I love reading travel memoirs. I’ve been a huge fan of the genre since reading Under the Tuscan Sun and several Bill Bryson books in high school. I haven’t read much in the genre for a few years, but felt like it was time to pick it up again – in no small part because it’s been such a long time since I’ve been able to go anywhere myself. This one was appealing because it isn’t very long, the premise (traveling around the world without leaving the ground) is one I’ve encountered before and enjoyed, and it covered a full circumnavigation of the world, meaning it would pass through many different countries.
It started off well. I enjoyed how light it was, how easy to keep turning those pages, and I really enjoyed buying into the larger goal. Stevenson researched the methods of travel he and his girlfriend Rebecca used, and he shared information about both those methods and the places they stopped along the way. But as the book progressed, it started to feel more and more rushed, and a few things started to bug me.
The first issue I had was that, in large part because of the scope of the journey, the journey itself is the story. Very little of the book actually focuses on any of the specific places they end up. Most of the time they spend only a few days (sometimes a few hours) in a city. They barely have a chance to find a hotel and head out to one or two tourist attractions before they are once again rushing to make their freighter/train/ferry/bus. Stevenson tries to capture funny encounters with locals and some sense of place, and they’re entertaining, but brief.
There are two exception to this. The first was when they decide to join up with a cycling tour in Vietnam and the second is when they drive across the outback in Australia. These interludes are some of the most memorable parts of the book – the section in Vietnam is the only one that has really left me feeling any sense of place or engagement. Because there seemed to be such a rush to get from one place to the next, the aim of the trip – to really experience the feeling of circumnavigating the world and what a huge feat that is – was lost in a frenzied dash. For me, part of really experiencing how big and varied the world is is actually seeing some of how people live and interact in different places. Which you take in in passing just by being in a place, to a certain extent, but that passive experience didn’t come across on the page and left me feeling like I was missing out.
The other major issue I had with the book was the lack of character development. You get to know Stevenson a little bit since he’s writing as a first person narrator, but his style of writing is very much along the “we did this and saw this and then we went here and had a hard time figuring out how to get to the next place but then we found a ship and now we’re on it” line. There isn’t a whole lot of inner exploration or any sense of what it really felt like to attempt such a journey. I kept waiting for some kind of emotion or sense of personhood, but (bar the short bike trip) I didn’t really get one.
He’s even worse at drawing other characters. His girlfriend is a paper cutout of a girl – she only appears on the page in the briefest of introductions at the beginning – we never hear anything of any depth from her or anything about why he is with her. I don’t think her last name is even mentioned, let alone how they met or what he likes about her. Mostly she’s mentioned when he’s discussing planning and logistics (apparently her forte), when she makes a witty quip or drinks too much or helps him with what is, very obviously, HIS mission.
There’s even one part (this is a spoiler, so stop reading until the next section if you don’t want to be spoiled at all) where they are stuck and about to give up and hop a plane across a body of water. Rebecca notices a cruise ship for a company they haven’t yet contacted when they’re out in the town. They get in touch with the company and are told the ship is departing the following day, and that they should go and talk to the crew. Before they head to the boat, Rebecca is the one to suggest they take their passports in case they need identification. They get to the ship and discover it’s actually leaving in a couple of hours, not a day. She realizes they won’t have much time if they are indeed allowed to board, so she offers to go back to the hotel to pack their bags while Stevenson talks to the crew. By the time he does so, he’s informed that they’re leaving RIGHT NOW and he can either get on or not. So he eagerly hops aboard without a backwards glance and DOESN’T EVEN REMEMBER Rebecca until the ship has already left the dock. He tries halfheartedly to seem like less of a jerk by informing the reader that she wasn’t angry at him – that the circumnavigation was a team effort and as long as one of them made it both were happy – but honestly this just seemed like an afterthought added by a slightly more compassionate editor. (It’s made worse by the fact that she’s afraid to fly, and is now stuck lugging both their luggage by herself in a country she doesn’t know that speaks a language she doesn’t understand. All while he complains that the ship he’s on is boring and he doesn’t have a clean change of clothes. WHOSE FAULT IS THAT, THEN?)
The final issue I had was that there were a lot of subtle sexist bits in the book. Nothing overt, just very blink-and-you’ll-miss-them comments that really made Stevenson come across as a privileged white guy who’s never had to really confront his own assumptions and areas of ignorance. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to pass off as, “well, he doesn’t mean anything by it, so it’s not a big deal.” But I’ve come to realize in trying to understand my own privilege better, that it is exactly these kinds of easily ignored prejudice that are a big deal and need to be unpacked and considered. So it mattered to me.
I guess, if I were to sum it up, I just ended up feeling like a) I probably wouldn’t get along with Stevenson very well if we were to meet in person (and he probably wouldn’t like me any better because I would not let him get away with some of the BS Rebecca had to put up with) and b) the trip wasn’t really about exploring the world, experiencing other cultures or even writing for an audience – it was basically just a documentation of an accomplishment.
All that said, it was entertaining enough for me to finish it, and I think if someone were interested in how you would go about making a journey like this rather than the actual experience of being anywhere, it’s an easy way to find out. But honestly, I would much sooner recommend The Size of the World by Jeff Greenwald because it was a much more satisfying account of a similar journey. Come to think of it, it’s been over a decade since I read that, so maybe it’s time for me to re-read and see if it stands up to memory!
I’d be interested to hear from any of you who have read this book as well. Did you have any of the issues I did with the book? Have you read any other books about a similar experience? What about travel memoirs that you particularly recommend? Share in the comments!
In this age of globalism and high-speed travel, Seth Stevenson, the witty, thoughtful Slate travel columnist, takes us back to a time when travel meant putting one foot in front of the other, racing to make connections between trains and buses in remote transit stations, and wading through the chaos that most long-haul travelers float 35,000 feet above. Stevenson winds his way around the world by biking, walking, hiking, riding in rickshaws, freight ships, cruise ships, ancient ferries, buses, and the Trans-Siberian Railway-but never gets on an airplane.
He finds that from the ground, one sees the world anew-with a deeper understanding of time, distance, and the vastness of the earth. In this sensational travelogue, each step of the journey is an adventure, full of unexpected revelations in every new port, at every bend in the railroad tracks, and around every street corner. – Goodreads
Book Title: Grounded
Author: Seth Stevenson
Published By: Riverhead Books
Released: April 6, 2010
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir, Travel
Date Read: December 10-26, 2017
Average Goodreads Rating: 3.43 (600 ratings)