These journeys of surrender reap unexpected rewards

I know there are two camps: those who voraciously devoured every page of Elizabeth Gilbert’s travelogue memoir “Eat Pray Love,” weeping and yearning and rejoicing along with its heroine’s every globe-trotting step — and those who have dismissed her entire odyssey as an exercise in supreme self-indulgence, with the privileged Gilbert’s escape from the realities of her life a luxury few could afford.

The release of the movie “Eat Pray Love,” starring Julia Roberts, has again drawn such divisions, with several mediocre to poor reviews counterbalanced by the praise of a faithful following only too happy to get caught up in Gilbert’s excursions through Italy, India and Indonesia on the big screen. I admit I am a fan — of the book, of the movie, of the whole audacious concept of casting off the familiar to find what truly brings meaning and contentment to a life unconsciously shaped.

And, yes, some might argue that such inner pilgrimages can be taken much closer to home, but I have come to believe that travel is among the great catalysts for transformation and renewal. It’s not that I have done much of it or embarked on any grand adventures with the sole purpose of “finding myself” or being immersed in a revelatory experience that will somehow bring me to a long-sought personal or spiritual zenith.

But I have been surprised in recent years by how the suspension of expectation and agenda can allow a place to truly seep into the spaces of one’s life, destinations as far-flung as Peru and as local as the Poconos offering themselves to me with unexpected gifts. It was with a trip to Hawaii three years ago that I first abandoned myself to this type of travel — the giddy pitch forward into the unknown, without the desire to thoroughly research where I was going or carve out every last detail of an itinerary. I decided that I would let my destination reveal itself to me rather than try to mold it to any preconceived ideas.

My mom and I had been invited to the Big Island by family friends who vacationed regularly in Hawaii. And while I was ecstatic about the trip, it also came at a time when I sorely needed it, as my boyfriend Zane and I had just hit an unexpected stumbling block in the early months of our relationship. Deeply disappointed and unsure of the future that could be fashioned from what now seemed like so much frailty, I was surprised by how soothing it was to my heart to be surrounded by so much beauty.

With the teeming verdancy of its landscape, wrapped in ribbons of blue ocean, the Big Island presented me with endless opportunities to marvel. Whether it was waking up to the coconut trees outside my window every morning, taking in the profusion of plants that bloomed from stark volcanic landscapes in our meanderings alongside waterfalls and ancient temples, or savoring the textures and tastes of so many fresh and unusual fruits, I found myself in a constant state of grateful awareness. I allowed every moment to so fully enfold me that the trip became a healing balm for what had been bruised, the crowding of my heart with doubt and disillusionment giving way to something softer and sweeter and a greater expansiveness that somehow assured me that everything would be fine, no matter the outcome.

And it was, eventually, though it would take Zane and me a while to get to the point of even building the foundation for where we are today.

A year later, I signed up for a trip to Peru, a group excursion among strangers, save the organizer who I’d met once several years before. It was a bit of an impulsive decision — I was the only one in the group who hadn’t dreamed of one day roaming the sacred Incan citadel of Machu Picchu — but the further into the journey I got, the more I realized my decision hadn’t been as precipitate as I’d thought. Time and again, Peru presented me with opportunities to cultivate a deep and greater trust.

I hadn’t embarked on this two-week tour with any specific intention — when asked, I would blithely inform others that I was going “to surrender to the mystery” — but that single word, trust, would slowly imbed itself into my consciousness. It first found me as we were traveling toward the village of Pisac, where we would make the first of several challenging hikes to the Inca ruins atop a hill at the entrance to the SacredValley.

But it was not until we were to climb Machu Picchu mountain — a good 2,000-plus feet in elevation from the already-staggering 7,875 feet above sea level where the city of Machu Picchu stood — that I realized how much I’d have to rely on it. Of course, we each had the option to decline and pursue some other activity while the more adventurous in the group pushed on. But I, never one for heights, bold forays into nature or even wild rides at the amusement park, felt compelled to continue, somehow certain that scaling that peak would also be an exercise in banishing my fears.

And so I determinedly began my way up the winding trail of stone, dirt and crumbling stairs, at times finding myself alone on narrow ledges that teetered above sheer drops to the river down below. I did have the occasional tinge of apprehension, but the assault of fear and anxiety I’d anticipated never came. Instead, there was mostly wonder, at the majestic beauty all around me, at the fact that I was actually enjoying the arduous climb, at the sense of how safe and supported I felt ….

It is hard to explain the emotion that welled up within me when I reached the top. All I knew was that perched so close to the sky, with the clouds seemingly fingertips away, I felt like a different woman than the one I’d been 2,300 feet below where I now stood, as if I had somehow been granted a gift or the answer to a prayer that I didn’t even know I carried. The absolute trust I’d felt in my own security would also carry me back down the mountain, awakening me to a singing boldness that I may never have claimed for my life — and a courage that has enabled me to confront so much more than the physically daunting before me.

Maybe I would have found a way to tap into that courage at home in Philadelphia, but sometimes it takes getting away from the everyday to connect with those parts of us we have yet to meet or have long forgotten to tend — and to revel in that discovery, as we would the greeting of an old and dear friend.

Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times