When I first read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, I was on board a flight to India to take a break from my PhD. It was the closest I’ve come to a breakdown – I was overwhelmed by the postcolonial sections of my thesis, freshly disappointed by the ideal of romantic love and slowly peeling away layers of familial and cultural dogma. Given all of this, I was in a ripe state to momentarily forget that my age, state of life, and the colour of my skin differed markedly from Gilbert’s, and whole-heartedly identify with her journeys across Italy, India and Indonesia and her mission to rediscover herself after a painful divorce.
Six years after that memorable flight, I took another to Vietnam, this time without a comprehensive travel memoir like Eat Pray Love to assist me in comprehending my journey’s purpose. I had declared to friends and family before departing that this was the first time I was travelling overseas purely for leisure. In my mind, this newfound ‘uncoupling’ from work and family reasons to travel was to be celebrated, and even warranted a Lena Dunham-esque confessional essay in its own right. However, the responses to my travel from those outside my immediate circle made me acutely aware of the institutional and individual assumptions made about women of colour. I realised that I was expected, in certain privileged quarters, to ‘naturally’ want to travel to India for biographical research or to visit family. A hiatus in Vietnam was just a little detour, never the final destination.
My own Eat Pray Love process of self-discovery constitutes not just tasting dragonfruit at the old quarter markets in Hanoi and lighting incense sticks at a Buddhist temple in Saigon. It goes beyond the sacred and the profane to include the political – almost akin to giving the finger to reductive stereotypes of non-white women. Bringing the political into the fold of overseas travel does not make it any less fun. Having said that, I did realise that there was barely anything available in the non-fiction market that digressed from the usual tales of solo western women on a temporary sojourn. These memoirs can be broadly subcategorised into three groups: the women who move to Paris to get over a bad romance and fall in love again, preferably while breaking a baguette at a boulangerie (the love narrative); those on nature-oriented adventures or humanitarian endeavours in some ‘untamed’ part of the Global South (the benevolent adventurer narrative); and finally, those meditating and chanting in an ashram in a remote village in India or Nepal to wash off their western materialism (the spiritual narrative). Perhaps the reason for Eat Pray Love’s enduring popularity is that it combined all of the above narrative tropes, and therefore reached an even bigger market.
I don’t mean to discount the varied and often rich experiences of the many travellers, both male and female, who find peace and solace during trips to the so-called east. However, the majority of these travellers tend to come from the Global North, and are largely from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds. This then leads to a conflation of the west with soul-destroying capitalism, and of the east with soul-enriching spirituality. What happens when these expectations are challenged by lived experience? For instance, a fellow solo female traveller in Vietnam told me that she didn’t like Ho Chi Minh City because it was very ‘westernised’. While I would have described it as ‘commercial’ rather than westernised, I wondered not just about her use of words, but also about the underlying assumptions and motivations for her visit.
In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton writes: ‘At the end of hours of train-dreaming, we may feel we have been returned to ourselves – that is, brought back into contact with emotions and ideas of importance to us. It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, but who may not be who we essentially are.’ We travel not only in order to seek novelty, but also to come back to some authentic sense of self by unshackling ourselves from the daily routines and spaces of home and work. While this might be a satisfactory explanation in psychological terms, a humanist perspective reveals structures of power underpinning who feels this desire to return to themselves, and why this supposed authenticity comes packaged with images of pagodas and saris signifying an embrace of the Other. Where do those of non-Anglo ethnic origins go to find themselves, when they, too, have become lost in the quagmire of materialism? Can they embark on an exotic voyage, or will wearing a bohemian outfit in Asia be considered native rather than free-spirited? Are they merely expected to draw on a perceived vast repository of inner and ancestral spirituality without having to set foot outside the new suburban temple?
At the heart of the industries of travel constructed to service the west lie assumptions that dictate which groups are considered sufficiently cosmopolitan to explore and embrace other cultures, and which groups are expected to already have a fixed cultural identity. Ideally, travel should enable us to engage fluidly with different cultures. However, recycled brochures and staid narratives such as Eat Pray Love encourage an ‘us versus them’ mentality. In trying to find love, adventure or oneself, the difference of Other places and peoples is highlighted, possibly to justify the effort and inconvenience of long-haul flights, airport queues and countless other risks to personal safety and security international travel entails.
My recent holiday convinced me that it is productive to find points of connectivity in newly-visited lands, and that this process can be effortless and enriching. When I gazed upon a Vietnamese fruit-seller outside the Ben Thanh markets in Ho Chi Minh City, I noticed not just her foreign straw hat, but also the luscious pink guavas in her basket that reminded me of my father. I am not sure that I found myself while photographing said guavas, but it made for a good story, and offered an exploratory alternative to the tales of eating, praying and loving. As for spirituality, I usually find that through a meditation app during my work commute from Sydney to Wollongong.
Image credit: Robyn Lee/Flickr