The reasons why we who are travelers do so are probably as varied as we are. Just as the places to which we travel and the ways in which we travel can differ widely, no doubt, so do the resulting experiences. I, too, am a traveler, and for me, the travel experience is always transformative. I have never gone on a journey that doesn't simultaneously become an inner journey. As I cross physical terrain, so do I cross internal, that is, spiritual terrain in some way at the same time. I never come home the same person as when I left.
For this reason, I was fascinated to read Judith Fein's Life is a Trip. The title alone clued me in to our similar approach to travel. I suspected these 14 stories would tell of the author's trip, of course, but also how that trip changed her as a person.
One can travel in luxury, and plan far ahead and for most all possible and imaginable consequences. Travel agents can secure our accommodations, buy our tickets, insure our comfort, arrange most every moment of our traveling days … if we so choose. Or, we can travel wildly, with open mind and heart, ready to see whatever we can see and embrace whatever comes with open arms. This would be Judith Fein.
Fein is curious. She "lives to leave," she says, and never does research on a place beforehand. The occasional discomfort of travel does not intimidate her; in fact, she seems to seek it out. These travel stories take her to North Vietnam, Turkey, Guatemala, New Zealand, Istanbul, Nova Scotia, Micronesia, Mexico, Israel, Spain, Newfoundland and San Diego. She travels not just to see place, but to delve deeply into local culture, acquaint herself with the residents, and involves herself in their lives as much as possible. A favorite thing to do is to get herself invited to weddings and funerals, since these are occasions that she feels show her best what a culture is all about.
"The difference between being a tourist and a traveler is that a traveler is open to unplanned experience and doesn't have her nose stuck in a guidebook, tracking down famous sites. She ventures out from behind glass windows (in hotels and touring buses) and meets people. She connects. The difference between a traveler and a travel journalist is that the latter is always searching for stories. But it occurred to me that any traveler can travel like a journalist—looking for cues and clues, diving into new cultures, and coming home with great stories and new ways of responding to life."
Being a spiritual seeker, Fein makes a point of connecting with healers, wise and holy persons, those who seem to have some deeper connection than most to enlightenment. If not in person, she finds the experience that is more intense than the every day. So, in one story, she attends a funeral in Micronesia, where she is stunned to witness one person after another speaking about the deceased not in flowery eulogy, selecting only positive memories, and if none are available, creating them—but quite the opposite. Funeral attendees express ill feelings, even anger, hurt caused them by the deceased. Intrigued, she pays close attention so as to learn the reasons.
"At first I was shocked. Can't they just leave the dead in peace? I wondered. But I said nothing, sitting and listening to the wailing and the talk. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to understand. During a Mog Mog funeral, people are expected to air all of their feelings about the deceased person publicly, so the negative emotions don't fester. The bad feelings are expressed, rather than repressed, and then they are buried along with the body. At a funeral, people unleash their true feelings, but speaking ill of the deceased outside of this context is taboo. And it is forbidden to bad-mouth the dead person once he is lying in his final resting place." (pg. 28)
What a wonderful discovery! In this alone is summed up so much of the value of travel outside of our home territory. Suddenly, we see new and different ways to cope with global experiences. Whereas in our American culture, good people tend to have the most well attended funerals, one would guess that among the Mog Mog, those who have done most evil in their lives might have the most crowded funerals, as one after another get bad feelings off their chests. Such funerals may even be motive to live better lives, it seems, as who would want a parade of spitting and fuming funeral attendees. Either way, the day ends with all ill feelings buried. There is something to learn here …
In another story, Fein travels to a Mexican prison. She looks again beyond the surface, looking for the heart of the matter. Here, too, she learns something of value that could be shared with other cultures.
"Behind every criminal face is a human who was once a bouncing baby, gurgling with glee, and aching to be loved. Then, something happened. Each story is different, provocative, sad, and disturbing. Needs were denied or not met, the environment was violent or cruel or indifferent, and feelings with no healthy outlets were expressed in unspeakable acts … What interests me is getting a glimpse into a criminal's heart and finding a place, however tiny, where there is authentic feeling and sensitivity. To my mind, this is where hope for healing, rehabilitation, and redemption lie." (pg.46)
As any traveler sooner or later learns, understanding—of oneself and others, of persons and place—comes through stories. Fein goes deep into place to find the people, and goes deep among the people to find the story. She is willing to deal with whatever comes along her way in order to dig out that story. From that story, then, comes her own transformation. Or magic, if you wish. And from her sharing these stories in Life is a Trip comes connection with readers, letting the stories ripple out among all to spread that magic.
Adding visual delight to fine stories are the black and white photographs taken by photojournalist Paul Ross, who is Fein's husband and frequent travel companion. His photography doesn't just illustrate Fein's stories. These photos add another dimension to the reading experience.
Judith Fein is a longtime columnist for Spirituality & Health magazine and a contributor to nearly 100 other publications over her writing career, in addition to acclaimed Hollywood screenplays.
An interview with the author, along with photos by Paul Ross, will appear in the upcoming Spring 2011 issue of The Smoking Poet at www.thesmokingpoet.com
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