Backpack Nation

(The application window for the first Backpack Nation ambassadorship was open between Dec 1, 2002 and February 28, 2003. Below are the guidelines/advice posted for applicants. One hundred and thirty-seven applications were received by the deadline. Twenty of the most promising applications were identified by a four-person preliminary selection committee, and during the month of March, 2003, those twenty are being reviewed by a larger ambassador selection committee. The first ambassador will be selected by April 1, 2003. It is hoped that another ambassadorship - or several - will become available later during 2003. If and when, details will be posted here.)

First of all, thank you for even considering this project. I do like to think that travelers are vital to the health of this planet the way blood is vital to the health of your body. And also that travel is a vital component in the education and outlook - and maybe even the mental health - of most every individual. You probably share similar sentiments, or you wouldn't have found your way here to be reading this. However you arrived here, I'm glad you're here.

The section immediately below (BASICS) discusses procedural guidelines for applying for the first Backpack Nation ambassadorship. In the second section (GENERAL) I discuss what I and the other readers of incoming applications might be looking for. If you're thinking of applying (and I hope that you do), I suggest that you read the Frequently Asked Questions section of this site, as well as the initial Backpack Nation email I sent out in August, 2002. They'll round out what this thing is all about.


Who can apply.
Any citizen of the United States is invited to apply for the first ambassadorship. If you are a citizen of a different country, please check back here from time to time - I hope that by the next application window, which I believe will occur during 2003, things will have changed. Soon, I hope, the project will expand to include ambassadors from other Western cultures, but the first ambassador will be an American.

Please submit a one-page personal description of yourself (or a resume) that includes the names and contact information of three personal references who will be willing to discuss (in confidence) their knowledge of you. Please also submit an essay of roughly 500-750 words describing why you would like to be an ambassador, and what you perceive as your qualifications.

How to deliver.
Applications must be submitted by email to between December 1, 2002 and February 28, 2003. Each applicant will receive an email response acknowledging receipt of his or her essay.

Preliminary Selections.
I will personally read every essay. In addition, each essay will be read by at least one other reader from a team of preliminary readers who are helping me with this project. The preliminary readers and I will select twenty of what we consider to be the most promising applications. By March 1, 2003, you will be notified whether or not your essay is among the final twenty. (Your references will only be contacted if your essay is one of these twenty.)

Final Selection.
Beginning on March 1, 2003, a team of at least twenty friends and colleagues from my travel and writing and personal communities will each read all twenty of the selected applications and vote for one of them. The person whose application receives the most votes will be Backpack Nation's first ambassador. This process will be completed and the ambassador will be informed no later than April 1, 2003 (no fooling).

The ambassador will be funded with $10,000 for a trip of his or her own design through the world's developing countries.

By trip's end, the ambassador will be expected to have selected one of the compelling situations that he or she has encountered along the way - an individual, family, village, or organization - and tell Backpack Nation how to deliver $10,000 to that entity.


The personal description of yourself should include name, address, email address, phone number, date of birth, gender, education, work and travel experiences - something to give readers a sense of who you are and anything else that you consider important. Photographs are welcomed. The names of three personal references are essential.

The essays should contain enough personal history to, again, give readers a decent sense of you. I am always touched by a good story - and these should be true stories, thank you. By the time an ambassador is finally selected I intend to know that person fairly well.

Travel experience.
Extensive prior travel experience is not a prerequisite. But it will be crucial to communicate one's understanding of the physical and emotional rigors involved with an ambassadorship. Do you think you're up for this? Really? What makes you think you can spend a few months in places where people are often in dire human need? In 1974, when I was 22 and heading out for my first foreign trip, I don't think I knew enough about the world or about myself to have done justice to an opportunity like this one. And prior to experiencing the rigors of travel in the developing countries, I literally could not imagine them. But no one will be automatically disqualified for lack of travel experience.

Clear writing will be greatly appreciated - murky writing will not. The success of this project will depend on whether or not the stories it generates are widely disseminated. Clear, competent writing will assist this process.

My experiences in the world have made me a firm believer in, if not always a diligent practitioner of, giving. But there is a thorny side to charity, to trying to help others. Can you give unconditionally? Should one even attempt to give unconditionally? Is such a thought simply naïve? There is no right answer, as far as I'm concerned. When my friend Tony visited me in America we decided, after much discussion, that it would be a great idea to remodel his small mountain home in the Philippines into a four-room guest lodge - Tony is an experienced trek guide, his wife is an excellent cook, their house is situated in a stupendous setting. And when Tony went back to the Philippines he and I and a few friends of mine spent several thousand dollars to effect that transformation. But the world situation deteriorated during the remodeling, and so far not one visitor has come to his guesthouse. Now Tony wonders if he shouldn't have spent that money to buy land to grow rice. Tourists come and go - food is forever. So, are we sorry we built the guesthouse? In a way, yes, in other ways absolutely not. I like to think that the world is a better place for each act of generosity, for the attempt to improve a situation. Others might see the guesthouse as a waste of time and resources. I like to think I've learned something from the experience- although I'm not sure precisely what that is. I also like to think that the people of Tony's village, who all know our story by now, have a different sense of the Westerners they see coming through their region. I hope that Backpack Nation ambassadors make choices that they don't wind up second-guessing. But you'll be held accountable mainly to yourself - and probably no one will second-guess you as badly as you will.

Knowledge of the development and charity worlds.
It will be good for an applicant to have at least a working knowledge of the pitfalls and problems of the development and charitable worlds. There are literally thousands of organizations, ranging from large to tiny, that are engaged in development and charitable projects throughout the world. Off the top of my head I can think of Amigos de las Americas, 100 Friends, Heifer, Techno-Serve, the Hunger Project, Oxfam, the Peace Corps... I personally know people who have: funded and participated in the construction of a boat for a man in Kenya; paid for a young man from Vietnam to attend college in America; paid for the college education of a young Zimbabwean; paid for high school for the members of a family of Nepalese; invited and paid for a woman from the Amazon to spend a month in America; started orphanages in Venezuela and India; built schools in Vietnam, Mexico, and Guatemala; built a fish pond in Nigeria…and so many more acts of generosity. Many find that the actual story that emerges from their generosity is much different than the story they imagined would emerge. Many imagine these acts as being short, sweet, one-shot deals, but find them instead turning into a life's work. Are you ready for that?

I don't care how old the first ambassador is (or later ones, either). It will be fine with me to send a great-grandmother or a student. I wish that a program like this had been in existence when I was sent out into the world thirty years ago. If I had filled out an application and written an essay addressing these topics, and taken a hard look at myself, I believe I'd have been improved by the process. I would have been forced to ask some deeper questions than I asked of myself at the time: What is my role in the world? My place? My purpose? What sort of difference can I make? What would I really like to do with this life that's been given me? What does it mean to be an American, a Westerner? What do I take for granted? What do I consider to be beyond me, or impossible, and why do I think that? What sort of impact might I make in other people's lives? What do other people mean to me? What is my relationship to the rest of the humanity? Do I actually have (or am I only imagining that I have) a relationship, a responsibility, or even a connection to the world's poorer people? When I'm old and looking back at my life, what do I want to see in my wake?

I'm not asking you to reinvent the wheel, not asking you to be self-consciously bold and flashy and off the wall. But I'm not asking you to tone it down, either. If you've got a novel idea about development or charity or publicity, you might describe it in your application. The whole point of this project from my point of view is to explore and further the possibility of "a world that works for everyone." I've got a couple of ideas that I might like to implement if I were given $10,000 and a few months to go wandering, and I'll bet I'm not the only one. Go ahead. Don't hold back.

What sort of life/health/travel insurance would you plan to have in place for your trip?

Your family.
What does your family think of this idea? And in particular, if you are at the young end of the spectrum, under 30, say, what do your parents think?

Your trip.
You might describe the trip you imagine yourself taking. And, while this whole project is a very deliberate affair, no one who is reading your application is going to expect that every single second of your trip will be stone cold serious. It's perhaps a trip-around-the-world, after all - and I would like to think you're going to have some fun along the way. During my own travels I have found it useful to map out a skeleton of a trip but remain cognizant that things do indeed happen, and I have learned that serendipity may lead me off in totally unexpected but absolutely appropriate directions. My most memorable travel experiences have almost always been entirely unplanned.

If you get a call on April 1, 2003, saying that you have been selected, when could you leave? I am hoping to have the first ambassador dispatched no later than June 1, 2003, but I'm not stuck on that. And if you're not the first ambassador, but a later one, how hard will it be for you to get away for several months? I would hope that the first ambassador will take a shorter rather than a longer trip - say 100 days to six months. The first ambassador's story will, I think, facilitate the creation of subsequent ambassadorships - and the sooner this happens the better.

Now forget all of the above.
You don't have to address all - or even any - of the points I've just touched upon. You may have one particular strength that you'll want to emphasize through this process (and even through your whole life), and if that's the case, you're welcomed to focus on that one. If you're more of a generalist, go with that. It's your application.  

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