By Sandy Grisham
We are on a train speeding south from Chicago, and the flat landscape is almost as green as Ireland and covered with cornfields whose tassels are blowing in the wind. It doesn’t look quite like it did when I grew up near here. It is hotter, I think, and the corn leaves are not as skinny as I thought they were then.
But this is my birthplace … I can feel it in my bones. I love the cloudless skies that meet the horizon behind a grove of trees and the farmhouses. I love the smell of the cornfields … the feel of the black, fertile dirt … the touch of the hot breeze on my face that stirs my hair so it looks “like I combed it with an egg beater” as my Mom used to say.
Is it a quirk of fate that brings us rocking down the rails past the places where my dad grew up, and where my mom came as a young bride? Is it a twist of destiny that takes us traveling throughout the world, and then winds up racing through my own birth state on my way to home in Mississippi?
It seems like a dream, until I look at the thousands of pictures, and gigabytes of videos of the past three months. When I close my eyes, I can bring up all the wonderful places we saw and feel the love of the folks we visited. I can see the lions in Africa, and I can feel the mosquitoes and see the beautiful lakes in Finland. Malaysia’s yellow python sometimes rears its ugly head in my mind. The depth of feelings in Poland, and Berlin, and the townships of Pretoria and Johannesburg, nag at my conscience. The memories of the cool beauty of Fjordland National Park in New Zealand helps to counter this heat wave that is summer in the United States. It was real, all right. It was real.
Let me give you the totals:
I spent 11 months planning the particulars of this trip; we traveled a little over 56,000 miles by air, divided into 25 different flights between airports in different cities. We hit Seoul, Amsterdam and Johannesburg three times and others at least twice. We were gone exactly 90 days from home, but 80 away from the country. And there were only two minor glitches: a missed flight in Paris due to an Air France strike and a changed train schedule in Chicago due to upgrading the tracks. No big deal.
We converted six different currencies (thank Heavens the Euro worked in five nations: the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, France and Ireland.) The others had my head swimming trying to put ringgits and rands, bats and NZ dollars, and South Korean yens into our cash.
There were only six nations where English was not spoken on a regular basis.
We slept in 30 different beds.
I wore the same five pairs of slacks for three months. I miss my own closet. I will light my own version of the midsummer bonfire when I get home – look out credit cards.
What have I learned from this Herculean effort to know the world?
It is hard to tell where a nation’s true culture lies and where the global culture is replacing it. We saw McDonald’s in varying designs in literally every venue except out in the bush in South Africa. Not far behind were Subway, Burger King, UPS, Fed EX, Coke, and other very familiar brands.
I have learned the Asian nations are closing the economic gap far more rapidly than most Americans realize. Our physical isolation because of the oceans on each side of us means we are not as cognizant of what is happening many time zones away. Malaysia, South Korea and Thai-land (what we saw of them) are all bustling centers of modernity … chrome, glass and cars, cars and more cars underscore the progress and affluence.
I saw perhaps a million faces of human beings all over the planet, and not one of them was the same as any other. Those faces were beautifully shaped, formed and colored – some dark, some lighter, some blonde-haired, and some with dark hair and eyes. The best faces were, of course, those of our “kids”: Ben and Leong, Taru-Maija and Tarja, Michael and Barbara, and Therese and Dirk. We are so pleased these people stay in touch with each other, and look on the Mississippi experience as their common background. Through Vaughn and I, they even “know” each other, though they may never have met. We are also proud that they feel they were positively impacted by their time in our state.
Others that mattered were the folks in New Zealand (they know who they are), South Africa’s Ivor Jenkins and his colleagues at IDASA who work to bring democracy to places that do not know it, plus Cape Town’s Yolanda Hull and her dedicated workers at Opportunities to Serve Ministries. We couldn’t forget the Vorster family in Pretoria who have sent one child to Ole Miss to play tennis, and are hoping to have a second child here playing golf soon. Sprinkled abundantly among all the folks we came in contact with were the beautiful children of the world. I am truly surprised at how many of them are flying to distant places, and I am pleased at how well behaved they are. Children are cherished in the places we saw, and in the places where there is poverty and disease and illiteracy, those children are laughing in spite of the problems.
But in the end, what I have taken away from this dream-like journey is this:
Our beautiful state of Mississippi has reached her magnolia-scented arms around the entire world. Over time, she has held all those sons and daughters close to her heart. They remain close to her today.
We were proud to be part of that embrace.
A special note of appreciation goes to the editorial staff at the Journal: Lloyd Gray who took a chance on me, and Leslie Criss, whose weekly messages were a welcome voice from home. I also want to thank those of you who have continued to read this journal as it has evolved. Knowing there was someone at the other end of the Internet who cared about what we were learning permitted me to “teach” from a distance. And a special thank you to those who emailed me. Your messages kept me going.
Now, where shall we go next?
Sandy Grisham and her husband, Vaughn, live in Oxford. She has been filing a weekly report from their around-the-world trip. The Grishams are retired educators. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.