From his childhood bedroom in Greensboro, Dr. Ranjan Sharma ’82 spent hours gazing at National Geographic maps he tacked to the walls. Fantasies about following in the steps of adventurers exploring Congo, maybe even triumphantly planting a flag on the North Pole, evolved into a dream of becoming an international diplomat.
“I thought about what it might be like to work for the State Department,” said Sharma, who instead followed his parents’ advice and pursued a medical career. “I’m glad I did. I love my work, and it has provided tremendous opportunities to see the world.”
While the allergist keeps close to Greensboro between March and June — high season for patients he treats at LeBauer Medical Center — he keeps a suitcase nearby. Just last November and December, he and husband Stacy Lawson went to New Mexico, Australia, Paris, and Trinidad and Tobago. The new year began with a three-week cruise to Antarctica.
Counting from early family trips to India and Europe, Sharma can push a pin in the maps of 192 member countries of the United Nations. After making it to Pakistan in 2018, only Libya remains unseen, and he intends to be there in March.
Sharma believes that little can top his visits to both the South Pole and North Pole in 2017. The arduous journeys brought rewards he never could have imagined in childhood: sights of polar bears and ice floes, a barbecue dinner atop a glacier, a true polar plunge and the chance to wave a large UNC flag in triumph at reaching those destinations.
While he doesn’t pack the flag for every journey, UNC gear has helped Sharma connect with people across the globe. He befriended a fellow UNC-clad alumnus upon arriving at a hotel in Niger and assured two university students in Hamburg, Germany, that their semester-abroad buddy was not overstating the appeal of the Chapel Hill campus.
Sharma’s UNC shirt even provided welcome comic relief during a helicopter ride in New Zealand that proved more scary than thrilling. “There were some Duke grads on the flight, and they joked the last thing they wanted to do was die in a helicopter with a Carolina fan.”
Sharma has encountered his share of turbulence while traveling. He visited Rwanda after the genocide and saw where the Taliban blew up ancient monuments in Afghanistan. His weekend in Paris was punctuated by Yellow Vest protests against President Emmanuel Macron.
In Romania in 1996, when his scheduled ride failed to appear at the train station, he was hauled to a police station for interrogation.
“They couldn’t believe I was there as a tourist,” said Sharma, who was released when officials finally accepted that he was merely an adventurous American. “There are downsides to travel where things go wrong, but you can’t let that stop you. In some places, the greatest risk in going is wanting to stay.”
— Jill Warren Lucas
Don’t limit yourself to easy destinations. “A new experience is a pleasure no matter where you go,” but the rewards can be greater if you’re willing to accept some inconvenience or risk. “The great experiences outweigh the negatives.”
Respect local culture and customs. “I learned Spanish in the seventh grade, and it’s helped me in so many places. But appreciating the spirit of people where you travel, their resilience and generosity, is just as important.”
Your fellow travelers can be as important as your destination. “We have met some of the most interesting people, and that leads to connections and experiences you could never predict. Also, as a physician, travel has helped me to break the ice with patients. If they are from somewhere else, I’ve probably been there.”