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WORLD TRAVEL ADVENTURESTrue Encounters From Over 100 Countries By An Ordinary Guy With Extraordinary Experiences
By Steve Freeman
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Steve Freeman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom Here To Fraternity
To understand why and how I did what I did, you, the reader, need to understand a bit about me. As I think back to my childhood, I realize that there were several aspects that helped mold me into the traveler I would later become. Aside from the puzzle of the United States I had as a kid, there were other factors that would become imbued into my travel persona. In retrospect, everything in this chapter played a part.
I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood on East 88th Street in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, New York. While there were tree-lined streets and it was generally safe, it was also between where Mike Tyson grew up in Brownsville and where John Gotti grew up in Howard Beach, Queens. Canarsie itself had its share of "tough guys," albeit on a much lesser scale, and you had to be careful. Fortunately, I was a good athlete, strong for my size, and was aligned with strong friends – all important in that time and place. I could handle myself in tough situations, and this extra layer of toughness would come in handy later on when I needed to be tough and even fearless in my travels.
Many people have asked me if I grew up in a wealthy family. Far from it. Dad and mom worked full-time as travel agent and office manager (up from administrative assistant), respectively. My younger brother and I shared a small bedroom with one black-and-white TV. All of us shared one telephone (with a cord – how prehistoric!). My brother, friends, and I bought baseball cards from Topps, Bazooka bubble gum, and lots of candy. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all lived in close proximity. We were close with each other as family, too, being very tight-knit; if we were any more tightly-knit we'd be a sweater. We lived in a two-family house and had the same landlord for 34 years. They were very nice people and like a second family to us, including their loveable basset hound, Zoi (what a howl!). My younger brother and I attended public school all the way through high school, after which I was the first in my immediate family to attend college. I graduated from a city university (all we could afford) and I then went to a state university for graduate school (all I could afford).
There were 8 guys in total who made up my circle of friends, and we spent a lot of time just doing what street kids do, playing ball, roaming around, looking for stuff to do, trying new activities, seeing who was strongest, toughest, fastest, so that the hierarchy could be established. We especially played the popular neighborhood games stoopball, punchball, and stickball which I thought every kid played but later learned most didn't know what these games were. Being athletic was very important for the guys, especially in Brooklyn. "Doofuses" got picked on; you didn't want to be one of them. If you were a relatively smaller kid like me, you were still respected if you were a good athlete for your size. I was a good athlete, including doing 40 push-ups in a row every morning, starting at age 15. One friend was able to do 100 in a row back then. He was very protective of us younger kids; I was second-youngest in the group. I still do 40 push-ups to this day, every day. Being strong counted then, and I never forgot that. It later also counted if you were good with the ladies. I wasn't in the beginning, but learned to be better. In retrospect, both of these then-important factors would become possible explanations for why I did some of what I did later on when traveling.
Many of us were in organized Little League baseball. I played for four years as third-baseman, outfielder, and pitcher, because I had a strong arm. I either batted leadoff because I was a fast runner, or fifth because I had power. Later, I played on adult softball teams in these same positions. Being a smart kid was OK, but it wasn't important, and would even work against you if you were nerdy/ non-athletic. I excelled in school, but my circle of friends did not talk about academics. My friends and I also collected things back then: sports cards, stickers, coins, and my favorite, Wacky Packages® cards and stickers, which spoofed consumer products. Ironically, I would end up working for the company that manufactured these! During the summer, I often went to camp. Most years it was local, where I could still be with my friends and family, but a couple of years I went to sleepaway camp upstate. I did not enjoy sleepaway camp because I disliked being away from home. In retrospect, this was a deterrent to my interest in traveling later on. So was delivering circulars for a nominal wage as a teen, because I got lost a lot and once even had to call my dad to pick me up. Overall, however, I had a wonderful childhood, and would not trade it for anything in the world. It built character – and many would say that I later became one as well (a Brooklyn wise-guy).
The roots of my travel interest may have started in elementary school, where I had a friend named Barry. Unlike all the other kids, Barry and I would go out of the school yard during lunch break and explore the neighborhood. This was Barry's idea, and I just went along for the walk. We had no idea where we were going but just roamed around seeing what's out there – the stores, houses, stray cats, and anything else. There was no purpose, and we were not looking for anything in particular. But we both got bored easily, were somewhat adventurous, and this was a good way to talk without distraction. If it were not for Barry, I would have been in the school yard with the others. Exploring seemed better, however. I was a standout in elementary school because I was captain of the vaunted punchball team, and my team won the school championship. I hit two home runs, and for the first time had girls interested in me. I also won the school spelling bee, and placed 4th in the district finals out of 18 school champions. Athletics, attention from girls, and exploring outside of my comfort zone during lunch breaks, a nice trifecta! But that was as good as it got for a while.
I was lost in junior high and high school, and don't remember much from that period except rooting for the New York Yankees, bowling, and trying to figure out what I wanted to be. I skipped 8th grade which meant I was good with school work but, in retrospect, this wrecked my social life for a while. The girls were thus older and taller than me. I dated a bit, but not as much as I would have liked. I kept away from the bad stuff: drugs, alcohol, gambling and was basically a "good" kid. I had my moments though, and went through the teenage angst years trying to find myself. It wasn't until college that I did.
In high school I was given your standard aptitude test. I only remember one thing from the results: there was a bar on the graph that was at least twice as high as any other, and under it read the word "Adventure." I thought nothing of it at the time and my guidance counselor didn't make any recommendations based on this. I didn't consider myself particularly adventurous, no-one in my family was, and I even asked the counselor if she was sure that was my chart. It was. I learned later on: listen to your test results! I made the school bowling team and did well there with a 162 average, which I maintained or bettered in several leagues during that time. At this point I liked trying new experiences and excelling at them. I didn't need to be great at any one, but being good in several different ones was a challenge and its own reward.
Baruch College was in Manhattan, surrounded by corporate buildings and small businesses, hustle and bustle, and had no campus except for the concrete jungle. I lived at home and rode the "L" train, also known as the Canarsie Line, back and forth to the college five days a week. I had to walk 15 minutes to a bus stop, take the bus another 15 minutes to the train station, and then take the train for an hour to reach the college. This process was reversed at the end of each day, so there were three hours of travel involved in going to college and back. In my freshman year, I was the new kid on the block with most students being older than me. I wasn't sure what to major in, but received good grades in my writing classes and settled on Journalism. Later I would switch to Business, encouraged by a friend's dad who gave me a motivating speech about not ending up selling jack-in-the-boxes near Penn Station. All of my neighborhood friends went to a different college or did not go to college. I was the first in my immediate family to go to college and there was no-one to guide me. I sought an anchor of some sort, maybe the same "strong-friends" type of protection I had back in Canarsie somehow, but who and what?
Then I saw a sign to join a fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu. The fraternity was founded by 8 guys in 1909 and the governing body to this day is called "The Octagon." So there was another "8" that attracted me, and turned out to be a good thing. I met with the guys and we liked each other. Most were juniors or seniors, while I was a freshman; I saw this as a learning opportunity about not only the fraternity but about the college and life in general (I had no older siblings). So I became a "brother" and had the guidance, friendship, and security I was seeking. There could be some wild times in New York City back in the day, and "Animal House" was all the rage when I was most involved in the fraternity. Which leads me to another important component to this brotherhood: "Sammy" was a national fraternity, and the brothers often traveled to different chapters (our chapter had no house). Sometimes it was for a regional conclave or national convention, but mostly it was a road trip that was like a rite of passage to being an adult. Yes, there was partying, girls, loud music, and everything else you'd expect.
This traveling didn't matter to me when I joined, but it would soon make a huge impact. You see, I went on my first such road trip only two months after starting college. The timing was Halloween weekend and we went by train to Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania Chapter). There I got my first taste of what both fraternity and travel were all about. Unlike at Baruch, which was a commuter school with no campus, Penn had a real university campus – and a frat house! In which they had parties ... with alcohol ... and girls ... and .... music ... and fun! Blue Oyster Cult's "The Reaper" was blasting out of the fraternity house when we arrived – and always will remind me of that very moment when you could say I moved across that imaginary line into adulthood. Travel was part of that fun, excitement, and "maturity." This helped give me my identity, separating me from what my family and friends did. I would later travel extensively – but not expensively – with the fraternity. After graduation, I'd stay in various Sammy houses across the U.S. for free (the membership is lifetime). More good experiences and fun! And one of the best investments I ever made.
My first trip out of the U.S. was with the fraternity to its national convention in Toronto, Canada. I had a wonderful time there as one of two representatives of my chapter, "Alpha." I met other Sammies from around the country and we shared stories about our colleges and chapters. I thought this was great, and later learned that a cousin by marriage was also a Sammy. The next year I also had a great time at the national convention, in Chicago, as the lone "Alpha Chapter" representative. I ended up making two friends there from other chapters I would keep in contact with for more than 10 years (one from California and one from Michigan, who later moved to California).
Another important development in retrospect was that being from and living in New York City – a very multi-cultural place - I dated many gals who were not, or whose parents were not, from the U.S. These gals were Italian, Irish, Latino, Chinese, Jewish, Indian, and Polish among others. My mom liked to say I was "dating the United Nations." I have to say that all these gals were pleasant, pretty ... and interesting. This may have been a seed that blossomed later on because I did think of these gals when visiting their respective home countries years later, and often did recall some of the information they had told me about them. Few of my friends back then dated a foreign-born gal, so this was unusual within my peer group. My Indian girlfriend lasted one year, while the relationship with the Polish gal lasted four years, on-and-off, beyond college. I never did see them again after we each moved on. But, unknown to me at the time, just interacting and being comfortable with them played a part in my development as the traveler I would become. At this same time an aunt who did some traveling would bring me back foreign coins for a collection I started keeping. This wasn't a big deal to me (I threw them in a shoebox) but was another exposure to international things that perhaps became a travel trigger later on.
I worked at several jobs while attending college. Dad, who worked for the AAA as a travel agent, helped me obtain jobs within his company which would last seven summers (full-time) and a couple of winters (part-time) at various AAA locations in New York City. This put me around travel a lot, and undoubtedly had a major influence on my later decision to travel. These jobs included, in chronological order: accounts payable clerk at the West 62nd Street office in Manhattan; emergency road service clerk taking calls from stranded motorists and passing them along to a dispatcher in the Statler Hilton Hotel near Penn Station; mail room clerk refilling trip-ticket racks for the travel counselors and lifting heavy boxes (65-70 hours/week), also at the Statler; and finally, receptionist in the Brooklyn office (where dad worked) for four summers selling new memberships, renewing memberships, taking passport photos, and providing members with tour books and maps as requested. This was a shirt-and-tie job that made me feel as if I was a somebody. During the down times, I would read the tour books and study the maps. To this day I can remember the specific internal number associated with each tour book and the states it included.
Although most of this work was menial, the important takeaway for me was the cheerfulness AAA members had when coming into the office and planning their trips. There were lots of smiles, happiness, and enthusiasm. They were jovial in general. Some even had their favorite travel agent and only wanted to see that person. Others would tell me how great their last trip was, and how they're returning for another one. I even saw some of my college classmates come in to plan a road trip. Still other members sent me post cards with interesting photos on the obverse, and pleasantries on the reverse about their trip.
I became inspired to travel, and in retrospect this helped me study harder to fulfill that dream. I ended up graduating college with honors and winning an Advertising scholarship of $5,000 awarded to only two students in the country - without which I could not afford to attend graduate school – and being the only student to speak at my college graduation ceremony based on successful combination of academics, work experience, and student leadership. I had been an officer in five student organizations, including eventual President (called "Prior") of the local fraternity chapter, and also in the Advertising Society, in which I would meet my eventual best friend and future travel buddy, Mike. I wrote for three school newspapers, a local Manhattan newspaper as college intern (Heights-Inwood News), and even had an article published in an international magazine called Advertising World at which I was an unpaid college intern for a year. I liked writing and thought I'd become a journalist, having won two college awards for it. But, as mentioned, a friend's dad convinced me to major in Business and that was good advice. I ended up with a BBA in Marketing, with a specialization in Advertising, and a second major in Journalism.
Baruch College offered me a $5,000 research assistantship to return to graduate school there, big money in those days. The assistantship was renewable for a second year, so that was $10,000! Combined with my Advertising scholarship, this would have easily paid for my entire graduate school education. Almost everyone I asked said I should return to Baruch, especially since I had done so well there. Baruch also had a fine business school reputation, and of course my family and friends were right there in New York City.
Excerpted from WORLD TRAVEL ADVENTURES by Steve Freeman Copyright © 2012 by Steve Freeman. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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