THE BITTERSWEET PARADISE – Iris Hannema

WHAT A NAG! Really, I thought this book would be a fun read about a Dutch woman traveling the Pacific Islands, regaling her adventures. Of course, the title should have tipped me off, but the balance between bitter and sweet was completely lost in this narrative.

Iris Hannema is a Dutch traveller and travel-journalist. After a rather hard journey through Eas-Afrika, Iris decided to try and find “Paradise”. Looking at a map, she decided to see if perhaps it was located in the midst of the blue where the islands are so small they don’t show up on most maps (haven’t we all gazed at that patch of blue, imagining the aquamarine colour of the sea and the intense whiteness of the beaches at some point?). She decides to go for it and write a book about it.

Now, I would be the first person to admit that travelling is not always easy or even fun. There are days when you are exhausted from just being on route, the foreignness of the culture, the way you stand out in a crowd and are consequently gaped at (if nothing more obtrusive). The weather can be oppressively warm or numbingly cold or just annoyingly wet. Transportation doesn’t show up, attraction do not live up to what you want to see and other tourists can make you feel ashamed for being one as well.

However, the truthful story in my opinion, is that we travel for a reason. That reason, weather it is eating foreign food, pushing our limits, seeing new cultures or simply satisfying our curiosity about what it is like someplace else, must a least have a positive component. Otherwise, why would you keep travelling?

This question is one that Iris poses herself, but doesn’t answer. She doesn’t even really bother to try and come up with an explanation.

Furthermore, she appears not to see anything positive. The book is filled with story after story about why travelling is not easy or enjoyable. And although I can relate to some complaints (I don’t like guesthouses where dog-hairs are covering my bed either), others I find snobbish or naïve (yes, people living on tropical islands are not as active as you are during the day, deal with it, but don’t pretend to be superior because of it). Other times, I just find I hard to believe that truly nothing fun or hopeful or in any way positive can be found.

All in all, I found myself rolling my eyes or sighing at yet another negative story that really wasn’t even all that bad too many times to call this book enjoyable. The only exception: the final chapter of the book. Here, due to personal circumstances, she manages to finally balance the sweet and the bitter. But to read a whole book just for those few pages… not worth it in my opinion.

My favourite quote then? It turns out this is a phrase by Lois Frankel that is quoted in the book: “All it takes is acting more like the woman you are capable of becoming than like the girl you were taught to be”. Thank you Lois Frankel!

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