Profile: On the Road to Self-Discovery
Globetrotting Toastmaster shares
tales from “spiritual safari.”
By Julie Bawden Davis
Photo Caption: Miller pulls up seedlings in the rice paddies
in Moon Hill, China, during a 1992 trip.
Ron Miller considers himself successful when he makes his audiences rethink their most basic cultural beliefs. The author, who speaks regularly about the years he spent traveling the world, loves sparking an “Aha” moment among his listeners – and sometimes that moment comes when he explains the title of his book, Escape from the Happy Cannibal: A Journey of the Soul.
Says Miller: “The title of my book is a play on the ultimate cultural question we can all ask ourselves: If we were born into a society of cannibals, would we question the values and behaviors of our society – or just be happy cannibals?”
In the book, the author chronicles his travels through 85 countries, on six continents. Miller, a member of Shaw Speakers in Knoxville, Tennessee, describes climbing active volcanoes such as Mount Merapi in Indonesia, harvesting rice in China, and narrowly escaping execution by rebels in Uganda. He reflects on the wide range of societies he visits, examining spiritual and cultural issues. His account shares how much he learns in his encounters with poverty, tyranny, racism and even revolution, and he relates the value of hearing the distinct perspectives of the people he meets.
The Knoxville resident joined Toastmasters in 2000, largely so he could develop the skills needed to promote his book. He says being a Toastmaster has helped greatly in that regard, and he has used those skills at book signings and during appearances on radio and television.
Originally, Miller embarked on his travel adventure as a quest for spiritual enlightenment. By age 29, he had lived what many would consider the American dream. A successful civil engineer, he owned a three-bedroom home in the suburbs and could buy just about anything he wanted. But he yearned for something more.
“I had become dissatisfied with superficial contentment, and began noticing that societal pressures were dragging me into a lifestyle valuing materialism and pleasure over more meaningful experiences,” he says. In response, he quit his job, sold his home and most of his possessions, and set out on a “spiritual safari” to learn more about himself. Miller had originally planned to wander for just five months, but he was bitten hard by the travel bug and ended up spending a total of more than three years abroad in a series of trips from 1991 to 2001.
“I discovered that roaming about the face of the planet offered many benefits beyond sightseeing,” Miller says. “Although I initially traveled just to look upon spectacular landscapes, I quickly realized that the unique cultures and fascinating people left the greatest impressions.”
Seeing History Up Close
Some of the countries he visited were experiencing domestic unrest and historic upheaval, like the Soviet Union. During Miller’s August, 1991 stay, a rebel government tried to replace President Mikhail Gorbachev.
He recalls being in the Soviet Union and finding out that a group of hard-line Communists had placed Gorbachev under house arrest, while protesters stormed the Russian Parliament building. Miller wrote about the experience in his travel log:
We had little idea what a momentous day that was in the Soviet Union and that the nation
was at a critical point in which its citizens would either continue down the road toward freedom
and democracy or return to an oppressive dictatorship.
For several days, Miller and his travel companions feared they would be rounded up and arrested. Finally, their guide told them the coup had been foiled and Gorbachev returned to power. “We were probably the last Westerners in the entire world to get the facts about the coup, and we were inside the country when it happened!” he says, marveling at the situation.
On the same trip, Miller had the pleasure of meeting relatives who live in the Ukraine. It soon became apparent to him just how poor their living conditions were. When he went to buy groceries for them, he found the store shelves nearly empty. “Ukrainian citizens waited in line for staples such as bread, milk and butter, and the water would only turn on at certain times of the day,” he says. After a month-long, memorable visit with his relatives, Miller departed having made strong attachments and learning a great deal about the important things in life.
“Visiting the Ukraine impressed upon me the aspects of life that should be cherished. It isn’t the clothes I wear, the car I drive, or my status in society that matters – what matters most are my relationships with my fellow man. I formed a close bond with relatives who practiced dissimilar customs and, in some instances, believed in ideologies contrary to my own.”
Time for Toastmasters
When he returned to the United States after his final trip – which included excursions to Africa, India, Iceland, Greenland and another visit to relatives in the Ukraine – Miller thought his travel journals would make a good book. Publishing his story, though, would mean marketing the book, and that terrified him. When a colleague invited him to a Toastmasters meeting, he immediately accepted, knowing that it could help make him more comfortable with communicating his message and promoting his work.
“Becoming a Toastmaster was the best decision I ever made,” says Miller. “The group showed me how to get my message across in a meaningful way.”
Robert Schwall, president of the Rotary Club of East Cobb County in Georgia, praises Miller, who gave a talk to the club about his travels. “We hung on to Ron’s every word and were especially amazed at how his innate curiosity [caused] him to sell everything and travel the world with no particular agenda in mind other than to find out why the world is how it is,” Schwall says. “As he talked about the various cultures he experienced, we got the message that though we are all raised in different environments, people are all the same.”
Miller has also started speaking to children’s groups. “It’s valuable to expose younger folks to the concept of cultural assimilation and the cultural disparity that exists around the world,” he says. “Simply telling elementary school students that they would be different people if they were born in another culture seems to have tremendous power. I think this message is important for them to hear in our multicultural society and global economy.”
Karen Mull, a fifth-grade teacher in Morganton, North Carolina, was impressed with Miller’s talk to her class. She believes he is good at opening the eyes of youth.
“Ron instantly captivated the students by engaging them through the use of visuals,” says Mull, a reading and language arts teacher at Forest Hill Elementary School. “We have a very diverse student population, and many of the visuals were relevant to the students’ [native cultures]. He left them with an understanding of the need for all humanity to cooperate with and appreciate one another.”
In the future Miller plans to reach out to as many people as possible with his message. “In spite of different beliefs and customs among cultures throughout the world, it is important to value – above all else – our common humanity,” he says. “Our planet’s diverse people are the true wonders of the world.”
For more information about Ron Miller and his book Escape from the Happy Cannibal, visit http://www.rontravel.com/.
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer based in Southern California and a longtime contributor to the Toastmaster. You can reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.