The author of Eat, Pray, Love, explains how to upgrade a run-of-the-mill trip into a life-changing journey.
There are tourists, there are travelers, and then there's Elizabeth Gilbert. The best-selling writer makes a nice living from turning simple vacations into transformative experiences. Now, with a new travelogue out, Committed, and an Eat, Pray, Love movie starring Julia Roberts on the way (opening August 13), Gilbert details how to get the most out of any trip—even if you've only got a week. The goal: to become part of a place rather than just pass through.
How do you break from the tourist mold andimmerse yourself in a destination?
Stay put. I've certainly done that exuberant, I-just-want-to-see-everything travel, where it's two days in Bologna, two days in Milan. But those kinds of experiences never made it into Eat, Pray, Love, mostly because I never met anybody. The memories that really stick with me involve making friends. I did that in Rome, where I got to know people over the course of months and really became part of their lives. But you could just as easily spend your week's vacation in one village. It's amazing how quickly you can become integrated if you try.
So if you decide to stay put, how do you go about making friends?
In Rome, I just put up a sign in a local Internet café that said, "Native English speaker looking for native Italian speakers for conversational practice." Not only did I receive free, really intensive Italian lessons, but I made four great friends who showed me the "real" Rome.
How do you document your trips?
When I'm traveling, I don't take pictures of scenery; better photographers than me have shot plenty, and you can find that stuff anywhere. I only take pictures of the people I become friends with. Also, I never sit down to write anything unless I have one person in mind to whom I am telling the story. It helps focus the piece. I wrote Committed to my novelist friend Ann Patchett.
Is it possible to find an exotic escape without flying halfway around the world?
Sure. I've recently become a huge fan of Atlantic City. Step a block from the boardwalk and there are all of these incredible restaurants and stores run by the immigrants who staff the city. My husband and I live about two hours away, and we visit once a month to buy spices and goat meat from this Pakistani guy. When you're in his shop, you sort of think to yourself, What country am I in? But you're right behind the Trump Taj Mahal.
And what if you want to go farther for longer?
I went down to Chile for my cousin's wedding last year. In the airport, I struck up a conversation with a couple from Vermont. They were living in Santiago for six months before setting out for the rest of South America. They were teachers with really lousy salaries, but they had been saving money for 10 years. People say they can't afford to travel. But if you circle a date on your calendar and make that your single, greatest priority, I guarantee you that you can.
THE GILBERT GLOSSARY
If eat equals Rome, pray equals India, and love equals Bali, what does drink mean? Or explore?
"I have really happy memories of what feels like entire weeks spent in Irish pubs."
"My husband and I lived on $15 to $20 a day for the entire 10 months that we were traveling there."
"For me, play is overeating, drinking a lot in the middle of the day, wandering through olive groves, and sampling amazing food covered in truffles—I consider that recreational!"
"Not just for me, but for centuries of Europeans. And it's still underexplored in a lot of ways—and misunderstood."