Author and travel writer Suzanne Roberts has a way with mobile-minded romance. Her new travel memoir, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel is a mesmeric collection, spanning decades and countries but always harking a single theme — the heart wants what it wants. What happens to the heart’s desire for travel and romance when a global pandemic strikes? Roberts, who has been stuck at home in Lake Tahoe throughout most of the pandemic, is figuring this out on the fly.
The stories — many heartwarming, some heart wrenching — are the perfect way for travelers to fill the wanderlust void when global travel isn’t on the table. After months of being cooped up, it appears they need it. Bad Tourist follows Roberts’ first memoir,Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, which won the National Outdoor Book Award in 2012. This time, Roberts recounts adventures through India, Greece, and Latin America; touches on encounters including a long-distance romance that first budded in Cuernavaca; and notes how the affair played out back in the States. Matador spoke with her about how that’s going and about her new book, out now from University of Nebraska Press.
How did you bring these stories from just being stories into a finished book?
I started this book in earnest in 2011, but the earliest essay takes place in 2002. The essays span 16 years, and I didn’t know I was writing a book — I just write when I have something I want to write about. I’m a terrible travel writer because I just write the essay and then see if anybody wants it. And I realized that they went into a collection and that they have the same theme.
You return to Latin America over and over in the book. The term “escapism” comes to mind — is that accurate?
In some ways, visiting Latin America over and over was kind of an excuse. Yes, I was getting my Ph.D., and I had to be fluent. But I was really escaping my life. The first time I went to language school, I really went by myself to go travel alone because I was super unhappy in my first marriage.
It was an excuse to spend what little money we had on a trip to Latin America in order to further my studies. As I learned more Spanish, I got more out of being a traveler in Latin American because I could talk to people. I got to know people, and I got to know the culture in a way that you don’t if you don’t know the language.
And I love everything about Latin America — I love the food, I love the people, I love the climate.
In the book you say, “Worrying is living in the future.” Right now, the future is all we have — is it okay to worry a bit right now?
I don’t think the future is all we have; we also have the past. I was writing about Hungary this morning, and I went back and looked at my pictures, and I feel so nostalgic for travel. But I really am grateful for all the traveling I’ve done. This is the longest I’ve been in my adult life of having not been on an airplane. I’m hopeful that there’s going to be a vaccine and that enough people will take it. If we had rapid testing that was accurate, we could all travel again, even without a vaccine.
At this point, I don’t feel safe [about international travel in the COVID era]. We’re being really conservative and careful, mostly because I don’t want to feel like I’ve given this to someone else who has a negative outcome. I’m reading so many things about people who are [traveling abroad] and it’s like, you better get tested and be sure you’re not bringing COVID to these places.
We’ve done something that is cliche. My husband and I bought a van. We are traveling in it, camping in places that are pretty close so it’s safe. It’s the pandemic mobile. The hope is this winter we’ll drive our van to Mexico and spend a month or two down there, depending on if it’s safe and responsible.
What do you think will happen going forward with travel?
We can go on some travels that maybe we would be too frugal to go on, like Tahiti or Bora Bora, because we’ve saved so much money not traveling during COVID. It is fun to think about and I do think the world may never go back to what it was, but it will go back to something different from this. It will be, I hope, open again because travel is such an important part of my life and so many people’s lives.
Until there’s rapid testing or a vaccine, I probably won’t be getting on a long-haul flight. But I’m hopeful, though I’m worried too because a lot of people say they won’t take [a vaccine.] But I can’t wait to get back to travel.
The increased adoption of remote work is bound to help get people back on the road once it’s safe.
It’s interesting because it’s bringing us this idea of what is home and where is home. It’s so interesting that people are reevaluating home.
So many people have moved from San Francisco and Sacramento to Lake Tahoe because they can work from here now. This has made my home much more crowded, but I’m really grateful that I have chosen a home that is in a landscape where I can still have a life and enjoy myself.
Interestingly, my husband and I had not lived together the past six years. He lived in Sacramento during the week because he works down there. Since March, we’ve lived together full time. It’s really great and also difficult. It’s difficult to cohabitate when you haven’t in a long time under the conditions of COVID. These are all things I have been thinking about and writing about.
In the meantime, what else has changed for you this year?
I miss having big parties, I miss hugging people, and I wonder, did I appreciate that enough? I wonder, did I appreciate being able to get on a plane at a moment’s notice and go somewhere new? I really hope that I will appreciate those things much more in the future.
We always say, “This thing is going to make me really appreciate my partner, really appreciate things even more,” and then we forget about it. I hope we do this time. And with this book coming out, it’s putting my history right on the page. I feel like I did so much work and a lot of the work was through travel and escaping, but I was also trying to figure out who I was so that I could come home and be happy at home. I left my first husband, and I really thank my younger self for doing all of the things I did. All of those mistakes brought me to where I am, which I’m really grateful for.
[My husband and I] were supposed to be traveling the world right now, but that’s not happening. But we are planning to travel — we just don’t know what it will look like. I’m excited about it. It’s hard to know it’s not going to happen as I’d hoped, but that’s how life is.