US Marine walks 8,000 kms to help kids smile
SINGAPORE – US Marine Sgt. Winston Fiore’s journey of 5,000 miles began with the proverbial single step – and, more importantly, a smartphone.
Days after he completed his year-long trek, which took him to nine countries around Asia, Fiore recounted his trip to raise funds and awareness for the International Children's Surgical Foundation, an organization that provides free facial reconstructive surgery – mostly cleft repairs -- to children in developing countries.
“If I tried to pull something like this five years ago, all of this superfluous gear I have to bring with me -- a clunky GPS device, an extra camera, a separate MP3 player, a dictionary, a physical phrase book, physical maps for all of the countries that I'd be passing through,” he told members of the international media in Singapore, where he was a guest of tech giant Google Inc.
“You fast forward five years, all of that fits neatly into this sleek portable device known as an Android smartphone,” he said.
Fiore is a self-confessed fan of Google products, which he relied on heavily from the time he set out to plan his 8,000-kilometer route until he completed his “Smile Trek” mission on November 17.
Among these products were Google Latitude, which allowed his friends and family to track his current location through his mobile phone; and Google Translate, which helped him communicate, especially in rural areas where the locals do not speak any English. But the most useful of these products proved to be Google Earth and Google Maps.
Fiore said the idea to do the trek was hatched in 2007.
“I knew that I wanted to walk for a year to raise money for this cause. I knew that I wanted it to be a distance that would be achievable within a year's time -- around 5,000 miles -- or 8,000 kilometers -- seem like an achievable distance. And I knew that I wanted to focus to route, the trek, in Southeast Asia because for whatever reason there is a slightly higher birth rate of cleft (palates) in Southeast Asia than in other parts of the world,” he recalled.
“But I had no idea what countries in Southeast Asia that I would walk through. I had no idea what the route was going to be. So using Google Earth and taking a step back and looking at the region at large, I immediately noticed that all of the regional capitals here form this convenient circle. And I thought wouldn't it be fun to just connect the dots. And I did,” he narrated.
“But at the time, in 2007, five years ago, there still was a lot of map data missing. Thanks to this feature in Google Earth, I was able to scan physical maps and overlay them on the virtual map, and align them and this gave me the information I needed, and the road information, to carve out a trek and a distance,” he said.
Fiore began his journey, which has been dubbed “Smile Trek,” on October 3, 2011 in Singapore and it took him to Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Laos and the Philippines.
At the Google event, Fiore arrived clad in the same outfit he wore during his incredible journey. He also showed off his trusty cell phone and his backpack, which weighed around 20 pounds. “This was my home for a year. This was what I lived out of,” he said.
But to get around, he relied mainly on the Walking Directions feature of the Google Maps for Android app.
Unlike driving directions, which provide users with the quickest route from one point to another, he said Google’s walking directions are more focused on finding the shortest distance.
For instance, with driving directions, he said one can be stuck on a highway for hundreds of kilometers “because that's where you have very generous speed limits.”
“But obviously speed limits are not relevant when you're traveling on foot so this (app) simply gives you the shortest distance, which is the most efficient way to travel on foot,” he explained.
“By traveling this way -- by being routed from maybe a highway one moment, a back road in the middle of nowhere another moment, a walking trail after that -- you get to discover all of these different landscapes and parts of the country that you're traveling in that I know I never would have the opportunity to come across if I had not been routed with Walking Directions,” he added.
He cited his experience in northern Taiwan, where he was told to turn right from a highway and onto a two-foot wide, mossy brick walking trail through a forest, which led him to a small Buddhist temple.
“It's these tiny welcomed interruptions that would occur regularly over the course of the trek where again I would go from being on this main highway and be taken to this area, this serene landscape in the middle of nowhere and resume the trek and get to discover these areas I know I would not have had the opportunity to discover if it hadn't been for Walking Directions,” he said.
In the Philippines, Fiore walked from Ilocos Norte down to Batangas and Mindoro and on to El Nido and Buliluyan in Palawan.
The 27-year-old Marine, who once served in Afghanistan, described the Filipinos as "some of the most hospitable people I ever encountered, some of the nicest.”
“Palawan was an exceptional experience because it was very, very rural, and I remember one day I made it into this village. It was the most remote village I've ever been to in the entire trek. It was a literally a community where they had a water pump for the entire village, no electricity, nothing, and a family took me in and let me sleep in their living room of their thatched hut,” he told the Filipino reporters in Singapore.
“And one of the girls there had a cleft lip that she had repaired but she also had a cleft palate that was unrepaired. So now the charity that I'm funding for is working with the provincial government to try to organize a medical mission to get this girl help and to get other children in Palawan that I met with with deformities help,” he said.
Along the way, he said he also met several Filipino Marines, noting the “special relationship” between the United States and the Philippines.
Fiore actually spent more time in the Philippines than in any other country during his year-long trip.
“The charity I'm raising for is more active in the Philippines than in any other country. It worked out perfectly as my time in the Philippine coincided with the regular medical mission they have in Dipolog City in Mindanao. So I took a month off to go to that medical mission. I was in the operating room every day, meeting the families, meeting the kids, and that was an amazing experience -- meeting all these people for the first time, seeing all the change that occurs,” he narrated.
He also thanked ABS-CBN, singling out the media company’s regional network group in Ilocos Norte and Puerto Princesa.
“ABS-CBN was huge in getting the word out,” he said.
Short of target
Asked if he is planning another trip, Fiore said that that part of his life is done. In fact, he can’t wait to head back home to Indiana for the holidays – his first time back in the U.S. after over 400 days on the road. He also said he will eventually move to Chicago for a new job.
For his efforts, Fiore has raised $71,100 for the children's foundation, slightly short of his $75,000 goal.
“My initial target was $25,000 and then I bumped up the target, so now my new target is $75,000. So technically I'm still below target,” he said.
Donors, however, can visit his website www.smiletrek.org to help him reach that goal, which would help an estimated 300 children get their smile back.
Fiore estimated that one surgery costs on average $250.