Reviewed by Melissa Oliveira
One of the epigraphs at the start of Suzanne Roberts’s new essay collection, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press, October 2020), comes from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Roberts’s book of 33 short travel essays hit shelves during last year, when traveling anywhere (never mind gaining new perspectives from our travels) seemed risky, if not reckless. So I found myself devouring this collection with a kind of vicarious excitement of going to places as far-flung as Ecuador and Greece, the Colorado Rockies and Mongolia, even while many of Roberts’s experiences definitely belong to the realm of misadventure.
Despite the far-flung locales, the essays in Bad Tourist are less about describing the superficial details of someone’s travels than they are about a more intimate set of adventures. The collection is something like a guidebook to the author’s inner world, and the arrangement of the essays invites this comparison: each section heading, usually containing four or five essays each, is straight out of a typical travel guide. There’s “Sights” and “Eating and Drinking” and “Activities” and so on. Still, each section reckons as much with inner battles as it does with outer experiences. The section on “Sleeping,” for example, contains essays about sex and wrestles with some very raw material on that front: infidelity while traveling and the likelihood of Roberts’s marriage ending when she returns home. So even though the book is full of exciting, accidental, ill-advised experiences while on the road, Roberts just as deftly moves into writing about those moments when “the world itself shifted” and finds the deeper revelations in her discomfort.
And this book contains quite an array of discomforts and dangers. They vary in tone, too, like the funny and self-effacing “Bellagio People,” which essentially describes the inscrutable local customs of her boyfriend’s posh relatives, and the more formidable dangers of getting seriously ill while traveling alone in “Dangerous for a Woman Alone” or being a victim of drugging in “Gone Missing.” Still, the idea of trying to connect, and to be a better tourist, weaves through many of these essays no matter the tone or depth of revelations. This means in part, I think, connecting more openly and authentically with people while traveling, as well as allowing what one has experienced abroad to influence the rest of her life in substantial ways. The best essays were ones in which she is more than just passing through, and where the location speaks somehow to the larger them. Take “Hotel Cádiz”, for example. Here, during a field trip from her Spanish language school to a warren of underground caverns somewhere near Cuernavaca, Mexico, Roberts begins an affair with a fellow student. “I had spent so many years,” she writes, “building the life I was about to destroy.” The essay is full of evocative sensory moments while Roberts is still spiraling ever downward into the earth. Similarly, “Skiing the Fall Line” talks about a backcountry skiing trip during which a new friend — one in the process of leaving her marriage — somehow manages to ski out of an avalanche. Watching her friend survive the ordeal causes Roberts to reflect on the disconnect in her own marriage.
On the whole, not every essay is as heavy as these last two. A few lighter essays are mixed in here, but all have a great sense of pacing that makes the collection a very quick read despite the heartbreak and discomfort that occurs along the way. But travel itself is a controlled sort of discomfort: it comes with a start date and an end date, and what happens in the window in between can inform and change the life that the traveler is returning to. So where does this leave us, by the end of this travel guide to the heart? In Roberts’s case, it’s the time away that illuminates what needs changing and even dismantling in the life she’s going back to. Or, as Roberts puts it during a visit to the banks of the Ganges River, with a guide pointing out holy men and funeral pyres, “Nothing will force you to face the reality of your life, and what to do with your aliveness, like the fact of a burning body.” For those of us currently still in unvaccinated isolation and longing for travel and human connection, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel is a fast-paced, smart and very enjoyable book of essays that delivers us back into the wider world, at least for a while.