I was asked by the publisher of the weekly newspaper in the Lansing/East Lansing area to write about my journey. It came out this week. This is what I had submitted to them.
Singh Around the World- A Journey of a Lifetime
“Nothing has changed, but everything has changed.” It was one of the first things I said to myself when I returned from my self-funded sabbatical. I traveled to forty-six countries across seven continents in a seventeen-month period and in many ways it felt like nothing had changed. Sure, we had elected a new president but the Michigan economy still struggled, our state legislature continued to ineptly deal with budget issues and local government still talked more than acted on regional cooperation. And while things at home stayed the same, the way the world viewed our country had changed radically.
This journey had been a long time in the making. When I was twelve years old I started to keep a “worldlist” of the places and events I wanted to experience. As I grew I thought I would see many items on my “worldlist” by taking a long-term travel trip as soon as I graduated from Michigan State University. As it is with many dreams, I set this one aside for more practical pursuits, but I never let it die.
After serving twelve years in elected office and ten years as the President and CEO of the Michigan Nonprofit Association I began looking for the next challenge. I had saved enough money to pursue an executive MBA or graduate degree in public policy, which would be the logical next step. But a few years earlier a friend and I discussed taking a mid-career sabbatical to explore the world if we were ever at a point that we could manage it. I contemplated my options and my childhood dream became more vivid and intriguing. Ultimately I decided to put my career on hold and not run for re-election as mayor of East Lansing: I was going to pursue a “Masters of the World.” On December 28, 2007 my journey began.
Ticking items off my “worldlist” was incredible: hiking to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro and Everest Base Camp; exploring the lost city of Machu Picchu; seeing the pyramids; running a half marathon on Antarctica… Amazing. But somewhere along the way the places themselves became less important and the experience of connecting to people and seeing America through their eyes became more meaningful. The human dynamic became the central theme in my “Masters of the World.”
The 2008 Presidential Election was a Worldwide Affair
Though I have incredible photographs of monuments like the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and the Temples of Angkor Wat, the most lasting memories came from watching the US presidential elections through the eyes of world citizens. It didn’t matter what country I was in or how isolated the village I was visiting, everyone wanted to talk about the election.
During most of the primary season I was in Central and South America. I was surprised how quickly people in these countries were drawn to Barack Obama. I had assumed since President Clinton had significant international popularity that people would have been more supportive of Hillary Clinton. People were drawn to Obama’s words, his eloquence and his personal story.
Our primary system was very confusing. I spent many hours explaining to people the multi-state process and the differences between primaries and caucuses. Since the Republican nomination was wrapped up quickly the international media only focused on the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In turn, many people thought they were competing for the Presidency rather than the Democratic Party nomination.
The flaws of our electoral process were apparent to people as they questioned why some states voted before others or what the role of a super delegate was. A man in Argentina challenged me one night when he said, “For a country that is a champion for democracy, your country has the most undemocratic way of choosing candidates.”
As the election drew to a close, the support of the international community for Barack Obama intensified. I was volunteering with a team of Americans with Habitat for Humanity in Bangalore, India on Election Day. As the results were announced for Barack Obama, local citizens would congratulate us on the election as if we had won it ourselves.
The most illustrative example of how closely the world follows our elections occurred when my father and I went to visit the small rural farming village where he grew up. As we sat with a group of my relatives and community elders the conversation shifted to the appointments that then President-elect Obama was making. They were very critical of his renomination of Robert Gates to the Secretary of Defense since he was aligned to former President Bush. They argued that a new Indian leader would never keep leaders from the other party in their administration. I sat back and watched the conversation unfold, surprised that this conversation was happening in such a small village in India when most Americans would likely struggle to name the current Secretary of Defense if asked.
International Volunteering: America’s Invisible Ambassadors
A major component of my travels was working with nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations throughout the world. I was hoping to have a better understanding of the issues facing the international community through travel, conversation, conferences and volunteering. “Voluntouring” has become a big trend in the international travel market. More people are taking vacations and adding the component of volunteering to allow them to better understand the communities they are visiting while giving back at the same time.
One of the organizations that I spent my time with was Habitat for Humanity International. I had the opportunity to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in three different countries: Costa Rica, Romania and India. Working side-by-side with nonprofit professionals and local volunteers allowed me to connect with the community in so many different ways. Since my journey had me moving from country to country, I often felt disconnected with the communities I stayed in. My volunteer stints allowed me to feel grounded in the place I was living, learning things I would never get out of a travel guide.
The most tangible benefit for international volunteering is that the volunteer becomes an unofficial ambassador for their country. So many times people in other countries have a stereotypical view of Americans as self-absorbed travelers. Volunteering gives people the opportunity to see a different perspective of Americans and our culture. While I was volunteering in India, a community member commented that there were many issues between their neighbors because of the outdated caste system that kept people separated by social status; because we were volunteering with people of all castes it challenged the system.
My hope is that we harness the potential of American volunteers throughout the world. Retirees and study abroad students could be a great corps of volunteers that help support global community efforts. As we try to repair the image of America through the new administration in Washington, DC, individual citizens can become a great force in changing public opinion. While our President is making strides in repairing our image in the global community, there is no more powerful symbol than an American giving of their time and talent to support another community in another country.
It’s a Small World After All
After traveling throughout the world I realized that the Disney song is correct: it IS a small world after all! I provided travel updates through my blog www.singharoundtheworld.comand my Facebook page. I was impressed with the international network of friends and colleagues as I would frequently get e-mails or Facebook posts suggesting that I should look up one person or another in major cities around the globe. At times I would randomly bump into people that I knew or were from East Lansing and/or Michigan State University.
I took a ship to Antarctica, departing from Argentina’s southern tip. I wasn’t on the boat more than ten minutes when a woman from the boat’s catering department came up to me and said, “Mayor Singh, is that you?” My first reaction was that one of my fellow runners had put this young woman up to asking as a practical joke.
As we talked she mentioned that she recently graduated from Michigan State University and took a job on the ship because her fiance was the ship’s ornithologist. Then it slowly came back to me: we met the previous spring. She and her friend had organized a campus rally called Step It Up to bring awareness to global warming issues and serve as an educational tool on what citizens can do to limit their carbon footprint. I was so impressed by her and her co-organizer that I invited them to speak at the press conference where I signed East Lansing’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocols. And now we were on our way to Antarctica.
Another small world experience occurred to me during a volunteer initiative that I did with Habitat for Humanity in Romania. One of the participants saw in my volunteering biography that I was from East Lansing. As we talked, we found out that I live exactly one block from where he grew up and that his father still lives there. As he described his father, I realized that I had a met him during door-to door canvassing for one of my first campaigns. I was surprised how often things like this happened during my journey.
A Primer: The Middle East Peace Process
My last few months of travel happened to be the most educational. The final six weeks had me visiting Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Israel. It was an incredible time to be in the region with the renewed focus on the Middle East peace process and the historic meetings that occurred while I was there. During my travels Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had his initial meetings with President Obama and with the leaders of Jordan and Egypt. Along with watching the political meetings and getting the local perspective, I was in Jerusalem during Pope Benedict XVI’s initial visit to Israel. There could never be a political science course that taught me as much about the region and the current state of affairs than my personal travels.
Having the opportunity to talk with people in these countries about the issues facing a “two-state” solution in Israel really helped me shape my worldview regarding peace in the Middle East. I will admit that I originally held a simplistic view of how the problem should be solved but now I understand more fully the complications the peace process will face. Though I am hopeful that President Obama will be able to help broker a peace deal, I left Israel more pessimistic; the challenges will be more difficult to overcome than the American media leads us to believe.
There is No Place Like Home
During the journey, many people mentioned that I would struggle when I moved back to Michigan and that I should consider relocating to a more global city like New York or Washington DC but I can’t leave because Michigan is my home. Though many in the international and national media have written off Michigan, I know that we will be able turn the corner and reemerge as a new state poised to take advantage of the global economy. I am willing to push all my chips in and take a bet on the place that gave my immigrant parents a home, financial freedom and endless opportunities.
The journey has ended and I have been home for three weeks with the integration being somewhat seamless. I am taking my experiences and learning and incorporating them into my consulting work that I have started doing with the Lansing-based firm, Public Policy Associates, Inc. My focus will be working with nonprofit organizations and helping communities transition to a knowledge-based global economy.
I don’t know what my future will hold but I do know that the past seventeen months have been transformative. There hasn’t been a moment that I questioned my decision to pursue this dream. The learning and experiences of my “Masters of the World” is stronger and more meaningful than anything I could have learned in the classroom. I have been fortunate to take this journey and now I need to give that back to my community. The world famous traveler, Dorothy Gale, was on target when she said at the end of the Wizard of Oz, “There is no place like home.” She is right–it is good to be back.