Eat, Pray, Love and The Importance of Solo Travel

by Gray Cargill on September 14, 2010

Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love

Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love

My friend Colleen and I went to see the movie Eat, Pray, Love last week.  Neither of us had read the book, so we were both eager to see what all the fuss was about.  From what little I knew of it, I thought it was right up my alley:  Elizabeth Gilbert takes a year off from her life to travel solo.  During the first half of the movie, I was totally on board with Elizabeth’s  journey.  I inwardly cheered for her when she had the guts to tell her husband she didn’t want to be married to him any more because she wasn’t happy.  (I groaned when she immediately followed this up with a rebound relationship that seemed obviously doomed.)  I was proud of her when she disregarded her friend’s advice and decided to travel for a year on her own.  I adored her stay in Italy.  The friendships she cultivated there were a perfect example of what can happen when you travel solo.

Somewhere during her stay in India, I fell out of like with her and remained that way through much of the rest of the movie as I realized that despite all her time alone on the road, she still hadn’t changed.  Elizabeth was completely focused on her relationships with men throughout her solo travels, instead of on the joy of being alone and free to do whatever she wanted to do for the first time in her life.  She was whiny and self-absorbed and spent little to no time focusing on the cultures of the countries she visited (after Italy).  Then, of course, the movie had to go with the stock Hollywood “happy ending” with her new love.

I’m not against finding happiness or love.  On the contrary.  Hell, I’d be ecstatic to find my own Felipe. But I felt like she hadn’t really embraced her inner solo traveler before she fell right back into her old pattern of behavior, spending all her time with Felipe instead of pursuing her purpose for being in Bali. Later, as we discussed the movie, Colleen and I agreed that the movie had an opportunity to make a statement about the importance of being alone sometimes, and it just failed to deliver.

I travel solo all the time, and I live alone, so I have plenty of time to myself.  But so many women don’t.  Colleen is a perfect example.  She keeps very busy raising her second family, running a home-based business, serving as a Girl Scout troop leader, and waitressing on the side.  She doesn’t get a lot of “me” time.

Recently, Colleen took a solo trip to northern California to attend her high school reunion.  When I asked her how her trip had gone, there was a sense of relief in her voice as she gushed about how great it was to see old friends again, but also how much she loved the quiet time she had alone in the car during the ten hour round trip drive between San Francisco and Eureka.  She did, however, note the differences in how she and her husband approach their trips away from each other.  

When her husband goes away for a “boys’ weekend” with his friends, he just walks out the door and doesn’t give it another thought.  But if Colleen goes away, she has to make sure there’s someone to drop the girls off at school in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon; that there is plenty of food in the house for meals; that the house is clean and the laundry done.  She has to remind her husband about dentist appointments and Girl Scouts and all the millions of other little details that wives tend to take care of that husbands are generally blissfully oblivious about.

I sat there listening to her, nodding, and understanding that this was the premise that Eat, Pray, Love set up and yet failed to deliver on:  The importance of women taking a break from their lives to just be themselves and nurture themselves for a change. And as Brian Searl pointed out in his recent guest post here, going on a vacation with the family doesn’t count.  If the family is with you, you’re not really getting away from it all, are you?

While there’s nothing wrong with sharing your life with the right person (and really, who doesn’t want that?), there’s also nothing wrong with taking time apart once in awhile to pursue your own interests or just have some “alone time”.  Eat, Pray, Love wasted its opportunity to make a point about the transformative power of solo travel–of taking the time to nurture one’s soul, and of forging a stronger self-identity.  I’m not really sure what point it was trying to make.  But I thought Colleen did a much better job making her point with one simple statement:

“I really needed those five days to just be Colleen.  Not Mrs. Palmer, not Mom. Just me.”

Photo credit: Francois Duhamel.

Interested in long-term solo travel, but not sure where to start? You can now buy The Art of Solo Travel: A Girl’s Guide by Stephanie Lee, which contains all the basic information you need to get started on your long-term solo journey. Read my review of the book here.

Aaron January 21, 2011 at 1:37 am

I haven’t seen the movie or read the book, so I don’t feel fit to weigh in on your analysis of the film. However, I’ve heard similar critiscism of the story for quite a few people.

Eatlaughloveanon December 13, 2010 at 4:51 am

I haven’t seen the movie but the relentless advertising of the movie here in Singapore inspired me to start my own blog. Unfortunately, the inspiration struck very late at night and as I was fiddling around with wordpress I ended up with a domain name very similar to the book/movie. But at the time I was thinking “what’s so bloody great about this woman who got a book deal that sponsored a year’s `holiday’? I set off alone with no backup and 3.5 years down the track I’ve made a decent start on being bilingual and have a wonderful man AND a baby at my side”. I thought (maybe arrogantly) my story would top hers, so I started the blog with the aim of writing a book. Now, I’m enjoying blogging so much I’m hoping the blog will partly fund our next adventure — round the world slowly with the baby.

Odysseus November 4, 2010 at 7:34 am

I had the same internal reaction to the movie! Here’s my own tongue-in-cheek review of the movie.

SoloFriendly November 4, 2010 at 11:05 am

Great review! Thanks for sharing.

Nomadic Chick September 23, 2010 at 1:53 am

I have neither read the book or seen the movie, being an anti-bandwagon flag waver at times. Friends of mine have read the book, seen it, etc. They echo the same sentiments as you. One said even the locales in the movie were more stereotype, than authentic.

This strikes me as not a tried and true traveler film, but a romantic dilemma drama. Who cares? There are plenty of those.

As for the book, my ignorant assessment is perhaps it’s a tad more multi-layered than the film?

As you know, I certainly wouldn’t disagree with your points on solo travel. The film is certainly missing the mark on the reality and pleasure of it.

Anonymous September 23, 2010 at 9:09 pm

“This strikes me as not a tried and true traveler film, but a romantic dilemma drama. Who cares? There are plenty of those.” Thank you! That is exactly how I felt about it. And of course, I wanted it to be a travel film.

Akila September 22, 2010 at 8:08 pm

Gray, fantastic post! I am thrilled that so many women travelers are coming out and saying this over and over again because I hope that the public will get it. It is okay for women to travel alone. It is okay to embrace the freedom of traveling solo. I haven’t watched the movie but I read the book and I fell out of like with it at the same point as you did. There was a moment that I thought to myself, “Heck, she is in India —- one of the most fascinating and culturally rich countries in the world — and she is staying inside the ashram, not interested in seeing the amazing things the country has to offer, and complaining about her man-less existence. It makes good fiction but not good reality, in my mind.

Anonymous September 23, 2010 at 12:31 am

Thanks, Akila. Yes, it’s really a shame she went all that way and didn’t explore the country.

Anonymous September 23, 2010 at 12:31 am

Thanks, Akila. Yes, it’s really a shame she went all that way and didn’t explore the country.

Anonymous September 23, 2010 at 12:31 am

Thanks, Akila. Yes, it’s really a shame she went all that way and didn’t explore the country.

Lisa E September 22, 2010 at 3:45 am

Have you seen this? I think it echoes some of what you were saying re: the solo traveler angle and the message the movie sends.

Anonymous September 22, 2010 at 4:34 am

Thanks for posting that link, Lisa! I had not seen it yet, but am very glad to, because I know Jodi. If anyone knows what it’s like to be a woman traveling solo around the world for a long period of time, it’s her.

Erin September 19, 2010 at 12:01 pm

I thought Liz was something of a whiner too. But the thing I most identify with in your post is the comment about men walking out the door unfettered while women have to “make arrangements” before they can leave – and then, mentally, they cannot REALLY leave. I am terminally single and all of my friends are married with children. We’ve gone away together 3-4 times since high school (we’re 50 this year) and it has been a real challenge to find a common time that was OK with everyone’s husbands. Insert eye-roll smiley here.


Anonymous September 19, 2010 at 10:02 pm

Doesn’t seem fair, does it? It’s very cool, though, that you all have remained friends for so long and even travel together. Nice.

Ordinary Traveler September 18, 2010 at 4:49 pm

I can totally understand where you are coming from. I enjoyed the book for what it was worth. For me, it simply fueled my wanderlust and nothing more. I wasn’t interested in seeing the movie, the only reason I did was to see how the Bali beach scenes played out since I visited Bali last October and while I was there they were building the set of the movie at my favorite beach, Padang Padang. Other than that, I really could have done without the movie. 🙂

Anonymous September 18, 2010 at 8:28 pm

That is one thing I see as a positive of the book and hopefully, the movie–That they inspire people to travel. The book seems to have. We’ll see if the movie does.

Andy Hayes September 16, 2010 at 8:39 pm

I’ve only read the book, not seen the film. Totally see your point, and definitely agree. It’s why I travel alone. 🙂

Jiyeon Juno Kim September 16, 2010 at 3:27 am

Totally agree with you Gray. Great post!
I’m young, but I found myself during my first backpacking and several after ones. I truely know who I am, what I like, how I respond to this world. It is really important. My closest friends said I’ve changed after backpackings. And in a good way.
I don’t mean to change or anything, just some quiet time alone is really necessary to all of us.
Oh and the book (I haven’t seen the movie yet), not fan of ‘too perfect’ happy ending. 2/3 book was just great but not the perfect love part. 🙂

Anonymous September 16, 2010 at 10:57 am

Yes, some quiet time alone is necessary for everyone. If only everyone knew that!

Anonymous September 16, 2010 at 2:18 am

Right??? I think she was projecting her own attitudes onto other people. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone while traveling who just wanted to talk about relationships. Thanks for the link to your review!

Becs September 15, 2010 at 10:50 pm

I really enjoyed your review. What you said about the movie is so true in the book. Even though it’s a true story, I read it from a fiction point of view and I think that made it a little better! And of course, the ending wrapped up too neatly. Blah.

I liked hearing about your friend though. My parents have been married for nearly 30 years and up until very recently, my mother would have never thought to travel without my dad. Now she travels from LA to SF to see my sister alone and LOVES it! And wonders why she didn’t do it sooner:-) (Granted my sister and I are adults now, so it’s a lot different when you have young kids.)

Anonymous September 15, 2010 at 11:19 pm

Thanks so much, Becs. I think your parents are the norm for couples. Most don’t think about the option of traveling separately–until someone else points it out to them. Good for your Mom! Now you’ve got to convince your Dad to go solo once in awhile. 🙂

Janet September 15, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Beautiful write up! I haven’t seen the movie yet.. but I’ve read the book and was really excited for the movie.. Until I read other people’s reviews/criticisms and how Hollywood twisted the tale. While I can’t say the book is much different (she was very whiny in the book and a lot of people didn’t like it because of it), I read it at a time when I was going through a break-up of my own so I really related with her voice. I do see how she maybe “missed” the point of solo travel and as much as I’d like to think I’m having an “Eat, Pray, Love” adventure of my own, I hope I’ve learned a bit more than her.. I’m trying hard not to involve myself with men and going through the same motions/patterns.

I just wrote an entry about Eat Pray Love too! You might find it interesting 🙂

Anonymous September 15, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Thanks, Janet, I’ll check it out.

Grrrltraveler September 15, 2010 at 9:08 am

So I guess the only reason for me to watch it now is to see the wonderful backdrop of India! 😉 Wow, Gray! Wonderful review! I haven’t read or watched either but your blog makes me question so many things. When I get down to it, I don’t know yet how I feel about the solo travel experience in whole. I’ve lived and done things solo for most of my life such that sometimes I feel like finding yourself is highly overrated. Ha ha…just kidding, it’s very important but you know what I mean. For some, it’s in our nature to be solo for long periods; for others not. Perhaps for those others, even the shortest or smallest window of experiencing “self”time is medicine & soul-searching enough. Just playing devil’s advocate a bit, but sometimes I wonder…

Either way, I love and appreciate your review! I shall retweet!

Anonymous September 15, 2010 at 11:16 am

You never know, you may like the movie better than I did. I don’t think what you’re saying is necessarily “devil’s advocate”…you’re talking about balance. I believe in a balance in life, too. People shouldn’t be alone all the time, any more than they should constantly surround themselves with people. There should be a balance.

Lisa E September 14, 2010 at 10:40 pm

This is a fantastic review here. I love the fact that you came out and said what many don’t seem to have to guts to say (or that many can’t see due to their own blinders).

I must say that I am in agreement with you on this one from the perspective of an independent woman/solo traveler. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve read some of the book and felt exactly the same. Like you, I believe that she “hadn’t really embraced her inner solo traveler.”

Great job on this!

Anonymous September 15, 2010 at 1:42 am

Thank you very much, Lisa.

Alouise September 14, 2010 at 5:34 pm

I haven’t seen the movie or read the book but it seems to be causing a bit of stir in some circles. I can respect Ms Gilbert for going out and traveling like she wanted. But if she fell back into the habit of just wanting to find a man and not feeling omfortable on her own, then it’s a bit of a shame. I have a friend who doesn’t even like to go grocery shopping unless it’s with another friend, everything has to be a social event. Suzy is right, you have to be meet yourself, and feel comfortable in your own skin. I remember dining alone used to be awkard, I felt like I needed to get out my phone and text someone. But the more I dine alone, the more comfortable I feel with the situation and myself. Sometimes you don’t have to be busy, you just have to be.

Anonymous September 14, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Yes! I like that last statement. 🙂

Karin September 14, 2010 at 4:23 pm

I haven’t seen the movie yet either, but have just started reading the book.. Not sure I want to finish it now!

Your last paragraph really identifies the major bonus of solo travel for me – you get to spend time with yourself, you get to know yourself better, you forge a stronger self-identity. Especially when coming out of a relationship in which you lose part of your Self identity, solo travel helps you find your true Self again 🙂

Anonymous September 14, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Well, if it makes you feel any better, someone on my Facebook page said that the book is much better than the movie. Yes, solo travel can be especially important after a breakup.

Anonymous September 14, 2010 at 3:38 pm

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I love your points on being alone. I was just discussing last night with a friend how important it is to travel alone, and not just be a solo traveler that looks for every opportunity they can to socialize. These days everyone seems to be into couchsurfing and hostel life, meeting people. I keep wondering if they have a chance to meet themselves and the place they are in with all of those relationships taking precedence.

Anonymous September 14, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Agreed, Suzy. I like to socialize about 50% of the time when I’m traveling (maybe a little less), but the rest of the time, I like just being alone and focused on where I am and the experiences there. I like that–“meet yourself.” Yeah.

Anonymous September 14, 2010 at 3:38 pm

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I love your points on being alone. I was just discussing last night with a friend how important it is to travel alone, and not just be a solo traveler that looks for every opportunity they can to socialize. These days everyone seems to be into couchsurfing and hostel life, meeting people. I keep wondering if they have a chance to meet themselves and the place they are in with all of those relationships taking precedence.

Ayngelina September 14, 2010 at 1:01 pm

I haven’t seen the movie yet (I’m in Colombia) but I have read the book, hopefully it will hit the theatres here soon.

Anonymous September 14, 2010 at 10:40 pm

Be careful what you wish for, Ayngelina. You might be disappointed.

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