Friday, May 20, 2011

Backpacker Memories: The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Friedman

Let me start by saying that yes, I have done the college backpacking / touring-the-world thing. 

I didn't get to see quite the whole world before I ran out of money, and although I love to travel, I did not  love backpacking. But that's mostly because I hate to feel grimy, and I don't enjoy wearing the same jeans for two weeks, and not getting sleep on countless hairy bus rides or overnight train rides gets old fast for me. I also have (or had, when I was younger) a very annoying tendency to get incredibly (as in near-death) sick when off-the-grid and very far from home and hospitals. But that's just me. 

I still--of course!--see the value in travel. Nothing is more broadening than travel; almost nothing (besides reading) could be more important when it comes to helping people grow in intellect, empathy, and experience than seeing more of the world. 

I hope my own children will take at least a year--possibly in between high school and college?--to seriously travel.

What makes me write now about backpacking is the fact that I recently picked up Rachel Friedman's new coming-of-age memoir, The Good Girl's Guide to Getting Lost. I was hesitant, for some strange reason, to check out this book, and I was not sure if I could bear to revisit the experience of my own youthful backpacking with all its highs and lows, but Friedman's effortlessly engaging writing voice immediately caught my attention. 

Friedman shows how, as a "good girl" who had spent years sheltering herself, hiding away in basement music practice rooms, committing herself to pursuing a professional music career via the viola, she had much to see in the world. After realizing she was not quite great enough at the viola, Friedman needed to come to terms with herself and her purpose in life. 

Traveling--at first, simply an escape--unexpectedly became her raison d'etre

This is important for Americans to realize, because we do tend to be nation-locked creatures. This is not because, as Friedman points out, we are uninterested in the world around us, but mostly because of our economic issues. We have massive student debts and need to go right to work, if we can; also, we get hardly any vacation time from our jobs (certainly, nothing like the weeks or months that people in other countries enjoy). Traveling doesn't seem easy or possible for Americans, and so many people just never really do it.

Friedman dares, however, to travel--despite feeling guilty about not working and not being as "responsible" as the people around her. She takes the time to find herself, because she knows the investment in self-discovery will be worth it.

Beginning in Galway (Friedman hooked me: Galway, I agree, is a fabulous little city, and it's one of my favorite places) and then later moving on to Australia, Friedman both reminded me of my own travels while helping to open my mind to other places. 

Case in point: Australia.

I will digress and say that when I was a backpacker, I thought the Aussies I met while traveling (and I met tons. Back when I was traveling, I thought the backpackers from Oz were rather rude--telling me, in hostels, to go fuck myself, for example, because I asked them to keep their raucous screaming down) were entirely too bad-ass. 

I remember being stunned to feel so biased (and I still feel rather guilty about it, but hey, I had my reasons) because Americans usually have this pretty romantic idea about Australia. We loved Crocodile Dundee, after all. Most of the Australian travelers I met were loners, too, and my traveling companion and I quickly decided it was because they were simply too obnoxious for long-term company. 

When I returned to my home base in Dublin, I told my Irish friends about these people I met. "Well, what do you expect from citizens of a nation populated by violent criminals?" I was told, over and over. At the time, I found this funny.

Friedman made me realize that I was right, in one sense, but also very wrong. She deftly explains the Australian national sensibility and how the "badass" or "rude" label is entirely too simplistic, while also explaining its true origins, and why an American's impression of an Aussie may be off-the-mark. 

The rugged independence of the Australian traveler (it seems that nearly every kid in Australia attempts a long-term tour of the world, and this is, to be sure, impressive as an accepted rite of passage) is actually one of their best qualities, and one we would do well to emulate. Friedman ended up bonding with an Aussie traveler, and seeing much of the world with her. Traveling with such a fearless adventurer, eager to taste all of life, was good for Friedman, and helped her to evolve as a person. 

After Australia, Friedman moves on to an epic tour of South America. We get it all here: big city life to death-defying bus rides (there is nothing like a 20-hour, winding, cliffside highway bus ride in a rickety Latin American bus, now is there? Scary as hell, but hey: it will change your life!); the jungle to the Andes and the salt flats. 

South America tested Friedman, but it is in this section of her memoir that we truly see both the profound struggle and the amazing--spiritual, emotional, and scenic--rewards of traveling.

I love how, throughout her fascinating memoir (which I could not put down), Friedman shows us the good and the bad parts of traveling, and why it's so worth it, even when it's hard.

Minor criticism: I thought the chapter titles were overly cutesy (yet impressive).

Here's an example: "Our heroine dives into the depths of the briny sea, then launches herself from great heights. Survives the crocodile's lair and a particularly strong current, is rewarded with some small insights."

I liked the chapter descriptions when they appeared at the start of the chapters, but they were somehow overwhelming in the Table of Contents. Just an observation. The point may be that they do grab the reader's attention, even if they seem, at first, somewhat daunting in the TOC. Don't let these formal sounding descriptions dissuade you from reading.

I have to say that because one of my purposes in writing about books is to encourage other people to read them. Some people won't move past the first few pages of long, flowery chapter descriptions in Friedman's memoir, and that would be a crime.

One other thing that nagged at me: Friedman seemed to travel with very little money. On the one hand, I think she shows that it is possible. Just get out there and go for it! On the other, I thought to myself: who would go to Ireland for four months with $600? That seems more than slightly crazy. Yes, Friedman found a job, or jobs, but's a scary prospect to imagine. 

Likewise, Friedman headed to South America with $2,000 for several months of travel (with no working in the mix). She returned home with only a few pesos in her pocket (I've been there and done that, and I, too, was a victim of the "you must pay this steep exit-the-country tax before you can get on the plane" thing).

The point in traveling with so little cash may be that simply taking the leap is the first step, even if we are not as perfectly prepared as we think we should be. Friedman really shows how to do it all on the cheap, and how money is, in fact, overrated and doesn't need to get in the way of having adventures.

Read this book: it's an excellent, gripping, well written adventure in itself.

I especially recommend it for young women in high school and in college. After all, I told every student I had, when they asked me what they should do next with their lives: Travel! 

I will be sure to recommend Friedman's memoir to them, but I actually recommend it for everyone. Friedman makes the travel bug delightfully contagious.

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