Confessions of a Travel Journalist By Thomas C. Wilmer


My husband and I first met Tom Wilmer nearly a decade ago in Costa Rica. Then again in the British Virgin Islands and a few years later in Nicaragua. He's one of those rare travelers who listens more than he talks, laughs more than he complains, gives far more than he takes, and leaves a wake of good will long after he's gone. I'd travel anywhere, anytime with the laid-back seasoned pro and hope our paths cross again soon.

In the meantime, I thought you would enjoy reading Tom's reminicings and words of wisdom recently published in Central Coast Magazine.

Happy Trails...
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Confessions of a Travel Journalist
By Thomas C. Wilmer

Back in 1992, while riding on a cross-country bus in Costa Rica, I was seated next to a stranger from the States. We start talking and he soon figured out I was a travel journalist. “I imagine you've traveled extensively?

“Oh yes, I suppose I've been around the world about four times in mileage so far.”

He then asked, “So what did you learn?”

That was the moment. Until then I had never really thought about lessons learned. I had been too occupied savoring the moments, the sights, sounds, scents and the people encountered to stop and analyze the essence of my odyssey.

So, what have I learned? Foremost, it is that people across the globe are fundamentally the same; they embody tremendous similarities and minimal differences.

Paradoxically, yet too frequently, I have learned that peace unravels between rival groups with common roots… it is less often the boogieman from the other side of the world that stirs disorder (for example, the age-old infighting between Northern Ireland's Nationalists and Royalists). But the vast majority of people on the planet are peace loving, inquisitive and friendly. It is typically less than five percent of a given population that foment evil.

Most people are inherently good
Whether it is a friendly encounter with two ragamuffins in a back alley of Shanghai, a shopkeeper in a Moroccan souk, or a restaurant owner in Malaysia, most everyone I meet extends warm welcomes and begs me to stay and visit. Around the globe, when I visit with everyday-people-on-the-streets and inquire about their lives, most invariably express the universal desires for better jobs, decent housing, food for their families and opportunities for their children. Yet they sadly turn and shake their heads when the subject of war or tribal infighting is brought up-and almost never desire to take up arms.

In spite of the heartbreaking atrocities going on in the Sudan, the Middle East and elsewhere, the majority of the world is at peace, and the chance to see the sights and visit with the people of the world is much too tempting to let the possibilities of harm stop me from traveling.

Life is inherently risky
It is a fact that your chances of being injured or killed in an automobile while motoring around the county are far greater than while flying around the world in an airplane. Before I took off for a journey through Eastern China fourteen years ago, I mentioned a concern for my safety to my father. He responded with a comment that has guided me well, “Do not forget that a fear of death is actually a fear of life.”

Yes, bad things can and do happen when we leave home
While walking through a market in Rabat, Morocco, a Jihadist threatened to shoot me; while exiting a subway in Atlanta, a mutant attempted to mug me, and a pickpocket was barely foiled in Toronto, but that's life, and a life not worth risking isn't worth living. If I had left Washington D.C. a few days later, I would have been on United flight 93, and if I had arbitrarily changed a booking for a helicopter flight, I would have stuffed into a volcano. But none of that will slow me up. You see, some people have a burning desire to travel. It permeates your heart and soul. You cannot, not travel if you have that burning desire.

Those with so little are often blessed with abundance
It is often the little things that make for lasting memories. For example, while spending time on the island of Nevis, a local acquaintance introduced me to his friend, a tailor from India, who lived in a remote part of the island in a dirt floor shack, with crumbling cinder-block walls and a pockmarked corrugated roof. As I entered the tailor's hut, his wife extended a Coke as a welcome drink. It suddenly dawned on me that their offered libation cost the couple the equivalent of $50 dollars. You see, Matilla, the tailor earned about one dollar an hour at the time, and I earned about $50 an hour. And yet this couple proudly and readily shared a gift they really couldn't afford.

I encountered endless examples of trust and good faith. While spending time on the Caribbean island of Virgin Gorda, I was in a rural general store when a tourist attempted to rent a video. The tourist paid for the video and then placed her driver's license and credit card on the counter. “What are those for?” the clerk asked.
“Oh, for the security deposit.”
“This is not necessary”, the clerk replied.
“But what if someone were to steal the video?” the tourist countered.
“Honey, no worry. No one will steal your video!”
Moments of fear that conclude with a laugh
A friend, freelancing for the Boston Globe, was waiting with me in the Honduran customs queue. We stepped across the white line and presented our passports. The stern looking customs officer never looked up. His only communication was the thud-thud of his official stamp colliding with our passports. He mechanically slid our passports out of his cage and we assumed that everything was fine. But then the agent stood and leaned over the counter, gave my friend the evil eye and surreptitiously asked, "Are you Santiago?"

My friend turned ashen and asked me, "What did he say?"

"I think he wants to know if you are Santiago." We both shrugged and agreed that it was probably some sort of trick or code word and if improperly answered would land us an immediate trip to the secret side-room for further interrogation. My friend stood at attention, looked directly at the agent and confessed. "No. Sir, I am not Santiago!"

The officer gave him an incredulous gaze as he retorted, "What? I say to you, 'Are you Sunday to Go... Do you go home Sunday?' ”

"Oh. Yes, Sunday, we go," responded my relieved friend, and the agent pointed his index finger toward the exit door as he shook his head. To this day, my friend's nickname remains “Santiago”.

Song and Dance of life
I have learned that song and dance permeate many cultures and serve as integral ingredients in people's daily lives. While visiting tiny Saona Island in the Dominican Republic, I stopped in at a thatched-roof, open air, seaside pub as salsa tunes boomed out across the sandy seaside village. Washerwomen with bundles of clothes piled atop their heads, teenagers and little kids alike strolled along gyrating and swaying to the beats belting from the grog shack. The lively, infectious tunes elicited smiles in every nook and cranny of the ramshackle community.

Similarly, while traveling through the Canadian Maritime Provinces, I was invited to dinner at a 17th century historic restaurant in New Brunswick where everything -- from the dress of the servers to the cuisine and brew -- was authentic 17th century fare. While waiting in the adjacent pub for the single-seating, family-style dinner, two young women next to me stood up and started belting out a Nova Scotian folk tune in Carnegie Hall-quality two-part harmony.

After the girls finished, I turned to my host, the local historian, and commented, “That's so cool that they employ live entertainers.” He laughed and replied, “Actually those two are just patrons like you, waiting to dine. It's quite common for folk up here, on the spur of the moment, to entertain each other like this.” A second later, a white haired woman, well in to her 70s, got up and belted out an Irish sea shanty to raucous applause from her fellow, mostly thirty-something diners.

What I have learned
I've discovered that we have so much to learn from the people around the world. People and cultures, when viewed from the outside, might have much less than us in terms of material wealth, but their lives are actually blessed with abundant and priceless treasures.

Thomas C. Wilmer is a respected print and radio travel journalist. He produces and hosts an award-winning radio travel show for NPR affiliates, KCBX & KSBX in California. You can listen to his archived radio shows online anytime at www.kcbx.org (click on Podcasts on Homepage, then click on Audiolog then click on any of the archived shows and they will play on your computer, etc as MP3's.)

"Confessions of a Travel Journalist." © Thomas C Wilmer 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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Ellen Barone has been creating words and images for travel and tourism since 1998. She co-founded and publishes the group travel blog YourLifeIsATrip.com and is currently at work on her first book "I Could Live Here".