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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11 Comments

  1. Ernesto, August 14, 2010:

    Thank you for sharing you lovely letter. I am sure it will be an unforgettable experience for all you nuclear family, but as I tell my younger and undecided son about what path to take between Eco-Geo, do not forget you have OPTIONS. Third World people do not have those options. He agrees with that statement,

  2. Alisha, August 15, 2010:

    Sarah – lovely post. Thank you for sharing. :o)

  3. Crissy, August 15, 2010:

    A lovely piece. Sounds like you had a really meaningful experience and have figured out the things that make your family happy.

  4. Sheri, August 15, 2010:

    I know what you mean about the Eat Pray Love backlash. The critics aren’t just commenting negatively toward the selfishness of traveling but they are also speaking from a very western view point toward spirituality and happiness. The movie hardly touches on Liz’s depression and how unhappy her life had really been before she broke away to find herself. It’s a shame that so many people are stuck in a box of thinking that they can’t see how to be happy. They just keep trying in that box and it never works but they keep faith and it still doesn’t work. They may try and convince themselves that it’s working to work and stay in the rat race and be (supposedly) selfless. The funny thing is that many westerners are known for being selfish, but not in the way that someone in the Eastern hemisphere would define it. I would love to travel. We hope to start by roadschooling someday and see how that goes. Our kids are young yet. I’m glad that you had a wonderful year traveling and are now home safe. Maybe that will happen to us one day. We are also a family of four.

  5. Bob Redpath, August 15, 2010:

    Yes, thank you for sharing the letters. Once again, it all resonates so much with us — It’s like therapy for me. I had/have the same battle with the “midlife crisis” term as Morgan, and Brenna and I have been talking about how fulfilling — even fun it is to live with less as we resettle.

    Yesterday, while we were house and car shopping, we got a flat tire on our borrowed car. Normally I would have been rushed, and pissed off at the inconvenience. But this time when my daughter came over and started helping, instead of pushing her to the side and doing it myself, I let her do as much as she could. I took the moment to teach her how to change a tire — not a big deal, but NOT something I would have done a year ago. My wife noticed the difference. My daughter definitely noticed. So did I.

    I started out our year feeling selfish at times for the luxury, the self indulgence, of what we were doing. Now on the other end of the journey, like you, I feel lucky and greatful for everything I discovered along the way.

  6. Jeffery, August 15, 2010:

    Thanks again for your insightful thoughts.

    Perhaps we’re not seeking happiness, but sustenance.

  7. David W. Lavender, August 15, 2010:

    Great post, Sarah. (Love the photo of you all at Four Corners…don’t think I’d seen that one before). Can’t believe how articulate each of you are in your letters–perhaps a consequence of the travel? Of course, the shot of Kyle in the front of the duckie brought things full circle. So sorry you can’t make it out here this week, but know that we’ll see you soon enough one way or another. In the meantime, thanks so much for keeping these posts coming. Along with all your other readers, I’m fascinated to track the ripples of this past year as they spread through the coming one!

  8. Rachel, August 21, 2010:

    Hi Sarah,
    Graet post :) Glad you guys are settling well. On Monday it will be two years since we returned and we are still closer than ever. We now share the childcare evenly, make time for family movie nights, evenings at the beach together, the girls help in our business and would much rather do that than be left at summer camp or similar – they don’t really understand the big deal about sleepovers either.

    Oh and the ‘mid-life crisis’ tag would only be applied by someone who has never quit their jobs, sold/rented their house, packed/given away/shredded all their belongings and felt liberated that their only ties are to their fellow travellers! We who have done this know that it requires highly organised military style planning, to which the word ‘crisis’ bears no relevance!

    Best wishes
    The Four xxxx

  9. soultravelers3, September 4, 2010:

    Oh, I love the idea of time capsule letter! Sweet! If we ever decide to go back to a “normal” non-worldtraveling lifestyle, I will have to try that. So good to have reminders of special times & rituals that keep it alive.

    Keep doing the things that worked on the trip and it will always be the highlighted treasure of your family life.

    Making time for family, real time like one gets on a long term world tour, is key I think & not falling into the trap of “busy” & “buying” which is so much a part of American life. It amazes me now to see what people think they “need” or even what I use to think I had to have. Less is more & long term travel teaches us that well.

    I’ve found that we are closer when we are homeschooling too, than when she is in school in Spain. Perhaps it’s just more hours of the day together. I have mixed feelings about whether we should just homeschool in Asia to immerse in her Mandarin ( with a tutor) rather than use a school. We’ll see. Certainly, for the teen years we will homeschool exclusively as we travel I think as I find homeschool families tend to remain closer than schooled families.

    It will be interesting to see how you incorporate what you have learned into your new life.

    “Lucky and grateful” Yes, indeed! ;)

  10. Cheryl, September 5, 2010:

    Thank you for sharing your family letters. We did video recordings before leaving and watching them six months later reminds me how much each of us grew (our kids: 14, 11, 4). Everyday we remind ourselves to hold on to what we learned…it’s a battle against “back-to-school” culture that encourages us to buy, buy, buy. Instead, we’ll try to remember the lessons of travel. We didn’t go to escape our life in the US (which is lovely in fact), but to learn more about ourselves and our family. We feel blessed that our trip gave us those gifts.

  11. Theresa, December 23, 2010:

    Thank you so much for this. We will be travelling for a year with our 2 sons in 2012 (they’ll be 14 and 10 at the time) and the idea of writing yourself letters is absolutely fabulous. We will certainly take it up. And it is good to hear about other families making the same choices and giving up the ‘stuff’ for something so much more important. As we take up our planning we are excited, scared, intimidated, thrilled, and blessed that we have the ability to give the gift of global understanding to our boys.

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