What influenced or motivated you to make your first solo trip, and where did you go?
After college, I hitchhiked around the U.S. by myself quite a bit. In 1974, after reading James Mitchner's The Driftersa book about hippies hanging out in EuropeI said to myself, "I'm going to Europe." And about eight months later a friend and I flew to Europe and found work washing dishes in a Swiss train station restaurant. Later I traveled around Europe and Morocco, and wound up wandering as far as Afghanistan. Before I'd left the U.S., I don't think I could have found Morocco or Afghanistan on a map. I came back a different person.
But my first solo foreign trip was inspired strictly by being kicked out of my first marriage. In the book The Beach (not my favorite), Alex Garland said one thing I think is true: "Escape through travel does work." And at least for me running away certainly helped. I went to Japan, Hong Kong, China, and I rode the Trans-Siberian railroad across the old USSR in the height of a beautiful summer. Out of that trip came my first book, All the Right Places (Random House).
How did you get the idea for the trip that resulted in 'Take Me With You?'
The idea for the trip first came to me in the wilds of Afghanistan in 1974, when I promised that someday I was going to invite someone from my travels to visit me in America. The idea that I might be able to write books about my travels came perhaps 10 years later. After publishing my first book in 1988, 1 thought that the timing was great to take another trip, and that my invite- someone-to-America idea would make a perfect second book.
It's been 12 years since you took that trip. What took so long?
I began writing the book in 1989 in San Francisco, but found myself too distracted, so in 1990, I moved to Mexico. Eight months later, I returned to San Francisco with a 1,000-page manuscript, and by 1993, after much time working on it in writing workshops, I considered the book complete. Over the next two years, my manuscript was rejected some 20 times. Other distractions entered my life, and it wasn't until 1999 that I found a publisher.
How did you ultimately select the person you chose to invite back to the U.S.?
Well, a lot of it really was chance. There were many people I would have liked to consider, but who were apparently failed by the postal systems in their countries. I collected lots of addresses during my trip, but about half the people I wrote to never responded to my post-trip lettersand I sent each of them at least four. So either they couldn't afford a stamp, or couldn't manage a letter, or my letters never reached themI suspect the latter.
But I really LIKED the person I've invited. We spent a fair amount of time together and I probably got to know him better than I did the others. But really, in the end, although I was leaning toward him and one other guy, I did really put all the names into a hat and I drew his out. And when I did, it felt exactly right.
What do you look forward to sharing with your guest?
Well, this great country of ours, certainly. Right now I'm thinking that after a week or so in the Bay Area, we'll get in a car or van, the most American activity of all, and drive across the country. The Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, the Rockies, the St. Louis ArchI went to school at Principia College, near St. Louis. I'd like to show him Washington D.C.my Mom still lives in the house I grew up in, right outside D.C. I'd like to show him that, like him to meet her. And I imagine us slipping up to New York for a night or two. I think a month will go pretty quickly. There are so many possibilities. I'm going to play it by ear a bit. I like my trips to have a skeleton plan in advance, but I flesh them out in the moment. But most of all I think I'm hoping to share the WONDER with him. This is going to be an enormous thing in his life, I believe. And I know it's an enormous thing in my life. I clearly recall landing in Europe for the first time when I was 22. Seeing distant, different places is so very powerful. And this will certainly be different than what my friend is used to.
What's the essence of America you'd like to share with your friend?
I'll be surprised if he doesn't notice the sense of Opportunitycapital 0that everyone else does. The same opportunity that drew my grandparents here from Czechoslovakia. There's the sense that you can be anything you want to be hereespecially in San Francisco. If you can't be who you want to be in San Francisco, you really don't have much of a chance anywhere else.
But you knowmostly I think I'll just show him some of my favorite places and my favorite activities and introduce him to as many of my friends as I can and let him figure out what HE thinks is the essence of America. We'll go hiking, I'm sure. We'll go to the beachhe's not seen much ocean, if any, in his life. We'll catch a Giants' game. Harbin Hot Springsif I get the sense he can handle the clothing optional aspect.
I also think I'll introduce him to some of the people in San Francisco who have immigrated to America from his countryand maybe out of that I'll learn a few things myself about America.
Take Me with You is a story about how a personal act can change livesyours, the life of a person you didn't know, and, perhaps, the lives of readers. Do you believe that exchanges between individual people can ultimately lead to global change?
I do believe in the personal act. If I do something kind, something decent, immediately the world is by a very subtle but very real degree, a kinder, more decent place. If I do something mean, the world is instantly a bit meaner. The only place I know to start is with myself. I see and understand the differences between people of different races and economic circumstances, and I don't know what to do about those things on a global level. But in my own life, I have more control. One of the reasons I love cab driving is that it puts me into contact with a broad spectrum of people. Subtract cab driving from my life, and my life looks pretty darn Caucasian. But in the cab lot I know people from all over the world, and my customers are of every racial and economic stripe.
During your world travels, you've met a lot of people whose day-to-day life is characterized by extreme poverty and/or lack of personal freedom. How has that influenced your own perspective and what do you see as the most positive action possible on the individual level?
I don't want to pose as some Buddhist, but I do like the Dalai Lama's quote: "My religion is kindness." I fail in living up to that standard, but when I'm acting consciously, I do try. And, gosh, for a Westerner visiting the Third World, I think it's impossible not to notice how much more, materially, we have. And I think it's the most natural impulse in the world to want to share. Third Worlders share what they havemostly their warmth, their curiosity, themselvesso easily. It's actually fun for me to give them what I can. I met an American couple in Kenya who had made a pile of money in business, millions, and now they were traveling around the world, giving away $500 here, $500 there. There was an article in the paper one day about them having given $500 to a shoe repair man in Nairobi who had been kind to them. And they seemed to be having more fun than any other travelers I met.
You seem able to perceive differences without judging them. How do you avoid the impulse to apply your own values to another culture?
"Every life is valid"I must think this thought every day. I suppose I would draw the line at Hitler and most other murderers. But I like to think that everyone should be free to interpret life and put together his/her own life in the way they see fit.
Throughout your journey you ask those you meet two questions: "What's the best thing that ever happened to you, and what's the worst thing that ever happened to you?" How did you first start asking these questions?
I think these questions work particularly well with my cab customers. We've usually got just a short time together, and the assumption is we're never going to see each other again, and so what the heck. People often like to talk to cab driverswould like to talk more to strangersbut sometimes just don't know where to start. For me, talking to my passengers is absolutely the best part of the job. I think perhaps the reason I liked being a reporter when I was, and why I like being a cab driver, is that it gives me an excuse to ask just about anyone just about anything. I don't talk to EVERYONE in my cab, but when I have a sense that someone is approachable and, perhaps, interesting, I like to just toss my questions out there cold. No preludejust, out of our silence, "What's the best thing that ever happened to you?" Once in a great while in my cab someone will say, "I'm sorry, I just don't feel like talking"and that's perfectly legitimateI don't always feel like it either. But 95% of the people seem to like being asked such a question. I think most people love attentionlove being asked their opinion on something.
Almost everyone has to think for a while before they can identify their favorite thing. But almost everyone can instantly give you the worst thing that ever happened to him or her.
How would you answer the questions yourselfwhat are the best and worst things that have ever happened to YOU?
Well, every once in a while someone turns this around on meand I like that. But I always have to look and see what my answer is THAT DAY. For a long time my answer was "Having my first book published"but that was a long time ago and seems to have faded into the landscape of my life. Todaylet's see. I guess I would say simply being born. I read an article in the New Yorker not too long ago that said that in the act leading to human conception, somewhere between 20 million and 900 million individual sperm are involved. This makes me realize that almost all of us have already, before we were bom, beaten the biggest odds we'll ever face. It makes me think that life is really an afterthought, a bonus, a cooling off chat in the post-game locker room, and that maybe we don't have to take life quite as seriously as we do. Maybe we can take more chances than we think. That's my answer for today.
And my worst thing...you know, I have lots of days where I can spit out a genuine answer to that one. But lately it seems almost obscene to even think about it. My second book is being published, I'm going on a coast-to-coast book tour, and last week I saw the first reviewon Amazon.coma flat-out rave. I spent a good chunk of this beautiful afternoon we had with my daughter, splashing around in our hot tubit was set on medium. She's three-and-a-half now, and we spend a lot of time just going around exploring together, looking for treats to eat, or parks to play in. She's become a baseball fana Giants' fan"Did Barry Bonds hit one in the water last night, Dad?" I have a season ticketthe first season ticket of my lifeand the whole family's been to the incredible new stadium a few times. Sarah loves garlic fries and roasted corn. This morning we both kissed Rhonda good-bye at the door and then we went back inside with the newspaper. Sarah said, "Did the Giants win last night?" When she'd gone to bed it was tied at 3-3. But Ellis Burks hit that homer in the eleventh, and when I told Sarah she yanked open the front door and screamed, "HEY MOM!" Rhonda was already halfway down the block, but she turned around. "The Giants WON last nightfour to three!" I hope the whole neighborhood heard that.
My wife told me recently, "If you can't be happy NOW, you're hopeless." To most of the people I've met in my travels, the ones you can see out the window of any train or bus in the Philippines, India, Egypt, slaving over crops, my entire life has been a cruise aboard a luxury liner. Life is definitely a roller coaster, and there really are no problems like your own problems, but today...today it wold be obscene to dwell on my problems. My wife is absolutely right: if I can't be happy right now, I really am hopeless.