Anthropologist Layton (Street Women and the Art of Bullshitting, 2010, etc.) examines how different types of travel affect people's perceptions of culture and themselves in her scholarly debut memoir.
Layton begins by describing six categories of tourists: charter tourists, independent tourists, travel writers, drifters, embedded visitors and travelers at home. Different types of travelers experience local culture differently. To prove her point, Layton details her own encounters as a tourist from 1932 to 1998. Her destinations include Morocco, Cuba, Seychelles, Thailand, Venezuela, Spain, England and Canada. As an embedded visitor at the University of Havana in Cuba, she feels that her temporary colleagues are like "distant cousins fallen on hard times." In contrast, her experiences with incarcerated cultures, such as a penitentiary in her longtime home of Canada feel "more alien than any foreign land." Layton constantly offers rich, sensory details of her journeys, pointing out, for example, a trio of goats perched on an argon tree, the unpleasant sensation of sticking to plastic chairs in a humid climate or the sound of a woman banging on a hotel's elevator door. Her observations are a candid, smartly edited mix of positive and negative details. Layton's blend of historical, literary and political references throughout helps put her keen personal observations in context. (Many names, however, are not offered with any identifying titles or details, making them less accessible to nonscholars.) The final chapter, speculating on the idea of cruise ships replacing nursing homes for the elderly, is the weakest, lacking the realistic, memorable details that captivate the reader in earlier chapters. While the author readily compares her writing techniques to patchwork in the memoir's preface, the lack of transitions between chapters and no final summary chapter remains disconcerting.
Despite its lack of cohesiveness, this memoir offers striking details about less-traveled locations and thought-provoking commentary on the difficulties of understanding a culture other than one's own.