Being a teacher once got Rufus McGaugh out of a jam in Africa. The world traveler found himself in prison for “blowing up the Air Force of Zimbabwe” (he hadn’t). His Brownell Middle School ID, however – proof he was a teacher, not a terrorist – ultimately secured his freedom.
That’s just one of this retired Grosse Pointe Public Schools social studies teacher’s stories. He has heaps. After all, as of last May, McGaugh achieved a rare goal: He’s visited all 252 countries that have been on the planet in 49 years’ time (the last, Libya, was “the most dangerous,” he says). And in his new book, Longitude and Latitude, with Attitude – One Man’s Quest to See the Entire World, he chronicles his adventures from the Alps to the Azores, from Tajikistan to Timbuktu.
Neither of his parents graduated from high school. He didn’t have much money. No one he knew had traveled anywhere, let alone overseas.
His fifth-grade social studies class at a small Catholic school in Warren – and the textbook he read cover to cover on the first day – opened his eyes and captured his imagination. Coming home alive from a tour of duty in Vietnam gave him an appreciation for how precious life is. He committed then to see and do everything. And so he did – on a wing, a prayer and a shoestring, collecting passport stamps and free airline “barf bags” (400 once covered his classroom walls) along the way.
In the 45 years McGaugh taught at Brownell, he never used a textbook. Instead, he used real-life stories, slideshows from his travels and the daily newspaper. Here McGaugh, a father of two sons who’ve traveled extensively too, shares some of the lessons he’s learned – and travel tips for families.
Do you usually travel with your wife and kids?
My wife Monica has traveled to 63 countries with me. My oldest son Eric, 21, has been to 37. My youngest son Jason, 14, has been to 17.
When is it OK for a child to miss school for travel?
Always. I say that as both an educator and a parent. Travel is a great educator. Travel experiences expand one’s horizons and challenges one’s ideas and views.
What have your travels taught you about what unites and separates the people of the world?
The people of every area of the world share common values and aspirations. No matter what region or country, people are centered on their family and community – no matter what race, color, ethnic group or religion they are. Prejudice, bias and politics … do more to separate people than anything else.
How can parents make travel as educational as possible for their children?
Get outside the compound, resort or lodge. Go exploring, walking or hiking. Do a road trip, long or short. Visit everything a location has to offer: historic sites, museums.
What are the pros and cons of international student exchange programs?
There are no cons. A young person in an international exchange program will experience not only fun and adventure but face a number of interesting challenges in dealing with a new culture, language or customs.
What does travel do to enhance kids’ performance in school – and in life?
I feel travel will enhance a student’s views of the world by being more knowledgeable and worldly. This is something important that carries over into adulthood.
What can novice travelers do to avoid stress, danger and mishaps?
Plan ahead. Once at your destination, do not do anything illegal, immoral or stupid. If anything does go awry, don’t panic but look at it as an adventure and a great future story.
What is a great destination for a family with young children?
Caribbean island vacations were our favorite when my kids were young.
How about for a family with teens?
Anywhere. That was not meant to be a smart-aleck answer. Kids are flexible, adventuresome and full of energy and inquisitiveness. Let the teenagers join in the planning and daily activities. And for goodness’ sake, don’t forget the hotel pool at the end of the day for them to burn off even more energy, relax and have fun.
Outside of your trip to Russia to adopt your son Eric, what is your favorite destination?
I guess I will have to go with hiking in the Swiss Alps. It seems to have everything: beauty, nature, scenery, good people, excellent food and is one of the more efficient countries on earth.
How did travel influence you as a teacher?
Travel became my curriculum. Each trip and adventure was a learning process for me to bring back to my students in the way of photography, stories, lectures, artifacts, souvenirs and experiences.
What perspective has traveling given you on being an American?
I always tried to be an ambassador for my country rather than the rude “ugly American.” My travels have taught me to appreciate the many blessings of being an American citizen. I am not just talking about the economic prosperity I share as an American – but the far greater benefits of living in a free democracy with liberty.
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski