Travel read: Around the Bloc

I stumbled upon Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s writing on a stopover in New York City. She was reading from her third and most recent travel-related book, Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines, at Book Culture near Columbia University. I was immediately struck by her engaging use of language and her savvy presence. It’s a pleasant sight to behold a young, female traveler and writer who is curious about the world and daring in her attempts to understand it.

Her reading finished, I bought her debut book, Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana, and when I asked her to sign my book I told her I too was an aspiring travel writer, working on a memoir of my own. “Can’t wait to read about your travels someday,” she wrote in curly script on the title page. I have since been in correspondence with Griest, who has agreed to have me interview her in early January. Until then, I plan to review her three books for Gadling. Here is the first review, of her debut book on her travels around the Communist bloc of Russia, China, and Cuba.
Griest’s three-part memoir documents her experiences in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana during the late 1990′s, and it does so with humor and humility. It took nearly three months for me to make my way through Around the Bloc — not because it was a slow read, but because I wanted to gain an understanding of the three places she writes about in her memoir. Russia, China, and Cuba have long intrigued me as culturally rich places with politically backward power struggles.

Similar to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, where the traveler’s experiences are summarized by culturally specific activities, Griest’s journey around the bloc are punctuated by drinking, dining, and dancing:”…while Russians bonded over drink and Chinese over dinner, Cubans connected through dance.” Griest’s youthfulness and occasional naiveté captures just how eye-opening one’s travels abroad can be. It is clear by the end of the memoir just how much her experiences in these countries reshaped her values and shook the foundation upon which her life had been seemingly secure.

The tragic Russian Mafiya, Chinese propaganda, and Cuban Revolution stories swirling in Griest’s memoir make her self-discovery that much more palpable. Griest navigates the socialist and political struggle of being in the bloc, and walks away not at all unscathed. Rather, she sets her original assumptions straight again, allowing herself to understand her place in the world that much better.

Of the three parts presented in her debut novel, I must say the most enlightening was the first on her experiences in Russia. It seemed that here, in Moscow, Griest experiences the most profound awakening. I sense these early times, fresh from her undergraduate studies in Austin, that Griest transforms from a hippie wannabe to a truth-seeking, life-living journalist and hearty traveler.

If the popular Eat, Pray, Love is any comparison, I feel Griest’s Around the Bloc far surpasses Gilbert in all the categories I hold dearest to a literary travel writer. Griest masters the art of language and humor; she is finely atuned to her youthful innocence (and, at times, ignorance); just as in life, Griest does not tie her three parts together into a perfect red bow. Instead, there is an imperfection that permeates through her memoir that is raw and real — not just real, but realistic. If Gilbert’s travel memoir satisfied you just enough, then Griest’s will take your breath away. It will teach you things you didn’t know before, but more than this, it will make you get off your couch and out into the wide world, experiencing things you once dreamed of but now can see with your own two eyes.

My review of Griest guidebook, 100 Places Every Woman Should Go, is forthcoming in about a week. Should you pick up any of Griest’s three offerings during the holidays and have a question you’d like me to ask her during my interview with her in early January, feel free to shoot me an email (brendayun@gmail.com).