Christian God on the same footing as Zeus? Yes, there is an argument to be made that there are similarities in many religions across the world, but Zeus? Seriously?
These are her thoughts, as quoted from page 13 (in the paperback movie edition):
…let me first explain why I use the word God, when I could just as easily us the words Jehovah, Allah, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu or Zeus…
I have nothing against any of these terms. I feel they are all equal because they are all equally adequate and inadequate descriptions of the indescribably.…
I am no religious scholar, but I know that any Christian, Jew, or Muslim is going to have a hard time with her equating the Judeo/Christian/Muslim God with Hindu dieties, but on top of that, Zeus? Really? First of all, he did a lot of really horrible things, and second of all, does anyone still believe that Greek/Roman mythology is a religion?
As if that weren’t enough, after a paragraph about whether to use masculine of feminine pronouns, she writes this:
Though I do think the capitalization of either pronoun is a nice touch, a small politeness in the presence of the divine.
Patronize much? She sounds as though God doesn’t really deserve special capitalization rules, but she’s giving to Him (or Her) just because it makes Him (or Her) feel good. Okaay….
There’s entitlement, and then there’s this. Whoa.
So probably if you practice any kind of religion, you should want to stop reading by now anyway. But if you’re still thinking of going on….
The one country she has visited that I have not is India, but it is similarly clear to me that the Ashram she visited was there to take advantage of gullible foreigners. She describes the village near the facility as basically being there as a support service, and the “guru” that she was supposedly following wasn’t even there…she was overseas…drumming up business no doubt.
I have never understood why some people, when searching spiritually, are so quick to shun their own religion, or all western religion, without seriously exploring it, and so quick to latch on to religions that they don’t understand and are probably coming to them in a watered-down form. When asked, these people might be quick to say that all religions are related (as Gilbert does), but if that is true, what is wrong with starting with the church down the street? Or synagogue, or mosque? I could even tell you where the Hindu temple in my town is, and I do not live in a major city. If you really want to go on a spiritual quest, why not begin at home?
There are many other people who have gone out and taken the time to actually get to know people from other nationalities and try to understand who they really are. Some people have spent years with them and even made their homes permanently with these people. Some have made systematic scientific study of them. Some of them have made a serious effort to try to help them, which means first of all taking the time to really understand their needs and ways to help that will also not do harm. I have to hand it to Elizabeth Gilbert for making what is obviously (to me) a clichéd venture sound so meaningful to so many people. That’s good writing, no question about it.
But what do you want to do, contribute to her already considerable fortune that she has made from this book, or find some more authentic voices?
Three Books that did Eat, Pray, Love first, and better…because the women who lived these experiences were no dilettantes!
M.F.K. Fisher’s travel writing about the food in Provence, France…she makes you feel that you are there, and you can taste every bite.
Gilbert’s take on the food in Italy doesn’t bother me much, except that it’s just not inspired because she really doesn’t know food.
M.F.K. Fisher did. And she was brilliant at writing about it.
Read more about M.F.K. Fisher from The Lois Level by reading Get ready for your Christmas feasting by reading the best American food writer
The Nun’s Story by Kathryn Hulme
If you like old movies, you might have seen the Audrey Hepburn film made from this book (1959). The Nun’s Story is about a real, and true, struggle to make life in the convent work in 1930’s Belgium. Sister Luke can’t figure out how to make what is demanded from her by her order reconcile with her beliefs.
It is also a travel book in that Sister Luke travels to the (Belgian) Congo to work as a nurse. What she can’t manage to do is to just let herself let go of the demands placed on her by the order, and it’s hard to do that when she is asked to be a nun first and a nurse, a distant second.
Sister Luke is no dilettante, and she isn’t forced into the convent. This book is about saying your prayers, doing your service…and authentically trying to live your beliefs.
A Scandalous Life: The Biography of Jane Digby by Mary S. Lovell
I know that members of the aristocracy got away with a lot more than the average person, but the life lived by Jane Digby almost defies belief. If it had been a novel, I would have thought it silly and overwrought.
Digby had several high powered marriages and relationships, including one with a German king, before she found herself in the Middle East, and there she had even more, until she married a Syrian Bedouin ruler and spent the remainder of her life in Syria, where she spent half the year living the traditional nomadic Bedouin lifestyle.
Oh, and did I mention that the Sheik was 20 years her junior?
And that all of this happened in the 19th century?
Technically, these books don’t necessarily count officially as travel writing, which is kind of a broad term anyway. If you want more writing of that kind, here is a good resource to get you started. Reading the short pieces will let you know who you like, and then you can try the longer ones.
The “Best American” series is awesome…there are a range of topics that you never knew existed. Travel Writing is just one.
Or you can stick with the women….
Cover Photo Credit