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Traveling Heavy is a deeply moving, unconventional memoir by master storyteller and cultural anthropologist Ruth Behar. Through evocative stories, she portrays her life as an immigrant child and later as an adult woman who loves to travel but is terrified of boarding a plane. With an open heart, she writes about her Yiddish-Sephardic-Cuban-American family as well as the strangers who show her kindness as she makes her way through the world. Compassionate, curious, and unafraid to reveal her failings, Behar embraces the unexpected insights and adventures of travel, whether it's learning that she longed to become a mother after being accused of giving the evil eye to a baby in rural Mexico or going on a zany pilgrimage to the Behar World Summit in the Spanish town of Béjar.
Behar calls herself an anthropologist who specializes in homesickness. Repeatedly returning to her homeland of Cuba, unwilling to utter her last good-bye, she is obsessed with the question of why we leave home to find home. For those of us who travel heavy with our own baggage, Behar is an indispensable guide, full of grace and hope in the perpetual search for connection that defines our humanity.
The book is published by Duke University Press.
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A curious insight into a unique experience
Travelling Heavy is Ruth Behar’s memoir of her life as an anthropologist from a Yiddish-Sephardic-Cuban-American family. That in itself makes Behar’s story a curiosity.
I’d like to credit Sally Martin for her fantastic narration of this audiobook. There are words from so many different languages throughout the book – Behar visits a lot of countries and her family share a variety of languages. Martin’s pronunciation is great! I’m no expert but it sounds authentic to me. She keeps the story jogging along even when the author hasn’t quite managed it.
The first section about Behar’s ancestry is fascinating – the difficulties in relationships between people who share race but not culture and language. I found it rather enlightening on the multiculturalism of Cuba. I especially loved the story about the young Ruth going to school and being put in the “dumb” class because she didn’t speak English. The motivation for her speedy English language development is a friendship with a Japanese boy, also in the “dumb” class for not speaking English. It’s absolutely endearing.
Other parts of the stories are very interesting. While working as an anthropologist in a small village Behar hides her religion or outright lies about it to the people she is staying with. Similarly, she hides her relationship with her boyfriend – to her family she denies it, to the people they are staying with they say that they are married. I’d like to have read more about the inconsistencies Behar had to juggle.
In some chapters Behar gives the impression of being more a spectator than a memoirist – which makes perfect sense in relation to her primary career as an anthropologist. But for a memoir it feels like there’s distance between the reader and the story. It is interesting, but it would be more engaging if Behar was more free about her own feelings & experiences.
All in all, it’s a curious insight into a unique experience. Behar travels a lot but it’s unclear where “home” is. Is it Cuba, which she left when she was 3 years old and to which she feels a strong attachment? Or is it Michigan, where she brought up her son, but in spite of tenure in her job at the university there she seems reluctant to put down roots. She decides that her home is not in one single place, it is in the travelling she does and the baggage she carries with her.
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