Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget backpacker travel through 15 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from the Pacific Islands to selected Asian countries including: Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Macau, China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan – and the USA.
I had forgotten so much. Cold, snowy weather, old friends, family reunions, fond memories – it was so much fun! Stately old whitewashed homes separated by neatly manicured lawns, picket fences and nestled in the hills and forests of central New York State and New England.
Good, crisp air. And the circle was coming full as I joined my step-family for a wonderful Christmas reunion in New Hampshire, before hitting the road again for Dallas to see my sister Jean, and then to Los Angeles to visit my brother Dave. Then, with barely enough time to catch my breath, I was off to Silver Bay YMCA in up-state New York — where so much had started for me — for another grand gathering reminiscent of the original ‘Traveling Road Show’ escapades.
A perfect, clear winter day at Silver Bay, we hiked Sunrise Mountain for the spectacular view of bare trees and evergreens against the mountains surrounding Lake George; the Green Mountains of Vermont to the east as clear as ever. It was simply wonderful to return to this one constant in my life.
In Buffalo, New York, I caught up with old neighborhood buddies and former high school teachers. Big, stately old homes, broad boulevards, winter in the air – although it clouded over and rained while walking through Delaware Park. Typical lousy Buffalo weather! Then to Colorado for more reunions with friends from college and the YMCA, where I had worked my way through school.
After nearly two months on the road, the USA trip was winding down and I was more than ready to settle somewhere – but where? Indeed, it was a bit spooky, but exciting to think of the destiny my next job would bring. Everyone along the way had been so helpful, and I looked forward to hosting them in my future, mystery homestead.
My sister and brother-in-law were particularly supportive, and put me up while I was looking for my next job. But even with all the excitement and grand reunions, gnawing pangs of sadness and homesickness for my friends and places far away tore at me.
The Overseas Personnel Division of the YMCA of the USA hosted me for three days of debriefing at their corporate offices in Chicago. My three-year assignment as a YMCA Young Professional Abroad (YPA) had morphed into nearly five years. It was great to see my YPA Project Officer who had been receiving my quarterly reports over the years, as well as the other office staff — several of whom graciously took me out on the town for dinner.
I presented my final report and photo slide presentation on the YMCAs in 15 Asia-Pacific countries, including their contact details for American YMCAs interested in developing international partnerships for personnel exchange and other forms of support.
I was also given a few minutes to meet with the Director of YMCA Overseas Personnel. He was on the phone with someone – probably a big donor – circling above in a private airplane, so my presence was barely tolerated and the meeting was disappointing to say the least.
I told him how keen I was to continue my YMCA career and explained briefly about the past two years of meetings with YMCA leaders in 15 Asia-Pacific countries to support international cooperation, and how it had cost only $8,000 (of my own savings). Busy with the phone call, he turned to me briefly and suggested I write a book – and then resumed his phone conversation.
It was Christmas weekend, and by Friday afternoon I had finished my debriefing when someone asked me if I was planning to join the staff Christmas party. Turning hopefully to my Project Officer, she explained that it was a ‘set catered party’ and that there were no extra seats.
Leading me to the door – it was a cold, grey and blustery winter Friday afternoon – she pointed down the deserted city street past stained concrete walls, broken sidewalks, and bits of garbage blowing around to a Burger King, and suggested I eat there.
A bit different from the incredibly warm receptions I had grown accustomed to throughout my travels in Asia and the Pacific. A kick in the teeth, to say the least – after nearly five years as a YMCA volunteer – and this was my welcome home. On top of this, I found out that the funding raised by my sponsoring YMCAs to support my third year in Samoa – roughly $4,200 – had instead gone to YMCA corporate office expenses in Chicago.
I was however, offered a job with the YMCA in Rockford, Illinois – one of my sponsoring YMCAs. Good people, nice town, but the centerpiece ball-bearing factory and surrounding corn fields of middle America somehow didn’t grab me.
But as ever, new doors were opening, and within a few months I was headed back to Thailand to begin work on a health project with an American aid agency there.
Stay tuned for “Asia-Pacific Tour: Return to Paradise” – coming soon!
You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.
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