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U.S. Marine Sgt. Winston Fiore walked 5,000 miles. In October of 2011, he set off across Southeast Asia with only the boots on his feet, a 20 pound carrying vest, and the resources of his Android phone. Titled “Smile Trek,” this epic journey was in an effort to raise money for the International Children’s Surgical Foundation (ICSF).
Now more than a year later, travel weary and filled with memories, Fiore has returned to America with over $70K for the cause.
Fiore joined the Marine Corps in 2004 on an eight year contract. He was deployed to Senegal and embarked on a three week training exercise with Senegalese commandos. This was his first time visiting a developing country and Fiore said those interactions dramatically shifted the course of his life.
“It was an eye-opening experience to be in a culture that was fundamentally different from what I was used to,” he said in an interview with VentureBeat. “Witnessing all of these local customs made me realize how little of the world I had seen. I decided to carve out one year to travel to a part of the world I had never been.”
Once this idea took root in his mind, Fiore had to decide where to go. He looked at a map on Google Earth and saw that the capital cities in Southeast Asia form a “neat little circle” of 5,000 miles. He would start in Singapore, and then travel across Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the Phillipines, Brunei and back to Singapore.
Fiore’s desire to travel was not only motivated by wanderlust. The poverty he witnessed while in Senegal profoundly impacted his outlook on the world, and he wanted to give back in some way. Soon after returning home from his duty, Fiore’s father showed him a newspaper article about Dr. Geoff Williams, a surgeon who gave up a lucrative career in the U.S. to provide free reconstructive surgeries to children in developing countries. This story resonated with Fiore and he chose Dr. Williams’ organization as his chosen cause.
“While cleft lips can cause feeding complications for infants and later, and flawed speech, it was the overwhelming element of shame that drew me to this cause,” Fiore wrote on his blog. “A cleft lip is up close and personal. It is the first impression. It, of course, appears on the most expressive part of the body, and unless it gets fixed, a cleft never goes away.”
Procedures of this nature are relatively inexpensive. They cost around $250 and only take a couple of hours. It is a problem that is widespread and pernicious, yet fixable. The ICSF has missions all over the world where they perform reconstructive operations and allot for post-surgical care and recovery time. The organization also trains local doctors so they work can continue after the mission ends.
Fiore began fundraising for ICSF before his departure by visiting rotary clubs around the U.S. He easily reached his initial goal of $25K and all the money he earned went directly to the ICSF. He paid for travel expenses with savings.
His travel costs were low, considering he rarely spent money on transportation and lived frugally. The entire journey happened on foot, except when it was impossible to do so. In a post on Google’s official blog, Maps project manager Jennifer Chen described his Android phone as “the hub of the entire operation.” He used Google Maps walking directions to navigate through remote villages, farms, rice paddies, urban jungles, and mountainous terrain, and maneuvered language barriers and cross-cultural situations using his Samsung Galaxy Note 2.
“I spent a lot of time in unorthodox places where you wouldn’t find any pedestrians,” Fiore said. “I made sure to face traffic and wear reflectors on my vest. You might be on a three lane highway and told to turn right onto a dirt road that you can barely see, and end up in sugarcane farms in middle of nowhere. It allows you to experience this part of the world you wouldn’t know to go through.”
Fiore was a light packer, to say the least. He rarely ever carried food with him because he found that Southeast Asia is, for the most part, so densely populated, it was uncommon to walk more than a couple of kilometers without running into a roadside eatery or a place to rest. While serving in the military, one of the most meaningful parts of his experience was engaging closely with the local people. He sought out the same degree of connections during Smile Trek by staying in local homes whenever he could and patronizing local business. His commitment to deviating from the tourist trail put him in closer contact with the people he was trying to help.
“I was getting close to the Chinese border and all of a sudden, a gentlemen on a scooter passes me,” Fiore recalled. “I saw that he had a severe facial deformity known as ‘Elephant Man Syndrome’ and I immediately see he needs help. He stopped his scooter at a fish market and I finally worked up the courage to approach to him. I used Google Translate to say ‘I know a doctor who can help you, would you be interested in free surgery?’ and he understood. The stars were aligned because we were only 100k south of a city where ICSF has a regular medical mission. He is scheduled for surgery in May.”
These types of interactions happened frequently over the course of his 408 day journey. Fiore said that there were a lot of emotional ups and downs and the adventure was physically, mentally, and emotionally taxing. He had a lot of time to reflect, think, and of course, surf the web from his mobile phone.
“Smile Trek was months and months of walking,” he said. “There was a lot of monotony involved, but with the hyper connectivity of today, it is possible to have the internet in your pocket. I can be crossing across a National Park in Laos and having a Facebook conversation with a friend of mine. It is definitely a crazy phenomenon, but it prevents you from losing your mind to know family and friends are just an email away. This was a completely different experience from even just five years ago.”
Some of his thoughts were occupied by plans for the future. During this adventure, Fiore became interested in urban agriculture and he decided to dedicate the next chapter of his life to learning as much as possible about this movement. He returned home to Bloomington, Indiana just under a week ago and has plans to move to Chicago to work on a rooftop farm. After he spends some quality time with his family and takes a few weeks to put his feet up. Literally.