Sunrise over Smoke Mountain

My good friend Johnson is working on the trading floor of the Hong Kong stock exchange. He's learning quickly...the American financial collapse is having serious repercussions around the world. Newly minted with a much coveted MBA, he is in China, watching history unfold as the markets drop in a frenzied downward spiral. Over the years, I've been one of his mentors...watching him develop into a savvy global citizen. Seattle, Vancouver, Barcelona and today, he's in Hong Kong, I'm in Seattle. We traded news stories like text messages, lamenting the ramifications of a $700 Billion-dollar bailout package. The ticker in front of him continues to drop, and he is quick to remind me that in recent years, Asia has been dealing with repeated blows--from Japan's currency crisis to SARS and the Avian Flu epidemic. For a short while, there was hope. Until now.

Earlier this week, I received an e-mail from my friend Masumi, a student at Brown University. Masumi has a sharp mind and a nervous giggle that belies her age. The last time we met, we slurped thick saucy noodles and discussed her education. I reminded her that one year at Brown University was like buying new Mercedes, annually. I held her gaze and said, "Make the most of it."

She has.

Masumi is now in Cameroon, West Africa. Packed in an overburdened carry on, she brought donated laptops and sold them in a dusty open market. Two discarded laptops raised enough money to dig a new village well.

Over lamplight and cups of tea, nights in the village, the conversations often turn deep and inquisitive. They discuss the politics of poverty, genocide and terrorism. The villagers, she says, "think George Bush should face an International Tribunal for war crimes." Across the globe, the war in Iraq is never far from our minds--even in Cameroon.

Masumi is American-born, with a lineage that mixes Japanese and Caucasian. In the village, she speaks French and is determined to learn the local dialects: Bazu, Ghomala, Limbum, and Pidgin. As she probes her own convictions and gropes for answers to injustice, delight comes in simple ways. After learning Masumi is a vegetarian, her host mother consulted the local doctor for advice.

Poverty is not without humanity.

I write a blog about food. And travel.

At times, I am disgusted.

Living in America, many would consider ours an enviable life. I have traveled to 17 different countries, many are developing nations. Like Masumi, I struggle with the questions travel brings forward. While I yearn to be sitting in a West African hut talking with the elders over kerosene lamps, I am here. In America. My e-mail is flooded with invitations to dine sumptuously and meet with celebrity chefs. One dinner, one book and rubbing elbows with fame costs more than...vaccinations for an entire school.

This American life seems so....trivial.

And the hundred mile diet makes me laugh. Bourgeoisie Americans declare themselves locovore and drive 60 miles for...salt.

The truth is, most of the world's population doesn't have a choice about where their food comes from. Villages trade with villages. And if the capitalists have their way, the locals will develop a taste for Cocoa Cola and white bread. Western societies eye India and China--the world's largest populations-- and think, "These countries need...Frappuccinos!"

I visited a Starbucks in Northern Thailand. Instantly recognizable by the familiar club chairs, branded music and Plexiglas. I could be blindfolded, placed into a Starbucks anywhere on earth and know exactly where I was. That's branding for you. But it was clear they were attempting to adapt someone's idea of "local culture." An impulse item at the cash register included a box of Chinese moon cakes. It made me smile, until I looked closer. Emblazoned right on the cake...was a coquettish Mona Lisa-smiling-mermaid, doing finned splits under a banner of S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S. I turned and ran from the store, narrowly missing a collision with a determined tuk tuk driver.

I am here.

And I want to go there.

I don't have any answers...but I have many, many questions.

I read recently that Jefferson, long before the Louisiana Purchase was even a possibility, began grooming Meriwether Lewis for the journey. Several years beforehand, Lewis began developing the skills needed for his monumental journey of discovery. What, exactly, would Lewis & Clark encounter when they traveled "West?"They had no idea. Lewis learned everything he could about about flora and fauna, cartography, geography, medicine, and the list goes on. Incredibly, at the time, they thought woolly mamoths still roamed the land! While they may have been misguided about a few details, there's no doubt, preparation helps ready the mind.

For the past year, I too have been preparing. My reading list is staggering. I've attended classes and lectures, and dined with some of the most interesting people you could ever hope to grace your table. Remember finals week in college? Yeah, it's been like that. For over a year now.

The more I learn, the more difficult it is to narrow down exactly what I'm looking for. I carried around a National Geographic map for a year, trying to rule out countries I didn't want to see. But the fact of the matter is, I've traveled long enough to know, every country is filled with a kindness and human dignity that at once is beautiful and startling...and it brings tears to my eyes. That's what I yearn for. Whether we connect over mango lassies or lapsong, it doesn't matter. Wherever you go, a smile is still a smile. A hug is a hug.

Real humanity trades in the commodities of kindness and compassion.

Not iPods and cell phones.