One Year Later: The Time-Capsule Travel Letters and the ‘Eat Pray Love’ Backlash

Midway through our trip, my world-traveling friend Carolyn suggested that each of us write a letter to each other describing our feelings about the travel so far and our hopes for the remainder of the journey. This was in late January, when we had been away for five months and were living outside of Queenstown, New Zealand, for a couple of weeks. She told us to keep the letters secret and not share them until the trip ended.

Morgan, Colly, Kyle and I each sat down and wrote letters reflecting on the experience, showed them to no one else at the time, sealed them up, and then opened and read them out loud over dinner in June on our last night before driving home. Now, the letters sit on my desk as reminders of what the round-the-world trip was all about. Today, for a couple of different reasons, I re-read them to reflect on how the 10-month trip affected us individually and as a family.

One reason is the snarky backlash, prompted by the film release of Eat, Pray, Love, to long-term travel for the sake of change, education and self-reflection. (I haven’t seen the film and don’t really want to since I liked the book and hear the film adaptation doesn’t do Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing justice.) As a Salon.com critic dismissively puts it in an article about “The New Colonialism of ‘Eat, Pray, Love,'” the new breed of travelers “want to spend a year in a faraway place on a ‘journey.’ But the journey is all about what they can get. … I don’t want to deny [Elizabeth Gilbert] her Italian carbs, her Indian oms or her Bali Hai beach romance. We all need that sabbatical from the rut of our lives. But as her character complained that she had ‘no passion, no spark, no faith’ and needed to go away for one year, I couldn’t help wondering, where do those people in Indonesia and India go away to when they lose their passion, spark and faith?”

Okay, that’s a fair enough question to ask, but I object to the idea that families taking long-term trips similar to ours, and living a significantly different lifestyle in the process, are doing it because it’s “all about what they can get.” Our motivation was much more, “What can we give up?,” “What can we learn and teach our kids?” and “How can we better connect with each other and with others?” It was, to a great extent, about thinking and acting more openly, more mindfully and less materialistically so that we have a better chance of functioning well as a family, and of raising kids with a socially responsible world view and a heightened appreciation for our privileged lives back home.

The other reason I reviewed our time-capsule letters is because tomorrow, August 15, marks the anniversary of our departure. Having just returned from a shorter trip, we are taking a deep breath to get back to school and back to productivity, all the while trying not to lose the lessons gained from the journey.

So the year away is really over. Was it worth it? (Yes.) Where do we go from here? (Still figuring that out.) Those letters provide additional clues and details. I decided to excerpt some short passages here to highlight some aspects of long-term family travel.

Colly in Malcesine, Italy

From Colly, age 11 at the time, on what the trip is all about and how it has affected our family:

“Some of the words people might think of when they think of this trip are ‘fun,’ or ‘cool,’ or ‘relaxing.’ To me, those words suck. As Mom and Dad would say, those are dull words that don’t describe a tenth of what’s going on. I don’t think there’s a single word that can even start to describe our trip! But, if I had to sum up our trip all in one word, I think that word would be ‘trying.’ We are trying new foods, we are trying new places, every day we are trying new things, and those things don’t always work out but at least we’re trying. Our trip has changed all of us so much. I am reading way more than I would in Piedmont, we all need less stuff, and, well, Kyle is still in love with ice cream. I think that this trip has without a doubt made us more of a family. We are definitely closer than we’ve ever been before. All in all, I am tremendously grateful that this trip is happening and I do not regret it at all.”

Morgan near Karamea, New Zealand

From Morgan, age 43, on whether this trip represented a “midlife crisis”:

“I bristle at the term ‘midlife crisis’ for the connotations of a somewhat selfish and sad desire to recapture a moment of youth. The term ‘midlife opportunity’ is a much better term. There are many opportunities in life that people never take, and can spend the rest of their life agonizing over whether they should have. They key to the midlife opportunity is recognizing that such opportunities actually do exist, and having the guts to make the wrenching changes necessary to seize them. Taking this trip was seizing hold of an opportunity to do something different with the remainder of my life. Now, with half the trip behind me, the question becomes: was it worth it? The answer is an unequivocal yes. It has taken me five months to slowly unwind the feelings that I have about what I left, and to get excited about a different future. The process of travel itself has allowed me to slowly change my focus from the past to the future. Travel forces ‘the new’ upon you on a daily and moment-to-moment basis. Trying to figure out how to order in Spanish, or work a foreign ATM or get a phone card in another country, or figure out what’s on the menu, all combine to make change a constant in your life — and a pleasure. Rather than fearing change, I’ve come to live with it on a daily basis involving all the small things in life. This trip for me has been much less about any particular place or thing, but more about the process. I hope the remainder of this trip continues the process of future-thinking that has started to take hold.”

The kids and me about to board a bus for a 17-hour ride to Mendoza, Argentina

From me, age 40 at the time, looking ahead to our return:

“When I reflect on our five-and-a-half months of travel, one thing that hits me is how much I love spending time together as a foursome. I thought I might yearn for more time alone, but the opposite happened: I’m happiest when we’re together, in a small space, such as the car or hotel room. My main hope pertains to this summer and beyond: that we don’t lose the closeness — the bond — we’ve strengthened during this journey; that we don’t lose the ability to be flexible and free-thinking; that we don’t get stuck in a rut and become more materialistic.”

Kyle on the Colorado River

And from Kyle, age 8 at the time, on the joy of discovery through travel:

“I have been to many places and a lot to come. It feels a long time from rafting [in Colorado at the start of the trip], but I still remember it because it was so fun. I also loved the dulche de leche from Argentina, and I really liked Patagonia with all the dogs. And luging [in New Zealand] was so fun and fast. I hope we get to Australia safe. I really hope I discover new ice cream flavors. This trip was fantastic so far and I’m excited for new things to come.”

A week ago, an article in the Sunday New York Times called “But Will It Make You Happy? Consumers Find Ways to Spend Less and Find Happiness” did a much better job, in my view, of portraying the meaning of long-term travel than the critical response to the film Eat, Pray, Love. The Times story detailed new research supporting the not-too-common common-sense wisdom that happiness comes less from acquiring material possessions and more from meaningful experiences, such as travel, and from cultivating positive relationships. Amen to that. I’d much rather spend disposable income on family day trips and saving for travel than on replacing our faded sofas and buying new clothes.

According to the Eat, Pray, Love critics, we’re guilty of taking a journey to discover happiness. We got rich from experiences, knowledge and relationships. I’m not sure that makes us selfish and self-centered, but it certainly makes us feel lucky and grateful.

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