Trekking along ... Winston at a durian fruit stand near Sematan, Malaysia. Photo: Google
If you worry that our culture's reliance on GPS and mobile maps is ruining our ability to explore the hidden nooks and crannies — the unexpected — in our world, this story is for you.
It's the tale of former Marine Sergeant Winston Fiore, 27, who just completed a 408 day, 5000 mile (8047 kilometre) walk through nine countries in south-east Asia to raise funds for the International Children's Surgical Foundation — an organisation that provides free plastic surgeries to children in developing countries, mostly who suffer from a cleft palate.
It's also the story of how blind reliance on maps on your mobile device — in this case walking directions in Google Maps — can lead a traveller to find people and places he would never have found otherwise, simply by directing him to the shortest distance between point A and point B.
"Pretty oval" ... the map of Winston's journey. Photo: Google
The story begins in 2007, when Fiore was deployed with the Marine Corps to Senegal for three weeks of training. It was the first time the Bloomington, Indiana, native had visited a developing country, and he was struck by how little of the world he had seen. While crammed in the back of a van, he resolved to spend a year travelling on foot through a developing part of the world.
Back in the US, he hooked up with the International Children's Surgical Foundation after coming across an article about the founder, and chose to do his trek in south-east Asia, where there is a disproportionate number of children who suffer from a cleft palate.
He began mapping out his trip in 2010, creating what he describes as a "pretty oval" route that would take him through some of the biggest metropolitan areas in Brunei, China, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. The route was about 5000 miles — a nice round number, and he thought he could do it in a year.
On the road ... Winston Fiore. Photo: Google
Then in October 2011, he set off.
The first week of his trek, he made printouts of the walking directions from Google Maps — fumbling through the pages each day, trying to figure out where to turn, or if he had gotten off track. Then he discovered he could buy a SIM card in whatever country he was in, and was able to get directions directly off his phone.
Each morning of the trek, Fiore would wake up and map out his 25 miles (40 kilometres) for the day. And each day he followed the maps' directions. There were boring days in Laos walking through one palm oil plantation after another, but there were also magical moments — like when an elderly couple who spoke no English took him into their home when there was no other structure around and gave him dinner and breakfast before sending him on his way.
Once, as he was walking along a three-lane highway in Taiwan, he was directed to take a right onto a tiny road that turned into a brick stairwell embedded in the forest that led to a Buddhist temple in the woods. Another time, in China he was directed to turn off a paved road and discovered a massive, imposing temple that looked like something out of Batman Begins. He walked up the stairs and was fed by the monks who lived there.
Then there was the time, also in China, where the directions led him to the edge of a river with no bridge in sight. Just as he was starting to freak out, he saw a man who ferries people across the river, and he got a ride for free.
"It's not like the directions said, 'There will be an old Chinese man to ferry you across the river, and he likes mangos,'" said Fiore. "But the walking directions routed me there, and he was able to get me across the river."
Fiore completed his journey on Tuesday, and has raised $US65,000 of his $US75,000 goal to give to the International Children's Surgical Foundation. That's enough money to fund more than 200 operations. (Note that he is still accepting donations).
He also got to discover the unexpected, with the help of a mapping app.