Attribute it to my all-female undergraduate education, but for the most part I prefer women’s travel narratives to men’s. A foreign traveler is a foreign traveler and yet a female one has an entirely different experience than that of a male, especially when traversing through certain parts of the world that are known for their patriarchal cultures and mindsets. With that said, I enjoyed some parts of Seth Stevenson’s Grounded more than others.
The premise behind Grounded is simple. Stevenson and his girlfriend Rebecca merely wanted to circumvent the world without having to once take an airplane. In their amazing, often slow quest, they travel on every form of transportation except an airplane-cargo freighters across the Atlantic Ocean, the Trans-Siberian Railway across all of Russia, bicycles in Vietnam, an automobile in the Australian Outback-they do indeed succeed and at times I thought them crazy. I, along with thousands of people, abhor flying anymore for the exact same reasons Stevenson writes about-
- Tiny seats
- The ineluctable proximity of your seat-neighbors
- The bagging of liquids
- The removal of shoes and belt
however, planes are still the fastest form of transportation and in an age where paid time off is not unlimited, the getting there part of traveling is of the utmost importance. And frankly, I would rather be cramped in an airplane for eight some hours then have to spend two nights on a ferry in which the seats are as Stevenson describes,
“What you would find in an airplane’s economy section-if that airplane had no windows and was shaped like a small shoe box. The forty bolted down chairs are crammed together in a dark, airless closet on a lower deck.”
My biggest critique of Grounded is that Stevenson’s voice often comes across as sanctimonious, as in anyone who dares takes a flight and gives in to the airline industry’s “man” is an uneducated individual. Stevenson and his girlfriend certainly meet a vast array of citizens of the world from the mediums in which they traveled, many of whom, had they gone by airplane and exited the airport immediately upon arrival, each going their separate ways, they would have never had the chance to get to know. However, would I trade precious time in my final destination to have had a conversation with a Romanian cargo freighter captain? Probably not.
The parts I enjoyed the most were those in which Stevenson and his girlfriend are traveling and he is not writing from his anti-planes soap box. My favorite was when they are in Vietnam, a country I am anxious to visit. Although I’ve heard many tales about the country’s infamous traffic madness in its largest cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, I particularly enjoyed his description of Hanoi’s:
“The streets of Hanoi are like gushing, white-water rapids-if you replaced the water with motor scooters. The motorbike is Hanoi’s preferred vehicle, as few people here can afford (or have a place to park) a car. Endless torrents of scooters flow through the city’s intersections and around its corners. There are rarely any stop signs or crosswalks, and making it to the other side of a street can be a daunting proposition.”
Although I certainly enjoy a bike trip on an outing every now and then when traveling (we did so on Isla Mujeres in Mexico, Brugge in Belgium, and most recently in the Bahamas), I would have no interest in having a bike as my only form of transportation in a country. However, the traveler in me can certainly appreciate the completely different experience and perspective it would provide of a country, the air blowing directly in your face, the smells of a place wafting through, something that can’t be had from the other side of a glass window.
I won’t recommend going out and purchasing a copy of Grounded unless you share Stevenson’s views and are also a staunch environmentalist. However, should a copy be available at your local library, it’s definitely worth borrowing. I should love one day to travel around the world; I just would do things a bit differently.