Book: The Blind Masseuse by Alden Jones (NEW November 2013)
From time to time someone asks me if I can recommend a book that focuses on Costa Rica. In nearly five years now, I have not come across any books other than guidebooks that feature that traveler-magnet country. However, at last, a book at least partly about experiences in Costa Rica. And an excellent book it is.
In The Blind Masseuse, Alden Jones writes about long stretches of living in countries and cultures not her own. She is particularly drawn to Central and South America, so it starts with Costa Rica, includes Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba and then a more fleeting glimpse of Cambodia and Burma and Egypt.
Like most travel memoirs, the book tells us as much, if not more, about the author than the countries she is visiting. Unlike most travel memoirs, The Blind Masseuse is thoughtful and literate, leaving you with much to think about.
The title of the first chapter clearly sets out her thesis for the book. The title is, The Charm of the Unfamiliar, and she begins, not with boring us with travel philosophy cliches, but with the concrete description of her reaction to bumping into a cow on a small village street.
The buzzing in my head was the feeling of exoticism. It was the delight of having something bizarre or unfamiliar happen, and knowing that, from thej point of view of anyone inside those concrete houses I passed, it was absolutely unremarkable. It was bizarre only because of cultural context. ..These moments of absurdity made me feel so alive I almost felt high.
What a crystalline explanation that is of the addictive quality of travel. I think every travel has felt that way some time. Or if they are so unaware that they missed the moment, we pity them.
Throughout the book, she relates the stories of what happens as she enters different cultures. It is a very personal and intimate book, with the usual number of romances that pepper memoirs of young-ish women on the road and ends in the classic style with a marriage. But at the same time, the stories illustrate principles universal to travelers as well as little tidbits of information about each country she visits.
An editor named Francis Steegmuller ransacked your files [letters] and decided it would be a good idea to take these pages and bind them together as a book. He called it Flaubert in Egypt.
Jones’ “Letter to Flaubert” could be a stand-alone essay, and perhaps that is how it started out. It ponders why people travel, how it affects the traveler and the place traveled to. She relates to Flaubert as a scholar who has studied his work, and as a writer, who like Flaubert has suffered rejection and found subjects beyond her grasp. She compares the rigors of travel and the true separation from the familiar that travelers suffered much more than travelers today.
I found the book enticing reading, but one sentence continues to haunt me. “If you want the delight of the unfamiliar you leave yourself enough time between trips to activate the added kick of nostalgia when you return. ”
I know exactly that feeling. It is why, although I generally choose to go to as many new places as possible, I continue to yearn to return to Greece, and although I had never put it in words, I know it is that combination of experiencing the unfamiliar, and remembering my own prior visits that makes it so special.
Several of the chapters in this book appeared in periodicals and were listed in “Best American Travel Writing” in 2000,2004,2005,2007 and 2010.
Tell me–do you believe it is important to return to a place to fully appreciate it?
Note: The publisher provided the book for review, a standard practice which does not affect my opinion. The picture at the top is form Flickr, used with Creative Commons license. Click on the photo form more info. I am an Amazon affiliate, and the books mentioned here are linked to Amazon. When you shop at Amazon through my links it costs you no more, but helps support A Traveler’s Library. THANK YOU.