University of Wisconsin Press
192 Pages; Print, $24.95
The subtitle of The Blind Masseuse is “A Traveler’s Memoirs from Costa Rica to Cambodia,” but it might be more aptly approached as an academic’s memoirs encompassed by travel. In a series of essays that span nearly two decades, Alden Jones collects her experiences as a traveler, tourist, teacher, and scholar and attempts to puncture the insulated, neatly tied-up categories that we (the Western, the American, the white, etc.) carry with us when we cross outside our borders. From the illogical-to-an-American culinary traditions of Costa Rica to the legacies of revolution and ethnic prejudices in Nicaragua and from the moral implications of activist teaching on a cruise ship to the Western literary and cultural inheritances of fetishization and exoticism, Jones grounds herself and her memoir-essays in the core question: “Is there a right way and a wrong way to travel?”
Although not strictly chronologically ordered, The Blind Masseuse follows a general trajectory of Jones as a college student, a fresh-off-the-farm graduate, a college professor, and a freelance instructor. The reader begins the journey with Jones on her first time living—rather than visiting—abroad. “Lard Is Good For You,” the first essay in the book and the oldest piece—written over fifteen years ago—is set in Costa Rica during Jones’s post-grad volunteer English as a Second Language work with World Teach. Rather than offer pastoral descriptions of Costa Rican nature or placating observational anecdotes about the different-but-ultimately-same-humanity of the Costa Rican people, Jones focuses on the immediate interconnections of her life in the rural village of La Victoria. The narrative is domestic at its center—Jones’s life with her older homestay parents Damaris and Rafael—and it brings into sharp relief not a generalized humanist sameness but a comfortable ordinariness that qualifies “home.” For all the places that Jones and her essays fly to, none feel so familiar as Costa Rica—not even the New York she and the reader return to in the next chapter.
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The ability of Jones and her writing to complicate the familiar and the unfamiliar—to at once both crave the newness of different cultural experiences and succumb to the urge to force that difference into a safe and comforting frame of the known—drives the narrative towards both clarity and conflict. Jones distinguishes two personae in her consciousness—the traveler and the tourist—who push and pull her throughout and within the text. These tensions are made explicit in Costa Rica over, among other things, the issue of cooking with lard, but although they drop into the margins as the essays progress, the forces that the traveler and the tourist represent continue to shadow Jones: the quest for a Coke while visiting her friend in Bolivia, relinquishing herself to a (dread of dreads) tour for tourists in Southeast Asia, relishing the relative luxury and privacy of her cruise ship cabin—a dozen little fights between the American and the globetrotter, the authentic and the commercial, the real and the fake. There is even the struggle between home and “home” as Jones guiltily sneaks away from her village in the eponymous essay to get a massage at the Marriott in San Jose, something the people in her Costa Rican village would not have been able to afford. Implicit in these stories and in Jones’s choice to highlight them are the quotes around each of these labels that draws into question how authentic what Jones (and many travelers) deem to be real actually is, and conversely, how fake what the tourist partakes in is. As Jones points out about one of the multi-country shore leaves she and her students have during a six-month cruise ship course: “[A] few days and good intentions were all we had.”
The essays in The Blind Masseuse are bound up in people and relationships...