Thursday, November 7

Book review on the run: The Blind Masseuse

A couple of weeks ago I received a preview copy of a new travel memoir, The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler's Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, by Alden Jones...

I raved about it in an earlier blog post:
It's FANTASTIC. (And I'm not just saying that because the book was free. I've received many free books over the years, and if they're horrible, I either don't post a review or I tell it straight that the book sucked.)
... but this book was, indeed, fantastic. And I promised that I'd write an actual review.

The Blind Masseuse is a well-crafted travel memoir, but the book is also a deeper reflection on culture, travel, and tourism, and how those concepts intersect and conflict. (But that somewhat scientific explanation of the book's themes hardly do it justice.)

One of my favorite quotes comes early on in the book and set the tone as I hurried through the pages:
"While tourists spend their time away from home seeking out the comforts of home, travelers risk - even cultivate - discomfort, because what they want is the thrill of a new perspective."
That sentence stopped me in my tracks: Am I a tourist? Or am I a traveler?

As I followed Jones' trips around the world, which she admittedly makes both as a traveler and as a tourist, I kept returning to that question. And perhaps that's why the book was so compelling. Certainly Jones' writing style is engaging, and her travel adventures are at times humorous and at times poignant, but what sets this book apart from other travel memoirs is that it kept me thinking not only about the adventures of the narrator, but also about the larger context in which we explore our world (and in which I explore the world).

If we are tourists, we are merely brushing by the culture and humanity of a new or foreign place. We cling to the familiar and take photos of the foreign. We return with a scrapbook, but with no larger understanding of the world than we had when we left, ticket in hand.

If we are travelers, we immerse ourselves in all of the discomfort that comes with being out of our element. We delight in getting lost in a city, and then finding our way. We revel in learning a new word, trying a new flavor, or living on a different schedule. But eventually the unfamiliar becomes familiar. Ultimately it becomes our new reality. It's no longer foreign. And then, perhaps, we go off in search of a new adventure. Or, perhaps, we leave sooner than we might... afraid that the mystery of a favorite place will wear off if it becomes home instead of a destination.

And, try as we might, maybe even the most dedicated traveler has tourist moments. Jones writes:
"There is no disarming all of what we know, no matter how much touching and kneading and feeling we do, no matter how much we think we're trying. What makes us blind is what we think we see."
I can think of times in my own travels (both the short-term vacation kind and the lived in 5 different states and 4 different time zones kind) when no truer words could describe how I felt... thrilled at the prospect of a new adventure, but - at first - still filtering all of that new information through my old lens. It felt thoroughly reassuring, reading Jones' book, to know that even the most dedicated globetrotter has tourist moments, too.

Lest you think that the philosophical musings overwhelm the book, I assure you that the travel memoir is brilliantly written. Jones' history of her time in Costa Rica begins with the pleasantly disorienting title "Lard is Good for You." Her time in Bolivia is enlightening, if somewhat less than welcoming (picture getting caught in the middle of massive, and sometimes violent public protests over water prices). And her cruise around the world... well I'll let you read that for yourself.

So whether you're a tourist or a traveler, whether you've circumnavigated the world or you explore via the Travel Chanel from the comfort of your armchair: read this book. You will not be disappointed.

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