memoir / nonfiction / review

We Came, We Saw, We Left: A Family Gap Year by Charles Wheelan


I loved the idea of We Came, We Saw, We Left: A Family Gap Year by Charles Wheelan but I came out of it thinking this man must be incredibly exhausting and dare I say boring to be around. I’ve read a lot of travel and family memoirs and this was an odd one. There was a real lack of actual curiosity about the locations they went to and I still don’t have a sense of why they wanted to go on this trip. Why not split it up over a few summers? Why take 9 months at once? It seemed grueling.

I couldn’t figure out the high school-aged daughter’s school situation. She didn’t want to join them so she could play volleyball and attend her junior year. A couple of chapters later in the book, she is refusing to turn in her homeschooling/virtual school assignments. Why is she in a virtual school if she is living in the family home with her aunt and uncle in her hometown? Is it an issue with the curriculum since she would be joining them later? Why wouldn’t he mention that? Where is she playing volleyball if not school? Why can’t her aunt and uncle make sure she is doing her work while the author is taking care of their child in another country? Her parents do not seem concerned that she isn’t doing her school work. He doesn’t seem surprised and gives a story that paints her as an untrustworthy liar to illustrate that. So why leave her behind with no one to supervise her? What is she doing all day?

This seems nitpicky but it really illustrates the holes and lack of info in the book. I know how much Pringles costs in various countries but some threads were never really connected. There was a huge amount of logistics talk, finding hotels, long bus rides, talks about airports, visas and taxis but not a lot of descriptions of what they actually did. They saw temples in Myanmar. What temples? What did they look like? Who built them? Who knows? Why does he call “Calcutta”, Calcutta and not Kolkata? The longest descriptive parts of the books were about his fixation on tracking down a kiwi in NZ to fulfill a “lifelong dream”. It turns out he never even bothered to look at a picture of a kiwi before the trek because he sees a weka and excitedly takes pictures and has to be told it’s the wrong bird. What?

Cute enough and I think it was supposed to funny but why weren’t there more stories? I get not everyone is great at engaging, descriptive writing but maybe don’t write a travel memoir then? The logistics parts were often lacking any real motivations or connecting details despite being lengthy. I still am not sure why the family didn’t travel as a whole to get the multi entry visa in India or barring that, why didn’t half stay in Kolkata where they thought the daughter was going to need urgent medical care? The visa story was many pages long, why do I still have questions? Same with the trip to Bhutan. They had to spend $250 a day per person (which seems like a lot) there yet he wanted to get a steep discount on their excursion so much that he had the daughter make a fake ID so he could commit fraud and get the discount. Couldn’t the excursion fee count against the $250? I don’t know because he didn’t tell us.

Who puts off getting flesh eating bacteria taken care of once diagnosed and a doctor located (after a long ordeal) to go on another excursion for a week?

Everything seemed like an afterthought to talking about transportation and food costs. For people who wanted to travel the world they didn’t seem to interact with people much or do much besides riding the bus and occasionally hiking. Maybe they did but why wasn’t that in the book?

Some of the encounters with locals were cringe inducing like the comparison of the owner of the houseboat they were renting to Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. He was very othering in other parts as well.

The parents don’t seem terribly interested in parenting any of the children which seemed lead to some of the issues they had over and over again.

I never got a sense of the wife at all. Considering how obnoxious he painted his chatterbox son and presented his middle child as a lazy liar, that’s probably a good thing for her.

I struggled to finish and was left wondering why he decided to take this trip, much less share the story with the general public.

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