By Rachel Urist
When Joan and Will Weber founded JOURNEYS International 35 years ago, the term “eco-tourism” did not exist. Today the Ann Arbor company is widely lauded for its environmental consciousness and its meticulous planning. National Geographic’s Adventure magazine ranked JOURNEYS International among the best adventure travel companies on earth and set JOURNEYS on its list of top ten tour operators. The list was whittled down from hundreds of travel operations, and included among the judges’ criteria were: educational components, sustainability, and quality of service. National Geographic’s Traveler magazine listed JOURNEYS trips to Burma and Ladakh as “tours of a lifetime.” Condé Nast Traveler awarded JOURNEYS the “Top Travel Specialist” designation for eight consecutive years, and awarded it the Best Green Travel Outfitter honor. JOURNEYS now offers more than 175 trips to 57 destinations around the globe.
JOURNEYS is the oldest family-owned global eco-tourism company in the US. It offers safaris, treks, eco-tours, and cultural exploration on every continent, including Antarctica. In the early years of the company, the Webers established the Earth Preservation Fund (EPF), a non-profit that helps fund initiatives generated by local staffs in various countries. EPF supports sustainable agriculture and promotes other green projects. JOURNEYS has attracted a loyal clientele. At the recent JOURNEYS Jamboree, a weekend-long celebration of the company’s 35th anniversary, JOURNEYS travelers, along with many international guides, gathered in Ann Arbor from around the world. Travel alumni wore badges that included the number of trips they had taken with JOURNEYS. One couple’s badges bore the number 49. The weekend was like a family reunion. Even outsiders who attended events open to the public felt embraced by the family feeling. Those public events were a storytelling evening at the Michigan Theater and an afternoon “Travel Forum,” which featured a keynote address by Will Weber and an assortment of sessions with staff and international partners.
The Webers were pioneers in the environmental movement. They met at Earth Day’s inaugural event, in 1970, in Madison, Wisconsin. Will had just completed his undergraduate work there and was among the event’s organizers. Joan was a volunteer. She had just arrived from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts to spend a semester at Wisconsin. After attending a meeting that Will ran, she was smitten. Soon after, he joined the Peace Corps, and taught math and science in Nepal for two years. Joan completed her bachelor’s at Mt. Holyoke, earned a master’s in education at the University of Pennsylvania, and taught school in Boston. But the die was cast. In 1974, she visited him in Nepal. He had extended his stay with the Peace Corps and was developing programs for Nepal’s nascent National Parks Service. He also helped train the Peace Corps group assigned to work in the Conservation Office. Joan stayed and taught English for six months. The following year, they married.
They arrived in Ann Arbor soon after, as doctoral students at the University of Michigan. Will was in natural resources, Joan in psychology and education. While in graduate school, they shared stories and photos of Nepal with friends. In 1978, these friends decided to visit Nepal themselves. Will and Joan looked at their friends’ itinerary and said: “Just buy us tickets, and we’ll show you Nepal. It will cost you less.” Their friends agreed, and the rest is history. By the time Will completed his doctorate, in 1980, JOURNEYS was his full-time work.
For their inaugural tour as leaders, they wrote ahead for a sirdar, a head guide, the one who would be in charge of the trek’s logistics. Upon arrival in Kathmandu, they found a note saying: “Sorry, I wasn’t able to get you a staff person.” Will and Joan quickly sized up the situation. He went off to find a guide, while Joan took the group, on rented bikes, on a tour through Kathmandu. Will headed for the shopping area, the most likely place to find a guide. People go there to buy climbing and camping gear. He found a crowd in rapt attention, listening to a man who had just returned from a dire climbing expedition. The man, a born storyteller, had been a sherpa for that expedition, and he described a night from hell. When the weather turned bad, he and a fellow sherpa hacked a bivouac for their clients, then pitched a tent for themselves. During the night, when the storyteller went outside to pee, he heard the rumbling of an avalanche. It swept him and his friend down the mountainside. They lost their shoes, but they kept their heads and survived. The close call, he said, had changed his calling. He would no longer work as a climbing sherpa. He would work in trekking.
Will approached the man, and asked him to be the group’s sirdar. The man, Pemba Tsering Sherpa, agreed. Will and Pemba hired two rickshaws, bought all the requisite supplies, and returned to Joan. The group set out the following day. They spent almost four weeks in the mountains of Chitwan National Park, during which Pemba served as cook, too. Every night they told stories. A friendship was forged. It grew stronger with time. Joan and Will learned that Pemba had been raised by a single mother who died when he was seven. They were out one day, collecting firewood on the mountainside, when she fell to her death before his eyes. Pemba’s father, a trader, had died before Pemba was born.
Pemba’s siblings were considerably older than he was. They sent him to live with relatives who treated him as a servant. At age 12, he ran away. He was smart, quick, and ambitious. He began working as a sherpa for European and Japanese expeditions. He quickly picked up several languages, including Japanese. He was sent to Japan to learn cooking. The Webers were increasingly impressed with Pemba, and this trip helped consolidate their own plans for the future. “Meeting Pemba,” said Joan, “is JOURNEYS’ creation story.”
For Pemba, meeting the Webers was a milestone in making his dreams come true. With their help, he set up the Kathmandu branch of JOURNEYS International. Over the years, the Weber and Sherpa families became more than friends; they were family. Their relationship speaks to the spiritual and personal journeys that are part and parcel of every JOURNEYS’ tour. In Joan’s words: “We are about building trust, about creating personal relationships.” In the companionable matches they make in composing tour groups, in choosing native guides in each of the many countries it explores, JOURNEYS is interested in promoting friendships. Tours are orchestrated to help travelers learn about different cultures, traditions, customs, religions, ethnicities. The Webers are self-appointed ambassadors for understanding.
JOURNEYS also promotes harmony between people and the environment. Visitors explore geographical, botanical, and climate differences, along with political and economic circumstances that shape lives around the globe.
JOURNEYS’ advances a Code of Ethics that outlines the Webers’ criteria for respectful, environmentally-conscientious behavior. Travelers are encouraged to adopt this code, which is listed under three rubrics:
- Vanish Without a Trace: Minimize your impact on the environment.
- Seize the Power of Your Experience: Act directly to accomplish conservation.
- Value Other Cultures: Embrace diversity. Reverse missionary zeal.
The code’s axioms include:
- Aspire to invisibility; observe, but do not disturb natural systems.
- Do not collect natural souvenirs.
- Sense and emulate acceptable conversation volume and vigor. Don’t overwhelm or intimidate your hosts.
- Observe all locally established rules and regulations for conduct.
- Remove packaging from items before leaving home.
- Bring and use biodegradable soaps and detergents.
- Conserve water.
- Do not build campfires in dry or protected areas.
- Leave no litter.
- Pick up litter left by others.
- Do not rely on remote local markets or village food supplies to outfit your trip. You can cause inflation and food shortages.
- Learn proper local etiquette.
My first visit to JOURNEYS’ spacious suite of offices took me to the west side of town, off Jackson Road, near the string of car dealerships. Joan greeted me at the door and took me on a leisurely tour of the airy labyrinthine space, dotted throughout with travel artifacts. The walls are adorned with colorful photos, many oversize, and filled with faces I would soon recognize through Joan’s stories.
Joan’s combination of warmth and focus was impressive. A woman of natural grace and charm, she introduced me to each member of JOURNEYS’ Ann Arbor staff, who stood, smiled, and shook my hand. The many shelves, some in free-standing cases dividing office spaces, held dolls, weavings, baskets, pottery, sculptures large and small, and framed mementos. Years of JOURNEYS’ history come alive in these relics. I paused often to gaze at photos of native peoples in their colorful costumes. Often, members of the blond, blue-eyed Weber family gazed back at me from among the tableaux. After the tour, Joan relaxed with me, as though she had all the time in the world. Each time I met her, she wrapped herself in soft, woven scarves, evocations of her travels. Her stories, spontaneous and generous, were carefully selected and meticulously told. I soon appreciated that behind this smiling, gracious figure was a skilled academic.
On my second visit to JOURNEYS’ headquarters, I met with Will, Joan, and their daughter, Robin, 31. In 2011, Robin earned her M.B.A. and announced that she wanted to return to Ann Arbor to work in the family business. Her parents were thrilled. She had been away from Ann Arbor for 12 years. During graduate school in DC, she worked part time for JOURNEYS. After graduation, she returned with her husband to Ann Arbor, where she has been easing her way into her new role as president of the company. Her parents, meanwhile, are “coasting into retirement,” as Joan put it.
It was a treat to sit with this trio and experience the easy give and take that is a hallmark of the Weber family. Robin, who was, essentially, born into this family business, has traveled with her parents from age four. She has many fond memories of their journeys. She remembers a restaurant in Burma, where she announced to her parents: “I’m done with eating!” That was when she was fed up with unfamiliar grub and yearned for tastes of home. Remembering the days of traveling with their children, Will said: “Somehow we’d find a jar of peanut butter and Ritz crackers.”
Robin was almost 16 (10th grade) and her brother, Noah, 10 (4th grade), when their parents took them out of school for a seven-month, ten-country tour of Asia. Initially, Robin was resistant to the trip. She did not relish the prospect of sharing a room with her brother and traveling only with her immediate family. “It was a challenge,” she said. Today, she looks back on the trip with appreciation. She speculates that for her brother, the trip was less enchanting. People in other countries do not share the Western notion that it is impolite to stare — or to touch. In Vietnam, people thought it was good luck to reach out and touch Noah’s flaxen hair. Robin also remembered a kid following her through the marketplace, once. The kid had never seen a Westerner before.
On that family trip, surrounded by Buddhists who lived their religion, Robin and Noah discovered what their parents long knew: religion and culture are inextricably linked for a huge swath of the world’s population. “It motivated me to find my own place in Judaism,” Robin said. Noah and Joan had similar feelings. At age 50, Joan started learning Hebrew. At 57, she had a Bat-Mitzvah. Will reported feeling more spiritual before he got involved in JOURNEYS. But for him, as for Joan and Robin, there is a deep emotional pull toward the places and people they have come to know. And he still enjoys his myriad travel memories. Given that he is fair, 6’4”, and head and shoulders taller than most people in Southeast Asia, he, like his children, was a curiosity. He remembers waking up, during his Peace Corps days, to find kids staring at him through his window. They’d been watching him sleep.
As I marveled at the relaxed, collegial atmosphere among parents and child, I thought of a remark that Joan had made early in our acquaintance. “Our job,” she said, “is to plan itineraries and keep travelers safe.” The word “safety” came up many times. For me, the word conjured up wild animals. After all, JOURNEYS’ brochures include beautiful photos of lions, hippos, rhinos, snakes, monkeys, and poisonous frogs — in addition to smiling human faces of all hues, some on the backs of camels, elephants, donkeys, and horses. Asked whether my wild animals association to dangers was on the mark, the Webers laughed. “Safari safety is not something we worry about!” She explained that on a driving safari, “animals know that no one in vehicles will threaten them. In those kinds of parks, you don’t get out and stretch your legs.” On the other hand, “You don’t want to get close to komodo dragons, which are venomous.” Guides carry big sticks with forked ends, which they place on the ground in front of the animals that get too close. The sticks are like giant forked tongues — but bigger than those of these creatures. It stops them cold, like magic,” said Joan. She took the moment to express her appreciation and admiration for JOURNEYS’ guides. “They are so familiar with everything! And they protect us.”
JOURNEYS’ staff works hard to protect clients from all kinds of hazards. One of the dangers is bad advice. “People think that with the Internet, they can plan their own travels,” said Joan. But the Internet does not explain the reasons for travelers’ advisories. The State Department, for instance, advises people to be careful in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is dangerous to change money in the airport. Why? Poachers often wait at the airport to see who changes money there. Those travelers may be targeted and their taxis followed. When they disembark, the poachers pounce.
JOURNEYS’ staff also understands local political events more readily than the average traveler. If, while traveling with JOURNEYS, one stumbles on a sudden crowd, or a street demonstration, the JOURNEYS staff will know how to skirt it. Staff will also recognize which scenes pose real threats. Food, too, may pose conundrums. JOURNEYS’ guides look at the kitchens to make sure they’re safe. They’ll talk to the chef, choose fresh food, make sure there’s refrigeration, make sure foods are thoroughly cooked, and offer clients guidance on the menu. Robin and Will point out that natives have a different internal ecology. Westerners’ stomachs haven’t built up tolerance to new pathogens.
Health concerns notwithstanding, native cuisine is an important part of travel, and the Webers make sure to incorporate a range of culinary experiences. If someone wants to eat snake, the Webers help them find the safest place to eat snake. Food vendors are popular in many parts of the world, and in some countries, eating their food can be a great experience. But one must take precautions. The food must be fresh and hot. If it’s not, avoid it. Likewise, eat only cooked vegetables. Don’t eat the skin of fruit. Drink bottled water. In Patagonia, for instance, it is usually safe to drink from fresh spring waters. But guides will prohibit travelers from drinking spring water if they know, for instance, that there’s a horse camp upstream.
It is important, too, to recognize social and religious norms. In Nepal, for instance, people form rice balls with their fingers, dip them in broth, and eat. But it’s to be done only with the right hand. The left hand is ritually unclean and must never touch food. Hinduism ritualizes parts of the body, and one must know those rituals to avoid gaffes. The top of the head is sacred. Feet are unclean, even profane. When many people sleep in a room, they sleep in a circle, so that no one’s feet point at anyone’s head. Gestures of respect, too, must be learned. In a Namaste greeting, the higher one’s hands, the more honor they confer. An ordinary Namaste is very familiar. Similarly, a bowed head increases respect. In many places, one must be aware of society’s hierarchies, especially where the caste system prevails. In much of the world, Will pointed out, the concept “all men are created equal” has no currency.
Given all these warnings, I wondered about some of the more dramatic adventures the Webers must have had. I asked whether they might share any such incidents. They told of a trip they took in June 2001, a few months before September 11. They were scheduled to fly to Kathmandu, when they got a call from Pemba that the entire Nepalese royal family was massacred in the palace. The murderer was either the crown prince or king’s brother. In any case, the king’s brother became king (a Claudius for our time). The Webers understood that this was either the best or the worst time to go there. In the best scenario, the travelers would be safe and the people in Kathmandu “hyper-real” and “witnesses to history” (Joan’s words). By this time, the airline tickets were booked for Bangkok, so they designed an alternative, backup trip, to Myanmar (Burma). The Burmese crew knew the trip might not happen. But in the end, the group went to Nepal and had a fabulous 12 days. People everywhere celebrated the royal family. They put up pictures and marked the place where the king was cremated. They showed where his ashes went into the river.
I was eager for more stories. The Webers told of an adventure in Kerala, in southern India, in 2005. The group arrived to find that their reserved hotel rooms were given to a different V.I.P. group. Clients were miffed, but the Webers found an alternate place for the first nights of their stay. A few nights later, when they were invited back to the hotel of choice, the management gave the group complimentary massages and did everyone’s laundry. Since JOURNEYS is a reputable company, the hotel wanted to make amends. But, said Joan, “you’re always walking a line between outrage and practicality.”
Much of the outrage is absorbed by the Webers and their staff who are adept at camouflaging the extent of a problem — and correcting it. Alumni testify to the joys of traveling with JOURNEYS. Ann Arborites Phyllis and David Herzig are among them. The Herzigs are seasoned travelers who have, between them, circumnavigated the globe. Over the years, David has planned many trips to Europe, but they took a JOURNEYS land-based trip to Alaska. (Like many environmentally conscious travelers, they shun cruises.) They also went with JOURNEYS to the Galápagos Islands and Panama. In 2012, they took their children and grandchildren on a family trip to Costa Rica, a JOURNEYS adventure that The Wall Street Journal listed among the ten best trips to take with grandchildren. Last summer, the Herzigs took the family on the JOURNEYS trip to Tanzania.
David Herzig described their JOURNEYS adventures as “well-planned.” In Costa Rica, he said, “JOURNEYS was sensitive to everyone’s needs. The kids were all in the same age-range, and there were activities each day for all ages.” David told of the kids’ week-long scavenger hunt, a game that involved identifying, not collecting, items. Kids learned to recognize the flora and fauna of the area, became experts on butterflies, and studied luminescent frogs. David marveled that “kids learned without realizing that they were learning.” Naturalists enriched the experience for adults and children alike. After a bat specialist took the group through the life cycle of bats, demonstrating the various ways they protect the eco-systems of the world, many were suddenly persuaded that bats were not so frightening, after all.
A bird-watching expert showed people where to look and what to see. A trip to a cocoa plantation involved crossing a rope bridge — to the children’s delight. Watching the cocoa bean turned into powder, and finally into chocolate ice cream, perfected the day. Other activities included visits to a rainforest, a preserve, a banana plantation. For the kids, there was the daily, lunchtime romp in the pool, nestled in the mountainside facility. Travelers stayed in bungalows along the river, ate buffet-style, communal meals, and watched the monkeys in the trees beyond.
Ruth Schekter, co-owner of Crazy Wisdom Bookstore, is equally enthusiastic about a JOURNEYS trip she took last February. That trip, called “Mindfully Engaging Guatemala,” was limited to eight women. In addition to the group’s native guide, Olga, it included two leaders: therapist and meditation teacher Lynn Sipher and Joan Weber. Ruth found all three impressive. Joan and Olga were participant-leaders, joining the daily meditation sessions. Basic instruction with Lynn began the very first night in Antigua, in the open air courtyard in the rooftop garden. “It was amazing,” said Ruth, describing the view of rooftops and volcanos that ring the city. The group meditated mornings and evenings each day.
The group’s guide, an artist and weaver, brought the women to her art studio, where she taught them how to make dyes and let them create their own pieces. She took them to museums, instructed them on Mayan history, and led them on tours through two of the villages on Lake Atitlán. She taught them about Mayan values, spirituality, and way of life. “It was a transformative trip,” said Ruth, who appreciated how well the leaders worked together.
“I found Joan inspiring to travel with,” Ruth began, then rhapsodized about Joan and the role she played on this trip. “It was seamless, which speaks to her incredible skill and experience, her openness and vulnerability.” Recalling the sweep of the journey, Ruth concluded:
She did what you’d want a tour leader to do. She did it out of her own enjoyment of people. She speaks Spanish. She has a gregariousness, a joyful ease with which she interacts with people — in markets, in restaurants — that’s infectious. She knew the majority of people on this trip, but there was never a sense of cliquishness.
Joan reports that the company was surprised at how quickly this trip filled up after it was announced. It will be offered again.
JOURNEYS' many destinations have attracted travelers from all over the country. How? Partly by word-of-mouth, partly through their website (www.journeys.travel), and partly making the “Best of” lists in Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic’s Adventure, National Geographic’s Traveler, and Travel and Leisure. Many travelers require small groups and flexibility, which is JOURNEYS’ forté. The website is filled with stories, itineraries, and photos — and prices. The Webers try to be transparent about costs, but they do not break the price down to nightly hotel fares. The price range is wide, depending on the length of stay and the level of luxury a traveler chooses. That so many alumni return to travel repeatedly with JOURNEYS reflects a high level of satisfaction. Ann Arborites scrolling through the JOURNEYS website may recognize some of the faces.
Alumni gathered in Ann Arbor for JOURNEYS’ 35th Anniversary Jamboree, from September 27–29, 2013. The event was a reunion and celebration. The warmth was palpable even for non-alumni who attended the events that were open to the public. Travelers swapped stories, hugged, and reminisced. Several Ann Arbor alumni played host to the guides who led them on trips in their native countries. Many travelers came equipped with photo albums, either in old-fashioned form or in iPads and iPhones.
In the months before the Jamboree, JOURNEYS’ headquarters brimmed with excitement, as staff anticipated the arrival of many overseas partners. Visitors included guides from Nepal, Myanmar, Bhutan, Ladakh, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, India, Turkey, Panama, and China. Most of the weekend’s events were open only to travel alumni, and participants were limited to 120. Invitations went out to those who had taken multiple JOURNEYS trips. The celebration marked the official transition to the next generation. Joan and Will Weber ceremoniously handed the reins to their daughter, Robin Weber Pollak, now president of the company.
The Jamboree weekend featured a storytelling event at the Michigan Theater. The six storytellers on the program included three JOURNEYS alumni and the three Webers who run the company: Will, Robin, and Joan. Telling stories is a time-honored way to travel in place — and of whetting one’s appetite for adventure. In recent years, the Webers have been collecting and posting some of their seminal stories on their website. Each of these stories begins: “Once upon a time.” The story of JOURNEYS’ partner in Myanmar, Kishan Chetry, appears on JOURNEYS’ website under the title: “Once Upon a Time in Rangoon.”
Kishan, who attended the Jamboree with his family, is part of the Webers’ extended family. He was introduced to the Webers in 1986, three years before the military crackdown in Burma. Some friends of the Webers were traveling in Rangoon, took a taxi, and were impressed by their driver. They told them about him. The Webers sent an aerogram, and Kishan was soon JOURNEYS’ man in Burma.
As a young man, Kishan dreamed of being a tour guide. He taught himself English and worked odd jobs while searching for his big break. When it came, Kishan trained guides and drivers, found local hosts, and became Burma's first licensed private tour operator. He thrived, despite two decades of military rule. He called his business “JOURNEYS Nature and Culture Explorations.”
The Webers have often been asked why they continued their travels to Burma in the face of the coup that put the country under military dictatorship. They were warned that visiting Burma, renamed “Myanmar” by the country’s military leaders, was unpopular and could hurt their company. JOURNEYS was placed on an international “Dirty Dozen” list for defying the international boycott. But the Webers are convinced they did the Burmese a service by encouraging visitors. They also point out that Kishan was at the forefront of the relief effort after the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, deemed the greatest disaster in Burmese history, with an estimated 138,000 lives lost. In spite of the devastation, the suspicious Myanmar government thwarted international relief efforts. Kishan led his tourist industry colleagues in mobilizing vehicles and manpower to rescue and care for refugees.
At the Ann Arbor Jamboree last September, Kishan and his family got to meet other members of the Webers’ international family. They met Nawang and Anchee Sherpa, son and widow of Pemba, who died at home, in Nepal, in 2009. It was Nawang who sent a grateful note to the Webers after receiving the souvenir photo book from Joan. She had lovingly compiled it for Pemba upon learning of his illness. Nawang wrote:
I want to start off by thanking you, Joan and everyone who sent their well wishes for Papa. He was very excited and happy to read all those mails and greeting cards and the surprise was that Papa knew each and every one of them. The album Joan made for Papa was priceless. I wish I could have taken a picture of his expression as he was flipping through the pages. I have that image in my head and I will cherish that for the rest of my life. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. I do not know how exactly to say this, Will, but Papa is no more, he passed away today 14th May at 8:40 p.m. Mama and I are both trying to be as strong as possible. We brought him home around 11 p.m. and are having the monks read the holy books. I will be in touch, take care, our greeting to you and your family… Nawang.
Nawang is the same age as Robin Weber Pollak. At the Jamboree, they recalled trekking together in Burma when they were four years old. The slide show that accompanied that session included a photo of Robin, age four, in a basket on a sherpa’s back. The two are akin to cousins. Now that each heads the family business, they are also colleagues. Nawang still lives near his mother in Kathmandu. His two siblings are in California, where the oldest, also called Pemba, is a chef and restaurateur. The youngest, a sister, assists him. Over the years, the Weber and Sherpa families have celebrated many milestones together. It is a testament to their bond that when Pemba married his Anchee over thirty years ago, Will performed the ceremonial office of father.
I asked Joan how she and Will managed to establish this enterprise, which takes travelers to so many far-flung places. Joan replied that growing slowly was key.
If our ambitions had been grand in the early days, to offer sixty plus countries and maintain a database with tens of thousands of prospective travelers as we do now, we might have frozen in our tracks. Instead, we put one foot in front of the other, figuring things out along the way — learning the countries, testing itineraries, building our relationships. Those things have never ceased to be thrilling. So much of the gift of our lives has been the relationships we established in other countries. Our mission is to find people we feel comfortable with, people we trust, people who will guide our clients. How can we take money from travelers and promise them a good, rewarding time, unless we have people outside that we can trust? We knew that Pemba would always make good on his promise. And travel had to contribute to conservation. It came out of our generation’s mindset. People in the high Himalayas were stripping the mountainside for firewood. Erosion problems were a nightmare. Tourism has played a huge part in protection. People are paying to see the trees not cut down. The word “eco-tourism” has been coopted — by hotels, by travel companies. Sustainable, responsible, green tourism contributes to the ecology of the planet.
For more information, visit www.journeys.travel or email firstname.lastname@example.org.