Invited by history teacher and fellow world-traveler, Tom Lamont P’ 09, ’12, Jonathan Ward ’02 included Groton in his travels this past month. Stopping on his way home from the Middle East, he shared his experiences as a budding polyglot, adventurer, and travel writer. Since graduating from Groton, Jonathan’s acquisition of languages has been insatiable. He has fluency in Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic and a working knowledge of French, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, and Indonesian round out his list.
After studying Dostevesky’s novels with Mr. Goodrich while at Groton, Jonathan opened his course catalog at Columbia University and discovered he could learn Russian and potentially read Crime and Punishment in its original language. Not only was the world of language opening up for him, but also the world itself. His love of and facility with languages enabled him to first envision and then execute travels across Asia, travels that he began in earnest shortly college graduation.
In his talk to current students and faculty he shared snippets of his various expeditions: time spent crossing Russia by train, months spent in rural China and Tibet, and bicycle and canoe trips that brought him down the Southeast Asian peninsula. He island-hopped throughout the Indonesian archipelago mostly by cargo ship, picking up the Indonesian language along the way.
Currently in the midst of writing five books that will document and connect his travels, he implored the Groton students to develop their language skills because “…the frontiers for our generation are beyond the United States and Europe.” His experiences, whether lost on a mountain above the Straits of Hormuz or his extended conversations with the captain of a cargo ship as they made their way around Indonesia, each speak to his willingness to open himself to the communities and cultures that he traverses.
When asked what prompted his current pursuits, he paraphrased a passage from fellow traveler and writer W. Somerset Maugham – that reading is the first form of travel. As a child and student he loved to read and delve into the experiences of people whose lives were vastly different than his own. Through a dual major in philosophy and Russian, he found that his philosophical and religious studies taught him to listen when others explained their cultures, belief systems, and desire to lead good and honorable lives. Jonathan also credited his time at Groton with teaching him how to learn from others; being in the company of intelligent and curious people encouraged him to think deeply and pursue his intellectual interests.
Jonathan explained how he used his travel to fine-tune his language acquisition. Entering any small village, he was always asked a similar set of questions. “Where are you from?” “Why are you here?” “Does your mother know what you are doing?” The ability to anticipate, listen for, and perfect an answer to these questions allowed him to concentrate on learning the dialect and mimicking the cadence in response. He also reminded students that there is an art to hospitality for the guest as well as the host. As a guest, he must be ready to offer to sleep with the pigs, and mean it, in order to show humility and gratitude for any offer of help from a stranger.
In closing he shared that his greatest asset when traveling was his status as an outsider. Being an outsider was a commodity, a trait that inevitably intrigued people, making it more likely that he would be welcomed into their homes and lives. We wish Jonathan happy trails and hope that his journeys will bring him back to the Circle again soon.