Hello travellers, I’m Jo Frances Penn, and in this episode, I’m talking to Nick Jubber about the momentary encounters that bring a journey to life.
We talk about how religion weaves its way into travel, especially in the middle east and north Africa, and how sometimes we can sense the intensity of faith, even when we are not religious ourselves. Nick talks about the nomadic life and the attraction of desert places, finding the roots of fairy tales across Europe, and how travel is changing, even while our desire to explore remains.
Nicholas Jubber is the award-winning author of five travel books, including Epic Continent and The Timbuktu School of Nomads. His latest book is The Fairy Tellers: A Journey Into the Secret History of Fairy Tales.
- How religion winds its way into Nick’s travel writing
- Discovering spiritual moments and meaning even if not religious
- The romance vs. the reality of the desert
- Lessons learned from nomadic life in the desert
- Assessing risk and safety while traveling
- Finding the roots of fairy tale in Europe
- How travel might change in the future
- Recommended travel books
You can find Nick at NickJubber.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Nicholas Jubber is the award-winning author of five travel books, including Epic Continent and The Timbuktu School of Nomads. His latest book is The Fairy Tellers: A Journey Into the Secret History of Fairy Tales. Welcome, Nick.
Nicholas: Oh, thanks, Joanna. Thanks very much for having me on the show.
Jo: I’m excited to talk to you about lots of things. Let’s start with the latest book. So, a quote from The Fairy Tellers:
“Grow up in suburbia, and either you tend to stick it out, or you spend your life looking for ways to flee those privet hedges and cul-de-sacs.”
I read that line, and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah.’ Tell us a bit more about you, and how you became a travel writer from that background.
Nicholas: I grew up in a very typical middle-class kind of lifestyle. I think that there was this part of me that wanted to break out of there. I think that, for me, travel is often driven by a combination of a sort of escapism and curiosity.
I think that from growing up in the cul-de-sac, and then I went to a boarding school run by monks. And then I worked after university in a job where I was working with a lot of filing cabinets and doing Excel spreadsheets. I was utterly bored out of my mind, and constantly reading about faraway places.
Then an opportunity came to teach in Jerusalem, at a school in the Old City of Jerusalem. And I thought ‘That would just be fantastic.’ So, I went along there and sort of carried on traveling really ever since.
It was a fascinating time to be in Jerusalem. The intifada had broken out. It was a terrible time. There was fighting on the streets. But there was a real sense of history in the making, and debate about what was going on and the world, as we were moving into the 21st century. So, a sense of a really exciting time to be traveling in that particular region in the Middle East.
That led me to traveling to different places around there, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, all the way down to Ethiopia, which ended up in my first book, The Prester Quest. And then from there, more journeys.
As soon as you start traveling, you see different places that you want to go to. And I think, ‘Oh, I want to go to Iran now. I want to go to Afghanistan. I want to go to Central Asia. I want to go to India.’ And so it just snowballed on and on from there.
Jo: Yeah. Absolutely. And it’s so interesting, because we have had some overlap. We were both at Oxford… Similar, like, one year overlap, I think we came up with. I think we also may have been in Jerusalem at a similar time.
Nicholas: Oh, wow. Really? Yeah.
Jo: Because I also worked out in Jerusalem and, well, the West Bank as well, during the intifada times. Of course, there’s been multiple intifadas.
Let’s get into The Prester Quest and then come back to The Fairy Tellers, because I’m fascinated by this myth of Prester John, and it, as you say, it goes into Africa and around the Middle East. And also you said you went to boarding school run by monks.
How has religion underpinned your travels, and wound its way into your writing?
Nicholas: I suppose I grew up in quite a religious household, Irish Catholic background. And going to church was something that was very much part of my life. At the same time, because I went to a school run by monks, and there were as with many of those schools, that led to various issues and scandals.
So, I’m very aware of the flaws of religion, as well as its power. I have quite an ambiguous relationship with that. And I think, actually, going to Jerusalem really exacerbated that, because you see the incredible power that religion has on people, and its ability to join people together, but also obviously to split people apart.
When you’d see the violence and the vindictiveness with which people treated each other because of their religion, and continue to do so, that can be really, really horrifying.
The number of times in the West Bank, or in Jerusalem, or in Bethlehem, wherever that I suddenly have my eyes stung by tear gas, or even be hit by stones, and see these battles going on, with very young people. I was working in a school, and we’d have kids coming into school suddenly on crutches or with wounds.
They’d come out with all sorts of excuses. They’d say, ‘I fell down the stairs, sir,’ and all that kind of rubbish, but we all knew that they’d been out fighting in the intifada, because they wanted to take part in that. And that was not just religious. It’s to do with nationalism and to do with all sorts of issues. But obviously, religion in that part of the world plays a very key role.
Jo: I’d love to travel in Iran. One of my impressions is that we might think there’s religious fundamentalism, which, of course, there is, but there’s also this sort of openness, and there’s loads of other religions in a country like Iran.
I watched a documentary on the Christian community, but also, you’ve got all kinds of really interesting things going on. And so often, it’s stereotypes of these countries that come up when we talk about religion.
How have you explored beyond those religious stereotypes in your books?
Nicholas: Iran was a fascinating one because obviously there’s this very monolithic impression that is often given to the outside world of Iran. And then you get in there and you find this incredible hospitality, and that comes out partly of Islam and partly of other beliefs as well, and other traditions.
There’s the Zoroastrian faith there in Yazd, and I found it fascinating to meet some of the Zoroastrians and to hear about how that religion continues, and how a lot of younger people in Iran, even if they’ve been brought up as Muslims, feel a connection to that old, the old Iranian faith.
But also you mentioned the Christians. I remember having a lovely time when I was in Isfahan. I’d been in Iran for quite a while, and I guess I hadn’t had an alcoholic drink for a while. And then suddenly, an Armenian Christian invited me to come into his compound, where they were brewing their own arak, and invited me to sit down, and I have a very hazy memory of the rest of that day, but I remember it being tremendously warmhearted and feeling very welcomed.
Really, throughout Iran, I felt this tremendous sense of welcome. And people say, there’s a phrase where they say that the guest is second to God. So, it does come out of that religious belief. At the same time, you’d also see the sort of the oppression with which religion was used against people, and how people’s lives and opportunities were being stifled by it.
I met a lot of people, especially a lot of poets, and painters, and actors, who would be fighting against the mullahs’ regime, and fighting against that very blanketing, oppressive form of Islam, and try to celebrate life, which in itself was a form, in Iran, can be a form of rebellion. And that was really, really uplifting, actually.
Then that traveled into going to Afghanistan as well, and meeting people with various backgrounds, and I remember spending time amongst the Sufis of Herat when they were performing the zikr, where they’re reciting the name of God very quickly and repetitively, to connect themselves with God. I was really enchanted by the humility, and the power of faith that some people had there, especially people who are living in really fraught and tense and difficult circumstances.
Sometimes faith could be the thing that I guess helps people through. I found that myself traveling in Afghanistan, that my faith suddenly started increasing enormously, as I found myself going into places like Helmand and those more dangerous places. I’d suddenly start praying again, as I hadn’t really for many years, which, admittedly, was probably quite superficial, but it’s to do with that sense of danger around you, and wanting some kind of branch that you can hold onto.
Jo: I’m always fascinated by religion versus faith, what you’re saying there, but also spiritual moments. I’m not a Christian. I don’t believe in any particular religion myself. But I have had these spiritual moments, where I’m just suddenly aware that there is more than just our physical world, there is something else, and places where I feel like spiritual intensity is strong.
That might be in a man-made environment, like amazing architecture, but also in nature. So, I wondered, given that you said there you were praying in that moment, but it doesn’t sound so much a spiritual moment.
Are there places that you’ve been on your travels where you’ve thought, ‘Yes. This means something, in some way?’
Nicholas: Absolutely. It’s often actually when you get away from the crowd. I think sometimes there can be these sort of wonderful moments where you take part in a religious ceremony.
In places like Jerusalem or Rome. When you’re in Rome and the pope’s giving his blessing, it does feel wonderful to be part of this big crowd. But actually, I’m not sure if that’s necessarily spiritual. I think it’s often when you’re in, I’ve found, when I’ve been on my own somewhere.
I remember being in the Ruins of Ani, which is in southeast Turkey, on the Armenian border, and it’s an old sort of medieval Armenian town. There are these beautiful churches, with rocket-shaped steeples. And you’d walk into them, and there are these medieval frescos that have survived. They’re quite pale and peeling away.
Lots of holes in the roofs, and the wildlife has half reclaimed the architecture. And standing there, seeing the light coming through these holes in the roof, and feeling yourself just alone with the vision of the medieval painters, and seeing the biblical stories told through these medieval painters, that sense of transcendence, that you’re almost traveling through some kind of wormhole back in time.
I think those are the kind of moments where I felt really a kind of a sense of connection, a sense of something spiritual.
Or another example I think would be in Iceland. There’s a place called the Arctic Henge, which has been built actually just in the last few years in Raufarhöfn in the Arctic Circle, very north of Iceland. It’s a giant sundial surrounded by columns and pillars. They’ve got the names of various figures from the Edda, from the old Nordic mythology, inscribed on some of these stones.
That sense of being in this very isolated place, it’s a very cold place, and having that place, not so much having that place to yourself, but being alone with that place. I think also that sometimes in these places, even if you’re on your own, there’s a sense of emotional connection with anybody else who has been there and has felt something there, that these places are often, they’re sort of repositories of people’s feelings.
We connect, I think, with other people’s emotions who have come there before us, or maybe are even going to come there after us. And that sense that these are places where we’re coming for a common purpose.
Jo: I agree with you. I feel like there are places that just so many people have felt something that it’s just become imprinted into the environment somehow.
You mentioned there the isolation, but I also like insignificance. I feel like travel makes us feel insignificant in a good way. Like, everything’s not so important, because I’m just this tiny speck on the world.
And you write about the desert, which I love.
I enjoyed The Timbuktu School for Nomads. I still remember first seeing the Sahara from the cockpit of a 747 as we flew to live in Malawi when I was a child. And that’s one of my first memories is the desert. Of course, they don’t let children in the cockpit of planes anymore.
Nicholas: You got to go into the cockpit? That must have been great.
Jo: It was. It was 1982 or something. And back then, you could smoke on a plane, let alone just wander around. But you’ve traveled in the Sahara, and it feels like there’s this romantic view, which I definitely have. I don’t want to live in the desert, for sure.
What’s the romance of the desert for you? And what’s the reality?
Nicholas: I had this wonderful romantic vision of the desert. And I knew that it was an illusion. So I wanted to find out the truth of it, really.
I’d grown up with all those wonderful films like ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ I had the images of the desert from Star Wars movies. So, I was very aware that that was an idealized and romanticized image. I was really curious to know what is it like for the people who actually live in the desert?
That was really the spur for The Timbuktu School for Nomads. When I went out there, inevitably, I found that it is just so much more complicated. I loved the wildness, the danger, the sense that you are very much at one with nature. There are no safety nets.
At the same time, the discipline of survival, being amongst nomadic people, and just seeing the amount of craft, and skill, and technique that they have, and the absolute necessity of following those techniques all the time, really, is quite regimental. It’s almost like a military life.
But at the same time, there’s wonderful camaraderie, when you sit around the campfire, when you’ve walked for hours across this very hard desert, the heat baking your back, and then finally you get to sit down and you will slump and build this fire. And there’d often be these wonderful traditions around, rituals around the tea-making, which I think, as a Brit, I really connected with. So, you have this sort of very complicated process of tea-making.
I remember the pride I felt when I learned to make the tea myself. And they said, ‘Yes, you’ve done it right this time, at last.’ I grew to really admire and respect some of the nomads who I traveled with. It’s a very austere life. And it’s not for everybody.
I think that was one of the things I learned as well, was that there are people who thrive in that life, but there are people who don’t. You see the people who want to get away from that life, and sometimes aren’t able to, and sometimes they do, and then sometimes they come back. Life’s complicated.
So, it was really interesting to see all that complexity, and to see the many different ways in which people live in the desert as well. I traveled amongst camel herders, but also amongst people who keep goats or cattle, and then also in different parts of that area of North Africa, amongst people who go fishing on the Niger River as well. So, there was a range of lifestyles. I found all that really fascinating.
Jo: And, of course, it says ‘School for Nomads,’ and you include lessons in it.
Jo: When you came away, what sticks in your mind as the main thing you learned for yourself and your own personal development out of the desert and the nomad life?
Nicholas: I learned a lot about that sort of focus, really, of when you’re traveling, you have to keep your eye on the prize, know exactly what you want to do. I think that a lot of the nomads who make their lifestyle work, they’re not distracted. They’re very disciplined, and they’re very focused on exactly whatever their task is, whatever they need to do.
I really learned to admire them for the way they strip out the complex, too much of the distractions and annoyances, and make sure that they’re very targeted. I learned a lot about being with people, actually.
One of the things I love with traveling, really, is meeting people who have all sorts of different ways of life. I’ve often not found it easy to necessarily sit down and just do the sort of chitter-chatter that actually is really very much a part of nomadic life. You get to the end of your day or your night, sometimes you’ll be walking at night, and then it will be around dawn and you eventually rest. And you sit around and relish each other’s company. I think that was probably my most abiding memory of that experience.
Jo: And then, the city of Timbuktu, because I feel like the name is so evocative of myth and legend.
But what is Timbuktu really like?
Nicholas: Oh, it’s an amazing place, and then an incredibly downtrodden place, in so many ways. It’s very much a city on the edge. Its fame really is because it’s between the Sahara and Sub-Sahara, and the world of the river and the desert come together there. And so it was this great sort of trading melting pot.
But it had moments in history where it was quite wealthy. Mansa Musa, the wealthiest man in history, ruled over there at one point. I visited there several times, actually, both before and after it had been invaded by the Islamic Jihad group. It was really heartbreaking to see what happened to the city and what the people of the city went through.
When I came back the last time and I met people who had horrific stories. So, the city had been through a real trauma, and it was a little bit broken, I think. But I was also really amazed by the resilience of the people.
One of the people I met was a man called Abdel Kader Haidara, who was a librarian, who had been involved in very much a pivotal role in organizing the movement of manuscripts out of Timbuktu. They have these amazing medieval manuscripts, which go into all kinds of subjects, not just religious subjects, but also pharmacology, and astronomy, and all kinds of the wonderful range of subjects that medieval scholarship produced.
A lot of these books they knew would be targeted by the jihadist, so they moved them all, and got them onto the river, and moved them out, 370,000 manuscripts, which they managed to transport to Bamako. So, it was amazing to hear some of these stories of how people had survived and how they had managed to endure, and their defiance.
One of my most wonderful memories in Timbuktu was going to a wedding party, going on the back of a friend’s motorbike. We just sped through the alleys to this little house on a back alley. And the light suddenly flaring around us, everybody out dancing, wonderful headdresses and coiffures, and the joy of music and dance, and that sense of a city that was coming out of a terrible time, and was determined to celebrate life and to enjoy it as much as they could.
I think that’s always going to be my most sort of poignant and abiding memory of that amazing city.
Jo: I’ve read that book, The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu. That’s a great book about exactly what you’re talking about, about getting the manuscripts out of the city. And, again, I think we have these stereotypes of places.
I had no idea before reading that book that there were these manuscripts there. And I think often people don’t know, for example, that Ethiopia had this incredibly powerful civilization, and rich civilization.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how we come up against these modern stereotypes of things because of media, and then we have to break those down when we travel.
Nicholas: Absolutely. Africa has particularly been very badly served by Western historians, scholarship, and media. I think that we have this blindness really to the richness of the continent.
You mentioned Ethiopia. The richness of Ethiopian culture is one of the reasons why the myth of Prester John connected with Ethiopia. When I was traveling in the wake of the Prester John legend, that Ethiopia was my ultimate destination, going to this amazing town called Lalibela, where they have these rock-cut churches. It’s absolutely architectural gem.
And, as you say, they have these amazing manuscripts and incredible texts and versions of biblical stories. And there’s a huge, a huge richness of culture, which is really fascinating to delve into.
Jo: You mentioned Lalibela there. I wanted to go to Ethiopia. I’ve written about the Ark of the Covenant in one of my novels, Ark of Blood, and they have something that could be the Ark, in Ethiopia.
Nicholas: Yeah. They say they have it.
Jo: But it’s interesting because when I looked at going, there was quite a lot of violence going on. You’ve mentioned some of the dangers of travel. I mainly travel as a solo woman. And so I’m pretty careful about the things I do.
So, I couldn’t see myself traveling with necessarily a nomadic tribe in the Sahara. I necessarily wouldn’t feel safe that way. I wonder how you assess your risk, your personal risk, both how you used to, when you were a single young man, but now you have a family.
How has your assessment of risk changed now you have a family? And do we overestimate risk with travel?
Nicholas: It’s tricky. I think everybody has to to do your research, really. I think you have to do your due diligence, and look into it as much as possible.
I think probably the two scariest places I’ve traveled to are Afghanistan and Mali, and particularly when Mali was going through a war. So, I obviously did a lot of research, and made contact with a lot of people.
But there is always that leap of faith where you’ve just gotta go, and hope that everything works out, and trust in the kindness of strangers, that people will be hopefully, hospitable to you.
I think it’s partly about trying to learn as much of the local languages, as much about the local culture, and really just trying to show people that you’re there in good faith, that you’re not there to prospect for oil or to find diamonds, but you’re there because you love their culture, and want to learn more about it. I found that that could be really helpful.
But at the same time, there are bad people everywhere. And fortunately, there are very good people as well. And I guess that in traveling, I’ve been lucky enough to mostly come across the good people.
I’ve definitely had my moments where it has felt very dangerous. Obviously, we’re traveling with children. Those are not places that I would take my children. And so, the journeys that we do as a family are very different. They’re very chaotic in their own way, I guess. They don’t have the same spontaneity that those solo travels can have.
Jo: And I think that’s, what, I got the impression that The Fairy Tellers was also partly because of your family. You went on a family trip and got an idea that way, is that right?
Nicholas: Yes. We’ve done quite a bit of traveling as a family, so it’s really good to shake ideas up and see different places. And obviously, fairy tales are something that’s come out for me of telling fairy tales to my children. So, just seeing their reactions to different fairy tales has been really instructive, and seeing how different characters in fairy tales really connect with them.
And it’s amazing, I think, when you look at some of these fairy tales that go back for hundreds of years, and the fact that children still respond to them in very, often very, very interactive and often very surprising ways.
Jo: I’m super fascinated in the darkness of real fairy tales. I feel like we clean a lot of them up now. But if you actually read some of them, they are pretty dark, aren’t they?
Tell us about some of the darker fairy tales that were fascinating.
Nicholas: They’re so grisly. The further back you go, if you go back to the original, some of the original versions, then they seem to get darker and darker. The Grimms’ Fairy Tales, obviously, are very famous, and they’ve been really watered down and cleaned up, as you say, by Disney, especially. But you go back to the original versions it all gets much more violent.
An example would be the ‘Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs,’ a classic tale. In the original version, the queen isn’t Snow White’s stepmother, she’s her own mother. And she wants Snow White to be killed so that she could eat her heart and her organs, and therefore absorb her beauty. So, it’s pretty sickening, really. Pretty horrific.
And you find that in so many of these stories. It’s part of what makes them so exciting to read in these earlier versions. That’s the startling horror of them.
Jo: I totally agree. I think that we try and shield children from darkness. But equally, those stories are important for the darkness, because the world is dark in many ways. But the sort of good tends to overcome evil in the end, which is why I particularly am attracted to reading horror and darker stories, because I like good to triumph over the bad stuff, I guess.
Nicholas: Well, don’t read too much of Hans Christian Andersen then, he has sad endings.
Jo: In The Fairy Tellers, again, I’ve got another quote here. You say,
“Stories are cooked in specific places. However universal the ingredients, the recipe carries a local flavor.”
Which, again, there are some stories that repeat themselves over places. What were some of the places and stories you thought particularly stood out in the travels for this book?
Nicholas: One of my favorite journeys I did for this one was going to Lapland, and I traveled in the world of Hans Christian Andersen. I went to Denmark and I visited his home in Odense. It was amazing to see the poverty that he grew up in, and then how he became this wonderfully popular and beloved author.
All my life, really loved his story of the Snow Queen. I’ve loved that idea of the story of the girl who sets out to rescue her friend, to bring her friend back home. And so, I traveled to Lapland in the wake of that story, and I stayed in a snow castle, actually, that gets built annually on the Bothnian Gulf, in Kemi.
I met reindeer herders as well, and went out on the snowmobile to the glades where the reindeer are herded, and saw the challenges of the life of reindeer herding. I was really, really enjoyed that aspect of connecting that story and that particular storyteller with those places, and that very sort of Scandinavian, very Nordic world, very cold, obviously, in the very, very particular climate and seeing how that story grew out of that climate, which was really, really fun and really exciting to witness.
Jo: What about European cities? Because you talk a lot about the places that are not so busy. But I feel like Europe, in particular, our history and our present is so dense in some great cities that have been around for so long.
Were there any stories that you found in particular cities?
Nicholas: Naples is really connected with our earliest fairy tale collection, actually the ‘Tale of Tales,’ which was set down in the 17th century by a brilliant storyteller called Giambattista Basile. And he was an adventuring courtier poet, who traveled from one court to another. His sister was the greatest diva in opera of the time, and she sang for Monteverdi, the great composer, composed music for her.
She sang for the Dukes of Mantua, and he followed her coattails and he found himself in different courts in Avellino, in Mantua, and ended up in Giugliano, then Mount Vesuvius erupted and he caught a lung infection and died. So, he had a very rambunctious life. He was a soldier in Crete at one point, fighting against the Ottoman Turks.
But he also collected stories, and he collected the earliest version of Cinderella in Europe, or the earliest full version, where she’s Cenerentola, the earliest full version that we have of Rapunzel, versions of ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ and many other very famous stories. And he lives a lot of his life in Naples.
He brings out his love of Naples, but also his sort of complex relationship with Naples as a very loud and noisy, chaotic city. It was the most popular city in Europe of the time. So, he brings out the wonderful lines where he talks about, ‘Beloved Naples. I love the city.’ But then there’s also a lot of bitterness about the corruption of the courts, lines about people’s hopes all being sent to the winds.
Often, you have to go out from the courts, out from the cities, into the forest, where the ogres live. In a lot of the Italian tales, the forests are populated by ogres, especially. And the ogres often are the wisest people around. They’re the ones who are often pointing at the cities and the courts and saying, ‘Oh, they’re all hypocrites there. It’s out here that everybody’s honest.’ It really brings out that wonderful sense of that contrast between courtly life and rural life.
Jo: That’s so interesting. I agree with that. We talked about risk earlier. I had one of those experiences in Naples where I felt very unsafe. It’s so funny, because you travel in all kinds of places and you feel fine, like you say, you meet nice people. It was in Naples where I was like, ‘Hmm, I am not happy right now.’
It doesn’t matter, does it, where we go. It depends on a situation. It depends on how we’re feeling. But, as you say, then I went out of the city and went into that countryside around there, and the volcano, and all of that. And it’s like, ‘Oh, I feel quite happy out here.’ So, tapping into that instinct, I think, is so important.
Nicholas: And that’s basically what the ogres would’ve warned you.
Jo: Yes. That’s what’s so funny. And that was written however long ago.
Nicholas: They would have told you that. ‘Don’t go into that city. Yeah, just stay out here in the forest with us.’
The landscape around Naples, the Campanian landscape, then going down into Basilicata, it’s really beautiful. And you have those sort of fumaroles of smoke coming out through the ground, wonderful forests, and obviously, orchards, and so much, very sort of fruitful area. I love Naples, but it’s a tricky city, isn’t it? It’s a complex city.
Jo: For sure. Coming back to children and thinking about the future, we live an interesting time, obviously, as we record this in the spring of 2022. We’ve come out of a pandemic when we haven’t been able to travel, and people like us want to get going again, but also we’ve got environmental pressures, we’ve got geopolitical things going on.
How do you think your children might travel in a different way to you? Or are you thinking about changing the way you travel as well?
Nicholas: I think for many years, I’ve been trying to, thinking a lot about sustainable travel, and it can often feel like a contradiction in terms. The most sustainable thing to do really is just to stay at home. But if you’ve got that travel itch, it’s really hard to break.
I think the main thing is that I’ve been practicing for many years, really, is trying to not fly as much as possible. But obviously, I think everybody has to work out their own version of what they consider to be an ethical way of traveling. And I think it’s mainly about an awareness of the opportunities that we have when we’re traveling, compared with what opportunities might be available to the people that we’re traveling amongst, issues of money, and what power that might give us over people who have less.
There are all those kinds of issues. I’m obviously not a prophet, so I just cannot really predict what travel will be like in the future. I hope my children will get to travel. That’s the main thing. I think the world is always changing.
I hope also that whatever they experience, it will be a different world, because the world is always different. Obviously, there’s a lot of things that if we look towards the future that can make us feel very worried, and think, ‘Oh, god, it’s going to be awful.’ And it does feel sometimes like it’s harder and harder to have a sort of authentically spontaneous journey in the way that you could in the past.
When I think of some of the journeys that I did in my 20s and early 30s, and it feels, even now like it’s getting harder and harder to do those. But on the other hand, there are places always opening up just as other places are closing down. So, even though you might not maybe consider a journey to Russia right now, on the other hand, there are places in the Far East that feel more open now than they have for a very long time, places in Latin America that feel like they’re more accessible now than they’ve been for quite a while.
There’s always opportunities in different areas, and it’s finding those places where you can travel and can have a really interesting experience, and connect with people.
And there are a lot of things that we can worry about about the world, but I think that possibility of connecting, which, for me, is probably the most important thing in travel.
That moment when you have an encounter with somebody along the way, and you really make a connection with them, and you may stay in touch afterwards, you may become friends on Facebook or Twitter or whatever. You may not. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. You have those sort of momentary encounters that can really make a journey come to life. I hope people will always be able to have that.
Jo: I think those of us who, as you say, have the itch to travel, have wanderlust in our soul, we’re never going to stop. We just can’t. And also, I feel like the world is more blessed because of that, and we getting to know each other. My family is all intermarried with different cultures and different religions, even. So, we’re a sort of United Nations family. And I feel that intermarriage is the way to bring world peace. That’s one of my missions.
What are a few travel books that you love and recommend?
Nicholas: If I was to go back to one of the ones that had the most formative influence on me, I guess it’s probably Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, which I remember reading at the age of, oh god, what was it? Sort of 19, 20, and just thinking, ‘Wow. The idea that this was a true story, and that somebody had gone out and had such a deep connection with people in another place.’
Thesiger has been stereotyped over the years as a very austere and serious, sort of humorless man. But actually, the figure that comes out to me from that book is somebody who just really wanted to understand another place, and made friends with people there to the point where they all trusted each other in very dangerous circumstances. So, it’s a book that I admire hugely, and I really admire the depths to which he went to really, really understand the places that he traveled in.
A different note, I guess, would be something like Isabella Bird’s, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, which is a classic of the 19th-century travel writing genre, and it’s very much, just like Thesiger, Isabella Bird is very much somebody of her time, but she’s also somebody outside of time.
The fact that she, as a lone woman, went off with a gun hidden in her dress and just rode across the Rocky Mountains and made friends with cowboys and all kinds of ne’er-do-wells, and had this confidence about her that she felt that she could do anything, and did. And it’s sort of a wonderful read. She’s a wonderful writer.
Another book that I found recently when I was researching about fairy tales was The Book of Travels by Hannā Diyāb. This is the account of an 18th-century Syrian traveler. It was actually only discovered quite recently by a French scholar, and only published a few years ago.
It’s the story of this young man from Syria, from Aleppo, who left Aleppo with a French archeologist called Paul Lucas, and traveled with him as his translator and his dragger man, across the Levant, and then into Africa. Eventually, they made their way up into Europe, into the court of the Sun King in Versailles, where Hannā presented a pair of desert jerboas at the court. He was this sort of exotic curiosity for a lot of the princes and princesses of the court.
He spent a long time in Paris. He lived through a period of famine, and had all sorts of adventures there, and eventually came back, rather unhappily, back home to Aleppo. And it’s the story of his journey. He calls it The Book of Travels and it’s just a fascinating insight into traveling from a non-Western perspective, from long ago, something that we don’t really have enough accounts like that.
He’s such a mercurial, such an honest, candid storyteller. He tells us about the things that he disagrees with. There’s one moment where he sees people begging outside of church, a soldier begging. And he’s very angry to see that until he’s warned off by one of the police, told, ‘I wonder, these people, are they given a military pension?’ But he feels a lot of sympathy for them.
Or there’s another moment where he’s upset to see slave galleys, having to row the galleys, and tries to complain about that as well. And he’s constantly coming up against injustices, and trying to speak out against them. So, it’s a very interesting multilayered account, I think.
Where can people find you and your books online?
Nicholas: I have a website, which is www.nickjubber.com. And I’m also on Twitter, @jubberstravels, and on Instagram, @NickJubber.
Jo: Brilliant. Well, thanks so much for your time, Nick. That was great.
Nicholas: Oh, thank you. Thanks so much for having me on the show.