Four pairs of pants. Eight shirts. Three pairs of shoes. A couple pairs of socks and underwear. When stuffed into Sam Singh’s backpack, they form the 40 pounds of weight that travels with him every day of his 16-month journey to what seems like just about every inch of the globe.
Sam Singh has created the perfect marriage between a popular game in fourth-grade classrooms and the ultra-idealistic, post-undergraduate dream. His itinerary could have been created by spinning a globe, closing both eyes and not opening them until his finger landed within the borders of a country that was a perfect outlet for his travels. And after enough hearty years in East Lansing, he took on the challenge of a constantly spinning globe, packed up and moved out with only one promise – that he’d probably be back in 16 months.
Despite what his epic plans might say about him, Singh is neither a fourth-grader using a spinning globe to propel his dreams of travel nor fresh off of MSU’s campus with a crisp diploma in hand. Just last year, Singh could be found serving as mayor of East Lansing and President and CEO of the Michigan Non-Profit Association. But years before that, he dreamed up an idea to experience all of the places and events he had since been adding to his “Worldlist” while doing non-profit service work along the way. Saving money for five years on the off chance that this trip might become possible, Singh decided to put it to use. When he reached a transitional point in his professional career and it came time to announce if he would be running for re-election, Singh said he would not; the rest of the world was calling.
“Two great passions of mine are working with non-profit organizations and travel. If I could marry those two things and see some of the sites I always wanted to see, I thought, ‘What better time to do it?’ For transition’s sake, it was the right time,” Singh said.
[singh6]With 12 years of local government under his belt and without a family of his own to leave behind, Singh parted ways with East Lansing on Dec. 28 and headed to Nassau, Bahamas to kick off his trip in the company of 22 friends and family members. By Jan. 3, Singh crossed Nassau and the Junkanoo Festival, a street festival unique to Bahamian culture full of costumes, dancing, and music, off his list and continued on to Central America.
When I first spoke to Singh, he was enjoying his last week in Central America by working with a Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Santa Cruz, Costa Rica, building home drainage systems and a pavilion for neighborhood kids to play in. While traveling, Singh said, he is “trying to make sure that once a month [I have] a meaningful experience.” Arranging these in the form of service projects happens along the way. During his 10 days working in Costa Rica, Singh was lining up plans for a service project for his time in Argentina in March. His leadership of the Michigan Non-Profit Association gave him a strong network of people and organizations to draw from, while looking for connections to organizations abroad.
For 10 of the 16 months Singh is abroad, he will have company. Patrick Krips entered into a pact with Singh to make this trip a reality while they traveled the Greek island Ios together before the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. “By the end of breakfast [one] day, we committed to making it happen should we both be healthy enough, not be married and have the money to do it,” Krips said. As an avid runner, Krips is excitedly anticipating running a marathon in Antarctica on March 5, not only for the unusual terrain he will encounter, but also because it will move him closer to his goal of running a marathon on every continent. Opportunities to volunteer in a variety of different cultural settings is an ideal backdrop for both Singh and Krips because it emphasizes “that all around the world, people are people…[There is] no reason to be afraid of differences. Embrace them. Learn from them,” Krips said.
Embracing differences has not come without bumpy cultural transitions for Singh, especially while working with the permanent residents of the areas he is temporarily visiting. With his group of 14 fellow Habitat for Humanity volunteers whose Spanish, according to Singh, “is not that great,” he worked with a construction manager who spoke no English. “There are language issues at some times. But overall, it’s a really rewarding experience. We just had lunch with the families [we were working with] and I could definitely tell they are very appreciative,” Singh said.
[singhcostarica3]Experience in non-profit work and implementing the notion of “saving the world” reveals some inherent chauvinism in the entire idea of charity work. Do people in developing nations really want Americans to work in their schools, improve their water systems, write checks to certain families or send clothes to their doorsteps? Is naming a country “developing” rather than “developed” holding them to purely Western ideals rather than valuing a range of cultures? Singh’s work combats these questions by focusing on collaborative work rather than typical “charity” work. In the Habitat for Humanity program in Costa Rica, families work alongside volunteers and serve as the core of the decision-making process about what improvements should be made. “The pavilion was [the families’] idea and the drainage issues were part of their experience,” Singh said.
However, differences between American and Costa Rican experiences could be seen within his Habitat for Humanity volunteer group, Singh said. “Some of the people who have come here might have had a very American mindset – they were coming to help the poor. And they’re very surprised at how happy and content people are [in Costa Rica] with their lives,” Singh said. “I can see that some of my colleagues from America have grown a lot.”
By devoting time to service work that involves those who it will ultimately benefit, Singh becomes an ambassador as well as a traveler, and his efforts allow Central Americans to see their counterparts in the United States as something other than representatives of “not the best foreign policy toward countries in Central America,” Singh said.
When you plan to visit 25 countries on all seven continents in 16 months, as Singh does, ambassadorial duties must be somewhat limited. Constant travel means sacrificing the time needed to form deep relationships or to actually experience everyday life in any one place. Singh acknowledges this, but believes that he will have the opportunity to participate in local life during long-term assignments on return visits. And while his time in one place might be short-lived, meeting people and making connections has certainly been possible. In January, Singh was invited to a wedding in Antigua by a family he met in Guatemala. While working for Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica he made connections with the families he worked with, despite their conversations in broken English and Spanish.
For now, Singh is adjusting to his new jet-setting lifestyle, which differs significantly from his previous 70- to 80-hour work week in East Lansing. Because he is not carrying a cell phone, he has adopted e-mail at Internet cafes as his frequent form of communication. He occasionally buys a calling card and arranges a specific time to phone home. But it’s the simpler things that Singh finds himself missing. “Obviously I miss my friends and family and most especially my dog. Every once in a while I find myself thinking about a Crunchy’s burger or a salad at El Azteco when you’re eating rice every day,” Singh said.
A month into his trip, it is the simplicity of people’s lives and the sense of community between families that Singh said is most profoundly different from life in East Lansing. Families in Costa Rica share responsibilities like watching children and cooking meals. Expensive electronics, art or furniture cannot be found in most homes. “East Lansing has a better sense of community than a lot of cities in the United States, but I definitely could tell the speed and pace at which people do things and the material things that they own are different. I really noticed the sense of community [in Costa Rica] and material things are much more compact,” Singh said.
[singhguatemala2]Making material items a much smaller and less important part of one’s life is something Singh is aiming to achieve throughout his trip as well. His backpack containing food and toiletries is accompanied by a smaller carry-on bag that carries a video camera, a digital camera, a computer and a few books. He’s restricting himself to these two bags for the entirety of his trip. “I’m trying to commit myself to the idea that whatever I want to have, I have to carry with me. I’m not picking up new items or souvenirs, but I might trade out a shirt or shoes at some point,” Singh said.
The first four months of Singh’s trip are outlined on his Web site and include leading non-profit seminars in Nigeria, hiking the Inca Trail in Peru, doing conservation work on the Galapagos Islands and completing a half-marathon in Antarctica. The details of these adventures are provided on his blog, which he updates regularly. After the first four months, the itinerary for the remaining 12 remains a work in progress. Singh has identified regions of the world he plans to be in during certain months, but specific plans will fluctuate depending on what connections he makes along the way. “I think as I go along this journey, the people I meet along with the people on my blog will have a lot of input in where I go. If there is an opportunity to make a cultural connection through friends and family, I’m going to do that,” Singh said. It’s essential to realize that when setting off on a trip around the world for more than a year, no plans are going to be firmly cemented. Therefore, being flexible is imperative, Singh said. Comparing the rough itinerary he thought up in 2007 with the actual one he follows will be part of the fun.
Like his itinerary, Singh expects his financial well-being to fluctuate as well. While he found the American dollar to be strong in Central America, he is bracing himself for the impact of the weakened exchange rate upon arriving in Europe and Asia. Actually getting his hands on money has not proved to be a major obstacle so far. Singh has found ATMs to be readily available and much prefers to use those over travelers checks because he can get a current exchange rate and know when he is getting a good return.
As a 1994 MSU graduate with a bachelor’s degree in history, Singh’s connection to MSU carries with him throughout his trip. During his stay in Nigeria, Singh met up with a group of former members of local government and non-profits to conduct seminars about managing non-profit organizations. The program was sponsored by MSU’s Center for Advanced Study of International Development (CASID). Meeting up with MSU study abroad groups or other alumni living abroad are all opportunities Singh is happy to capitalize on. And whatever continent he might find himself on, Singh carries a Spartan flag with him and can be seen on his blog displaying it in places like Guatemala City and Nicaragua.
[singh5]When Singh does return to East Lansing in April of 2009, he expects the familiar sites of the college town to be just that – familiar. But as for how he’ll be different, it is too early to tell. “Sixteen months is not that dramatic a change for a community or state or country. I’m just beginning to spend more time with different cultures, and you begin to question your own and how you live,” Singh said. “I know I’ll be a changed person. I can’t quite figure out what those changes will be 15 months from now. But I know it’ll have a specific impact on my life.”
The constant changes from country to country and continent to continent, along with the stories of the families and adventures within the countless cultures Singh is in the midst of experiencing, will continue to be relayed on his blog. He wants to make it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to live vicariously through his adventures because only about 30 percent of Americans have passports. “I always feel that as Americans we need to travel more. As individuals we can be ambassadors for our country and it expands our horizons as individuals about our own public policy. I hope this inspires people to travel more and get involved,” Singh said.
Four pairs of pants. Eight shirts. Three pairs of shoes. A couple pairs of socks and underwear. In April 2009, Sam Singh will return to East Lansing carrying the same 40 pounds he left with. But the 25 extra stamps in his passport, seven continents he can claim he has seen, countless places he can cross off of his “Worldlist” and innumerable cultural and human experiences will undoubtedly have made an impression on his life and, he hopes, will be heavy enough to inspire the East Lansing community and beyond.
Follow Sam Singh as he continues his journey by visiting www.singharoundtheworld.com.