Hello friends and readers,
I'm sending you this invitation one month early, in the hopes that you'll mark your calendar for an event I'm having at the Monticello Inn in San Francisco on the evening of September 11. Nominally it is an event to promote my book "Take Me With You: A Round-the-World Journey to Invite a Stranger Home," which was released in paperback in America in February, and then in the U.K. in June. (I am very happy to report that my book is a much bigger deal in the UK than it ever became in the US - Random House-UK sold 13,500 copies in the first three weeks and went back and reprinted another 5,000 copies, it's been nominated for a couple of small honors, and now hardly a day goes by when I don't receive at least one email from a reader somewhere in the former British empire - this is huge fun for me.) But on September 11 I plan to talk rather briefly about my book, and then discuss a plan I have which seems like it just might become a ten-year project for me.
I find that I have committed myself to at least a first small step, the establishment of a $20,000 travel "ambassadorship" (details further along), and from there I'll see if it grows into the somewhat bigger idea I have in mind. If it does grow, it will eventually be a $1 billion/year (!) program that will bring the people of the poorer countries of the world and the people of the wealthy countries into greater harmony.
Prior to September 11, 2001, I used to lament that the people of America don't know the reality of life for the people of the poorer countries. Half of the world's 6-billion-plus inhabitants - a staggering 3 billion people - live on less than two dollars a day (one billion people live on less than one dollar a day). This is indeed a hard reality to grasp from afar.
And since September 11, I have had an additional lament: that the people of the poorer countries don't know the reality of life for the people of America and the rest of the western cultures. If they did, there would never have been the smattering of applause for what happened in New York and Virginia and Pennsylvania. If the people of the world knew the real America, which I believe is the America that Tony and I experienced last summer, where people seemed to fall all over each other in trying to help us...if we all were more in touch with our deeper, truer natures, the world would be a different place. It certainly was a different place, an enchanted place, for Tony and me last summer, and this travel ambassadorship that I'm establishing, and the larger idea I'm trying to breathe into life, is my attempt to further share the unforgettable kindness that last summer brought me.
Anyway, here's the gist of it - and please keep in mind that it is evolving and the details change from day to day and week to week, but the basic idea has acquired a shape:
- I am in the process of establishing a non-profit organization named Backpack Nation. By next graduation season (May, 2003) I intend to have completed the process of identifying and funding the first travel ambassador. The recipient of this ambassadorship will receive $10,000 of the $20,000 for his or her travel expenses for a trip through the poorer countries. I'm expecting this trip to last somewhere between 100 days and one year - six months strikes me as about right. The recipient can make up his or her own itinerary, or wander wherever the road leads, but must stick to the Third World whenever possible.
- At trip's end the recipient will be expected to fulfill only one obligation: she or he must tell Backpack Nation exactly where - to which individual, family, organization, or village in the Third World - the other $10,000 should be delivered.
To this first $20,000 ambassadorship I am committing myself.
Beyond that, we'll just have to see. My hope is that, once the first step is completed, the further steps that will be required in the fulfillment of my larger idea will make themselves visible. My larger idea is to have 100 similarly-funded travelers leaving America PER DAY. This would give us - the people of America - a rotating diplomatic corps of 36,500 travelers stationed in the cheap hotels, beach bungalows, and villages of the Third World. They would be spending $1 million a day in expense money, and giving direct cash grants of $1 million a day to people in the not-so-well funded parts of the globe. If that doesn't change the relationship between the people of America and the poorer people of the world...
- You may be, or you may know someone who is, interested in applying for this first ambassadorship, or subsequent ones. Again, details are fluid right now, but I do believe the application will be a 1,000-word essay (four double-spaced typed pages) explaining the writer's desire/qualifications for being the recipient. I will probably winnow down the applications and have a few friends and colleagues make the final selection(s). All of this, I hope, will be more firm by September 11.
A few stray thoughts:
- Between "high school" and "college" the British have a thing called the "gap year." It's considered absolutely acceptable to go have a look around the world during that year. American employers have, at least until recently, frowned on that sort of behavior. My inclination is to give this first award to an American, and see what, if anything, happens from there. But the success of my book in the UK, and the resonance with the book's ideas expressed in readers' emails, have certainly been tugging at my mind...
- I wish that a program like this had been in existence when I was sent out into the world thirty years ago. Had I applied I would have been forced to ask some deeper questions than I asked of myself at the time: What is my role in the world? My place? What is my purpose? What sort of difference can I make? What would I really like to do with this life that's been given me? What does it mean to be an American, a Westerner? What do I take for granted? What do I consider beyond me, or impossible, and why do I think that? Why sort of impact might I make in other people's lives? What do other people mean to me? What is my relationship to the rest of the humanity?... Simply going through the process of considering these things would have been a valuable exercise, one that I didn't get around to for many years.
- $1 billion a year might seem like a stupendous amount of money. But America's defense budget is approximately $400 billion per year, more than $1 billion per day. And America's annual philanthropic outlay is over $200 billion ($212 billion in 2001). A billion dollars spent the way I envision would be money well spent, I do believe.
I intend to have Backpack Nation established as a nonprofit by Sept 11, 2002, or shortly thereafter. I will, of course, welcome any donations. A billion dollars a year - I just might need some help along that path. But my experience with Tony last summer showed me that oceans of kindness do indeed exist, and their most fluid expression is money, and I am not unconfident about the job of tapping that ocean for at least the first $20,000.
Please stay tuned.