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Millennium Trip by Carla Bagneschi _American_ age 30_ “Weve


									                             Millennium Trip

                            by Carla Bagneschi
                             (American, age 30)

       “We‟ve scheduled an emergency MRI for you tomorrow morning at
8:00 a.m.,” said my doctor anxiously, adding, “You‟ve got us all pretty
scared over here.” I hung up the phone, stunned. “Do I say something to
my coworkers?” I wondered. “Do I call home?” Instead, I quietly slipped
into the women‟s restroom, cried a little, took some deep breaths, and
returned to my cubicle to finish out the day.

        Let me back up slightly. One week earlier, I fainted at work after
hitting my funny bone on the frame of the restroom door. After a few
minutes (or more?), I opened my eyes and was lying crumpled on the floor.
Fast forward several hours, to me sitting in Kaiser hospital and my doctor
wondering, “How could a healthy 26-year old woman pass out unconscious
simply by hitting her funny bone?” So, she proceeded with a barrage of tests
over the next week to measure my blood, my heart, and my brain. All came
out ok, except for the CT Scan, which showed “two questionable gray dots.”
Thus, the emergency MRI phone call, and my subsequent pilgrimage that
evening to a beautiful, sunlit rock jutting out of a San Francisco
mountaintop, offering clear span views of the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate
Bridge, and Downtown financial district.

       After absorbing the overwhelming beauty surrounding me, I closed
my eyes and finally asked the eternal question, “What do I want to do with
my life if I only have six months to live?” Barely twenty seconds passed
before I knew exactly what I wanted to do in all the world…exactly what I
had already planned to do come January 2000…take care of orphans in
Guatemala. There, sitting on my rock, I could literally feel the Guatemalan
dirt under my feet, hear the sweet children surrounding me, feel the babies in
my arms, and most importantly, offer them all the love that was overflowing
in my heart. To know I already had my “Millennium Trip” planned, prior to
my fainting spell, was exhilarating. I was living my life AS IF I had six
months left to live!
       The purpose of my trip was to mark the turning of the millennium by
doing something meaningful in the world for several months, and help those
in need. Over time, I knew my calling was to work with orphans in
Guatemala, and I started making plans to make that happen, including saying
goodbye to my job, family, and rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco.

       So off I went, headed to a Spanish school in Quetzaltenango,
Guatemala, asking everyone I met, “Do you know where I can find an
orphanage?” Finally one day, a teacher poked her head into my classroom
and whispered to me in Spanish, “We‟re going to visit an orphanage. Do
you want to come?” Of course! After a bumpy 20 minute bus ride to the
rural outskirts of town, we got off at the “Granja Penal” (just so happens that
the orphanage is next to a prison), and we wound our way down a dirt road,
passing by corn fields, Orange Crush soda stands, and women in brilliant,
traditional Mayan clothing, babies strapped to their backs and huge baskets
balancing on their heads.

       At last, we arrived at “Casa Hogar de Ninos”. There before me, were
37 of the most beautiful children I have ever seen, singing a song called
“Soy un Nino de la Calle” (I am a Child of the Street). They were
disheveled and tiny, and utterly perfect. I sat watching them, tears welling
in my eyes, knowing I was exactly where I was supposed to be. The
director, “Tia Ericka”, a 25-year old formerly homeless Guatemalan woman,
gave me a tour of the facilities, and I wasn‟t prepared for what came next.
First was the overwhelming stench of urine, everywhere. Next, were the
piles of dog feces in the children‟s‟ bedrooms, courtesy of Ericka‟s new
puppy. Nearby, a five-foot high pile of clothing was stacked on the floor.
There were broken windows, clogged toilets, and dirty beds. I couldn‟t help
thinking to myself, “How can I work here when I can‟t even breathe?” But
then, my whole world changed as the kids started filtering in. Soon the
place was abuzz with children shouting, laughing, screaming, crying,
running around and around in circles. I had at least five kids hanging on me,
hugging my legs, wanting to be held. In all that madness, all I could feel
was complete love for them, and I told Tia Ericka I would start the following

      Life at Casa Hogar was out of control. The girls would hold regular
boxing matches in the kitchen, the boys would bully and hit the weaker kids,
and the babies would cry incessantly the moment you set them down. They
would push, trip, or hit each other for no reason at all, other than boredom or
a good laugh. As for food, two of their three daily “meals” consisted only of
a glass of milk and a piece of bread or a cookie. The younger ones had
constant diarrhea. And on top of this, many of the kids were abused prior to
making their way to Casa Hogar, so they had their fair share of emotional
problems, and then some.

        Every day, I tried to show those children a different way of relating to
one another. I would hold and nurture them, talk to them with respect, show
them patience and unconditional love. I tried to help them develop
compassion and empathy, and to see the consequences of their behavior on
other peoples‟ feelings (mine included). When little Flori, a tiny two-year
old, would come up to me and demand in a deep rough voice, “Agua!”, I
would crouch down to her level, saying “Agua, por favor.” Or when Nancy,
a tough little 8-year old, would throw a tantrum over her homework, I would
sit with her patiently, carefully explaining the concepts to her. Of course, it
was difficult to give everyone the love and attention they needed, on top of
doing all the cleaning. (There were only three adults to do everything.) But
somehow, something miraculous began to happen -- the kids started showing
compassion and respect for one another. The boxing matches ended, the
kids were calmer, the babies weren‟t crying as much, and there was a lot less
bullying. One moment was especially poignant for me -- a boy of about five
years old was crying, and Mynor, a previously oblivious and unhappy two-
year-old, walked up to him and gently caressed his cheek with the palm of
his hand. My eyes nearly popped out of my head!

       As the time came closer to leave, my heart grew heavier. How could I
say goodbye to these children, whom I loved like they were my own? That
fateful day finally came, and nothing could have prepared myself for how
deeply I was moved. The kids were simply angelic, lining up to give me
hugs and gifts, most of them crying. The presents were so sweet -- a
metallic sticker, a broken seal pendant, drawings. For these children who
had close to nothing, their gifts were like gold. At one point, I noticed
Nancy and Elizabeth, former boxing opponents, huddled together and
crying. I hugged them both, cried alongside them, and said we would see
each other again, someday. When they asked “When?” I responded without
hesitating, “Next year.” And I kept that promise, to the day. And I returned
again, two years later. On every visit so far, I bond with different children,
witnessing immense changes and growth in them over a matter of days. It‟s
truly amazing what a little love and patience can do for a child, of any
culture. Though the trips are extremely physically demanding (I always get
hundreds of fleabites and awful respiratory infections), my love for the
children keeps growing, and I plan to visit them throughout my life.

       In the past four years, I have raised over $3,500 in donations for Casa
Hogar de Ninos, and I also send $30 a month. With those funds, they have
been able to hire 3 tutors, cleaning ladies, a woman to watch the babies, pay
the electricity bills, and send the five oldest kids to secondary school.
Through other donations, they planted an organic garden and built additional
bedrooms and a playground. At one point, I raised $2,100 in donations, only
to have the checks stolen en route to Guatemala. In no time at all, my
friends pitched in to cover half the loss, which I sent to cover winter
expenses. And eventually, my bank fully reimbursed me for the stolen
funds, and all the money successfully reached its destination.

        Oh, and on a final note: My emergency MRI -- and all subsequent
tests -- came out perfectly fine.

“To the world, you might be one person, but to one person, you might just be
                               the world.”


CARLA BAGNESCHI (age 30, American, writes:
“I am currently transitioning from a career in urban planning and
development to one in which I can actively use my heart. I haven‟t nailed
down the specifics yet, but my crystal ball is showing a combination of
counseling psychology, massage, yoga, cross-cultural study, interfaith
dialogue, and working within the life span, from birth (as a doula) to hospice
work. (Though not necessarily all at the same time, or in that order…) In
all this, I hope to encourage a sense of our common humanity, an
appreciation and respect for people everywhere, and the desire to live fully
and joyously.

My background includes degrees in Sociology and Urban Planning,
volunteering in the US and abroad, and traveling and living in many
countries. My favorite trips, by far, are visiting my little amigos in
Guatemala. In my spare time, I enjoy nature, yoga, writing, and spending
time with family and friends.

My favorite animals:
My two kitties, Cosmo and Pheobe

A few good books:
Thoughts Without a Thinker
Searching for Everardo
Another Roadside Attraction
                                    Gold Teeth

                              By Christiane Diehnel
                               (American, age 64)

      “Hoo…, Hoo…” I heard a deep-throated call reminiscent of the cry
of howler monkeys. It was the customary way for visitors to announce their

       “Christianita, buenos dias, are you still asleep, the sun is up!” the
voice continued in Spanish. It was Felícita, the matriarch of a large family
in the village and my best friend here.

     “Buenos dias, Felícita, it‟s only 6 o‟clock, but I am getting up now”, I
answered, “come in and let‟s have a cup of coffee.”

     “Yes, but I want to go to my farm to cut the weeds and get some
manioc tuber. I‟ll bring you a papaya, too.”

      She comes up the stairs and flashes me a gap-toothed smile when I
give her a hug.

       I had met Felícita more than ten years ago during a two-week trip to
this remote tributary of the Amazon River in Peru. I never had had a desire
to visit a place that promised to be hot, humid, populated with bloodthirsty
insects and poisonous snakes, but there I was, a middle-aged, out of shape
woman, with a group of other adventure tourists in the jungle. I had signed
up for this tour with the blessings of my husband and teenage sons.

       In the next two weeks I not only discovered the wonders of the largest
rainforest in the world, but I also got a glimpse of local culture. The
population of the villages along the riverbanks is mostly mestizo. They live
in palm-thatched huts built on stilts. They were obviously very poor, eking
out a living with fishing and tending small farms, but they laughed a lot,
were very friendly, hospitable, and seemed to accept their difficult lives
without complaints. I marveled that people could be seemingly content
living without any of the security which we take for granted. Wanting to
know more about this culture would bring me back regularly every year to
this day.

       Felícita had been hired to wash the tourists‟ laundry, which she did in
the river sitting on the log raft surrounded by plastic buckets full of muddy
tourist clothes. It was not an easy task, but she returned our socks once
again gleaming white. She seemed like a no-nonsense woman as she deftly
handled her chores with the help of a daughter and granddaughter, a red
bandana tied around her black hair and wearing T-shirts faded to a clay color
from too many washes in the river. I had forgotten most of the Spanish I had
learned long ago and she did not know any English, so we just smiled at
each other and used our hands to communicate.

       She remembered me when I returned the next year with improved
Spanish skills and my friendship with her family and her became strong.
Another year went by before I was brave enough to stay by myself with her
family, the only American woman on the river and certainly a puzzle for the
locals at first. “What is that „gringa‟ doing here?” they probably wondered.
So began my education in jungle life and by the time my husband and I had
our own house built by the villagers, I had become an experienced jungle
dweller, except for cleaning fish with a machete. After one unsuccessful
attempt to scrape the scales of a fish with one of those big machetes, the
universal tool here, Felícita refused to let me try again. She claimed that I
would probably cut one of my fingers off before the fish was ready for the

       My role in the village had become that of an English teacher for the
kids and some adults, too, and my proudest moment came when a tourist
commented on the English skills of some of the village kids. Unfortunately,
they soon forgot most of it when my husband and I returned home for
several months every year and we would to start all over again. Health
education was lacking, too, and we spent much time talking about the
importance of boiling the drinking water. In response to our efforts at first
we were told that boiled water did not taste good, but now most families are
following our advice and their children are healthier as a result.

       When I am done preparing the coffee for us this morning, we settle
down cross-legged on the floor. We chat, but she seems preoccupied. I
know she will tell me what is bothering her when she is ready, I just have to
be patient and now we hear children‟s voices on the trail from the village.
Leading the bunch is Felícita‟s grandson, and my godson, Amilcar, followed
by his sister Milli and my neighbor Rosa‟s three little daughters. The oldest,
6-year-old Claribel, is lugging her baby sister, Britania, on her hip while
Alicia is trying her best to keep up with the rest.

      Amilcar, who is ten, says, “Good Morning”, in English and gives me a
big dimpled smile when I ask if they all want some hot chocolate.

      “Yes, thank you”, and now in Spanish, “may we read your books and
play with your puzzles, too?”

       “Of course, you know where they are. Amilcar, you can help the little
girls do the rainforest puzzle.” It is everyone‟s favorite. There are also
Spanish children‟s books with rainforest pictures and stories and a few toys
for toddlers. None of the kids have books or toys in their homes, so my
house is a popular place, even early in the morning.

       When the children are busy playing, Felícita and I return to our
conversation and she says, “Remember when you gave me money last year
to go to the dentist in Iquitos to have the tooth pulled which gave me a lot of

      “Yes, I do, but you told me that you did not go to the dentist, instead
you bought sugar with the money.”

      “I did,” she says, “because the tooth had stopped hurting.” Looking at
me guiltily, she continues, “and now it hurts again. You probably don‟t
want to help me this time, or do you?”

        “Look, Felícita, I know you are afraid of dentists and don‟t like to go
to Iquitos, but if I give you money again, I will go with you and we will
consult my dentist friend. He is very good and can check all the other teeth
you still have at the same time. It could be that he will recommend to have
all of them pulled.”

       She does not look happy at this prospect, but then her face brightens,

       “If the dentist says I have to have new teeth, will you buy them for
      “Yes, I will”, I answer.

       “Gracias, muchas gracias, Christiane, you always help me and
everyone else in the village. When you are here, our lives are better. I will
do your laundry for a whole month and my husband will bring you a nice big

     “Great,” I say, “let‟s go to Iquitos before you change your mind again.
We can go tomorrow on the big riverboat.”

      “One more thing, Christiane, if I need new teeth, can I have gold on
them, too, like my son has?”

      “I have to think about it. Tell me, why do you want gold on your new

      “It will look so pretty,” she says. I agree with her and in my mind I
can see already her dazzling golden smile. I also know that gold teeth are a
sign of status here and my friend Felícita deserves gold teeth.


CHRISTIANE DIEHNEL (age 64, American, “I am a native of Germany and have
lived in the Bay Area for many years. My husband and I have two adult
sons. I have always loved learning about other peoples, cultures and
traveling to foreign countries. A trip to the Amazon Rainforest in Peru 14
years ago turned into an ongoing commitment. I became a member of a
village on the Rio Yarapa. My husband and I helped with health care,
medicines, teaching English, advice (without changing their culture and
imposing our views), village projects and emergencies.

I am now working on soliciting money to help a young woman attend a
computer school in Iquitos and am paying for one of my many godchildren
to go to high school. If I should be so fortunate as to receive a Backpack
Nation award, I could finish the pharmacy hut in the village, buy medicines,
fund the certification of a health promotor, and perhaps buy new
blackboards and desks for the one-room school.
                              Last Maori Lesson

                          By Christy Harrington
                            (American, age 33)

October, 2005 -- Christy Harrington's story 'Last Maori Lesson' has
been scheduled for publication in New Zealand Magazine, and for the
indefinite future will not be available here. Sorry. And
congratulations to Christy.


CHRISTY HARRINGTON (age 33, American, is
a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Trained as a social
anthropologist, she spent a decade researching the lives of garment factory
workers in the Pacific Islands before reorienting her life to pursue her
passion for writing. She is compelled to write to sort out her thoughts and
feelings and digest her experiences. She is motivated to travel by a great
love of diversity and by a desire to have her assumptions about the world
and herself shaken up. As a child she plastered her bedroom walls with
National Geographic maps. Her travels since have taken her to the
Caribbean, Latin America and Europe, but especially to the Pacific region,
where she lived for a year and a half in Fiji and for five years in New
Zealand. Christy is determined to make the most of her time on the planet,
and is always planning her next trip, because it‟s when she travels that she
feels most alive.

Christy writes: “If I receive a Backpack Nation award, I plan to give the
funds to a small Andean community in the department of Huancavelica,
Peru -- one of the poorest and most isolated areas of the country. I leave for
Huancavelica on May 21, and will have a better idea of exactly who I would
contribute the money to after my return on 13 June.”
                               Ingrith’s Story

                              By Doug Favero
                             (American, age 25)

       It‟s one of those stories where they‟ve done a lot more for me than I
have for them. They put me up for a week. They drove me to my volunteer
job. They made me a quilt for my children-to-be. They took me for a trip.
They had me for dinner several times after the week was up. I think their
expenses exceeded the small allowance from the Center for Global
Education, the study abroad program that connected students like me with
host families like them, in Katatura, the township outside Windhoek,

      It‟s been seven years and we‟re still in touch. Now they praise me for
staying in touch.

        I keep in touch mainly through, and mainly because of, my homestay
sister Ingrith. She is a year younger than I am, and we had some kind of
connection from the start. She stayed home from school, “sick,” the week I
was living with them. I got her a dress for her birthday. She did model
poses with it in front of her mother‟s mirror. I let her read my journal. She
looked up after reading the part about the trip, when I‟d wondered if she felt
the racism of the park. Why didn‟t you just ask me? she said.

      After those dinners, she walked me from her house to the taxi stop,
my liaison-protector on the streets of the township, which could be mean to
a white kid walking alone at night. Other times after walks through
Windhoek, we sat on the living room floor of the Center house, talking.

        It‟s clear from the changing tone of her emails over the years that
Ingrith has passed me up in terms of adulthood. And yet, the first time I
called her, for her birthday, a year after the semester ended, she screamed
disbelieving for a minute. She screamed to her mother, who‟d made the
quilt, that it was me. I‟d called. More praise from her mother.
       I don‟t understand it. I‟m floundering and doldrumesque. I do odd
jobs and travel cheaply, aiming for grad school. She has a job in the
accounting department of a company in downtown Windhoek, while
completing studies at the PolyTech. She lives at home, where her money
goes to family expenses. In our emails she‟s direct. When am I going to get
a real job? How long can I hold off getting married? I spin my doings till
they sound respectable. She confronts me with her wisdom.

       In one email she was embarrassed about something she had to ask.
She explained that asking me was a last resort. It was time to buy the books
for the upcoming semester, and there was no money. She got the money
order, and the books. It turns out I did do one thing for her.

       Now Ingrith is pursuing a longtime dream of studying in the United
States. As her main contact here, I have been helping her form some kind of
strategy. I‟ve also been searching her for her motives, because we have
found out fast that the odds are stacked steeply against her financially. I
want to know how badly she wants this, and why.

       So she gets in at a school, gets it all paid for. Then what? So she has
a great time, graduates with honors. What now? Once back in Namibia,
how will studying in the US affect her role in shaping her country's future?
And what about years at a time away from home, is she ready for that?

      Of course she doesn‟t know the answers to these questions. She
believes, however, that she is ready. That it will be worth all the trouble.
Knowing her, I concur.

       Looking for possible contacts, I found an old CGE newsletter. One of
the student updates paralleled my situation. Her homestay sister was
looking to study in the US. I contacted the CGE alum, and she put my sister
in touch with hers. It turned out hers had accomplished her goal, had
graduated already, from Bard College in Vermont. Her advice to Ingrith
was to apply to schools looking to diversify their populations, and which
were generous with scholarships. She also said to find an American co-
signer, as Ingrith will have to prove she can pay the bills, especially during
summer when she‟s kicked out of the dorms. She said finding a sponsor was
very hard. Other sources I‟d sought left me with the conviction that finding
a sponsor to pay for everything would be the only way.
       Ingrith and the Bard graduate have cc‟d me their first exchange of
emails. Reading them makes me feel like their older brother. Two “sisters”
by association, speaking almost formally to each other through electronic
mail, put in contact by their well-intentioned American “siblings,” who
don‟t know each other either. And the four of us more thousand-miles-away
from each other than fingers on our hands.

       Because the odds of securing sufficient financial support are
appearing dismal, we‟ve begun trying to think up other routes. A friend of
mine, serving in a similar role for her German boyfriend, researched
internship opportunities with German companies having offices in the US.
It worked. He is coming up on the end of a six-month term with a
Mercedes-Benz office near Chicago; he‟s going back to Germany to finish
school with that valuable experience in his pocket. These are the types of
creative options we are exploring now. Placing her with an organization that
works with and for Africans, if not Namibians. However, African business
presence here is not what Germany‟s is.

       So far you might be thinking it sounds like Ingrith is doing just fine
for herself in Namibia. She‟s got herself a job downtown. But the issue is
her potential. It is a question of what kind of “just fine” she will be doing
for her country, or for individuals like her, in five years, in ten. Will she
have the same admin job, under-employing her? I‟m dying to see what she
will do with people‟s investments in her.

       What is unique about Ingrith‟s story is that it is not the story of a
helpless victim of systematic racial and economic oppression. Ingrith has
come through the fire and ash of apartheid, having grown up in it, and
having come of age during her country‟s first years of political
independence. The economic struggle is slower yet. Ingrith is now a
mature, full-grown woman with all the promise in the world, and a belief in
the goodness of the world that defies her society‟s failures while belying her
family‟s immense strength. If anyone is worth the investment of a grand,
it‟s Ingrith.

DOUG FAVERO (age 25, American, writes:
“Needless to say, if Ingrith's story is honored, the money would go toward
her goal. My bio: I graduated with a BA in English in 2000 from Valparaiso
University. Since then I've been a substitute teacher, a tax preparer, a
contributor to a local weekly, a landscaper, and an outreach coordinator for a
nonprofit. I'm from central Illinois, have lived in Seattle the past couple
years, and the past few months have been traveling the states.

“I met Ingrith on a study abroad semester through the Center for Global
Education. The program was called Southern African Societies in Transition,
and used experiential education to focus on social justice issues. We were
stationed in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, and took trips across
Namibia and South Africa, meeting with people involved with the region's
struggles at high levels and grassroots levels, in politics, media and the arts.
This was in 1997, only three years after RSA's independence, and 7 years
after Namibia's. Many things about the intense semester stuck with me, but
the biggest one was my friendship with my urban homestay sister, Ingrith
Tjivela. The clarity of her perspective, her disposition, and her faith in the
goodness of people -- she exhibits these qualities in circumstances you'd
think it was impossible to exhibit them in.”
                               A Life Enlarged

                             By Duyen Van Do
                            (Vietnamese, age 33)

Chapter One: - 1999

       I was born in a village in Thai Binh province, in northeastern Vietnam
near the Pacific Ocean. My family lived on the rice and vegetables we grew.
At the age of 6, I moved inland with my family, to the mountainous and
remote Lai Chau province. My coastal motherland was so crowded there
were no vacant places left to cultivate. Like many other families, we went to
Lai Chau to plow new land, leaving behind the famines of my birthplace.

      Day after day, I grew up and went to school in the new village. I
remember many hours of bringing wood down from the mountains. We
needed fuel to cook not only a daily meal for us, but also one for our pigs.
Like many boys in the small town, I knew how to cook at the age of 7. For
some time, my job was cooking and bringing rice to the fields for my
mother‟s lunch.

       I spent much of my childhood playing and fishing with my friends in
the stream. We had many different games, which cost nothing. We had fun
with rocks, sticks, and bullet shells. They were our only toys. Life was
sometimes hard, but I knew nothing beyond the universe of Muong Lay
town, its mountains and streams. During my 13 years in Muong Lay, I never
visited another village. We were too poor to travel. At age 18, I visited
another village in a nearby district for the first time. After graduating from a
local high school, I took tests to enter college. No one in my family had
ever had this opportunity. For two years I failed to pass the tests. On my
third try I was accepted at Hanoi Banking College.

      Thus at 19, I had my first view of city life. The sights of Hanoi were
overwhelming to me. Never had I seen a train or so many lights on a street.
Never had I witnessed so many people walking around, riding bikes and
driving motorcycles. From a little town of fewer than 2,000 people, I had
moved to this large capital city of Vietnam with more than 2 million
citizens. I became a city boy, living in one tiny, rickety room, riding a
bicycle to school. My life had changed dramatically.

      My view of the world expanded as I encountered new ideas and new
people. Occasionally I would see foreigners on the streets of Hanoi. I
wanted to speak to them and learn more about other countries. One chance
meeting with an American resulted, after a four-year correspondence, in my
being invited to the United States to study English.

       I was catapulted once again into a totally new scene. Everything was
different, from the language, meals, and teaching methods to the way people
treated one another. Now, after 18 months of absorbing US culture and
education, I am contemplating my return to Vietnam. In this vast, wealthy
nation I have found much of value. Much of what I have learned will help
me a lot in my career, as well as for the rest of my life.

       However, it has been hard for me to witness the easy flow of money
into people‟s lives in this country. So much is spent on sports, hobbies, pets,
travel, children‟s toys, and many things that seem totally nonessential in my
country. I cannot carry any of these material things home with me. What
can I bring that will benefit my family or village? What ideas will help lift
them out of poverty? As my departure approaches, I am constantly trying to
think of ways to use what I have learned in America. Airline limits on
luggage will not enable me to take many things. But ideas are weightless. I
pray they will make a difference.

Chapter Two -- 2001

      I left the United States with my eyes full of tears. I knew I would
miss my American friends very much. I had experienced many new ideas
and concepts. It might be a long time before I could return to this beautiful
country. When I arrived home in Vietnam, would I be able to share all that I
had absorbed from this rich, new culture?

       How proud and happy I was the moment I stepped off the plane in
Hanoi! I felt anew, bigger than I‟d been when I left. I was used to seeing
tall people now. I had to let my eyes slip down to see my small Vietnamese
friends and family. My country was bigger in my eyes as well. New
developments had occurred under the banner of Doi Moi (reform). Never
had I seen such activity on the streets.

      I was grateful to see such progress, though it seems to have widened
the gap between rich and poor. Many tall buildings and luxury cars are in
Hanoi now, but homeless and penniless people are on the streets, as well. I
cannot get the images of Vietnam‟s poor out of my thought. They need jobs
to make money and ideas on how to use their wages wisely.

       Last year, at my American college, we students discussed what jobs
we might have. A Ghanaian student said she would like very much to work
for the United Nations. Other students said they would like to work for
organizations that do something to help people. Why hadn‟t I thought of
that? I‟d only ever thought about working for a profit making company.
New ideas are coming to me.

       My family and friends are very proud of me because I studied in the
United States. All of them would visit the States if given the chance. That is
not likely. But the fact that my dream came true gives them hope.

      What are the greatest lessons for me? My time in America not only
expanded my view of the world, it strengthened my courage and confidence.
I have come home understanding that I‟m not a victim of fate. I can
determine my own future and better the futures of those around me. I know
I can make a difference. I saw this optimism in America. My wish is to help
my people to uplift their view of the future. We cannot change the past, but
we can make the future better than the present.

        Now I have carried my new knowledge back to Vietnam. With the
help of American friends I have been able to buy a small apartment in Hanoi
for housing cousins and nephews who are studying in college. I have helped
a sister to start a carpentry shop in her village. I have been recruited to work
for 18 months for the United Nations Volunteer Organization in Hanoi,
helping small-scale community development projects to reduce poverty in
vulnerable villages. I am beginning to make an impact on my country and
its citizens.

Chapter 3 -- 2004
       As a teenager, growing up in my village, I could never have dreamed
of where my life would be going. American friends have helped me return
to the United States, to attend graduate school. I will soon be finishing my
courses in Business Administration. With an MBA degree, I can envision
many ways I will be able to use my knowledge to benefit Vietnam. I want to
start by helping my home village

       I have initiated a participatory community development project, which
I hope will help my neighbors to lift their lives out of poverty. Small loans
and training will be provided, to enable them to start their own businesses.
When my village has achieved its goals, the project can be moved to another
village. I am in awe at the many opportunities which have come to make my
life better. My heart warms at the thought that it is now my turn to help

     The Vietnamese proverb “O hien gap lanh” could be translated as
“Love is reflected in love”. I think of it often.


DUYEN VAN DO (age 33, Vietnamese, writes:
"Having worked for the Vietnam Red Cross (in the Social Welfare
department) for almost two years, I learned a lot about my country,
especially about those who are in great need. While working, I managed
small-scale projects that helped the most vulnerable people. Growing up in
the small town of Muong Lay in the Northwest of Vietnam, I experienced
the hard life of those people who did not have opportunities to better

“I am finishing my MBA degree this year, and will then have the
opportunity to work in the United States (practical training) for one year.
Having had many opportunities to better my life, now it is my turn to start
helping others.

“I have written a project proposal for helping my neighbors in Vietnam. It is
called a participatory community development project. A project that
includes the active and voluntary participation of the local people and their
government is the most likely to succeed. Because local villagers will
participate in the project from the very first steps, they will understand that
this project is their own. We will provide these families with small loans and
necessary training to start their own businesses. The total amount of funds
needed to initiate this program is $4,000. I have already raised $1,300. If I
should win any award through Backpack Nation, the funds will go directly
toward this "For-Tomorrow" project.

“If any readers are interested in learning more about this project, I would be
happy to send a copy of the 4 page project proposal."
                         The Toilet Paper Affair

                             By Emmay Mah
                            (Canadian, age 25)

      Swaziland is picturesque, even from the air. As we descended in the
miniature, 3-seat-wide plane, I felt the emerald green mountains reaching
towards me, drawing me into the tiny kingdom. Even after traveling for 48
hours, I was anxious to immerse myself in all things Swazi, land, language
and culture.

       The Swazi people are proud of their cultural traditions, and have
earned the right to be, after centuries of surviving dominant forces from
South Africa, which surrounds them on all sides, except for a small border
shared with Mozambique. This, and many other things about Swaziland,
intrigued me, and I was enthusiastic about the work placement I was about
to undertake there. I had come to work for the local association of an
international NGO, which cares for orphaned and abandoned children in

       My first, and most memorable, encounter with “real” Swazi culture
came only a week after I arrived. At the time, the whole country was
buzzing with the news that his royal majesty, King Mswati III of Swaziland,
was about to announce the name of the new Prime Minister, as is customary
in the Swazi government. Now anyone who has heard of Swaziland has
probably heard of its notorious king, who has upheld the tradition of
polygamous marriage with flying colours. Last time I checked, his wives
numbered an even dozen. Anyway, the King had summoned his subjects (all
Swazies) to the Royal Crawl in the Valley of the Kings, Ezulwini Valley, to
hear the announcement.

       When I asked one of my colleagues about this event on the morning it
was supposed to take place, his eyes lit up. “This would be a great
opportunity for you to see the place,” he said. Although he had not intended
to go initially, he quickly arranged a vehicle for us to travel to Ezulwini.
Within a few moments we drove off, accompanied by one of the “mothers”
in our organization, an older lady who is employed as a caregiver to look
after the children that our organization supports.
       Along the way, we saw many people all making their way to
Ezulwini; the government had provided free transport for the occasion.
Eludizini, Royal Crawl area, is a large open space surrounded by dramatic
mountain landscape. As we arrived it was filling with thousands of people,
many of whom were dressed in traditional costume. We parked the vehicle
with the others on the grass outside of the official area. As we stepped out of
the vehicle, I had the sense that something was making the mother somewhat
uneasy. I realized then that I had forgotten to change out my pants and wear
a skirt, which is usually required of Swazi women at official functions.
Regardless of whether or not I approved of the tradition, I berated myself
silently, as I pride myself in being culturally observant. I voiced my
concerns to my companions, and my male colleague shrugged, “They
probably won‟t trouble you about it, since you‟re a foreigner.” The mother
looked less convinced. She held up the turquoise-and-purple checkered
tablecloth she had brought to sit on. “You can use this,” she suggested. She
proceeded to wrap it around my waist and tuck it into the top of my pants --
it looked like I was wearing sarong.

       Walking toward the entrance area I felt a bit self-conscious about
being clothed in a tablecloth, but many of the other women also had cloth
wrappers around their waists, so I figured I would not attract too much
attention. We went through two security checkpoints and a metal detector, at
which point the men and the women were separated to go through two
different entrances. We said “so long” to our male colleague and headed
towards the entrance of the enclosure where the announcement would be
delivered. The area was perfectly flat and the enclosure had been built with a
circular wall of young tree branches and trunks that were wedged firmly into
the ground.

       We lined up at the entrance with all the other women, who were being
checked by policewomen. Just as we were about to go inside, I was stopped
by a policewoman who said something to me in SiSwati. The mother
translated, “She‟s asking if you are a Swazi.” The mother replied that I
wasn‟t and then policewoman spoke to me, sternly, in English: “Don‟t you
know that you need to cover your hair!” I looked around me, all the older
women were wearing hats or headscarves and the younger women had
strings of beads or just plane string tied across their foreheads. “Great,” I
thought, “why didn‟t anyone mention this before we left?” I fumbled
through my bag looking for something to cover my head, although I already
knew I had nothing of the sort. The policewoman began to feel sorry for me.
“Anything,” she said, “even a handkerchief.” I shook my head; I was starting
to feel bad about holding up the line. By that time, the women around me
realized what the problem was but no one offered any assistance. Finally,
one woman reached into her bag and pulled out a role of toilet paper and
offered it to me. I was a bit baffled. The mother said “Here wrap this around
your head.” She doubled the toilet paper and held it out to me in a long strip.
Feeling completely ridiculous, I wrapped it around my forehead and tied it at
the back of my head. As we entered, the irony was not lost on me that here I
was wearing toilet paper on my head and a tablecloth around my waist, in
order to respect Swazi custom and honour the King!

       Just to make me feel more self-conscious, I discovered I was the only
foreigner in the sea of people, as far as the eye could see. All the foreign
dignitaries were way at the front of the crowd; so far away we couldn‟t even
see them. The most pleasant surprise of the day was that no one made any
fuss -- there were no giggles, snickers or any sort of mocking at all. A few
people gave me slightly inquisitive glances, which seemed to ask: “why is a
foreigner sitting here with the rest of us in the blazing heat?” I was very

       The rest of the event was fairly “uneventful”. The King arrived
fashionably 6 hours late -- he was supposed to arrive at 8am and came at
2pm -- luckily we had only arrived ourselves at 12pm. There were too many
people in front of us to see him, and after teasing the crowd for 5 minutes, he
announced the Prime Minister‟s name. Then it was finished. On the way
back in the car, my male colleague couldn‟t stop laughing when we told him
what happened. I decided to tell all my colleagues at work, and for weeks
afterwards people would show up at my office with their friends and give me
a gentle nudge: “Tell so-and-so about when you went to see the King.”


EMMAY MAH (age 25, Canadian) writes: “I am a twenty-five year old,
Canadian development worker. My first overseas work experience was an
internship in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with the Foundation for Sustainable
Development, where I worked for a local NGO that provided educational
support to AIDS orphans. Since then, I have returned twice and continue to
have a close relationship with my Tanzanian host family.
“My most recent work has been in Swaziland and South Africa, addressing
the HIV/AIDS epidemic‟s impact on families and children. This kind of
work can be heart-wrenching, especially when you encounter children who
have been orphaned or infected by the virus. Nonetheless, I have drawn
inspiration from my local colleagues, who fight for these children day-in
day-out without losing their positive outlook while they also grapple with
the affects of HIV/AIDS in their personal lives.

“If this submission makes the top five, the prize will be used to purchase
anti-retroviral drugs for an HIV-positive Tanzanian widow, who supports a
family of ten children. This money will purchase over half a year‟s supply of
the medicine, which doesn‟t come cheaply at $150 US per month. This
woman caries an enormous burden on her shoulders, and the wellbeing of
her children depends greatly on her survival.”
                         The Tree of 1000 Blessings
                            By Evelyn Rodriguez
                             (American, age 39)

      The Maya call this the tree of a thousand blessings, said the obsidian
haired boy-priest.

       As instructed, I close my eyes and silently chant a mantra to etch my
three dreams into my mind. These dreams will become real, he assures.

       The branch-frond of a thousand thin-fingered leaves flutters its wings
and alights on my crown. I breathe in and out to slow down the moment. The
rare cloudless blue sky is witness. The sweet water lake ringed by the
vibrant emerald cloud forest is witness.

      Do dreams burst forth atop of sacred volcanoes? Is receiving giving?
Giving receiving?

     The priest-guide recounts that years earlier a young girl in the village
below, his village, disappeared one day. They say she came to Lake
Chicabal and walked out to its very heart to become its eternal protectress.

      Our spirits live forever.

       There is silence. My eyes dart to the center of the lake and search the
ripples. The water reflects the intensity of our seeking. Someone fidgets and
shifts on the rock they are sitting on. Then, the British lawyer murmurs
aloud, Or at least that's what they tell her parents to make them feel better.

       Unabashedly the boy-priest continues and shares the Mayan Mam
beliefs with the tour. All questions are responded to with his calm knowing
and certain faith.

      Yellow, red, green and white candles and pearly white calla lilies
among other instruments of prayer and ritual are tucked throughout the
edges of the lake.
      On the hike up to the lake filling the crater, I had asked the boy-priest-
guide about himself and what he thinks.

      His name is Rogelio.

      He lives in San Martin Chile Verde. On certain days, when the
landscape of clouds is absent, the Pacific Ocean is visible from the front of
his house.

      Although Mayans are a majority of the country, elections (still recent
news) never seem to favor the indigenous choice.

      The children often work in the fields to help their parents. The future
does not put food on the dinner table tonight. School is an afterthought,
sometimes even a luxury.

        Rogelio is thrilled to find out I live in California. When I tell him I
studied in Fresno, Rogelio beams, as he has returned from there only
recently. Two years studying English and computers. His father, a full-
fledged Mayan priest from a long lineage of priests (Rogelio is technically
still an apprentice) was told by a friend of a friend about this scholarship in
the United States.

       Rogelio adores computers. In Spanish, they would say he is an
amante, a passionate lover, of computers. He whispers to me in confidence
that he wants to create an after-hours center for the kids in the village to
learn about computers and the Internet. (I know that an hour of dial-up
access through Telgua can buy quite a few tamales.) Another of his dreams
is to maybe work in the capital, in Guate, at the Microsoft office. Or come
back to the United States to study more.

     The lure of working in the United States always beckons. The only
homes in San Martin that look like homes and not shacks are financed by
immigrants sending money back to the local Western Union every Monday.

      Earlier in my trip through Mexico and Guatemala, I entered what I
thought was a Catholic church and stepped through a portal into a mystic
dimension. Copal incense swirled and clung to the air, the sing-song of
spoken prayer pierced through the indoor temple, Mayan families gathered
on the floor picnic-style eating their snacks and lighting candles to pray to
glass encased saints, and pine needles carpeted the entire wooden floor.
Among the offerings on the floor were anachronistic Coca-Cola glass

      This is not the dualistic tendency of the West. Either I am a
technologist worshipping at the altar of Microsoft or, instead, I am a priest
healing and praying atop a sacred volcano. It is said that the Mayans are
highly adaptable. Add, incorporate, integrate. Union. Not either/or but rather

       Giving and receiving are similarly non-dualistic. They are two sides
of the same coin. I am woken up as I watch the grace and undeterred poise
that Rogelio possesses with the tour group. What is there to be ashamed of?
We live in a time of skyscrapers, stock markets, high-definition television
and satellites. Does that exclude faith in the intangibles, I ask myself.
Where's the paradox? I am thankful for the gift.

       I learned about Rogelio's dreams just by simple inquiry into who he
was. He was not just the Mayan priest the agency touted would guide us to
the sacred crater lake. We are more than any one facet that's immediately

       I have seen men and boys walk up a steep hillside in the Guatemalan
Highlands with their machetes and return much later, their backs laden with
wood they chopped for the next day's fire. They return on foot to villages
without paved roads. Once in a while a villager may have a burro and it too
is teetering with a load of chopped firewood. Perhaps there is corn growing
in the field and women carrying woven baskets on their head with laundry
handwashed by the pila. Sometimes hundreds of corn cobs lie scattered on
the tin roofs of a few houses.

       It sounds ludicrous to suggest that their sons and daughters should
learn about computers. But the children, the ones who are not shy, run out to
see if we will take their picture. Someone will return in a month and deliver
the portraits. A crowd begins to gather around a digital camera to see the
moment preserved on the spot.

       Computers can be a tool for storytellers and for dreamers. Through
film, voice, text, photos and laughter a two-dimensional collage of a people,
of an individual, can come to life and be shared with thousands scattered
around the globe. The Internet connects people around the world together in
a web of relationships, into a Tree of Life. Imagination reigns.

        I know that the world has become more intimate for me because of the
Internet. I chat with and visit the weblogs created by Indians, Iraqis, and
Irish. An acquaintance of mine will be on a teaching tour around Africa to
tell others about participatory media, enabled by weblogs. It's not about
technology. It's about expressing your voice and sharing with the world. I
will soon be "interviewing" people from around the world on my own

        One-dimensional stereotypes morph into individuals with dreams,
fears, ideas, beliefs, imagination and stories. Traveling to locales yourself
doesn't guarantee that you will really delve deeply into the culture and the
lives of the individuals you brush by on the way to see the mosque, the
pyramid, the peak or the palace. Even if we are not able to travel, our minds
are free to meet others on the virtual road and inquire about their lives. That
is gift of the Internet. Now the trick is to make it accessible to all.

       It's true that $1000 is not even the beginning to securing a room or a
couple of computers or the multimedia gear to create digital short films,
record oral histories, or email a new friend in Iceland, but it would make the
story public and demonstrate active faith in the development of a proposal to
submit to Microsoft and other technology companies for in-kind donations
to fund the San Martin Chile Verde Children's Cultural Technology Center.
Stories move companies and foundations to act. I know a version of
Rogelio's vision is feasible. It still needs chiseling. A phased step-by-step
approach instills confidence and provides opportunity for a vision to come
into clear actionable focus. We can start with simple inexpensive steps such
as creating a space online for the children to display their own digital photos,
stories and village news and engage in dialogue around their creation with
other online children.

       I would use the money in part to fund this first phase of Rogelio's
dream, partner with him to write the proposals to solicit the corporate and
institutional funds, and fund an online (eventually also in-person) initiative
to teach others about the power of story to imagine dreams into existence.

EVELYN RODRIGUEZ (age 39, American, email: evelyn (at) korugroup
(dot) com) writes: “No one should be constrained by their bio -- it's just a
fleeting glimpse of multi-dimensional being. But here goes: I feel equally at
home in Silicon Valley (also known as Santa Clara County, California,
USA) speaking geek or meditating in Marin at a breathwork workshop or in
Guatemala studying Spanish and living with a local family.

“I have traveled by boat, elephant and foot to the hill tribes of Thailand,
kayaked among dolphins and penguins in New Zealand, and been to obscure
and not so obscure crevices of Asia, North America, Central America, and
Europe. Traveling stirs my senses and reminds me viscerally that all of us
are fundamentally interconnected.

“I make my living conducting market research and implementing
participatory customer-centric marketing strategies in the converging
industries of computing, media and communications. My dreams include
traveling around the world sharing the experience of delving into cultures
and people in real time on my public weblog Crossroads Dispatches, writing
a book about innate creativity and the constant reservoir for ideas,
inspiration and peace, and teaching others how dreams are within our grasp.”

                            By Harriet Hamilton
                             (American, age 61)

       I walked past them as if they weren‟t there. Twenty years living in
Mexico had given me plenty of opportunities to recognize the faces of
poverty. Now, with our riverboat docked on the Russian Volga, my friends
and I had a scant three hours to visit museums, see churches and bargain for
souvenirs. There was no time to consider the four elderly women who stood
quietly to one side, clutching scraggily bunches of wildflowers.

      Several days before I had seen an old woman in Moscow, wrapped in
a ragged black overcoat and huddled against the wall of a building. I had
even snapped a quick photograph of her. For a second I wondered if she
were faint from hunger or sick from the cold, but then I moved on. One
expected to see poor people in the city. All cities had them.

      That evening, back on the boat, we sat down to a beautiful dinner. A
woman we had just met earlier that afternoon joined us. “How did you like
Uglich?” someone asked.

      The woman‟s face clouded over. “Something happened today that I
don‟t quite understand.” She leaned over the table and lowered her voice. “I
got hungry while we were out this morning and decided to snack on a roll I
had taken with me from breakfast. I took it out of my purse and had only
taken a bite when an old woman carrying a bunch of half-wilted wildflowers
approached me. She pointed to the roll and then to herself. I showed her it
was half eaten, but she kept pointing. When I finally gave it to her, I thought
she was going to cry.” She paused. “They must not have bakeries here.”

      My friends and I looked at the beautiful plates in front of us. Filet
mignon, artfully placed salad greens, and delicately sautéed fresh vegetables.
At that moment we knew, all of us, that we could not continue to eat
unconsciously, taking food for granted. We knew what we had to do.

      The next morning our riverboat was scheduled to make a stop at
another town. At breakfast the waiters exchanged polite if uncomprehending
smiles as we loaded our pockets with extra hard-boiled eggs and containers
of yogurt. We discreetly filled small plastic shopping bags with apples, rolls,
and packets of jam and butter before we walked out of the dining room.

       Soon after the boat docked, we walked down the gangplank, past a
parade of souvenir stands and there they were, standing quietly off to one
side. Not the same women, of course, but they could have been. Old
Babushkas, heads tied with faded cotton scarves that had seen too many
washings and hands that had felt life too intensely, clutched bouquets of
wilted wildflowers. One woman closed her eyes and pressed her palms
together in silent prayer. But it was their eyes that told their stories. Hopeful
eyes, pleading eyes, eyes that said, its okay if you can’t see us; it’s okay if
you don’t understand. Smiles on their faces that didn‟t waver if you didn‟t
return them. Smiles that said, We’ve survived this long. It’ll be all right.
Smiles that sought to soothe rather than be soothed.

      Feeling self-conscious we each approached one of the women, thrust
the bags in their hands and quickly turned away, embarrassed at the gap
between us. Embarrassed that we had so much and they had so little,
embarrassed that our abundance meant so little and their lack meant so

       As I walked away, an old grandmother came after me. She called and
reached out, touching me on the shoulder. I turned around, afraid the gulf
between us was too great and that she would mistake my compassion for
pity. Strands of gray hair wandered out from beneath her kerchief. Small
blue eyes met my gaze. She looked first at me, then at the small bag in her
hands, then back at me, the tiny blue eyes now filled with tears. I reacted
badly. I had never seen so much gratitude pour out of one human heart over
a couple of pieces of bread. I didn‟t want her to see that I, too, was crying. I
didn‟t want her to know how bad I felt for her and how helpless I felt. I
stuffed the feeling down, forced a cheerful smile, nodded as if her poverty
and her gratitude had not touched me, and quickly walked away.

       Eventually we came to terms with the enormity of their poverty and
the limitations of our efforts. By the time we reached the little town of Svir
Stroy several days later, we thought we would surely return to the boat with
our well-stocked bags. Sturdy houses shared by several families and tiny,
well-tended gardens gave us an impression of relative wealth in this little
town. Cows roamed in tree-lined streets, children chatted animatedly with
each other and vendors hastily set out souvenirs to take advantage of the
riverboats‟ brief visits. We bought jars of homemade lingonberry jam and a
whole smoked fish.

       But June was chilly this far north, even in the Russian sunshine. And
there they were, standing just beyond the vendors, off to one side. Four old
women, dressed in layers of worn out clothing, shawls draped over their
shoulders, kerchiefs on their heads, hopeful smiles on their faces and
wildflowers in their hands. We put our purchases aside and bought their
flowers, gave them our bags of food, our smiles and our warmest hugs.
When two school girls examined an apple with more interest than an
American kid would have looked at an FAO Schwartz card, we bought their
simple drawings as well.

       Not all the old women in Svir Stroy had to beg. Several women
opened their homes and served tea. We were delighted to accept their
invitations. We wanted to see their homes, to see how they lived, and to be,
if only for a few moments, a part of their lives. One woman had no tea, as it
turned out, but invited us in for simple store-bought cookies and homemade
vodka. We sat around an old table in the room that served as living room,
dining room and bedroom while she pointed to the family photographs on
the wall. We pulled out photos and pointed to our family members as well,
and when we left we felt that we had both shared what was dearest to our

       “Most of the older women lost their husbands and sons during the
Stalin purges,” our interpreter explained. “With the new regime, they also
lost their pensions. Now they have nothing.” I thought about the poor people
I had seen so often in Mexico. I had consoled myself with the fact that there
was always a fruit tree somewhere, that beans and tortillas were cheap. But
Russia was not Mexico. How much food could you grow this far north in a
place that only gave you three months to do it?

       The rest of the trip our rooms overflowed with flowers. The faces of
these old women were the first thing we looked for when we got off the
boat, and their wildflowers were the first purchase we made. We bought
every flower, no matter how wilted. Wildflowers of every sort filled the
window, crowded the table, sat on the floor and overflowed on the shelves.
If they asked one dollar, we paid three, sometimes five. We no longer waited
for an invitation. We smiled first and hugged harder; sincerely wishing we
could take all of them home with us.

       There were several passengers on the boat who had made the same
trip before. At the beginning of the cruise I had thought they were silly for
taking the same trip over again when there were so many other places to see.
Now I dream of going back and filling the entire boat with flowers.


HARRIET HAMILTON (age 61, American, is a
Spanish teacher and free-lance writer. She writes: “When I came back from
Russia I told my spiritual teacher about the little babushkas and how much
we wished we could do something for them. „Did you write about it?‟ he
asked. „No,‟ I replied. „I wrote about something funny instead.‟ His silence
hounded me for months. Then a student told me about this contest and I
knew immediately what I had to do.

“As I was writing, I kept thinking, „There were four villages and a dozen or
more women in each. I‟ll have to move fast -- contact the tour agency,
arrange for the interpreter to withdraw the money from an ATM before the
start of the last cruise and get it to them now, before winter comes. What if
we asked for donations in our community? What if we raised enough money
to not only give these women enough to get through this winter, but to set
them up in some sort of business -- a tea room, maybe -- so they could get
through the rest of the winters of their lives? What if we raised enough to
pay a couple of the crew members, who are without jobs all winter, so they
could help them?‟”
                         A Week With the Midwife

                             By Jenny Sherman
                             (American, age 27)

       The circumciser held up her pinky finger, measured down to its first
joint with her other hand, and showed me. "This," said the translator behind
her, "is how much of the clitoris you take. Too little, and it's not done
properly. Too much, and it will not stop bleeding."

       I tried not to flinch. I had researched the phenomenon of female
circumcision for a couple of years, had read the brutal descriptions of
infibulation, infected sutures, complicated childbirth, but hearing the
procedure described in blasé detail by a woman who used to perform it on
young girls was another matter entirely.

      "Did they cry much?" I asked her translator, a middle-aged man from
her household who spoke some English. He repeated my question, and the
circumciser laughed heartily. "Of course!" she said. "I had to do it at night,
and to very young children, so that they would not be able to tell who did it
to them."

       I had come to Ghana to research this procedure and its prevalence in a
country that had banned female circumcision several years prior, but where
researchers suspected that a good deal of illegal operations still took place.
The circumciser, an exceedingly old, angular woman swaddled in colorful
batik and squatting on a stool in her compound's courtyard, could have been
lying when she said that she didn't practice anymore because of the law. I
couldn't help believing her, though. I liked her. She was chatty, although she
moved with the slow, stiff gestures of a woman who has washed a lifetime
of laundry by hand. And she grinned often as she described the reasons for
cutting, the ages of the girls, and the herb poultice she applied to promote
healing -- not out of cruelty, but like a mother in the Western world would
smile when discussing her daughter getting her ears pierced. Circumcision
was, to this woman, an honorable profession that she had excelled at. I had
to respect that.
       During my nearly three months in Ghana, I gained much respect for
another important profession that I came to know through my circumcision
research: midwifery. The role of the midwife in Western Africa and
probably countless other countries around the world is an essential one.
Midwives birth babies, remove Guinea worms, treat malaria, advise on
nutrition, suture wounds, and provide birth control, among numerous other
duties. Their clinics act as scaled-down hospitals, complete with maternity
rooms and emergency theaters. Especially in more remote regions, they are
the only medical personnel available for miles. I realized that midwives
would be able to provide me with valuable information about circumcision,
since the practice has been known to cause difficult births, scarring, and
dangerous infections.

       So I headed to Tamale, a bustling city in the far north of the country,
where I had the name and address of a midwife familiar with circumcision
issues. Mrs. Fulera Goodman operated her clinic, the Fulera Maternity
Home, just outside the city. She was very kind, and willing to help me find
people to interview. She also offered to let me stay in a room in her clinic for
the week I had planned to be there.

       During that week, I experienced just how varied a midwife's duties
can be. I watched a patient have an IUD inserted, saw Mrs. Goodman treat a
child convulsing from a malarial fever, and witnessed a woman slowly
progress into early labor. I even spoke with a couple of women about their
circumcisions. I absorbed all I could, and asked questions constantly. I also
spent plenty of time with Mrs. Goodman's niece, Zeinab Hamza, a tall,
handsome young woman who was working at the clinic to save up for
nursing school.

      Zeinab had a wonderful way with the patients; she had tended to the
baby with malaria, which was fussy and crying after coming out of its fit of
tremors. But she didn't have much opportunity to work with them since she
was usually busy cleaning and running Mrs. Goodman's errands.

       I sometimes helped Zeinab with her chores, and we would spend the
time chatting about all sorts of topics. As we did laundry one afternoon, we
discussed how intolerable boys could be. On a hot, dusky night, while
walking to buy supplies, I asked her questions about being Muslim.
Muslims, she said, are very open-minded about ideas and the right to believe
in different things. She described how her beliefs included the precept that
people should be able to join in an open, non-denominational prayer that
everyone can say "amen" to at the end with their hearts, not just their
mouths. It was one of the most refreshing perspectives I had encountered in

       Zeinab continued to impress me for the rest of my stay. When I told
her how well I thought she did at the clinic, she confessed to me that she
really wanted to be a doctor. She was bright, articulate, even a bit spunky --
and one of the most genuine people I had met in Ghana. Despite her
profound abilities, she was reliant on the good humors and whims of her
aunt, who treated her like a maid and often refused to teach Zeinab medical
procedures she was curious about. Zeinab was frustrated; nursing school was
hard enough to afford, but medical school was almost an impossibility.

       I thought about trying to help her out. An American dollar, after all,
went so much further in Ghana than it did in more-developed nations. I
fantasized about paying for her schooling or even having her live with me in
the United States so that she could attend college, but I realized that I was in
no position to support someone else. So I did what I could: planted a rose
bush in the clinic courtyard, dashed her some extra money when I boarded
the bus back to Accra, promised to write.

        Within weeks, I was back in Minnesota compiling my research. I had
plenty of good, first-person information about female circumcision in
Ghana. I also had scads of adventurous stories to tell friends and family --
about the circumciser, the old fort I explored, the festival to celebrate the
newly inaugurated chief. But my tales always ended with a declaration that
the overarching lesson I learned while there is that of generosity. The
circumciser had shown it when she sat on that hard wooden stool in the chill
of a summer evening talking for hours about a fading cultural practice whose
prohibition had cost her a way to make a living. Zeinab had demonstrated it
by making me dinner each night, showing me how to properly grind the
seeds out of a tomato sauce. The people I encountered had given me what
little they could without a second thought. It is an elusive ability that I am
still trying to learn.

      But my intention to help Zeinab in a more substantial way has not
diminished one bit. I've often thought of the time when I would be able to
prove to her that her generosity was not wasted on me. It may be some time
before she knows it, but the week we spent together at the midwife's clinic
has not been forgotten.


JENNY SHERMAN (age 27, American, is
a freelance writer and editor. She has written on a variety of topics
including the Klondike gold rush, corporate aviation, cowboy artists, the
biofuel industry, and graphic novels. Originally from Minnesota, she has
ventured away from her Midwestern roots to live in Ghana for a summer,
work on an organic farm in Italy, soak in Reykjavik's geothermal pools, hike
the Alaskan tundra, bike in Ireland, snowboard the Colorado Rockies, whale
watch in Puget Sound, and finally settle down in New York City -- which
has been another adventure altogether.
                              Thomas’ Dream
                              By Jody Delichte
                             (Canadian, age 29)

     Before my trip to Tanzania I had never been to Africa. Everything I
knew about the continent was based on what I had seen on the nature
channel and in the news, or read in magazines. To me it was a distant place
whose challenges and struggles seemed so far away from my daily life.

       But that immediately changed as soon as my boyfriend and I stepped
off the plane. I was no longer viewing Africa from a distance… its sights,
sounds, and smells encircled me. I was overwhelmed by it all and could only
step back, watch, and try to take it all in. I watched men bicycling along the
side of dirt roads riddled with potholes. They balanced so many crates of
eggs on the back of their old style bicycles that I thought any hint of a wind
would certainly tip them over. I watched women dressed in bright colored
garments balance fruit, groceries, water, and other large uneven packages on
their heads as they walked down the road. And I watched young children
playing in the thick red dirt outside their small run down homes. As I gazed
out into this foreign world I could not help but wonder what these people
dream about and how their dreams differ from my own and those of people I
know in Europe and North America.

       During our three weeks in Tanzania I had the opportunity to learn
more about Africa, its people, and their challenges. Of course we had
unforgettable experiences seeing the animals and climbing Mount
Kilimanjaro, but it is the experiences with the people that had the most
profound impact on me. We spent time in a Masai village, we played with
local children, and we talked to various people about their backgrounds and
lives. Through interacting with the people and learning about them, their
lives, and their challenges, I began to feel more attached to them and
empathize with their struggles. But there was one person that affected me so
profoundly that I knew I had to find a way to help -- and that was our guide,

      Thomas is around 47 years old, but looks like he is in his early 30s
because of his smooth dark brown skin and fit physique. He is a shy, soft-
spoken man of few words, but his big gleaming smile and gentle, warm
brown eyes reveal much about him. When we first met Thomas I
immediately felt comfortable that we would get along very well.

        What we initially learned about Thomas we learned through
observation. He has a keen sense of animal behavior and signs, and was able
to lead us to animals that no one else was able to see… and in some cases we
could not even see upon first glance. Who would have thought that dark-
tipped piece of grass was actually the ear of a lioness?!?!?! Whenever we
would get excited about a new animal sighting, Thomas‟ eyes would light up
with a hint of amusement, and a smile would stretch across his face. He
seemed to enjoy our reactions as much as we enjoyed seeing the animals.
During the safari Thomas shared his extensive knowledge of the animals and
their behaviors, and over time also began to share more about himself and
his life.

       We had booked a camping safari, so together with Thomas and the
cook, we ate and slept in the great outdoors. At times it was just our two
tents in a small camp surrounded by the sounds of the animals at night, and
at times, surrounded by the animals themselves! Thomas told us that the
animals may wander through he camp at night and warned us to be quiet if
they walked by our tents. He also instructed us to shine our lights outside if
we needed to get up in the middle of the night, to check for animals and
scare them away. Thomas seemed very comfortable in the situation and did
not express concern… that was enough to allow me to peacefully enjoy the
sounds of the night and fall into a deep, comfortable sleep.

      Camping with Thomas gave us a great opportunity to uncover more
about him and develop a friendship. There is nothing quite like sitting
around a campfire at night -- sharing it‟s warmth and gazing into its
mesmerizing glow -- to share stories about life, our realities, and our

       Just a simple story about Finland and how the lakes freeze up and
people drive on them and cut holes in them to fish or swim caused Thomas‟
eyes to grow wide in disbelief. He let out a high-pitched laugh and his smile
stretched from ear-to-ear. This has never been part of his reality.

     However, when Tomas shared stories about his own reality in
Tanzania, his smile disappeared. With great sadness he explained that some
foreigners have paid the government a lot of money for permission to hunt
just outside the Serengeti. Thomas‟ eyes lowered to the ground and his voice
turned into a depressed whisper as he explained that they are killing the
animals for sport, but nothing can be done because the permit is for 10 years,
of which only two have passed. I got the strong sense that Thomas not only
relied on the animals for his livelihood, but that he truly respected and loved
them and did not like to see them chased and killed for fun. His sadness
brought upon my own quiet reflection and sadness at such beauty being
destroyed for money.

       My experiences with the people, and with Thomas in particular, made
me want to reach out and help in some way. I wanted to make a difference --
not just be another tourist that visits and then vanishes back to a world of
goods and services, which now seemed somewhat irrelevant. The problems
and challenges that I had left back home seemed so minor and insignificant
to me in this environment. So, we asked Thomas how we could help him.
His simple, yet very powerful answer was, “Please, just send books for my
children.” That really hit me between the eyes. Here I was thinking that he
needed better gear or toys for his kids, but all he wanted was books.

      Thomas explained to us that schoolbooks in Africa are limited and are
not very good. If we would send books about science, math, and English it
would help teach his children and provide them with a better education. I
thought about the hundreds of books on my shelves back home and how I
could simply walk into a giant book superstore and buy a book on almost
any subject. My heart felt heavy with guilt and sadness at the inequality of
our world and I vowed to send Thomas the books he asked for.

       Thomas seemed embarrassed as he described how he had been very
good in school, but did not have the chance to go to university because his
parents were too poor. It was obvious that the lost opportunity still hurts him
deeply and is powering his drive to ensure that his children have the
opportunity he did not. When Thomas is not guiding tourists he is working
on the family farm, saving all he can to send his children to university. He
has four children, and proudly describes the eldest as being bright in school
and always at the top of his class. Thomas desperately wants to at least be
able to send his eldest child to university -- that is his dream, and it is what
drives him to work relentlessly. It is not for him, it is for the future of his
       Thomas‟ dream is so strong and is fuelled by such passion and drive
that I know I must find a way to help him make it a reality. The $1000 from
Backpack Nation will be the first deposit into a fund that will be created to
help make Thomas‟ dream of sending his children to university come true.

      I believe that each one of us can make a difference if we choose to get
involved. I believe that the fulfillment of Thomas‟ dream can and will have a
wonderfully powerful ripple effect for Thomas, his family, his community,
and who knows, maybe even his country. Education is the key to unlocking
so many of life‟s doors…this is an opportunity for us to hand someone that
key and pay our own good fortune forward.


JODY DELICHTE ( is a 29-year old
globetrotting Canadian who has lived in Canada, the United States, and
Denmark, and who currently resides in the United Kingdom. She loves to
travel and experience new places and people.

She is the co-founder of a project called DREAM! (www.project-, which aims to inspire and motivate people to examine their
passions, identify their dreams, and journey toward the realization of those
dreams. Jody‟s own passions and dreams involve creative writing that
encourages thought and generates inspiration and motivation. She is also
passionate about hanging off the side of sunny rock faces and racing down
the side of snowy mountains.
                     Wrapped Under the Mango Tree

                              By Katie Krueger
                             (American, age 25)

       It was Christmas day when I jumped out of the bush taxi on a sandy
road near the Siné Saloum Delta in Senegal. However, to me that simply
meant another day to let the world greet me as I explored it. When I am
traveling, every day holds so much potential that it has the power to be as
remarkable as Christmas.

       I reached the edge of Yayeme, a small Seerer village with about 80
large farming families, and asked two men for directions. They walked me
directly to the campement, where a young man welcomed us in and
introduced himself as Diène N‟Dour. His toothy grin lit up his dark face as
he smiled to shake my hand. He invited me to sit in the shade while he
explained that the accommodations were basic. The villagers had no
electricity and hand-pulled all their water from wells so life stayed pretty
simple. I happily accepted and said that I would only be staying one or two
nights because I was headed to the Gambia.

      A refreshing bucket shower washed away the fatigue from the
morning‟s bus trip and stimulated my appetite so I asked Diène where I
could buy some eggs and bread for dinner. He hesitated thoughtfully before
he answered. “As it is Christmas day and you are so far from you family, I
would like to invite you to eat dinner with my family and spend the holiday
with us,” he said.

      I was touched by his offer, but hesitant to intrude on his family‟s
celebration. I politely thanked him for the invitation, but told him I did not
want to be a burden. I would happily make myself an omelet and spend the
day writing letters to friends back home.

       “Katie,” he pleaded. “Its Christmas! My mother has cooked her best
and would be honored to have you eat with us. Leave the letters until
tomorrow and come make some new friends at my house.” I was flattered
by his insistence, and happily accepted.
       When the afternoon heat had passed, we walked to his family‟s house.
We arrived at a small, fenced-in plot of land that held three cement huts with
palm leaf roofs, a few mango trees, and an assortment of farm animals.
Under the largest mango tree sat a group of more than ten people, each of
whom smiled warmly and immediately came to shake my hand as Diène
introduced me. Before I had met everyone, his youngest sister brought out a
large bowl of yassa poulet. The family and I sat around the periphery of the
bowl, eating together as a group. When we had each stuffed ourselves to the
limit, we spread out comfortably in the shade and spent the rest of the
afternoon talking in a mixture of French, Wolof, Seerer and English. If my
conversations became muddled because of language barriers, whomever I
was talking to made it a point to slow down and give me the time I needed to
express myself thoroughly.

       Around the time the moon rose to salute the setting sun, I thanked
everyone for making me feel at home. Walking back to the campement, I
realized that they had gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable and
as a result I felt like a member of their family. Before going to bed that
night, I thanked Diène profusely for the unforgettable day and for sharing his
wonderful family with me. I said he was lucky to be surrounded by so much
love, and politely asked if everyone we met today shared the three small huts
I saw.

      “Since my father died, it has been my four sisters, one brother, two
uncles, my mother and the goats, pigs and chickens living there,” he
chuckled. “But here in Senegal we do not like to count the people in each
house, because you never know when a visitor might come. Today, for
example, we had one more person than yesterday.” He winked and wished
me a goodnight‟s sleep.

      After eight months living in Dakar, I will leave Senegal in June
without ever having visited the Gambia. I ended up spending my entire
December vacation in Yayeme, and returned regularly over the next five
months. Diène and I have become good enough friends to discover that we
share a sense of humor, a belief in destiny, and an optimistic curiosity about
the world. Each time I went to Yayeme to visit my friend his family opened
up their lives and welcomed me in. Their limitless teranga (Wolof for
hospitality) allowed me to feel at home and gave me the unique chance to
explore rural Senegalese life from the inside.
       Each act of kindness in Yayeme outdid the previous one. People gave
me whatever they could to make me feel welcome. One night, for example,
when I had the opportunity to see a traditional Seerer wrestling match,
Diène‟s mother lent me one of her best boubous to wear so that I would be
dressed appropriately. When I returned it to her the next day, she refused,
insisting that I keep it. In addition, I have an ever-growing collection of
bracelets and necklaces that were at one time spontaneous gifts from friends
in Yayeme. The people who did not have much material wealth shared the
most valuable asset of all: their time. Not a day went by in Yayeme without
an invitation from a friend to share a meal, drink tea or simply pay a visit to
say hello. Each day I spent there was long and full, because it was measured
by interactions with people instead of minutes.

       The feeling of being part of an extended family followed me out of
Yayeme. When in Dakar, I constantly received phone calls from relatives of
Diène who had never met me but who called to invite me to dinner or simply
to say hello and check in.

       Recently, Diène and I were discussing the timeless question facing
most 25-year olds around the world: What will I do with my life? As the
only breadwinner in his house, Diène told me his dream was to find any
work that would pay him enough to build a toilet for his family. He
confided that he was worried his job at the campement was soon coming to
an end. The owner had realized the sad truth that most tourists prefer more
luxurious lodgings and had put the campement up for sale. He feared that
his steady income would soon be replaced by a day-to-day scramble to find
enough money to feed his family. Quietly, he confided that he hoped he was
able to find money for the toilet construction soon, so his aging mother
could spent her last days dignified instead of scurrying to the field behind
their plot each time nature called.

       I arrived in Yayeme on Christmas day and Diène gave me a group of
people wrapped in smiles, waiting under a mango tree. When I think of all
that his family has given to me since then, I ache to be able to give them
something back. One thousand dollars would be enough for the N‟Dours to
build a toilet for their family and buy seeds to plant full fields, giving them
enough food to eat for the year. After having lived in Dakar for eight
months, I have several trusted friends to ensure safe delivery of the money.
There is no doubt in my mind that any gift that I give Diène‟s family would
be shared with all of their friends and neighbors to benefit the entire village.
Like the traveler who fills her days with possibility, the N‟Dour family
keeps every day as powerful as Christmas by living in a constant spirit of


KATIE KRUEGER (age 25, American, is
finishing up her year as a Rotary International Academic Scholar in Dakar,
Senegal, where she was officially studying French and Wolof and
unofficially studying the life of the Yayemoise. She will return to her
hometown in Wisconsin where she hopes to make sense of her year abroad
while doing a whole lot of gardening.
                     Akha Hill House: Finding a Way

                              by Laurie Weed
                             (American, age 34)

       In Chiang Mai, the hub of northern Thailand‟s trekking industry, more
than a hundred tour companies compete to drag crowds of foreigners
through a well-trampled circuit of impoverished hill tribe villages. The
agents collect hefty fees for delivering this “authentic” experience --
complete with bamboo rafts and elephants -- while the villagers eke out a
few baht selling handicrafts and sodas, or posing for photographs in their
colorful native dress. Even the most oblivious tourists seemed to return from
these treks looking slightly embarrassed, so although we were curious about
the hill tribes, my travel companion and I decided against a tour and
continued north, to the less-trampled countryside near the Golden Triangle.

       From the much quieter city of Chiang Rai, I found an oblique
guidebook reference to an interesting daytrip up the Koh River. Officially,
the local boat service stops at a Karen village that has become a tourist
sideshow, but a short distance upriver there is a natural hot spring, from
which a “one-hour walk”, according to the book, would put us at a “simple
but comfortable” guesthouse run by a small Akha tribe. From there, I
presumed we could do some light hiking (without the rafts and elephants),
and whatever we spent on food and accommodation would benefit a local
village rather than a tour agency. Akha Hill House would turn out to be
much more than I expected, in every way.

       Morning found us afloat in a balsa-wood canoe built for five people,
now ferrying a dozen Thais and two large farang against the swollen current
of the Koh after heavy rains. Plumes of spray rose around us as the boat
driver dodged branches and debris clogging the waterway. The other
passengers disembarked at the Karen village and for a few extra baht, the
driver left us at the nearly deserted hot spring. When we asked for directions
to Akha House, he gestured vaguely toward a neglected, unmarked road. We
were both in sandals and carrying very little water, but expecting an easy
walk, we started out. The paved road soon crumbled to dirt, and then twisted
sharply uphill.
       As midday approached, the trail deteriorated into a narrow footpath,
obscured by foliage and frequently sinking into muck. I began to regret not
researching this adventure further, but the mountains were gorgeous and it
was refreshing to be in a natural setting with so few other people around.
After a particularly blistering stretch, we stumbled onto a grassy plateau in
the middle of an enormous, silent valley. The trail had disappeared.
Confounded, we circled the plateau a few times, hoping for a sign. In
desperation, we followed a cow trail straight uphill through the brush,
ducking under low-hanging branches and jumping over the occasional mud
hole, and finally breaking through the undergrowth only to find a snorting
water buffalo blocking the path.

       At last, three hours after starting out, we stumbled upon a cluster of
huts surrounded by vertical patches of vegetables. As we clambered down
the hill, a shy, black-haired child appeared and beckoned us to follow him.
After settling into a rickety bamboo shelter, we inhaled bowls of rice and
vegetables by candlelight, and played a few games of bottle cap checkers
with a cheeky little boy who kept cheating. Apae, the handsome village
chief, joined our table and told us all about his tribe in excellent English.

       Originally from Tibet, the Akha are among the poorest of Thailand‟s
“fourth world” minority groups. Apae‟s tribe migrated through Burma (now
Myanmar) to escape Chinese persecution, and settled on this hill about
sixteen years ago. Like other refugees, they are ineligible for Thai
citizenship and their traditional, nomadic way of life has been lost, since the
government no longer allows them to relocate at will. Without national
rights, access to services, jobs, or protection, they must fend for themselves
in the mountains as best they can. For many hill tribes, this means growing
poppies for the opium trade and practicing slash-and-burn agriculture. But
Apae and his people have a different vision for their survival in a changing
world. Together, the 92-person tribe decided that education is the key to
preserving their culture and providing their children with the tools necessary
to make choices about their own lives.

       Akha children can attend grades 1 through 6 at the Thai school in the
next village for minimal cost, Apae explained, but the secondary school
(grades 7-12) is two hours away in Chiang Rai, and operates on a private
system. It costs about 25,000 baht ($631 USD) to educate one child. This
amount covers tuition, transportation, books, accommodation on nights they
can‟t get home, food, uniforms, and other miscellaneous supplies, for the
child‟s entire secondary school career. Although the price tag seems paltry
by Western standards, cash income is scarce among the hill tribes, and
education almost unheard of. But his tribe was determined, Apae recounted,
“to find a way.”

        First, they built the modest guesthouse and the bamboo lean-to where
we sat, listening by the fire. They learned to purify water, and bought a
generator to provide a few hours of light at night. In spite of occasional
threats and sabotage from commercial tour operators, who regularly steal
their trail markers and misdirect visitors, the Akha now run the only tribal-
owned retreat and trekking operation in the Chiang Rai province. Since its
humble beginning, Akha Hill House has inspired visitors to contribute more
than just the guesthouse fees (starting at 70 baht, less than $2 USD, per
night), and payment for their simple meals and guided hikes around the
valley. Guests have donated clothes and books, and translated signs and
brochures into their native languages. With help and advice from their
foreign friends over the years, the Akha have created their own non-profit
organization, complete with secured bank account, website, and donor t-
shirts. They have no real advertising -- most visitors find them by word of
mouth or by accident, as we did -- yet somehow, dollars continue to trickle
in. As travelers spread the word, private donations and sponsorships have
begun to supplement the tribe‟s earnings, and overall the Akha House
mission is succeeding. The children are going to school, and one young
woman has gone on to university to become a teacher.

       Chief Apae never attended school himself. He learned English on his
own, speaks compellingly to potential donors, and once traveled to Japan on
a sponsored fundraising trip. He proudly refers to every child in the village
as “my student”, and quizzes them on their studies. Apae makes the two-
hour trip to Chiang Rai almost daily, to chauffeur the children to school and
conduct tribal business. He willingly transports visitors when he can,
although the mountain road is often impassable during the wet season.
Assuming the road out couldn‟t possibly be worse than the way we came in,
we piled into the back of an aging, rear-wheel drive Toyota -- the tribe‟s
only vehicle -- the next morning, with three Akha men and some empty
propane tanks. Four girls in faded, carefully pressed school uniforms
climbed into the cab with the chief.

     Around the first bend, the dirt road melted into a slippery, red clay
maze of wheel-deep ruts, angling up the mountainside. We wrapped our
arms around the homemade rail, wedged our feet against the rolling propane
tanks, and turned pale as the engine shrieked, mud flew, black smoke
billowed out around us, and the truck began a perilous zigzag along the
ravine. By some miracle, we ascended the hill in one piece and burst out
cheering in our respective languages -- all except the students, who
continued reading placidly in the jump seat. Relief was short-lived, however,
because after bone-cracking along for a few minutes on dry land, Apae
gunned the engine for another vertical mudslide. When we reached the
paved highway, I slumped down in the back of the truck, shaking and
covered with mud, and tried to imagine making this trip every school day.

        When I asked the indomitable Chief Apae how I could help his cause,
he smiled and said, “Tell your friends about Akha House.” Nearly two years
later, I am still telling their story. For one thousand U.S. dollars, about the
cost of a lavish, pre-booked, weeklong commercial trek in Chiang Mai,
another Akha child could go to school. If this story is selected for a grant,
the entire amount will go to the Akha Hill House Student Project. Funds can
be transferred directly to the tribe‟s secured bank account. Information is
now available online at

       I would like to find my way back to Akha Hill House again one day,
though I think I‟ll plan my next trip during the dry season, and I‟ll definitely
call ahead to arrange pickup from Chiang Rai. Once we were back on the
bus and my adrenaline levels returned to normal, I realized, whaddaya know,
we just went trekking and had an “authentic hill tribe experience”.


LAURIE WEED (age 34, American, went to
Southeast Asia as a tourist in April of 2002. She returned one year later as a
traveler. When not on the road, she writes grant proposals, edits business
manuals & trade magazines, spins travel yarns and plots new adventures
from the Bay Area. She writes: “Please include a live link to the Akha
House site,, so that anyone who might be interested can
find out more about the project or make donations if they are so inspired. My
online portfolio is at
                                 A Simple Gift

                             By Lynda Howland
                             (American, age 62)

       Banjarmasin is a city in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, on the
island of Borneo. It was there, in 1993, that I met Nurhadi. He was in his
forties, at first glance an unsophisticated man with ragged trousers and flip-
flops, whom I had hired as my guide. For the next week he guided me
through the markets of Banjarmasin, and across fields and rivers as we made
our way by motorcycle, bush taxi, and ferry to Tanjung Puting, the
orangutan reserve in eastern Kalimantan. On one beautiful afternoon as we
approached Pangkalanbun, our bus spun out of control, flying across the
road and turning over into a ditch. I “awoke” to Nurhadi gently lifting me,
uninjured, from the wreckage. It was at that point that I felt a strong bond
with this man who, with time, would reveal to me his sensitive and
expressive soul.

      This is a story about the gift of words. And I will let Nurhadi tell it
with his own, contained in the numerous letters he sent me in the years
following our adventures. To understand him, we must start with what he
wrote to me about his junior high school years.

        “I saw this Kon Tiki at a bookstall of the market but its price so high
that I couldn‟t afford the price. However the book price could not prevent
me from reading Kon Tiki. I found the way to buy that book by lobbying
friends who were also interested in books, combining a certain amount of
money each individual share to cover the book price. Unexpectedly, the
problem arose who would read the book first and keep it. To solve this
problem we decided on drawing the lot.”

      Not a native English speaker, Nurhadi had a wonderfully expressive
way of putting together our English words. “The words of the text I
dismantled and assembled again, and I realize the joy of writing,” he wrote.
He loved books about adventure-seekers, perhaps because he saw himself as
one, despite never leaving his native Kalimantan.
       I began sending him boxes of books, and his responses kept me
sending him more and more over the years. “A bag containing some books
you sent me recently spoils me, and I indulge myself in reading them. When
I opened the bag, I found the title of the books that held my breath for a
moment. I could hardly choose which one to read first. Before choosing the
one first to be read, I browsed the introduction and comment of each book.
But when it came to West with the Night, I browsed it sentence by sentence
but its author kept me reading her writing, and carried me afield into her
subject. So I was unable to stop her from telling me about her experience in
Africa, until I finished reading book two of hers without stopping.”

        Another one of his favorites was a Journal of the Lewis and Clark
Expedition. “Unfortunately, after reading this book, which rekindled my
spirit of adventure which I have been trying to keep at bay, at last I yielded
to the temptation of having experience like that book, the Dayak instead of

       “You have given me food for thought such an amount that can last me
five years to read. I want to express you my grateful feeling more than
thank you, but in this emotional situation my English goes bankrupt.”

     In the hopes of stimulating business for Nurhadi as a guide, I
recommended him in a travel magazine. When he received a copy of the
magazine, he wrote. ”You make the family of my home proud when I
showed them our address having been published in ITN.”

       Along the path of our relationship, Nurhadi “introduced” me to his
young niece, whom he named “Gendis” (meaning palm sugar), a name he
chose from the book Revolt in Paradise. “The problem is when (my niece)
was a baby, her parents gave her a long and tortuous name,” he explained.
When I learned that Gendis had started a stamp collection, I began sending
her stamps from all over the world.

       “It is a big surprise for Gendis when I gave her a pack of stamps from
you. It was as if Gendis had found a trunk full of valuables from a treasure
island. Without you, of course, her stamp collection will be monotonous.”

      Over the years, the words Nurhadi placed on paper told me so much
about his life, his adventures, the meaning he found in simple experiences,
and the joy he felt from holding books in his hands.
      One day Gendis wrote “In this letter I inform you that oldest uncle,
Nurhadi, was dead on 12 June 1998 because of sick and was buried on the
very day. Mr. Nurhadi is your best friend. He often told us about you and
your kindness. Several weeks before dying, he show us many fotos from
you. We were very glad. In this letter too, we beg you pardon about his
mistakes if there is any to you.”

      I have reread every one of his letters many times, and always the tears
come. “I owe you my life, and see you later,” he wrote once. Books. So
many of us take them for granted. But for Nurhadi, who grew up yearning
to possess books, they were powerful. In giving the simple gift of books, I
received from him the tremendous gift of his words.


LYNDA HOWLAND (age 62, American, writes: “I
am a native of Rochester, New York. After college, I worked for 34 years as
a child protective caseworker/ supervisor, retiring in 1999. A trip to India in
1986 began my journeying around the world. For the last 17 years I have
traveled often, primarily to the “developing” world. This past year took me
to Laos, Thailand, Syria and Lebanon, Cuba, and China. I believe that
people need to move beyond nationhood, to travel through the world with
humility, to listen, and to allow themselves to be enlightened by other
worldviews. War and weapons never win anything. Justice for all means
sharing power and wealth, and I hope that in some small way I can show the
world that there are Americans who care about the world. I feel blessed to
have the opportunity to experience the world. I am driven to give back to
those who struggle to live their lives. As I reflect on those relationships that
have endured throughout the years, I know that I have gained more from my
travels than I could ever give back. But I‟d like to try to help a few more
people -- that legless man crawling on the street, or that mother begging for
food for her child.
                            The Gift of Beggars
                            By Marjorie Hamlin
                             (American, age 83)

      Outside of our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, an ancient woman on
crutches waited by the door with her hand outstretched. Every day I put my
hand in hers as our eyes met. She never failed to return my smile, my grasp,
and my "Sin chau" greeting.

       John Cowper Powys has assured me that "No one can consider
himself wholly civilized who does not look upon every individual, without a
single exception, as of deep and startling interest." She was a beam of light
in a shadowy doorway.

       The last day of our visit to Vietnam, I found myself alone, on a busy
street corner across from our hotel. Bicycles and motorbikes careened in
front of me. We had been advised to walk straight through the teeming
traffic without looking right or left. Let them avoid us. We had proved it
possible, but tonight I was by myself, and felt inadequate to face the torrent
of vehicles. As I hesitated on the curb, I felt a hand on my elbow, and
looked down to see the smile of my small beggar friend looking up at me.
She nodded her head toward the street, indicating that she would take me
across. We moved slowly into the chaos together as she gently prodded me
forward. When we reached the center of the crossing, I looked down at her
again, and couldn't resist exclaiming,

      "You have the most beautiful smile!”

       She obviously knew little English, but must have recognized the tone,
for she threw both arms and crutches around me in a genuine hug, while the
traffic streamed by us on both sides. Then we moved on toward the
sidewalk, where she pulled my face down, kissed me on both cheeks, and
limped away, still smiling and waving back to me.

      I had not given her a single coin. We had shared something vastly
more important with each other. A warming of hearts in friendship.
       Mother Teresa suggested, "If you cannot do great things, you can do
small things with great love."

       To look beggars in the eye and smile, thus acknowledging their
existence, is a small thing. Putting a hand into another's outstretched hand
and holding tight for a moment is also a small thing. Learning to use a
greeting in the local language is not too difficult. Yet fear seems to distance
us from one another, at our loss…

       There are many reasons why giving money is not the best response to
an outstretched hand. Many world rovers have discovered that the greatest
gift we have to give while traveling is our time and friendship. Everyone
needs recognition, to be seen as worthy of attention, to feel appreciated and

       Traveling with Americans in poorer nations, I have witnessed a
variety of ways in which they deal with beggars. The most common
response of tourists when faced with the poverty-stricken is to ignore their
very existence, focusing eyes elsewhere. I have seen Americans push away
an outstretched hand in angry annoyance. A few guilty tourists will hastily
drop a few coins into a beseeching hand, and then execute a quick exit, in
hopes that another twenty ragged pursuers won't immediately appear.

       My life continues to be enriched by connecting with the humanity
surrounding us. In astonishment, I discover that what I have been given is
far beyond monetary value.

       There was the legless man sitting by a road at the Pushcar Camel Fair
in India. I sat down beside him, and we began to communicate in the kind
of sign language and laughter one learns while vagabonding the world.
Where does such joy come from? Moments before, we were total strangers,
and suddenly we are cemented in a friendship born of our common existence
in this world. His eyes shone as we exchanged names. Vidur confirmed
what I have discovered, the special beauty of a new relationship. "Speak to
the king, and the king will come forth."

      When Vidur's smile lured me to join him, I was returning to our tent
with my tape recorder replaying the exotic music that I had just captured of
the dancing men of Pushkar. After mimicking the whirling skirts and sticks,
I showed Vidur how my tape recorder worked. He motioned for me to give
it to him. I hesitated only a fleeting moment. After examining it carefully,
he began to sing a hauntingly beautiful song, indicating that he wanted me to
take it home as a memory of our time together.

      Why do we ever hesitate to share?

      I did hesitate outside of a Vietnamese temple one day when a
teenaged boy aggressively thrust a very deformed hand into my face. I
pushed him away and entered the temple, where beggars were not allowed.
Feeling pangs of guilt, I prepared myself to face him again when I emerged.
I reminded myself of Jesus‟s words, “As ye have done it to the least of these
my brethren, you have done it unto me."

      Goethe came to mind as well, with his "To see a man as he is, is to
debase him. To see him as he ought to be is to engrace him.".

       I became determined to see the king, trusting the king to come forth.
Sure enough, the hand was in my face again as I moved out of the temple. I
looked past the ugliness into the determined boy's eyes, and asked him if he
knew any English. He responded with a hesitant nod, so I started telling him
how handsome he was, and how he could use his other hand, the good one,
in the future. An education would help to lead him toward new creative
ideas. Slowly his smile responded to mine and the misshapen hand totally
disappeared as we became involved in a lively discussion in rather muddled
English. I learned his name and age and dreams. He learned something
about Americans.

       When my transportation honked, we had to say goodbye. I reached
into my pocket and retrieved a limp 2,000-dong note. I gave it to him,
saying "This is not because you were begging, but because you are my
friend, and I know you can start something good with it." He quickly put
his good hand into his shirt pocket and pulled out a dime and two nickels.
"What these?" he asked. I told him and we both laughed that his American
coins had exactly the same value as the Vietnamese bill I had given to him.
I reached out to put them back into his pocket, and this time he pushed my
hand away, saying "No, you keep. We are friends."

       After learning a greeting in any new language, I learn the word for
"friend". I wear an elaborately beaded Masai necklace, given to me in
Kenya as the result of my knowing the Swahili word for "friend". When
Maria heard the word "rafiki", her skinny begging hand disappeared
immediately, and she took my hand to lead me to her selling stall, where I
was decorated with delight, and at no charge. Yet another friend had come
into to my life. Maria and I had our picture taken together, and my daughter
brought a copy of the photo back to Kenya a year later. When Maria saw it,
she burst into tears, hugged my daughter and put one of her beautiful
handcrafted necklaces around her neck. "Zawadi" (gift) she exclaimed.

      I continue to learn about giving from the world‟s most hopeless. Rich
in humanity, they have hearts yearning to be affirmed, and oh-so-ready to

     The great Russian writer, Dostoevsky, has told us "To love a person
means to see him as God intended him to be."

      Everyone is worthy.

      Worth knowing!


MARJORIE HAMLIN (“83 glorious years” -- American, writes: “I have long been fascinated by the diversity of
cultures and the variety of perceptions in our world. As one global family,
we can all cherish these few intriguing differences. Rubbing shoulders with
people of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints has deeply enriched my life.
With so little distance between our hearts, how is it that there continues to be
a widening chasm between the comforts of abundance, and the struggle for
simple survival?

“When Duyen Van Do came from Vietnam to live with our family, our lives
expanded dramatically. When I went home with him to visit his family and
village, I found untold riches of heart and spirit. Yet their lives are a
continual struggle of subsistence living.

“Duyen has carefully initiated a program, (the For-Tomorrow Project), of
mini-loans and training to help his villagers embark on small business
activities. The Red Cross is already committed to help and to monitor this
project at no charge. If I should receive any monetary award from this
Backpack Nation essay endeavor, it would all go toward this project in rural
                 Afternoon Medical Clinic at the Starfish Cafe

                              By Mary O’Shea
                             (American, age 62)

     To get to the main point of my story I must first explain how my
husband Jim and I, two older Californians, ended up in Sihanoukville,
Cambodia in the middle of the rainy season in June 2002.

       Jim and I have been blessed with a middle child, Deirdre, who is full
of the adventurous spirit. She had already spent a year teaching in Ghana
during college. At the end of 2000, after her job in New York ended, she
went to visit her cousin, Kevin, in Thailand. She travelled around to
Vietnam, Laos and finally Cambodia and fell in love with the country and its
people. After returning to New York, she called to tell us that she had
decided to return to Cambodia, specifically to Sihanoukville on the coast,
“for two to three years”. As her mother, I wondered how she would support
herself. She answered that she intended to bake bread for a restaurant.

       When she returned to Cambodia in March 2001, she found that the
baking job did not work out for a variety of reasons. At that point she met
two incredible women, Sharon Robinson, an American physical therapist,
and Roath Leakhena who had co-founded the Starfish Project in
Sihanoukville. Basically, they take care of the many disabled Cambodians
who fall outside the bounds of existing government and NGO resources.
They explained that they were also interested in finding someone to open a
bakery, a bookstore or some other place to both help fund the project and to
offer their clients the possibility of employment after their physical problems
were cured or mitigated. Thus, the Starfish Cafe was begun by Deirdre. The
Starfish name comes from the old legend of the monk walking with a young
disciple along the beach where thousands of starfish have been stranded
during a storm. The monk picks up one starfish and returns it to the ocean.
When he picks up the next one, the disciple challenges the usefulness of the
monk‟s actions since he could not possibly return all the stranded starfish.
The monk replied: “But it matters to this one.”

       Typical of the projects that they have funded are: getting surgery and
a prosthesis for a man who had been unable to work since breaking his leg
years before; building community housing for the “orphaned elderly” whose
children, upon whom they would depend in their old age, were killed by the
Khmer Rouge; and, most recently, starting a residential school for young
boys who were sleeping on the beach and being sexually abused by foreign

       The Starfish Project depends on voluntary donations for funding. The
tourists who visit the Cafe are a big source of support. The Cafe also opened
a bookstore upstairs and a small, quiet bar staffed by other volunteers. An
Italian photographer donated her entire fee from a photo shoot for a
magazine to the cause! The Project is also mentioned in the local
guidebook. A little money goes a long way there and they are very careful in
how they use their resources.

         Deirdre‟s three employees in the cafe are disabled former clients of
Starfish. Sarin lost his arm in a fishing accident. He has an arm prosthesis
now, went back to finish school at night and has learned English. Sowhean
had polio as a child and Sekkund had trauma to her back and probably also
had tuberculosis of the spine.

       Naturally, Jim and I developed a great yen to visit Cambodia to see
the Starfish Project about which we had heard so much. After our youngest
daughter graduated from college in 2002, the three of us flew first to
Thailand where our son was checking out the school in Northern Thailand
where he was planning to teach for six months. After a week in Bangkok,
the four of us flew to Phnom Penh to meet Deirdre. After a few days in Siem
Reap visiting the temples at Ankgor Wat, we took the four-hour bus ride
south to Sihanoukville.

      It was immediately obvious why Deirdre had chosen to live there.
Even though Cambodia is still struggling to recover from the drastic Khmer
Rouge era, Khmers are such a warm, welcoming people. It was a joy to see
the people about whom she had written and what a joy to be given such a
gracious welcome as her parents.

       The weather in June is very hot and extremely humid. On the rainiest
of days, we sometimes spent the day at the Cafe enjoying meeting the
visitors to the Cafe and the people of the town.
       On almost our last day in Sihanoukville, we were sitting around the
table outside having tea. The “regulars‟ had already come by plus some
visiting Germans and one Englishwoman. Around two pm, Roath Leakhena,
the co-founder of the Starfish Project, arrived with a Cambodian couple.
The man, Young Chea, had been seen at the local government hospital
because of pain and a draining wound in his ankle area. He had been given
some oral antibiotics but had not improved and the hospital had informed
him that the only recourse was to amputate his foot, for which he would
have to pay $12.50. For this farmer, twelve dollars is a large amount.
Young Chea had brought his X-rays with him and it was clear that he had a
very bad bone infection for which the optimum treatment would be several
weeks of intravenous antibiotics. My husband, who is a doctor, talked to
Mr. Chea through an interpreter to get his medical history. It turned out that
Young Chea was caught in the crossfire of a battle hetween US Marines and
the Khmer Rouge called "The Mayaguez Incident" in May 1975 just after
the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. His farm had the
misfortune to be in the vicinity of the Ream Naval base that was bombed
and where there had been some ground combat. He was shot in the ankle at
that time, but it‟s not clear by which side. He had managed to work all those
years in spite of his injury, but apparently some recent systemic infection
had settled in his poorly healed ankle.

       While we served tea and snacks to all, Deirdre went off on her bicycle
to see Dr. Kar, a local doctor who treats many of their clients and gives a
discount on his fees.

      Dr. Kar arrived, examined Young Chea and confirmed that he did
indeed have a bad infection of the bone at the ankle. First, Young Chea
needed to have some blood tests and bacterial cultures done for which he
would have to go to Phnom Penh. After the results were in, then he would
need several weeks of intravenous antibiotics in Dr. Kar‟s clinic, all of
which would cost $200.

       Jim and I had intended to make a donation to the Starfish Project even
before we had visited. Since by now we had formed a very strong bond with
Young Chea as a person and as a patient, we requested that Deirdre use part
of our donation to specifically cover his treatment. We left for home a few
days later. In an e-mail some weeks later, Deirdre reported that Young Chea
had finished his course of treatment and was healing nicely. She saw him
not so long ago and reports that “he‟s still skinny but is quite healthy. He
still lives where he did when the bombing happened 29 years ago, and farms
the same land”.

      There is no question that meeting and being of help to this gentle,
courageous man was the highlight of my visit to Southeast Asia. Visiting the
famous temples of Angkor Wat, and the historical Killing Fields,while
absolutely fascinating, paled by comparison.

      If I were fortunate to be among the five chosen, I would have no
trouble finding a Starfish project to fund. I am very comfortable with the
rigorous way in which they account for their funds and expenses. It never
ceases to amaze me how much they accomplish with what we might
consider a modest amount of money as they save one "starfish" at a time.


MARY O’SHEA (age 62, American, writes: “I am
62 years old and my husband, Jim, is 75. I grew up in Ireland but have lived
in the United States since 1957 when I emigrated as a teenager with my
entire family to San Francisco. Jim is a native of Washington State. We have
three children: Brian (30) is a computer programmer who has traveled to
Southeast Asia several times including teaching for 6 months in Northern
Thailand in 2002-03. Deirdre (28) has been volunteering in Cambodia for
three years (see essay) and our youngest, Kathleen (26) stayed and worked
with Deirdre for 15 months after our family visit. She works at present in an
architectural firm in New York. Jim still practices Internal Medicine in
Oakland and I am retired after 28 years of Anesthesia practice at Kaiser
Hospital, Oakland. I keep busy taking classes, catching up with 20 years of
photos, uncluttering 37 years of stuff in the house, working on affordable
housing issues in Contra Costa County plus keeping track of business
matters for the kids whenever they are out of the country. The website
address for further information is
                             Lesson in Humility
                           By Michael McCarthy
                              (Canadian, 48)

       There has been a lot of squawk and bother lately among people I
know about the best ways of inter-relating with folks you meet when
traveling in foreign lands. What with Shrub Central and the Nasty Gang
cheesing off everybody and their dog from Caracas to Chittagong, how you
behave on your travels is a major factor in how others view America. Many
travelers I know say they are tired of “feeling helpless about the current
global situation,” and want to do something positive to make the world a
better place. The question is: How? Do you befriend people with pesos,
Polaroid photos, IOUs, leftover Google stock, that sort of thing?
       I‟d like to give Backpack Nation a big hand for starting this global
conversation. Where it ends nobody knows, but recently a travel columnist
in my local daily newspaper mused whether or not it‟s a good idea to “give
to beggars” on your travels, and I‟m sure his column caused a fuss. I have a
story to share about this sensitive subject, and since it applies to the future
and safety of the entire free world, you‟d better read on.
       Several years ago I was in PuertoVallarta, Mexico, which is, as we all
know, nothing more than a tourist trap for drunken frat lads, bowling teams
from Des Moines and pasty-faced Canadians like me looking for a quick
sunburn and cheap souvenirs. The Canuck buck was worth less than
chewing gum at the time, so we stayed in a modest Mexican hotel far away
from the madding crowds and rode the buses everywhere for fun and
        There is nothing like a Mexican bus for breaking down barriers
between people, especially when the driver has the radio blasting, two
girlfriends sitting in his lap assisting with the navigational process and
mariachi guitarists hopping aboard to crank out a few bars of La Bamba for
a couple of pesos on their way to have their stock portfolios re-evaluated.
      I didn't see any beggars while traipsing about PV, tripping over made-
in-Taiwan souvenir t-shirt stands and dodging the kamikaze taxi drivers, but
one morning I stumbled across an old Indian lady, all dressed in black,
squatting by the front door of our hotel with her hat on the ground looking
like Jimmy Durante with his teeth out. Clearly she hadn't eaten in decades.
       I don't give to beggars anymore because in my experience I have
found that 95 per cent of the money goes to cheap and dangerous drugs,
which isn't such a good thing for people in marginal health. (For 5 years I
published a “street newspaper” in Vancouver, Canada, employing homeless
people, where I gained even more knowledge about poverty than I had
already acquired as a freelance writer.) My policy clearly did not apply to
this elderly Huichol lady but I didn't stop and give her any money because
we were running for the bus, and I didn't have any idea what the appropriate
contribution should be, and other pathetic excuses like that.
       Of course, I forgot about the incident as I cavorted among the "take
your photo with my iguana?" vendors, Chiclet salesmen and food poisoners
of the town, but there upon our return still satteth and beggeth the same
biblical figure, nudging her bowler hat with her toe and indicating that
interaction between global cultures would best be served by an appropriate
financial consideration.
      As a writer I have to take my shoes off to make change for a
cheeseburger so making sense of Mexican money was a non-starter, but I
had come to the conclusion that there were about 5000 centavos to the peso
and that 5 pesos might buy you a cold beer in a cheap taverna, but what the
heck are all those little coins with the funny edges that weigh less than
cardboard? So I dug into my pocket and unearthed some lint and maybe a
dozen aluminum/tin foil/alloy coins and dropped a fistful of them into her
bowler hat, along with a weak grin that said: "I'm Canadian, eh, and I know
worthless money when I see it." And I kept walking.
       Well, I hadn't gone two steps before I felt something "ping" off the
back of my head and the sound of tin coins bouncing off brick that indicates
a significant financial rejection if not a complete renunciation of the entire
western monetary system that our forefathers worked so hard at Bretton
Woods to establish so there wouldn't be any more Great Depressions and we
would all eat Cocopuffs and Pop Tarts for breakfast forever.
       If there is something such as insulting a very poor person with an
inadequate contribution to the cause, I think it is fair to say I pulled it off.
This is a skill that stockbrokers and lawyers possess in abundance, but it was
my first lesson in humility. As I strode into the hotel lobby in shame and
embarrassment, the echoes of tin coins bouncing off tile work, I swear I
could hear her mumble something about “Yanqui blah blah gringos."
      Sure is a good thing I don't speak Spanish. Or Huichol.
       So what DO you do when visiting developing countries and meet poor
people, whether they are begging in the streets or just ordinary people you‟d
like to help? The poorest person in America makes more in a day‟s
panhandling than an honest day laborer in most Third World countries does
in a week. But it‟s not just a matter of money. You can be rich or of modest
means and it really doesn‟t matter. It‟s a question of relationships between
people, and dignity needs to be a major part of the equation.
       Maimonides, a 14th century philosopher, once wrote that there were
ten levels of charity. In modern terms, they range from “Sorry, Bub, I gave
at the office” to “can I please come to your house and scrub your toilets?”
In the end, he said, better you give someone a hand up rather than a handout.
It‟s the old “teach a man to fish” lesson one more time.
       When I was working with homeless people I soon learned that
creating or encouraging dependency -- on anything -- is not an act of
kindness. Giving people the skills or tools to help themselves is a true act of
giving, whereas handing out spare change is just a cheap way to feel good
about yourself for a few minutes. Famed travel writer Paul Theroux puts it
this way after a recent trip to Africa:
       “I think what people need doesn't come from the outside, it has to
come from the inside. I would not give money personally. When I left Africa
after my latest trip I stopped giving money to panhandlers, I stopped giving
money to aid agencies, and I started decrying the IMF and the World Bank
throwing money at problems. I thought: It's the worst thing I've ever heard
of, because in 40 years nothing has improved, nothing in Africa has
improved because of money.”
       During the past six months I have started asking friends about various
ways they interact with poor people on their travels. Perhaps the best story I
heard was a woman who bought a sewing machine for $20 and “lent it” to
another woman selling hand-made clothes in the village market, who then
earned enough money to buy six more machines and employ six more
people. She asked that the woman “repay” by lending money to others to
buy similar tools. She went back a year later, and without identifying
herself, saw dozens of people hard at work.
       Another friend told me of her technique of “wandering” when in a
new town, following her nose wherever it led, and then, lost, asking for help
from the people she met in the barrios and ghettos. Barriers broken, she
would sit them down to a shared meal at a local restaurant and ask them the
story of their lives.
      Then there is this guy I know who gives school supplies to teachers in
small villages. Or two surfer dudes I know who are traveling from Alaska to
Argentina, dropping into schools in every country for talks with other young
kids about their dreams and aspirations, while making a travel documentary.
       I‟d like to request Backpack Nation supporters to send their own
travel techniques and acts of kindness to me. I‟m sure there is an awful lot
of this going on. As Brad Newsham writes in Backpack Nation: “It‟s the
great under-reported story of our time.” I‟ll post them on my website
(, and use them in my upcoming book The
Intentional Traveler; Journeys with Purpose and Meaning.
       Should I be fortunate enough to be awarded a $1000 scholarship from
Backpack Nation, I‟ll use it to go back to Mexico again and practice my own
“intentional travel.” It‟s been years since I‟ve had the time or money to go
on a trip.
      With luck, no one will throw any coins back at me.

Canadian-born freelance writer who now lives and works in San Francisco,
where his columns, features and cover stories can be found in several local
newsmagazines. He discovered Jack Kerouac as a young lad and has been
“on the road” ever since.

A former radio reporter and news announcer, he was founder of Spare
Change, a “street newspaper” in Vancouver, British Columbia. Michael was
given the “Ethics in Action Award” by Canadian Businesses for Social
Responsibility for his work “giving a voice to the voiceless.”

When not meeting deadlines, Michael is currently writing a book about his
travels that emphasizes conscious awareness in our journey through life. The
Intentional Traveler will contain stories of the amazing people he has
interviewed, like Be Here Now author Ram Dass, who teaches that its „truly
the journey and not the destination,‟ that counts.

Michael is also the father of a rambunctious 10-year old boy, which he
admits is also a lot of work. Should he be awarded a $1000 Backpack Nation
grant, on his next trip Michael plans to practice his own form of intentional
travel, sharing the grant with the people he meets (without any 10-year olds
demanding iguana-flavored ice cream).
                            The House Anar Built

                              By Noël Michelsen
                              (American, age 62)

       My first journey to India was in December, 1993. I was almost 51.
For my 50th, friends got together and graced me with a plane ticket anywhere
in the world.

     As a child, Dad brought me up in Eastern thought, so in the „60‟s,
when so many went East to find a guru, I stayed home and gypsied in the

      As the departure time came near, several anxious friends said: “India,
alone?! Why, you don‟t know a soul there”, to which I certainly replied, “Of
course, I do! I just haven‟t met them yet.”

        I spent six months in India. In Pushkar, Rajasthan, about 3 months
into my trip, I ended up one evening at a government run tourist bungalow.
Out my window I saw and was totally pulled towards a small shack, thinking
it was a local restaurant. I jumped over the high wall and into a huge field of
marigolds. I got to the small opening of the dirt thatched hut, and out
tumbled two young boys so curious as to who was I, and what was I doing
almost inside their home! Their young mother, Anar, came out, with her 3 rd
son in her arms, and in that first glance, both of us got tear filled eyes, and I
knew this was a true meeting. I spent the night with this newfound sister
and her boys, leaving my backpack in the $1.50 room just yards away. This
first time together was not even 12 hours, but we were like family, and there
was such a sadness leaving the next morning.

       I returned, two years later, with a scrapbook of photos I had taken of
Anar and her boys, calling out, “Anar, Anar,‟s Zuni!!” (my Indian name
that my Kashmiri family in Srinigar had given me). Bawani, Anar‟s oldest
son, heard me and came running out, the goat and her baby and the cow and
her baby scurrying to get out of our way! What a tremendous reunion, and
now, a fourth son as well! I spent a few weeks with Anar and her sons, this
time staying in the hut and helping cultivate the small cilantro field
surrounding them. Anar lives on $20.00 U.S. a month, sales from the
cilantro and her one-pot cooking for Westerners who flock into this old
hippie-trail town in India‟s northern desert. Shortly before I had to go, I
realized that the same amount of money I pay for one month‟s rent back
home -- $500.00 U.S. -- Anar could build a house. I thought about it with
concern: would her mother-in-law beat her and take the money? would she
be threatened by the older men in her family compound? I really had to
come to a still place, and knowing and trusting Anar as I do, I decided, if
anyone could succeed in this, she would!

       Anar and her youngest son, Hemat, followed me the morning I left to
the funky bus stop on the edge of town. I had gone to an Indian bank and
gotten $500.00 worth of rupees which was the biggest stack of bills I had
ever held.

       I looked Anar in the eyes and told her that I wanted to help her build a
cement house with a floor and roof -- a place she would always have as her
own. I started to pull out the bundles of rupees, and Anar just bent over
from the waist, tears flowing, her young Hemat wondering what was going
on -- and we were able to stuff the bills in her sari skirt and blouse. She had
a small string around her waist with a key to the lock of her one old wood
trunk, where she would put the money.

       A year and a half later, again, running down the path, and singing out
my greeting “Anar, Anar….it‟s Zuni!”, all the boys came running, and Anar
and I fell into each other‟s arms…..laughing, crying -- such Thanksgiving!
She beamed and said “I have something to show you.” I was given a ride on
an old Enfield motorbike with one of the boys squeezed in front of the
driver, and me in back, with Anar running alongside. We went down a
sandy path, turned a curve, and Anar yelled, “Zuni! …there!”

      I looked over at the clearing, and there was the most lovely, perfect
one-room cement house I have ever seen! My God, Anar had indeed,
against all odds, built herself a home.

       It has been four years now since I have seen my family outside
Pushkar. I will go there this winter, and Anar and Zuni will be together

NOEL MICHELSEN (age 62, American, is an artist
who grew up in and has spent most of her life in the San Francisco Bay
Area, most recently in Sonoma, California. She writes: “The years of 1966-
1969 encouraged me to become the artist I am today. For 38 years, I have
been devotedly collecting personal adornment and textiles from Africa,
India, China, and Europe. I bring the textiles home to sell, while I work on
my jewelry collection. My signature work is the jewelry I design from
eclectic beads of metal and glass, precious stones, findings, and antique
buttons -- all talismans of beauty, ritual, and protection. My love of
photography is equal to the designing I do in my jewelry.

“My love of Spirit and traveling has given me sheer joy and the fulfillment
of meeting many „strangers‟ along the way who share the same heart and the
same feelings that I have. I save up before each trip, spend it all, come home
with what I have found, and start up again!”
                          The Khan Men of Agra

                            By Pamela Michael
                            (American, age 57)

       ONE GOOD THING about monsoons: they sure keep the dust down,
I thought to myself, peering out the milky window of the Taj Express. I
surveyed the approaching station from my uncertain perch between two
lurching cars, ready to grab my bag and disembark purposefully. Despite the
early hour, the platform slowly scrolling past me was packed with people.

       Of the dozen or so bony hands struggling to wrench my suitcase from
my grip as I stepped off the train at Agra, perhaps two were porters, four or
five were rickshaw drivers, three or four were taxi drivers, and maybe a
couple were thieves. The sudden rush of mostly barefoot men in states of
[un]dress ranging from rags to britches brought me face to face with the
difficulty of "reading" a person's demeanor or intentions in an unfamiliar
culture. What to do?

       I already knew from my few days in New Delhi that I would have to
choose one of these men -- not because I didn't want to carry my own bag,
but because I would be hounded mercilessly until I paid someone to do it for
me. It's a defensive necessity, and an effective hedge for women traveling
alone who must rely on their own wits and the unreliable kindness of
strangers -- the taxi-wallah as protector and guide. In Delhi, though, the
competitive tourist market is based more on ingenuity and charm than
intimidation. Many of the drivers had developed very engaging come-ons,
my favorite being the rickshaw driver who purred, "And which part of the
world is suffering in your absence, Madam?"

       My reluctance to hire anyone apparently was being interpreted as a
bargaining ploy. Several men had begun to yell at each other and gesture
toward me, ired by the low rates to which their competitors were sinking for
the privilege of snagging a greenhorn tourist fresh off the train. Not wanting
to see the end result of such a bidding war, I handed over my bag to the
oldest, most decrepit-looking of the bunch, deciding I might be able to
outrun (or overtake) him if I had to and also because he had an engaging (if
toothless) smile.
       Triumphant, he hoisted my bag on top of his turban and beckoned me
to follow as he set out across the tracks. For the first few minutes the old
man had to fend off a persistent few rival drivers who thought they could
convince me to change my mind by casting aspersions on the character,
safety record and vehicle of the man I had chosen, whose name he told me,
was Khan, Kallu Khan.

        Halfway through the station, in a particularly crowded spot, Kallu
handed my bag to another (much younger and, I theorized, more fleet-
footed) man. "Hey, wait a minute!" I protested. "My cousin Iki," Kallu
assured me. "So, what's he doing with my bag?" I asked. "Helper," I was
told. I went into red-alert and quickened my pace to keep up with Iki and my

       As we reached the street it began to rain again, part of the deluge/blue
sky monsoon cycle to which I had become accustomed. Over my objections,
Iki put my bag in the trunk of their car, a battered Hindustan Ambassador
that was unmarked except by mud, no reassuring "Agra Taxi Company"
emblazoned on the door. "Thief might steal suitcase in back seat, Madam,"
Kallu explained. I acquiesced-‹the dry shelter of the "taxi" looked inviting
and I was worn down by the ceaseless demands on my ability to
communicate, decipher, make decisions, find, respond, protect, etc. that
travel entails, even in a four-star situation, which the Agra train station was
decidedly not.

       Once underway, my relief at having escaped the crowd and rain was
somewhat dampened by my realization that I was on a rather deserted road
with two men who were probably making the same kind of un- and
misinformed assumptions about me that I was making about them. I peered
out the rain-streaked window to my right to get my bearings and to take in
some of the sights I had come to India to see. I was also tentatively toying
with escape options.

      All I could see was a blur of red, towering overhead and as far into the
distance as I could make out. The Red Fort, of course. I had done my
homework, so I knew the walls were 70 feet high, surrounded by a moat. On
my left was a long stretch of sparse forest, separated from the roadway by a
crumbling, low iron fence.
      Suddenly, Iki pulled the car over on the left and stopped alongside a
broken place in the fence. Kallu got out of the passenger side and opened my
door saying, "Now I show you something no tourist ever see, Madam."

       "That's all right, let's just get to the hotel. Tomorrow is better," I
demurred. "Please Madam," he insisted and, sensing my concern about my
suitcase, he added, "Don't worry, Iki stay here with your bag."

        I was already chastising myself for being so naive and trying to decide
how much real danger I was in when I looked‹-really looked‹-into Kallu's
eyes for the first time. They were kind; kind and bloodshot, but kind. In an
instant I made the sort of decision that every traveler has to make from time
to time: you decide to take a risk, trust a stranger, enter a cave, explore a
trail, act on intuition and experience something new. It is this giving oneself
over to a strange culture or environment that often reaps the most reward,
that makes travel so worthwhile and exhilarating.

        As if to affirm my decision, the rain stopped. "OK, Mr. Khan, you
show me," I said. We walked down a muddy path through a stand of stilted
trees, leaving Iki behind, smoking a bidi. My courage faltered a couple of
times when I caught a glimpse of a spectral, loin-clothed man through the
leaves, but I said nothing and slogged on, hoping for the best.

        It came quickly and totally unexpectedly -- an enormous mauve river,
its banks aflutter with river-washed tattered clothes hanging from poles and
Vines -- work in progress of dhobi-wallahs, the laundry men. Directly across
the river, luminescent in a moisture-laden haze, was the Taj Mahal, seen
from an angle that, to be sure, few tourists ever see and shared with affection
by a man who clearly derived great pride from its grandeur. The monument's
splendor was all the more striking, its manifest extravagance even more
flamboyant in contrast to the faded homespun garments flapping
rhythmically in the humid monsoon breeze. We could only stand there and
beam at each other on the shores of the mighty Yamuna, the Khan man and
I. I like to think it was a sweet kind of victory for us both.


PAMELA MICHAEL (age 57, American, is
an award-winning writer and radio producer. She is the executive director
and co-founder (with Robert Hass) of a Berkeley-based international
children's environmental and arts education organization called River of
Words. Her $1,000, should she receive it, will go to River of Words, to
support their work with Afghan refugee children in Quetta, Pakistan.

Michael is also the former director of the United Nations‟ Task Force on
Media and Education, and has worked for Save the Children in Egypt, the
United States Coalition for Education for All, and many other development
and educational organizations. During the Discovery Channel‟s first years,
Michael developed curriculum for their educational division. In the 1980s
she was Director of Marketing and Public Relations for the San Jose
Symphony. In addition to many magazine, journal and newspaper articles,
Michael has written several books, including: "The Gift of Rivers: True
Stories of Life on the Water," and "River of Words: Images and Poetry in
Praise of Water," and several others. Pamela is the travel editor for KPFA-
fm (Pacifica Network) in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a member of
Wild Writing Women, whose book "Stories of World Travel" garnered
much attention and recognition.
                          A Global Health Odyssey

                              By Simon Milward
                               (British, age 39)

     Screeching tyres, crashing metal, ripping plastic and smashing glass.

        Stupid rule that, priority to the right even for smaller roads. It is June
1998 in Brussels Belgium. I had been riding the Buell motorcycle on the
streets of Eurocratland, but now I was riding an ambulance to hospital with a
broken collar bone. It troubles me, not the bone, but the ambulance coming
along automatically and the doctors fixing me up and sending me out again.
It isn‟t the first time. What about those who don't get any health services?
The following is the best day of my life. I quit my job and start to blow my
life savings to motorcycle around the world promoting health whilst
recruiting as many helpers as possible.

        Rumours of rampant waste in the development industry leads me to
choose the charities to get the money carefully. I opt for Doctors Without
Borders, working in crisis areas round the world, and Riders for Health. The
latter specialises in running fleets of zero breakdown motorcycles for
delivering health services like tuberculosis eradication and malaria control in
rural Africa. I could mix my passion for motorcycles and humans plus
satisfy my political motivation to help expose the truths of development.
International agencies think vehicles run themselves because they don't plan
for servicing and maintenance for donated vehicles, preaching sustainability
but practising the opposite.

       The Congolese civil war means on 1.1.2000 I head Eastwards towards
India, instead of southwards through Africa. Great waves of happiness
engulf me in the Saudi Arabian desert, in between the constant police
checks, at the prospect of having the whole world before me. My nirvana!
Yes. No. Wait a minute. Isn‟t it a bit selfish? I know, let's set a
fundraising target. US$100,000 will do. Let‟s put into practise something I
have believed for a while, that all is possible with the right attitude of mind!
       Besides visiting the smugglers market and refugee camps at the
Khyber Pass in Pakistan and meeting the Dalai Lama in India, extraordinary
things start to happen. In Pakistan, Nepal and Indonesia I gaze at the
thousands of small motorcycles used for transporting everything
everywhere. Yet doctors and medical workers, without prompting, ask me
to introduce the African system of health by motorcycle to their countries.
Why aren't motorcycles used in Asia, too? they ask. No-one thinks of it!

       On the Indonesian island of Timor I meet Wili Bala, a motorcyclist in
charge of rural areas for Doctors Without Borders. He tells me that nearby
Flores Island, where annual wages are $200, has the worst child malnutrition
figures in Asia. He pleads for the motorcycle system. We exchange emails
as I continue my ride from Darwin Australia to Sydney in September 2000
where Olympic authorities banned me from collecting money in public
places! Nevertheless Wili and I make a plan when he promises work for free
for a year to put it into action. The NGO “Health for All” is born. Soon we
are seeing some impressive results. Example: In one sub-district of Flores
Island the number of cases of child malnutrition drops from 167 to 27 in the
seven months after the motorcycle is introduced.

        Meanwhile I consider how I could motivate others to donate time and
resources to the project, whilst keeping one eye on the kangaroos bouncing
along beside me -- they tend to make a 90-degree turn into my path.
Heading West from Uluru (Ayres Rock), a combination of deep
corrugations, thick sand and excessive speed forces me to kangaroo jump
over the handlebars at 130kmh. What a mess! I spend five days at a
roadhouse banging the bike back into shape, meeting local aboriginees and
at last playing the Blues on my harmonica. You have to feel the Blues to
play the Blues and, man, I definitely had the Blues, know what I mean?

       Back in Asia I find sporadic NGO use of motorcycles in Cambodia,
where most aid vehicles are expensive Toyota Landcruisers. In Laos I
encounter twenty-five government soldiers with Kalashnikovs cocked and
mortars loaded, awaiting an attack from rebels, coming from my own
direction! I take up smoking again at that precise point. I reflect on the
disused rice paddies I had ridden through -- were they minefields?

     It‟s May 2001 in Japan where Yamaha adds to the pay it forward
momentum by supplying twelve 115cc enduro motorcycles at two thirds of
normal price. Sponsored by North American motorcycle groups, they would
be issued to government health workers in Flores enabling them to transport
health services to a population of 44,000 in 55 remote villages with bad
roads. Meanwhile I take the scenic route to North America by hopping on a
boat to Valdivostok and riding on Siberia's infamous Road of Bones to
Magadan. It was made with the bones of dictator Stalin‟s 12 million
political prisoners, because the ground was too frozen to bury them. I
drown my engine several times by falling off in rivers -- having water fill
your combustion chamber when running is the best way to kill it. Mine
eventually dies in Seattle after coming south from Alaska.

       From July 2001 over one thousand US and Canadian citizens continue
to pay it forward with admirable donations at audio visual presentations as I
ride south from Alaska and twice from sea to shining sea. By October 2002
the total raised is US$106,000 and I vow to never forget the generosity of
Americans. US$15,000 is sent to Doctors Without Borders and the rest to
the Flores project. Important people in the motorcycle fraternity volunteer
as founders of an IRS-501(c)(3) organisation called Motorcycle Outreach
enabling tax deductible donations and foundation grants.

      I learn Spanish in Mexico and research the motorcycle situation with
health ministries throughout Latin America. Now, after 18 months in Latin
America I report on the three categories of health ministries: those that have
motorcycles but most of them don't work or have no brakes because no one
maintains them (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru & Bolivia); those
with motorcycles and a maintenance budget but the money is stolen (Brazil,
Colombia and Costa Rica); and those where there are great needs but no-one
thought of using motorcycles (southern Mexican States of Chiapas and
Oaxaca, Ecuador, Paraguay and northern Argentina.)

     UNICEF Argentina steps to the plate by pledging to fund a
motorcycle fleet in Jujuy Province. Meanwhile Latin American
motorcyclists volunteer to establish NGOs and develop projects in Ecuador,
Mexico and Paraguay as well as Argentina.

       Proper integration of motorcycles can transform health in the world`s
most needy areas. It challenges preconceptions about motorcycles. It
challenges the status quo where few results are seen from billion dollar
expenses. Aid is great, but if it cannot get there reliably forget it, because
unreliability destroys hope. That is what we are fighting. If the world
believes in sickness then let‟s deal with it reliably.
       Latin America simultaneously teaches me the most important lesson
of my life. A so-called incurable disease diagnosed 29 years earlier
disappears when I consciously reject the lie of the diagnosis and change my
pattern of thinking. If all sickness is a product of man‟s thinking, both
collective and individual, we first cure our institutions of this thinking then
turn the motorcycles over to education.

       I spent about US$25,000 of my own money so far. My fuel bill was
covered by sponsors before departure which will be about $4,500. All cash
raised since leaving is for the charities.

       What would I do with $1000? That would largely pay for the
Ecuadorean or the Paraguayan to train the Mexican or the Argentinian to
manage aid vehicles so that they never break down. Delivery of the money
can easily be arranged through my contacts at Motorcycle Outreach, a fully-
registered charity with tentacles that stretch to any place accessible by

        It is marvelous to share this with you, fellow travellers, because the
whole thing was born from travel, because of people, by people, for people.
Isn‟t it amazing what you learn when travelling? For me the greatest is the
happiness one experiences when helping others. Live your dreams.


SIMON MILWARD (age 39, British, has for the
last several years been engaged in a solo round-the-world ride
( on a handmade motorcycle, a fundraising
endeavor in support of Doctors Without Borders, Motorcycle Outreach, “and

After leaving school at 16, Milward studied at the Royal Signals Junior
Army Apprentice in Yorkshire, worked at a retail jewellers, and in 1984
hitch hiked with his brother around the USA for five months. He quit as
Quality Control Manager at Peninsular Repro Service (a 4 colour pre-
printing service) in 1989 to promote motorcyclists' interests and safety.
Milward spent a year as full-time South West Regional Representative for
the Motorcycle Action Group (UK) from 1989, financed by donations from
members in the region, and assumed duties as National Press Officer. He
became employed by the national group in this role a year later and joined
its European Working Group. He became General Secretary of the
Federation of European Motorcyclists in 1992, oversaw a merger with
another European motorcycle group, and in 1998 became the Secretary of
the Federation of European Motorcyclists Associations. He quit in
December 1999 to live his lifetime dream, saying seven years with Eurocrats
had driven him around the world.
                                  Bus Stop

                           By Stephanie L. Smith
                             (American, age 28)

        Stomachs full after a hearty traditional Peruvian lunch, my husband
Craig and I sat in the 12-passenger van and enjoyed the scenery as we
chatted with Vidal (our guide) and Carlos (our driver). We reflected on how
lucky we were to have been the only people who had signed up for this
particular departure of a seventeen-day Peruvian adventure. We had Vidal
all to ourselves, which meant we were able to get much more personal
attention and learn a lot more than we would have if we were joined by eight
other travelers.

      Carlos drove us down the narrow streets of the village of Moray. The
van was about to ascend a dirt road up a mountain so that we could visit the
ancient terraced gardens used for agricultural research by Inca shamans,
when we noticed a group of schoolchildren in their crisp navy blue and
white uniforms crowding the street. School had apparently just let out for
the day. When the children spotted our van, many of them broke into a run
and started to follow us. They were smiling and shouting, and some of them
even grabbed on to the bumper. Craig and I thought at first that they were
playing: having a race with the van.

       Vidal and Carlos exchanged a knowing look, and Carlos stopped the
van. Vidal opened the sliding door, and children immediately started piling
in. They were sitting on every available surface (except an entire vacant seat
that held nothing but our packs.) They were very respectful of our
Belongings, and only when Vidal repositioned our bags to make more room
did they take advantage of that empty space. Eventually Vidal had to turn
children away because the van was full. He closed the sliding door, and
Carlos started to drive.

       The students who had managed to get into the van were ecstatic. We
still weren't sure exactly why. Was a car ride this much of a treat for these
children? What was going on? We counted thirteen boys and one girl. They
were all happy, and Vidal started to ask their names and ages. They
responded with a hybrid of Quechua and Spanish. The boys ranged in age
from six to fourteen, and the girl was nine. The boys chattered happily in the
back of the van. The girl, who was riding up front between Carlos and Vidal,
sat facing backwards, too shy to say much, but staring at us in curiosity. I
was mesmerized by her gorgeous brown eyes, and we locked gazes for a
good portion of the ride.

       It turns out that these children all live in the mountains. They get up at
four o'clock in the morning to begin their two-hour walk to school, in the
dark. Often their parents discourage them from going to school at all, as the
adults would prefer that the children were at home to help out in the fields.
But the children are determined, and despite all of the personal sacrifice
involved, they make their own way to and from school each day. When
Vidal has room in the van he regularly gives kids a ride up the mountain to
save them from walking home. Looking at the children in their school
uniforms (they were each wearing several layers, topped off by a wool
sweater), and contemplating the heat of the day and the steep slope of the
mountain, we understood just how important this simple gesture of a ride
was for these children. Some of them don't usually get home until 5 p.m.
That's thirteen hours a day spent attending (and commuting to and from)

      We drove with them for at least fifteen minutes, up and up and up the
mountain. When we got to our destination, they got out of the van and said
"Gracias" to Vidal. We introduced ourselves in Spanish and told them our
ages. They practiced saying our names and waved goodbye to us.

       Vidal took us on a hike through the terraced herbal laboratories of the
Incas. These were constructed in concentric circles, with the center of the
innermost circle being the lowest point. The terracing was used to create
microclimates, so the medicine men could experiment growing different
herbs in different conditions. We saw three of these structures (a modern-
day shaman and some patients were conducting a ritual in the largest one).

      Through much of our hike we could still see the silhouettes of the
schoolchildren standing up on the distant ridge. Eventually they began
walking towards home. Through a swaying field of barley we could see
snow-capped peaks and mountain glaciers. We drove back down the
mountain to the center of Moray, and passed some other schoolchildren who
were still walking home up the mountain. They all waved and smiled and
said "Hola", and we felt a twinge of regret that we weren't able to drive each
and every one of them home from school.

      Our impromptu fifteen minutes with these schoolchildren taught us
more about the spirit, pride, determination, and friendliness of the Peruvian
people than we had ever hoped to understand. It became one of the
highlights of our trip. These Peruvian children overcome both physical and
emotional hardships to go to school each day because of how passionately
they value and appreciate education.

       Two years have passed since our Peru trip. Our neighborhood is
currently embroiled in a political battle with the city over busing students to
public school. When viewed in contrast to the situation of the Peruvian
children, the children in my neighborhood have many options. They can
walk the mile and a half to school, they can be driven to school by a parent
or friend, or they can pay a fee for the bus. It stands in stark contrast to the
limited options faced by the Peruvian children. If they are lucky enough to
be in the right place at the right time, the children of Moray might catch a
ride from a passing van, like they did with us. Otherwise, their only option is
to walk for several hours.

       When we read about Backpack Nation Phase II, we began to
contemplate how many rides to and from school $1000 could provide in
rural Peru. If we were to receive such an award, we would enlist the help of
Vidal (with whom we still correspond via letters and email to this day). With
his assistance, we would hire a driver to transport vanloads of children to
and from school in Moray each day. We feel that we could touch the lives of
many families by making their children‟s access to education easier.
Providing the rides would also mean that the children would have more time
to spend at home with their families, helping out with the day to day duties
that are necessary for the families‟ survival.


STEPHANIE SMITH (age 28, American, is a
computer programmer, and writes: “I have been married to my husband
Craig for six years. Craig and I have always enjoyed traveling, but our Peru
trip was a turning point in our lives. We made many personal connections on
the trip, and we learned that there are so many things that we take for
granted in the United States that make such a difference in developing
countries. We learned how much joy we personally derive from helping
others, and how much we enjoy getting to know people from different
cultures. These are lessons that we carry with us and try to apply in our daily
lives, both abroad and at home.”

“We feel very honored to have made the finals of Backpack Nation Phase II,
and we can only imagine how fulfilling it would be to be able to donate a
substantial amount of money to the children in Moray who touched our
hearts in such a meaningful way.”

You can read more about our travels and view photographs at our web site:

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