In 2016, Charles Wheelan, best-selling author of “Naked Economics,” decided to go on a nine-month, global grand tour with his wife, Leah, and their three children. “We Came, We Saw, We Left: A Family Gap Year” (out Jan. 26) is the result, a manic travelogue-cum-family newsletter that gamely tries to squeeze some deeper meaning from what seems like little more than a really nice extended vacation.
Wheelan and his wife are determined to pass on their love of travel to their kids: college-bound Katrina, 18; defiant Sophie, 16; and chronic oversharer CJ, 13, who will probably come to rue his father’s detailed account of his pubescence. The parents see the trip as an opportunity to give the kids a taste of life outside the “bubble” of their hometown of Hanover, New Hampshire.
To Wheelan, travel is a romantic, enlightening pastime. Reflecting on his own travels as a young man in 1989, he recalls witnessing Tibetans protesting the Chinese occupation of their country and the liberalization of Budapest after the fall of Communism, experiences that gave him “a deeper, more visceral understanding of what life had been like behind the Iron Curtain, and also a greater respect for the resiliency of the people now tossing those regimes aside.”
Yet, in 2016, Wheelan seems curiously incurious about many of the things he encounters.
When the family arrives in Aguas Calientes, Peru on their way to Macchu Picchu, they find the town shut down by a general strike. Wheelan briefly notes that the strike “started with the workers on the railroad that operates between Cusco and Aguas Calientes,” but fails to explain that strikers were demanding that PeruRail stop prioritizing tourist travel over the needs of locals. Instead, he provides a lengthy account of how the shutdown made it difficult for the family to get into their hotel. Ultimately, he concludes that the strike was a “gift” because when they finally reached the ruins, they “had a World Heritage Site almost to [themselves].”
When they return to town, the family sees police firing tear gas at peaceful demonstrators. CJ has a panic attack, but Dad is unmoved. “[CJ] did not realize in the moment — with people screaming and crying and running — that tear gas does not cause long-term harm.” Ironically, Wheelan’s daughter Katrina offered a much more thoughtful account of the strike in a column for her hometown newspaper, Valley News.
In West Bengal, India, Wheelan complains about the “flimsy” and “dilapidated” Ambassador cab he’s forced to use, presuming that they remain in service due to some “regulatory concession” granted by the state’s elected communist government. In fact, the Ambassadors are a beloved institution in Kolkata; just a few years ago, Top Gear named it the world’s best taxi, calling it “virtually indestructible.” Perhaps the taxi Wheelan caught really was in bad shape; still, it seems a bit of a leap to ascribe one bad experience to commie chicanery. It’s certainly a missed opportunity to explore the history of an iconic part of the local culture.
In Vietnam, Wheelan is perplexed by the local perspective on the Vietnam War. “I found it strange, and eventually annoying,” he writes, “that both our guide and the video we were forced to watch at the visitors’ center described only ‘Vietnamese patriots’ and ‘American invaders’ … the conflict was first and foremost a civil war between North and South Vietnam.” That reductionist take is too fraught to unpack in this review, but what’s worth noting is that Wheelan never pauses to consider why the Vietnamese might be compelled to frame the war in this way or to question whether his own perspective on the situation might need to be reevaluated.
In Tbilisi, Georgia, Katrina accuses her parents of being “unintellectual and uninteresting” for not wanting to visit an Orthodox church. Wheelan, who spent the morning at a museum dedicated to the Soviet occupation, is nonplussed. “That is a curious charge to make against two people who have taken their family around the world,” he writes.
The exchange gets right to the tension underlying “We Came, We Saw, We Left.” At the end of the journey, Wheelan says “the five of us were different people for having made the trip,” even though it’s not clear how, exactly. It seems like a lot to expect from a vacation, no matter how grand. To admit otherwise, though, would risk making the trip seem less like an educational, character-building endeavor and more like an indulgence.
Giorgio Morandi once said that “One can travel the world and see nothing. To achieve understanding, it is necessary not to see many things, but to look hard at what you do see.” The act of travel, while wonderful, is not inherently interesting. Anyone who’s sat through someone else’s vacation slideshow can attest to that. And while Wheelan’s book makes a strong case for extended travel as a means of establishing a tighter bond as a family, it also reveals the limits of the “grand tour” as a means of achieving a deeper understanding of the world and its people.