The best travel writers go far beyond a simple recitation of “went there, saw that.” In fact, travel writing, like nature writing, demands the best work of skilled writers because it’s not so easy to describe an exotic city or a gurgling mountain stream in an original way. Literally, hundreds of thousands of writers have covered that beat before—if you go there, you better bring something new to the game.
As a student of history, pedigreed storyteller from the land of magical realism, devoted wife and mother, and insatiable traveler, Connie Spenuzza deserves attention as someone with something interesting to say. In Jubilant Journeys: Experience the Wanderlust Serendipity of a Fifty-Year Journey across 125 Countries, we discover she has the writing chops to express her travel observations beautifully. In a recent Clarion Review, Edith Wairimu called the book a “fascinating account of travels across the globe,” as well as “inspiring—both in its appreciation for other cultures and because of Spenuzza’s hunger to learn more.”
In a bid to learn more about this woman on the go, Foreword’s editorial team reached out with a few questions. If your looking to sharpen your traveling skills, you’ll find any number of useful insights below.
You’ve traveled to an astounding 125 countries, but what’s truly remarkable is your grasp of history. How and why do you prepare so well for your journeys?
I’ve always been a bibliophile and have learned so much from reading about the history, and more specifically, about the social history of the countries I’ve visited. Through the many decades of reading, digesting the knowledge of these places, and then synthesizing it on site, I’ve been able to distill the pertinent information that then adds authenticity and layers of interest to my writing. Before I arrive at a new destination, I also attempt to learn some of the language spoken at the locales of my future journeys so that my verbal exchange with the locals might produce more positive encounters.
In the book, you mention feelings of intuition and a sense of “primordial truth” in the presence of ancient stone and wood relics, a skill you developed as a child watching stone masons carve gargoyles for churches in Quito. Can you describe the experience of communicating with stones?
As a child, I spent countless hours watching the stone masons chisel and hammer animal shapes from stone. The masons worked in a large outdoor space behind the basilica in Quito, almost ten thousand feet above sea level. Our ancestral home bordered the basilica, and we had a bird’s eye view of the masons. Rain or shine, they would bend over the stone, caress it, study it, and continue their backbreaking work. Eventually, I witnessed a transformation from stone into incredible shapes of iguanas and Galapagos tortoises. Once completed, the masons would lean into the carved animals as if listening for a breath of life. It seemed to me that the masons had exerted so much energy to create these carvings and now they claimed some energy back from their finished creations. Therefore, whenever I am in the presence of carved stone, and in particular ancient stone, I also touch the surface and feel the energy of the stone and of the carver, and I honor their joint effort, even if the creation was completed eons ago.
Your two boys, Pete and Jay-Paul, very often accompanied you and your husband, Peter, on trips around the world. Can you talk about the joys and challenges of traveling with children? Any advice for parents?
The most gratifying time to travel with the boys was during their elementary school days. Their innocence was truly bliss to witness. They loved learning about every aspect of the countries we visited, from local food to local flora and fauna, and their exuberance at simple joys such as dangling from a giant liana or holding a sloth in the Amazonian rainforest energized us. As teens, they honed their cynical and sarcastic skills at any event or foreign site they deemed too saccharine, but as doting parents, we still found them comically goofy. However, now as professional men, they are again the best traveling companions.
Not to compare the two of you, but your Ecuadoran background and the mystical beliefs—“belief in the existence of realities beyond perceptions and intellectual reasoning,” as you say—you sprinkle in your writing calls to mind the “magical realism” of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, another South American from nearby Colombia. Was he an inspiration to you? Is there something in the culture (or water) down there that bestirs such flights of imagination?
Gabriel García Márquez belonged to my parents’ generation, but the fact that we both lived our youth in the pristine natural environments of the developing countries of Colombia and Ecuador gave us both an awareness of the powerful force of nature. Our daily lives were woven with uncontrollable earthquakes, volcanoes, mudslides, enormous hail storms, poisonous animals and plants, and the ancient Andean practices of witchcraft, natural healing, and above all, the respect given to our dead ancestors. It is this fusion of dangerous natural phenomena, combined with ancient beliefs, blended with the pageantry of the Roman Catholic public events, and then mixed with a dash of the chaotic political unrest of the region that created memories of real and magical occurrences in my mind and that of Garcia Márquez. Our potent Latin American brew of youthful experiences in these sensory overload locations eventually landed onto the pages of our writing.
You write with such detail about events from decades ago, in addition to showcasing an irrepressible sense of joie de vivre. Can you offer some travel writing advice to others hoping to capture their experiences on paper? Are you constantly taking notes on the road?
I travel fully expecting wanderlust serendipity to strike around every corner. Therefore, I travel will all my senses ready to pounce; I expect travel magic to happen and it never fails to surprise me. If a scent or a sound captures my attention, I stop and take them in. I walk a lot in foreign countries in order to stop instantly and take in an unexpected sight or event. At the end of a day abroad, I write down seemingly unrelated observations or quick notes to remind me of something unique that occurred that day. I try to connect that specific occurrence to something I might have read or seen in another seemingly disparate location. I jot down these connections and then I explore them fully once I return home. Although I am not a good artist, I always carry a small sketch pad and watercolor pencils. Also, I take lots of photos that may seem quirky to everyone else, but serve as personal reminders of what I want to remember about a place. For example, I wanted to remember a particular charming craftsman in Marrakesh who used both feet, as if they were hands, to work on leather. I did not think it respectful to take a photo of his stained and gnarled feet, instead I photographed tiny leather slippers with turned up toes that were for sale at the same souk––and I’ve never forgotten him.
Many of the places you visited throughout your life do not place a great deal of value in women’s rights. In your globetrotting, and especially as your curiosity took you to extremely remote locales, little changed in thousands of years, did you experience severe sexism and how did you handle it?
I’ve always traveled with total respect for the local norms. In many places, a woman’s conduct is restricted in a myriad of ways, but I choose not to challenge the native traditions. I learn as much as I can from observing the experience, even if it limits what I can do as a woman. By keeping my eyes, heart, and mind open, I often discover that our Western ideals and norms would not be beneficial for all in all countries.
Let’s put you on the spot by asking for your definitive short list of must-see places in the world?
I’ve updated this list many times, but as of today, my short list of places to visit is:
Machu Picchu, Peru
Karnak Temple Complex, Luxor, Egypt
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Dambulla Cave Temple, Sri Lanka