Thursday, April 9, 2015

Review: Wide-Open World by John Marshall

Traveling around the world. It's one of those things that lots of people think about but very few of them actually ever do. Even fewer contemplate it with their entire family in tow. For one thing, it's expensive. It's time consuming. And the logistics of it all can be overwhelming. But what if there was a way to make it happen that not only made it possible for you and your family to have this once in a lifetime experience but also benefitted people and organizations that need a helping hand as you went? There's a newish movement called voluntourism that does just this. John Marshall's new memoir chronicles how he, his wife Traca, and their two teenagers, Logan and Jackson, spent six months volunteering around the world.

Marshall and his wife, Traca, had always wanted to travel but it just didn't seem feasible until they went away on a yoga retreat that inspired John to consider a "year of service" for the whole family. As hard as they tried to make this year happen, they just couldn't pull it off and shelved the idea. But then the opportunity came up again, this time for six months instead of a year, and the Marshalls scrambled to make it happen this time, quitting jobs, figuring out school, renting out their house, nailing down the first volunteer opportunity, and buying their tickets to Costa Rica. During their six months abroad, they volunteered at the Osa Wildlife Sanctuary in Costa Rica, they worked on organic farms in New Zealand, they taught English in Thailand, they worked with orphans in India, they did odd jobs in another school in India, and finally they decompressed with a week as tourists in Portugal. Each experience was different from the last and gave them the opportunity to experience these places and the people who live there not as tourists, except for the Portugal stint, but in the course of average, everyday life.

As amazing as these opportunities sound, the book chronicles more than that. Marshall examines the fraying connection between his wife and himself, looking at the state of their marriage. He watches his children learn about life in other countries and as they are tested far beyond their comfort levels. Despite his waxing lyrical about his family and saying that they were changed by their experiences doing all of this though, it is hard to see how exactly they were changed. The reader gets little sense of who his wife is other than a woman obsessed with yoga who prefers to let life take her whichever way and his children, his daughter in particular, come across as rather unpleasant and spoiled. The latter perception makes it all the stranger when Marshall continually mentions how much everyone, adult and child alike, throughout their journey loved these amazing and wonderful kids. The first volunteering experience at the wildlife sanctuary is the only one that is discussed in any sort of depth and the only one that admitted there were negatives and a sometimes steep learning curve. The details of their experiences really diminished as the book went on, taking away the more interesting aspect of the memoir. In fact, in the end, I was left with the question of how much they could really offer to the organizations since they didn't commit much time to any of them and needed time and explanations to understand their duties in each place. Certainly small organizations without adequate resources need volunteers; they got volunteers in the Marshall family but how much was help and how much hindrance from short term workers like them is probably debatable. Marshall does include information on how they pulled off their six months which might inspire others who want to do something similar but find the idea of it overwhelming and obviously the groups who hosted the family are getting good publicity but there was just something not quite satisfying and just a little disappointing about this book.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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