Thursday, May 27, 2010

Don't Make Me Turn This Train Around!

Just finished with Seth Stevenson's book Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World (Riverhead Books, 2010).

The title is self-explanatory; the book is a chronicle of Stevenson and his girlfriend Rebecca making a circumnavigation without resorting to air travel. As a means of keeping the goal a meaningful one (since one could theoretically walk a 100-yard loop around the North Pole and accurately claim to have "circumnavigated") they set the additional requirement that they needed to cross the equator along the way. Take away the airplanes which virtually everyone in the world would opt for, and you're left with a collection of surface transport modes. The couple use a variety of ships for crossing large bodies of water, including ferries, a couple cruise ships and a couple container ships. Large land masses are traversed by rail mostly, but also by car and even a bit by bicycle.

The idea sounds fantastic. I learned of the book and its author when I caught the tail end of a radio interview, and I sought out the book immediately. It sounded like my kind of adventure.

But the book wasn't quite what I expected. Or it was what I expected, but less so. It feels unevenly written, with some parts being funny in a Dave Barry or Garrison Keillor sort of way, and other parts seeming snarky and judgmental. And in the end I don't know that there's any coherence to the story beyond saying "we started here and went here and here and home." The rest is quite a mishmash, the variance being often related to the current mode of travel as much as to the places he visits. This is appropriate when these modes of travel are as exceptional to his readers as the places he visits, but the book isn't really an exploration of alternative travel methods either. It's more a tale of adventure, and as such it feels uneven.

Travel for Stevenson seems to be a kind of compulsion, an excuse for selling everything he owns and thumbing his nose at civilization (after, that is, that civilization has provided him with the necessary means to take six months off), and he talks often enough about the little glories and profundities to be found in cultures and places far flung from our own. But he also can't help vilifying those other cultures a bit, trying to get laughs at people's obesity or shabby clothing or turning up his nose at the drunken behavior of others--even as he and his girlfriend turn again and again to alcohol to make their experiences tolerable.

This struck me early in the book as he describes the triumph of being approached by a stranger in Amsterdam and addressed in German. This is proof, he says, that he's scrubbed away any trace of American Traveler from his person; he's avoided white socks and white athletic shoes and he is dressed in subdued colors--like a Continental. But of course, that's just another country's mode of dress. What is the point of all this travel if not to reinforce that concern about how we dress (after a certain point, naturally) is precisely the shallow silliness which one wishes to escape? I get not wanting to sport a Nike-wear ensemble (which indeed trumpets "consumer!" to all), but who gives a shit about the color of my socks? (And, for that matter, who gives a shit about me being an American? Shouldn't the goal be not to AVOID being American, but rather to avoid being the ugly American traveler whom others have reason to hate?)

As for the mode of travel, Stevenson gets it on one hand and undermines it on the other. I don't mean to be defensive about airplanes, and I agree with many of his criticisms of airplanes and air travel. But air travel is ubiquitous now exactly because it maximizes our time in the places we desire to visit. And even as I can agree in principle that we've lost something when we miss all the in between places, yet there are quite a few instances where Stevenson arrives at a new and interesting place only to have to bypass any sightseeing so that he can catch his next ship or train. If travel without reference to the between places is missing something, then travel without reference to the destinations is not even travel; it's an expensive rocking chair, a means of keeping moving without caring whether the scenery changes or not. If you've left the rat race behind and have nothing to go back to--something he touts as an accomplishment--then why not linger at each place until you've really absorbed it? Likewise the enroute portions: crossing the Atlantic on a container ship, he eventually becomes so stir-crazy that he spends a couple days drinking himself into a stupor to numb the pain; and his time crossing Siberia by rail becomes an exercise in stamina. Is this adequate payoff for the trouble? There is value in knowing these things, I admit, but less than the value spent, say, in the same time backpacking around Europe or Southeast Asia.

So an interesting concept but a less-than satisfying execution. And not least because the Walter Mitty fantasy of putting myself in their situation is hobbled when they don't seem like people I'd really care to travel with.

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