After reading and reviewing the well-written and thoughtful (as well as, thought-provoking) Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed One Family’s Lives Forever, I had a few questions for author, John Marshall. He graciously answered the questions that I sent him via email.
Marshall is a nine-time Emmy Award-winning writer, producer, and director. Mainers will recognize him from seeing him on local television stations, like WPXT and from his work writing and hosting a number of weekly television programs. Wide-Open World is Marshall’s first book.
How does a family know if they have what it takes for a journey like this? Were there any contingency plans in case you found out after four weeks that you and your family weren’t cut out for it?
For any family considering their own Wide-Open World adventure, you can always start small. Add a few days of volunteering to your next vacation and see how it goes. Most importantly, get every family member on board before you ship out. Dragging someone on a trip like this will not produce the best results. In our case, once we got the kids to buy into the idea, we committed to a six-month journey. The truth is…there were several times on the road that our kids asked to go home; difficult homesick times where a comfy bed, a hot shower, or a familiar face was all they wanted. Without a real commitment at the start, it would have been all too easy to pack it in at the first challenging stop along the way. For me, the length of the trip was as important as the individual volunteer opportunities, allowing the world enough time to have a deep impact on us all.
As a follow-up, are there certain types of people/families that are better suited for an adventure like this one? Any kind of prerequisites that you’d say help prepare you to take off for six months or more?
The #1 prerequisite is simply your decision to go. Not a passive dream of going or a desire to maybe get out the door one day, but your ironclad, set in stone, decision to hit the road. Once you make this decision, you can find a way to make a trip like this happen. As for prerequisites or certain types of people who might enjoy this kind of travel…it helps to be flexible. Things go wrong on the road. Buses are slow and uncomfortable. Accommodations are less than stellar. Where we went it was hot most of the time. One day in Thailand it was 125 degrees! And there are bugs and simple meals and toilets of every conceivable variety. If you are looking to judge every situation by Western standards and prefer room service to actual service, this might not be for you. That said, there is a world of difference between comforting a crying orphan and tipping your favorite bartender. So if you can be flexible, the rewards we discovered far outweighed the challenges.
Would you say that for most of us, getting outside of our “cocoon” in any type of fashion for an extended period helps change how we see the rest of the world? What was the biggest “aha” moment for you in that regard?
I think it’s easy to forget, at a very basic level, that we are alive. That our time is passing quickly. The routines of life are very hypnotic. They put us to sleep, in many ways. But travel is the opposite of routine. Every day is new. Every new experience requires your full attention. So this is one powerful reminder we discovered on the road. Additionally, volunteering in the developing world is a jolt of reality. It’s easy to sit at home and talk about the poor, to be sad in a general sense about world hunger or global poverty. But when I actually met real people who are poor and hungry…they were not what I was imagining. As for “aha” moments…orphaned children had the most profound impact on me. Before leaving home, I thought of them as some general, faceless mass of regrettable humanity. But when I got to know them, one on one, as children, it’s impossible for me to return home and live as if they do not exist.
I thought you did a good job of portraying your children, not as saints, but as typical suburban, middle-class kids, privileged compared to the children you met on your trip. You touched on it a bit at the end of the book, but how have Jackson and Logan continued to build on the experiences detailed in the book?
Yeah, a trip like ours can have a powerful impact on teenagers, and we certainly saw that in our kids. Our son Logan was 17 at the time and our daughter Jackson was 14. Today, Jackson is in college, studying to be a doctor and hopes to be a part of the Doctors Without Borders program, serving in the developing world. Logan has spent several years in South America, learning Spanish, volunteering and writing a blog about finding your inner superhero. Before the trip, they were already great kids and motivated people, but I feel the Wide-Open World experience magnified their best qualities and opened their hearts a little bit wider.
What were the deciding factors in traveling around the world, rather than picking a few locations, or even staying stateside?
Traveling around the world is a dream. It’s one of those long-shot bucket list items that a lot of people write down but few people ever actually do. Like running a marathon or bungee jumping in Australia. Wouldn’t it be amazing? For us, we were motivated to make it happen and so we went. But we are nothing special in that regard. If you’re interested in how to make a trip like this happen for you and your family, I wrote a chapter at the back of the book on how to volunteer your way around the world. Truly, if we can do it, so can you. If it feels like too much, try a two-week volunteer vacation and see if it doesn’t touch your heart. Or volunteer in your own neighborhood. In many ways, I believe volunteering is almost selfish because you receive so much more than you give. As I say at the end of the book: You will not change the world. But the world will definitely change you.
I understand that you’ve gone back and spent time in India at the orphanage you wrote about in the book. What was it about that place that drew you back?
I went back to India, thinking I would volunteer my way around the country, maybe write about it as a follow up book. But I ended up very sick at the start and went back to the The Good Shepherd Agricultural Mission (a large orphanage on the Nepal border), which was the only place where I actually knew people. Once there, it was the kids who really nursed me back to health, and I ended up spending most of 2014 living with them. From terrible beginnings and hopeless situations, these kids are now filled with incredible joy and an infectious love that is hard to describe. It was so inspiring to me in fact, I’ve launched a non-profit called New Orphanage that looks to find and support the best orphan projects worldwide. I also hope to have my next book be about my time at the orphanage. Like Wide-Open World, I hope it helps readers see the difference one person can make in the world. And the difference the world can make in each of our lives.