One Sunday last December I read an article written by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof announcing that his annual trip to a third world country, usually accompanied by a teenager, would additionally be opened this year for the first time to an individual sixty or over. Written submittals, not to exceed 400 words, had to be sent in no later than mid-January. Because of all the recent middle-east turmoil, Mr. Kristof has been very busy reporting from varied countries and I have not seen any mention of the contest since. While waiting to hear his final decision, I would like to share my contest submittal.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” — Henry Miller
My very first trip outside the United States was courtesy of Uncle Sam in 1967. He provided an all-expense paid thirteen month trip to Korea. Much of my time was spent on and near the 38th Parallel, in mind-deadening monotony except for when North Korea captured the US Navy ship, Pueblo. I was eventually befriended by a young Korean man who worked on base and he, through friendship and kindness, invited me to his home to meet his family and share dinner. It was an unforgettable experience because, at a time of great tension, he helped me understand cultural differences and accept different points of view.
Later in life I had opportunities to travel primarily for pleasure but each experience included some meaningful exploration and education that transcended nice hotels and fancy restaurants. In the Greek Isles, I learned I could make a Russian taxi driver laugh, discovering commonality through humor; in Costa Rica, I stayed in an eco-friendly lodge built almost single-handedly by an American woman who wanted to preserve a rain forest; Thailand offered a memorable bicycle tour to villages seldom visited by tourists where I learned of ancient customs and got a peek at everyday life in rural communities; and in Cambodia, I discovered that a few dollars could buy a pig or chickens for a farmer, a few more dollars could buy bicycles enabling children to go to school, or if I dug deeper into my pocket, a fresh-water well could be dug to aid a community. In France, the notion that the French do not like Americans was dispelled and I found that respect begets respect, friendliness begets friendliness, and cheerfulness begets cheerfulness. In South Africa, mercifully pre-vuvuzela’s fame, a safari company’s effort to discourage children from becoming poachers later in life was helping urban children visit the bush to experience the animals in their natural habitat, a simple idea that is having positive results; and in Zambia, the common people were benefiting from the country’s mineral mining but unfortunately, were still in need of better housing, health, and education.
Not all my travel has been enlightening. During my twenty three years as a staff member with the New York Assembly’s fiscal committee, I had opportunities to travel throughout the United States. Once, when my rental car broke down on the freeway, in those pre-cell phone days, I sought help by scaling a ten-foot high, metal fence. Slipping over the top, snagging my belt, hanging helplessly upside down until my weight and gravity released me with a thud, and torn pants, I only confirmed the lessons of childhood that dirt and a disheveled appearance make people leery of letting you into their homes.
My most satisfying work experience was serving for over ten years as a court-appointed child advocate, speaking on behalf of children who were abused, abandoned or neglected. But I have also had a chance to live a personal life’s fantasy of being on the radio. Moving to Florida’s panhandle in 1995, I had the opportunity to eventually host my own daily radio talk-show and local cable television show. In what was arguably the most conservative area of the country, I was a liberal Philadelphian trying to spread brotherly love via the airwaves, for which I think I should have won some sort of survivability award.
My career has been varied, including time as a newspaper deliverer, lifeguard, bubble gum maker, door-to-door detergent promoter, telephone book proofreader, short order cook, private employment agency counselor and owner, office and credit manger, infantryman, pots and pans salesman, Chinese restaurant cook, Chinese restaurant owner, public employment counselor, budget analyst, tax analyst, grant administrator, radio announcer, radio and television show host, disk jockey, automobile valet, and child advocate. Clearly career planning was not my forte but I have been fortunate to grow from those varied experiences. Adding to those, it would be an honor to someday tell my grandchildren about the time a small group of strangers took a trip united in an effort to report stories to the world; stories that helped people in underdeveloped countries live a better life.