Travel Writing as Spiritual Practice
Contributor
Written by
Jill Jepson
February 2014
Contributor
Written by
Jill Jepson
February 2014

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I cannot explain my urge to travel, any more than I can explain my compulsion to write. It has been part of who I am as far back as I remember. When I was 9 a boy I liked, Sid, explained his absence from school for two weeks as a trip to West Virginia. West Virginia! How glamorous and exotic to a little girl who’d never been outside of California. I begged my parents to take me there, but they refused, and it would be another two years and a summer trip to the Oregon coast before I ever left the boundaries of my home state.

My traveling days began in earnest when I was in my 20s. I took my life savings of $2000, bought a backpack and a plane ticket, and took off on a two-year round the world adventure by myself. I traveled through Europe and down into Syria, wintered in Jordan, worked on a Kibbutz in Israel, took a boat to Greece, and veered back around to travel across Turkey and Iran. I spent a month hitchhiking around Afghanistan and headed East. At various times over the next several years, I lived in India, Japan, and China. I took the Trans-Siberian railway, went to college in Sweden, and spent several summers in Central America. Travel set my education back years and kept me from developing a real career until I was an age where some people are considering early retirement. But I was unstoppable. Travel was in my blood.

I’ve learned over the years that there are people who understand the travel bug, even if they don’t have it themselves, and others who simply don’t. “You can’t spend your whole life backpacking around Afghanistan,” a guy I was dating told me once. I looked at him vacantly and asked, “Why not?”

The short way to say this is that travel is part of my spirituality. It connects me to the world in an ineffable and profound way. And writing about travel is a spiritual practice, just as surely as meditation. Here is how travel writing serves my spiritual path:

1. Travel writing bears witness to the global human experience.

When travel breaks away from the tourist mode of museum visits and photographing ruins, it becomes an experience of human life throughout the world. I have sat around a campfire with Turkish soldiers, had lunch with Singaporean merchants, shared stories with women in Indian villages, and become friends with Himalayan yogis, Afghani police officers, Shinto priests, and Guatemalan healers. Writing about my travels has enabled me to bring a tiny piece of what I have learned from all these people to the world. In a small way, it has allowed me to be a witness to their lives.

2. Travel writing exposes the experience of being the Other.

I grew up white and more-or-less middle class in a country and community where I was a member of a well-established majority. The moment I stepped foot in Asia, my language, my culture, my dress, and my physical self set me starkly apart. For the first time, I experienced what it was to be the Other. The one set off from the norm by virtue of simply what and who I was. Writing has deepened my understanding of that experience by forcing me to acknowledge and reflect on it. It is through writing that I have gained understanding and perspective on the strangeness and power of being the Other.

3. Travel writing defamiliarizes our daily experience.

Living in very different cultures makes you aware how many of your assumptions are not shared by the rest of the world. Often, these assumptions go so deep, you are no longer conscious of them. Encounter those who do not share them, and they suddenly emerge. At once, they stop being Reality, and their true nature—as mere beliefs and interpretations comes to light. Write from that new awareness, and those old assumptions turn to dust.

4. Travel writing foregrounds both the beauty and the misery of the world.

I have viewed scenes of such unimaginable natural and human-made beauty, and experienced such love and kindness from people across the world, that putting it on the page is sheer joy. I have also witnessed such shocking oppression, violence, poverty, abuse, and cruelty that I have no choice but to share it, to make it known. Writing about travel turns a light on the glories of the Earth and the best and the worst of those who dwell here.

One of the great joys of my present life is that I am still young enough and healthy enough to continue my adventures around the world. Oddly, years of travel experience haven't dimmed the sheer fun of it or my urge to continue. The more I write about travel, the more I want to do it. I see a future of going farther and deeper, and coming to a level of greater understanding, both of the world and of myself.

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