Seth Stevenson, Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World (New York: Penguin, 2010), 274 pages.
This is not the book I wanted to read. The book I want to read is the one written by Rebecca, Mr. Stevenson’s girlfriend, who had to endure him on this trip. I’m not sure her book will ever materialize, so I’m stuck reviewing this one. This was one of those books that I grabbed off the shelf because of the writer’s intention to travel around the world without getting into an airplane. I plan to do the same thing, but I hope and pray I am a lot more gracious to those around me as well as curious as to where my travels take me. Stevenson is a gifted writer. Although I often shook my head at his narcissism, he kept my attention as I quickly read the book.
Seth, a writer for Slate Magazine, and his attorney-girlfriend Rebecca quit their jobs, sold their possessions and set out to travel the world. Throughout the book, Seth returns to his familiar litany as to why he hates flying. But then, he seems to hate most forms of transportation: container ships, cruise ships, trains, ferries and bicycles. Despite his constant complaining, Seth does manage to fulfill his goal. This he achieves by ditching his girlfriend in Singapore when he finds a ship heading to Australia. The ship is leaving port, so he calls her back at the hotel where she is gathering their possessions and tells her to fly to Bali where the ship will stop in a few days. The only thing I can say about this stunt is that he should be thankful that his girlfriend didn’t fly back to the States or, once they reunited, didn’t treat him to a long distant swimming lesson off starboard somewhere in the Timor Sea. Machiavelli Seth seems only to care about achieving his goal. He wasn’t even gracious toward the ship and crew that made last minute arrangements to take him onboard as a passenger and provided him the opportunity to fulfill his goal, referring to the British cruise ship as a floating nursing home.
The young couple travels start in Washington DC. They head to Philadelphia where they board a container ship to Europe. Then they travel by rail and ferry across Europe to Moscow and take the Trans-Siberian across Russia. Next, it’s a ferry to Japan, then trains and another ferry to China, then trains and buses to Vietnam where they join up with a bicycling tour group to ride through much of the country. From Saigon, they take a bus to Cambodia and a cab into Thailand, then buses and ferries (the train crews were on strike) to Singapore. From there, he takes a small British cruise ship to Darwin, Australia. Rebecca joins up with the ship in Bali. In Darwin, they decide to leave the “floating nursing home” early (It was going to take them around Australia) and drive a car to Sydney. From Australia, they take another container ship to New Zealand where they land just hours before leaving on a plush cruise ship. Arriving back in Los Angeles, they take Amtrak across the country, back to Washington DC where they began.
Throughout the book, Stevenson refers to Jules Verne’s classic, Around the World in 80 Days. He could have titled this book, Around the World on 80 Bottles (of liquor). Drinking, along with some pills that he pops, is his way of coping with the hardships he experiences and helps him endure the discomforts (do you get the sense I don’t feel sorry for him?). Along the way there are few comments about the beauty of the land or the people and the hospitality he encounters. He seems to have little interest in the history or the culture of the area. He complains about all tourists, be they young backpackers or wealthy geezers. In fact, it seems to me that he generally dislikes people. The only person he cares for is Rebecca (and he was willing to leave her behind!).
I assume that with a lot of his complaining Stevenson thought he was being funny like Bill Bryson. However, with Bryson, I get a sense he cares about people. I know I wouldn’t want to travel with Paul Theroux, who often complains about other tourists, but I keep reading Theroux because I have a sense he cares about the cultures and the local people he encounters on his journeys and does a great job sharing what he learns. Furthermore, Theroux admits that he likes to travel alone (and on the ground) so that he can experience other cultures. Both Bryson and Therux provide insight into the world in which they travel. Stevenson gives very little of this. At best, he does have several interesting sections (a few pages to each) on the history of various forms of travel (air, rail, container ships, buses, bicycles and cruise ships). One place where I felt Stevenson’s writing did show a bit of promise for interacting with local culture was during a break from the Trans-Siberian in the city of Yekateinburg. Stevenson wrote about the murders of the Czar and his family there in 1918, noting that the people didn’t capitalize on the tragedy like many New Yorkers had on 9-11. But then, in the pages that followed, he makes two back-to-back Jewish jokes that I found distasteful. The first was referring to a popping sound that he thought could be the changing of an engine on the train or the shooting of Jews and wealthy land owners, but since neither involved him he could go back to sleep. (96) Then he noted that Siberia was “like the Catskills, minus the billboards, the gas stations, and the Jewish summer camps.” (99) Of course, tragically, many Jews (and others) were sent to “camps” in Siberia. On a positive note, Stevenson writes in a way that is easy to read, but then his writing is just not that deep.