Cab driver, writer,

By Dennis Cox,2014-06-17 04:24
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Cab driver, writer, ...

    Note: For ease of reading, this printable version contains most of the

    contents of this website. The Story of Backpack Nation starts

    immediately below. Details of the disposition of the Phase One

    money start halfway along, under the heading “Where’d the $10,000

    go?” And the guidelines for “Phase Three” are the final part. Print as

    much or little as you need.THE STORY OF BACKPACK NATION

    My early travels

    In 1973, with college a year and a half behind me, I left the United States for the first time, headed out toward what I thought would be just a short peek at Europe. Instead, my trip blossomed into a seven-month backpack odyssey, in Western Europe at first, but then through Morocco, Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan.

    Previously I had always taken for granted the running water, health care, schooling, and countless other luxuries that surround most Westerners. But even the briefest visit to a developing country can be more enlightening than any amount of college, and now I quickly began to understand my privileged place in the world. Had I been born in one of the world’s less-developed cultures I would, I realized, have had a life with far fewer opportunities. Specifically, the opportunity to travel, even to travel as a rock-bottom backpacker, would have been far beyond my reach. And long before that first foreign journey of mine was finished, I had come to regard the opportunity to travel as the most precious gift in the world.

    During the following two decades my life strategy was this: work; save; spend all my savings on travel; repeat. During one of my trips -- in 1988, in the mountains of the Philippines -- I fell into conversation with an affable, 27-year old rice farmer named Tony Tocdaan. When Tony offered to guide me through a string of isolated villages, a rice farming culture almost unchanged since Tony’s ancestors had settled the region 2,000 years earlier, I immediately accepted.

    As Tony and I hiked the rugged footpaths connecting the villages, as we bathed in waterfalls and slept at night on the floors of his relatives’ huts, the

    two of us developed an easy friendship. Tony had only once ventured more than a few miles from his village, but he had met other Westerners who had told him stories about the greater world, and he was as interested in knowing about my homeland and my life as I was in knowing about his.

    Tony, however, is one of the three billion people on Earth who live on less than $2 a day, and he would never, I knew, be able to afford casual travel. Later, back home in America, I wrote him a letter promising that someday, when I had saved enough money, I would send him a plane ticket and show him around my country. This only seemed fair: during my own travels, I had often been showered with hospitality beyond reason. And it seemed like it might be fun, too.

My most incredible summer – 2001

    Fulfilling my promise took much longer than I could have imagined, but when everything was finally arranged -- in the summer of 2001, by which time Tony was 40 years old -- the most extraordinary episode of my life began to unfold. By then I was “settled” and living a quiet life in California: 50 years old, married, proud father of a four-year old daughter, earning my living as a San Francisco cab driver.

    But Tony’s arrival unsettled everything -- in all the best possible ways. A kind-hearted taxicab company owner loaned us a new taxi (I’ve long believed that “All good stories must have a taxicab in them…”) to use as we saw fit -- this was just one of countless offers of food, lodging, transportation, entertainment, hospitality, and money that poured in from friends and absolute strangers who had heard about Tony’s impending visit. After several days cruising around the San Francisco Bay Area, Tony and I put the Golden Gate Bridge in the cab’s rearview mirror and spun the steering wheel toward Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, the St. Louis Arch, and New York City.

    From the start the entire experience was mind-boggling and breathtaking for both of us -- and when the news media caught wind of our adventure it turned surreal as well. My cell phone began to ring almost constantly: the San Francisco Chronicle, the BBC, the Voice of America, National Public

    Radio, the Christian Science Monitor, television’s nationwide “Early

    Show,” and many, many more. When the Philippine ambassador heard all

    the hoopla, he called to invite Tony and me to a special reception in our honor at the embassy in Washington, D.C.

    Tony and I were breathless by the time our magical month ended and we headed back to our respective families. During his visit, Tony had met many people who said they would love to visit him in the Philippines. It occurred to both of us that it might be a good idea if Tony were to build a guesthouse, and within a few months I was able to raise and send him enough money to allow that to happen. The lives of Tony and his family members have changed considerably since the summer of 2001.

    And whose life has not?

    September 11, 2001

    When planes smashed into the New York City skyline (just two months after I took a photo with Tony in the foreground and the twin towers in the background) I found myself as shaken as everyone else. My fifty years had been very good years, and now I felt a profound urge to do something to try to ensure that my daughter -- plus Tony’s children, and yours, and all children -- would have a chance at a good life in a world worth living in.I knew that the American government would, surely, decide on some strong responses, but it seemed likely that we, the people, might feel left out of those decisions and unhappy with those responses. Still, there was nothing preventing us from giving our government a little direction, nothing stopping us from coming up with some grassroots responses of our own.

    During the next several months I went on numerous day-long walks in the woods at Pt. Reyes National Seashore, an hour’s drive from my home. As I walked I tried to imagine myself as a historian, 50 or 100 or 200 years in the future, looking back at this interesting post-9/11 period. Would I see that the world had disintegrated into total chaos, as certainly seemed possible? Or would a more peaceful sensibility have taken root and flourished? Perhaps, I hoped, all this tumult was simply humankind’s last gasp of tribal hatred before a shift in consciousness and the beginning of a sustained global peace. Perhaps we were all about to come to our collective senses and realize that we are all one family -- and start acting like it.

The Golden Rule

    If my travels have taught me anything it is that people the world over have remarkably similar, and surprisingly few, aspirations. In San Francisco, in Soweto, in Moscow, in Mexico City and Manila and Kabul and Calcutta, most people want only to be able to feed and educate their families; to be left alone by their own governments (and by foreign governments, too); and to have at least a shot at having a little bit of fun.

    To me, it never seemed quite right that we in the West, generally, have these opportunities, while those in the world’s poorer countries generally do not. My small, quasi-experimental attempt to address this situation was to share some of my Opportunity and relative riches with someone less endowed: Tony. And the results were so overwhelmingly positive as to erase any doubts I might have once had about the ancient, simple, and not-so-secret Secret of Life: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    Why did some people applaud 9/11?

    The news media reports on Tony’s trip and his family’s new guesthouse prompted hundreds of individuals to get in touch with me. Many of them had backpacked the world themselves, had found that experience to be the most enlightening of their lives, and told me that they too were dismayed by the enormous gulf of opportunity separating them from such a large segment of the human family. Anyone who travels, or anyone who reads or watches the news, knows that this imbalance will have to be addressed, and soon. We Westerners -- consumers of 80% of the world’s resources, possessors of 80% of the world’s wealth -- are the rich relatives of the human family, winners of the birthright lottery. And now, even in the remote regions and isolated villages of the poorer countries -- where just about everyone lives on less than $2 a day, and where people have traditionally been friendly, generous, and curious toward foreign visitors -- there is a new sensitivity about this imbalance. Imagine if one of your relatives won the lottery and refused to share, or shared grudgingly with you. You might understand for a while, but your rich relative would not be welcomed to waltz in and out of your house forever.

    It is this dynamic that allowed so many in the poorer countries to applaud -- sometimes silently, sometimes quite noisily -- al-Queda’s terror. They felt a gut satisfaction in knowing, finally, that Westerners, who often seemed so

    blithely ignorant of, or indifferent to, the suffering of the world’s poor, could also suffer. Al-Queda had mobilized a handful of people, seized the attention of the entire world, and was threatening to write a long, ugly chapter in our collective history. In order to overwrite that chapter with a better one, someone was going to have to take some action and breathe into life a legend to eclipse Al-Queda’s. But what action? And initiated by whom?

    Backpack Nation conjured into existence

    Friends of mine in the travel industry estimate that at any given moment there are some 2-3 million Westerners traveling independently in foreign countries. During my Pt. Reyes hikes -- through hushed pine forests and along bluffs above the Pacific surf -- I thought: “Why not transform this group, my peer group, into an army of roving ambassadors, emissaries of peace. Al-Queda made an enormous impact with a much smaller group. What if…,” I asked myself, “What if we dispatched 10…no, 20…no, 100 backpackers per day on goodwill missions to the poorer countries? And what if we funded each of these traveling ambassadors with $20,000… $10,000 for travel expenses and $10,000 to deliver to one compelling situation -- an individual, family, organization, or village -- that he or she encounters along the way? Backpack Nation!

    In the woods it is easy to let one’s imagination jump the tracks and run unimpeded, and I certainly did. I envisioned 36,500 backpackers every year fanning out through the poorer countries of the globe to fund the needs of the people they met: seeds, cattle, wells, tools, toilets, homes, schools, computers, medical care, capital for small businesses… These gifts would form solid personal links between the distant peoples of the world, links as solid as the permanent one that Tony and I now share; would help forge a stronger human family, a family with no tolerance for terror, a family concerned with the needs of all, including our meekest. The modern streamlining of international travel and the advent of instant world-wide communication had for the first time in history made such a thing possible. “This…” I thought, “This will be a story no one can ignore! It will filter

    into the planet’s every nook and cranny and be remembered 200 years and then some.”

    Who will pay for all this?

    To deploy 100 backpackers every day for a year and to fund each one with $20,000 will cost $730 million. That may sound like a lot of money, but when considered in its proper context $730 million is mere peanut shells -- it computes to roughly $2.50 per American per year. The U.S. Defense Department currently spends more than $1 billion every day, more than $400

    billion every year, -- roughly $1,300 per American -- and never has the populace felt so threatened, so vulnerable, so poorly defended. The correct question isn’t Can we afford to do this? but Can we afford not to?

    To a cab driver, especially to your average fifty-something cab driver who is about $1 million shy of his first million, $730 million can still seem like a formidable sum. Yet the more I turned the idea over in my mind the more it inspired me, and I felt certain it would also inspire many others. “Forget the $730 million,” I told myself as I walked. “This may be a ten-year project. A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step…’ ‘A butterfly flapping its wings in Malaysia can touch off a hurricane in Miami…’ You came up

    with more than twenty thousand bucks to fund your adventures with Tony -- raise another twenty and you can fund the first Backpack Nation

    ambassador. And we’ll see what that might touch off… ”

    September 11, 2002 -- Phase One launched

    The travel editor of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a story about my

    intentions, and on the one-year anniversary of the day the twin towers thundered to the ground 100 people came to a hotel meeting room in downtown San Francisco to hear me talk about Backpack Nation.

    It was a strong and hopeful beginning, full of goodwill and enthusiasm, and for six months the project flew like a sailboarder riding a breeze across San Francisco Bay. Newspapers across America ran articles about Backpack Nation, and travel websites spread the story worldwide. Radio stations called to chat, and I spoke in front of any gathering that would have me. I received a couple thousand emails from interested and excited parties from

    every continent, including Antarctica. One hundred and forty people applied to be the first ambassador. Three hundred and fifty people donated $20,000 (in amounts ranging from $3 to $1,000) to make the idea a reality. I thought: “Ten years -- hah! Backpack Nation might save the world in just a

    year or two.”

    And then I made a couple of mistakes and screwed the whole thing up. No, that’s not a misprint, not a joke, and no, it had nothing to do with money. But the whole thing did indeed blow up in my face. During the three months that were the worst of it, I heard an unfamiliar greeting from more than a couple friends: “You look terrible! Are you o.k.?” But it passed, it’s over. I am consoled by the silver lining: thousands of dollars have been delivered to individuals, families, and organizations in Afghanistan, Brazil, Ecuador, Jordan… and more funds are on the way. But the result was definitely not the one I envisioned. (To read about the disposition of the $10,000 intended for the developing world, please skip ahead to the section titled “WHERE’D THE $10,000 GO?”)

    In the nightmarish middle of Phase One I was tempted to quit, to send back everyone’s money, to stick my head in the sand and never take it out again ever ever ever. Instead, I took life one breath at a time, took solace in my family, and as the months passed came to feel restored. I really didn’t want to quit on such a sour note, and as the kind words of friends and Backpack Nation supporters eroded the power of the nightmare, I began to ponder just how I might escape the whole debacle with some dignity.

    January-August, 2004 -- Phase Two

    One of the (many) good things about Phase One was that I discovered I was far from alone. I heard from hundreds of Westerners who told me about projects they had initiated, projects designed to improve the lives of specific people or situations in the poorer countries. I have by now heard so many of these stories that I have come to believe that the world is in the middle of an under-reported global phenomenon: individuals in the West, tired of waiting for Governments or God or Someone Else to make the world a more equitable place, are taking a stab at the job themselves. These people and their projects are rarely portrayed by the mainstream media, which is so easily seduced by every disaster, celebrity arrest, and hostage taking, and I thought: “Why not shine a little light on some of these other stories.”

    On this Backpack Nation website I put out a call asking for people to send me stories about their projects, about sharing their resources and money with people they had met during their foreign travels. I invited the general public to vote on their favorite stories, and promised $1,000 to each of the five leading vote-getters. (As a sort of penance for having so badly botched Phase One, I funded this endeavor with $5,000 of my own money.)

    An assistant helped me read the stories and we selected twenty to post on the website. (These stories are posted under the header “20 Stories” on the “About Backpack Nation” page of the website.) During June and July, 2004, more than 500 people read the stories and voted, and in August I sent $1,000 to each of the five authors whose stories received the most votes. That money has now started winging its way toward projects in Guatemala, Senegal, Russia, and Vietnam, and in mid-November, 2004, a followup story from each of the five authors will be posted on this website.

    I was not surprised that the stories were well received -- I had (correctly) imagined this. But I had also fantasized that while the pleasant tones of Phase Two were still tinkling in people’s ears I would let slip the news that I was pulling the plug on Backpack Nation. I would slink back to my old life and live quietly ever after.

    Things have, however, turned out otherwise. The assistant who handled the early intake and tabulation of the Phase Two votes left for a camping trip shortly before the voting period ended, and turned the job over to me. During the final three days I sat at this computer in my little studio here in Oakland, California, often with my daughter on a chair beside mine, and fielded emails from the all over the U.S.A., Canada, England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Bali, Brazil, Australia, Kenya, Cameroon, Cambodia, South Africa, Senegal, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, India -- from every continent except Antarctica. Many people included little notes to me along with their votes.

    From Australia: “It was heartwarming to read people’s stories and to think

    yes there is more than greed and war on this planet!”

    From the USA: “Thank you for this amazing contest. I am deeply moved

    and inspired by all of the stories.”

From Italy: “I read the last of the stories this morning but not before

    needing to blot my teary eyes. Thank you for providing this place for people to share their stories. Thank your for your kindness and generosity.”It really doesn’t take much to refill my tank. My concern for the world has been with me since Afghanistan 30 years ago, and it will be there -- just like yours, probably -- until the day I die. And now, with my country, my world, at war, was I going to nurse my little psychic flesh wound while my 19-year old countrymen -- instead of being the Backpack Nation footsoldiers of my imagination -- were, along with thousands of Iraqi civilians, losing their limbs, spirits, and lives in a horrific groundwar? Who was I kidding?Early 2005 -- Phase Three

    Beginning on January 20, 2005 (presidential inauguration day in America) Backpack Nation will again be soliciting stories of Haves sharing their resources with HaveNots. This endeavor will be structured much like Phase Two, but with a few tweaks. One of the biggest complaints I received about Phase Two was that twenty stories was too many, making a voter’s job overly time-consuming. In Phase Three, an even dozen stories will be chosen for posting on the website, the public will again be invited to vote, and each of the top four vote-getters will receive $1,000. For more details, please skip ahead to the section titled PHASE THREE.


    During the past three years I have come into contact with hundreds of individuals who have initiated hundreds of projects that seem to be kindred spirits with Backpack Nation. This website will now feature links to the websites of other projects designed by individuals taking it upon themselves to make the world a better place. See the “Links” header on this site’s home



    I originally imagined that word of Backpack Nation would attract key people with organizational skills that I lack, and that these people would

    erect an appropriate infrastructure for this project. I imagined a board of directors, non-profit status, an office place, employees who would handle finances, communications, logistics, public relations… and, of course, 36,500 ambassadors a year and a transformed world. None of that has happened. The organization has been, basically, me.

    Nonetheless, this project is two years old, and quietly humming along. Thousands of dollars have been distributed to compelling situations, the idea of individual Westerners as ambassadors of peace has been pushed forward, and thousands of people’s lives have been touched. I am satisfied with the forward motion and re-grounded in the original vision. An army of backpacking ambassadors still seems like an excellent and absolutely viable idea to me. And I’m still curious about the organizational structure this project will eventually assume.

    Help Wanted

    I am seeking someone who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area (preferably in Oakland or Berkeley), who is aligned with the idea of Backpack Nation, who has some ample experience in web design and maintenance, and who is available approximately five hours a week to help me keep Backpack Nation moving forward. I can‘t pay a lot, but I can pay a little. If you’re interested please email me at

    Keep Your Money

    I am most grateful for the approximately $21,000 so far donated to Backpack Nation. I very well may again solicit funds in the future, but currently I am not. If the spirit of this project moves you to give something, I suggest that you give some of your money to someone who needs it more than you do – if you are reading this on a computer there are billions on this planet who qualify. But if you really do want to send me something, please send me a postcard (Backpack Nation, PO Box 21347, Oakland, CA 94620, USA). I do most of my traveling vicariously these days, so I do love to get post cards.


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