Where are you from and where have you lived?
I grew up in a small town (pop. 3,000), in rural southeastern Indiana, among the most lovely, rolling, forested hills and fields of corn and soybeans that anyone can imagine. Nature and its streams were a short bicycle ride away, and as a young kid, I'd go fishing in untamed jungle-like creeks every day in the summertime. I fed the family with fresh-caught bluegill, sunfish, and catfish.
I loved my hometown of Batesville, and, although admittedly too parochial, I was grateful to grow up in a gentle land where everyone knew each other and looked out for each other, and where you could leave your keys in the car.
That upbringing gave me a clear and deeply positive belief that people are basically good. Now after my personal experiences in 200+ countries, that genuine belief and value system has been even more affirmed by the goodness of most people everywhere else. That is the heart of travel: experiencing the goodness and the common humanity in us all.
The rest of my life has been devoted to personal travel and free-lance tour leading. For 38 years, my home base is Venice Beach in Los Angeles, where I spend only about 20% of the year, with the remaining 80% "on the road”. And guess what? I love LA! It is one of my sunniest homes.
Tell us about yourself -- what path led you to become a Zegrahm Leader?
Looking back, I now realize that my preparation to become a Zegrahm leader really began in my childhood. By the time I graduated from high school, I had frugally saved enough money to go to Europe by myself. During the summer of 1965, I hitchhiked around 12 countries, including communist East Germany. I got busted for sleeping on a beach on the Riviera and thrown in jail for sleeping under the Pont Neuf in Paris. Coming from that small, protected town in the Midwest, where practically no one had been to Europe since WW II, I returned home with an exciting new Weltanschauung (view of the world). I was a changed person. I knew right then that somehow the rest of my life would be involved in traveling all across our beloved, blue-green earth. Suddenly I had become a loyal and passionate citizen of the world.
Starting in 1983, it was my dear sister, Tese Wintz Neighbor, (8 years my junior), who became a tour leader before I did. She landed me my first jobs, leading tours to China and to Tibet.
I signed up with Zegrahm just months after their first trips began. I started 1991-1994 with 15 trips to the newly opened "Indochine: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand". With Zegrahm, I realized I had struck gold and had found a superior company for which to work. Think about it: Zegrahm was founded by a group who were all tour leaders. Who knows better, personally, how to take care of guests than tour leaders?
I remain incredibly proud and grateful to be a part of such an amazing and skilled operation. These warm feelings are directed to all of Zegrahm's current expert leaders, and staff as well. Many of them continue to leave me awestruck. I am humbled by their charismatic personalities, high-level expertise, and wealth of knowledge. I am especially inspired by their genuine devotion to take care of, and serve, their guests, through the sharing of our planet's most wonderful destinations.
What other jobs, positions or credentials do you have?
Re: other credentials: I saw the BEATLES twice! In the summer of 1964, in concerts in Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
(Everything else that follows here is secondary in significance.)
-- I am a photographer.
-- I am a writer with contributions to books, magazines, and newspapers.
-- I worked in Ethiopia for UNICEF / Australia.
-- I also do a lot of public speaking and lecturing at universities, as well as for general audiences. They are related to my personal travel experiences while also involving topical themes. Subjects include history, culture, anthropology, studies of conflict areas, contemporary themes, and many others.
Although I guest lecture mostly at universities, I have also lectured for:
-- the World Affairs Council (on Iran),
-- for National Geographic Magazine at their world headquarters in DC, (on my travels) ,
-- for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (re: Tibet).
(His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Linus Pauling, were both present in the audience and were given medals at this peace prize awards dinner occasion.)
What other fields are you passionate about?
OMG. I am super-interested in everything in the whole universe. Where do I start?
Ever since my personal travels in the 1970s, and onwards, I have been drawn to the most remote places, often to places of special interest in anthropology. For example, I stayed alone with tribes in the most remote jungles and mountains in the Philippines, for seven months in 1976, and in Malaysia and West Papua, in 1977. I stayed in the hills of the Solomon Islands, 1979, and in the hamlets of Kiriwina, PNG, 1977.
I have visited places that, up to that point, had little contact with the outside world. In 1977, I visited the Senoi, "the non-violent people of Malaya". These are so-called "primitive people" who live non-violently by dissolving ill feelings towards others. They do this through a sophisticated pattern of pro-active "collective dreaming" in coordination with their immediate family members--during their sleep. I slept with a family and witnessed it all because I was the only one awake. I had researched the Senoi ahead in an ethnology museum in Kuala Lumpur, and I tracked them down via a jungle trail near where Jim Thompson had disappeared.
I also visited hill tribes in northern Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos--which were far away from any roads. Special mention here for the Lisu, (Tibeto-Burmans), who, in the 1970s were declared by their governments to be off-limits and "dangerous" to visit-- because of their opium growing. I stayed with the chief of the hamlet and I've never forgotten their welcoming hospitality. Every night after their meal, all the hamlet's residents would sit in a big circle on the dirt floor in the chief's house, passing around the peace pipe. Despite the military government's prohibitions, they exhibited total trust and openness in taking me in, unannounced, just like a family member. Neither they nor I could speak a single word of each other's language. But the language of smile and our abundance of mutual laughter enabled us to communicate just fine.
What organizations are you a part of?
Human Rights Watch
Association for Asian Studies
Central Eurasian Studies Society
American Institute of Afghanistan Studies
Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Studies Group (of AAS)
Myanmar Studies Group (of AAS) and others...
What is your favorite Zegrahm memory?
I have so many favorites. It is impossible to name them all, but here is one from Zegrahm's itinerary to the Western Himalayas. It includes a visit to Dharamsala in the State of Himachal Pradesh. Dharamsala is the seat of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile and residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Thanks to maybe our good karma (?), but probably more because of our very special local guide in the Dharamsala region, we have had the good fortune, more than once, to meet personally with His Holiness. Each time it is a powerful experience that touches everyone very deeply, including those who never dreamed it would be such an inspiring and memorable event in their lives. It is not part of the planned itinerary. There is no way we could ever promise it.
About three years ago when our group got to spend some time with HHDL, the Dalai Lama took the hand of our 95-year-old, Bob Roberts, and placed it on top of His Holiness’s own head--thus taking the liberty of getting for himself a kind of blessing from Bob, our own elder. Bob has been on many Zegrahm trips over the decades, including a few with me, and those who know Bob's kindness and generosity to the group on tours can easily understand how the Dalai Lama could instinctively perceive that Bob was a special guy. Kind of the same way we always feel whenever we meet His Holiness. Bob is a person of elegant simplicity and enormous integrity--and just plain fun.
Can you tell us about a time that you were on an expedition that ended up taking an unexpected turn or made an unexpected discovery that took you off the planned trail?
One of my favorite misadventures--which turned out well-- goes back to 1991 or 1992, on one of Zegrahm's very first cultural land tours to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. This includes Angkor Wat, Cambodia, which is truly one of my favorite places on earth, and which I have been visiting regularly since 1987. At the time, Zegrahm was still in the very early years of tourism there, because only recently had the Khmer Rouge been routed out of the Angkor Wat area.
During this period, only one hotel existed there: Le Grand d'Angkor, built in 1924. (Now there are hundreds.) But the Grand had fallen into major disrepair over the years of the Khmer Rouge occupation and was damaged from war. Rats and wild monkeys inhabited it. No running water in the rooms. But once the Khmer Rouge were pushed out, tourists could start staying overnight, and Le Grand was the only place available, besides Prince Sihanouk's private compound. Because tourism was just starting up again, the whole situation was tentative, and so, our adventurous travelers were warned beforehand. For example, we knew each of us would have to bucket our own water up to our bathrooms at Le Grand for flushing our toilets and to sponge bathe.
Only weeks earlier, they had cleared out almost all of the monkeys and rats from this once rather large 3-story "grand" hotel, and we were grateful to be guaranteed our space for our "17 + 2". Zegrahm co-founder Susan Zehnder was along, besides our 15 participants. and myself.
When we arrived at the local Siem Reap airport on our chartered flight, we were greeted by none other than the local province's Minister of Tourism. We felt truly honored--until we were told that he personally had come to apologize because a mistake had been made in reservations and so there was no room in the hotel. But "luckily", he said, he had arranged a "nice villa" for us to stay.
The "villa" had 3 bedrooms with a grand total of only 6 beds (for 17 + 2)! Anyone doing the math can quickly figure out this was not a good deal. The oldest couples got the three bedrooms. For the rest of us, just cots and bedrolls. Our only water was from a well. No pump. To get water, we only had a bucket and rope to lower down into the well.
Following one night in the villa, by the next morning, no one had slept and we were all wishing to have our own rooms. No one got angry, and everyone remained understanding of the situation but nobody, including Susan and I, wanted to go through another night like that.
Susan and I met together quietly on the side and knew we had to do something. Susan was wearing one of those 99% pure gold pendants. (Remember back in those days of the late ''80s--early 90s, there was a fashion fad to wear an actual gold "bar" of real gold as a necklace pendant)? Well, Susan had one of those, and she showed it to me and said, "What d'ya think?"
"You mean you are willing to part with such a valuable keepsake?" I asked.
Susan replied in all sincerity, "As a sign of appreciation to Mr. Minister of Tourism to get us to where we each can have our own room and our own bed, I would be delirious with joy to part with this little piece of metal."
And the rest is history.
It worked. We moved. And I joyfully offered to bucket everybody's water up the stairs.
What not-for-profits or causes do you support or feel strongly about?
I am actively involved in a number of humanitarian and environmental causes. I am a card-carrying member of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and others, such as "Peacenow.com"
I strongly support "Peacenow.com", an organization that works on peace education and forgiveness issues, and has been very active in creating support for developing ministries for peace with governments around the world. Back in 1979, I even testified on this issue of creating a peace department at a US congressional hearing. Later the US Institute of Peace in DC was created by Congress, though it falls rather short of the original concept of a fully empowered cabinet-level Peace Department. It is this cause for which I still work. Peacenow.com also creates media, such as the award-winning short film, "Admissions" (about forgiveness), by John Viscount. This "edutainment" tool was created to inspire acts of forgiveness everywhere. John has more than fifteen other worthy short films on important global issues that we are looking for funding to produce. Subjects like bullying, human trafficking, slavery, addiction, PTSD, homelessness, climate change, UXO Laos, etc. If you would like to help us, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have 20 minutes to watch John's beautifully inspiring award-winning story of forgiveness "Admissions", you can find it free right here: https://pepstar.org/peace-entertainment-admissions/
What are your top three countries or regions in the world to explore?
Actually, I'd prefer to answer with about fifteen regions that stand out as my favorite regions or countries, so please know that that there are more than three. But here are three:
--The Tibetan Buddhist Cultural World: this includes all the Himalaya region for starters, such as Hunza / Gilgit, Ladakh, Manali, Himachal Pradesh, Dolpo and Mustang, Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Sikkim, Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh, and The Great Tibetan Plateau itself. Also Mongolia and Inner Mongolia. And Buryatia, Tuva, and Kalmykia in the Russian Federation.
--Japan and all the Pacific Islands
--Especially all the Hawaiian chain as my number one favorite of ALL. (For hiking, swimming, natural beauty, cleanest air, moderate weather, aloha spirit, and wild mushrooms.)
What’s left on your explorer’s bucket list/where do you still want to go that you haven’t been yet? Why there?
I have been to over 200 countries, territories, colonies as well as other "entities".
I would like to go everywhere I've not been, of course, although not sure if I will make it or not before I croak. This is why I swim every other day and run barefoot four miles on the beach on the alternate days, and play Frisbee in the sand--to maintain the stamina to keep leading tours as well as reach this dream of personal travel--for fun, education, and answering my curiosity.
1. Out of the 54 countries in Africa, there are six that I've not been to, including "new" countries like South Sudan--(and they keep adding more! Please tell them to stop!).
2. In Europe, I've not been to Trans-Nistria, Moldova, San Marino, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabagh.
3. I've been to most of the Pacific, but have not been to a few island groups in the Pacific, like Tuvalu, Kiribasi, Wallis and Futuna, and Okinawa.
4. There are also some large countries to where I have traveled already--including most of their provinces, states, or interior republics, but would like to get to all the provinces, such as deeper into India, China, and the former Soviet Union.
What does being a part of the Zegrahm family mean to you?
I have already alluded to how fortunate and proud I am to be a part of the most professional, principled, diplomatic, personally attractive, compassionate, caring, devoted and focused travel team on earth.
Oh yes, did I mention OUTRAGEOUS and FUN?
Who is the Zegrahm Explorer/Traveler?
There is no greater joy and pleasure for me than sharing the love of travel with our Zegrahm Explorers. We have that common bond of love from the beginning of the trip until the end of the trip. Zegrahm attracts a certain clientele that sets them apart from "mainstream" tourists.
Zegrahm travelers love to learn from--and experience--a deeper level of travel, that takes them well below the surface. That's why I like breaking away from the normal paths, to veer off onto an unscripted adventure. Zegrahm travelers love the unexpected and are willing to take a chance and trust, even if sometimes things don't go as planned and even if the fates force us to have to bucket our own water once in a while.
I also deeply appreciate the camaraderie of spirit of Zegrahm travelers. I like how Zegrahm folks help each other and take care of each other. It is a huge part of the magic of group travel that make the interpersonal journey of our inner hearts as inspiring and rewarding as the expedition's destination.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Did I mention that I saw the BEATLES twice in 1964?