This summer I wasn’t able to take a big vacation to a far-off foreign country, so I decided to immerse myself in a couple of new travel memoirs that helped me to live vicariously through the writers. I went from Vietnam to multiple countries all over Europe and Asia, and added a bunch of places to my list that I now want to make plans to visit someday.
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So Happiness to Meet You by Karin Esterhammer
Karin Esterhammer worked as a journalist in LA for many years. When the economy tanked, she lost her job and the family’s main source of income. She and her husband decided to live for a year in Vietnam, where she would work as a freelance writer and parent their young son, and he would teach English. Sounds simple, right? Well, things weren’t exactly that easy, but the way she relates her story is engrossing, readable, and touching. The tale is filled with humor and appreciation for the culture of Vietnam and a deep love for the people they encounter.
To save money (of which they had practically none), the family decides to live in a poor area of Ho Chi Minh City, far away from the other expats and their live-in help, fancy cars, and luxury homes. Their home is interesting, and there are many comedic errors that they commit and that occur as they get to know their neighbors and others around them. Things don’t go as smoothly as they originally had imagined–Karin’s husband’s job doesn’t work out very well and they have to make adjustments which mean they stay a bit longer than they had planned. The language and cultural barriers sometimes create humorous situations, and other times create embarrassment.
One quote I totally loved, which sums up a huge difference between American and Vietnamese culture: “Quy’s family experienced a sustained, decades–if not generations–long history of suffering, yet his sense of gratitude and belief in good luck propelled him forward. We Americans feel sorry for ourselves if our mother is an alcoholic or our father dies young, and we let those past memories rule and limit our destiny.” Esterhammer says this, not in a condescending way about Americans, but as an honor to the Vietnamese, who have been through so much, yet continue to strive for something better. More as a lesson to be learned about gratitude rather than a scolding.
Vietnam is not a place I know very much about, especially in the modern world, so it is fascinating to get an insider’s look at living and surviving there. I truly enjoyed this memoir about her family’s experiences and highly recommend it.
Not Afraid of the Fall by Kyle James
Kyle James and his longtime girlfriend Ashley decided to save their money for an amazing trip around the world. They planned, saved, and eventually left their jobs in order to travel for 114 days through 15 countries and 38 cities. Some of this book reads more like a “we went here and then we went here and then here…” rather than helping the reader to experience the adventures along with them. Yet other parts are deeply immersive and made me immediately want to start planning my own trip (Croatia, I’m coming for you!) I also learned a few places I don’t think I would want to visit, unless I was on a pre-arranged tour; their multi-hour bus experience was eye-opening and not something I’d want to do myself. I read some reviews of this book that criticize the way Kyle and Ashley traveled: mostly that they didn’t engage with the culture and spent most of their time drinking. There is a fair amount of drinking, but I found that they engaged with the culture as much as they could with the limited time they were in many of the areas. I suppose if it were me, I’d go to fewer cities and spend more time in each one, but that wasn’t their goal so I can’t fault them for it.
James says, “I wished instead of What do you do? as in icebreaker, people asked, So what makes you the most happy?” I would imagine the people who’d figured out life would have the same answer for both.”
Speaking of Budapest: “…made this one of the best days of my life. Sure, that statement was probably false, but I think the goal in life should be to have as many days like that as possible, days that make you question if you’ve ever had a better day. There is no way to quantify the quality of a day, but if there were, a day spent with your best friend, beer, chocolate, thermal baths, sunshine, lightning, thunder, and Budapest probably scored highly.”
I loved reading about their different experiences and came away from my reading of this book with a list of places I’d like to explore myself. I think many of us believe James is a bit crazy for chucking in his well-paying job and comfortable life to wander the world, but also we’re a bit jealous that we don’t have the nerve to do it ourselves. So in that way, this book is a challenge to me and everyone reading it to ask ourselves–why not? What is holding you back?
“Just because the rock was comfortable, didn’t mean it wasn’t worth jumping to find out what the water was like.”
I thoroughly enjoyed taking this trip along with Kyle and Ashley, and think that there is inspiration here for anyone to take away, even if you aren’t ready to leave home to travel the world. That’s what makes a travel memoir so great, you can do it all from the comfort of your own home until you’re ready to take the leap.
I received complimentary copies of these books for review. All opinions are my own.