Indagare's Avery Carmichael writes about her late grandmother's inspiring humanitarian work during the Vietnam War, and how travel helped her define her greater purpose.
My grandmother, Jane Bagley Lehman, was a world traveler from the mid-1940s until her death in 1988. As a child, I was raised on tales of her beneficence, adventuresome spirit and unwavering lust for life.
Jane's travels extended far and wide—from scuba diving in the Galápagos in the 1970s to savoring caviar in France in the '50s. During her long life, she traveled to Zimbabwe when it was Rhodesia and fell under the spell of its starry, jet-black night skies; she visited the Maasai in Tanzania, returning with (what seemed like) miles of undeveloped film footage; and she hiked with my eleven-year-old mother in Peru’s Sacred Valley.
My grandmother's most important travels, however, were during the Vietnam War, in 1967. Jane was incensed by the escalating conflict overseas and horrified by the fact that innocent civilians had been placed in harm's way. At the time, she was the director of the Community Development Foundation in San Francisco, a nonprofit organization that facilitated refugee recovery and rebuilding efforts. She was determined to assist in the current conflict in some way. So, just three years after she gave birth to my mother, Jane left home with a tape recorder, stenography books, a camera—and several hairpieces—and headed to Vietnam.Related: Indagare's Vietnam Destination Report
While noble, Jane's decision was far from lauded. In an article published in a local San Francisco newspaper entitled “A Socialite Goes To South Vietnam,” journalist Aileen Snoddy noted, “[Jane] sometimes goes overboard on things.” The tone of the article was sarcastic and anticipatory of failure. It seemed to ask, who is this woman to think she can effect change? But despite her community's doubt and concern, Jane persevered. Over the course of several months, she lived in small towns in Vietnam and worked with refugee groups, focusing on community development and rebuilding.
I marvel at the incredible bravery my grandmother exhibited. In the midst of one of America's most gruesome wars, she left her home and sought out a different, unexpected purpose. I regularly pore through old pictures of her walking through crowds of Vietnamese children and holding babies closely with an empathetic, beautiful smile on her face. What an incredible lightness she must have brought during a tremendously harrowing time.
Forty years later, like my grandmother before me, I traveled with a focus on humanitarian work when I was in high school. I spent several weeks in and around the slum communities of Mumbai, India. The poverty I saw horrified me and made me supremely uncomfortable. But this discomfort also empowered me. It instilled in me a tremendous sense of urgency, knowing that I really could, and really can, do something. Every day, I am inspired by my grandmother's passion, progressiveness and selflessness.Related: The People of Maloto: Giving Back
In the years following her work in Vietnam, my grandmother divorced, lost her sister and her mother. She quit smoking and drinking, and became a devout follower of Buddhist teachings and a leader in the San Francisco nonprofit community. She raised her children and invited the sick, weary and suffering into her home. She continued to travel, and continued to believe, that what she was receiving from the world around her was greater than she could ever offer in return.Related: Go It Alone: The Best Places for Solo TravelContact Indagare to plan your own community service–focused trip, or to learn about our upcoming Indagare Journey to Malawi and Zambia in partnership with a nonprofit organization.
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