When Paul von Zielbauer decided to start a travel company in 2008, he knew it wasn’t going to be your typical Sandals experience. An award-winning journalist and Iraqi war correspondent for the New York Times, his idea was to take people off the beaten tourist path, give them a good bracing physical challenge – like climbing Kilimanjaro, surfing Nicaragua’s coast, or biking the Central Highlands of Vietnam – and then end with a few days doing a hands-on, start-to-finish service project for local communities in need.
Roadmonkey – von Zielbauer’s affectionate term for people like himself who have an inordinate love of serendipitous travel and an out-sized longing to make it meaningful—is the result. He calls his travel ethos Adventure Philanthropy, and that seems like a pretty good description of what Roadmonkeys are all about.
In small groups of about 10, Monkeys stay in small hotels run by local people, eat the real food of the country (like guinea pigs on a stick in Peru) and feel the joy of truly experiencing another geography, people and culture. But the real beauty of Roadmonkeys in my book is that it cuts the inherent indulgence of global travel with a good dose of organized volunteer work, done alongside people from the community.
Before they leave home, each Monkey will raise between $500 to $1,000 through his or her social networks to support a service project that is planned in conjunction with a nonprofit partner organization in the local community. These undertakings aren’t cursory, feel-good gestures – they’re significant, sustainable, and lasting projects that involve sweat, toil and blisters.
On previous trips, Roadmonkeys have built a school library in Tanzania, an organic greenhouse in Nicaragua, an adobe dye house for women weavers in Peru, and a playground for poverty-stricken kids in Vietnam. It’s hard work, but by all accounts, utterly satisfying …and for a lot of Roadmonkeys, these culminating projects are perhaps the high point of the trip.
I love the concept of Roadmonkeys so much, I couldn’t wait to write about it. If you want to get inspired to pack your bags, check out the irresistible facebook site and blog. And if you’re already an inveterate traveler with a gift for leadership, von Zielbauer’s plan is to train co-leaders who have the curiosity, openness and experience to grow the business – so he doesn’t have to go on every single trip himself. Seems he’s taken up surfing and is getting married, so the ultimate Roadmonkey may be looking homeward more often.
My $100 today will support the next service project on the trip to Patagonia in February – go, Roadmonkeys, go!