Dr. Antonia ‘Toni’ Neubauer, President, Myths and Mountains, Inc. runs an adventure company like few others. Fully immersed in the destinations she promotes, Toni gives back to the places and people that contribute to her success. AJAY JAIN interviewed Toni to understand what led to the setting up of Myths and Mountains, and how the business helps the cause of sustainability and Responsible Tourism.
What prompted you to set up a travel company?
Myths and Mountains grew out of several key issues.
(a) You can’t really get to know what a country is about if you are only staying in the Ritz and visiting tourist sites. Business and personal travel with my husband focused on staying at the top hotels (unless with family who lived overseas), eating at Michelin star restaurants, and seeing different tourist locations. I preferred trekking, getting off the main road, sitting down on the floor of someone’s hut, sipping chang or sharing rice and learning about the everyday lives of everyday people. By starting a travel company, I could travel where I wanted, in a way I wanted and with like-minded people.
(b) After leading treks for another company, I really wanted to “do it my way,” share the local friends I loved, get inside the culture of a place and focus more on “what is a country about and how can I design an itinerary to say it.” In those days, people were focused on either visiting 10 cities in 8 days or on activities – hiking, biking etc. My background was education. I wanted to focus on concepts – the cultures and crafts, religions and pilgrimage sites, traditional medicine and natural healing, and on the environment and how people interacted with it.
Do you have a favorite travel anecdote?
Wisdom comes from some of the most unlikely sources along a route. Below are two of my favorite anecdotes from people I met along the way, and what I learned from them. When I am leading a group, without fail, I tell these two stories.
- He was an old man, a peasant, with fingers chapped and split from years of pushing a plow through the rock strewn fields of Dolpo. When Kamal, a friend and guide in Nepal, and I came upon him sitting by the road, he was relaxing on the grass, soaking up the warm morning sun.
“How far is it to Reyche?” we asked, “What is the trail like? Does it go up or down? Are there any towns along the way? How long will it take to walk? And if we go slowly?” On and on we went with our questions.
Finally the man stretched lazily and rolled his eyes. “Why are you asking me all these questions? If you don’t start walking, you’ll never get there. We looked at each other and smiled. It was a simple statement. . . in one way. The old man was tired of dealing with our silly issues. Yet, in another way, this old farmer had said something profound about life. Sometimes, we have just to cease worrying or questioning, and plunge in with our whole heart and soul, in order to follow our own path and arrive at our destination. Kamal and I had to just “start walking.”
- Often, my trekkers are impatient and preoccupied with time. They love numbers and always want to know “when” we will get someplace, despite the fact that each of us walks a different pace, and things happen on a trail that can interest or delay us. Sally, one of my clients was tired hiking up and down Nepal’s steep hills. On one of the days, she asked me to find out from a farmer how long it would take our group to get to the town of Suki Pokhari. The farmer saw that we were a group of grandmothers, wrinkled his brow, and said, “two and a half hours.” Forty-five minutes later, we passed another farmer, and Sally begged me to ask him the time to Suki Pokhari. The farmer replied, “two and a half hours.” Forty-five minutes later, we passed a third man, and the same interchange occurred. Again came the response, “Two and a half hours.” It was abundantly clear that, from any point on the trail, it was two and a half hours to Suki Pokhari.
But what, you might ask, is an hour to a peasant who does not even have a watch, for whom getting up and going to bed depend solely on the sun and how fast his feet can walk. And, what difference did the time truly make to us? Suki Pokhari was our only destination. When we arrived, we arrived.
As a traveller, what has been the most memorable journey for you to date?
That is tough. Over the years, so much has been memorable. I have talked so much about Nepal adventures, let’s try this one from Vietnam and then a key one from Nepal for me.
- Agatha Christie Meets the Lord of the Flies
I was stuck in Hue for five days with a group in a hotel during the worst floods the city had seen in 300 years. There was no electricity, nothing was operational, water in the streets was up to our waist and locals came up and said, “Give me 500 dong and I show you dead people!” The events taxed all my skills as a leader, was a marvelous study in personalities, and highlighted the importance of an incredible local leader who really knew his people. If there had been a murder, the events would have been the subject of a marvelous mystery story!
The group consisted of some very adventurous people, some who were older and quite nervous, and one older woman who complained about everything. Clearly, in such an emergency, finding and cooking food for hotel guests was not easy. At one point, the hotel had served everyone some soup. The older woman took a taste, commented in disgust, “The soup is cold,” and threw down her spoon.
The guide, Willy, was an amazing man and good friend, an old soldier, who had been a Vietnamese interpreter for 10 years with the 173rd during the war. Throughout this whole flood, he had been a model of patience, humor, and wisdom. When he heard this comment, however, his face went absolutely white. Clenching his teeth, he whispered to me, “My people are dying, and she is worried about the soup!”
Willy had brought an old camping stove with him, and would go out into the flooded streets to purchase extra food for our group from the hill people, who had taken boats down from the mountains loaded with food to sell to flooded locals and hotels. He managed to find all sorts of goodies for us to keep up group spirits. The hotel was crammed with people, including a very high level VVIP group, who could not understand why we got pineapples while they did not.
The guests marooned at the hotel included quite a cast of Agatha Christie characters, including a reporter who had been close friends of John Lennon, a CIA operative who told me her life story, a top executive from Thai Airlines in Hue to inaugurate a new flight from Bangkok to Danang, and others. An interesting camaraderie developed among the people at the hotel, all sharing the same misery…a camaraderie that lasted until word came in that on the 5th day a C-47 was going to try and land at the Hue airport to take the VVIPs out to Bangkok, and there were seven extra seats.
At that point, “Lord of the Flies” set in, and all of the other guests began competing for the last seven seats. I had been in regular cellphone communication with our embassy in Hanoi, as the US had just installed its first Ambassador since the Vietnam War – Pete Peterson – and we were to have met him in Hanoi. I gave them a call. They told me that they understood that Vietnam Air was going to also send a plane to Hue. Since the Vietnam Air office in Hue was flooded, no one was there to get or share any such news. The embassy asked if we could get to the airport in our van. Willy and I went out to check the street water level, Willy said that he thought we could do it and we called the embassy back to say we would be there to meet the plane.
So, while the VVIPs all piled into a large military truck, we crammed our group and as many others as would fit into our small van, and headed out to the airport. At one point, we came upon a fairly deep flooded area with all kinds of locals walking or riding through the water. Willy rolled up his pants and went over to the driver. “I am going to clear a path through the water,” he explained to the frightened man. “You start driving, and, whatever you do, don’t stop until you are out of the water. If you do, I promise I will throw you in the water and leave you there!”
Knowing that if the van stopped, it would get stuck, Willy cleared the path and the driver rolled through the flooded street raising a major wake on both sides. Safely onto dry land, he stopped, Willy got in and patted the driver’s shoulders, and we continued to the airstrip. There, in the parking lot, was the truck of VVIPs waiting for the C-47 to take them out to Bangkok. While the VVIPs were waiting, however, landing on the runway was our Vietnam Air flight, ready to take us to Hanoi.
We clambered down off the van, tipped the driver handsomely, got our tickets and boarded the plane to Hanoi. Because there was so little communication with the city, sadly, ours was the only group on the plane. Other group leaders at our hotel had been afraid to take their groups out on the roads or could not find drivers in time, others just had no way to get to the airport. People in town did not even know that a plane was arriving.
So, about 50 minutes after leaving the flooded city of Hue, we touched down in Hanoi, only to be met by a large complement of Embassy staff wanting to hear the news from Hue and check off our names to let relatives and others know we were safe.
- The Snowstorm
Before Myths and Mountains existed, I trekked with friends to a very special area called the LumingdingKharka, way off of the main trekking routes. We had just climbed to 15,000 feet in a vast empty area and set up camp, when suddenly clouds began to appear, and soon after, snow began to fall and continued to fall heavily for 36 straight hours. Sherpas and crews kept digging trenches around our tents, shaking snow from the roofs, and making paths for us to the dining tent. We played cards, danced, and laughed to pass the time.
The blizzard ended with a thunderstorm such as I had never seen in my entire life – lightening streaking across the sky down into valleys ten thousand feet below, thunder echoing through the mountains, and monstrous avalanches tumbling down slopes that bordered our tiny campsite. That thunderstorm night, my two girlfriends and their husbands were each in their tent. The guide, the Sherpas and the porters all huddled together in the dining tent. Although I could easily have crawled into a tent with someone else, for some reason, I did not, and huddled in my own tent, hardly daring to peer through the flap at the celestial fireworks exploding all around me. Realizing that, unlike the two husbands with us, mine would absolutely never want to accompany me on a trip like this, at first, I felt desperately lonely.
Then suddenly, the storm outside ended and all was quiet. For whatever reason, somehow I too felt the outside calmness in my mind. Meditating on the concept of loneliness, it suddenly came to me, that if I was lonely, it was a choice, it was something I could choose to change. To be alone was a condition, but just because one is alone, does not have to mean he or she is lonely. For me, this realization was a watershed, a sense of taking back my own power and control over how felt about my own life.
The next morning, we awoke to a huge argument between the guide and the Sherpa leader. The Sherpa wanted to turn back, and the guide wanted to press on over two 17,000 feet passes, down into the Lumiding, and on towards Lukla. Finally the guide came over to us, to plead his case, ending by saying, “Will you share the responsibility if someone dies?” We kind of looked at him totally blankly, fully realizing for the first time what awaited us as we left camp. Forward or backward – it was all extremely hazardous and we would have to break trail any way we turned.
Despite the Sherpa’s misgivings, we voted to continue on. The local our guide had brought to show the path was totally drunk and useless, so the Sherpa leader and the cook, took turns breaking trail as we climbed higher. When they were tired, we took over the job. Finally, we got to the top of the first pass, but it was too late in the day to go farther and cross the second pass. There was a small cave and a narrow ridge, with just enough space for us to make camp. That night, if we wanted to go to the bathroom, we had to crawl out of the cave, squat over the ridge, and pray we would not fall. The next day, we descended a bit, and then climbed once more to cross the second 17,000 feet pass. By the time we got to the top, we were exhausted.
The next day, after a brief breakfast, we started down into the valley, working to get below the tree line, where it had rained rather than snowed. There we would be able to pitch tents, wash and have some relief from the cold. By the afternoon, though, the snow, that had been easy to walk on in the morning, had softened. We would take one step and the snow would come up to our knees; and on the next, we would sink to our chests. One of my friends was having a terrible time, and finally broke down in tears as she fell for what seemed to be the umpteenth time. Just at that moment, her husband pranced by and saw her. “Looks like you are having trouble,” he joked, as he bounced along on his way, oblivious to what she was feeling.
My friend stared at him, didn’t say anything, and struggled once more to her feet. We kept walking together, and finally, when we thought we could go no farther, reached the tree line. Camp was another hour below, but the walk was easy.
As I was unpacking my duffle and arranging my tent, my friend came through the flaps, shaking with tears and talking about how “she had never felt so alone in her life.” Then she looked at me, and said, “Remember the night of the storm? I felt totally alone and could have been sleeping with a log!”I looked at her in amazement, as my thoughts from the last night of the storm flooded back. I had felt jealous of my girlfriends because each had someone with them, they had not been alone. Yet, in fact, they had been alone. They had actually experienced the worst kind of loneliness, the kind that comes from feeling completely isolated while you are actually with someone.
At that moment, my world changed. I knew my life was going to change radically, that I was going to continue to trek, and perhaps lead treks on my own, I knew that probably I would be alone in my life, that my husband would certainly not want any part of where I was headed, but I also knew that I did not have to feel lonely. These two 17,000-foot passes in the middle of “Nowhere Nepal” had been watersheds leading to a new world.
When people ask you for recommendations for trips, which ones do you usually recommend?
Myths and Mountains works in Asia, Southeast Asia and South America. Thus, the trips we recommend are really dependent on who is asking, where they want to go, what kind of trips they want etc. Although we do offer group fixed departures, our specialty has always been customizing trips for individuals and small groups. What makes these trips special is that they don’t just come off a shelf, but are designed to match the interests of the travelers themselves. Equally important, what enables us to customize trips so well is that we have traveled extensively in the countries we sell, so know how to design a trip to match the type of person with whom we are dealing. If someone wants to study puppetry in Vietnam, we can design a program for them. If someone wants to visit traditional and western hospitals in Bhutan, we can do this.
You work largely in the natural world – one under threat for various reasons. Are there any initiatives or steps that you take consciously so you and your clients travel responsibly? And do your bit to conserve the same for future generations?
Myths and Mountains is famous in the travel world for its philanthropy. Let me share two highlights.
- READ Global – www.readglobal.org: In 1991, Myths and Mountains founded READ (Rural Education and Development) Nepal in an effort to give something back to the people of the country. The goal was to make villages viable places for people to live, learn and prosper. READ had three parts:
(a) READ built rural library community centers with 3000-5000 books in Nepali, children’s rooms, women’s sections, computers, a reading room, and a community meeting room.
(b) READ seeded a local business to fully sustain and support the libraries (furniture factory, ambulance service, storefront rentals, etc.)
(c) READ linked the centers with organizations doing everything from Health/HIV to literacy, to micro credit.
In 2006, READ Nepal won the $1,000,000 Bill & Melinda Gates Access to Learning Award and then went on to receive several other grants from the foundation, expanding into India and Bhutan. Today, READ is a separate 501c3 based in San Francisco, with its own board and executive director.
As of 2017, READ has:
* Built 100 Rural Library Community centers in Nepal, Bhutan and India
* Seeded 197 for-profit businesses to sustain and support the centers
* Served 314 villages
* Touched the lives of about 2.3 million people
- The Galapagos: Myths and Mountains has been a major supporter of IGTOA in the Galapagos. Allie Almario, our Vice President, has served as Board Chair and Executive Director of IGTOA. Myths and Mountains has contributed a portion of every client sale to the Galapagos, and has been a major supporter of IGTOA’s efforts to:
* Build an easily accessible library for guides
* Put anchors in areas that are often poached
* Controlling and combatting invasive species
Which are your signature trips that you market? Why should everyone consider this as a must-do?
- Nepal: Everest Base Camp and Kalapatar: What is Nepal without an Everest Trek? Join us on one of the world’s greatest treks up to Everest Base Camp and Kalapatar. Click here for more.
- Himalayan High – Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet: For non-trekkers, this trip is an amazing contrast among three neighbors – Tibet, located high on the Himalayan plateau, Nepal, with its population of about 29 million people and Bhutan, about the same size, but with only about 600,000 people. Click here for more.
- Classic Galapagos – Cruising Darwin’s Enchanted Isles: A traditional introduction to the Galapagos in a boat that suits your desires. Click here for more.
- Bhutan and Its Buddhist Traditions: An opportunity to evoke an understanding of Bhutan and perhaps a spiritual awakening through the study and use of colors within the context of cosmology, astrology and Buddhist teaching. Click here for more.
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About Myths and Mountains
Myths and Mountains is the adventure travel company for the discerning and inquisitive globetrotter seeking a handcrafted, life-changing experience. Incorporated in 1988, our mission is three-fold:
* To offer signature itineraries for discerning travelers based on their unique travel preferences.
* To ensure every client returns to us and refers us to others.
* To give something back to communities we visit.
The epitome of elegance and casual sophistication, Myths and Mountains specializes in travel to Asia, Southeast Asia and South America. Designed around what a country is about, our itineraries focus on cultures and crafts, religions and pilgrimage sites, traditional medicine and natural history and the environment and how people interact with us. We offer group fixed departure trips, but our specialty has been custom-designed programs for individuals and small groups.
About Dr. Antonia (Toni) Neubauer
Traveler, humanitarian and teacher, Toni is the guiding spirit behind Myths and Mountains, and founder of READ Global, a nonprofit global organization dedicated to inspiring rural prosperity by building rural library community centers and seeding sustaining businesses as catalysts for development.
READ Nepal was selected as the recipient of the 2006 Access to Learning Award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Toni also received the IIPT’s Ambassador for Peace Award, Walk the Talk Global Citizen Award, the Friends of Nepal Award, and the Northern Nevada International Center’s International Visionary Award. She was recognized as a travel expert in Wendy Perrin’s WOW list, for her time in Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar, and is the Conde Nast Nepal Top Travel Specialist. Myths and Mountains has also been the recipient of Travel + Leisure’s Global Vision Award, as well as The London Observer’s Ethical Award.
For more than a quarter of a century, Toni has traveled within Asia and Southeast Asia, getting to know the people and their way of life. These intimate experiences are the heart and soul of every Myths and Mountains trip, and this is what makes each journey so unique. Toni speaks six languages, holds a Doctorate in Educational Administration, as well as a Masters in French Literature. She has visited 60 countries around the world, and has spoken for diverse organizations such as Sister Cities, Yale University, The Center for the Study of the Vietnam Conflict and The Adventure Travel Trade Association, and became a frequent guest on a variety of radio shows.
Dr. Antonia Neubauer
President – Myths and Mountains, Inc.
2017 Wendy Perrin WOW List – Trusted Travel Expert for Nepal, Bhutan & Myanmar
2017 ”Condé Nast Magazine” Nepal & Bhutan Top Travel Specialist
2015 Tourism Cares Legacy in Travel Philanthropy Award
2014 London Observer Ethical Award – Travel
2013 International Institute For Peace Through Tourism – Ambassador For Peace Award