Where the Country Road Leads
I grew up in a rural community, wondering what lay beyond the two lane country road leading out of my hometown.
It was virtually unheard of to venture far beyond the town, much less travel abroad. My misguided concept of world geography included four countries. There were America and the United States, somehow related in a way that I didn’t grasp. There were also France and Europe. In my world, all other places fell within the borders of those four so-called “countries.” Of course I never dared dream of actually visiting any of those exotic places, but life has a way of taking interesting and unexpected turns.
When I was 17, the local Rotary Club overlooked my geography impairment and selected me for their international exchange program. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity to study in Bolivia, and an indelible experience that would shape the rest of my life.
It was an eye-opening year. I was introduced to the Quechua and Aymara ethnic groups; learned to speak Spanish and dance the queca; and acquired a taste for chuño, llajua picante and salteñas.
I also discovered that the two-lane country road leading out of my hometown didn’t stop at the next town as I’d thought, but continued on to unimaginable places.
But most of all, I discovered my own joy of discovery.
That year abroad was the first stop on an extraordinary journey to the remotest corners and furthest reaches of the world, where I've had the privilege of working as a photojournalist and tour guide.
Although I appreciate all aspects of a culture, I find the greatest reward in meeting people and learning about their traditions. I'm often reminded of what the artist Joyce Birkenstock says of the people that she meets in her travels. “I become a part of them and they become a part of me. We are always connected, although we may never meet again.”
When I travel, foremost in my mind is finding a common denominator with a new acquaintance – something that unites us as human beings that’s more important than what separates us as members of different cultures.
At first glance, people from diverse ethnicities are captivating for their exotic appearance and unique ways of life. But take a closer look, and you'll discover remarkable similarities. What traditional societies all have in common is a determination to maintain their cultural identity. They still live the way they have for generations, preserving the past and nurturing the future, in a perpetual memorial to their ancestors. It is this paradox -- the stunning differences and the common humanity of the world’s cultures -- that is my constant source of wonderment and inspiration to keep traveling.
So where did the country road lead? First to Bolivia, then to unimaginable places throughout Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. That amazing year abroad defined the course of my life. It gave me the opportunity and instilled in me the curiosity and courage to venture beyond my rural hometown. Traveling down that country road has, quite literally, meant the world to me.