Today I am talking with Judith Fein, international travel journalist and author of the book Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel. (Read her blog posts here.)
Judie, thanks very much for agreeing to participate in my series of interviews of thinkers and practitioners who have ideas that are valuable for the legal profession.
Let's start with your telling us the story of how you became a travel writer. What drew you to this profession?
I had no idea that travel writing was a profession, but I have always been a traveler and a writer. My last incarnation involved writing movies and TV in Hollywood--which everything thinks is very glamorous because you get to party, eat and hang with the Hollywood set, but trust me when I say that for me it was less glam than wearing a cardboard box to observe weeds growing. It sucked the soul out of me--whoosh-- and I rumbled around wondering why I was doing it for l3 years. The actual writing was fine, but the abuse, dysfunction, craziness, and head-banging frustration finally made me say, "Basta." And once I had really basta-ed, I had no idea what else to do for a living. I was, as they say in French, "entree deux chaises," between two chairs. My butt was hanging out uncomfortably, not sure where to sit in life.
One day my sister called and said there was a new travel show on national public radio--called "The Savvy Traveler." I knew it was next-to-impossible to get a gig, but, at my sister's New York-style urging, I recorded a crazy story about what happened when I checked into a monastery for a silent retreat, and ending up having a food fight with a nun and almost getting arrested on a dark road. I sent in the piece, and four days later they called to invite me to be a regular contributor on the show.
Hmm, I thought, after a while. Maybe since i have a national presence I can ask a newspaper if they're interested in one of my travel stories. Bingo! Then I queried other newspapers, magazines, and pretty soon I was a real travel writer. I expanded to the web early on, and have never looked back.
Thanks, Judie. Your response made me think about how I define profession. Most of the readers of this blog are practitioners of the law, a traditional notion of profession. But, now that I think about it, I see the word as including the sense of calling, or the embodiment or product of something you are professing to the world. Of course, many lawyers don't feel called to the practice, and are unhappy. Many of these unhappy, stressed
That brings me to the reason why I was attracted to your way of seeing travel: As a way to know thyself. I am reading, savoring actually, your book Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Could you explain how travel could lead one to be transformed? And I hope you don't mind a two-part question: Does travel increase self-awareness and knowing oneself?
Stephanie, this is a wonderful question. Maybe the most important question you could ask me. When you travel, if the focus is on EXPERIENCE and not on clicking off sights in a guidebook (although of course you want to visit the top sights),then you will be engaging with people who are different from you. This is the jewel of travel. Encountering other realities and other ways of dealing with the world. For example, you may meet people who simply cannot understand that you stick with a career that doesn't fulfill you just because you earn a lot of money. They simply draw a blank. They cannot imagine why you would fritter away the most significant things--your time and your energy--on something that doesn't nourish or at least satisfy you. They would rather live with just enough and enjoy their lives. So this makes you think: hmmm, what am i doing with my life? How could I be trading my freedom and well-being for a paycheck? Am I nuts? And then you start to think about what "nuts" means. Does it signify that you have bought into false beliefs and cultural values that are not really yours? And then you start to think about your values. What are they? What is at the top of the list?
Then you realize that you can't even make a list because you are so removed from the question. So you wonder if there is ONE value you hold dear. Maybe it's love. Then you think: how is love evidenced in my life? Not just my personal life, but my work life? Am I spreading love or frustration and anger and dependence? Let me give you another example. My husband Paul and I were on a plane, flying to Tunisia, right after the revolution. The plane was full of Libyans, Algerians and Tunisians and I am fluent in French so we could communicate. I ended up standing in the aisle, and they were peppering me with questions. The one on everyone's mind was this: We are dying in the streets for democracy. You are the most advanced democracy in the world. We do not like Bin Laden, but why did you murder him rather than capture him and bring him to trial? Isn't that what you do in a democracy? I had no answer. Until this moment, I have not found an answer. But it got us into a discussion about what democracy means, and what it means to be an "ambassador" to other countries from your own country, and how maybe expressing dissent towards certain issues in your country IS being a good ambassador.
And then you begin to wonder if travel is important on a level that is bigger than your own life. You become, for other people, a representative of a country. Their interaction with you can influence how they feel about your country, your culture, etc. And this can have political ramifications. So maybe your travels are about more than seeing sights. And maybe you can develop the mindset of a traveler when you are home, in your own town or the town next to you. You become curious, self-examining. You allow yourself to be IMPACTED by what is around you and, especially, the humans around you. You are always learning. Growing. Expanding. I have met many very old people and, at the end of their lives, they think back with most fondness on their travels. It was when they liked themselves best and enjoyed themselves most. I think it was because they were aware, present, fully IN life, and interacting with it.
My book, LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel, is all about this. I take the reader with me, so to speak, on l4 adventures where I learned something about myself, and how perhaps I could behave or believe differently. I hope the answer above also addresses self-awareness. Self-awareness is a not a luxury. It is a necessity. If you do not have it and encourage it in yourself, you can do a lot of damage to the people around you and, ultimately, to yourself. So anything that allows you to learn about yourself--as travel does--is a good thing. A necessary thing.
Your response is wonderful food for much thought. I so agree with you that one can do much damage if not self-aware. And that one can travel in a certain way that promotes little growth or self-knowledge. I think I told you about the song by Charlene in which she sings that she has been to many, many places, some exotic, and yet laments, "I have never been to me."
If you are a lawyer and you have not been to you, real problems for the client can result. For example, unless mediators know their own tolerance for conflict, they may manage a mediation for their own comfort level instead of what the parties need. This self knowledge is also very important in other areas, too. Another example: if you are working with clients and their money, you need to be clear and clean about your own feelings about money or those feelings can leak through, and that leaking is not always in the best interest of your clients.
From what you say, it sounds like the world might be a much better place if everyone took a sabbatical every so often. When one does travel, what can he or she do to make it most likely that the travel is a transformative experience and not merely a time of clicking off sites from the guidebook. Do you have any specific hints or tips? Maybe ones we could practice on our trips to the grocery store or to the bank before we go on a "real" trip to a destination farther away?
I need a chiropractor from nodding as I read your email. Yes, yes, yes. Right on target. [Note: This interview was conducted via email.]
Here are some tips:
1) Repeat this mantra when you are traveling: I have no expectations. Whatever happens is right. Repeat it ad infinitum.
2) Seek out locals and talk to them. Ask them where they go to eat, drink, party, relax, get inspired. Once you are engaged in a conversation, you may find that you get an invitation to join the locals. Go. Say Yes. Unless it is dangerous, always say yes. If language barriers are stopping you, you will always find someone who can communicate in decent English. And it's a chance to dust off your high school French or Spanish and not be afraid to make a thousand errors.
3) Don't be competitive. Don't try to find the most expensive this or the hottest that so you can go home and do one-upmanship with your friends. The trip is for YOU, and not to impress others.
4) Be curious. Ask questions. People love to talk about themselves and their culture and lives. Really listen.
5) Go outside of your comfort zone. Stretch. Try things that are new and unfamiliar. If you are a little uncomfortable, stick with it. It can yield great results.
And what can you do while you are home?
1) On line in the market, instead of getting impatient, use the time to talk to someone in front of you or behind you. If it's someone from another culture or country, so much the better. Engage. Ask questions. Be open.
2)When you eat in an ethnic restaurant, talk to your waitperson or the owner about his/her country of origin. If there are photos, ask where, exactly, they are.
3) Be open. Be curious. Be friendly. Ask. Listen. Learn. It's easy...
Valuable tips, Judie. I have no doubt these will be very helpful, maybe transformative, for readers of idealawg. Let me ask you one last question (although I can think of so many more).
I keep hearing the song "Memory" floating through my mind as I think of trips I have taken, and of the chapters in your book. I often blog about memory because it is important to the legal profession in many ways, ranging from crime eye witnesses to the disagreement between plaintiff and defendant on how an event occurred. We now know the memory process is not like a video camera, but is very malleable, rebuilding. remolding, and recreating a memory each time it is remembered.
Do you think it is important to remember trips as accurately as possible or is it fine to let the memories evolve and change with the passing of time? Since you are a travel writer, I am guessing the articles you write are written close in time to trips so your memories are not yet time-twisted or rebuilt? If a person is not a professional writer, how do you recommend he or she memorialize travels?
Ah, memory. Best friend and worst enemy. I think the best advice I can give is to try, when you are on a trip, to imprint what is important to you. Sometimes I will even say to myself, "I need to remember this sunset, and the way the mountains meet the sea." Or, "What this woman is saying is very meaningful. I must remember it." I become a cheerleader for my memory, encouraging it to perform well. Then I let go and trust. What you remember about a trip is what is most important for you to remember. The only thing you can do is refocus the memory a bit. For example, if you keep telling people about how bad the croque monsieur was in a particular restaurant in Paris, then that is what you will focus on and remember. But if you say to yourself, "Do I really want to waste my time telling people about that lousy croque monsieur, even if I get a laugh or a sympathetic nod? Wouldn't it be better to tell them about the exhibit I saw at the Cluny museum, which made me rethink how I saw the Middle Ages and made me wonder how I would have functioned if I lived at that time?" It's obvious that it's better to remember and retell the things that impacted you positively, or things that you really learned from. And, in the retelling, you will reinforce those important memories.
Much of this is really about trust. Trusting yourself, your memory, your ability to remember what really matters to you.
Actually, I have an advantage, because, as a travel writer, I make notes about everything so I can write accurate articles later on. The notes are so specific that I can write about a trip I took years ago. But I have added something else to my notes. I record what I am feeling at the time. Insights I have. New awareness. I write it all down, and then, if I wish, I can look at it and think about it and remember it later on.
Everything I say about traveling pertains to life itself. You are a traveler in life. Your life is a trip. You do not have to wait to go to Peru to live like a traveler, to remember what is important, to focus on what matters. That is the biggest secret I can share. You, your life and your travels are all one.
Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel journalist who lives to leave. She resided for more than ten years in Europe and North Africa and has a passion for adventures that are authentic and immersed in local culture.
She has written travel articles for more than 100 magazines, newspapers and internet sites, and blogs about travel for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. She has appeared on the Today show and countless local and region TV and radio shows. Judith was a regular reporter for "The Savvy Traveler" on national public radio for 6 years, and is the co-founder and editor of the acclaimed group travel blog http://www.YourLifeisaTrip.com, which now has 105 writers.
She has been an acclaimed speaker for many venues including the Educational Travel Conference, Association for Women in Communication, Northern New Mexico Press Women's Association, the Central California Coast Writers Conference, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque, the Hospice Organization, the Archives of the State of New Mexico.
With her photojournalist husband Paul Ross, she produces travel videos, slide shows and does travel performances. The duo teach travel writing and photography around the globe, and have led enthusiastic participants on cultural immersion trips to destinations like Guatemala, the Yucatan and Turkey.
Note (added June 30, 2013): Click to hear the male version of the song "I've Never Been to Me" sung by Howard Keel.