Life Is a Trip: The Magic of Transformative Travel
By Judith Fein
Spirituality & Health Books
(See video clip below.)
One famous travel writer, Bruce Chatwin, once asked another, Paul Theroux, what he thought about his work. (This is recounted in Theroux’s collection of travel pieces, “Fresh Air Fiend”). Theroux’s major complaint was that Chatwin “never explained the difficulties and in-betweens of travel—where he slept, what he ate, what kind of shoes he wore.” In “Life Is a Trip: The Magic of Transformative Travel,” the Santa Fe-based travel writer Judith Fein describes many such in-betweens. But for her, the most mundane moments are often turning points, where a trip can turn into a catharsis, when plans are thrown out and intuition takes over. Fein loves to take herself off the beaten path and then wait to see what will happen. Her collection of essays is not so much about an intrepid traveler as that of a spiritual searcher, someone willing to travel to the ends of the earth to find answers.
There are writers who travel and travelers who write. Chatwin was notoriously loose with facts, a brilliant prose writer who died of AIDS but told everyone he had acquired a rare bone marrow disease in China.
Theroux, a fiction writer, picks up travel assignments for income and plane tickets in-between novels. In the New York Times review of “Fresh Air Fiend,” Adam Goodheart pointed out the writer’s tendency to “see” the things each assigning publication’s readers would most care about: “Writing for Outside, Theroux strikes that magazine’s perfect note of sunburned sensitivity. (‘In the heat of the day I crouched under my flapping tent fly and read Celine.’) For Gourmet, he notices the food. (‘The pheasant and okra gumbo, hearty and flavorful, was meant to restore us after our day of skiing.’) On assignment for National Geographic, he waxes lyrical about the photogenic scenery. (‘In the extravagant African sunset, the Zambezi River was deep red, reflecting the crimson sky.’) For Vanity Fair, he goes weak-kneed over a Hollywood hunk. (‘Peter Weir and Harrison Ford had gone down to look at the jungle, and Ford himself had ended up clearing a piece of land with a huge machete.’)”
Fein, a 10-year contributing editor for Spirituality & Health magazine, is not, like Chatwin, particularly literary, but, like Theroux, she does seem to lend a focus to each piece that you could call spiritual. In 14 short chapters she presents a series of self-contained life lessons, all learned in exotic settings. “I was cold, bitten, panting, and trying not to slide in my treadless Crocs,” she writes on page 11. “Ed was whistling and cheerfully telling local tales of murders and suicides, people stranded and having their limbs lopped off to avoid gangrene. I tried to douse my imagination, which was on fire.”
This is from a trip to Quirpon Island, Newfoundland, where her fearless guide, Ed English, convinced her that she could hike, climb and brave the elements without thinking twice, which she did. Another trip, to a prison in Chetumal (page 45) on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, where the inmates were artisans who lived in a violence-free environment, thanks to the culture of creativity fostered by the prison director, gave Fein this insight—“Behind every criminal face is a human who once was a bouncing baby, gurgling with glee, and aching to be loved.” Both trips offer her tools she takes back home, and uses—it’s travel as self-help.
Fein’s trips often begin with some kind of mission statement: “Searching for Forgiveness in Vietnam” or “Even though the media assaulted us with daily images of Arabs and Jews attacking, shooting, bombing and threatening to kill each other, I was determined to find out if there was anything spiritual, mystical, healing, and holy in the Holy Land.” (page 74) This makes for some less-than-surprising resolutions. In Israel, she finds people with faith. This is at a gathering of a thousand Orthodox Jews paying homage to Simon bar Yochai, the long-deceased holy man credited with writing the central book of Kabbalah. In Vietnam, she wanders around asking people, “How have you managed to put the American War behind you?” (page 34) and then concludes, “I was humbled by a people who have suffered so much and have chosen forgiveness over fury.” (page 35). It’s hard not to cringe at her for even asking these sorts of questions, but a worse offense is the fact that her audacity is not matched by insight, at least not on the page. That is the missing piece, the difference between travel journalism and travel literature.
Still, if you are a person who tends to prefer cruises, tour buses and itineraries, reading Fein’s accounts of her loopy, lost-in-another-land travels may be the shot in the arm you need just to spend a day wandering. You could be sunning on a beach in Micronesia, and suddenly decide that you need to ask the locals, “Do you know of anyone who just had a baby, is getting married, or has died and wouldn’t mind if I attended their ceremony?” (page 25) Another Fein technique, demonstrated in Guatemala, “I randomly selected a bus and found, to my delight, that it was packed with Maya people who were going home after a day of work, selling, trading, bartering, or shopping in Antigua.” (page 17) Fein asks her seat-mate about the colorful “huipiles”—woven tops—the women are wearing, and finds out that they are made in a particular town, which was on this very bus route. Her trip there turns into a part in an Assumption Day procession, which turns into an uncomfortable, ongoing relationship with a woman who is desperate to move to the United States. Everything resolves happily, like all of Fein’s stories, after some soul-searching and revelation.
Fein has her limits, even as a traveler. She is willing to study under a folk healer “witch” in Mexico, only to decide, upon returning to the U.S. with actual healing techniques and a quickly forming line of clients needing her help, that “working… was deflating and draining…. It was definitely time to stop.” (page 70) On the Pilgrim Trail in Spain, where up to 200,000 people every year trek 500 miles, retracing the Way of St. James, she is very clear that she has no interest in walking, sleeping in gymnasiums or carrying heavy backpacks. “I began to feel the discomfort of the outsider. They were all walking and I was watching. They were making sacrifices, and I was sleeping in hotels, driving in a car, and dining on regional foods that burst on my joyous palate.” “Maybe I’m helping the pilgrims by writing about them,” she said to someone standing next to her, who let her know there was “a whole tradition of people serving the Camino.” “So off I went, to find out about non-walking pilgrims who are somehow engaged in service to people, a path, or something else I didn’t understand.” (page 98)
Travel writers like Chatwin can become iconic. Andrew Harvey, in his review of Chatwin’s book, “The Songlines,” said, “No writer has meant as much to my generation. From Mr. Chatwin, we learned to dare to be obsessive, irregular, learned, exotic…” Fein offers no such grand allure, no apparent literary authority, even her spiritual bent takes on an earthly cast, presented with such an absence of poetry. “Life Is a Trip” may not actually offer much in the way of “The Magic of Transformational Travel” but it does offer a real incentive to the idea of nonlinear, un-American-style, throw-out-the-guidebook adventures. Fein lives for those moments when the inaccessible suddenly opens up to her.
“Just as I was about to give up any hope of witnessing a life ceremony,” she writes on page 26, “the manager of the hotel where I was staying knocked on my door. ‘There is a funeral ship going to the outer island of Mog Mog,’ she declared, beaming, ‘and you are booked on it. Congratulations!’”