FROM UNIVERSITY TO REAL LIFE? MAYBE NOT YET…
After reading the opening chapters of this travelogue by Rachel Friedman – ‘a memoir of three continents, two friends and one unexpected adventure’ – my initial enthusiasm was waning a little. I feared it might turn into one of those ‘naïve backpacker turns party animal’ stories, but fortunately it didn’t. Nor is it a predictable ‘woman goes travelling and finds true love’ or ‘woman goes travelling and finds the true meaning of life’ saga. I therefore ended up loving the book.
So what’s it about?
20 year-old Rachel, who hails from Manlius in upstate New York, lands in Dublin, feeling apprehensive as she begins her first trip abroad on her own. The year is 2002 and she has 4 months of (largely unplanned) travel in Ireland before returning to her university in the US as a college senior.
With $600, a student work visa and an oversized suitcase, she heads into the unknown with little idea of what to expect. Her experiences in Ireland form part 1 of the book. Inevitably Rachel ends up catching the travel bug so there’s a part 2 (Australia) and a part 3 (South America), by which time she has grown in confidence and downsized to a sensibly small backpack.
The travel tales themselves are interesting and amusingly written, but would probably not have held my attention on their own. As is often the way, it’s the people and the personal stories that really make this book. As I progressed through it and learned more about Rachel and her ‘big why’ (every traveller has one), I found myself increasingly connecting with her, understanding her and empathizing with her. The fact that she ends up befriending someone who is the exact opposite of her in terms of personality, adds interest and humour to the story as well as depth. Worldly, down-to-earth Carly is the perfect antagonist for worrier Rachel.
The big ‘why?’
It’s often said that many of us are either running to something or away from something. This can be particularly true for travellers. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote her best-seller Eat, pray, love after a painful marriage break-up induced her to flee to Italy. Frances Mayes wrote Under the Tuscan sun in similar circumstances. In the case of Rachel Friedman, she’s escaping from a number of pressing life decisions. Her assumed career path as a professional musician has unexpectedly become unavailable. The straight, clear road to her future has suddenly disappeared inside a fog of uncertainty and self-doubt.
“I was happy along my determined, orderly path. I don’t want options. I don’t want to explore. My future used to be a straight, sturdy line, but now it’s all blurry, as if I’m under anaesthesia.“
Parental expectations and the need to earn a living are weighing heavily on her mind, yet the traditional graduate route of hard work, good grades and career ladder is becoming increasingly unappealing. Unsure what to do next, she feels the need to get away. Her meagre funds and work visa entitlements will get her as far as Ireland. Will that be far enough, she wonders?
What soon becomes clear to the reader is that Rachel is already lost, even before her travels begin. The book turns out to be not so much a guide to getting lost, but rather a guide to learning how to cope with, even enjoy, being lost. It’s about friendship, living in the moment, becoming more comfortable in one’s own skin, and letting go.
Part 1: Ireland
After a couple of days of adjusting to budget hostel life in Dublin, and drowning her loneliness in Guinness – which soon becomes her beverage of choice – Rachel decides to head off to Galway, a city that turns out to be more to her liking. It’s here that she ends up settling, finding work and getting to know her Australian flatmate Carly, who is to make a big impression on her.
Carly’s free-spirited ‘no worries’ attitude to life couldn’t be more different from Rachel’s, and what’s even more amazing is that Carly’s nomadic lifestyle has her parents’ blessing. Rachel’s own parents, who separated when she was 15 years old, are confounded and worried about her decision to up sticks and go travelling. So the contrast couldn’t be greater, and Rachel is mystified and intrigued by this new way of looking at the world.
“Carly has fearlessly forsaken the typical rhythms of adulthood that I feel pulling at me like quicksand, and struck out on her own… she is confident and nonchalant in equal proportion to my paralyzing self-consciousness. I want to figure out how she has managed this.”
By the end of her time in Ireland, Rachel has made friends, learned a lot and become more relaxed and resilient. She feels liberated, like a different person. That’s what travel can do for you! Understandably, the thought of returning home causes her mixed emotions.
Part 2: Australia
Having returned home and coped with her ongoing life dilemmas by pouring herself into her studies, Rachel eventually graduates from Pennsylvania University a year later. After enduring the awkward family celebration and inevitable questions about her future, the timely arrival of an invitation to visit Carly in Australia proves too tempting to turn down. Understandably, Rachel’s parents are concerned by her decision to put off life in the ‘real world’ yet again.
In fairness, so is she, deep down. Her friends are beginning ‘to accumulate apartments and careers and relationships’ – whereas she has none of those things. Nevertheless, the lure of more travel and adventure still outweighs the FOMO on real life.
At Sydney airport Rachel notices that the officials seem to be tanned, friendly, relaxed and good looking, as though they had been on the beach only minutes beforehand. All this strikes her as utterly different from the glum pallid faces she has encountered at other airports.
I had the same experience 4 years earlier, after becoming ill on a long flight over from London. My condition worsened during a refuelling stop in Bangkok, a rather scruffy airport in those days. After 10 more nightmarish hours in the air, landing in bright, clean, friendly Australia felt like arriving in Heaven. Perhaps that’s one reason why Sydney is still my favourite city in the world today.
Rachel ends up finding work in Sydney and staying with Carly, whose family treat her as one of their own and address her as ‘Rach’. It’s the kind of easy-going, close family environment that she hasn’t experienced before, and this leads her to reflect deeply on aspects of her own fractured upbringing.
During her 4 months in Australia she explores the outback and visits various cities and places of interest around the east coast including Melbourne, Canberra, the Great Barrier Reef and Darwin. She does adventurous things for the first time – bungee jumping, scuba diving and skydiving. When her time is up, she feels more liberated and confident than ever. She’s become a true traveller and adventurer. So a suggestion by Carly to visit South America sees her hesitate only very briefly before saying ‘let’s do it’!
Part 3: South America
Back in their homes again, the 2 restless friends are soon organizing their adventure. (Incidentally, planning another trip is one of the best ways to deal with post-holiday blues, as I discuss in my post on the subject). A mishap with visas means that they start their travels in separate countries – Rachel in Argentina and Carly in Brazil. For Rachel this is a good opportunity to prove to herself that she can manage on her own, having relied heavily on Carly’s guidance since the Galway days.
Eventually, Rachel and Carly reunite in Bolivia, where they visit the famous salt flats and embark on various adventures including a foray into the jungle and a bike ride on the infamous ‘Death Road’ – a very scary experience.
Despite her increasing confidence, Rachel struggles in Bolivia. Altitude sickness, treacherous roads, a nasty tummy bug and a theft, all take their toll. She is shocked by the machismo and overt sexism directed at women. Despite this, she bravely keeps going. I take my hat off to her – I wouldn’t be able to cope with all this as well as she does.
Eventually the friends cross Lake Titicaca and travel through Peru to the city of Cuzco. It’s here that they meet 3 New Zealanders in a bar. One of them turns into a love interest for Rachel, but I’m not going to tell you any more about that. Other than that it’s yet another thing she and I have in common, having met and fallen in love with a Kiwi guy myself!
After further travels through Chile and Argentina, the girls finish up in Buenos Aires. It’s here that they say their tearful goodbyes, resolve to plan more travels and head off in their separate directions.
I particularly enjoyed this section of the book, having studied Hispanic languages and literature at university. I love this part of the world and would like to see more of South America.
Rachel returns to New York and reunites with friends and family. By now, she is beginning to feel like a stranger in her own back yard. She’s long since forgotten what’s in the boxes of her stuff stored at her mother’s house. Her friends’ busy city lives and long-hours stressful jobs seem a world away from her own. And the same daunting questions still wait to be answered.
“It’s hard being home. I cling to the hard-won discoveries about myself that I’ve made these last months, but it’s easy to get distracted. The old voices of expectation are there, waiting. Only I can decide whether or not to listen. I have to keep reminding myself over and over what I want.”
For you travellers out there, doesn’t all this sound so familiar? Haven’t you felt all these same conflicting emotions? I know I have!
The more I learned about Rachel’s personal struggle, as she shares aspects of it throughout the book, the more her story resonated with me. I can remember when, as a teenager, I overheard a neighbour saying to my mother that it was a waste of time educating daughters, because ‘they’re only going to get married, have kids and leave’ their jobs and careers.
Aside from the sexism, the comment scared me, because even then, I knew that marriage, kids and family life were not for me. For me, these things represented a life of servitude, entrapment and the loss of freedom and independence. There was not one shred of attraction in that prospect.
But what was the alternative? Back then, in the 1970s, that’s what the world expected women to wish for – or to do, whether they wanted it or not. So it’s interesting to see that, decades later, Rachel faces similar issues, in a society that still feels patriarchal despite all the achievements of feminism.
“Who decides the parameters of this real world, where the initiation seems like self-sacrifice? Give up your personal vision of happiness in exchange for a collective vision: work hard, get married, buy a house, have a kid or two, diversify your portfolio, retire comfortably without burdening your children, die.”
Who indeed. Women are now supposed to want it all and excel in all areas of life. What, then, are we restless free spirits and outliers to do with ourselves, who want something different? Those of us for whom freedom, and a big wide world waiting to be discovered, are far more potent attractions? Rachel’s blunt Aussie friend has the answer. “F*** expectations,” she retorts. I couldn’t have put it better myself.
In the end, Rachel realises that she’s learning to stand up for herself, and to live her own life, not the life that parents and friends expect of her. Ultimately, this is the key message of the book. You don’t have to conform, and you don’t have to meet the expectations of others. You’re free to be you.
How I love that message!
The good girl’s guide to getting lost: a memoir of three continents, two friends and one unexpected adventure, by Rachel Friedman. New York: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks, 2011. Available on Amazon.
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