Project packs karma and cash

Wanted: Big-hearted American to journey through the Third World for several months; $10,000 in expenses included.

Duties: Dispense good karma—and another 10 grand—to a deserving individual, family, village or organization you meet along the way.

Application deadline: Feb. 28, with the traveler who pens a winning essay to leave this summer. That's the mission of a grassroots project dubbed Backpack Nation, created by Oakland-based travel writer and taxi driver Brad Newsham. Author of Take Me With You: A Round-the-World Journey to Invite a Stranger Home (Ballantine Books, $14.95), Newsham opened his own heart and wallet in the summer of 2001 to host a month-long visit from Tony Tocdaan, a Filipino rice farmer and tour guide he'd met while researching the book. Now, he's expanding the notion by hoping to "dispatch thousands of independent travelers to strategically distribute funds in the world's poorer nations."

Newsham has raised about 40% of the $20,000 needed to finance his first "roving ambassador" and intends to launch the program this year. Here, he shares his plans with USA TODAY's Laura Bly.

Q: How did you come up with the idea behind Backpack Nation?

A: Wherever we went across America, people who met Tony showered him with attention and good wishes and incredible generosity. I believe this is the true spirit of the American people—of people everywhere, actually—but it's not something that the people of the developing countries generally associate with Americans. When I saw news clips of people in the streets of the Middle East cheering the collapse of the twin towers, I tried to think of a way to let the people of the world have a direct experience of the people of America.

Q: What's the response been like? Are you still on target to send the first ambassador packing this spring?

A: The response has been very gratifying, very humbling... 15 applications so far, but dozens more are still working on it. The money hasn't come in as fast as I'd imagined, but there is enough, and more will come. We're definitely going to have the first ambassador selected by April 1, and as soon as he or she can get it together, off they go.

Q: Has the name of the project been a boon, or a liability?

A: 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.

Q: One Internet naysayer blasted your plan as a "totally naïve," "Sally Strothers venture" that exists "more for the conscience of the givers that for the good of the receivers." How do you answer the argument that 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?

A: I applaud anyone's attempt to make the world a better place. Backpack Nation is my attempt. I like the on-the-ground person-to-person aspect. But I know that all organizations, even existing local organizations, have their detractors. I was chair of United Taxicab Workers in San Francisco for one year and found that, often, the people least willing to take action were the quickest to wag a finger and say, "What you guys really should do is..."

Q: Doesn't this help cement the notion among many Third World residents that American travelers are simply walking ATMs?

A: Notion? Half the people in the world live on less than two dollars a day. They're poor, but they're not stupid. They figured out long ago that someone who can travel the world IS, in relative terms, a multimillionaire.

Q: What role has the aftermath of Sept. 11—and the specter of war in Iraq—had on the evolution of Backpack Nation? Given the turbulent state of international travel, is your original goal of deploying 100 ambassadors a day still attainable?

A: Sources in the travel industry estimate that there are always roughly 2-3 million independent travelers rotating through the cheap hotels, beach bungalows, and villages of the developing countries. Even since Sept 11, I'll bet that several hundred have set out every day. We could fund 36,500 ambassadors—that's 100 a day for an entire year—for considerably less than our Defense Department spends every single day. And I definitely think it's doable.

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