Proudly offering my unblemished passport for the first time, I flashed the border guard a broad smile that rivaled a Miss America pageant. Giddy with possibilities and adventures yet to be lived, I was embarking on a month-long whirlwind trip to Europe. No longer the daydream of a Midwestern girl with visions of 19th century Grand Tours, I was finally on my way.
From the beginning, I was no ordinary traveler. People were more important than landmarks. Months before I left, I joined Hospitality Exchange (like SERVAS) in an effort to meet the locals, and stretch my budget. The idea works like this: travelers with roots, offer to host other travelers...for free. Now, hospitality means different things to different people and this means, you could be sleeping on an air mattress with a blind cat circling your bed, moaning for hours, or you could be treated to a guest house in the back of a rustic estate. Meals provided? Sometimes. A place to sleep and a shower? Definitely.
And so it was. With an envelope full of phone numbers and confirmations, I embarked on my first trip out of the country...heavily invested in the kindness of strangers. To this day, it's the people who have had a lasting impact. I stayed in Berlin with a contentious objector and toured newly liberated East Berlin, stepping in abandon buildings, trying to envision a life in the former communist bloc. In Amsterdam, I met a husband and wife duo who ran an illegal B&B business. I'd get up early in the morning and head to the local bakery, buying a loaf of bread, fumbling badly in Dutch, and was startled by a response in perfect textbook English. Breakfast at the B&B was served in your room, on a tray laden with soft-boiled eggs in tiny egg cups, and toast batons with jam. And in Brussels, I met a French woman who worked for the European Union. Within minutes, she assessed my travel fatigue. Once I was in bed, she left a key on the table and said, "I'm working tomorrow. Feel free to take a bath, do laundry, whatever." The next morning, I lingered over my journal and a hot cup of coffee while the whir of the drier droned on.
That trip set the tone for my travel style today. I arm myself with a pocket full of possibilities and a willingness to rearrange plans at the slightest inducement. "I was going to leave the island tomorrow," I say to a buff dive master with a tousle of jet black hair and an easy smile. He did double duty, working as a fly-fishing guide off the coast of Caye Caulker, Belize. Downing the last of my beer, I tell him, "But if you want to teach me how to tie flies, I'm in." The next morning, he spreads out his materials on a wobbly metal card table...exotic feathers, brightly colored strings, and a kit full of pliers and pinchers. The feathers, he tells me, mimic insects in the water, and your choice, depends on how it moves through the water. We tie flies, talk about his clients, and explore the many jobs he's had in the off season (cab driver in Norway? Yep!)
With an intense focus on international travel and a commitment to the people I met, in college, I studied International Relations and Political Science. Locally, I interned with think tanks and politicians, wondering how the pieces fit together. But soon I discovered, many of these organizations are bogged down with internal and external politics. An inordinate amount of energy is dedicated to fundraising, not tackling causes. Responses to critical issues were slow, if they ever came. Realizing the vast gulf between good intentions and action, it was a humbling and deeply frustrating experience.
And yet commerce was alive and well. Private business was far more effective in reaching their target market in developing nations. Why?
I remember a 17 hour trip from Seattle to Bangkok, then boarding a 4 hour bus out of the city, followed by another 6 hour bus to a small town on the boarder of Thailand and Cambodia. The next morning we hit the local day market. There, among the live fish flapping in shallow buckets and stir fried grubs, resting next to a heaping table full of fresh produce, was a box brimming with Washington State apples. I laughed, thinking, I've been through hell, still woozy from over 24 hours of travel. What have those apples been through?
In the backwater towns traveling through Central America, Coca Cola signs are everywhere. In fact, it's so ubiquitous, in Mexico a remote tribe has incorporated Coca Cola as an integral part of their religious practice. I remember thinking, "Coca Cola can get here, but vaccines for preventable diseases are still years away. Why?"
On Monday, I had an opportunity to attend TEDxChange, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Through a satellite feed from New York, Melinda Gates delivered a compelling talk about the third world, the effectiveness of Coca Cola's penetration, and the lessons development organizations can learn from them. It's a heady topic, for sure, but it's the kind of message that has left me pondering for days.
Global citizen? Impassioned traveler? I encourage you to take a look: