TEACHER, TRAVELLER, TALKER: A tribute to Peter McSheffrey
No one is born a fearless, compassionate traveller. That’s a learned and practiced skill, combined with a very special personality.
Many people spend their lives crossing the world without really testing themselves, finding comfort in the lobbies of expensive hotels, the classy bars in ex-pat communities or the convenience of pre-arranged tours and excursions.
Peter McSheffrey was not this kind of traveller.
I knew my Uncle Peter before I started this blog, before I became a journalist and before I ever set foot abroad.
In fact, he was probably there taking pictures of me when I had my first real travel experience — from one end of the kitchen to the next, in pink slippers and one-piece pyjamas.
Growing up, I can’t say I really paid attention to the lessons he tried to teach me — he was a grown-up and grown-ups were boring. As a 10-year-old, I had better things to do.
It wasn’t until I became an adult that I learned to appreciate his knowledge, his wisdom and his big, big heart.
I have always been fascinated with Uncle Peter’s creativity. Most of my family is musically-gifted, but Peter created the most beautiful paintings and took the most astounding pictures.
As a burgeoning artist and photographer, I was always jealous.
When I asked, he would give me tips on visual art and how to make my drawings look real, but I never had to ask for his advice on the other stuff — taxes, investing, networking and resumes.
Peter always had a way of pushing this information on me whether I was ready for it or not. Sometimes, I felt overwhelmed and intimidated, but I know it was because he knew what he was talking about and he wanted me to know it too.
When I came back from West Africa and started my career, I thought I had accomplished enough for the time being, and earned at least, a temporary break.
But that wasn’t what Peter had in mind for me.
He pushed and he pushed. He wanted me to do everything in my power to ensure my own success. He wanted me to reach my full potential because he loved me.
My Dad frequently called him the smartest man he had ever known. When I was younger, all I knew was that my brother and I would often plot ways to give Uncle Peter a life-changing wedgie.
I knew that Peter pulled his socks up to his knees and he never flushed the toilet when he used my bathroom for a number one (this was an eco-friendly habitat of his).
And I have never identified more with this Uncle Peter than in the last two years, when we have been able to share our love of travel.
I fancy myself a young world traveller, but my experience is paltry compared to Peter’s.
When he married my Aunt LeeAnn, they spent years together trotting the globe from India to Indonesia; from Russia to Vietnam. He has lived in Bermuda, hiked Patagonia and taken his family through Ecuador, Belize and Morocco.
When I visited his house in Ottawa, I would always stop and stare at the startling images mounted on his wall. I would ask where they were taken, but I only really started paying attention to the answers around age 15, when my thirst for travel started developing.
From then on, I watched with envy as he climbed the Rockies with my Dad and Uncle Tim, two of his best friends and travel companions. Together, they explored a time-frozen culture in conflicted Burma, crossed paths with monks in beautiful Laos and explored the ruins of ancient Cambodia.
Most recently, they camped under the desert stars in Namibia, where they watched the ‘Big Five’ compete at waterholes, and tip-toed the peaks of sky-high sand dunes. They were even lucky enough to visit a traditional Himba village and record the songs of the children who lived there.
I remember thinking how “unfair” it was that they got to have such incredible adventures, but years and years later, I certainly understand why I wasn’t invited.
Uncle Peter never took the beaten path when he travelled abroad alone or with friends. Instead, he did research and consulted other travellers. He scoured the Internet, bought books and found unusual ways to make the most of his trip.
Even then, he would change his plans at the drop of a hat to have tea with a stranger, teach math in a Burmese classroom, or pickup a Himba hitchhiker and her baby on the way to town.
Throughout these experiences, Peter remained a culturally-sensitive and gracious guest. Unlike many travellers or travelling professionals, he recognized that he wasn’t there to impose his ways, but to learn from the wisdom and insight of others.
And then, he would share his experiences with the world so everyone could benefit from his discoveries:
- “Losing yourself (and everything else) in Luang Prabang,” by Peter McSheffrey (Ottawa Citizen, 2011)
- “B is for Burma: My glimpse into rural classrooms in one of the world’s poorest countries,” by Peter McSheffrey (Ottawa Citizen, 2011)
Uncle Peter loved many things, but he really loved to talk. I know this because for the last few months, he spent most of our time together interrupting me.
He would ask a question and I would answer, but before I could finish, he would ask another question that made my answer look trivial. He had a way of flaunting his expertise and a chuckle that told you he knew he was clever.
And he was. I just never appreciated his dry sense of humour until I was old enough to realize he wasn’t making fun of me. Peter would make jokes that would fly right by your head if you weren’t paying attention, and in addition to calling him the smartest man he ever knew, my Dad also said he was the funniest.
But Peter didn’t only talk about why my LinkedIn account was pointless unless I was actually going to use it — he talked about travel for hours at a time.
And what separated him from most people I know is that he wasn’t only a talker, but a profound and meaningful listener as well.
He emailed me regularly throughout my time in Sierra Leone and was the first to compliment every new blog post. But he wasn’t writing to check in on whether I was sick, whether I liked my new house, the food or the rain. He knew I was an adult and could handle those challenges.
Peter wrote me to share my experiences. He wanted to know more about the culture, the people and how I related to them. He would answer with anecdote and time-tested advice.
He carried our relationship when I moved to Alberta, through email and Skype whenever he could. He came to visit when I went home for the holidays, to talk about work and world and ways.
And boy, did Uncle Peter ever have ways.
First and foremost, Peter was a giver — a giver of time, money, interest and friendship. He was a compassionate volunteer at home and abroad, and spent seven years as a treasurer for SOS Children’s Villages. He coached a handful of youth recreational soccer programs and still rarely missed family lunches on Sundays.
He was also an inspiring environmentalist. Because of him, I haven’t used a straw in nearly a decade. It may seem trivial, but he once pointed out at a fast food restaurant that straws are a completely unnecessary generator of waste (this has since become very trendy).
Today, I recycle water and reuse scrap paper, and I know he would be proud of me.
Peter McSheffrey was not that kind of traveller. And he lived his life the way he travelled: To the fullest, every minute of every day.
He loved poetry. He borrowed my movies and never returned them. He drank beer with the boys and played poker with friends. He never flushed the toilet when he came to my house.
He loved his wife and his children more than anything in the world, and the hole he leaves in our lives is immeasurably deep.
He has touched so many, and although most will not remember him the way I do, they will know that he was three things above all else: A TEACHER, A TRAVELLER, A TALKER.
Peter McSheffrey was killed in a Taliban attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Jan. 17, 2014. It was the largest massacre of foreign civilians in the country since the war started nearly 13 years ago. For more information, click here.