One of the newfound benefits of writing a blog is that sometimes I am contacted and asked if I want to read a book – either to review, or in this case, interview the author. I love to read and I really love to read stories that take place in my new back yard as they can be very instructive. I still insist that I read the book first before committing to a review or interview, I have a hard time writing about something that I do not enjoy reading….unless of course I plan on poking fun at it.
The Blind Masseuse – A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia was sent to me to see if I was interested in asking some questions of the author and presenting the interview on my blog. The book is very interesting and follows the author, Alden Jones, on her journey of teaching and learning throughout the world – with Costa Rica finding a prominent place in the book. After reading the book I determined that this was a book I would buy and therefore felt very comfortable telling you all about it.
If you like to read stories of world travels filled with intelligent observations and stories that make you think (and look up words) then I think you will like The Blind Masseuse.
1. The struggle between the Tourist and the Traveler is a constant thread woven throughout each story in The Blind Masseuse. I like the idea of these guys duking it out. How would you describe each for those who have not yet read your book? And the 3rd option, Going Native, how is that different than the Traveler?
I believe the original distinction between the Tourist and the Traveler was made by Paul Bowles in his novel The Sheltering Sky. He says:
“The difference is partly one of time…Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. [A]nother important difference between the tourist and the traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.”
That last part is really key for me. The tourist can’t stop thinking about home, and never opens her mind to the possibility that there are ways to think about the world other than the one she learned growing up. But the traveler moves through the world thoughtfully, considering foreign ideas, trying on new perspectives. When I was living in Costa Rica as a WorldTeach volunteer in my early twenties, I went a little overboard trying to be the Traveler; I actually tried to completely divorce myself from the American perspective and embrace the rural tico way, lard and all. But a real traveler doesn’t need to reject her own culture—just to be aware of why she prefers certain things from one culture and rejects others. The tourist isn’t thoughtful in that way, she’s just looking for the comfort of the familiar.
“Going native” is what I once thought was the goal of being in another culture. Adopting, and truly fitting into, the culture you’ve chosen to live in. But after writing a draft of The Blind Masseuse, I realized that if I were truly being honest, I had to admit that the charm of the unfamiliar has always been a motivation for my travels. And “going native” requires losing that feeling of exoticism. So “going native” may be the ultimate manifestation of being a Traveler. But personally, it was not my goal.
2. You mention at one point having Tourist on one shoulder and Traveler on the the other whispering in your ears. If one was the proverbial Angel and one the Devil; which would be the Devil?
That Tourist, she is a charming devil. What’s not to love about fancy hotels, a good cigar in Cuba, or a cold Coca-cola when you’re really thirsty in Bolivia? There is a lot of seduction on the Tourist’s side, whereas the Traveler nudges your sense of responsibility—much less sexy.
3. You discuss the Charm of the Unfamiliar as being part of the draw to travel. Was it necessary to travel away from the US to Experience this?
Definitely not. Exoticism, or the charm of the unfamiliar, is a relative term. To me, someone from New Jersey, the Deep South is certainly exotic, but to someone from Iowa, there might be little more exotic than the skyscrapers of New York. Take the wild success of a show like “The Wire,” which is set in Baltimore; the exotic world of the drug trade and street life has had mass appeal to an American audience. It’s all about what’s unfamiliar to you. The critic Tzvetan Todorov makes an interesting parallel between traveling abroad as an adult and experiencing the world as children. At first, as children, everything we behold is new, and potentially galvanizing simply for its newness. When I was ten or eleven, the most exotic thing was the world of teenagers; it was a culture I yearned to know but to which I lacked access. Later in life, Todorov says, we cross cultures to reclaim that feeling of wonder and fascination we had as kids. So at some point, everyone feels that charm of the unfamiliar, no matter where they live or where they travel.
4. You write about reverse culture shock, briefly, in the chapter surrounding your work in New York. Did you experience reverse culture shock each time you returned to the States? Did the severity of reverse culture shock have a correlation to the duration of your trip or where you went in the world?
It’s mostly a matter of time. I experienced the worst culture shock after my year in Costa Rica because in a year I had settled into life there; Costa Rica had become my familiar. All the five-week trips I took as a leader for Putney Student Travel left me with reverse culture shock because of the intensity of my role on the trips. And coming off 100 days on Semester at Sea, I experienced the weirdness of living once again on a solid landmass. But being in Japan for five days, then back on the Semester at Sea ship, left me with little culture shock, because I hadn’t had long enough for the landscape of Japan to become familiar, though it was certainly exotic.
5. I am curious, how much time has elapsed since your last travel adventure and the publishing of this book?
My last travel “adventure” was a trip to Italy, Greece and Croatia with my family last summer. But if we’re talking about the last travel event in the book, the epilogue takes place in 2011. I sold the book in 2012 and it was released in 2013.
6. SPOILER ALERT
I can’t help but compare your sexual interest to both men and women, throughout the book, with the theme of Tourist and Traveler then progressing to Becoming Native. Would you say that your relationships progressed in a similar fashion moving from Tourist, then to Traveler and graduating to Going Native?
That’s a really interesting question. Things have changed so drastically with the legalization of gay marriage and the Zeitgeist regarding queerness—I’d say that a gay lifestyle was a lot more exotic when I wrote the first chapter of The Blind Masseuse back in 1999. But that’s not your question. Ultimately, the message of The Blind Masseuse is that you can be both the tourist and the traveler, and that probably reflects my bisexuality; neither side of me is excluded. But my first serious relationship with a woman definitely contained elements of the tourist; I chose someone from unfamiliar social culture, and I was constantly awed by my surroundings and the fact that I’d found myself in them. Some college student could probably write a paper answering this question – I’d like to read it.
7. One of the things that shocked me while reading The Blind Masseuse was your honesty; your transparency. There are a few stories included that have you participating in a few things that could be defined as taboo, yet you still included them. Was this therapeutic for you? Did you include them for shock value or for arts sake?
I’m so curious about what parts you’re referencing! The most obvious thing I can think of is the fact that I traveled to Burma while world leaders like Desmond Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi were calling for a boycott of tourism in Burma. I traveled there as a professor on Semester at Sea, and it was part of an itinerary I didn’t choose for myself. The chapters “This is Not a Cruise” and “The Burmese Dreams Series” deal with the ambivalence I felt about being in Burma quite frankly, I think. I wasn’t looking for “shock value” or “art,” per se. I was looking to honestly explore that ethical ambivalence.
The other thing you might be referencing is the fact that I made some questionable decisions as a photographer while traveling, such as following and shooting a pack of naked kids in a park when they clearly didn’t want their pictures taken. At first I wanted to omit this aspect of my traveling persona from the book because I knew it didn’t cast me in the best light. But ultimately I knew that a true investigation of what it means to travel “the right way” necessarily included admitting my “tourist” side. Sometimes we act out of selfishness. Human beings are like that.
8. The book, for me, was excellent. The beginning was like walking up hill – a bit of a chore. However, I quickly reached the top and after cresting the hill, gravity pulled me down the hill, faster and faster until, even if I wanted to stop, I couldn’t. It is hard for me to explain to someone WHY I liked a book – hopefully, these questions have shed a little light on that.
Why do you think the readers of CostaRicaCurious would like your book?
Thank you for your compliments and your honesty. Costa Rica is the country most represented in The Blind Masseuse. I spent the most time there; it had a draw for me that kept me coming back. Costa Rica is the location for the beginning, mid-point, and ending of the book. I feel an affinity with expats and travelers in Costa Rica, and I hope they will feel the same about this book.
9. In the afterward you mentioned that you are recently married. And I am aware that you just had a baby…like a week ago. Congratulations. I guess it is once again time to chase the Charm of the Unfamiliar?
Indeed! Cora Blue was born on October 16, just a month before The Blind Masseuse’s official publication date. She’s our second child, and the world of parenting is a shocking one to those of us who made it into our late thirties child-free and globetrotting. But I get to see the world through the eyes of my children, and it’s a whole huge new kind of delight.
The Big Sell
If you are now interested in purchasing the book, which I think you should, you can do so at Amazon – The Blind Masseuse.
PS – I have now typed the word Masseuse more times than in my first 40 years of existence, and if I ever had any trouble spelling the word, that is no longer a problem.