Life Is a Trip: The Magic of Trans­for­ma­tive Travel

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - by Ju­dith Fein,

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.

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