The travelogue, All The Gear No Idea, tells the tale of a thirty-something British woman who leaves a career in finance and sets out to crisscross India on an Enfield motorcycle.
While I was impressed with the narrator’s (authordecision and charmed by her sarcasm, I couldn’t help but also feel extremely annoyed with her in the first few chapters at her insistence on the difference of things. To give you any indication of her state heading over, some of the things that motivate her to go to India in the first place are that it is “in-your-face,” “intense,” and there’s lots of “cultural shock” to be had. While this may all be true, the overt exoticising without overthinking struck me as exploitative. My annoyance continued through those opening chapters with her confusion at not being able to procure tea without milk, at how cheap everything is, at people’s wages, at the state of decay of the roads, even ‘main ones.’ These observations are given without much reflection. And even with this litany of complaints about an impoverished state, we see her dump a half-eaten cake in a pond where fish quickly gobble it up, just around the corner from groups of pilgrims who would have done the same. She is surprised, at the outset, of how little hostility she encounters as a Brit, yet fails to remark upon the lasting visible effects of that imperialism that are now making for wonderful ‘adventure-fodder.’
While it may seem I’m being overly critical, it’s mostly because I saw a missed opportunity to delve into the complex state of India, not only from an outsider’s perspective, but from a British perspective. Yes, the narrator remarks upon the romantic aesthetic of glamorous hill stations and Kashmiri houseboats in decay, but why not take that opportunity to educate us a bit? Challenge us? Make us feel something, rather than just see something — the lake in the distance, the desperate merchants peddling their wares.
The pleasure in this read are twofold. One is in the Harrison’s ability to perfectly capture a place with a bit of dialogue, a sentence about the setting, and, all of a sudden, it’s like you’re there. At some moments, I felt transported back to my own trip through the country. I remembered instances that I had long forgotten. For that I am grateful, and it speaks highly of her ability to recreate a tone that has the ring of truth to it. The second pleasure is seeing the narrator fail. This is slightly perverse, of course, but let me explain. As I worked through the chapters, I found that with each hard-earned lesson, this woman was learning. She was becoming less obnoxiously disappointed and demanding, more flexible, more savvy, more independent, and, simply, a smarter traveler. Going through these initial growing pains with her was painful because it reminds you of yourself in the worst light, but seeing her emerge a changed woman is rewarding, and, my, was I glad she changed.
This book reads like a diary, which, I learned at the end, is what it began as. I also learned that it was published nearly two decades after the trip, and that the writer looks back on her earlier self with “a great deal of amusement and a lot of exasperation.” I suppose that’s all in the title. My recommendation: put this epilogue at the beginning. The entire story comes together with the knowledge that it is being looked back upon, even looked down upon at times. Knowing that this young woman isn’t fresh back from India, hobbling together her writings, but rather that this is a work crafted after years of being back in the world so different from the one she left initially, makes all the difference. And where is she now? How did this trip change her? Did she return to finance? Coming to the last chapter, I was glad for my annoyance, because it made the afterglow of the story, a year spent on a motorcycle alone, so much more genuine.