The Interview: Toni Neubauer
In the world of adventure travel, Myths and Mountains is unusual, a company that aims to get you inside a culture, not merely stop in for a visit. And the destinations include Nepal, Vietnam, Ecuador and Tanzania. It’s the brainchild of Dr. Antonia Neubauer, better known as Toni, a woman who speaks five languages, holds a Doctorate in Educational Administration as well as a Masters in French Literature, and has spent the past couple of decades building this unique vision. Neubauer is also the founder of READ Global, a nonprofit global organization dedicated to empowering communities by increasing literacy and access to education through the creation, advancement and leveraging of a replicable library-based model for sustainable economic development. READ Nepal was selected as recipient of the 2006 Access to Learning Award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. I caught up with her stateside.
Where are you now?
I am sitting at my desk in beautiful Incline Village, Nevada. Lake Tahoe. My answer to the Himalayas in the U.S. Every morning I pinch myself, not quite believing one can live in a place as beautiful as this. To come over Mount Rose after being away for several weeks, and to see Lake Tahoe glistening below, that is paradise.
Where have you just returned from?
I was trekking in Nepal and opening up READ India.
Tell us a bit about your background.
My background is education and languages. I have a doctorate in Educational Administration and an ABD in French Literature, taught languages for many years, then worked as a researcher for the mid-Atlantic Regional Laboratory, specializing in school business partnerships, literacy issues and at-risk children.
And when was Myths and Mountains was founded?
Myths and Mountains was an outgrowth of a trip to Nepal, where even the most basic things of my life – how you eat, go to the bathroom, say hello – were different, where people asked how you could blow your nose and put it in your pocket, sit on a toilet that others had sat on, or be "so rich" and not know how to walk. Where I, who spoke 5 languages could not even read the street signs and sat on a God, because he looked like a rock. I found a freshman at Bryn Mawr from Nepal, taught her to use the washing machine and she taught me Nepali. Then I went back to Nepal, people asked if they could go with me, and then asked where they were going next. The outgrowth was Myths and Mountains, incorporated in 1988.
Where most companies focus on destinations or activities, M&M focuses on concepts: what is a country about, and how do we design an itinerary to say that? What are the cultures and crafts, religions and pilgrimage sites, traditional medicines and natural healing, or environment and natural history? Although we do many group trips, our niche specialty is customizing unique trips for unique people. We have traveled all of our destinations ourselves, we know the people, places and guides, so it is easy to do exactly what a client wants, from very high end trips to trekking in remote areas. For example, if you want to learn about puppets in Vietnam, we can design a trip that does just that, from watching performances and learning to make puppets, to learning to use them and learning the dance. M&M works to bring people inside a culture, not let them stand outside as observers. For a small company, our commitment to social responsibility is huge – a true triple bottom line. What we are doing is not a bandaid approach to poverty, but a model that is systemic, sustainable, and comprehensive. Few travel companies have truly changed the lives of as many people as M&M has through its non-profit arm, and continues to change lives by expanding the READ program to other countries.
How would you characterize the Myths and Mountains approach?
Myths and Mountains believes that if we are to have a global society, it is critical to both understand and value other cultures. Therefore, our efforts are really geared to bringing travelers inside a culture and providing them with opportunities to truly learn from the people in other parts of the world. At the same time, there is much that others can learn from our travelers, so creating opportunites for exhange of thoughts is also important. We choose to use local guides – excellent leaders and friends – for the most of our trips, because they are the best teachers of their world. Moreover, it is important to support the local people and make a contribution to their world. In essence, experiential learning, creating a situation where people learn from each other, is at the heart of what we do.
Tell us a bit about READ. What led you to found it, and what does it do for people in Nepal?
When we started M&M, we set up a non-profit to give something back to the people in the countries in which we travel. We gave scholarships the first Nepali woman to graduate from an American medical school is someone we sponsored — put doctors in the Amazon, built benches and desks for schools. But these were bandaids on bleeding arteries. My background is education, and when Ang Domi mentioned that what he wanted most in his village was a library, light bulbs went off in my head. If you build a library in a village with a secondary school and a hub of elementary schools around it, you can touch a lot of lives. By the same token, I had seen many projects that failed. Children, spoiled by good hearted tourists who turned them into beggars, hospitals or schools that had been built by caring people that were empty, because either the builders supported them for the rest of their lives, or the villagers did not have enough money to keep them alive. Or World Bank projects that provided lots of money to foreign consultants for programs that never happened and never helped locals. The goal was both sustainability and freeing people from the cycle and mentality of dependence on foreign aid. Thus was born Rural Education and Development, using libraries as a nexus for educational, economic and social development in rural areas. Basically it is equalizing the disparity of opportunity between rural and urban areas and empowering villages to become more self-sufficient. To date, in Nepal, READ has built 41 libraries from one end of the country to another, put more than a quarter of a million Nepali books into Nepali villages, trained rural librarians and management committees, built sustaining projects (ambulances, furniture factories, fish ponds, storefront rentals, etc.) to both support the library community centers and generate extra money for village infrastructure, and linked villagers with other groups to provide literacy classes, clinics, women’s classes, microfunding opportunities, etc. In essence, READ has touched the lives of close to half a million Nepalis, created a flurry of interest in libraries and been a model of sustainable development in an aid world that creates very little that really lasts.
Tell us something of your philosophy of giving back, which seems to have a lot to do with First World travelers visiting Third World countries?
In reality, my philosophy of giving back is not confined to first world travelers and third world countries. I hate to throw children and people away, just because they are poor or different – whether here or abroad. It is a hand up, not a hand out, that really makes a difference. The goal is to help people to understand their own power and capacity to change their own lives. Change, to last, must be systemic. If you just build a library, and there is nothing to support it and no community involvement, it will not last. If you change the school curriculum and do not change the way people teach or administrators administer, you are wasting your time. Programs must be wholistic. The sad part about giving back is that it takes so little to make such a big difference. It costs us about $50,000 to build a library, sustaining project, etc. To totally change Nepal and blanket it with libraries would costs about $15 to $20 million dollars. In the scale of foreign aid, that is "diddly squat."
How often do you travel? Is it usually for business or pleasure?
Travel to me is something outside the country. Generally speaking I travel outside twice a year for business. Very rarely do I visit places that are not part of our M&M program. Leading a group is hard work, scouting new territory is not easy. On the other hand, there is tremendous pleasure and excitement in doing all of this. Thus, there is much pleasure in the business. The hardest part of travel is in this country, with its delays, restrictions, etc. I dread travel in the U.S. for the most part. That I do about every other month.
Travel to me is like going to school and learning something new. It is the most incredible way to expand your horizons, meet exciting people, learn new history, discover new worlds, change your values. It is a way to make friends who come from vastly different worlds with vastly different customs and values. I love every minute . . . once I get there. I detest getting ready to leave and returning. You are rushing to finish things before you leave and you are so pressured. Then, when you return, you are always behind and have to run to catch up. I detest the physical act of going and coming – airports, checking in, searches, lugging your bags around.
Is there a special place you’d like to visit?
Basically, I have been very lucky and visited places that I dreamed about as a child – dined on the banks of the Irrawady, crossed all of Tibet, ridden a camel on the silk road, dived the Great Barrier Reef. Everything from here on in is just "gravy". I have been from the top of the world – Mt. Everest – to the bottom of the world, diving the bottom of the ocean. If I have one more thing I want to do, it would be to take one of the "soucoupes " to the very deepest part of the ocean and see what is down there.
I love the motorcycle trips in Vietnam – really fun to create and do. Also, I love trips that cross cultures – Vietnam to China, Yunnan to Yangon, Vietnam to Cambodia, Vietnam to Laos. It is great to see how cultures change . . . and resemble each other.
What can’t you leave home without when you travel?
The vitamin C candies you get in the grocery store and my chapstick.
For more info, contact Myths and Mountains.