Q & A: Judith Fein, author of Life Is a Trip: the transformative magic of travel

by Marlan Warren

“Maybe the mark of a good traveler is the stories he experiences and retells and what he learns from those stories." - Judith Fein, Life Is a Trip

What would you do if you were a travel journalist squashed cheek-by-jowl with the sprawling/squabbling family of an unflappable Maori Elder as they pilgrimage from New Zealand through Europe in one of three breaking-down campers? If your name was Judith Fein, you’d follow each “arrow” of opportunity, take care of your sanity, find the most meaningful moment, and then write about it. This opening tale in Fein's debut book LIFE IS A TRIP: THE TRANSFORMATIVE MAGIC OF TRAVEL serves as the portal through which she invites readers to travel with her while she traverses the globe in search of adventure and meaning.

Fein has culled 14 "greatest hits" from her favorite experiences and melded them into a poignant, often funny, memoir. LIFE IS A TRIP transcends the cliché of the "Ugly American" who wishes for a ballpark frank in Tunisia and the souvenir-seeking tourist who believes foreign culture relates little to his own life. It carries endorsements by travel luminaries such as editors Keith Bellows of National Geographic Traveler and Catharine Hamm of the Los Angeles Times, as well as Shannon Stowell, President of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, and international travel journalist/filmmaker Tahir Shah.

In person, Fein comes across humble and honest, like her stories. So humble you might not guess she is an award-winning international journalist whose travel articles have appeared in over 90 publications, co-founder and editor (with Ellen Barone) of Your Life Is a Trip website, travel editor of Spirituality and Health magazine, vice-president of the Travel Journalist Guild, and former reporter for NPR’s “The Savvy Traveler.” In her non-travel life, Fein is a noted screenwriter, playwright, opera librettist and theatre director.

I caught up with the peripatetic writer while she was living her creed “I live to leave,” packing for a month-long adventure with husband, photojournalist Paul Ross. Sitting down for a moment in her Santa Fe home, Fein, took a time-out for this Q & A interview:

Q:   Why did you decide to write this book at this particular time?

JF:   I wanted to inspire others to have cultural adventures that can transform their lives—across the world or across their hometown. Cultural adventure is the New Wave of tourism. 

Q:   LIFE IS A TRIP focuses on your transformative and "magical" travel experiences. Did you design the book chronologically so that readers might follow your path of spiritual growth as you delve into the book's theme of healing?

JF:  Interesting that you say the book is about "healing.” That hadn't occurred to me, but perhaps you are right. When I sit down to write, I try to be in a receptive state, to get out of the way; I put my hands on the keyboard and transcribe the words of my inner writer. When it works, the article or story or book writes itself. With LIFE IS A TRIP, I trusted my inner writer for the progression and chronology. The book isn’t about me. I’m just the guide into the events, the friend who invites you along.

Q:   How did you choose 14 stories out of the hundreds you've written for publication, and the "untold ones" that must live on in your memory?

JF:  I decided to write about travel experiences that could be applicable to readers’ lives, and selected the first 14 that buzzed around in my brain. The others were screaming for equal attention, so I made a list for the future and placed them on it. Even when I’m trying to relax and not find stories, the stories find me.

Q:   In your story "The Sorceress's Apprentice in Mexico ," when the curandera (Mexican healer) gives you a "cleansing," you described the actions, but not the details of your internal reactions. Why?

JF:  I had a strong reaction, but I didn’t analyze what it was. It’s like I saw a big arrow and followed it, but didn’t concentrate on the meaning of the steps I took or the arrow itself. When I travel, I follow my feelings. I try to record, in memory or in writing, what is happening. I know something is going on inside of me, because that’s what drives me. But I’m caught up in the doing, not the analyzing. That comes later, when it comes at all. Sometimes I only realize the internal states when I sit down to write.

Q:   How many years do these stories in the book span?

JF:  The oldest story took place about a decade ago, and the most recent occurred within the past five months.

Q:   Why are some chapters shorter than others?
I chose to write only about the aspect of the trip where I learned something important. Sometimes it took a lot of pages, and other times it was short, a burst of learning.

Q:   Your husband Paul Ross accompanies you on most of your trips as a photojournalist. His photos complement your stories, yet you often have different reactions. The story where you are viewing tombs and comparing notes is hilarious. Is it difficult to be a spiritual seeker when your mate/travel partner may not be?

JF:  Paul says that he and I take different trips together. He often sees, experiences and retains one thing, and I, another. I do not see myself as a spiritual seeker. I am a seeker for whatever shows up that is moving, meaningful, instructive, funny, different from what I know and am used to.

I try to be an open traveler. Paul is an open traveler, too, but in a different way. Sometimes his reactions are identical to mine. Other times, his are less intense than mine, but then I look at his photos and he has captured the essence of something I overlooked entirely. I guess you can say we dance through our travels. He is the leader or I am. Sometimes there is no leader and no follower; we just share the dance. Other times we each do a separate dance.

Recently I had a mind-bending experience at a site in Portugal. Paul didn’t get it at all. I was baffled by his NOT getting it. Finally, he said that he was excited by the site because he realized its importance for me. I love him for that. But it goes both ways.

Q:   Is Paul working on a separate book with his photos and journalism?

JF:  He is thinking about it. His images from our trips are not just “documentary” or “travel photos.” They are life transformed into art, and I am always shocked when I see them. When did he take them? Was I there? It’s as though he has discovered a different world. Paul has a fabulous eye and an uncanny ability to place himself at a spot where something is just about to happen. He also sees the irony and humor, and knows how to capture it in words and images. If Paul does write a book about our shared experiences, it would be a completely different book from mine.

Q:   The book opens and closes with two stories about family. Was this intentional?

JF:  It never occurred to me. The opening story (His Way or the Highway: On the Road with a Maori Elder) is clearly about family. The last one (Life after Death in Nova Scotia) was about overcoming trauma and celebrating survival. In each story throughout the book, I learn a new and different approach to some life issue like family conflict, success, healing, overcoming trauma, death, forgiveness, faith in the face of adversity.


Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist whose articles have appeared in more than 90 publications. She co-founded and is editor of http://www.YourLifeisaTrip.com. Her NEW BOOK about transformative experiences with other cultures, LIFE IS A TRIP: the transformative magic of travel can be ordered from the YourLifeIsATrip.com TRIP SHOP powered by Amazon or at JudithFein.com, ($14.95). The book is available in paperback or e-book format.


Marlan Warren is a Los Angeles writer/filmmaker. She is the author of the novel Naked Roadmaps for the Sexually Challenged, producer/writer of the documentary Reunion, and a photojournalist. She is currently raising money to complete her film project about Nobel Prize nominee Yuri Kochiyama, based on her play Bits of Paradise. Check out her blog http://losangelesnowthen.blogspot.com

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