Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Peanut Gallery: Long Way Round

First off, I need to sigh in disbelief at the lack of Ewan McGregor on this blog. McGregor was the first actor I ever really, really fangirled over. And the fact that he's made so few appearances on this blog - well, clearly that needs to be accounted for.
Anyway, this is all related to a book I recently read called Long Way Round, written by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman. I stumbled across this book in an odd way a while ago and finally got around to reading it. After seeing an episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson where Ewan McGregor was a guest in which he talked about both his love for motorbikes and about a trip he took with Boorman around the world on their bikes, I wanted to find out more about it. I don't ride motorcycles (for future reference, any sort of vehicle that involves wheels does not come to good ends in my hands) but I'm fascinated by them and find them both elegant and badass. So when I found out that McGregor rode them, not only did my fangirling reach new levels, but I really wanted to watch the documentary made about the trip. I have a huge interest in travel stories anyway; they're such a thrill for me to read, so this was a natural draw. I still haven't seen the documentary but I did stumble across the book at Half Price over a year or two ago and just now got around to reading it. But it was well worth the wait.

The thing I like about travel stories/memories is that they can show you the world through someone else's eyes. Considering these were the eyes of two actors, this added a different sort of element to it. While the majority of the story was about Ewan and Charley's journeys and their epic bromance that sustained near-disasters and unexpected mishaps, there were also a few instances of reflection upon being a celebrity. At one point while traveling through Kazakhstan, they begin encountering welcoming communities that, while McGregor and Boorman find this touching, takes away from the vacation element of their trip. They want to be treated just like other travelers and to leave their celebrity status behind rather than feeling like they are on a media tour, but it is a struggle at times. "It felt like our adventure was being snatched away from us," McGregor describes (155). A few pages later, Ewan describes staying with a family in Kazakhstan and seeing footage of he and Charley on the road that day, paired with footage from McGregor in Moulin Rouge and Star Wars. The family looks at Charley and Ewan, point at the TV, Ewan and Charley smile and nod, and things go on as before. "We were going around the world, we were in their house and we were on television. It was as straightforward as that," Ewan says (157). Despite the hullabaloo from earlier in the day, this family casually accepts that they have celebrities in their home and don't make a big deal of it.
However, the celebrity issue continues throughout Kazakhstan, with media groups waiting for them along the way. While Boorman and McGregor would prefer to see the country through their own eyes rather than how the media and Kazakh authorities waiting for them would like to portray their country, it becomes a struggle for them treat their journey as other anonymous travelers would. As Boorman describes, "We hadn't ridden all this way to be mollycoddled and for Ewan to be treated like a celebrity" (176).

Despite the struggle, Boorman and McGregor have fewer interactions like this outside of Kazakhstan and are able to get a view of the countries they are traveling from people they meet while traveling through. Some of this is aided by Ewan's connections to Unicef (in which a bit of celebrity status has its perks) as Ewan and Charley stop to meet with Unicef centers in Kazakhstan and Mongolia. (I know what you're thinking - what, wait? Another charming British actor who has Unicef connections? Ah, yes. What the heck, boys.) These were my favorite bits in the book. While in Mongolia, shortly before meeting with the Unicef group, McGregor says:
"But with everything that was going on in the world at that time, if we hadn't been so isolated we might very easily have traveled through these countries without becoming aware that ultimately we are all the same: we all love our kids, we all need somewhere to sleep and some food. We all want the same things; the world isn't that big of a place. I lay in my ger thinking that if the likes of President Bush, who might even struggle to find Mongolia on a map, had spent some time finding out what was happening outside their own countries, they would recognize what all people of all nationalities and religions have in common, instead of focusing on the differences, and maybe the world wouldn't be in such a mess" (233).
Not only do we get this beautiful gem of though, there's also a wonderful description of Unicef from McGregor. He has described the situation in Mongolia and the aid they gave to get medical care for a girl who was severely ill. He continues:
"But it was still only a drop in the ocean. Even if this little girl received better care, there would another child and then another to take her place. Unicef, I had learned, was not about handouts but about working to prevent children ending up no the streets in the first place; helping them to stay with their families and communities; encouraging them to stay in school and ensuring they received proper healthcare. So I vowed then and there to devote as much time and effort as I could to Unicef once I returned home. The journey would be over in another six week but I was determined to make working with Unicef something I'd do for the rest of my life" (240).
I'm not crying; there's just a stick in my eye. This is exactly the sort of push I'd need to get involved with an organization like Unicef. After the criticism I found about Teach For America, I'm wary of any groups like these now. But to hear that an organization is working both on aid and prevention and recognizing that no collective like this is going to be perfect, I'm even more intrigued than I was before. Personally, it's time for me to do some serious researching and see if maybe Unicef is right organization for me to do some volunteering with. Regardless, if you're interested in hearing more about Unicef and their work, definitely check this book out.

Overall, I loved this book, and I highly recommend it. Also, on a final note, McGregor and Boorman refer to a medieval pancake at one point as a pudding (or dessert, for people like me who were confused at first when ordering a pudding in Scotland and it being decidedly un-Jello pudding like). Pancakes can be pudding. This makes me ridiculously happy.
All citations from: 
Long Way Round by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, with Robert Uhlig. Atria Books, 2004.

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