Escape and inspiration about unusual and fascinating places, as well as the deeper side of books and travel.
I'm Jo Frances Penn, author of thrillers and non-fiction, and I'll be doing solo shows about my own travel experience and interviewing authors about how travel inspires their writing. Interviews cover places to visit and tips for travel as well as thoughts on modes of travel like walking, cycling, and travel by train and other modes. Plus book recommendations for every interview so you have things to read on the move.
Complicated Histories, Sichuan, and Tibet. The Other Shangri-La With Shivaji Das
In this episode, we escape to the mountains of the Tibetan Highlands, which lie at the intersection of the Sichuan and Yunan provinces in China, in search of Shangri-La.
Shivaji Das talks about the stunning natural beauty in this remote place, and we also discuss the cultural clashes in the region and the people he met along the way. We talk about complicated histories, and how our view of a place is shaped by who we are and our perspective on the world — and also how others see us.
Shivaji Das is an award-winning Indian writer, traveler, international speaker, and photographer, now based in Singapore.
His books include Angels by the Murky River: Travels off the Beaten Path; Journeys with the Caterpillar: Traveling through the islands of Flores and Sumba, Indonesia; and today we’re talking about The Other Shangri-La: Journeys through the Sino-Tibetan Frontier in Sichuan.
* The attraction of remote and unusual places
* The origins of Shangri-La
* Some of the historical, religious, and cultural issues that make the Tibetan plains a complicated area
* The architecture, people, and food of the area
* The value of traveling as a multi-cultural partnership
* Recommended travel books
You can find Shivaji Das at ShivajiDas.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo Frances Penn: Welcome to the show, Shivaji.
Shivaji Das: Thank you, Jo. Thanks for having me on the show.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s great to have you here. So you’ve written about some really fascinating places.
What draws you to travel, especially in these more remote areas?
Shivaji Das: As a child, I was rather into work and I hated traveling. I must say, not as a child, until I was fairly grown-up, until I was in my early 20s, I hated traveling and I hated travelers.
Whenever someone like relatives or other friends of my family would come to our house, I’d be like, why are they coming to our house? Don’t they have other better things to do?
It was rather late in my life, in my mid-20s that I really started traveling for the purpose of leisure. And once I did that, and I was forced into traveling when I was working in the United States and I had nothing to do over the weekends, I would take buses, Greyhound buses, and all that to neighboring towns or cities.
That’s when I began talking to strangers, I got to know about their stories, old people who have lost their kids in the Iraq war, immigrants who were traveling with large families, and even very muscular bullies who would surprisingly offer their bag of chips to me and all of these encounters got me fascinated with travel.
Since then, since my mid-20s, I have always looked forward to any opportunity to pack my bag and go to the airport or to the nearest jetty.
Jo Frances Penn: Why do you choose the places that you choose? Because you’ve written books about islands in Indonesia, and we’re talking about this area that is quite different today and you have traveled off the beaten path. I do a lot of trips where I might go to a bigger city, whereas you tend to get off the beaten track.
Why do you go to these remote places?
Shivaji Das: I do go to remote places, but more than that, I go to more traditional travel destinations as well, but it’s just that I don’t necessarily write about them as much, I guess that’s what happens. But I’ve been, I think, almost 10 times to Bali. I have been there a few times to Switzerland and to New York City, Hong Kong, and so on.
What especially I look for,
History, Faith, And Beauty. The Complete American Pilgrim With Howard Kramer
What does it mean to be a secular pilgrim — when you’re not a Christian, but you love churches, history, beauty, and religious symbolism?
In this episode, Howard Kramer talks about some of the most beautiful places to visit in terms of architecture, as well as natural locations, and how sometimes, the most emotionally resonant places, those that inspire awe and wonder, are not the most famous, but those that touch us at a deeper level.
Howard Kramer is the author of The Complete American Pilgrim, The Complete Christian Pilgrim, and The Complete American Military Pilgrim. His extensive site, TheCompletePilgrim.com, contains articles and pictures of some of the world’s greatest sites of religious interest.
* Pilgrimage as a journey of meaning, regardless of religious belief
* The four stages of pilgrimage
* Interesting churches in the USA, chosen for natural beauty, architecture, history, and meaning
* Other places of religious interest
* Recommended travel books
You can find Howard Kramer at TheCompletePilgrim.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Howard Kramer is the author of The Complete American Pilgrim, and his extensive site, thecompletepilgrim.com, contains articles and pictures of some of the world’s greatest sites of religious interest. Welcome, Howard.
Howard: Thank you so much, Joanna.
Jo: I’m thrilled to talk to you today.
What sparked your interest in pilgrimage, and what has been your favorite pilgrimage so far?
Howard: I had the opportunity to live in France as a student, and during the Christmas break, I went to Italy and traveled around, and for the very first time really in my life got to see some of the classic churches and cathedrals of antiquity. I absolutely fell in love with the architecture and the art and the history almost more than the religious aspect of it because I developed a very big fascination with seeing some of these wonderful, beautiful old buildings as far back as the Roman era.
I have a very extensive story about my first trip to Rome. I will not go into it now, but suffice it to say, it ended with me seeing Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican, and it was just an absolutely spectacular event for me even though I’m not Catholic. It was a wonderful thing to see.
I don’t know if I count that as a pilgrimage because that’s not what I set out to do initially, but I do look back on it as one. To date, I’ve been to, I hesitate to say thousands of churches and other religious sites but probably at least 1,000 around the world.
And to date, my favorite pilgrimage, the one that I look back on most fondly was three years ago for the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. I had the honor to attend the 500th-anniversary celebration in Wittenberg, Germany. I got to go celebrate at the church there with the local Lutherans. And it was a wonderful, wonderful experience.
I was supposed to do something akin to that this year. I was supposed to come to England this year in advance of the 400th anniversary of the pilgrim voyage to Massachusetts pilgrims. For those of you in the United Kingdom who don’t know, those are the ship of colonists that sailed in 1620, 400 years ago to the United States.
In the United States, it’s recognized, not just for its historical importance, but for its religious importance. And I was very excited to come over there and visit some churches in England and in the Netherlands, and unfortunately, that got canceled. But that’s something along the lines of what I like to do, visit big churches, especially for big events.
Not Quite Lost. Travels Without A Sense Of Direction With Roz Morris
How can you see your own country with the eyes of an outsider? How can you follow your curiosity and discover new things about a place you already know?
In this interview, Roz Morris talks about finding fragments and tiny miracles while exploring England and how we can experience our own land from a new perspective, increasingly important while we can’t travel in the way we used to.
Roz Morris is the author of Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction, literary novels, My Memories of a Future Life, and Lifeform Three, as well as books for writers.
* The joys of discovery when traveling without direction
* Seeing your own country with new eyes and following your curiosity
* Finding unusual and interesting places to stay
* Visiting sites out of season
* How writing fiction can be inspired by travel
* On using a specific notebook for travel and why that matters
* Personal connections to a place
You can find Roz Morris at RozMorris.org
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Roz Morris is the author of Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction, literary novels, My Memories of a Future Life, and Lifeform Three, as well as books for writers. Welcome, Roz.
Roz. Hi, Joanna. It’s great to be here.
Jo: I’m pleased to have you on the show. I want to start with the title of the book because I always know my direction.
Why is it so compelling for you to be without a sense of direction?
Roz: Several reasons. I’m also very focused most of the time in what I do. I go running. I ride horses. I write books. I have a lot of deadlines in my life. I’m always really focused. I’ve always got a task in mind and somewhere that I’m heading.
But when I go out wandering, the kind of travels that were in this book, they were more with my mind off the hook. They were about just noticing what was around me. It’s a different state of mind. It’s like browsing.
Another thing I love is junk shops, so just looking around them and finding little pieces of history just in what’s in front of me instead of having to have a goal and going somewhere. But there’s also another aspect to that part of the title, Travels Without A Sense of Direction, which is that I have no sense of direction at all.
My husband, Dave, who figures strongly in the book, he’s my counterpart traveler in it. He will say things like, ‘Look, just turn south.’ I say, ‘I turn what?’ And I can’t even split the world into left and right. It’s all a different experience. I just notice odd little things when I’m in that mind zone. That was one of the things I wanted to capture, just the joy of discovery, noticing where you are, noticing what’s around you.
Jo: Even before you leave, how do you decide where to go? Do you and Dave agree you’re going to go to a particular place or is it really that you head off in the car just somewhere?
Roz: Yes. We do know where we’re going when we start off. Most of the tales in this book are when we have decided to go somewhere. So we decided to go and stay in a little folly in Somerset or something like that for a week. Then once we get there, we’re thinking, ‘Okay, let’s just see what’s around us’.
Some travel books are written about someone who sets out to do something like walk the Pennine Way or walk across Australia or something like that. We don’t tend to do that. We just go somewhere and then see what it’s going to bring us if we just open our eyes.
Jo: That’s what I like about the book. I think it’s a much more gentle travel book than a lot of the things we talk about, certainly on this show.
The Gardens Of Mars. Madagascar With John Gimlette
An island nation off the coast of Africa, Madagascar has an incredible diversity of unusual landscapes and wildlife, of which lemurs are the most famous but by no means the only ones! 90% of its flora and fauna are endemic, found nowhere else in the world.
While there are some resorts, much of Madagascar is remote and escapes the influence of modern life with unique religious and cultural practices, as John Gimlette talks about in this interview.
John Gimlette is a multi-award-winning travel writer. His latest book is The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, an Island Story.
* Unique aspects of Madagascar including the landscape and wildlife
* Influences of Borneo, Africa, and France
* The beliefs about ancestors that guide the Malagasy life
* Food and drink in Madagascar
* Recommended travel books
You can find John Gimlette at JohnGimlette.com and on Facebook.com/JohnGimlette.
Transcript of the interview
Jo: John Gimlette is a multi-award-winning travel writer. His latest book is The Gardens of Mars: Madagascar, an Island Story. Welcome, John.
John: Hi, Jo. Nice to be here. Thanks.
Jo: Welcome to the show.
Where is Madagascar and what are some of the unique aspects?
John: Well, yes, let’s place it first. It’s in the Indian ocean, about 240 miles off Africa adjacent to Mozambique. But the thing to really get about this place is that it’s enormous.
It’s the fourth largest island in the world. Just to put that in perspective, if you were to lay it across a map of Europe, it would stretch from London to Algiers. And yet it’s got a smaller road network than Jamaica, where there are roads but tend to get washed away every year.
Now it’s unique because it was separated from Africa during the great tectonic shifts of the earth, about 150 million years ago. And then after that, India and Sri Lanka also broke off from it and they floated off to the North. But the plants and animals that you have in Madagascar are really survivors from a much earlier age.
So whilst there were once lemurs everywhere, even in South America, now they’re really only here and there are 107 species of them. In fact, 91% of the wildlife of Madagascar is endemic, you will only find it here.
In cross-section, the Island looks a bit like a wedge, and oddly, most of the people live right on the very top of the Ridge and on the steeply sloping sides of the East coast. Why do they do that? Because that’s where the water is.
And the capital is up there. It’s a sort of Shangri-la city, if you like, on a group of islands rising out of the rice and it sits at 3,000 feet
Beware to the South and the West it gets much drier. And some of the people there, one group I’m thinking of in particular, the Antandroy where their whole life is a struggle for water and they’ll walk up to 40 miles a day just to get at what they need.
In that vast area of the Southwest, others really only went there for the first time at the beginning of the 19th century. So yes, it is in a sense, a lost world or a real-life Jurassic Park.
Jo: Wow. I’ve seen it on maps and I was saying before we started recording that I worked there remotely, but I’ve never been. I just didn’t realize it was so big. It’s like it always gets missed off things that people don’t even realize it’s there.
Would say that it’s more influenced by Africa, or you mentioned India, is it more Asian?
John: Do you know,
This Too Shall Pass. Thoughts From The Pilgrims’ Way With J.F. Penn
“Man’s real home is not a house, but the Road, and that life itself is a journey to be walked on foot.” Bruce Chatwin
In late October 2020, I walked the Pilgrims’ Way from Southwark Cathedral in London to Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, 182 km/113 miles on foot, alone, carrying my own gear… during a global pandemic.
A Roman road 2000 years ago, the route became popular for pilgrims after the martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket on 29 December 1170 at the hands of four knights of King Henry II. In literature, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer follows a cast of colorful pilgrims on the way, and T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral dramatically captures the archbishop’s bloody end.
In this episode, published on the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom, I’ll share the personal side of my journey. I’ve written separately about the practical side of the pilgrimage with day by day photos here.
* Fernweh. Longing for escape.
* Why pilgrimage?
* Transience and permanence. Questions I asked myself on the way.
* “Stranger, pass by that which you do not love.”
* Pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone and tackling fear
* Give it time to settle. The lessons of pilgrimage may not be immediately obvious.
* The next step
Longing for escape
The word ‘wanderlust’ means ‘a strong desire to travel,’ and I certainly have that! In 1983, when I was 8, my mum took us to live in Malawi, Africa (which I talked about in episode 1) and since then, travel has played an important part in my life. I presume it does for you, too, since you are listening to this!
The last time I traveled was in February 2020 when Jonathan and I had a few days in Bilbao and San Sebastian, crushed into tiny pintxos bars sampling the local cuisine, wandering freely around the cities, walking through the Guggenheim with no thought of a mask. It seems like a different world now and my wanderlust has shifted into fernweh, a German word meaning ‘a longing for far off places.’ That longing goes deep and this time of enforced stillness intensified it so much that, at times, it spilled over into frustration and anger — at the world, at the virus, at myself, for not being able to quiet the need to get away.
I am safe and well and loved and busy, and able to work from home. I acknowledge my privilege and yet some days, I felt… still feel… like a bird banging its wings against the bars of a cage. I’m not an angry person, but when anger and frustration bubble up every day, I know I have to get moving. Walking every day has helped during the pandemic, but I have circled the local routes over and over, day after day, as the seasons changed.
During the summer, it seemed that perhaps there might be hope for an end and we had some glorious days in the sun — but then it became clear that the winter would be long and dark and it would be spring again before the beginning of the end of the pandemic. I needed a long walk for my mental health before the winter set in, and after weighing the risks, I decided to get out before the bars of my cage shut once more.
As I write this, a new strain is spreading across the UK. Countries have closed their borders to us and I couldn’t travel right now even if I wanted to.
Lava Fields, Trolls, And The Hidden People. Iceland with Michael Ridpath
From the ice of the glaciers to the black church near the lava fields and on to the steaming hot pools of the blue lagoon, Iceland is a country of stark natural beauty and interesting folklore.
In this interview, Michael Ridpath talks about the hidden people, the trolls, and the ghosts in the mist, as well as the landscape as a character, and why he keeps returning to the country for inspiration.
Michael Ridpath is a British author of crime and thriller novels. His Magnus crime thriller series is set in Iceland. And he has a website, WritingInIce.com, which features articles and pictures from his research travels.
* Why Iceland is so compelling to visit
* Suggestions for the most beautiful places to visit in Iceland
* The Hidden People, and other interesting folklore of the region
* How long winters impact the Icelandic temperament
* Things to see and do in Reykjavik
* How to write evocative stories where the landscape is a character
* Recommended books about or set in Iceland
You can find Michael Ridpath at MichaelRidpath.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Michael Ridpath is a British author of crime and thriller novels. His ‘Magnus’ crime thriller series is set in Iceland. And he has a website, writinginice.com, which features articles and pictures from his research travels. Welcome, Michael.
Jo: It’s great to have you on the show. So, first up, you’re British with close ties to the USA.
What drew you to write about Iceland in the first place and to keep going back there?
Michael: I think your question kind of encapsulates it because I knew nothing at all about Iceland, that was its attraction. They say when you start writing, you should write about what you know.
I used to be a banker a long time ago. I wrote a number of financial thrillers, which were set all over the world in places like Brazil, and Wyoming, and South Africa, and the Czech Republic. And those were really well to start with, and then they kind of run out of steam, as these things do.
So, I needed a new plan. And I decided I would write a detective series. I had the same main character in each book, which seemed like an interesting idea. But I needed the detective to be distinctive.
And because I like writing about foreign places, I thought, well, he needs to come from an interesting country. And I had two ideas, the first one that came to my head, which you should always go with the first thing that comes to your head, was Iceland because I’d been on a book tour there in 1995 and it was the weirdest, most surreal book tour I’ve ever had.
I thought, well, one day I’ll write about that. And I did lots of analysis and thinking and came up with an idea about an honest cop in Saudi Arabia, which seemed like a really good idea for a story. And then I decided I would make sure people would buy the book when I’d written it. So I asked people whether they prefer to story about an Icelandic detective or one set in Saudi Arabia, and there was a huge, huge majority in favor of Iceland, which people like me didn’t know about but wanted to find out about and no one was interested in Saudi Arabia. So, Iceland, it was.
Jo: Fantastic. That’s really interesting, because in my head, Iceland versus Saudi Arabia, these are two very different temperatures, let alone anything else. And you mentioned that you like traveling to foreign places.
What was it about the foreignness of Iceland that attracted you?