Hello Travellers, I’m Jo Frances Penn and this is episode 1 of my new Books and Travel Podcast.
So why this show after 10 years of The Creative Penn Podcast?
It’s all about reinvention, which is part of what travel means to me. When I think about what I want to do with my life for the next 10 years, I always come back to books and travel. I’m fascinated by the inner and outer journeys that both can bring — a change in perspective, empathy, perhaps an entirely new direction. If you know what I mean, then hopefully, you’re going to enjoy this show and my website.
I’m also going to write two books from this material over time — a travel memoir, and The Shadow Book (working title), about writing from the dark side of the self. Both of these books have been bubbling away for years and now I’m giving them this time to emerge.
What can you expect from Books and Travel?
As with my novels, I don’t plot everything in advance and I will find my way over time, but I’d like to start with the ocean as a metaphor to guide us.
Let’s start in the dappled light of turquoise shallows where you’re safe and can bask in the sun with a cocktail in hand, paddling gently, exploring the simple joys of a new place. I’ll be talking about my travels, and interviewing authors around the places that inspire their writing, as well as giving you tips on culture, food and drink that will help you explore when you travel or read.
I’ll also be exploring the dark midnight depths where you should feel an edge of challenge and a pull to the deep. I’ll be talking and writing and interviewing others about the darker side of travel, as well as the inner journey — perhaps the most important exploration of all.
The BooksAndTravel website also has articles about aspects that continue to fascinate me as I research my stories, as well as many of my photos from 35 years of travel. I also share these on Instagram @jfpennauthor if you’d like to follow me there. On the last day of every month, I will share a reading list based on the podcast and articles which you can sign up for at www.booksandtravel.page/read
As I begin this journey of sharing my travels, I wanted to start with three trips that have shaped my life. They may not be the highlights of my travels over the years, but they changed my view of the world. My life would have looked a whole lot different without them. Join me in Malawi, Jerusalem, and the waters of the South Pacific.
I don’t have too many pictures as this was back in the days of film cartridges when you had to pay stacks of cash to develop 24 pictures to get even one you liked.
(1) “Shall we get a new kitchen or go back to Malawi for Christmas?” (1986)
My Mum spoke those words to me and my little brother in 1986 when I was just 11. We lived in Bristol, UK at the time in a house that needed some work. The kitchen was pretty grotty, but there was no hesitation for any of us. We went back to Malawi and headed to the Lake.
We had lived in Malawi a few years prior. My Mum taught at the polytechnic and we went to St Andrews school, where the school lion once bit a teacher, and I got the tacky (spanked with a plimsoll) for something I can’t even remember. We moved back to England so I could go to secondary school, but we all missed the warmth of central Africa.
I remember Mum driving us to Monkey Bay by the lake, giant baobabs stretching to the blue sky above, playing Graceland by Paul Simon on the tape deck, the African vocals accompanying us along the dirt road. Mum loved to windsurf and I read by the side of the lake, while my brother played in the shallows or we both played paddling on lilos. We drank bright purple Fanta Grape and ate chicken in a basket, the height of decadence. We spent Christmas Day by a South African friend’s swimming pool, braai (BBQ) for lunch, the warmth of sun on our skin and forgotten wrapping paper around the side of the pool.
I remember watching a censored version of Teenwolf in the tiny dark cinema, wondering why it didn’t quite make sense. I was 11, with a crush on Michael J Fox.
When we got back to the freezing cold winter of England, with muted colours of grey and rain and early darkness, it was as if we would never see another summer. We never did go back to Malawi again, but it still remains in my heart as a place I loved and only remember as bright and colourful and full of laughter.Choose experience over possessions.Click To Tweet
That decision to choose experience over possessions, to spend hard-earned money on travel and adventure over a new kitchen, shaped my life. I still live in a minimalistic way. I crave memories and photos, not objects. My Mum is still the same — she’s training to walk the Silk Road at aged 71, and my brother has travelled the world as an international photographer.
(2) Jerusalem, Israel (1991)
At 16, I travelled to Israel as part of a Christian group teaching English and volunteering at a school in Beit Jala, on the West Bank.
It was my first taste of (almost) independent travel, and I have always been grateful to my Mum for respecting me enough to let me go. It was only a few months after the end of Gulf War I and there were still reports of missiles flying over the territories.
One night, I went out onto the streets with some of the Palestinian students from the school. We heard shots ahead and ran down the street to see kids throwing stones at an Israeli military vehicle. The smell of smoke from burning tyres filled the air, along with the sound of gunshots and stones ricocheting off metal.
It was my first glimpse of conflict, of masked hatred on both sides, a street battle by night that felt like it could flare into something greater. I rolled under a car with my friend and we lay there, hearts pounding. I didn’t tell my Mum what had happened, afraid she would never let me go away again. It was in the days before cell phones, before we reported back seconds after an event, and for that, I am grateful.
We taught English in the school, but we also visited the sites. I still remember touching the Western Wall for the first time, and stepping into the Dome of the Rock before access became difficult. I’d never seen soldiers with guns at the ready. I’d never appreciated what borders really meant before that trip.
I also saw another side to the history of religion, visiting the Ethiopian Coptics on the roof of the Holy Sepulchre, the only place they were allowed to pray. That scene and many others from my trips have made it into my ARKANE thrillers, and Morgan Sierra’s half-Jewish heritage come from my fascination with, and love for, Israel.
I went back to Israel over and over again in the following years – volunteering in Galilee for an organization working for peace, partying in Eilat on very little money, and I always went back to Jerusalem, part of a repeated pilgrimage to see how some things changed, and how so much stayed the same. My last trip was in 2016 – photos here – which inspired End of Days.
That first trip gave me the glimpse into the history and politics of the region, and the importance of borders that still pervades my fiction. It also shaped the direction of my studies. In 1993, Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn, hopes were high for peace in the region, and I got a place at the University of Oxford to study Arabic, intending to work for the Foreign Office in the Middle East and then for the UN.
But in the first few weeks, it became clear that the course was not what I had expected. It was classical Arabic, not modern politics. But I loved Oxford, so I switched to Theology and stayed, specializing in the psychology of religion.
On 4 November 1995, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a fundamentalist Jew, who said that ‘God told him to do it.’ I was 20, filled with the idealism of youth, hopeful that peace would come to a country I loved. Although I had switched away from Arabic, I decided to do my thesis on obedience in fundamentalist monotheism, reflecting on Abraham taking Isaac to be sacrificed because God asked him to, and musing on why people do violence in the name of religious belief. That research became part of my ARKANE thriller, Crypt of Bone, where terrorism is sparked in the name of God.
I could never have foreseen my love for Israel turning into a career as a fiction author instead of politics, but the country continues to turn up in my stories. The Source by James Michener continues to be the book I recommend about Israel as it brings the history alive through generations of people living in Megiddo, the biblical Armageddon.
(3) Blue water sailing on the tall ship, Soren Larsen, from Fiji to Vanuatu (1999)
In 1999, I was living in London, using caffeine tablets and painkillers by day and alcohol by night to get me through a job I hated. I had been implementing Accounts Payable into large corporates since leaving Oxford in 1997, earning great money as a management consultant, and partying hard with the expense accounts that flowed in the days before the Millennium Bug didn’t happen.
I was desperate to leave London, but I didn’t know how to escape the golden handcuffs that bound me to the job. It wasn’t just the money, it was also the expectation of society and my peers to settle down and be responsible. I took a trip alone to sail on the blue and figure my life out.
I arrived in Lautoka, Fiji, having never been to the South Pacific before. I remember people walking in the cool of the pre-dawn, bright hand-painted adverts on blue buildings, little shops filled with all kinds of useful things instead of huge superstores, a mix of Indian and native Fijian skin tones and names.
I joined the crew of the Soren Larsen and as we sailed out of sight of land, I got seasick along with half the passengers, but it passed after 24 hours and then I joined in the rhythms of the watch. I loved to sit on the bow watching the waves, the hours passing with no thought of anything except the blue. It rained for days but it didn’t matter. I had time to think away from the city.
I wasn’t so good with the rigging but I did flake the anchor chain, and I can still feel the weight of it in my hands.
We slept in tiny bunks in the dark of the hull, the smell of salt and sweat below, the cramped heads. I was on antimalarials and dreamed of violence and sex.
I snorkelled for the first time in a shallow reef on the edge of an island, panic-stricken as I put my face underwater for the first time to see fish around my legs, teeth crunching on the coral. I was hyperventilating in fear and clambered back into the boat so fast, I scraped the flesh from the top of my legs. After I calmed down, I went back in and it was magical. My first taste of tropical waters, and the beginning of my love for scuba diving, which I will talk of another time.
On the island of Ambrim, we walked up a volcano, the black dirt sticking to sweaty skin. Afterwards, I got a lift back to the boat in an outrigger. The local man had a Nike swoosh painted on his wooden paddle and it brought home how you can be on the opposite side of the world and still feel the influence of America. This was before the internet was everywhere, and wifi and smartphones made the world even smaller.
I had a summer fling with the engineer, a New Zealander. He gave me a carved wooden turtle necklace so I would remember my first snorkelling experience.
I learned over those few weeks that there is another life out there, that you can just leave and find another life, that the world doesn’t end if you resign your job and give something else a try, that people live in different ways in other parts of the world.'Ever restless, never satisfied, but briefly, there, I was still.'Click To Tweet
I returned back to my job in September 1999 having glimpsed another life. I resigned on my 25th birthday in March 2000, and headed to Perth, travelling around Australia and onto New Zealand. I only moved back to the UK in 2011, so that trip on the Soren Larsen spun me towards the southern hemisphere and a new life.
Whenever I go back to Auckland, I walk down the Viaduct Harbour along the wharf where the tall ships moor up. I’ve seen the Soren Larsen there over the years, and I saw it once across the harbour in Tonga. It always makes me smile to remember that trip.'A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.' Oliver Wendell HolmesClick To Tweet
So, those are the three trips that shaped my life of travel and writing.