By Pallavi Yetur
When we first meet Maggie Downs in her debut memoir Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime, her mental state is immediately established from the image of her shuffling through the Cairo airport in flip flops, her sweatshirt hood pulled over her head, and her body hovering between sleeping and waking because, “Sorrow does that.” Incidentally, travel can do that too, and Downs’s memoir tells a story of both.
Ten years ago, Maggie Downs quit her newspaper job and set off on a yearlong trip around the world. As she traveled from Peru to Bolivia to Uganda to Thailand, her mother’s mind and body were succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease back in the US. The trip is initiated when Downs, underwhelmed and disengaged with her job and life, decides that she must live because her mother can’t; because her mother gave up dreams of seeing the world to tend to her parental and familial duties. Downs asks herself: “By confining myself to this cubicle, wasn’t I making the same mistake my mother made?” In this state of suspension between doubt about her future and certainty of her mother’s, she found the reasons to travel: “to see what I was made of, to discover how strong I could really be, to live out the dreams of my mother.”
“Travel can be very hard, mentally and physically,” Downs tells me over the phone, both of us sheltering in place from the reaches of COVID-19. We share a loaded laugh over the irony of our discussing her memoir about travel as the world’s borders are shutting down. Downs is candid and effortless in her answers, which reflects the clarity and accessibility of her prose. I wonder about Downs’s journalism pedigree informing her writing process. She tells me:
… [W]hen I set out on the trip, I didn’t intend to write about it, so I wasn’t really keeping notes the way I would if I were going out for an assignment or a story. … [O]nce I realized that I was going to write a book, then I had to draw upon my previous journalism experience and dig through like old … blog posts that I made, I had letters that I sent to my friends and family, Facebook posts … [A] lot of times I was recreating things by patching together … just all these things that I collected over time ….
Downs brings her background as a career journalist to even the most personal, describing her travels and her internal conflicts with direct, concise language, the straightforwardness of a reporter. At one point in the book, she writes: “I had a lot of anger. … How sad it is to know your mom for only twenty-four years. I was only just beginning to be a person. I needed her.”
The decision to spend the first year of her marriage traveling on her own while her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease advances sets up the narrative tension, the push and pull Downs feels between the desire to be home and the drive to run away. Downs admits early in the first chapter that leaving her husband at this point in their relationship is a risk, and that as much as she tells herself the trip is an homage to her mother’s wanderlust, it is actually for the sake of “avoiding the reality of my mom’s disease.” I ask Downs about this, imagining the pain of living through such a time, and reliving it in repetition while writing about it. She admits: “While I was doing the trip, I did feel like, oh, I’m doing this noble thing of honoring my mom and carrying out her wishes, and it really never occurred to me until I started writing that I was escaping her disease. … I never realized what I was doing while I was doing it, and so the writing process—it was a little bit harrowing.” She says the perfect thing to me, and it rolls off her tongue with ease: “Writing is like that—you start pulling at a thread and then all of a sudden the whole sweater unravels and you’re naked.”
One wonders if the choices made on this trip—sleeping on a stranger’s floor and being eaten alive by mosquitoes, taking hot crowded buses wherein your valuables are at risk of being tampered with or peed on, deciding to wait out an overnight airport layover in a sleeping bag in the terminal, getting into way too many questionable vehicles—were not only the necessary choices one makes on a backpacker’s budget, but also those of a masochistic need to deprive herself of safety and comfort as those things are being wrenched from her back home. Upon beginning the journey, Downs’s self-doubt is palpable, but it intertwines with bouts of griping and irritability that are almost childlike: “I punch the pillow and shove my face in the divot. Keki, the Peruvian woman who owns the bed and breakfast, creeps up the stairs and leaves a tray of food. I don’t want it. I don’t want anything but a flight back to California with Jason, and a mom who isn’t dying, and a family that feels whole again.” The need to be a daughter, to be cared for by a mother comes through in these regressive moments, the moments in which she forgets not only that she is an adult, but that she is a strong and capable one. The angry tantrums over that which she refuses to accept punctuate the reader’s vicarious voyeurism, just as they punctuate hers. The doubt Downs details constantly comes at odds with the independence she holds sacred in her life when she writes, “I believe myself to be a grown-up, even though I’m at home for the weekend to have my dad change the oil in my car,” and, “The city makes me feel brand-new to the world, but not in a good way. It’s like I’m an infant attempting things for the first time.” The transformation, then, is in her finding her inner maternal power. In Africa, the origin of human life, she finds maternal energy and imagery, a conjuring when she feels so “motherless.” She writes: “I feel the dirt of Africa beneath my back. The ground is so firm, so complete, sometimes I think it’s cradling me.” She visits the Cradle of Humankind, where the Mrs. Ples fossil, the “link between primate and Homo sapiens was found—in essence, the literal mother of humanity.” The journey is a way for her to raise herself in the absence of a mother.
There is also the issue of the fantasy of traveling versus the reality. The trip Downs recounts in her memoir is not a vacation; it is not cocktails on beach lounge chairs. She writes: “Traveling is not a detour from reality. It’s simply reality.” Sometimes Downs has trouble not letting her white American tourist show, like when she asks the yogi in the ashram in India if he can switch up the class, as though she’s just at the studio signing up for Power Heated Vinyasa. But Downs’s humorous voice and self-deprecating lens make these moments small alongside her absolute reverence for the wonders of the Earth and the wonders she finds in the simplest of lives she comes across. Though she has traumatic experiences (in some countries more than others) she still pays each destination its deserved respect. She tells me: “I did feel like that’s a huge responsibility because, you know, this is just my experience. … [A]nother visitor to that place would have a completely different relationship with it.” Her expertise as a travel writer is clear as she provides the background to guide the reader into a deeper appreciation of what would ordinarily be seen as the world’s most Instagrammable spots. She writes: “We spend our lives chasing the excitement of the new and the flutter of anticipation, but travel means reckoning with real life.”
The book poses an underlying question about the narrator: who is she doing this for? She vacillates between feeling she should do it for her mother, wanting to do it to prove something to herself, and not wanting to do it at all. Ultimately these pressures melt away as she finds her own resolve—the resolve to own her own life. In our interview, Downs tells me she ensured that every scene in the book had an emotional transformation. The questions she grapples with in her story are questions we are forced to wonder about ourselves—What would I do in that situation? Could I have made it through that? What kind of person am I? Where she doubts herself, she allows those doubts to be. Where she sought to defy death, she allows death to be. For as transformative as an experience may be, Downs shows us we never stop transforming.
I tell Downs that her book is compulsively readable, and we imagine the travel itch that people must be feeling right now. So I ask for her professional traveler advice. She tells me: “I started off this trip feeling a little bit snobby about what constituted travel. … [N]ow, I think, my definition of travel and just bravery in general has shifted. … I think it’s just brave whenever you leave your house.”
Pallavi Yetur is the Nonfiction Editor, former Lead Copyeditor, and a blog contributor for The Coachella Review. Her pop culture fanaticism was fostered during her undergraduate studies in Communication and Literature/Writing at UC San Diego, after which she earned her MA in Mental Health Counseling from NYU. Pallavi splits her time between practicing psychotherapy, winning silver medals in amateur pole sport competitions, and working toward her MFA in Nonfiction at UCR Palm Desert. She was born and raised in Southern California and currently lives in Jersey City, where she and her husband watch Bravo and argue over which local spot has the best pizza. @pallaviyetur on Instagram and Twitter.