Author's Note:

This is a collection of essays written over 15 months as I backpacked around the world. They are anecdotes as well as personal reflections of what I did and learned.

I wrote these pieces as e-mails to family and friends whenever I could stop into a cyber-café during my travels in 25 countries from September 18, 2000 to December 18, 2001. They have been edited for clarity, timeliness and length, but for the most part, they remain in the same form that told people what I was thinking and feeling.

Since completing my trip I have read one of the classic American travelogues, Travels With Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck. In it, Steinbeck describes his country with humor and insight as it appeared in 1960. But Steinbeck disclaims his perspective as simply that of one man, on a single trip, at a single point in time. He writes, “What I set down here is true until someone passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.”

I agree. My essays aren’t the right view or the wrong view of the world and its inhabitants. They are simply my view and my experiences at a single point in time. Use them as a resource or a reference point, and perhaps as inspiration for your own voyage of discovery into this great world.

And if you decide that world travel isn’t to your liking, then I hope you’ll acknowledge a different dream – and dare to make it come true.

Don’t wait. Act!

Lion Attack

The next day on our afternoon game drive, the most spectacular event of the safari unfolded. We were driving the van west along the Ewaso Ngiro River, which splits the park into north and south regions. It’s incredibly muddy, and one can’t help but wonder how an animal quenches its thirst with the reddish-brown silt. The relatively shallow river moves along at a good clip, and in spots where rocks lie near the surface, it boils. Imagine Willie Wonka’s milk-chocolate river in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

Charles spotted a female lion making her way toward the river, apparently to get a drink. We maneuvered the van into position to intercept her course and waited. This was the second lion sighting of the safari and the first female. She found her way to a spot in front of us and began to walk along the road in the direction in which we were heading.

Charles fired up the van and gave chase. The lioness was beautiful to watch as she padded along, occasionally looking back as if to say, “You wanna give it a rest, pal?” The animals are accustomed to the sight of safari vans and usually don’t bother to give them a second glance. Charles sped up to pass, allowing her to approach from behind, thus positioning us for a spectacular close-up shot when she walked by. I snapped a photo of her pretty face as she reached the back of the van and looked up at me. What a beautiful cat.

We kept the van at a standstill, thinking she’d head down to the river to lap up some water and mud. She was ambling along at a slow pace, but stopped abruptly about 50 feet in front of us and snapped hard right into the wind. She must’ve caught the scent of something we couldn’t see.

Standing with her front paws on the berm of the road, she surveyed the scrub brush for whatever it was she had smelled. At first she simply scanned, but then her posture changed to that of a hunter. She extended her neck and lowered her head. Shoulders crouched and haunches tensed. She had spotted something.

“Oh please, oh please, oh please,” I thought.

I was spellbound. Mesmerized. Ensorcelled. Now there’s a 50-cent word. But it precisely describes my condition while watching the lioness stalk her prey. It means, “to be under the spell of sorcery”; my heart stopped, I ceased to breathe, and the only muscles to even twitch were my eyes as they drank in every fleeting moment of this incredible scene.

She darted forward 20 feet in a crouched position for a better view of her prey. Her head poked up above the brush and then quickly ducked behind the bushes. Slinking forward another few feet, I thought she would take a moment to size things up. Not even.

Zoom! She shot forward 100 feet in a burst of power. Things happened quickly for the next few moments, but this is what I recall:

Black fur streaking right.
Dust flying, then settling. Lion turned around, facing our position, calmly surveying the scene.
Lion pouncing.
Dust flying.
Lion backpedaling as a different baboon fights for its life. Teeth flashing.
A ball of yellow and black fur.
Lion standing with black ball in mouth. Eyes blinking.


I started breathing again.

Hello, Mr. Moneybags! Have I Got a Taxi, and Hotel, For You

I’d like to describe what it’s like to be a backpacker going through China.

The one English word known by every person throughout the whole of China, it seems, is hello. Every type of person from every walk of life can say this word and likes to do so. Young children, old women, hikers on the trail, beggars on the street, bus drivers, men passing on bikes, you name it, they’ve all said, “Hello” to me.

The meaning of this word is two-fold. The first is what I normally associate with the greeting. It’s the how-are-you-doing-it’s-so-nice-to-have-you-in-my-country, I-hope-you-enjoy-your-stay meaning.

The second definition of “Hello” is much closer to: “Hey you! Mr. Moneybags. Come on over here so I can overcharge you for something.”

It is the second meaning that greets the traveler after disembarking a train in any city in China or near any sightseeing spot.

Here’s what it’s like to be a backpacker landing in a different city after an 18-hour train ride:

1) Get off train.
2) Be attacked by touts.

There is no in-between. The pack on my back might as well be a giant BULL’S EYE. Touts are the people hired by hotels to swarm over foreigners at the train or bus stations to persuade them to stay at a certain hotel.

Rivaling touts in their ability to annoy are the bloodthirsty hawkers. These are the people who yell at you to examine and purchase their wares as you quietly try to tour the city. They’d sell you a gust of wind if they thought they could get away with it.

I’ve come up with a way to fight back, however. The way I look at it, one has a few choices when faced with these unpleasant encounters. First, one can respond in English by either trying to negotiate or simply saying no. But saying no never works. If there's one common quality among professional touts and hawkers, it is that they are amazingly persistent and will go to great lengths for your business, whether you like it or not.

Another choice is just to ignore them. This actually works, but you have to listen to them for a long time.

The choice I’ve made is my own invention, and if nothing else, it entertains me. I talk to them in Spanish, but not just any old Spanish. I make it funny for myself.

Hawker: “Hello! You need taxi to hotel? You have hotel to stay?”

Me (with quizzical look): “Tacos y Enchiladas?”

Hawker (sometimes puzzled, other times unfazed): “Hello?”


Hawker: “You speak English? Yes?”

Me (confidently): “Los pantalones son negros y amarillos.” (The pants are black and yellow.)

Confused hawker: “I’m sorry. Goodbye”

Unfazed hawker: “Hotel? You need taxi?”

With the confused hawker, I shrug my shoulders and move along. With the unfazed hawker, I use the one last phrase I can remember from my meager knowledge of Spanish. It’s something that I shouldn’t repeat here, but it’s quite memorable and rolls off my tongue as if I were a native speaker. This last bit usually gets them.

I don’t know if I’ve gone crazy, or I’m just doing what I learned in the Navy -- creating my own fun.

Afterword: The hawkers can actually be helpful if used properly. I try to find out how much a taxi should cost before exiting the train. I then use the intel quite successfully in negotiations. Because touts pounce upon me so quickly, I rarely have to look around for taxis.

At the End of the Line in Quito, Ecuador, With Thoughts of Home

This dispatch is from Quito, Ecuador -- my last city and country. I took my final bus ride here on Dec. 14, 2001 and I can’t say that any tears were shed as I disembarked. I could do for a spell without another one of those rides.

After I left South Africa, I parked myself in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, where for two months I threw myself into learning Spanish. I wanted to dedicate all my feeble brainpower to the studies.

It worked. I now speak basic Spanish and can understand the same. But more important, I feel that I have crested an imaginary hump and entered a land of no return. By that, I mean I have permanently implanted Spanish in my head and couldn’t “unremember” it if I tried. That was my goal, and I believe that I have realized it. Learning Spanish has been one of the most rewarding achievements of my life. I have many reasons for saying that and will expound later when I summarize all that I’ve learned and experienced on this grand trip.

After Guatemala came two weeks in Mexico. I was in Jalapa, Mexico, on the morning of Sept. 11 (about five hours east of Mexico City) and traveled to the city of Puebla the same day (two hours east of the capital). Every TV in the city was tuned to news about the attacks. From hotel lobbies, restaurants, coffee shops and street-side electronics stores with 20 televisions all on the same channel, the city was saturated with the news. The experience was surreal.

Luckily, air travel to the United States resumed the day before my scheduled flight to Atlanta, which was on Sept. 18. I returned home for the wedding of a high school friend. Returning to the United States during the immediate post-attacks environment after a year away was another surreal experience. There were flags everywhere. I didn’t watch them go up bit by bit; they were all flying by the time I came home.

The feeling in the country was so powerful; the mix of emotions and the overwhelming focus were on just one story. When I was last in the United States one year earlier, the country was in the midst of an evenly divided presidential election. But on Sept. 18, the sense of unity was beyond anything I could have imagined from abroad.

After one week in Atlanta and a small taste of what life would be like when I returned for good, I flew to Buenos Aires, Argentina. From there, my travels took me through Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. There was a lot of ground covered and many hours in the reclined position on a bus.

I’m now entering the looking back and reflecting stage. There is so much to sift through: so many faces, places, sounds, cultures, flavors and experiences in the kaleidoscope of my memory. I think the sinking-in process will last for some time. I may need some distance from it to fully appreciate all that I’ve learned and the ways in which it has affected me.

How do I feel at the end of 15 months of travel? Enriched. Whole. I began this trip excited at its prospect and not entirely certain what would ensue. The world was a great unknown, and I wanted to dive in headfirst. Looking back, I feel satisfied with how I carried it out -- where I went, the things I did, how much time I spent. There’s room for improvement, of course, and there are things that I would change -- but I’m not losing any sleep over them. I’m resting quite soundly, in fact.

Rest. Now there’s a thought. In fact, that’s stage one of the plan when I return to the States. I plan to rest, rejuvenate, and then charge forward with the next chapter in life. What I’ll do in the long term is yet to be determined. The short-term involves living at home in Atlanta, working for Mom’s public relations consulting firm, and maybe doing a little writing, all the while looking for an opportunity to throw my heart into.

I certainly wish I had a clearer picture of what’s next, and not knowing gives me pause, to be sure. But here’s the good news: When I go home, I’m going home to the United States of America. Those words never rang so sweet -- home and the United States of America. Even in a bad economy and under the threat of terrorism, my home is a land of freedom and opportunity. I know that I can make something happen in that country. I know that in that great land I can dream and achieve. What millions of repressed and marginalized people around the world desire, I have for a home. I couldn’t be more grateful.

I have enjoyed each country that I visited and think we can learn from them all. It’s a giant, varied, incredible world out there, and every place has something to offer. But after 15 months on the road, I’m ready to come home. I’m ready to stop traveling. That’s a blessing actually. How awful would it be to feel “sentenced” to going back? Quite the opposite is true; I’m really looking forward to it.

And I’m truly going home. Back to the South, to Atlanta, to my family, and the very house that I was raised in. I’m looking forward to spending time with my parents. I want to work with my mother as we did in high school when I was in student government and she was class mom. I want to share a cigar and a scotch with my dad while we listen to old records and watch Braves baseball. And I want to spend time with my sisters and brother-in-law whom I haven’t lived near for almost 15 years.

I miss America, but I didn’t when I left. I was too excited about all the new things I would see and do to miss it just yet. Distant lands and foreign cultures were the apple of my eye. And I still want to see more. But I have a newfound appreciation, a newfound soft spot for America, for baseball, barbecue, country music, and a fighting spirit that cherishes our way of life.

I met an Australian in an airport along the way. As we waited to check our luggage, we chatted about the Olympics in Sydney and Australia in general. At some point during our banter, he said to me, “Jason, I reckon it’s the greatest place in the world to live.” Well, God bless him. He loves his country, his home. And that’s the way I feel about mine.

I need to take a moment and say thanks. I’ve met so many wonderful people along the way who have acted as guides, fed me a meal, or even allowed me to stay in their home, sometimes for weeks at a time. I also received counsel on a variety of issues from medical to travel. I’m thankful and hope that I offered something in return. If nothing else, please know that my home is always open to the traveler.

And in the same breath I want to thank all who corresponded with me along the way, even if it was a quick note just to say hello. One of the true pleasures for me this past year was to open my e-mail account in some far corner of the globe and see notes from friends. That kept me connected and was a source of comfort over long months of traveling alone.

That’s a quick wrap-up of where I’ve been and where I am in both the geographic and figurative sense. I think I will continue to realize the benefits and lessons learned from this trip for the rest of my life. As a traveler from Finland said to me, “You’ve built up a lot of personal ‘capital’ along the way.” That’s true. The range of experience is deep and broad. I plan to glean from it, to pull lessons from it, for the rest of my days.