Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Mark's Guide to Unplanned Adventures in Travel

There are all sorts of ways and reasons to travel, and the road to becoming a world traveler may be different for everyone. As in cooking, it is important first to do it with family or friends, learn how to follow a recipe, and start with the basics. Your first foray into cooking might not be a Baked Alaska, nor should your first journey be a solo trek through the Alaskan wilderness.

That being said, once you are ready to travel the world and do it for some extended period of time, the unplanned adventure can be a worthwhile and important component in discovering the world. There have been great world explorers, ranging from Ferdinand Magellan to Anthony Bourdain, and it must be noted that preparation and planning are absolutely necessary - even if the lenses of time or television appear to make roaming the planet either ridiculously unattainable or an outing of thoughtless whimsy. (It should be noted that both the aforementioned succumbed to untimely demises while traveling.)

Sorry for getting a bit dark there, but you should know there are certainly dangers to world travel, and - just as in life - preparation and a sober outlook lead to some of the best roads. What I intend to show is that with a reasonable amount of experience and preparations, traveling at length with a relatively open itinerary can lead to adventures of a lifetime. You cannot plan everything - nor should you. I do not care for the word "wanderlust," because it implies simply a lust for wandering - aimlessly, perhaps. True adventures of any merit require a bit more.

Let a goal or interest guide - but not define - you. 

Is your passion art, food, history, architecture...? Is your goal to write a book or battle poverty? Use these interests to fuel your travel. Perhaps you are a lover of music, and you book flights to Vienna, Prague, and Berlin. Give yourself some added time in case you learn of a symphony in Zurich or a festival in Copenhagen. Stroll the hometown of Mozart or visit an exhibit dedicated to Strauss. However, leave yourself open to where these experiences take you. You may meet someone with a similar passion. It may not result in a lasting friendship, but it could take you to a locals' favorite late-night jazz session. I once went to Nijmegen, Holland, because it was the birthplace of Eddie Van Halen and had some of the best fried fish in my life. Something familiar can lead to something unexpected, but you have to be open to the possibilities.

Recognize your life is in God's hands; otherwise, you could just be wandering aimlessly.

Recognizing a higher power - or even accepting that death catches us all, so you might as well refuse to live in fear of it - is sublimely freeing and empowering. Walking confidently in a direction in which you do not know what you will find is in itself a genuine act of discovery. The added bonus of allowing God to be your tour guide is like meditation, only you end up somewhere different than where you started. Believing God is with you gives courage to journey where others (or you yourself) would never think to go.

Pay attention to cues and clues: personal suggestions, events, invitations.

When you open your mind and your schedule, this is where you stretch your traveling legs. Have you ever thought that in the past, had you chosen Option B over Option A, life would have been vastly (or at least recognizably) different? In world travel, there are entire alphabets of optional alternative realities every day. Think of a board game in which you have instructions from cards you pick or take steps from the roll of the dice. Yet there are always choices. Pop into a pub and chat with the bartender, take personal recommendations, watch the local news, consider an event you see on a flier in a bookstore - look for options as clues in the grand mystery of your travel adventure. 

I chose to volunteer in Poland in 2023, where I met another American named Ryan. He succumbed to my invitations to visit a local craft brewpub, and I joined him in attending a women's handball match. As it turned out we were both in Romania at the same time later in the trip and got together for a road trip. He later joined me volunteering in Turkey and invited me to meet him in Paris, as his friend had a hotel room there for a tennis tournament. Then we drove to Bordeaux and drank wine along the way in the Loire Valley. There was no itinerary for this ahead of time for me. And a lot of it was pretty awesome.    

Don't be afraid to backtrack; sometimes, going back helps you get to the next place.

Obviously, we all go back to places we love or with which we have familiarity, comfort, or affinity. In 2015-16, I went on a very long journey, and my intention was to completely circle the globe. My trip began in San Diego, continued west to Hawaii, ventured into various parts of southeast Asia, eventually made it to Africa and then Europe. The furthest accomplished in that westward trajectory was Crubyhill, Ireland, and my trip took me back east to the Philippines before heading east back to California. Backtracking east to Tacloban, Philippines allowed me to cement some friendships and go about learning how to lead large feedings in that country for years to come. Going back to the Philippines also led to so much more, and I am certain this is an ongoing expedition.

Talk to strangers.

Yes, the opposite of what your mother taught you. Now, I have a theory: there certainly are bad people in this world who are out there ready to take advantage of you (and worse.) The odds are that these people are going to talk to you first - or at least put themselves in the situation to meet you. Hence, keeping your wits about you, if you initiate the exchange, it is less likely that you are the target. Yes, putting your trust in strangers can be dangerous; I am not saying throw caution to the wind and engage in stupid risks. However, meeting people while traveling provides you with some of the best experiences and unexpected outcomes. Be safe, have an escape route, but do allow yourself the benefit of meeting some of the best humans you otherwise would have missed. World travel is unadorned without the splendor of making acquaintances; how dreary and incomplete to make the journey and miss the human story.

Ramadan dinner in Gaziantep, Turkey

Try some things you have never done before or never thought you would do.

Some people travel to get away, enjoy luxury, or relax. True world travelers may do that too, but we have an inquisitiveness that needs to be sated which often requires daring beyond our comfort zone. Eschewing the challenge to ever push boundaries ensures that there will never be true discovery.

Recognize momentum.

Momentum can be good or bad, so try to discern the difference. With experience comes wisdom, and with wisdom comes discernment. There is instinct, that is inborn in animals not exclusive of ourselves. Travel can take you in many directions if you allow it. Just as in life, even the bad decisions allow you to be a better human. Momentum in travel allows you to get from point A to point B - not exactly as in crossing a bridge, but as in captaining a sailboat. You have a direction; however, you must contend with the winds and the currents; along with the sails, the rudder, your own strength and intuition, the voyage takes you somewhere you could have never gotten on the bridge.

Be completely open to changing course. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Similar to the aforesaid theory on backtracking, an adventure can take you to innumerable destinations, and returning does not necessarily equal regression, but changing course should be the actual opposite of wandering aimlessly. Changing course may be admitting failure or that you were wrong. It could simply be a conscious choice to make a decision that does not comport with previous decisions. Perhaps you were on this tour of classical music venues in Europe, yet you are not feeling fulfilled, and you ascertain in an instant that your energies are better suited volunteering to build a school in Nepal. Who is to say that change of course is wrong? And how would you ever know if you didn't seek that answer? Unplanned adventures require this kind of flexibility.

Soak in culture like a sponge.

No, there is nothing necessarily unplanned about taking in culture, but how you allow these experiences to change your mind, your heart, and even your identity is absolutely the key to next-level tourism. You don't even have to be a seasoned traveler! Just don't be stubborn and do let go of your preconceived determinations. You don't have to compromise your values; you just have to have the humility to be able see life through a different lens. Furthermore, no one is asking that you adopt a new culture - only appreciate it and see where it takes you.

Santo Niño celebration in Malitbog, Philippines

Don't plan everything.

Planning is not bad, but sticking rigidly to plans seldom allows for what you could not have planned. One more comparison to life - surprise, you cannot plan everything. There are trips in which it greatly helps to have a solid itinerary. I went to Alaska, and my friend and tripmate Kim insisted that we book certain excursions months in advance. She was right! In fact, looking back, I believe I could have planned even better. Absolutely, preparation is key. All I am saying is to allow and embrace the unexpected. Heck, if the circumstances don't leave you stuck in the wilderness without a way back to civilization (this did not occur), I say seek the unexpected. Just maybe have a backup plan.

Go some places because of people.

If you are lucky, you have someone you can visit where you want to travel, so definitely take advantage of those opportunities, as friends can make some of the best tour guides (assuming you are invited). Suppose you don't know anyone in another state or country. Do you have any work friends from another country who enjoy sharing stories about that place? For a time, I worked with a few people from Colombia, and I was intrigued. It just so happened that I visited my world traveler uncle Sam in the hospital in California before deciding on my next trip abroad. While my mom was out of the room, I asked him about Colombia, and he spoke about it in glowing terms. The determination was made. Even if you don't know someone in a given place, having a link to someone in your life could be a great key to purpose in travel.

Rent a car, take a walk, use public transportation.

On my first trip to Hawaii at age 5, the only complete family vacation I remember, we had a limousine transport us from the airport to Waikiki. What a great memory it was, especially since that was way out of character for how my family gets places! In the decades since, I have often wondered about those for whom luxury vehicles are the norm while getting around while traveling. And what a blessing it has been to have to walk and find various forms of transportation to make world travel affordable, because there's nothing quite like packing into (or outside) the back of a jeepney in the Philippines, riding on the back of a stranger's motorcycle in Turkey, or even participating in the morning subway commute in Tokyo. Not only are you being economical, but sharing in the locals' everyday experience is in itself a great travel experience. Furthermore, walking and renting a car give you opportunities to explore to your heart's content and see things you never would in the back of a limo.

Learn some of the local language and history.

Travel can be somewhat self-centered. We love tasting the exotic food, posting the photos at famous locations, and reclaiming some sanity from an escape of your home life or work life. Yes, fulfill yourself in the ways you need to and celebrate your escape. Just consider that travel should not be only about what it can do for you. A little bit of preparation and humility can go a long way when you take the time to learn about local customs and simple phrases in the local language. 

Learn about some history while you are there, and you may get some priceless context. Driving through the Philippines, passing by the town of Balangiga, my friend Niño proclaimed, "hey Mark, that's where we killed a bunch of Americans!" That didn't make me feel the safest, but I learned a bit of US history I may not have otherwise. A couple of years later, I returned to Balangiga for a historic event in which our country returned some stolen church bells, because I had been educated on that history.

Return of the Balangiga Bells in 2018 (Samar, Philippines)

Monday, March 4, 2024

Values - The Key to the Future of America


I sat down to write a list of my core values and how they relate to America, and it turned out to be a rather long list. But I suppose that's a good thing. I would bet that a lot of you identify with most of these values, even if we do not always live up to them. That would be encouraging.

Service - Acting in a conscious way that benefits another life in a way that is both necessary and good, often without an expectation of reward or just compensation.  I have served thousands of people over decades in restaurants, sports fields, church, and in international disaster response.

Humility - Simply put, to realize that there is a power above you and that one's life is not superior to another's. If it doesn't drive you to bitterness, service to others teaches you the value in placing others' needs above your own. World travel has shown me how very small we are in the world and how very blessed we are to live in America.

Truth - The seeking of truth has always been a virtue, however from the time of the serpent in Eden, subjectivity has tempted the human mind to accept "alternate truths" that often allow for immorality and ignorance. If there is no objective truth, then we have chaos, and we will falter as an American community. In my writings and discoveries around the world, truth has always been at the center. We have unfortunately become too used to politicians' flagrant disregard for truth while it allows self-preservation. The lies of the powerful have put our very existence at risk, and we must now insist on truth, as the level of machinations and deception now borders on treason.

Authenticity - We all have things that we keep private, but it is imperative to live life boldly without relying on a facade; that way people know who you really are.  While I do enjoy surprising those who know me, I always hope they are more impressed than considering I am acting out of character. 

Community - People are social beings, and we associate around a sense of place, and we create opportunities for joy, growth, and even survival. I don't believe in so-called communities based on skin color or sexuality without regard to place, because I believe it is demeaning to assume these things are what ought to bind us together - or keep us apart! Community relies on acceptance and diligence despite our differences. 

Fairness - One of the earliest values most of us Americans learn is to follow the rules and not cheat, because that destroys our very core principle of equality. America needs to revisit this and insist that all people of all income levels, social status, connectedness, or historical oppression play by the same set of rules if we are to survive as a diverse people. As a leader, coach, and human being, I have always strived to expect from, celebrate, and associate with people as children of God and equals in deserving respect.

Faith - Beyond hope, actively taking the step when you cannot see the staircase - often associated with God and religion, because what is not concrete is usually difficult to grasp for our mortal brains without belief in a higher power. It is too easy not to believe in anything these days, but that is what destroys morality, family, responsibility, and the very idea of a covenant. Our republic and democracy will neither thrive nor survive if we eschew the existence of the Creator from whom we are imbued with our fundamental rights.

Kindness - To act in good nature toward one another for no other reason than to recognize their humanity and intrinsic beauty and worth is the essence of civilization and what makes life worth living. 

Optimism - America was born of and thrives upon the idea that there are brighter days ahead of: tyranny, hardship, slavery, racism, injustice, imperialism, terrorism, and more. America has no choice but to be optimists, and the rest of the world depends on it. We must believe in American Exceptionalism, work for it, and refuse to be defeated.

Peace - Hardly simply the absence of conflict, but tranquility, benevolence, and solace in some lasting measure is an active good that must be sought, sacrificed for, and even fought for. Through our strength, persistence, deterrence and achievement, America has been an incredible force for peace, and we must not shy away from that responsibility. I have often found that fairness, challenge, example, creativity, and even humor are ways to peace, though we must remember there are many opportunities when we seek them.

Responsibility - Even a bird floating freely in the wind must build a nest and bring back food for its young; so do we owe to one another and to our common purpose. Yes, we owe to others, but we do not owe everything and without reciprocation in a functioning society. Growing up, I decided that becoming a man is when you take responsibility for the care of another human; that could be in the military, as a father, a caregiver or a leader.

Ingenuity - To imagine and then create is one of the most human things possible. America has been a leader in creation, innovation and entrepreneurship because of freedom and the agreed upon notions of rugged individualism and human capital - that a free market can build, thrive, and even conquer. I have gone around the world observing, discovering, and testing, and I am proud to have left my mark on disaster response, recovery, and food aid.

Wisdom - Many people believe they have answers, many people believe they are smart or enlightened and are often reinforced by public opinion. However, wisdom comes from living with an open mind - seeking truth and understanding over time. There are many ideas in America that succeed only in that multiples of people agree to them. In world travel, one steps outside his comfort zone to places not found in books or within a circle of friends' banter. How may one seek universal truth by never venturing out? I have been to 52 countries and all 50 US states; wisdom is a journey, and it is rarely (if ever) complete.

Integrity - In the restaurant, we describe it as doing what is right when no one is watching. An engineer might describe it as what holds something together which the naked or untrained eye cannot see. In either case, it seems our country has a crisis of integrity in many places, though we have many fine and outstanding compatriots as well. We need to stand up and buttress what should be America. 

Sovereignty - In America, authority and independence are with the human mind and spirit. We have no natural rulers, and we all have a say in the grand American experiment. Since we built and own this country, we also have the right and duty to protect and defend this creation. Hence, we also have the right to a border that places limits on who can enter and join us.

Courage - With autonomy comes a fundamental necessity to be brave and act with purpose. America will only be great as long as we are good and do the hard things.

Efficiency - As a student of economics, one learns about scarcity and that limited resources must be allocated in the best ways. Our government for too long has been wasteful and has catered to unrealistic desires just to stay in power. Deficit spending has become the norm, and we have now accumulated over $34 trillion in national debt. This profligacy has already initiated a road to ruin. Serious leaders must be put in place to turn this tide.

Honor - In the Commandments, we are instructed to honor our parents. In marriage vows, we promise to honor a spouse. To have honor is to live so as to be worthy of respect and trust. To honor someone is to revere someone and recognize something of merit and value in them.

Lawfulness - Unfortunately, we have become a society that tolerates unlawfulness, and what you tolerate, you get more of. Laws are meant to prevent chaos as well as secure rights. We need a return to respect for the rules by which we all agree to live, or America will not be worth saving.

Exploration - The curious who act to learn more about the world and its peoples are those who find answers and better ways. There are numerous ways to explore this world, and I have devoted a good chunk of my life doing so. If you never push the boundaries, there will never be any discovery.

Accountability - Our actions will be examined one way or the other. Whether in business, government, or in our own relationships, there is no accountability for our choices, there will be no growth. If we shift the blame or dishonestly claim successes (like most politicians), we all lose in the end.

Family - The building blocks of society are the relationships that form bonds and then create moral and productive new people.  While there are numerous ways to be fruitful in giving back to your community, country, and indeed the world, the life-long marriage of a man and a woman that rears children is sacred and should not be made to be considered dispensable.

Patriotism - Loving and celebrating one's country is entirely appropriate, especially if you have some form of democracy - that means you are proud of something you are involved in building! Standing for the Anthem, contributing to our country in a meaningful way, and representing America well with your own life are all things that should bind us and move us forward in positive ways.

Redemption - One beautiful trait of America and many of our contemporaries - likely influenced by religious teaching and tradition - is that of second chances and reconciliation. Many things cannot be undone, certainly, but giving people opportunities to come back from failure or trespass recognizes a humanity in government and in our communities.

Life - As Americans, it is defined clearly at our core that we believe life is a right bestowed by our Creator on all of us. We are "created" - not "born" - with this right. Therefore, our right to live predates our first breath, and it logically follows that we all have a right to be born and that the concept of gestational life ought to be a distinctly American, if not universal, value.

Volunteerism - To think outside of one's own hopes and needs - Mr. Rogers shared a story of advice from his mother for dealing with scary times, "look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." I have found strength in myself as well as in affected communities in my years of volunteering in ten different countries. America needs us to not get too jaded that we are unwilling to be helpers. The results of volunteerism can range from comforting to life-changing... dare I say, world-changing.