Enjoy spiritual adventure with travel writer Judith Fein

A friend helps travel writer Judith Fein adjust a traditional Vietnamese head covering.If you love travel, you’ve probably read a Judith Fein adventure in a magazine at some point over the past decade. If you’re a longtime National Public Radio listener, you might recall Judith from her stories on the old Savvy Traveler series. If you read Spirituality & Health magazine, flip to page 64 of the current print edition for “A Viking Blessing for the Common Good” in which Judith takes readers on a spiritual adventure to Norway. There’s a photo from that trip in Part 1 of our story about Judith Fein’s new book, “Life Is a Trip.”

Today, you can meet Judith in …


DAVID: This is quite a different How To Travel book! There’s nothing here about packing and planning. There’s no checklist for travel safety or guide to travel etiquette. This is really a series of adventure stories—about how to actually experience an adventure. Does that description make sense?

JUDITH: Yes, that’s why I wrote this book. People always ask me: How do you travel the way you do? How do you find these adventures you talk about? So, I said: OK, I’m going to show you my path. This book is written in the first person but it’s not about me, really. It’s about what happens on the road and about how you meet people.

DAVID: So, if you’re reading this interview, but you’re not planning to take a trip to a distant land—these principles also are useful close to home.

JUDITH: If you’re truly a traveler, you can do this kind of thing in your hometown as well. You do not have to travel abroad to be a traveler. I’m writing about an attitude toward life. It’s about letting go of this compulsive need to control the trip.

DAVID: You’re drawing a line between traveling and tourism, but you’re not discounting those folks who simply want to book a package tour. It’s fine to go on a cruise.

JUDITH: Yes, it’s OK to go on a tour. That’s fine. You’re visiting touring sites that people want to see. And, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with going on a cruise. I just spent two weeks on a cruise ship—and we had such an adventure! But there is a difference when you become a traveler. A traveler doesn’t have that same compulsion to check off lists. You show up somewhere: perhaps far away or perhaps close to home. First, you just show up. This is about the risks you’re willing to take in your life to step outside of your own way of seeing the world.

DAVID: There’s Buddhist mindfulness in what you’re talking about or, from a Christian spiritual perspective, an alert compassion about the people around you.

JUDITH: To me traveling is Zen, because as a traveler you can’t be anchored in the past or the future. You have to really be there. The language is different. The culture is different. The food is different. If you’re present, you’re not worried about the future or moaning about the past. In this book, I picked 14 experiences that were transformative in my life.

DAVID: Your title, “Life Is a Trip,” captures the theme.

JUDITH: Yes, we can start with becoming travelers in our own lives, where we live now. The question is: How can we stop being visitors in our own lives? How can we keep from letting lists rule our lives? Is life really just checking off the next To Do item day after day? When you start by just showing up, weird things can happen. This is an attitude toward life.


DAVID: We’re both veteran journalists, concerned about covering the world accurately, so I have to ask: What changed in our journalistic understanding of religion? Back in the 1980s, I worked with a National Geographic photographer on a proposal for National Geographic to circle the world and capture different ways that people express prayer. We got back a rather sharply worded response from the magazine’s editors, chiding us for even thinking that religion was an appropriate subject for a cover story. Well, flash forward to this decade and National Geographic now is producing entire books on world religion. What changed?

JUDITH: It’s obvious now that that there’s a huge groundswell of interest in spirituality. Just look at the New York Times bestseller lists. People are interested in traditional religion, too. Religion has entered politics with a vengeance. It’s in the news. Everywhere you look, it’s commercially viable to write about religion now. People are buying books about everything related to spirituality and religion.

This change came from the ground up. People are interested in this. It also may be because times are more difficult right now. In difficult times, people look for things that are good for the soul, the psyche, the heart. This is where people find comfort. I don’t think it’s a sea change in journalism. It’s a sea change in the way people are finding their spirituality outside churches. There’s a resurgence in interest in people’s lives and the media is just jumping on that.


Judith Fein in Norway with descendants of Vikings.DAVID: What prepared you to see life and the world in this way? I’m sure a lot of our readers who are parents or teachers will want to know.

JUDITH: When I grew up, we were just a middle class family in New York. We did not have a lot of money but the money we had was spent on travel and culture. This was inculcated by my parents from a very early age.

My mother sometimes berated me for my attitude. She’d ask me, “Why do you have to seek our people who are so different than you?” I guess I was born with that gene that always made me look for the kids who were not mainstream, who might be ridiculed by others, and especially people from different cultures. This interested me from as far back as I can remember. In the 1970s, I went to live in Europe and didn’t come back for 10 years.

DAVID: So you were there after the youth movements of the ‘60s?

JUDITH: I was there for anti-war protests in Paris. One of the reasons I stayed over there for so long was that I couldn’t support our country’s war in southeast Asia. My bottom line on everything is: I always preach tolerance, but I have no tolerance for state-supported murder of any kind. So this was a pretty virulent period in my life with the war in Vietnam. I wanted to be where the action was and that was Paris.

DAVID: You seem fearless. People who have traveled widely outside the tourist routes begin to gain a confidence—the kind of confidence that comes through in your writing. I get the impression, though, that many Americans are terrified about the world these days.

JUDITH: Yes, there are lots of Americans whose main concern about travel is safety. A lot of that is the result of the chronic unfairness and stereotyping in news coverage. Violent events get coverage. There’s a lot of fear mongering.

Some of the concern is understandable. If people are taking a trip, they don’t want to be hassled. They don’t want to have problems. But I ask people: What does safety mean to you? You could be at an airport and a bomb could go off. You could be on a cruise and encounter pirates. In my own traveling, I would not go to a country in the middle of a revolution. But, right now, I am making plans to go to Tunisa as soon as I can. This is the first time Tunisia is experimenting with democracy. What an exciting time to travel to Tunisia and experience the birth of a new nation! On the other hand, I wouldn’t go at the height of a revolution.

Earlier, I lived six years in the Arab world. I didn’t know violent people. Sure, I knew people who were sane and people who were crazy, like we find people all around the world. But these images of the Arab world that we’ve seen over the years in American media mostly focus on scenes of violence. That’s one reason I’m glad we’re seeing coverage of the recent revolutions, because we’re seeing lots of smart, articulate, conscious, soft-spoken Arab people in these stories. Suddenly, people in America are sympathetic with people in Egypt. I think this period is a game changer.

DAVID: So you don’t pay much attention to popular wisdom about safety.

JUDITH: For people who are circumspect about this, Canada is perceived as a very safe destination. Many publications seem terrified of Mexico at the moment. But, I just got back from Mexico and I couldn’t have felt safer. Now, obviously you don’t go into an area where there’s a lot of trouble with the drug trade, but Mexico is a huge country. I’m saying: Don’t get swept up in generalities and fear mongering.


MAP marking many of the traditional pilgrimage routes that form the Way of St. James or the Camino de Santiago.DAVID: Let’s give people a couple of examples of unusual things you include in your book. One is just a short item, but I’m Swiss-American myself and it certainly caught my eye. You visited a traditional Wetterschmecker. Tell us a bit about that.

JUDITH: It was so interesting! This is a very hands-on experiential book, so I tell readers that one day we were in this gorgeous Swiss city and I was bored with hanging around in the hotels and restaurants. The weather was bad, so spending time outside wasn’t an option. We were having lunch and I asked the question: What exists in this town that we wouldn’t find somewhere else? And, a woman said: the Wetterschmecker, people who read the weather with their nose. The word means “weather taster.” So, we got on a bus and went to a village. We found a man’s house and he was happy to talk with us. There was a huge tree outside his house and he showed us how the particular way he saw the branches drooping told him what was going to happen with the weather. He talked about how he can look at the wool of the sheep and tell what the weather is going to do. There are not many of these people left, but they still get together and predict the weather pattern for the next six months. They like to see how they stack up against official forecasts and sometimes they beat the forecasters.

DAVID: You include an entire chapter about the Way of St. James or the Camino de Santiago. I love that chapter in your book because it reminds us that, if approached with a spiritually open heart and mind, this form of travel really is a pilgrimage. And you’re not telling people that they have to go off and chart their own brand-new course of travel. You’re encouraging them in this chapter to think about the timeless routes of pilgrimage.

JUDITH: I don’t like things that people call New Age. I like things that are old age. I’m not telling people to go invent something out of thin air. I can’t relate to that idea that we all should go consult psychics. I love discovering things that are anchored, that go way way back through history and human experience.

We can connect with millions of people over thousands of years if we connect with the past in this way. In the present, to tell you the truth, I don’t relate to a lot of American culture. It’s not absorbing or interesting to me. It’s frivolous. I love things that are steeped in meaning. I don’t have to agree with everything I’m encountering; I don’t have to believe it all. But if we step into that vortex, we are carried back to humans who lived over many years. How did they live and worship? What did they believe? Spirituality to me is the way we relate to other humans on a daily basis. How do we engage with each other? What’s my carbon footprint on someone’s heart? Life isn’t about just one person alone in the world.

If you risk placing yourself into one of the world’s many places of traditional pilgrimage … If you stop texting … If you are quiet and listen, then these ancient settings, sometimes the stones themselves, begin to speak to you. That’s the kind of travel that is amazing.

YOU CAN ORDER Life is a Trip: The Transformative Magic of Travel through Amazon at a discount.


If you like the themes in today’s interview, visit Judith Fein’s website Your Life Is a Trip. Or, Judith and her husband photographer Paul Ross also post stories, photos and news about travel journalism on their Global Adventure website. There’s also a Judith Fein author’s page for “Life Is a Trip” with more information about the book.

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com.)

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