Brad Newsham interviewed by TravelersTales.com.
Reproduced with the permission of Travelers Tales.
Tell us about yourself (e.g. personally, politically, and professionally).
I've heard it said that one should be able to tell the pertinent facts of one's life in two minutes, and I think I've got that down. I'm 48, born and raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. My mother is the daughter of Czech immigrants who moved to Western Pennsylvania in the early 1900s--her dad was an underground coal miner. My father was a CIA cartographer for 33 years. Both were Christian Scientists, and although I am a graduate of Principia College, a school for Christian Scientists, I don't claim a Religion - except, perhaps, reading. I have an older sister and two younger brothers scattered between D.C. and Tokyo. I've lived in ten different states and visited all 50, and I've circled the Earth four times. With one chain saw and no electricity, two friends and I built a big log cabin from scratch, sort of, near the Clark Fork River in northern Idaho twenty years ago. I'm in my second and last marriage, and my wife Rhonda and I have a three-year-old daughter, Sarah, who has completely seduced us. I've worked in restaurants, on newspapers, on construction jobs, and had a year-and-a-half stint in Colorado as an underground molybdenum miner. For the past 15 years I've been a San Francisco Yellow Cab driver, a job I love. Since Sarah was born I've been cab driving on weekends and spending Monday through Friday at home chasing after her. About a minute and a half, I think.
What influenced or motivated you to make your first solo trip, and where did you go?
I hitchhiked around the U.S. by myself quite a bit after college. In 1974 in a YMCA in New York City I finished reading James Mitchner's The Drifters - a book about hippies hanging out in Europe. When I finished the last page I 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 down to Morocco and around Europe, 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 out-of-the-country 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. Random House published my account of that trip--All the Right Places--my first book.
It seems apparent, from reading Take Me with You, that you feel as though travel has changed you and has had profound influences on your life's direction. Please elaborate on that.
I grew up in the 50's, when the prospect of going to Europe was something it seemed that only very, very rich people could even consider--and traveling anywhere else was simply not done. I lusted after travel, but I had a firm conviction that it would never happen to me--to other, really lucky people, maybe, but me? I would be lucky to get into college, lucky to find an employer and a place to live - travel dreams were way beyond me. I also used to feel the same thing about being a writer, too. I think I was probably 27 or 28 before the idea that it was in fact MY life to do with as I pleased ever reached me. And whenever I get a chance to talk to kids, I try to tell them that.
Anyway, it did seem that my best daydreams took place when we were driving around the country in the family station wagon, watching scenery go by. I always loved that - being away from homework and chores and responsibilities and letting ourselves do whatever fun thing we could conjure up, or explore whatever new place Dad drove the car to. My adult travel has been pretty much an extension of that.
Without revealing the identity of the person you chose to invite back to the U.S., can you share some of the reasons that you chose that individual?
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 letters - and 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 them - I 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. The Bay Area. I once walked from Golden Gate Park in San Francisco up the coast 45 miles to Pt. Reyes. Five days. It's a spectacular hike, and if my friend is up for it, we may go and do that. We'll also get in a car, the most American activity of all, and see a good chunk of the American West, and perhaps even drive back east, to D.C., and maybe ride the train up so he can have a peek at New York. 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, moment by moment by moment. 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 opportunity--Capital O--that everyone else notices. The same Opportunity that drew my grandparents here from Czechoslovakia--and your ancestors, wherever they were drawn from. There's the famous sense that you can be anything you want to be here--especially 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 know--mostly 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 beach--he's not seen much ocean, if any, in his life. We'll catch a Giants game. Harbin Hot Springs--if I get the sense he can handle the clothing optional aspect.
I don't want to ruin the surprise for anyone who hasn't read the book, but I also think I'll introduce him to some of the people in San Francisco who have immigrated to America from my friend's country--and maybe out of that I'll learn a few things myself about America.
Right now I'm thinking that after a week or so in the Bay Area, we'll get in a van and drive across the country. The Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, the Rockies, the St. Louis arch--plus I 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.
You comment several times in Take Me with You about the fact that you rarely encountered women in the Third World. How have your experiences of gender segregation in other countries affected your attitudes toward feminism?
Hmmn. I don't really think so much in terms of --isms. Instead of identifying with a women's movement, per se, I identify with an underdog movement. I'm an anti-bully-ist. I remember rooting for the woman who joined my all-male crew in the molybdenum mine. More and more cab drivers in San Francisco these days are women--and I root for them. I find myself rooting harder for women athletes--it's tragic that for so long they weren't allowed even to play--and now, as professionals, they have to fight not just to win games but also to get their leagues established. When I started traveling, most of the other backpackers were men, and I found myself rooting for the women--especially the few who were traveling alone--but I also noticed that it was the women who seemed to be having the most fun. Well, this is getting off the topic maybe. Traveling in the Third World, one would have to be blind not to notice the separation--the different roles allowed to men and women. And it seems that there are fewer opportunities allowed women. If you come from a country like ours, where more than half of the college graduates are now women, and you go to a place like India or Egypt, where a woman college graduate is still a pretty rare species, well, you can't help but notice. And root for them. I don't think I had a very feminist slant in my book, but I think it's fair to say that, like most everyone, I root for the underdog.
Take Me with You is a story about how a personal act can change lives--yours, the life of a person you didn't know, and, perhaps, the lives of readers. Do you believe that cultural change might start from individual acts--do you think 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.
You have traveled extensively in the "Third World," and you've met a lot of people whose day-to-day life is characterized by extreme poverty and/or lack of personal freedom due to personal and political circumstance. Can you talk about how your experiences of other peoples' life circumstances have influenced your own perspective? What do you see as the most hopeful, 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 have--mostly their warmth, their curiosity, themselves--so 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.
In Take Me with You, you have a conversation one afternoon with a group of Kenyans. This is a wonderful moment in the book, full of humor and humanity, and nothing less than an open dialogue of what's important in life.
That is one of my favorite parts of the book. Just a bunch of strangers huddled in the shade, talking about their lives. I think exchanges like that will go a long way toward making the world more peaceful. I think travelers are to the earth as blood is to the body. We need a constant healthy flow to keep us healthy. Think of the parts of the world where people don't, or aren't allowed to travel. Sooner or later, they all come down with something bizarre--economic ruin or famine or war with the neighbors--or among themselves. I'm not at all a techno-guy, but I have this vision that we could start putting random t.v. links on street corners all over the world. We could put one in front of Peet's Coffee on Piedmont Avenue--Sarah and I walk down there to hang out almost every afternoon. We get tired of seeing the same old faces--and I'm sure they get tired of us. Wouldn't it be nice if we could flip a switch and see and talk to whoever is hanging out at the coffee shop near Tianemen Square this afternoon, or at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens, or Soweto, or wherever. I'm sure this'll come to pass. Maybe it already has and I haven't seen it.
You have a very unusual ability to perceive what you see with feeling but without making evaluative statements. And though you witness many people who seem less fortunate than yourself, you resist the easy response that is so common of well meaning pity: there but for the grace of God go I. You continually imagine the possibility, as you travel, that you could have just as easily been born into that experience instead of the circumstances that are your own. Is the imaginary "trying on" of other lives what makes traveling fascinating for you?
Well, I'm not so sure I have avoided the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God syndrome. Every now and then I remember one particular beggar I used to pass in Nairobi. He had this enormously swollen, scaly, puss-ridden leg--and he sat there on his sidewalk day after day, begging for alms. And I couldn't help but thank god for my own health--instead of his. It's really interesting to travel to other places and fantasize about the lives of the people there--but I really don't think I'd trade places with anyone I've met. Travel really is a luxury in that it allows one to go to other places and have these fantasies about the people who live there. And to know that we don't HAVE to stay there and live the actual reality of their lives. I lived for a year in Mexico, and I loved it there. But I'm not sure I'd have loved it so much if I'd not had the ability, any morning I chose, to get on an airplane back to San Francisco.
The impulse to apply one's own values to another culture--in essence, cultural imperialism--seems to plague many travelers. You seem able to perceive differences without judging them. What are your guiding principles?
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, to promote the idea that everyone should be free to interpret life and put together his/her own life in the way they see fit. I was raised a Christian Scientist--to believe that we're really divine beings--that we should judge ourselves by standards of perfection and divinity. And while that philosophy has certainly shaped a lot of what I think, I found it, for me, incomplete. Or maybe I just found it too difficult. As an adult I've been more willing, more likely to try to experience what it's like to be human, to accept this human life as real and valid, and to deal with it not only on some metaphysical level, but also on this human level. I take aspirin for a headache. I had a knee operation. I even swear like a sailor, like a friggin' cab driver, once in a while.
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 drivers--would like to talk more to strangers--but 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 prelude--just, 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 legitimate--I 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 attention--love being asked their opinion on something--which is what makes an interview like this fun for me. We don't get to do this very often, usually.
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 yourself--what are the best and worst things that have ever happened to YOU?
Well, every once in a while someone turns this around on me--and 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. Today--let'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 born, 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 review--on Amazon.com--a flat-out rave. I spent a good chunk of this beautiful afternoon we had with my daughter, splashing around in our hot tub--it 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 fan--a Giants' fan--"Did Barry Bonds hit one in the water last night, Dad?" I have a season ticket--the first season ticket of my life--and 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 night--four 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 it would be obscene to dwell on my problems. My wife is absolutely right: if I can't be happy right now, I really am hopeless.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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