LONDON: In 1984, in Hiroshima, on the steps of the A-bomb museum, I struck up a conversation with a man named Kevin Barron, who turned out to be a recently elected member of British Parliament. Kevin and I kept in contact over the years, and in early June of this year I received a surprise call from him and his wife, Carol, who were visiting San Francisco. I drove them around in my cab a couple of times, and they said, "Come to London. Use our flat. We mean it!"
My wife, Rhonda, and our daughter, Sarah, and I made reservations to fly San Francisco-to-Heathrow on the morning of August 11. On August 10th we awoke to the news of British intelligence having foiled a terrorist plot to bomb planes flying from Heathrow. Well, we told ouselves, tomorrow will no doubt be the safest, most secure day in the history of air travel. And indeed our flight to London, and all our flights, were uneventful.
Kevin Barron has now been in Parliament for 23 years, one of the Labor Party's senior members. The Barrons' live 170 miles north of London, but keep a flat in London, close to Parliament. We were alone in their flat on our trip's first night, but on our second night Kevin and Carol drove into town and took us out to dinner. (Much welcomed, as we were still woozy from price shock. London is expensive for someone brandishing the lowly dollar: Two cups of Starbucks coffee -- $10. A snack at a shabby little diner -- bacon and eggs for two, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for one, no beverages -- $65. An eight-minute cab ride, $20... Hate to think what a hotel would have cost us.)
The trip's marquee moment came the next morning. The five of us strolled from the Barrons' flat, past Westminster Abbey, over to Parliament - "We have just a six-minute walk to work," Kevin pointed out (Carol is one half of Kevin's staff). Kevin and Carol spent the entire morning and into the early afternoon giving us an insiders' tour of Parliament. We started with tea on the terrace overlooking the River Thames, and then they led us into the Clock Tower, up old, tiny, twisting, deserted, seemingly secret stairways, behind the enormous clock face, and then up to the chamber just above the clock face to where Big Ben is housed. Just a few minutes before eleven a.m., we arrived beside the big beast - nine feet in diameter, seven-and-a-half feet tall, 13 tons heavy - and, having been admonished not to touch it, we stood and admired. I moved over to the chamber's open-air windows (wide vertical slits in the old stone walls) and peered down at the crowds on the bridge across the Thames and on the sidewalks along the riverbanks, 300 feet down. I saw one man stop in mid-sidewalk and look up toward us, and when I waved both my arms overhead he excitedly waved back. (For the rest of the week, every time I looked up, I carefully scanned those same windows hoping to spot a face, but I never saw one. Next time you see a picture of the clock tower, or next time you're in London, I invite you to look just above the clock face, at the row of vertical windows, and if you don't see any faces peering out, go ahead and imagine mine there...)
And suddenly Big Ben whacked us good - BONG!.... BONG!... BONG...! BONG...! Rhonda and Sarah moved to the side of the chamber, fingers in ears, but I stayed right by the bell, trying to not resist, just letting it have its way with my body... I closed my eyes and monitored my body, which seemed to me to be covered in corrugated tin roofing material, and was vibrating helplessly head to toe and back up again... -- BONG!.... BONG!... BONG...! BONG...!
When the Barrons left us that afternoon (and what unrepayable gifts they had given us! - in London I often found myself feeling the way I imagine Tony must have felt in America sometimes: completely overwhelmed, and wondering, "Why me?") and headed back to their home up north, we turned into uber-tourists: meandering through world class museums; sitting in world class parks in the sunshine, slurping ice cream cones; staring in disbelief at the prices on restaurant menus; scratching our heads over the street magicians at Covent Gardens; riding the jostling Tube; straddling 'the line' at Greenwich; solving the maze at Leeds Castle; and watching, of course, the changing of the Royal Guard... But every time I close my eyes and think of England it's Big Ben ringing in my ear from arm's length that comes to me...
Primrose Hill: Several of you have asked about the Primrose Hill get-together. It was perfect. One person showed up. She was the perfect person - Lani Parker. Lani was one of the recipients of $1,000 in Backpack Nation money in 2005, and on the recent night in question, she rode the tube to the Chalk Farm station, charmed a passerby into pushing her wheelchair to the top of Primrose Hill, helped me drink the couple of beers I had brought along, and together we admired the sunset and swapped stories... "I was expecting an enormous crowd," she told me. "I wasn't sure I'd get in more than a word with you..."
I told her about a night early on during my three-month Take Me With You book tour, a night when absolutely no one came to a heavily-advertised reading scheduled at a bookstore just a few miles from my home, an experience which, I think, made me forever immune to worries about how many people might show up on any given night - I'd survived the worst thing that could happen to a touring author, no? - and an experience which also made me profoundly appreciate every single person who ever does show up...
Lani told me about how much the $1,000 has meant to the group of disabled people in the Kenyan bush to whom she delivered it; about her work with a Quaker peace group; about her travels in China and her life in England... a delightful kid, a kindred spirit, a wonderful laugh... After a while I wheeled her back down the hill to a restaurant where we ate dinner, and by the time I saw her onto a bus headed back to her home I was exhilarated, the grinning fool riding alone on the Tube late on a Tuesday night, thrilled to be alive...
SLOVAKIA: One hundred years ago, my mother's parents set out walking one morning from Volica (Vo-LEET-za), a tiny village of 350 people in the rolling, wooded foothills and farmland of beautiful, northeastern Slovakia. Mihael (28) and Maria (still a teenager) walked for five weeks, all the way across Poland to the seaport of Gdansk, where they embarked upon a three-week boat ride to New York. They imagined that hard work in America would afford them the opportunity to go back and live larger lives in Volica, but things didn't turn out that way. My grandfather (he had been a sergeant in the Austro-Hungarian army) became a foreman on an underground coal mining crew near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My grandmother bore six children. Neither of my grandparents, nor any of their six kids, nor any of the 40 or 50 or so descendants of those six kids, ever went back to Volica - until Sarah and I (and Rhonda) showed up and spent two nights there in August.
Today there are still 350 people in Volica. Horse-drawn wagons and a few modest cars roll through the quiet streets. We were warmly welcomed into the home of my mother's first cousin - seven residents altogether, three generations, one roof. Sarah and I discovered that we were related to some 130 people in Volica -- swing a dead cat, take out half a dozen of our cousins. The only English was spoken by a thirteen-year old boy, Ladik (Lah-DEEK), whose English was about halfway there; almost all of our communication went through Ladik. In back of the house was a flock of chickens (we ate their eggs at breakfast), a pig, a goat, and an enormous vegetable garden. There is no industry in Volica. Anyone who reaches young adulthood is virtually required to leave for Western Europe or America or somewhere, anywhere, where there is work. Wherever I looked I saw old men and women with shovels turning over dirt in their gardens. Every year there are 6-8 deaths in Volica and one or maybe two births - the math indicates that in 10 years the population will be down under 300 and quite aged. In twenty years?
But those statistics are beside the point, the personal point. It was a primal experience to go to a place I'd fantasized about for all of my 55 years, and to finally arrive and sit across the table from people whose grandparents 100 years ago had made a decision - Stay - that was different from the decision my own grandparents made - Start Walking. If things had gone otherwise, I thought, a table just like this table might be my table, this food my food, this house my house, this strange language my native tongue, this slow village my home, this slow life my own... well, it's not something one can compute mathematically, and I'm sure I've not sorted it all out just yet, but you get the point. It was touching. And to go back with my daughter was special for both of us. One morning we were standing in Volica's lone small grocery store when two 9-year old girls with blond ponytails - two very familiar-looking strangers - walked in and traded double takes with Sarah. We haven't downloaded any of the trip's photos from our camera yet, but I'm sure that'll both cement and reignite the experience.
Thanks for reading. Thanks also to the dozens of you who have asked about the trip. I'm sorry it took so long to get this short account written. I've been busy driving my cab, plus taking bushels of notes for the book I'm working on about a year behind the wheel. Also, the very morning we arrived back I woke up with a sore throat - air travel! -- that progressed to a bad cold that knocked me off balance and off schedule for a couple of weeks. All better now.
TONY: Also, many of you frequently inquire about my rice farmer friend Tony from the Philippines. Tony has had his ups and downs in life, both before his trip to America (2001) and since. Earlier this summer he called in distress - overnight an arsonist had destroyed the row of shops near Tony's home, shops that belonged to a man to whom Tony had loaned a significant amount of money. Then, just a few days ago, Tony called (I cringed mentally: "Oh no, what now?") to tell me that his loan had been repaid in full. He'd taken the money and bought a small house near the rice field he bought a couple of years ago, down in the lowlands, two and a half hours from his mountain home. Now while Tony is away from his family (he often goes down to the new land to farm and stays for four or five days at a stretch) he has a roof to sleep under. So, Tony's fine. Life rolls on. Thanks for asking.
I do find it interesting that, five years after Tony's trip to America, five years after his and my fifteen minutes of fame, we're both back to our pre-trip lives. Tony's doing more rice farming than trek-guiding these days (there are still not many tourists visiting Banaue). And I am again a cab driver with half a manuscript tucked under the front seat. And that feels good.
And all the very best to all of you.