WE CAME, WE SAW, WE LEFT
A Family Gap Year
By Charles Wheelan
I go through phases: Sometimes I feel as if I’m doing OK as a parent, other times I feel like a henchwoman in one long, slow sociocultural crime. When my 15-year-old son screams for help from his counterterrorism team while shooting his way around the world in Rainbow Six Siege, I consider turning myself in to the authorities.
In the fall of 2016, faced with related, albeit more charitable feelings about raising his teenagers, Charles Wheelan chose another tack, and the result is his new travel memoir, “We Came, We Saw, We Left.”
“Team Wheelan” comprises Wheelan’s wife, Leah, and their three teenage children: Katrina (18), Sophie (16) and CJ (13). Inspired by a backpacking trip he took with Leah in the late ’80s, Wheelan rekindles a longtime wish to reprise this journey with kids in tow. He notes that “experiences, rather than things, are what make us happy in the long run,” because they become an “ingrained part of our identity.” Wheelan argues for the feasibility of such an adventure, which clearly requires a measure of entitlement, though not necessarily wealth. (What it really requires is a woman like Leah, a trained computer scientist turned educator who loves maps, spreadsheets and planning.)
Together, they plan a nine-month trip around the world, a time span that tellingly mimics the length of a human pregnancy. The Wheelans start in Colombia, eating their way through street food in Cartagena, then proceed to the Peruvian Amazon for a hilarious misadventure at an “adventure lodge.” From there, everywhere: New Zealand, India, Vietnam, Zanzibar. How do they get around? Buses, buses and more buses (and some planes). They all get carsick; most of them throw up. The stars of this show are undoubtedly the kids: precocious Katrina, on her way to Williams College, contrarian Sophie, who hands her parents a manifesto in the Quito airport declaring a speech and hunger strike, and quirky CJ, a “raging extrovert” who talks so much at school he is apparently placed facing a wall and talks to it.
Aside from the requisite cultural misunderstandings, skin rashes and homicidal drivers, Wheelan wisely focuses his book on the way the family navigates meltdowns, hurt feelings and all the high-stakes transactions of life on the go. I loved this family. Wheelan is a lucid and likable storyteller, and his antic family dialogues are spot-on, but he is not — and does not pretend to be — a poet of place. Readers will not find the closely observed details of landscape and culture of a Freya Stark or V. S. Naipaul, nor the self-implication at the core of much modern travel writing.
Wheelan has a habit of reaching for comparisons to movies. He compares the Bolivian salt flats to the set of a “Star Wars” film. A mossy forest path in New Zealand reminds him of “Avatar.” He tends to liken that which is unknown or new to something within his own frame of reference. In Patagonia, “the jagged snowy peaks rising above the aquamarine lake looked as if someone had dropped the mountains of Colorado into one of the lakes of New Hampshire and then added a glacier.”
Although Wheelan’s journey spans myriad subjects and places, he narrows his aim to persuading us to take a “family gap year.” But we’d love to! We’d love to — but we can’t right now. Many of us can’t under normal circumstances. Seems to me, a travel narrative necessarily functions as a stand-in for the trip you really aren’t going to take.
“We Came, We Saw, We Left” tells an upbeat story. What I liked best about the book was watching two people parent their teenagers well. The Wheelans leaven respectful negotiating with some appropriate sarcasm. They let their kids flounder, lick self-inflicted wounds, get a little bit lost and — every once in a while — suckle on the hotel internet. And in the end, the kids prove themselves to be more resilient and sensitive than Wheelan knew them to be. To whatever measure each of us was able to cross borders and travel before, surely we miss doing so. No arguing here — we want to go and see.