You may have never been accused of giving the evil eye to a baby in Mexico or learned the importance of packing toilet paper and Tupperware in a suitcase for your trip to Cuba, but Ruth Behar has. An award-winning cultural anthropologist, Ruth has traveled the world to study other people and in this memoir, takes the time to study herself. “Traveling Heavy” is a memoir that unfolds like a trip to another country, where we are dropped in the unique world of Ruth Behar, a Yiddish-Sephardic-Cuban immigrant who has spent her life traveling in order to find her own sense of home and belonging.
Behar’s life is marked by her travels, so it’s appropriate that she starts her memoir the way all journeys begin: by packing. The beginning essay is of Behar taking stock of her life as she prepares to fly out on her next trip. She makes sure she has two pieces of jewelry with her: a Turkish evil-eye bracelet to celebrate her Jewish roots, and a necklace from a Santeria ceremony in Cuba, which represents her homeland. When Behar prepares to make her way to the airport, she double-checks she has her house keys, a reminder of a Sephardic-Jewish legend of when the Jews were driven out of Spain and they kept the keys to their home in hopes of returning someday.
The rest of the book is made of stories and essays in various points of Behar’s life. We explore her life as an immigrant child longing for acceptance, a young woman longing to find her homeland and sense of cultural identity in Poland, Spain and Cuba, and we find her as the woman she is now: her heart split between her home in Michigan and her home in Cuba. Behar’s life is bound by travel. She travels to Bejar, Spain, for a reunion of people with the last name Behar in the hopes of finding a place to claim as a homeland. She travels to Cuba multiple times, always returning to the homeland she left so young, trying to reclaim a piece of it for herself.
While this novel does take a personal look at Behar, she doesn’t skimp on anthropological information, and there’s no need to fear dry facts—the information is woven seamlessly into the narrative. When Behar is packing for a trip to Cuba, she confesses, “I bring toilet paper. Charmin Ultra Soft. Toilet paper is in short supply in Cuba. What can be found is rough on the skin. In most government buildings, you’re lucky if you find sheets of the Granma, the national newspaper, wedged into the empty dispenser.” In a few short sentences, Behar educates the reader on Cuban hygienic practices and the name of the national newspaper.
In the final essay, Behar mentions the Cuban goodbye: “You say goodbye, keep chatting, and say goodbye again, chat a little bit more, then offer yet another goodbye.” The ending of the essay does just that. It brings up a scene or story that could each be the ending of the book but is followed by another scene that could also be the end.
Behar says that it’s a sin for anthropologists to write about their own lives, but Ruth takes this risk to expose us to cultures that are close to her heart and to let us see a journey of trying to find a place of belonging. She states that the reason she travels is “to seek out a change of scenery and feel a sense of enchantment, to learn about the lives of strangers, and to give myself a chance to be someone I can’t be at home”—a chance Behar offers the reader in this book. (Sarah Cubalchini)
“Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in Between Journeys”
By Ruth Behar
Duke University Press, 240 pages, $23.95