Thursday, August 29, 2019

So Far (2019)

man in blue t-shirt pensively staring up at sky with cloudy background

So far, I have learned a few things that I should never forget.

Don't leave your phone charging while you go to the airport to fly across the country.

Travel with your parents. Your life is an extension of them, so you should avail yourself of their expertise and wisdom in how they navigate the world.

Feeding is an act of love. Providing food is one of humankind's oldest traditions and begins from mother to child.  It can demonstrate respect, admiration, gratitude, responsibility, and compassion – all components of love.

Always pack a change of clothes in your carry-on.

Burglars work on Christmas Eve.

Go to special events, even if they are far away. In joy and in grief, be a person who shows up.

Helping people can be simple or profoundly complex. Don't let either make you choose to do nothing.

Phones don't belong at the dinner table. People who want to reach you are important, but the ones who dedicate time to be with you deserve the honor of your mental presence.

You don't usually know which day will change your life forever until it does.

Talking to strangers while traveling can have mixed results, but your odds are worse if you do not initiate the exchange.

True service is not simply an execution of actions to fulfill a desire or need; it is one of the few pieces of the evidence of humanity, because it recognizes intrinsic human worth and dedicates something of our own being to do what is necessary and good – often without equal compensation.

Say thank you - in as many languages and deeds as properly convey the message. 

The fool is often easy to spot, in that they portray knowledge but lack curiosity.

Remember on your bad days, you woke up and someone else did not.

In choosing a karaoke song, listen first to what interests others. If they recommend for you, try not to decline. Never assume someone wants a Richie Sambora to their Jon Bon Jovi. It is seldom polite to leave right after you sing; the singer after you was your audience.

Some of the most profound thoughts about life occur outdoors, appreciating art, or listening to children - just not necessarily all at the same time.

Watch out for motorcycles.

So Far (2016 Video) 

So Far (2013) 

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Beyond the Sunset - In Memory of Gemma Paybara

For My Friend Gemma

Woman and man standing at a restaurant specials board sign on sidewalk near city street
I don't travel with many people. Or should I say not many people travel with me? In either case, I have been lucky to encounter so many people along the way. Everyone has their own journey to take, and fortune allows our paths to cross sometimes. If we pay attention, we see we are blessed with some very good people to either join us or at least stop and see along the way.

My friend Gemma came to me and offered that we should both visit New York City for the first time together back in August of 1998. We drove in her car from Washington, DC, and just before we entered the city, she asked me if I would switch seats and take the wheel going through the Holland Tunnel and into the bustling metropolis that was still foreign to us. I obliged, even if a bit nervous myself imagining what madness and dangers we might encounter. That was the only time I remember her nervous or not smiling. Two curious souls spent about a day and a half from Central Park to the Statue of Liberty to the tops of the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center. Her smile was not gone for long.

Years would pass, and we would go our separate ways finding new adventures and international discoveries. She and her sister even showed up in Florence, Italy when I was studying there for a time. I had to reprimand her for bringing instant cappuccino mix into my apartment that was situated just two floors above a real Italian cafe where you could get the real thing for just a couple Euro. Later I would visit her and husband Joe in San Francisco, and I remember seeing her beautiful photographs from their honeymoon in Asia. We truly shared a curiosity for the world.

For some reason, I don't spend much time wondering why a woman in her forties, mother to two young children, friend to many, loving wife, and explorer of the world should be taken from us too soon. Perhaps because the life in her years was abundant. Perhaps it is to make the rest of us stop and appreciate the people around us and the world in which we walk. But my friend has moved on, and now a lifetime of warm smiles only exist in our minds and in the photos we keep.

Travelers are often privy to the opportunity of time and place to appreciate the extraordinary, such as the colors of the sky as the sun sets at the end of the day. Gemma would have known and appreciated this. I'd like to think she has now gone beyond the sunset and is on an exquisite new journey the likes of which we couldn't possibly fathom. The space between is only what we can see in the beauty of this Earth - which itself is vast. So for now she can travel with us in our hearts, or at least her smile can, because I'm not sure I can shake it. Nor do I wish to.

Rest in peace, my friend.

man and two women seated at a table outdoors with plastic cups of white wine
Orvieto, Italy

Woman sitting on a boulder with trees and skyscrapers in city background
Central Park, New York City

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Why the World Needs Good Travelers

Meeting One Face at a Time - Common Thoughts and Uncommon Results

Westerner man posing with Muslim family in city park
Jakarta, Indonesia

I don't know these people. I met them, but I don't know them. However, we made a connection, and that is good.

Foreign travel is always an act of diplomacy - for better or worse. What we do out in the world is a reflection of our own people and a window for others around the world to have a glimpse of a relatively rare piece of the puzzle that is Planet Earth. For the rest of their lives, they may not remember your name, but something of your encounter stays with them. Traveling to distant lands affords one the opportunity to make a cultural connection. Though often simple enough, this can be one of the most meaningful contributions an explorer can make to his host country. Politics aside, Obama going to Cuba, Trump stepping across the DMZ into North Korea - these were major events which impacts could not have been felt by use of a phone call or an email. You too as a traveler can give just by being there and taking the time to have a conversation.

Now, you may not even think you are all that interesting or that you don't have much to say. Perhaps you are traveling with friends or family, and it would feel awkward to step outside of your group. What pleasure and opportunity you may be missing by not stepping out and over into unfamiliar territory! In my several trips to the Philippines, I have talked to many people - and I have never thought of myself as a big talker - about travel, my country, religion, politics, relationships, food... so many topics. Some of what we talk about could be considered rather banal for a conversation at home. However, I am always struck at how Filipinos are so engaged and interested (I hope). One observation I get fairly often is, "but you don't look American!" What? The point is that even though you may not think you have much to say, plain conversation can lead to rather profound revelations that neither of you would have predicted to offer or receive.

The world has always had conflict, and resolutions to our biggest problems are never elementary. On the other hand, our resources for reaching beyond borders have become so prevalent that meeting the ostensibly "different" members of this world has never been so possible. With a planet that many perceive to be increasingly volatile, perhaps travelers will be the ones who can make the appropriate connections and put faces to our various places on the map.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Safe Skies

Man walking on white sand with blue sky

How often do you hear "everything happens for a reason" when something good happens? I never liked that phrase, because it was always used to tell you to accept something negative. But if it's truly "everything," then that means the good too. Landing that great job, enjoying a life-changing journey, meeting that special someone - anything that makes you feel luckier than you think you deserve - should also be something that is working not only in your favor, but according to divine predetermination.

When I fly, I have a bit of a routine. (Someday, it may include packing the day before, but what fun is that?) I tap the plane for good luck, have a special prayer for safe skies, check wings for defects, etc... if Top Gun is a movie option, that plays first during taxi and take-off (try it). But if everything happens for a reason, what's the point?

I heard a great piece of wisdom from a priest in the Philippines. He said, "we do not pray to change the mind of God; we pray to change ourselves." Or in secular terms, we do not act in a way so that the universe will return the favor somehow or that we can change things outside of our power. I think we act as we should and evolve as we can, and we should be mindful that we too are forces of nature. 

Perhaps when you land where you ought to be, be thankful for the safe skies, and remember you are there for a reason.

Friday, August 2, 2019

What World Travel Should Teach You

Life Lessons from Time Spent Circling the Globe

Filipina woman looking out over city and bay toward island

Physically making your way around the Earth these days obviously isn't the monumental accomplishment of centuries past, although for many, it is merely a fantasy. If you have the money and the passport, you could do it rather quickly. However, spending months out in multiple countries and continents on a tight budget is an experience that should teach or reinforce several powerful human qualities.
Being out in the world, if you're not an idiot, teaches one of travel's primary lessons - you are a very small part of a very big place that has a history and diversity that you may never fully comprehend. As a foreigner, you hopefully learn very quickly that life does not always go as you believe it should. There are barriers, injustices, and fundamental differences. Certainly this scares a lot of people out of never venturing out, but if you stick it out, you learn that there is a whole intricate world that will function with or without you.

You can have the best travel plan, but if you are out in strange lands long enough, something will go wrong... or just not as you had intended. Travel is all about experiencing new things, and one of which is that you are not always in control. It could be that a storm cancelled your ferry or perhaps a restaurant closed for a private event; there are so many variables out there that you begin to learn that an unforeseen option is sometimes crucially better than what you had in mind in the first place.

As a child you were likely taught to wait your turn and to be polite. There are a lot of places in this world where (unfortunately) those are seen as weeknesses or maybe just not as highly prized. People in some other places don't do lines (or queues, not the drug reference). I can't count the number of times someone stepped ahead of me to get a ticket or a sandwich. Not to advise one eschew all manners of polite society to look out for number one, but often in other countries you have to be a more active participant in securing your desired destiny. Just watch your pockets, and don't forget to smile.

Remember how I told you things may go wrong? For every misfortune or bad actor out there, there is some local who will surprise you with a favor that you had no right to expect. I have had families in the Philippines feed and house me for a night, and I had a restaurant owner treat me to a multi-course meal and wine in Barolo, Italy. I could write a book on the kindnesses of strangers while traveling. You were probably also taught as a child that you should be kind, but world travel instills in you why you owe it.

Try showing up to the train station just one minute too late in some circumstances, and you may actually experience true regret. You are dependent on so much while traveling that being late can really, really ruin a day (or more). Of course, if you are in the Philippines, you may have more of a cushion (we'll discuss "Filipino time" another day), but in other places time is not so forgiving; tardiness can cost you a lot of money or some great opportunities.

More than the ability to change plans on the fly, being the foreigner requires the mental fortitude to accept different ways of approaching life. Immersing yourself in a culture, you will open your mind to realization that people have different traditions, expectations, values, and histories. The distinction between right and wrong or what is appropriate may have shifted, and you will have to adjust. In the end you don't have to betray your conscience, but rather gain an understanding and appreciation for disparate points of view.
One question I get asked a lot is, "where are you traveling next?" To the questioner, you may just be checking off boxes on your bucket list, but a true world traveler comes to realize that each new discovery brings answers, yet further questions emerge. Even revisiting the same destination can continue to be revealing if you have the curiosity to seek new truths. A journey with a curious mind is an exploration.
There's a lot of waiting in travel, even from day one getting through the airport. You will be tested. If assertiveness gets you what you want, patience is the virtue that allows you to measure the value of what you want. There are only so many Instagrammable moments in travel; the rest is what is required to get you the opportunities.

My earliest international travel was to Mexico, and one of my first lessons seeing poverty for the first time was that not everybody has what I have. Driving through the city in India, I saw families sleeping on the center divider between traffic. In Manila, I have seen children picking through garbage for rotting foods. Unfortunately, this planet has millions of people who do not even have basic needs met. Many face loss and deprivation that is impossible to fathom. Seeing this as a traveler makes you appreciate what you have. Realizing there may be nothing you can do to change it makes you appreciate that life does have the capacity to endure. On the other hand, discovering you can actually act and participate in good in the world lets you truly appreciate the concept of hope.
People find purpose in other people and some greater good. Certainly you can do that in your own neighborhood, and you don't need to commit to a year living out of your backpack to find it. However, in this seemingly ever-increasingly self-centered world, it is often difficult to hear your true calling amidst a routine that tends to take a life of its own. On my first international disaster response in Peru with what is now All Hands and Hearts - Smart Response, I used my last day to document the real devastation of the horrible earthquake that brought us there, and then I cooked an Italian dinner for my fellow volunteers back at base - about seventy very hungry young workers. I have fed people professionally since 1993, but this moment was an opening to the possibilities of feeding people as a means to recovery or development aid. Two years later, I urged my own chef Jose Andres to go feed people in Haiti after their earthquake, and he went on to found World Central Kitchen, that does primarily what I had imagined. I later volunteered with them briefly in Puerto Rico and Indonesia, but have turned my focus to reaching out in other ways, mainly in the Philippines. World travel helps bring the "how" to your "why."