My children were shocked last week when I told them what I wanted for Christmas this year.
I asked for a pig. Or a goat. Or some chickens. Or maybe even a heifer. Oh, not for me, but for someone in Bangladesh or Darfur or some other impoverished country where some barnyard animals could truly change a family’s life.
If you’re like me and have trouble giving your children a gift suggestion that would be meaningful for them and appreciated by you, may I make a suggestion? Why not ask them to give a gift to someone else in your name?
I have been very impressed by the work being done around the world by Heifer International. You will be, too, if you go to their website here. Another organization that has earned my support is World Vision. Their motto this year says it very well: “Sponsoring a child is the greatest gift you can give this Christmas.” Check them out here.
Or how about helping someone start a business? In many parts of the world a loan of just $25 or $50 can be truly transforming. And please note that I said “loan,” not “gift.” There are many wonderful organizations around the world that supervise such tiny loans; it’s called “microfinancing,” and it can also change lives. Go online, Google the word and pick a group whose mission and accomplishments you like. Then send them some money.
My friends can’t say enough good things about these three microfinancing organizations: Grameen Foundation, Kiva and Project Concern International. Please check them out and, if you feel so inclined, send them a check so they can expand their marvelous work.
The numbers can be astounding: Kiva has helped loan more than $175 million to about 450,000 people in more than 100 countries around the world. Eighty-one percent of the recipients are women. And their payback rate is an astounding 98.99 percent. Grameen has made more than a million loans with similar results. I hope you will help them do even more.
For nearly 200 years, Americans have been known for their incredible generosity. We give away more of our wealth than any other nation that ever existed. And no, I am not talking here about foreign aid, our military presence or any other governmental program. I am referring to the staggering amount of time, money and goods that we contribute privately. As I said, we are the most generous, caring, giving people who have ever lived.
But unfortunately, for many reasons, our giving has declined dramatically in the past couple of years. The nation’s 400 biggest charities reported an 11 percent drop in donations last year. That’s the worst decline since the Chronicle of Philanthropy began keeping records 20 years ago.
Part of the decline is no doubt because of the financial crisis we have suffered; many of us simply don’t have the same resources we once did. I suspect that an even bigger explanation is our worries about the future. If we believe our savings won’t earn as much, our taxes will go up and our jobs are not as secure as they once were, of course we’re going to become more conservative in our spending and in our giving. That just makes sense.
But as a result, some truly wonderful groups doing amazing good around the world have had to reduce their efforts. This holiday season, please give one of them some help. In fact, if you have a favorite charity that needs support, go to the comments section at the end of today’s column and tell us about it.
If you still need a gift idea for someone near and dear to you, let me mention one that won’t cost very much yet could yield many hours of enjoyment. It’s a delightful travelogue called 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Let me assure you, it will make a wonderful present for every armchair traveler on your list.
What sort of places can you visit vicariously in 1,000 Places? How about the world’s largest oasis? It’s the Okavango Delta in Botswana, southern Africa. And as author Patricia Schultz says, “If you see 10 percent of what sees you, it’s an exceptional day.”
Or sail the Grenadines. It’s 32 islands and hundreds of tiny cays, strung like a necklace of gems across 40 miles of some of the clearest, calmest, blue-green waters in the Caribbean. Or tour the covered souks of Aleppo, Syria, where the labyrinthine streets seem straight out of A Thousand and One Nights, and frankincense and myrrh are still sold in open-air markets.
The more athletic can hike the Tasman Glacier in Mount Cook National Park on the South Island of New Zealand, or climb the Tuscan hills to one of Italy’s most charming walled cities, San Gimignano.
There’s a comprehensive index at the back so you can quickly look up a particular place. In addition to a general index, the publisher has very cleverly added subject-specific indexes — the best beaches, festivals and special events, culinary experiences, destination restaurants, castles and palaces and glories of nature, among others.
One of the biggest surprises I found in 1,000 Places was how many of the 190 destinations in the United States were places I had never heard of. But thanks to good luck and lots of traveling, I can put a check mark next to many of the destinations. And I heartily concur with the inclusion of each one, from the very obscure (the Million-Dollar Highway that runs between Silverton and Durango, Co.) to the obvious (Walt Disney World in Orlando or the Bellagio in Las Vegas).
This column is taking me a long time to write, because I keep stopping to read about another marvelous destination… or two, or three… every time I pause to check something. So let me wrap up my enthusiastic description of the book by noting that 1,000 Places to See Before You Die is 974 pages long and costs $19.95 in a trade paperbound edition. At two cents per description, the book is one heck of a bargain. But stick around and I’ll tell you how to get it for even less.
Book Bargains Abound
I’m sure you’re already familiar with two of the best sources on the web for just about any title that’s ever been published — Amazon.com and bn.com, the Barnes and Noble website. You’ll find hundreds of thousands of titles, both new and used, on both. (By the way, Amazon has a special on 1,000 Places. You can get a copy for $11.97. Or just $9.99 for an e-version.)
I’m a big fan of both sites. But are you familiar with an even bigger and more addictive source for used books of every variety and description? It’s called abebooks.com. And every book-lover should mark it as one of their favorites.
I first discovered AbeBooks several years ago. At the time, it consisted of several hundred used bookstores, mostly in the U.S. and Canada, and had something like 40,000 titles listed. Today AbeBooks consists of more than 10,000 used bookstores from every corner of the globe. And it brags that it has more than 50 million titles in its online inventory. What a book browsers’ delight!
Out of curiosity, I just went to Abebooks.com and looked up 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. I found 381 offerings, starting at just $3.64 with free shipping. The most expensive version was $172.40 and no, it isn’t printed on gold.
Among the many miracles that the Internet has produced for me, I put AbeBooks near the top of the list. It’s an amazing resource. If you’re a booklover too (and you must be, if you enjoy this column), go to abebooks.com and look for some titles you’d love to add to your collection. Chances are you’ll be happily surprised by the number of choices you’ll have… and the money you can save.
And remember, nobody ever returned a book because it didn’t fit.
Until next time, keep some powder dry.