London - A few years ago, to coincide with the release of the film of the bestselling self-help book Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert, I was given the assignment of following in the author’s footsteps.
Over the course of a year, Gilbert had learned to love food and speak Italian in Rome, how to meditate at an ashram in India, and finally found love with a handsome Brazilian man in Bali.
I had precisely ten days. In Rome I dined alone, and had to buy a new Apple laptop, as mine died. Only when I got it back to the hotel did I realise the keyboard had all the letters in the wrong place, and even the word processing software I’d bought didn’t speak English: at least I learned “salvare”, “annulla” and “finestra”, as I only had time for one language lesson.
In India, at a retreat in Kerala, there was an enormous spider in my hut. I called reception, who sent a young man who only served to rile it.
I was supposed to be learning yoga and meditation, but I was so stressed – the unfortunate truism of travel is that, unfortunately, you always pack yourself – I remember yelling down the phone to reception: “I’ve forgotten my mantra!”
And Bali? Well, it wasn’t magical, as in the book. My “resort” – that just means the hotel has over 400 rooms, and room service takes four hours – was full of drunk Australians, the beaches were dirty, the roads were jammed with traffic, and the locals openly indulged in cock-fighting.
Upon visiting the faith healer who had become Gilbert’s friend, I couldn’t hear what she was saying (her extreme accent, my deafness), so the poor photographer sent with me had to make notes. “What did she say?” I asked eagerly as we got in a taxi. “She says you are going to have two children.” Given I was then over 50 and without a boyfriend, that seemed highly unlikely.
But still, still! I held out hope it wasn’t all stuff and nonsense, given Gilbert not only found love in Bali, but took him home to the US, triggering a second book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage. Gilbert’s writing has a powerful message, after all: that we all deserve a happy ending as long as we learn to “grow”, “let go of material things”, and “find” ourselves.
But it turns out Gilbert wasn’t that committed. In a lengthy Facebook post, she revealed that “death – or the prospect of death – has a way of clearing away everything that is not real. In that space of stark and utter realness, I was faced with this truth: I do not merely love Rayya; I am in love with Rayya. And I have no more time for denying that truth.”
The Rayya in question is Gilbert’s best friend, a Syrian-born author suffering from cancer and – here’s the surprise – a woman.
The relationship has ended Gilbert’s marriage, and the new couple are demanding privacy and respect. Until the next memoir is published, presumably.
I don’t care that Gilbert is now a lesbian. What makes me want my money back is the fact this story proves that abandoning your job and all responsibility to go on a ‘journey’ doesn’t necessarily make you a very nice person.
I went on a yoga holiday in Udaipur once, but found it impossible to learn to breathe through one nostril when all I could see from my mat on the terrace was a woman bathing her skeletal children in the filthy water of a lake that was being rapidly depleted by the demands of tourism.
I cannot stand rich Westerners who see the developing world as some sort of spa where they can nourish their inner selves while being massaged.
I remember sitting in Nairobi airport, ashen from having visited a refugee camp, marvelling at the bronzed teenagers around me, all laughing and flirting and posting exotic photos on Facebook; they think they are so cool, travelling as they do, but to me they seemed blind.
Why didn’t Gilbert go to India to teach? In Bali, why did she not campaign to end cock-fighting?
But no, it was all about Me, Me, Me.
These memoirs telling us inner peace will bring us untold riches, that we can’t help who we fall in love with, are self-indulgent New Age narcissism.
Truly good people don’t care about inner turmoil: they care about the outside world.
Mail On Sunday