Most of us who are fans of travel writing are travelers at heart, either planning our next adventure or getting a thrill out of hearing other travelers’ stories. These three friends not only dreamed about an adventure, they made it happen, and then wrote about it for the rest of us in a memoir that came out in the spring of 2010.
The premise of the book “The Lost Girls” is based on that itch that most of us feel at least once in our lives – that we aren’t heading in the right direction and that the only thing to do is somehow hit the reset button. Jen, Holly, and Amanda were collectively in just such a position. All three worked in media related fields in New York City and were in their late 20s. They were restless with their careers and the unspoken pressures to settle down, and each questioned society’s commonly held beliefs about the things one should want at certain stages in life.
Instead of staying on those paths, they decided that a 12-month trip around the world was the antidote for disillusionment, and they started planning a route that eventually took them from South America to Africa to Southeast Asia and eventually, Australia and New Zealand. In Peru, they hiked the Inca Trail and explored the Amazon. In Brazil they experienced the highlights of Rio de Janeiro and Ipanema. From there, they had a few weeks back in New York City before traveling to Africa to work with a volunteer program in Kenya. In India, they spent time in an ashram and on the south Indian beaches. After finding inner peace and getting some sun they headed to Laos, Vietnam, Bangkok, and Bali, where they experienced the highs and lows of tourism mixed with the peaceful pleasures of laidback cultures. They finished their yearlong adventure with several weeks in New Zealand and Australia.
The book begins by describing how the girls knew each other and how their travel plans formed over the course of several months. They jumped back and forth from past to present as they described where they each were at in their careers and personal lives, and how being in those places drove them to want to take such a huge leap, together. The book also chronicles each girl’s impressions of the places they visited and the challenges they faced. They helped each other through a number of dicey travel situations – exotic illnesses, cockroach-infested beds, language barriers, a highly aggressive taxi driver, and probably the most difficult of all, traveling together. Learning how to be in each other’s company all the time, make group decisions, and balance the needs of the group with individual preferences and personal needs was one of the underlying themes of the book.
Early on in the trip it became clear that communicating individual needs was going to define group success. For example, as a light sleeper and a sometimes insomniac, Holly needed more structured sleeping arrangements than the other two, and silently had concerns that the trip was turning into an extended spring break. Additionally, Jen and Amanda struggled with polar opposite ideas of what a round-the-world trip should entail. For Jen, it was a chance to unplug from her life in New York and truly immerse herself in each new experience. For Amanda, it was a golden opportunity to pitch writing ideas to editors back home and maintain her professional connections in environments that seemed to be overflowing with potential stories or articles. They struggled with this for much of the first half of their trip, while Holly, the peacemaker, struggled to maintain her individual need for more alone time than the other two.
All three gave descriptions of the places they visited, and their writing styles gave perspective on each girl’s personality. Jen’s and Amanda’s chapters were sprinkled with pop culture references and conversations they had with each other, and with the people they met. They were the more chatty of the three, and while Holly also detailed her conversations, her entries were generally more introspective and observatory of both her surroundings and of her personal struggle to maintain a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend in New York.
It was interesting to note how their approach to travel changed over time. They began the trip with detailed plans on each girl’s fantasy travel excursions and how much adventure and experience they could pack into each day – a busy schedule of trying to see everything and socialize with locals and other travelers. By the end of the year, all three were just as happy to relax and lounge as they were to seek out more adventure. Additionally, what could have easily caused them to shorten the trip after disagreeing so strongly on how to travel, actually saw them work out some of their core differences in terms of expectations, and brought them closer as friends and travel companions.
Part of the charm of this book is how candid the writers are about their lives and experiences, both before and during the trip. That honesty makes them seem real and interesting as they explain their decisions and how those decisions affected them individually and as a group. For all its appeal though, the book reads like an extended magazine article full of forced drama and exhausting dialogue. All three are gifted writers and are able to convey the emotion and excitement in their adventures, but they often try to find “object lessons” that really aren’t there. Also, I would have liked more history and descriptions of the cultures in the places they visited.
I think that reader interest in this book will be directly proportional to his/her age. I read nearly every travel essay I can get my hands on, but this one was hard to get through because I couldn’t relate to the drama or most of the dialogue. And there is a LOT of dialogue. When I read it, I was making my own “escape plan” for quitting my job and traveling long-term, but The Lost Girls didn’t inspire or engage me as much as I’d hoped, possibly due to where I was at in my own life and career.
The Lost Girls is a travel memoir, and it successfully plots compelling reasons for why it was written, the actual adventure, and the resulting changes in each author’s life and perspective by the end of the journey; however, it lacks the depth that would make it appealing to a wide age group of travel essay enthusiasts. That said, this is a talented group of ladies and I look forward to seeing more from them in the future!