At the one year milestone of our journey, Darren writes about what he has learned so far from our around-the-world expedition. Darren shares some of the things we have witnessed to date in Part 1 of this story. Part 2 will focus on his reactions and personal growth.
Trekking the Planet is the name we gave to our 14-month around-the-world journey. We are visiting some of the most remote places on the planet with the goal of getting students curious about the world beyond their current boundaries. As we hit the one year point of our trip, Sandy and I have visited 47 countries. By the time we return home, our plan calls for us to visit another six nations, bringing the total to 53 countries on six continents. We have spent a lot of time in the developing world, in fact, comprising more that 50% of the entire journey. Our itinerary has been challenging at times, but also very rewarding because it has taken us to the fringes of civilization, where the world is currently undergoing the fastest change.
We did not approach this trip as an extended holiday. Rather, it was carefully designed to put us in contact with new landscapes and unfamiliar cultures. Some examples of places on our itinerary include the Phongsali Province of Laos, the Mustang region of Nepal, the far western portion of Uzbekistan near its border with Turkmenistan, above the Arctic Circle in Northern Sweden, the Tigray region of Ethiopia and the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil. Because we avoided flying when it was safe and practical to do so, we have often ended up in places that receive very few visitors. We spoke to locals whenever we had the chance. Sometimes we even used a guide to translate. We have taken the opportunity to stay with local families three times. To date, we have visited a total of 18 schools answering student questions and, in return, asking a few of our own.
What We have Witnessed
In the developing world, technology is changing how things are done. For example, nearly everyone in Africa has a mobile phone (or two!). So-called smart phones are still a novelty there, but this is set to change. I was surprised to see a twenty-something teacher in a remote Kenyan village with an Android-based phone that he purchased for the equivalent of US$100. He told me that he typically uses his daily allowance of Internet (50MB) before he finishes his lunch. In Kenya, you can send and receive money by SMS using a service called M-PESA. In this way, the developing world is even more advanced than the so-call first world.
There is tremendous growth in most large cities. Roads are being paved. Buildings are being built. We were not surprised to see investment in China. What did surprise us was the scale of the projects. For example, we rode on a train line from Lhasa in Tibet to Lanzhou in central China, covering 1,356 miles (or 2,188 kilometers) over 27 hours. The first half of the line was recently completed at a cost of $3.68 billion. On the way, we saw another high-speed rail line being built between Lhasa and Xigatse. In fact, this is just one of six extensions planned for the Qinghai-Tibet Railway by 2020.
We also saw much investment in the countries that surround China. Laos (rubber plantations) and Kyrgyzstan (a four-lane highway over the Torugart Pass) are just two examples. But, we also witnessed the same explosive growth in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, where every other building, it seemed, was under construction.
All over the world, tourism is being embraced by governments and the local population as a way to supplement the loss of other industries. On the island of Tasmania, Australia, we learned that timber and chemical production is being replaced by tourism and especially, ecotourism. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, one billion people were forecast to travel across an international border as a tourist in 2012. It seemed to us that places that have an ocean port or a major river nearby are doing pretty well. For example, there were huge crowds of tourists in Sydney, Tallinn, Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen and Rome.
Because of unrest, continuing economic troubles and increased energy costs, many people living in the developing world have lost ground. Nearly all of our guides made it clear that business was way down. Our guide in Ethiopia (a country that does not have an ocean port) stated that business in 2012 was half that of years earlier. In Jordan, our guide (who sometimes receives employment as a guide for one of the cruise ships docked in Aqaba) says he is busy for just four months out of the year. And, because there are few jobs for individuals who must drop everything for a week or more when they have clients, it is feast or famine. Unemployment has impacted the world’s youth the most. For example, more than 25% of youth, ages 15-24, are unemployed in North Africa.
The population growth is staggering in some countries. According to the Population Reference Bureau, Ethiopia’s growth rate is one of the highest in the world at 2.7%. While that does not sound too bad, it is. Think about this: Forty-three percent of the population is under 15. The high birth rate is partially driven by the need for help around the farm (more than 80% of the population is involved in agriculture). During a visit to the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia, we met a woman farmer who had 10 children, though the older ones had moved away. It was clear that this mother was also thinking about who would look after her and her husband when they could no longer care for themselves. It was sad to see that many of these children are not enrolled in school, since literacy and other academic skills would help to attract the types of investment needed to improve living standards.
People in the developing world seem so much more vulnerable than in other parts of the world. While visiting the town of Khiva in western Uzbekistan, it was mind boggling to see the number of people running nearly identical shops, one right next to the other. Based on what we witnessed, they could not have completed more than a few sales each day. At the time, I remember wondering what these people would do if a big-box department store was built nearby. We also met a woman in the Samburu region of Kenya who left every other morning at 7am and returned at 2pm to get water for her family. What would happen if her source of water located 12 miles (20 kilometers away) dried up? This was life without a backup plan.
Next week, Darren shares some of the ways he has grown personally during the journey and his reactions to what we have seen and witnessed to date in Part 2 of this story.