A Camaraderie of Trip Leaders: Introducing GeoEx Guides
One of the greatest pleasures of my work with GeoEx is leading trips to Japan. I love introducing GeoEx travelers to the wonders of landscape, culture, cuisine, and artistic creation that I have found in four decades of exploring there, and I equally love introducing GeoEx travelers to the wonderful, warm, open-hearted, kind-spirited friends I have made over those decades. These explorations and encounters open up a part of Japan that other travelers rarely see, and they have become a profoundly rewarding and integral part of life for me.
But it wasn’t always this way. I actually owe my trip-leading good fortune to GeoEx. I have been a travel writer and editor for four decades, starting at the San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle for 15 years and then moving on to Salon and Lonely Planet. But I didn’t start leading trips until ten years ago. At that time, GeoEx’s trip designer extraordinaire Kate Doty—knowing that I had lived in Japan in the late ‘70s, had married a woman from the island of Shikoku, and had been exploring and writing about the country ever since—asked if I would consider accompanying an American couple on a private trip around Japan. “I’ve never guided anyone anywhere,” I told Kate, and she replied, “You’ve been writing about Japan for decades. You love the country and you know it more intimately than anyone else I know. And you love people—and people love you! You’re a natural!”
The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. Kate arranged for the couple and me to meet at the GeoEx office in San Francisco. After a wonderful, long, and laugh-filled first encounter, we enthusiastically agreed that we would like to travel together. So off we went! As it turned out, we spent an unforgettable two weeks exploring world-renowned monuments and little-visited back alleys, Michelin-starred restaurants and off-the-beaten-path eateries, contemporary art museums and venerable thatched-roof farmhouses.
I discovered that I loved being a trip leader, and I have been leading GeoEx trips ever since. The first was the Journey Through Ancient Japan exploration of Kyoto and Shikoku that I helped create and still lead. A few years ago, we added the Japan: Tip to Toe trip from Hokkaido to Kyushu, and we are planning to add more. Over time, I have come to realize that the fundamental reasons that led me to become a travel writer are abundantly fulfilled in the role of tour leader as well. My goal has always been to build bridges of understanding and connection in the world, to introduce people to a place that I have come to love, to explain how I came to love that place, and to describe what I have learned from it.
When you do this as a writer, you’re grateful if you get half a dozen letters and emails from people who have read your article. But when you do this as a tour leader, every day, learning brightens the faces right in front of you, delight blooms, transforming connections are forged. People from different cultures exclaim and laugh and hug together, right before your eyes. This is incredibly fulfilling. You build bridges of understanding and appreciation in the very process of traveling—and of course, these bridges run two ways, because the local people also come away from your encounters with a new understanding and appreciation as well. In this way, you make the world a closer, more appreciative, altogether better place. What could be more rewarding?
In fourteen years at GeoEx, I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of trip leaders and have corresponded with many more, and I think goals similar to my own motivate them all. They are passionate about the differences that enrich our world and about inspiring a wide range of inquisitive travelers to understand and value those differences; they are fervent storytellers and alchemical bridge-builders. Now that I’ve been a trip leader myself for 10 years, I understand from the inside how demanding this role can be—and how life-changing it can be as well. And I feel a kinship with the leaders that I hadn’t felt before.
In the animal kingdom, there are colorful collective nouns for groups, such as a prickle of porcupines, a tower of giraffes, and a dazzle of zebras. I couldn’t find a collective noun for a group of trip leaders, so I decided to invent one: a camaraderie. And I can say with authority that GeoEx’s camaraderie of trip leaders is truly extraordinary.
In normal times, these leaders are impossible to pin down. They’re invariably on the move, doing their life’s work—talking to travelers about the history, culture, and cuisine of the places that have captured their imaginations and hearts. But with the planet temporarily on pause, they have been momentarily immobilized, and this seemed the perfect opportunity to reach out to them. So we did. We asked a number of our long-term leaders to send us a short video talking to GeoEx travelers about what they love in the places where they lead trips.
More than a dozen have already responded with a rich and endearing range of short videos. Among these, famed mountaineer, writer, and philanthropist Peter Hillary extols the highlights of traveling in the Himalayas. Translator, author, and Middle East expert Sylvie Franquet shares her love for the ancient and abiding riches of Egypt and Iran. Standing on a seductively wide-open steppe in Mongolia, Ishbaljir “Ishee” Battulga, who was born to a nomadic family, describes how he loves introducing GeoEx travelers to his country’s generosity of space, the hospitality of people, and unique nomadic traditions. Revered raconteur Bill Jones, sheltering in place in Paris, talks about the spectacular landscapes, archaeology, and history of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria.
Renowned Africa adventurer Brad Hansen—whose accomplishments include the first circumnavigation of Africa by Land Rover, a trip that covered 35,000 miles—evokes the joys of sharing stories around a campfire under a starlit sky, listening to the calls of lions and hyenas. Tese Wintz Neighbor delightfully describes her “favorite place on the planet, Asia,” and her joy in traveling in search of daily surprises, from boisterous wedding dances to quiet mosques and temples.
Patagonian mountaineering magician Merlin Lipshitz, who has been climbing since age 15, invites us to experience his region’s unique mountains and glaciers, fascinating local culture, and rich history. Sara Barbieri poetically evokes her affinity for the landscape, culture, and people of Pakistan. And Bisher Alissa, who founded Syria Discovery, one of the first community‐based tourism and heritage preservation initiatives in that country, shares his joy in unraveling the secrets of the Middle East for GeoEx travelers to Saudi Arabia and Algeria.
Watching these videos is like being momentarily magic-carpeted around the globe. I love how the passion of each guide comes through so vividly. And I love how the particular pleasures of the places they visit come through so vividly as well. After viewing each video, I’ve thought, “I’d love to explore that place with this person!”
We’ve gathered all the GeoEx trip leader videos into one blog. When you’re in the mood for a little world tour, I enthusiastically encourage you to sit down and meet my colleagues in the field, around the globe. I think you’ll agree that they comprise a captivating camaraderie of wanderlust-whetting trip leaders.
Yours in abiding wanderlust,
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I truly appreciate all of your thoughts, words of encouragement, and dialogue all these weeks. Please continue to share your reflections below; it’s gratifying and inspiring to read your comments!
Lovely story and just want to tell you how much I look forward to your emails. Armchair travel, while no substitute for the real thing, is “enough” for now. Thank you for your exuberance.