On a recent evening the Monticello Inn, a boutique hotel just off Union Square, was packed with a who's who of the Bay Area travel-writing community. Writers, editors, publishers, and agents stood elbow to elbow, snacking on appetizers and swapping tales involving noted writers such as Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Bill Bryson, and Pico Iyer, who sell millions of books. But Brad Newsham, the man they all came to hear, isn't even a household name in his Oakland hometown.
The 52-year-old salt-and-pepper-bearded adventure scribe is the author of travel cult classics All the Right Places and Take Me with You, his latest book, which came out in 2000. But recently he's been consumed with a new mission: changing the way the world views America. To accomplish this, he's forged a project called "Backpack Nation" based on the quaint idea that ordinary travelers can, and should, form their own "army" to counteract the negative images the United States government creates around the world.
When the Twin Towers came tumbling down the September before last, Newsham was aghast. The deaths were disturbing enough, but it was the televised images of people in other parts of the world clapping in glee that prompted him to action. "I think, given half a chance, Americans are warm, generous, and open-hearted," he tells the crowd. "From my travels, I'd say people around the world don't despise Americans. It's our government and foreign policy they object to."
The writer then explains his vision. The idea is to transform the world's dire political situation by sending hosts of goodwill ambassadors to the world's less-wealthy countries. Each ambassador will have access to $10,000 to cover expenses for a yearlong trip and, at trip's end, will be required to tell Backpack Nation where to deliver an additional $10,000, whether to an individual, family, organization, or village in the Third World.
Citing industry sources, Newsham claims there are two to three million independent travelers dispersed around the globe on extended trips at any given moment. "Al-Qaeda has made an enormous impact with an army estimated to be much, much smaller," he says, a twinkle in his eye. "I like to think that Backpack Nation can overwhelm the world with kindness, which is theoretically more powerful than terror."
As naive as the idea appears on the surface, Newsham's friends say he's the kind of person who has a knack for making the unlikely happen. Fans who know of his quiet exploits recite chapter and verse about his generosity, his giving to the penniless and destitute, and his odd ideas that have an uncanny habit of succeeding. "I think what Brad is onto, it touches the core of what many of us want to find," say Larry Habegger, executive editor of Bay Area publishing house Travelers' Tales, which published Take Me with You. It's "a way to do something real for a real person, not just send money to some organization without knowing who really benefits. Brad's idea is pure and intriguing because of its serendipity and directness."
To date, Newsham has circumnavigated the planet with a backpack four times on a shoestring. Take Me with You describes his hundred-day search through villages, shantytowns, and barrios of the Third World on a quixotic quest to befriend a complete stranger. Newsham finally invited Tony Tocdaan, an impoverished, one-eyed rice farmer who had never left his home village in the Philippines, to come and experience the Great Satan face to face.
Newsham drives a cab to make ends meet when he's not traveling or writing. It took him years to save enough for plane fare and expenses for his guest. But two years ago, his new Filipino friend arrived in the States and the pair took off across America, driving in the cab to New York City and back.
They were shown incredible generosity by ordinary people along the way -- among other gifts, his friend received a new prosthetic eye. And by the time they arrived back in the Bay Area ten thousand miles later, Tocdaan was agog at American hospitality.
While Newsham isn't well-known, many of his fans and supporters are. Renowned San Francisco writer Herbert Gold, whose fiction, essays, and travel literature date back to the Beat era, considers himself a big fan. "For some reason he seems to approve of humanity as a whole," Gold says. "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. "
By word of mouth, Newsham has raised more than $16,000 over the past nine months to send off his first ambassador: Former Peace Corps volunteer Ellen Sheeley, 46, is at the moment exploring villages in China. But to achieve his goal of "building an army," Newsham will need serious money. He's not sure what will happen next, but he doesn't seem the least bit fazed by potential roadblocks. "If Backpack Nation is meant to happen, then it'll happen," Newsham says. "I can't raise millions of dollars all by myself, but I can take the first step, and I already have. You know, there is nothing stopping anyone from doing this on their own."
True to form, others are already picking up the challenge poised at BackpackNation.org. Adam Carter of Chicago, chosen as the project's second ambassador from among 137 applicants, doesn't think people should sit back and watch Newsham fail. Instead of waiting, Carter set out to raise the money for his own Backpack Nation project: to help destitute street children in Brazil build homes. He has already appeared on the NPR program Worldview, printed and distributed a pamphlet, and is actively fund-raising for his trip.
"It is personal, one-to-one relationships that make a difference in this world," Carter told Worldview host Jerome McDonnell earlier this month. "This isn't about money; it's about sharing. People in the Third World have this preconceived idea of the stereotypical American. We aren't all bad or greedy. All I am trying to do is create a role model."
Donations are already rolling in, along with suggestions and offers to help, Carter says. Actor Jim Belushi and made a modest donation, and a friend designed and launched Carter's separate Web site.
Newsham, meanwhile, says he's received thousands of e-mails from people wanting to help. Fans are sending out letters and messages, and this month Backpack Nation was profiled in Hope, a national magazine. Newsham has teamed up with other local writers, who plan to form an advisory board and create a nonprofit organization. They eventually hope to approach a major foundation for funding so that they can hire the staff needed to put Backpack Nation on international radar.
Newsham is sanguine about the future, but says for his ambitious vision to succeed, ordinary Americans will have to take over the project. "I've done almost all of the grunt work, but now I realize that I've taken this as far as I can alone," he says. "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 there are plenty of people experienced at doing the things that need to be done. All we need is the right people to take this on."
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