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World Rovers (cover story)
Pacific Sun
Marin County, CA, USA
September 3, 2003

Article by:
Michael McCarthy

 

World Rovers: Building a Backpack Nation

It is September 11th 2002 at the Monticello Inn, a boutique hotel just off Union Square. The local literati refer to the Monticello as the “Algonquin of the west,” a reference to the New York hotel where Dorothy Parker and her circle of writers used to meet for drinks and gossip. Free appetizers and wine flow. The Monticello’s events room is filled with a who’s who of the Bay Area travel literature community, a burgeoning field of writing whose best known names include Paul Theroux, Jan Morris and Bill Bryson. However, the writer that people have come to see tonight isn’t even a household name in his own town. Stranger yet, Brad Newsham doesn’t even have a book to launch. Instead, the evening is a launch for his odd new project called Backpack Nation. The audience is rapt.

Inspired by Newsham's vision of a Backpack Nation, writer/photographer Liz Scherle is planning to take her next trip to Central and South America as a goodwill ambassador. Scherle finds hope in the idea of ordinary Americans representing America and lending support to developing projects. (photo © 2003 Lori A. Cheung )

“We’ve had some big gatherings here before,” announces hotel manager Chris Holbrook to the SRO crowd, “but nothing like this. I gather Brad is a really popular fellow.”

“I think I can truly say that Brad Newsham is one of the nicest guys in the world,” says Larry Habegger, executive editor of Traveler Tales, a Bay Area-based publishing house whose travel literature anthologies are big sellers in the genre. “I think what Brad is on to really touches the core of what many of us want to find, a way to do something real for a real person, not just send money to some organization without knowing who really benefits.”

Newsham, a 52-year old salt-and-pepper bearded adventure writer, has created a cult following with his two books, All the Right Places and Take Me With You; A Round the World Journey to Invite a Stranger Home. These days Newsham is consumed with a vastly different project than writing travel narratives. While U.S. troops remain bogged down in Iraq and America becomes ever more disliked around the world for its increasingly belligerent foreign policy, Newsham is launching Backpack Nation, his novel idea that an army of backpackers can counteract the damage that American foreign policy has created.

When the World Trade Center came tumbling down September 11th 2001, Newsham was aghast. The sight of people on television in other parts of the world clapping their hands in glee at the death of thousands of ordinary Americans astonished him. It also prompted him to do something to “make a difference,” and to inspire others to do the same.

“At any given moment there are two to three million independent travelers dispersed around the globe on extended trips,” says Newsham. “Travel writer Jan Morris talks about a ‘Fourth World,’ a global diaspora of empathetic souls who form ‘a mighty nation,’ if they only knew it. Anyone who's been out traveling recognizes that such a nation already exists, and that most of its citizens carry backpacks. I think people recognize that the name works.”

The basic mission and strategy of Backpack Nation (www.bradnewsham.com) is to transform the world’s dire political situation by sending ‘roving ambassadors’ to developing countries, each funded with $10,000 for a trip up to one year. At trip’s end each ambassador will be required to tell Backpack Nation where to deliver another $10,000, whether to an individual, family, organization or village somewhere in the Third World.

“I think, given half a chance, Americans are warm, generous and open-hearted,” says the ever-smiling Newsham with a twinkle in his eye. “People around the world don’t dislike Americans. It’s just our government and foreign policy they don’t like. Al-Qaeda has made an enormous impact with an army estimated to be much, much smaller. I like to think that Backpack Nation can overwhelm the world with kindness, which is theoretically more powerful than terror.”

Newsham’s kindness is stuff of legend in the writing community. A taxi driver when not traveling or writing, he keeps money in his cab to give away to people poorer than he is. He offers free cab rides to people waiting at bus stops. He offers motivational talks – for free, of course – at kindergartens and writer’s clubs. His book Take Me With You, A Round the World Journey to Invite a Stranger Home, describes his 100-day odyssey through villages, shanty towns and barrios on several continents to befriend a total stranger. Newsham finally chose a one-eyed rice farmer from a small village in the Philippines named Tony Tocdaan and invited him to visit America.

It took Newsham years to raise the money out of his own pocket. Newsham and his friend took off across America in a borrowed taxicab, with the meter running, to see the land of the free and the brave. They drove the cab from San Francisco to New York City seeing all the sights. Newsham reports that all along the way they were shown incredible hospitality by ordinary people. His new friend even received a new prosthetic eye from a generous doctor. When the weary pair returned to San Francisco Tocdaan was agog at American hospitality and the meter on the cab read $20,644.90. Newsham waived the fee, of course.

Those who know Newsham tell similar tales about his generosity, but if you ask Newsham he’ll tell you that he isn’t the only American sharing his life with others.

“I have become convinced that mainstream media are missing a huge story, the groundswell of thousands upon thousands of individuals and organizations working diligently at grassroots levels to make the world a more equitable, more workable place,” says Newsham, who was immediately inundated with hundreds of applications to become ambassador when word of mouth first spread about Backpack Nation. “A national magazine recently referred to this movement as the Second Superpower. My intention is that Backpack Nation will help shine a light on all that.”

While Brad Newsham is not a well-known name to the general public, many of his fans and supporters certainly are. Internationally respected writer Herbert Gold, whose fiction, essays, non-fiction and travel literature dates back to the Beat Era in the late 1950s, has become a big Newsham fan.

“When I read All the Right Places I didn’t know who the heck Brad was, but I was impressed by his spirit. I immediately wrote him a fan letter and we’ve been friends ever since. Since then, my first impression of a wonderful spirit has turned out to be true. He has a real, genuine affection for people,” says Gold. “I was aware that he was driving a taxi cab, so I phoned him up and asked if he would like a fare to the airport. He seemed genuinely happy to get the fare. When we got to the airport, I wrote him a check for more than the cost of the ride. I found out later he donated it to a foundation. Well, that’s Brad for you. He seems to approve of humanity as a whole. He’s not a rich man, you know. Sometimes I wonder what is wrong with him. I can just imagine Brad being in a Third World country and being stopped on the street by soldiers with AK-47s. Even if Brad didn’t speak the language, I can imagine them all sitting down to a cup of tea together. Brad has this bizarre affect on people he meets.”

“I first met Brad through his first book, which I found in a North Beach used bookstore,” says Travel Tales publisher Habegger. “I knew he was a local writer but had never seen him around. Through some idiotic inefficiencies of a small company working virtually out of various home offices, we somehow went to press using an excerpt from his book without obtaining permission from him. One day we got a letter from an agent suggesting that one Brad Newsham was upset with us, but that he was the nicest guy in the world and we needed to meet and make things right. So we did, and he was one of the nicest guys in the world. And then, again inexplicably, one of the issues we promised to him to didn't get done. Boy, were we embarrassed. After all that, do you think Brad would have any interest in us? Well, a few years later we ended up publishing Take Me With You, and now, I can truly repeat, he's one of the nicest guys in the world.”

At Mill Valley’s Book Depot Café, the sun is shining through the trees. Literary agent Robert Stricker stirs his coffee thoughtfully. Rumors have it that Mill Valley, with over 100 published novelists, has the highest per capita number of writers in the world. Stricker represents some of the best and biggest sellers; he also has represented humble cab driver Brad Newsham.

“I met Brad from a century past, when people still wrote checks. I was buying a pair of running shoes in New York City. I had to show some ID and when the clerk saw I ran a literary agency she told me her brother-in-law was a writer. I flew home and I get a call from Brad. He says he has written a book. I told him to leave his book in my lobby. At three a.m. I picked up All The Right Places and I couldn’t put it down,” says Stricker. “I took it to an old-school editor, a big name in the business. She sent me a long note, saying she loved it too. Of course they didn’t publish it, but it was a great rejection letter. Brad has this gift for engaging people. He has an ability to make a connection, to put you there in his shoes.”

Flash forward one year to 2003. September 11th is once again approaching, a date many Americans would rather forget. Backpack Nation has been in operation nearly one year. It has been featured on NPR and featured in Hope Magazine. Money has been raised from hundreds of ordinary people sending in tens and twenties to launch the first ambassador. The selection of the Backpack Nation committee is a 46-year old former Peace Corp volunteer. Ellen Sheeley took off on her round-the-world quest in early June. She will visit the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, the Middle East and Central America, and report back on her selection of a project, clinic, village or school to fund.

Meanwhile, the second-place finisher from the original 137 applicants, Adam Carter of Chicago, refuses to accept that he won’t get to act as an ambassador for Backpack Nation. Carter decided to begin raising his own money. He has appeared on NPR, published and circulated a pamphlet and launched his own web site. He is inspired by Newsham’s vision, and doesn’t think that Newsham needs to personally go out and raise money for hundreds of other people all by himself - although, of course, that’s exactly what Newsham is trying to do. Carter thinks that would-be ambassadors could raise their own funds.

“People in the Third World have this preconceived idea of the stereotypical American. We aren’t all bad or greedy. My own dream is to help street children in Brazil,” says Carter, “but more importantly I’d like to create a blueprint for other Backpack Nation ambassadors to follow. How to raise the money, how to raise awareness. I think aspiring ambassadors should be inspired to go to their own community and help make this happen.”

The idea is rapidly catching on. San Rafael’s Liz Scherle has been so moved by Newsham’s vision she plans to take her next trip as a goodwill ambassador. “Brad is an inspiration to me. I hope in the future to serve in some capacity for Backpack Nation. I will be launching my own fundraiser here in Marin and heading to Central and South America soon. I think the idea of ordinary people representing America, choosing a project in the developing world to support, is a great model to follow.”

Scherle is already an accomplished traveler, just back from four months in Europe. A graphic artist, web site designer, writer and photographer, she has already launched a web site (www.whereisliz.com), a veritable “how to guide” for other people -- especially women -- wishing to travel but lacking a clear plan of action. Since Scherle launched it, she has received over 100,000 ‘hits’ a month. She is now writing a book on other goodwill ambassadors.

Scherle has already shared her advice with two other young Marin travelers and filmmakers, Zack Hill and Scott Cherry, whose own form of goodwill ambassadorship is just beginning. Their new 8-month project (www.tiptotiptrip.com) started in August. It will see them driving from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, working with school children in small villages in 14 different countries, teaching kids about America and the outside world.

“We want to show these kids that not all gringos are bad,” says Hill, climbing behind the wheel of a battered Toyota and heading north to Seattle. “Most people we’ve met on our trips aren’t negative to ordinary Americans, just our government. But they say we voted for Bush, so we are responsible.”

Tip to Tip has already lined up commercial sponsors like Oakland-based Clif Energy Bars, Patagonia Clothing, and a wet suit and shoe company.

“We hope to come out of this trip with a lot of cool information that we can pass on to others, show them how to do it,” says Hill. “We hope this whole idea of actively going out there and representing your country really catches on.”

While representing your country in a positive light is one thing, handing out cash is another thing. Newsham’s Backpack Nation has already come under fire from magazines like USA Today, which questioned whether Newsham was “playing God and being totally naïve, creating a Sally Strothers venture that exists more for the conscience of the givers that for the good of the receivers. It would be more effective to channel donations through existing local organizations than to have money dispensed by a traveler who just parachutes in and out.”

Frequent traveler Marc Gold of Oakland (www.100friends.com) has been carefully selecting people and projects in the third world to support for 13 years. “How you give money is everything. It takes work and time, building relationships, doing research. You have to get to know the culture, and what the impact of the money will be.”

Internationally known travel writer Jeff Greenwald is another critic of Backpack Nation, although he sat on Newsham’s advisory committee to pick the first ambassador. Author of several best-selling titles (Shopping For Buddhas, Scratching the Surface) Greenwald is himself organizer of a newly created global travel organization (www.ethicaltraveler.com) that also encourages people to act as ambassadors for their country. But a big part of his campaign is to educate travelers about their responsibilities in developing countries. Although he thinks the world of Newsham as a person, Greenwald is very leery of well-meaning projects that may do more harm than good.

"There's scant evidence that any good has come from Americans -- or Germans, or Japanese, for that matter -- going into developing countries and doling out money,” says Greenwald. “One has to be very careful who the money is given to, and certain it won't do more harm than good. Though I admire Brad's good intentions, I suspect he'd agree that Backpack Nation doesn't yet have the ability to oversee its ambassadors in a sensible, sustainable way."

But Muir Beach’s Anne Jeschke shares the same positive spirit as Newsham and sees things differently. A life-long traveler now retired, along with several other North Bay residents Jeschke applied to be the first Backpack Nation ambassador. She understands the criticisms people levy towards Americans traveling abroad who give away money like royalty.

“When we were touring Vietnam, people told us not to give to beggars. But you know, we all play God all the time with our own kids, with our own government. I’d rather be the one making decisions that George W. Bush,” says Jeschke. “I see Backpack Nation as an opportunity to make direct one-on-one contact with people. The money itself isn’t important, nor is Brad’s vision of changing the world. He is dreaming with his idea of funding thousands of backpackers all from his own efforts, but his project is growing. It has struck a chord with a lot of people. I’d never thought of doing something like Backpack Nation, but now I’ve learned a lot of people are thinking about doing things like this.”

Although he is still trying to figure out how he can raise the money to put hundreds of ambassadors out on the road spreading the message, Newsham is pleased to hear that his vision is starting to catch on.

“I've done almost all of the grunt work but now I realize that I've taken this as far as I can alone,” says Newsham. “I've spent most of my life working alone or with groups small enough to fit inside a single taxicab, so, to me, creating a big organization seems like visiting a new planet, but you know what? There’s nothing stopping anybody from doing the same thing.”

   
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