What It Means to Be a Human: Talking with Maggie Downs

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It all started with her mother’s subscription to National Geographic magazine when Maggie Downs was a child:

Every month, when a new issue arrived, my mom and I sat at the kitchen table and let the words and images transport us … from the pyramids in Egypt to the ruins of Machu Picchu, on safari, atop mountains, inside golden temples, through the pink canyons of Petra … there was a kind of magic when Mom and I hatched plans for the future together.

So begins Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime, Downs’s debut memoir, forthcoming from Counterpoint on May 12, about the year she spent backpacking solo around the world while her mother was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a story for all of us who crave travel, who are lost in grief, or who just really need our moms.

I spoke recently with Downs, a journalist and podcast host, at home in Palm Springs. We talked about the power of travel to change us, how the trip revealed a new view on her mother’s life, and what made her decide to become a better person.

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The Rumpus: Why did you decide to take on the whole world in the way you did?

Maggie Downs: When I decided to do this trip there were a lot of things that happened at the same time. One was the recession, and I was working in newspapers, which weren’t doing well. There were furloughs and layoffs. My mom was reaching the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. She was at a point where she no longer recognized me, she no longer knew who she was. I wrote an article about this young woman who lived in my town who won a contest to host a show on the Travel Channel, and they were going to send her on all these adventures around the world. I thought, I would love to do that, but I’m not the bubbly cute host of a travel show, so I guess the world isn’t accessible to me. I’m not rich. I’m not a trust fund child. I never took a gap year. I’m a person with a 401K who sits in a cubicle. Thinking of all this at the same time, I had this crisis of self. Like, there has to be a way I can write my own story instead of telling the stories of others. There’s a certain point where the place where you’re living starts to feel like a panic attack, and I knew I couldn’t continue that way.

Rumpus: What finally gave you permission to pick up and go?

Downs: A few months before I made the decision to start planning the trip, I reconnected with an old high school friend who was living in Taipei, and she said, you should come visit. I’d never left the United States on my own. I’d never been to Asia. It was just on a whim, and I didn’t know anything about travel or how it was going to work, and then when I got there, it was wonderful. My friend reintroduced me to the version of me that I used to be. The person I was in high school, when I had a lot of goals and dreams. Traveling while I was visiting her also gave me a lot of confidence. She really pushed me. There was a typhoon hitting Taiwan, and she was like, put on your raincoat because we’re not going to sit inside my apartment. We visited three other countries during my short trip, and we met some backpackers. That’s when I thought, Maybe this is something that I can do.

Rumpus: With the whole world to choose from, how did you plan the itinerary?

Downs: I had a very slim budget of ten thousand dollars, so I knew I couldn’t go to pricier locations. Europe was pretty much out of the question. Also, my mom was originally from Germany, so she had done a little bit of traveling around Europe herself. I wanted to visit other continents, so my itinerary was loosely structured: three months in South America, five months in Africa, and then Asia, which was open-ended. I moved slowly because slower travel is more budget-friendly, and pieced things together along the way.

Rumpus: Slower travel is more budget-friendly?

Downs: Yeah, if you rent a room for a week or a month, there’s usually a discount. I would find places to stay a little more long-term. I also traveled a lot by bus or by train. Often, I would take overnight buses because that would give me a place to sleep and transportation at the same time.

Rumpus: Would you say one of the book’s major ideas is that travel can lead us to find agency within ourselves?

Downs: It’s interesting because initially I did set out to see these places that my mother had wanted to see, to check them off a list. In a way that started to feel like I was taking something from the world instead of giving something back. The whole point of traveling seemed to shift while I was doing it: it became less about what the world could give to me and more about how the world could change me as a person. I think I set out with this idea to have a grand adventure. I had read a lot of Paul Theroux, and I wanted to set out into the world and exist only on granola bars. Along the way, it became more about what it means to be a human and what it means to make connections.

Rumpus: As your mom’s Alzheimer’s disease was progressing, you write: “Even though Cincinnati was just an hour away from my parents, I stopped visiting home unless it was necessary. I went out most nights and knew where to go for the after-parties after the after-parties. I dated people, but the wrong ones. And though I often felt bad, I relished feeling something.” Do you think that’s a common response to loss?

Downs: Yeah, I do. I had drinks with a friend who told me about when his brother died, and the profound impact that had on his life. He said, “This is your crossroad. You can become a better person, or you can become a worse person.” And he made me realize that I was pretty directionless. My crossroads had taken me to a place where I just didn’t want to acknowledge the reality of life anymore, and I wanted to be better than that.

Rumpus: It seems like your idea of your mom’s life and her choices evolved during the trip. It was one thing at the beginning and a different thing at the end. Is that true?

Downs: Writing about my mom was a gift because it gave me a way of feeling compassion for her in a way I didn’t before. I had seen her as a victim. A victim of her disease. She had a hard childhood and grew up just after World War II, and her family really struggled. In a lot of ways, I do think she made herself small, and she made choices that meant she didn’t make the most of herself. But writing about it gave me an opportunity to think about her place in time and see just how strong and capable she was and how much an agency she actually did have.

Rumpus: Did your perspective on Alzheimer’s disease change during the trip?

Downs: I still think it’s a really terrible disease. I struggle to find some kind of silver lining to Alzheimer’s; I really cannot. I think it’s horrific. I had a really hard time even reading about Alzheimer’s. Usually, I do a lot of research, and I want to read everything on a subject, but with Alzheimer’s that was the one thing I couldn’t do. It’s such a grim disease, but my hope is that this book offers people who are in that situation a way to feel a little bit uplifted and inspired to make their own memories while they still can.

Rumpus: There’s so much pressure on women, and specifically on mothers, to fit into the molds that we believe the world sets forth for us. How do you think that impacted your mom’s life?

Downs: I really wish I had sat down with my mom and interviewed her, or asked more about her stories and her internal life. It really never occurred to me. It never even occurred to me that she had an internal life because I was a child, and then I was a self-involved teenager, and then in my early twenties I was just really completely self-involved and just not a great person. Being around my family was the last thing I wanted to do. It was only after she was diagnosed, and we realized how far along the disease had already progressed, and she just didn’t have those memories anymore. It was only then that I thought, I really wish I had taken the time to get to know her more. I think that’s a problem a lot of kids have. My mom wasn’t a person to keep journals or write her own life at all. I did stumble onto a speech that she gave for a ladies’ club at church. It was basically her life story and that kind of helped fill in some gaps for me.

Sometimes there’s a certain magic that life hands you when you least expect it. When I went home for my mom’s funeral, my brother and my sister and I were sitting around talking about mom, and we were all lamenting the fact that none of us had her cheesecake recipe. She was a terrible cook, but she made a couple of great dishes and one of them was cheesecake, and we were like, Oh, I guess that recipe died with her. Then we started going through some of her old things, including the last purse that she had been carrying, which she hadn’t carried in years but which had her wallet inside. We were looking through her wallet and the cheesecake recipe fell out. So, I don’t know if there was a certain awareness that she had, like, Oh wait, this is my one good recipe, and they will find it, or some sort of magic that can’t be explained, but now we call it the Magic Cheesecake.

Rumpus: One of the narrative engines in the book is the relationship with your new husband during the year you’re traveling. Can you talk about the work it does in the story?

Downs: That’s actually something that I added later because I thought nobody would care. Then my editor read through the book, and he was like, You know you’re married at this time. We are still married, by the way. Because even though Jason wasn’t there with me, he was still a presence in my life. We would Skype almost every day when it was possible. He was keeping everything going at home, and he’s definitely a powerful force in the whole trip. I just didn’t recognize it until my editor helped me pull that through.

Rumpus: How did you add that layer?

Downs: When I was writing the book, I stayed in a cabin near Port Townsend, Washington, and the person who owns the cabin was a screenwriter, and so because of that, this one entire wall in the cabin was a cork board, and he had a gigantic stack of index cards. When I was finishing up and making a lot of edits and just kind of structurally changing things, I wrote down every scene of the entire book on an index card, and I put it up on the cork board. I was brutal about paring things down. The cork board helped me realize where some holes were, so that’s where I would add things. Part of the process of adding my husband into the story was figuring out where the narrative needed it.

Rumpus: In the book, there’s this great scene in Rwanda. You’re teaching a group of women to speak English and failing miserably. Finally, you bring them candy and play games with them, and suddenly there is laughter. What changed for you, and for the book, in that scene?

Downs: Rwanda was a powerful place for me. I stayed there for almost a month. I decided to volunteer while I was there, and I found a position at a school for continuing education for women. The students were all about my age, and these were women who had survived the Rwandan genocide, and some had became prostitutes after losing their families in order to make ends meet, and now they were going back to school to learn things like jewelry-making and sewing. I was there to teach them English because the national language had switched from French to English. I thought it would be easy. I know a lot of teachers, and I speak English, and I thought, well, how hard can it be? It turns out teaching is very hard. It made me realize that I was very naive in thinking that I could walk in and command a classroom. It made me realize how hard teachers work on a lesson plan and how you have to adjust course when things aren’t working, when it’s just not resonating with your students.

I don’t want to say my students were combative, but they were definitely skeptical of me. I was the rube, the white girl who came into the classroom, and I was trying to teach them something and had no idea what I was doing. Eventually, I think they realized I had good intentions. I sent out a lot of emails to friends who are teachers or who teach English as a second language and said, Please help me. I’m really struggling in this classroom. They gave me some ideas to add to my toolkit. It was a humbling experience, but it also brought me very close to the students, and we ended up becoming friends. Everything about Rwanda was very powerful for me, and it removed a lot of hubris that I had. At that point I had been traveling for about five months, and I think I was becoming a better traveler in general. I was learning how to accept generosity from strangers. Rwanda taught me how to be humble.

Rumpus: By the end of the trip, was your mission different than it was when you started out?

Downs: Yes, because initially I really thought that the only way I could honor my mom is by doing this, by taking this trip. And then it became a trip about grieving my mom, and then it became a trip about learning how to live myself. The whole mission changed for me. It made me embrace my place in the world. I realized I wasn’t really setting out just to witness the history and culture and activities of other places, that it was more about introspection.

Rumpus: What do you think about the idea of travel as a path to learning to live?

Downs: Travel is the very best learning tool we have. Not everyone can travel around the world and not everyone can go to far-flung places. I think there’s just something to getting out of your house and connecting with someone you don’t know. I’m a better person when I travel. It’s very brave just to leave your room in a hostel or a hotel in a strange city, and to have faith that you will make it back again. It’s brave to go to a café by yourself. It’s brave to try to communicate with someone in another language. All those things are brave.

Rumpus: Did taking the opportunity to reflect your own mother’s life change your view on being a mom yourself?

Downs: Absolutely. I really struggled with becoming a mom. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to have a child after seeing my mom go through this disease. I didn’t want to pass that on potentially to a child, and I also don’t want my child to witness my decline. But as I was traveling, as a woman in the world, people always ask if you have children, or if you’re going to have children. They seemed very surprised when I said I didn’t have any. Or sometimes it was very awkward. In Uganda a lot of men asked if I’ve produced. I was like, Oh, like a film? No. So I hadn’t produced at that point in time. But having that opportunity for introspection, I think, as you travel, you learn a lot about yourself. And I did find myself wondering if I was capable of being a mother. Ultimately, I did decide to have a child, and I’m very happy with my decision. Writing of the book helped me to see even more the type of mother I’d like to be and the gifts I’d like to give to my son.

Rumpus: The book’s title, Braver Than You Think, is that something your mom said to you?

Downs: Yes, I remember my mom saying that to me when I was a little girl. I’m naturally kind of a fearful person, so that became a mantra for me as I was traveling. It made me think that I was capable.

Rumpus: What’s the one craft issue you would love to be asked about?

Downs: I’m very big on writing to the senses. I love to write about scent. I’ve become very cognizant of it, especially in travel writing, because I think scent is so tied to location and can immediately tell you so much about a place. It’s very apparent to me, and so it feels like a big gaping hole when I read a travel piece, and there’s no mention of how place smelled. It’s just completely skipping over one whole sense.

Rumpus: What do you hope readers take with them from reading Braver Than You Think?

Downs: I want people to know that the world is good, and people are kind. Because I think we live at a point in time where the message we’re receiving is very much that we should be scared of other people, and we should stay in our own place. I think the opposite is true. I think the world is a generous and loving and beautiful place, and people out there are waiting to embrace you and to be embraced by you.

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Photograph of Maggie Downs by Lance Gerber.


Amy Reardon’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Adroit Journal, Glamour, and The Coachella Review. Follow her @ReardonAmy. More from this author →