Steve Zikman, a lawyer-turned-writer living in Los Angeles, is the author of a collection of inspirational writings titled "The Power of Travel: A Passport to Adventure, Discovery, and Growth" (Penguin Putnam).
Q: You quit your job as a high-powered lawyer in Toronto to travel the world for three years. Was it tough to adapt to the lifestyle of a hard-core traveler?
A: In two weeks I went from this pretty intense law practice to being a full-time backpacker. For the first few months, my head was brimming with memories of courtrooms, memos I needed to write, files I needed to deal with. But as the months went on, those thoughts began to disappear. I started to allow myself to do things I had long wanted to. For example, I'm very punctual and always get up early in the morning. But when I lived in Germany, I often went out to clubs all night . . . I was sleeping during the day and awake at night. When I finally got back to Toronto, that was a difficult time. But what was amazing is how quickly I reverted to my old ways.
Q: How have you been humbled by travel?
A: I once met a toothless, elderly woman in Lesotho. We were waiting for a bus, when all of a sudden it started raining. I ran for shelter, ending up standing next to this old woman under a bunch of trees. I went into my backpack and pulled out some stuff and dropped a jar of peach jam. It broke into little, shattered pieces. . . . I just left the jam as garbage--what could I do, it was broken. But the woman carefully started eating the jam off the ground, and spitting out the glass shards. After eating all of it, she took her finger and put it into the groove of the jar and extracted every last bit.
Q: Nearly 90 percent of Americans don't have valid passports. How would the country change if more Americans traveled abroad?
A: I'm from Canada, and I think Canadians travel more than Americans do. In the times I've been abroad, I'm always amazed at how few Americans I meet. I get the feeling that Americans are less willing to break out of their comfort zone. And it's a big comfort zone. Yet you tend to see a lot of Americanization around the world, but not so many Americans.
Q: Some sociologists argue that tourism destroys a developing country's culture. Do you see their point?
A: I don't take that view. Throughout history, cultures have always been influencing each other. I think today, mostly because of technology and the incredible mass movement of people, it's happening at a much faster pace. Most people want cross-cultural contact. They want the so-called riches of other societies. So I don't feel any guilt. I look at the positive side: Because I have the ability to travel, I'm sharing my culture with them and witnessing their culture as well.
Q: Do you remember your first trip as a kid?
A: When I was 10, my parents decided to take the family to California. We were living in Montreal. I can remember being on my banana seat bicycle in the park singing "California, Here I Come." We were supposed to go out on a Sunday morning, but my father changed the flight. The plane we were supposed to have taken from Montreal to Toronto crashed and everybody was killed. I thought of all the 10-year-olds who might have died. I can remember that we had a fantastic vacation, mixed with an awareness of how short life is.
Q: You quote everyone in your book from Yogi Berra to Walt Whitman. Do you have a favorite quote that sums up your travel philosophy?
A: Aldous Huxley said, "Experience is not what happens to a man, it is what a man does with what happens to him."
Q: Have you ever doubted the power of travel?
A: When I was living in Germany, people warned me about November in Northern Europe. It gets very dark and gray and the sky is very low, and you can feel very melancholy. I didn't think it would affect me. But sure enough, it did. I just wanted to be home--I wanted to just go back, and that's in fact what I did--I went back for four or five weeks. I had this really strong idea in my head that I had to go away for the two or three years and couldn't come back. I had to take this transformational trip and only then could I return home. But going home was the best thing I could have done--it reaffirmed the power of travel, but it also reaffirmed the power of home.