Q&A: Elisabeth Eaves, a writer who puts the lust in 'Wanderlust'

By Brad Tuttle
September 29, 2021
Elisabeth Eaves

"Wanderlust is not a passion for travel, exactly; it's something more animal and more fickle -- something more like lust."

These words appear in the prologue of Elisabeth Eaves' new memoir-travelogue Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents, setting up the chapters that follow in which the author backpacks through rarefied countries such as Yemen, bunks with a house full of Aussie slackers, hikes through the jungles of Papua New Guinea, sails (and nearly dies) during a storm in the South Pacific, and embraces new lovers and escapism at every turn.

Eaves was kind enough to answer BT's questions below. (For more on the book, check out the New York Times review.)

When travelers say they want to go somewhere, it's often because they want to see places or things -- famous buildings, lions on a safari, beautiful beaches. But your book is filled with stories about the people you meet on your travels. Which factor is more important to you when deciding where to go on a trip: Is it the things you see, or the people you anticipate meeting?

Elisabeth Eaves: They're inextricable. I love buildings, lions and beaches as much as anyone, but people shape the character of your trip. Cultures are by definition made up of people: we like foreign cultures because they're full of foreign people. I have no interest in moon tourism because there aren't any people there.

Speaking of which, in all your travels, which country has the people you like the most? Who are the most fun, most friendly, and most interesting people in the world?

E.E.: If you're looking for a combination of all three, Spain is pretty high up there. Come to think of it, I'm not sure why I don't live in Spain. They invented techno and flan and have dinner at 11.

In many of your trips, you don't plan much of anything in advance. When dropping in on a new town, what are your favorite ways to size the place up, get your bearings, and figure out where to stay, where to eat, what to do, etc.?

E.E.: I get cash as soon as possible. It's comforting to be prepared for off-balance-sheet transactions. And there's nothing more annoying than needing to pay cash and being 50 miles from the nearest ATM.

Other than that? I use guidebooks for maps and hotel listings, but otherwise I wing it. I go for walks. I dislike places where you can't go for walks, such as freeway-side exurbs.

While a lot is written about travel, there are things no one really talks or writes about. (I'm thinking specifically about the masturbators in Yemen you write about.) Can you think of other examples -- of things that travelers experience, but that nobody really talks about?

E.E.: Loneliness. Fear. Relying too heavily on the kindness of strangers, in the Blanche Dubois sense. The fact that many people, and indeed whole cultures, are, once you get beyond the fact that they dress and eat and talk differently, just plain dull. At least to an over-stimulated Westerner. People who live in the jungle spend a lot of time staring at each other. Once you've exhausted the subjects of marital status and yams, you need a book.

You don't travel like the typical tourist/traveler. Are there things that the typical traveler does that'll never make sense to you? Perhaps the stuff they buy, the way they tour cities or regions, or even the places they choose to visit?

E.E.: I almost never buy souvenirs. I don't get the point. I have a low tolerance for clutter, and most souvenirs qua souvenirs end up as clutter. And I don't like to take stuff from beaches -- I figure it belongs there. On the beach, rocks and shells are beautiful. In my home they're clutter.

So much of the book, and about travel in general, is about searching -- that yearning to see and experience something new, foreign, exciting, just plain different. But do you ever wish you didn't have wanderlust? Do you ever wish you were completely content to stay put somewhere?

E.E.: Nope, not for a second.


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Next stop: Barcelona and the beachtown of Sitges, possibly followed by a short trip back to Tuscany to spend an autumn weekend on the Island of Elba where Napoleon Bonaparte was once sent in exile. "Able was I ere I saw Elba" is the apocryphal palindrome supposedly uttered by the deposed emperor himself. Stay tuned.