Life Is a Trip: The Magic of Transformative Travel
Spirituality & Health Books, 117 pages One famous travel writer, Bruce Chatwin, once asked another, Paul Theroux, what he thought about his work. As 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, Santa Fe-based travel writer Judith Fein describes many such in-betweens. For her, the most mundane moments are often turning points, when 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 happens. Her collection of essays is not so much about an intrepid traveler as 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 initially said 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 for 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.’)”
Fein, a 10-year contributing editor to Spirituality & Health Magazine, is not particularly literary in the way Chatwin is. But, like Theroux, she does seem to lend a particular focus to each piece — one that could be called spiritual. In 14 short chapters she presents a series of self-contained life lessons, all learned in distant settings: “I was cold, bitten, panting, and trying not to slide in my treadless Crocs. 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.”
On a trip to Quirpon Island, Newfoundland, her fearless guide, Ed English, convinces her that she can hike, climb, and brave the elements without thinking twice. On a trip to a prison in the Yucatan peninsula city of Chetumal, she finds the inmates to be artisans living in a violence-free environment, thanks to the culture of creativity fostered by the prison director. That trip gives 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. This orientation makes for some less-than-surprising resolutions. In Israel, she finds people of faith 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 kabala. She writes, “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.” In “Searching for Forgiveness in Vietnam,” she wanders around asking people, “How have you managed to put the American War behind you?” and then concludes, “I was humbled by a people who have suffered so much and have chosen forgiveness over fury.” It is hard not to cringe at her for even asking these sorts of questions, but the worse offense is that her audacity is not matched by insight — at least not on the page.