As an anthropology student, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ is a great movie to watch for all the wrong reasons. Left in a state of despair and loneliness after the end of her marriage, Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts) embarks on a journey of self-discovery where she ‘eats’ in Italy, stays at an ashram to ‘pray’ in India and finds her one true ‘love’ in Bali.
Where did we get this idea that travel = self-discovery? According to Savage (2013, p. 28) travelling for leisure is a “historical anomaly.” Technology allows us to see the world in a way that was once impossible. If planes and trains didn’t exist would it be impossible to find our truest self?
In addition, solo travel (the epitome of self-discovery) is culturally specific. Carroll (2009) claims that mere consideration of ‘solo travel’ is seen as highly ‘illogical’ for many Lao travelers. Travelling in a group simply makes more ‘sense’ because it provides “social security” and reduces the overall cost because expenses are shared (Carroll 2009, p. 285).
The argument I am trying to make here is that the way we understand ‘self-discovery’ is specific to a certain context and point in time. This notion of self-discovery does not exist everywhere and it is a fairly recent development. This is true of many concepts, but I believe it is especially important that we understand the extent to which ‘self-discovery’ is socially constructed. Self discovery is often conflated with phrases like ‘becoming more aware’, ‘evolving’ and ‘reflecting.’ It therefore seems contradictory to reflect on the self, without reflecting on where this notion that we must find the self came from in the first place.
The kind of journey of ‘self-discovery’ I’m talking about here is also an issue of class and race. Benedetto (2012, p. 34) highlights a major contradiction in Gilbert’s journey, that is she reflects on everything except for her “white privilege.” Throughout the movie Gilbert speaks about the “the commonality of humanity” and positions herself as an authority on everyone’s suffering and life experience (ibid.). For example, the film’s opening lines:
I have a friend, Deborah,a psychologist who was asked by the city of Philadelphia if she could offer psychological counselling to Cambodian refugees…boat people, who had recently arrived in the city. Deborah was daunted by the task. These Cambodians had suffered genocide, starvation, relatives murdered before their eyes…years in refugee camps, harrowing boat trips to the West. How could she relate to their suffering? How could she help these people? So guess what all these people wanted to talk about with my friend Deborah, the psychologist. It was all, “I met this guy in the refugee camp. I thought he really loved me, but when we got separated, he took up with my cousin. Now he says he loves me and keeps calling me. They’re married now. What should l do?” This is how we are.
What films like ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ have created is a “recipe for obtaining enlightenment” which guarantees the traveler “cultural capital” upon return home (Badone 2016, p. 39). In Gilbert’s case she becomes an expert on the human condition: “This is how we are…” Gilbert’s quest for self-realization is achieved through a number of romanticized and reductive depictions of the people she meets along the way. For instance, Gilbert journeys to India because of her attraction to the “radiantly beautiful Indian woman” (Chandra 2015, p. 502). There is an underlying assumption that the ‘spiritually endowed’ Indian woman must heal the ‘spiritually desolate’ American woman (ibid.). The ‘exotic’ people Gilbert meets (including a traditional Balinese healer named Wayan) fade into a “reductive backdrop” where their only purpose is to ‘enlighten’ Gilbert (Benedetto 2012, p. 5).
‘Spiritual voyages’ are often juxtaposed against mass tourism, however, the popularity of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ has resulted in a watershed of commercial opportunities. Intrepid Travel (2018) have recently “built the ultimate Eat, Pray, Love journey of self-discovery” which promises to be a “life-changing adventure.”
After reading so far you may have come to the conclusion that I think we cannot learn anything about ourselves through travel, but that is certainly not the case! Here is where I stand – I believe that travel challenges us in many ways; we are forced out of our everyday routines and can encounter situations which feel strange and foreign. This in turn can lead us to reflect on our ‘normal’ lives back home and perhaps see how limited our worldview was before going abroad. We may also reflect on the self because we can see how deeply our cultural context has shaped our identity.
What I perceive to be the ‘real’ issue with journey’s of self-discovery is when they become reliant on problematic and reductive imaginings of the people we encounter. Stasch (2016, p. 11) argues that travellers sometimes fall into the trap of observing people like they are in a “human zoo.” Tourists become fascinated with the exotic ‘Other’ because they resemble humanity’s “primitive” and “archaic past” (ibid.). When we generalize and stereotype cultures we start to adopt an ‘ethnocentric’ gaze – which as an anthropology major is most likely your worst nightmare! At the end of the day we are all human, and humans who have been raised in particular cultural context (or several) and that has influenced the way we understand the world and other people. No matter how hard we try, can we ever really be ‘objective.’ I personally think not, but I do believe we all have a responsibility to be self-aware of what our biases might be, especially when it comes to journeys of ‘self-discovery.’
Badone, E 2016, ‘Eat, Pray, Love and Tourism Imaginaries’, in L Beaman S Sikka (eds), Constructions Of Self And Other in Yoga, Travel, And Tourism: A Journey To Elsewhere, Springer International Publishing, pp. 37-43.
Benedetto, GD 2012, ‘The Punitive Theatre of the Western Gaze: Staging Orientalism in Eat Pray Love’, International Communication Association, pp. 1-38.
Carroll, C 2009, ‘My Mother’s Bestfriend’s Sister-in-Law is Coming With Us’, Asia on tour: exploring the rise of Asian tourism, Routledge, pp. 277-290.
Savage, E 2013, ‘Confessions of a Fat, Exploitative Tourist’, Eureka Street, vol. 23, no. 21, pp. 28-29.
Stasch, R 2016, ‘Dramas of Otherness: “First Contact” Tourism in New Guinea’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 6, np. 3, pp. 7-27.
Feel like reading another rant on the perils of travel? See also:
Maddie’s article https://anthrozine.home.blog/2019/05/30/a-not-so-lonely-planet/