06/22/2011 03:15 pm ET | Updated Aug 22, 2011

Travel: That Obscure Object of Desire

For anyone who has ever fantasized about escaping the constraints of everyday life through travel, journalist Elisabeth Eaves' absorbing new memoir, Wanderlust: A Love Affair With Five Continents, should be mandatory summer reading. Throughout her 20s, while most of her peers were busy establishing careers and starting families, Eaves tried on identities through travel: diplomatic intern in Karachi, backpacker in Australia, deckhand in New Zealand. At 20, she was living in Cairo and taking spontaneous jaunts to Yemen; a few years later, we find her hiking leech-infested trails in Papua New Guinea. The "wanderlust" of the title refers not just to the desire for travel but also to the possibility of finding that mythical combination of relationship and destination that will always maintain the intensity of first contact.

In college, it is a boyfriend who first inspires Eaves to go away, his airmail missives offering tantalizing descriptions of hitchhiking through Fiji and New Zealand. Stunned with the realization that you could simply "go off into the world and let it carry you along," she begins studying Arabic, though in preparation for what, she's not yet sure. A summer job as an au pair on the Costa Blanca in Spain sets the pattern: a guy (the son of a local restaurateur), an element of danger (high speed motorcycle rides), then the longed-for moment when both the place and the man will become a memory. "I was already anticipating my own nostalgia, looking forward to the moment when I would look back," she writes.

Throughout her life, Eaves grapples with the social expectation to stay put and the ambition to disappear again. Men are part of the pleasure of imagining an alternative existence elsewhere, the distant objects in which she invests her infatuation for the unknown. But men, like exotic locales, have a way of losing their sheen once they become part of a routine. The boredom of a relationship gone companionate is often the impetus for her to leave again, trailing mortgages, fiancés, and jobs in her wake.

Eaves' memoir is not only a reflection on love and travel. Her cultural observations are astute, particularly in the book's early chapters. In Cairo, for example, she learns to dissociate from harassment while still embracing the beauty of the culture, its "hospitality and humor, wizened skippers plying the Nile, the calm of the desert on the edge of town." But Wanderlust is also an investigation of what it means to travel as a woman. Determined to seek unencumbered movement in the privileged way Western men have traveled since the colonial period, Eaves constantly dreams of escape, and of losing herself on unfamiliar landscapes, with unknowable, perfect lovers. Yet this desire, as the author herself acknowledges, is an illusion. "I craved total freedom," she writes, "and I envied boys because I thought they could have it. But there was a way in which, as a girl, I could act free but never quite get there in my head." Reflecting on the example of colonial-era women who traveled with a native entourage, she decides that her "modern twist on safety-in-numbers was to bring a boyfriend." With the threat of harassment or sexual violence always looming in the shadows, this might also be a subconscious reason that Eaves often seeks a male travel companion.

Love and travel are paradoxically similar, and the desire behind both is to remain in a moment that is, by definition, ephemeral. Wanderlust is a deeply satisfying narrative, though not one that Eaves resolves with any neat acceptance of the compromises of domestic stability. Such an ending would have been false to the ambivalence she expresses, not to mention the choices she has made against the grain of gender expectations. There are other female models for this: writers like the Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt, born in 1877, who crossed the deserts of North Africa dressed as a Muslim man, was targeted by an assassin who almost severed her arm, and ultimately died in a flash flood in the Algerian desert. "A nomad I will remain for life, in love with distant and uncharted places," Eberhardt once wrote. We can only hope that the 21st century is more forgiving.