One Giant Leap... with Alastair Sawday
Founder of the eponymous travel guides, Alastair Sawday has been hugely influential as a writer and publisher. He tells Simon Usborne of an encounter in South America that motivated him to become a social activist and environmentalist, too.
I was born in 1945, when Britain was on its knees after the war, and backpacking was still fairly new by the time I left university. I travelled to St Lucia to be a volunteer teacher, which was as tough as you can imagine: palm-fringed beaches, blue water – really hard. But then I started travelling around South America, to Guyana and Venezuela, all by public bus. I ended up in Salvador on the north-east coast of Brazil and was invited to stay with a family in a sort of slum made up of thousands of houses built on stilts over an inland lagoon.
I was 22 and learned two lessons that would influence the rest of my life. It turned out the family were Seventh-day Adventists. I’d been brought up in the old-fashioned liberal Anglican tradition and was always wary of religion. But I then found myself being gradually drawn into their world as the hard edges of my bigotry were gently worn away by their extraordinary love for each other and their welcome for me. They did not preach or proselytize, but just set an example of a particular way of life.
The other lesson was about corruption.
Because, while these houses had been built on a fairly fresh and safe lagoon, there was a growing heap of waste nearby. It turned out that the US government had given large sums to local politicians to help set up a disposal system, but it had all been pocketed. Now the US agency responsible for the aid was due to visit and, rather than confess, the authorities bulldozed the festering waste into the lagoon, which became a disease-ridden mire.
The family I was with were doing their best to stop infections, but while I was there a neighbour's child died. He was about a year and a half and had fallen and cut himself, and became ill with the infection. I was asked to be a pallbearer for this tiny coffin. I was taller than the others, and as I crouched to keep the coffin level, the pain somehow intensified the palpable grief around me and my awareness, aged 22, of this tragic waste of life and the inevitability of it happening again.
When I came home, I became a teacher but went on to become an environmental activist and social reformer. I had become acutely aware of the inadequacies of human institutions and far more open-minded about the ways in which people are motivated to do the right thing. It also made me question the value of travel, and how mindless it can be with nothing in mind but pleasure. Travel publishing has always been a platform from which I can talk about the other things. And it all started in Salvador.
Travelling Light: Journeys Among Special People and Places By Alastair Sawday, (Abacus • £9.99) is out now.