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!
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
“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
- 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
The second definition of “Hello” is much closer to: “Hey
you! Mr. Moneybags. Come on over here so I can overcharge you
It is the second meaning that greets the traveler after
disembarking a train in any city in China or near any
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
Me (with quizzical look): “Tacos y Enchiladas?”
Hawker (sometimes puzzled, other times unfazed): “Hello?”
“TACOS y ENCHILADAS?”
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
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
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
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
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.