I just had the best weekend! I took a trip to Central America, back to my early twenties, to those days of bus rides on the edges of perilous cliffs, shared fries and beer for lunch in Europe, washing my underwear out in a sink, and getting lost in markets of artists and street food. All the while, figuring out who I wanted to become. More accurately, I read Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard.
Wanderlove might be the quintessential example of my next descriptor of what make YA YA, that is:
Young adults read for a demonstration that life is going on elsewhere, to see themselves in more interesting settings, to learn what they can’t at home.
A Demonstration Life is Going on Elsewhere
Hubbard’s protagonist, Bria Sandoval, knows she lives in a bubble she must escape. Though she’s not sure where she wants to go, where people go when they travel, she knows she wants to go…somewhere, to immerse herself in a life that is rich because it is new to you. It doesn’t take many pages before Bria challenges herself to ditch her old fogey tour group and leave the beaten path with two backpackers friends. Her journey includes frenetic Central American cities, lush jungles, and deep blue ocean. Along the way, Bria reflects insightfully on the world she’s discovering.
Bria is instantly conscious of her effect of the places she visits:
“But by renouncing Western culture –or by trying to escape it, whatever –aren’t you also spreading it?” I ask. “Like the first European settlers coming to America? Bringing their European diseases and infecting the natives? Even if you don’t mean to, something always sticks.”… “I mean, isn’t there a McDonald’s in Chimaltenago now?”
She also explores her relationship with the people who actually live in the places she visits. She struggles with how to be a visitor who is respectful of the lives and culture of the people.
Starling sits across from me. “You think only broke people can backpack?”
I guess I never really thought about it. On first reflection, simulating poverty seems deceitful, like panhandling for fun. Isn’t it offense to the truly impoverished?...I guess that’s something you carry with you as a person who travels with his or her eyes all the way open.
“But what?” Starling prompts.
“well, Rowan and I discussed this kind of thing a lot,” I say slowly. “How a person sees more by traveling cheap. More of the real world, at least. And then, once you’ve traveled this way… it probably wouldn’t feel right to travel in luxury, even if you could afford it….”
Of all the backpackers she admires, it is Bria herself who befriends a native woman, Sonia, who invites her for breakfast and shares about her own days of travel.
By the end of the novel, Bria has a sense not only of the real world she is visiting, but also a respect for its history.
All I know about the Mayans comes from my muddy memories of tenth-grade world history. It’s funny –I’ve been so upset with myself for not reading about destinations as they are. It never occurred to me I should also read about how they were. People really lived here: thousands and thousands of them. And now they’re gone.
To see themselves in more interesting settings
Bria certainly wants to imagine herself in more interesting settings. I can understand that. It’s a way of freeing yourself from the limiting expectations of your home. And you tend to be attracted to places that value what you uniquely value, places that bring out the self you want to be. Even more interestingly, Bria’s imagined self changes over the arc of the novel.
Staring at the travel brochure for her pre-packaged tour, Bria imagines:
I could picture it already.
I would glide from ruin to ruin along La Ruta Maya, in a caravan of beautiful, happy people, and I’d be the mysterious one, gracious and profound. Butterflies would float down from the jungle canopy and alight on my bronzed skin. I would wear silver necklaces and ankle-length skirts that shifted in the breeze.
On the trip to Guatemala, Bria finds herself in an airline seat next to a backpacker girl them embodies a more true version of the traveler self Bria would like to be:
On the squeaky-clean airplane, she looked out of place. But now that we’ve landed, I realize she’s perfect. All three of them are. Perfectly disheveled, perfectly irreverent. Real-life vagabonds with mismatched clothes and jewelry, scuffed leather sandals, and too much sun. The kind of traveler I didn’t know I longed to be until right his very second, as Marcy and her husband, Dan, whose comb-over is flipped the wrong way, attempt to herd me outside.
From the hill where we stand, it unfolds like a Mayan blanket: a chaos of market stalls stretching as far as I can see. People flow along the tilted streets, dressed in indigenous clothing of clashing prints and patterns. An old man in a cowboy hat staggers past, bent double, carrying a pile of quilts. Cooking smoke distorts the air. Stray dogs bark; babies squall. I smell incense, hot grease, the smoke of firecrackers.
It’s claustrophobic. Overwhelming.
And I want nothing more in the entire universe than to dive headfirst into the kaleidoscope of colors, to let them whirl around me until I become a fractal of light.
But it’s like I said before. There needs to be a destination, even if it’s way off in the haze of my unlived life. And in that life, I’d like to be an artist.
To learn what they can’t at home
Maybe most important of all, thought, young adults travel and read about foreign places because going to these places, even if only in a book, is a way to learn what they can’t learn in their neighborhood, from their same old friends, from their parents. Sometimes it takes an outside perspectives, seeing yourself through the eyes of other people in other places to not only free yourself from the limitations of home, but also to affirm the hopes you’ve had for yourself all along.
Bria’s travel partner, Rowan, articulates this perfectly:
“Stop right there. You don’t have to make excuses for your experiences –ow can you? They already happened. And you don’t have to dwell on them either. Just look to the future. Like we were talking about. You can’t control the past, but you can control where you go next.”
I nod. “That’s why I’m here.”
He nods back. “Me too.”
Further along in her trip, Bria realizes her journeying has freed her from the lockstep path of home and from the limitations she’s placed on herself. Being in a new place has helped her imagine new things for herself in the future.
…How I have no idea what’s waiting for me on the other side of this trip --a thought that terrifies me but, in a strange way, exhilarates me too….”
It is also only by challenging herself to jump in to this trip and its experiences that she can stand on the brink of her own past mistakes and face them honestly. You can’t do that in a place that’s entirely safe. A Bria who stayed in California would never have been pushed to the point depicted in the passage below:
Because I’m the one who gave it up. Of course I’m talking about my art, but not just my art. That’s not all I lost. I gave up who I was when I was an artist –a version of myself so happy it scared me. Not the invented part girl I tried to become tonight. I didn’t like her at all, actually. I like Bria who drew. Bria who was happy.
I’ve spent so much time blaming everybody around me for what happened in the last few months. But in the end, I was the one who let myself go.
And it pisses me off.
…Letting it [art] go meant I had no outlet. Maybe that’s one reason I stockpiled my anger until it colored my world black and red.
But Bria also doesn’t just take on the perspectives of those she meets. She explores them and makes them her own:
This whole vacation, I’ve been throwing myself headlong into some situations, holding back from others, without any framework or road map –anything to extricate myself from Toby and my past. And Maybe that’s what Rowan did, I realize, during those “meaningless” years before we met. If he kept moving from place to place, person to person, experience to experience, maybe somehow he’d stumble upon the best way to heal.
But there has to be a destination at some point, doesn’t there? Otherwise, we’re just wandering around aimlessly, endlessly.
And the love story thread aside (and it’s a good one), even when Bria appears to be facing loss yet again, her travel brings her to a new place as a person. She is stronger herself, first, before Hubbard wraps up the love story. Her travel has changed her irrevocably.
So maybe I messed up this Rowan thing. And it’s going to hurt for a long while. But this time, I’m not going to let that pain hold me back. Instead, I’m going to let it propel me forward in the best way….I won’t let good things pass me by, ever again. And I’ll always, always hold onto what I love.
Even in novels that are not about travel, I think all these points hold true. For the young adults unable to hop a plane to Guatemala or wherever, they need only open a book to leave their world and re-envision themselves.