It all begins with a stupid question:
Are you a Global Vagabond?
No, but 18-year-old Bria Sandoval wants to be. In a quest for independence, her neglected art, and no-strings-attached hookups, she signs up for a guided tour of Central America—the wrong one. Middle-aged tourists with fanny packs are hardly the key to self-rediscovery. When Bria meets Rowan, devoted backpacker and dive instructor, and his outspokenly humanitarian sister Starling, she seizes the chance to ditch her group and join them off the beaten path.
Bria's a good girl trying to go bad. Rowan's a bad boy trying to stay good. As they travel across a panorama of Mayan villages, remote Belizean islands, and hostels plagued with jungle beasties, they discover what they've got in common: both seek to leave behind the old versions of themselves. And the secret to escaping the past, Rowan’s found, is to keep moving forward.
But Bria comes to realize she can't run forever, no matter what Rowan says. If she ever wants the courage to fall for someone worthwhile, she has to start looking back.
Kirsten Hubbard lends her artistry to this ultimate backpacker novel, weaving her drawings into the text. Her career as a travel writer and her experiences as a real-life vagabond backpacking Central America are deeply seeded in this inspiring story.
I was lucky enough to win a signed copy of this book from Goodreads (thanks, Kirsten!), and although I finished it weeks ago, I have been procrastinating on writing this review. I could, of course, blame it on busy-ness, but that would only be half-true. The real reason for the delay is that I wasn't sure how I felt about this book.
I knew it was a good book of course. Kirsten Hubbard uses real details to paint a picture of all the places Bria visits, the characters are well-developed, and I never once questioned the romance. But there was something about the Wanderlove that bothered me. And it took me a while to realize what that was.
I don't like Bria.
The main focus of this book is Bria's journey to become more worldly, more spontaneous, and more independent. While she certainly grows and develops into that person, it's very difficult for me to forgive her previous incarnation: she's naive, insecure, and far, far too dependent. She starts off dependent on her (ex-) boyfriend, who belittles her as an artist, disrespects her as a person, and obviously sees her as nothing more than someone who can fawn over him. She wants to break away from that identity, but doesn't know how, so she seeks out a three-week guided tour that will help her evolve into a "global vagabond" -- and very quickly learns that this isn't the solution. But even the boldness of her decision to break away from the group is only a partial step towards independence; she remains dependent on the guidance of Starling and Rowan, and it isn't until the very end of the trip that she finally makes real decisions for herself.
I'm not saying that I spent the entire book scoffing at Bria. The opposite actually--I related to her. Far too well. And that's exactly what made me uncomfortable.
Warning: tl;dr ahead (Sorry, but I there's no way I can discuss my feelings about this book without bringing in my own travel experiences.)
[Short version: Travel. Introspection. Study Abroad. Personal insecurities. Also, go read Wanderlove.]
Before I graduated high school, I was effectively a "world traveler." My family is from Israel, so I've been there many times. I'd been to Mexico and Jamaica with my family (although those were mostly resort trips, so I'm not sure it really counts as "traveling.") One of my brothers got married in Italy, and a cousin got married in Brazil, so we got the chance to travel around both of those countries. (If you ever get a chance to see the Amazon Rain Forest, take it!) I'd also been on student group trips to Australia, China, and South Africa. All three were amazing. I learned a lot about the countries I visited, met some really cool people, and even got to meet locals through home stays. (Whoever thinks Jewish mothers are terrible about stuffing you to the brink of explosion has obviously never met a Chinese grandmother.)
But it wasn't until I spent two weeks in Spain during my senior year of high school that I finally realized something: guided tour groups were not how I wanted to travel. My mother, my sister, and I were on a trip very similar to Bria's. (Although it wasn't nearly as ridiculous as the Global Vagabonds trip; our tour guide was very knowledgeable, the people on the tour were interested in much more of the country than the local McDonalds, and we didn't have to wear matching windbreakers.) But still, I didn't feel like I was getting the most out of my experience. I was in a country where I knew the language (read: sort of), and I didn't get a single opportunity to meet a "local" (other than our tour guide). I felt, well, like a tourist. And that was the last thing I wanted to be.
So fast forward three years later. During my junior year of college, I went back to Spain for a study abroad trip. Even before I started college, I knew I wanted to study abroad, and I don't have to tell you that I was really excited. Still, the night before I left for Spain, I couldn't help but think of this trip as a five-month gaping hole in my life. At that time, I was very much a "planner." (I still am, actually, although being out of school and effectively jobless for a year has taken a real hit to my level of productivity.) I was the sort of person who could balance out school, a very time-consuming executive board position, and other activities. I was also pre-med with a double major in Comparative Literature and Spanish, which meant that I had to do a lot of careful schedule adjustments in order to fit in a semester abroad. And all that planning paid off--I even managed to line up a job in a laboratory for when I returned. But as for that trip to Spain? I had no idea what my class schedule would look like, I didn't know what extracurricular activities would be available, and I didn't even know where or when I wanted to travel. And worst of all, I had no idea whether or not I would have any friends. I wanted to meet locals, of course, but I'm not exactly a social butterfly, and the inevitable language barrier wouldn't make things any easier.
And then I got to Madrid. I lived with a Spanish host mother and took classes at a nearby university. Not only has immersion done wonderful things for my speaking abilities, but I also succeeded in making friends. I put myself in situations where I would meet other students--Erasmus events (aka, European foreign exchange students--they're like one big family, so when you know one, you know all) and extracurricular activities with Spanish students (aikido and a theater workshop). I met some amazing people from all over the world, and even had the quintessential study abroad romance.
But more than that, I learned to be spontaneous. (Just like Bria!) At one point, I was waiting for the metro, and suddenly I noticed my Bulgarian friend on the other side of the tracks. We waved to each other, and even though I hadn't seen her in two months, she shouted from across the tracks, "We're going to Salamanca this weekend! Do you want to come?" My answer--hell, yes! (Although when we came to the bus station, there weren't enough seats on the bus to Salamanca, so we went to Avila instead.)
On another occasion, I was visiting a friend in London. This happened during the week when the volcano in Iceland erupted, and flights all over the country were cancelled due to a huge cloud of volcanic ash in the sky. That meant I had four more days in England. I could have extended my stay at the hostel, but I also had an other option--a few days earlier, my friend and I planned to visit Kew Gardens. By the time we arrived, the gardens were almost closed, so instead of going in, we decided to walk around the area. There was a huge smokestack on the other part of town, so we decided to walk over to it to see what it was. It turns out that the smokestack was part of a museum that was also closed. But across the street, we noticed a weird, hand-painted sign: Kew Bridge Eco-Village. Come in for a tour and a cup of tea. How could we refuse?
Remember Occupy Wall Street? Think of that, except more tree-friendly. (Also, this was two years earlier, before urban camping became the cool thing to do.) The Kew Bridge Eco-Village was a tent community set up on a large unoccupied plot of land near the bridge. (Although I should clarify that they weren't tents, they were "benders," which are more permanent, DIY versions of tents). The Eco-Village had a campfire, a compost toilet, a makeshift pump shower, and several small gardens. Their objective was to provide a completely sustainable community that lived free of money. They obtained food and items through dumpster-diving and donations or recycled materials and were very vocal about peace, democracy, and environmentalism. They had been living on that plot of land for at least seven months, and they had a wonderful relationship with the surrounding community. (Local kids would sometimes come there to hang out.) They also had a guest bender. So after my flight was cancelled, instead of booking more days at the hostel, guess where I stayed?
The community was awesome. I got to know a lot of the members, many of whom were your stereotypical dreadlock-wearing hippies, and they were awesome! (There was one lady with really cool hats that she had designed herself. And imagine a guy walking around in dreadlocks and a peasant skirt one day--and not in that "Look at me, I'm wearing a skirt!" sort of way. No, he didn't even draw attention to it. He probably just thought it was comfortable and it never occurred to him that it should be unusual in any way.) While I was there, I helped cook dinner, plant vegetable seeds, and move a huge stack of firewood that some truck had dumped right at the entrance. I sat through a community meeting (the compost toilet was getting too full) and watched a local artist come in and paint a mural on the side of the bridge that made up one of the "walls" of the Eco Village. The second night I was there, a man who lived in the surrounding area came by with a huge pot of Indian stew, and fun and merriment were had by all. Unfortunately, I never got to dumpster-dive (I was really looking forward to trying it), but otherwise, the experience was fucking amazing.
(Note: The Kew Bridge Eco Village is no longer there anymore. They were kicked out about a month or two after I left, which makes me really sad. They were very fun, passionate people.)
But anyway, while I had plenty of chances to be spontaneous, I did have one major regret--since our study abroad trip was planned through our university, it was still very structured. Wash U set up everything for us, including our housing. Also, since our group spent so much time together, there wasn't a lot of branching out. I was one of the few members of the group who didn't hang out almost exclusively with Wash U students. Still, I sometimes wonder how much more my Spanish could have improved had their not been a single other American around.
However, when I spoke to the Erasmus students, they would tell me about how they landed in Spain and immediately went apartment hunting. Many of them came without even knowing the language, so I can only imagine what kind of a challenge this must have been. Despite this, all of them eventually found a place, and by the end of the semester, they were speaking better Spanish than I was. They didn't need someone in an office to hold their hand and make sure they got from Point A to Point B. That is real independence, and I still feel like it's something I missed out on during my own study abroad experience.
Still, I'm really proud of the person I became in Spain, and I wish I could say I still am this spontaneous, independent person. But the truth is that since moving to New Jersey, I've gone back to a lot of my old habits--laziness, dependence on structure and on other people, lack of social life. And maybe it's residual shame that makes me suspicious of Bria's evolution. Because personal change isn't like taking the stairs; it's like walking up a "down" escalator. You have to keep working at it, or you'll end up right back where you started.
But anyway, let's go back to Wanderlove, since that's what I came here to discuss. It's a beautifully-written book, and something to which a lot of people can relate. Despite my insecurities, I'm glad I read this book. And I think you should, too.
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