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Check It Out

Courier Article by Lucy Clem
Sunday, March 20, 2006

Travel writers offer way out of our routine

Whether we visit relatives in another state, join a packaged tour to another continent, or burn all our bridges and take up residence in another country, leaving home changes us. For some, it makes the familiar more appealing—"I was never so glad to hear English in my life!" exclaimed a friend returning from France. For others, travel is an endless adventure—including the scary flights and digestive upsets along with the incredible sunsets and fascinating people. And for another group, it's a way to leave behind all the baggage of everyday and start over.

Eat, Love, Pray by Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking, 2006) chronicles such an attempt. The author, an award-winning journalist, was reeling after a failed marriage and a disastrous love affair. Drained by dealing with a difficult divorce, she plans a year abroad. First to Italy, to learn a language and a culture she's always found fascinating. (She gains 23 pounds and enjoys every ounce.) Then to India, to live in an ashram and learn the art of devotion. She succeeds in finding an inner peace that continues the healing process and reveals some hidden truths. Finally, to Bali, to sit at the feet of an ancient medicine man and understand the balance between worldly and transcendental as she uses her resources to provide a home for a new friend. The things she learns about herself are presented against a backdrop of exotic places, people, and food, so that the reader feels involved in the experience without feeling like a voyeur. Gilbert is a talented writer with the wherewithal to spend a year in travel and self-examination; once I overcame my envy, I found her book both enjoyable and enlightening.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost (Random House, 2004) is a very different approach to life away from home. The author followed his intrepid girlfriend Sylvia to Tarawa, a remote South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati (kir-ee-bas.) Appearing from the air to be a perfect paradise, with incredible blue-and-green water and softly curling breakers, Tarawa turns out to be stiflingly hot, dirty, and populated by an eccentric populace, packs of feral dogs, and a variety of bloodthirsty insects. While Sylvia attempts to improve the lives of the residents by teaching them to grow vegetables and build composting toilets, Troost vainly attempts to write a novel, but his time is eaten up by things like shopping for food. Imagine riding a bicycle home from the market while holding a large, recently-caught tuna by the tail with one hand and attempting to protect it from many large, hungry dogs . . . The locals are probably still laughing. This is a hilarious and sympathetic look at a locale formerly known primarily as the site of a bloody WWII battle, but now forever also remembered as the epicenter of the Great Beer Crisis, when the entire island's monthly shipment went permanently astray.

Saving the best for last, Frances Mayes' A Year in the World (Broadway Books, 2006) is the latest effort of one of the best travel writers in print. Under the Tuscan Sun launched her career as an author, and she only gets better. The experiences in this book actually took place over a longer period, but she has arranged them in chronological order to offer 12 months worth of views and food from Spain to the British Isles to Turkey. Mayes' great skill is in inspiring the mind's eye. The reader can see the crisp white bed linens and the gauzy curtains blowing in the Cretan breeze, taste the Portuguese bread and garlic soup, feel the crisp air of the Scottish Highlands. Only a few recipes are included; unlike the Tuscan books, these are truly travel stories, with rented houses and apartments the most permanent accommodations.

Of the many books I read, Mayes' are among the ones I buy. Reading them will make the sun shine in the winter, lift you out of your daily routine, and give you a glimpse of exotic places, food, and people without the expense and inconvenience of travel.

Lucy Young Clem is the Tech Center Supervisor at Central Library, where she sandwiches reading book reviews between computer training sessions.