On this trip, the meter is not running
SAN FRANCISCO — When Brad Newsham was a young backpacker, just out of college and on his first trip outside North America, he had an epiphany. High up in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan, he wrote in his notebook: "Someday, when I am rich, I am going to invite someone from my travels to visit me in America."
It was a dream and a declaration, a promise to himself and a promise to, whom?
That was more than 25 years ago, and Mr. Newsham never did become very rich, although he considers his daughter, Sarah, a treasure beyond price. As a waiter, a construction worker, a miner, and - for the past 15 years or so - a cab driver in San Francisco, he's never made more than $35,000 a year, and those were the fat years.
But this week, Newsham and his guest, Tony Tocdaan - a rice farmer from the Philippines who's never been outside his country - will set out across the US in a taxicab.
Over the next several weeks, they will make several stops before winding up in Washington for the Fourth of July, then drive to New York before flying back to San Francisco - all paid for by Newsham.
It's a dream come true for both of them, a story that begins 13 years ago when Newsham hefted his backpack for "a round-the-world journey to invite a stranger home." That's the subtitle of his recent book "Take Me With You," a travel tale documenting the 1988 trip through Asia and Africa that eventually brought Mr. Tocdaan to America.
After a 12-hour flight from Manila, Tocdaan arrived in San Francisco a few days ago. He's made a short list of things he'd like to see and do in America. "Find a good cowboy hat," see "even a little bit" of snow, visit a dance club (maybe even overcome his shyness and dance a bit). Before they take off in a cab, Newsham is showing him around northern California.
On a postcard-perfect day above San Francisco Bay, Tocdaan stands quietly gazing out at the Golden Gate Bridge glowing in the bright spring sun, the sailboats straining with the wind in quiet formation, the stolid rock that is Alcatraz. "Now I see it personally, not just in pictures," he says.
Farther up the Pacific coast, they walk through the enormous redwood trees in Muir Woods National Monument. "It's really very beautiful," says Tocdaan, pausing to look straight up at the still, solid giants. "I will write all this down so I don't forget it," he adds, remembering Newsham's travel journal that made all this possible.
A tour guide gets the grand tour
Back home in Banaue, Tocdaan and his wife, Rita (and the oldest of their five children) tend rice terraces and grow vegetables. During the tourist season, they take people for hikes and backpacking trips into the mountains of northern Luzon. That's how they met Newsham.
When Newsham got home from that trip 13 years ago, he had a list of about a half-dozen candidates - some of whom answered the letters he mailed off. By the time he'd written the book - which took four years - he'd settled on Tocdaan. Rita and Tocdaan talked it over and decided it would be OK to accept this startling invitation.
But it took another six years to get "Take Me With You" published. And Newsham couldn't send the money for Tocdaan's airfare, let alone finance the cross-country tour, until he'd gotten an advance payment on the book.
"Keep the faith, I'm going to make this happen," Newsham wrote Tocdaan, although there were times when he had his doubts. At the time, Tocdaan remembers, "My friends started to think I was a liar" about the invitation from this most unusual American. Even when the publishing contract came through, it took nearly another two years and several nine-hour bus trips to Manila for Tocdaan to get a visa from the US Embassy. And even then it looked doubtful, until an old neighbor of the Newsham family in suburban Washington - then Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering - pulled a few bureaucratic strings.
Invitations from all over
In his years of travel (four times around the world), Newsham has come to anticipate and sometimes count on the kindness of strangers, whether it's a night's shelter, a family meal, or the offer of a job when funds were dwindling. Even before this trip has begun, many such offers have come in from people who have heard about "Brad and Tony's excellent adventure." An airplane ride over northern California, a river raft trip, a night on a houseboat, an invitation to be special guests at the North Carolina Apple Festival.
Tickets to Cirque du Soleil are waiting for them in Las Vegas, courtesy of one of the show's dancers. Doctors in San Francisco have treated Tocdaan for the eye he lost when he was assaulted several months before he first met Newsham. Newsham's publisher, Travelers' Tales, has donated 100 copies of his book, the revenue from which will go to a special account for Tocdaan - perhaps for a motorbike he can use to transport tourists.
"I just love the idea that generosity begets generosity," says Newsham. Speaking about their coming trip, he adds: "I think it touches something in all of us - that impulse to share buried underneath the impulse to acquire. It resonates with all those feelings we have once you get by the survival stage. It has just lit people up."
Touring San Francisco in a cab on Tocdaan's second night in town, Newsham picks up Will and Kelly Goley from Charlotte, N.C. He immediately introduces Tocdaan and tells the couple about their upcoming trip. "I heard about you on the radio!" exclaims Kelly.
Told of the unusual trip, another cabbie, headed with a fare for San Francisco's famous City Lights bookstore, says, "That's a great story.... Maybe it will help improve the image of taxi drivers. So many drivers are artists - poets and writers and painters - yet we get very little respect."
Among Tocdaan's first impressions: San Francisco, with its many races and ethnic groups, "looks a little bit like Manila." "I thought it would be just whites and a few blacks," he says. And the room in the unfancy hotel where he and Newsham stayed for the first few days "is as big as a house for a whole family" back home.
For Tocdaan, this is also a chance to see the country that helped the Philippines during World War II. His grandfather was killed by Japanese soldiers during the war, and his father (who was 10 years old at the time and had to hide in the jungle) "always talks about loving Americans," says Tocdaan.
For Newsham, seeing his friend after many years seems to have left him with a permanent grin. "Can you imagine how much fun I'm having?" he asks. But he also feels somewhat overwhelmed that it's finally happening. "I find myself on the verge of tears all the time," he admits.
He's also wrestled with the idea, as some friends have suggested, that he was "playing God" by choosing one person for such a potentially life-changing gift. He addresses that criticism toward the end of his book:
"It seems unquestionable to me that every act a person performs tips the balance of the world..... Share your blessings and the world is instantly more generous, more friendly, easier, happier.... What better way to bring that about than by giving away the thing that, so far in my life, had meant the most to me - the chance to travel. At the end of my life, I told myself, I would not regret this act."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor