Traveler Interviews | Roadmonkey’s Paul von Zielbauer.
Roadmonkey [rohd-muhnkee] n., a curious individual who seeks the unknown often, breaks rules if necessary, tests limits whenever possible and works hard to improve the lives of people in need. -Paul von Zielbauer
Paul von Zielbauer is a visionary. No, not like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. Well, actually, I guess he sort of is. Zielbauer knew if he built it, they would come. So in 2008, he launched Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy based in part on an idea he calls “planned serendipity”: the concept of having a schedule and a plan, while being open to the road less traveled. A year and three successful expeditions later, Zielbauer, an award-winning journalist who covered the war in Iraq, traded in his credentials at The New York Times to work full time at Roadmonkey.
Earlier this month, Zielbauer led an eight day multi-sport expedition through Patagonia that concluded with a four day volunteer project rehabbing a Buenos Aires laundromat operated by disadvantaged young people. After he returned home, I had the opportunity to speak with Zielbauer about Roadmonkey, volunteering and his travels.
Tell me about what differentiates Roadmonkey from other group travel outfits?
We’re not just providing a travel experience. I never really saw us a travel company. I see us as providing a certain kind of experience abroad and that includes adventure travel. We’re providing something tangible and good for people in need that we produce with our own hands. Roadmonkey was built and created to be adventure philanthropy. It wasn’t retrofitted to take advantage of the boom in voluntourism.
How do you connect with the people who you perform volunteer work for?
One of the unique parts of Roadmonkey is that we always work with non-profit partners. This ensures we are picking volunteer projects that are actually useful and wanted by the local community, and not just sort of imposed by us because we think that’s what they want; that is a mistake we never make. During our recent trip to Argentina, we partnered with a very good, a very small non-profit in Buenos Aires called Voluntario Global. The project also has to be hands on, and it has to be something our group can start and finish in three to four days. We want our people to have a since of accomplishment, and we want them to be able to work with the local people that are being benefited; it’s an immersive cultural experience as well as a volunteer project.
For each trip, how many people do you take?
We only take 10 people. We call ourselves ‘small group travel for people who don’t like traveling in groups.’ We really aren’t about group travel as much as we are about putting together a like minded group of people, which is why I personally interview each person before they sign up.
Participants raise donations before the trip. How is that money used?
We’re different in that we ask our clients to raise tax-deductible donations from their own social networks. The money you raise is going into the lumber, paint, sandpaper, power tools that need to be rented, and the skilled labor guys that need to do the brick work or dry wall. On the front end you are raising it as a client and on the back end you are handling the supplies that you helped buy with your fund raising. I also feel like were different because we are doing something people are excited about. It’s not transactional and we don’t have routines. We go to five different places in the world right now–that’s going to grow–but Vietnam is the place we’ve gone to the most. We have done three expeditions there and never to the same place.
Here’s one plane ticket, where do you go?
I would probably go to Indonesia, because I’ve never been there and it’s a hugely interesting country. It’s the most populous Muslim country on the planet for one thing. But I would be going there mostly because it would be a cultural mind trip, and they have some great surfing, which I’m not a great surfer, but I love to do it; surfing is my yoga. It’s a region of the world, aside from Vietnam, that I feel like I haven’t seen much.
Could Indonesia become a Roadmonkey destination?
Absolutely, it would be a great place. Not every country is Roadmonkey territory. Costa Rica is not Roadmonkey territory, through no fault of its own. New Zealand is not, unfortunately, Roadmonkey territory. Why? Because people generally don’t need us to take them to those countries. We don’t want to go places where our experience could be replicated by any credible tour company, because we are not just a tour company. The reason we are going to Vietnam, Nicaragua, Peru and Tanzania is because we are trying to take people beyond the tourist path by all means. Nicaragua, for example, is a little more edgy, it’s a little more discoverable still–you can really get off the path easier and getting off the path is a priority for us, that is part of our identity and mission.
*Roadmonkey is offering 10 percent off to anyone who joins an expedition and fills one of the first five of 10 positions available. For more information about upcoming adventures, check out this link for Roadmonkey expeditions.
*All photos and captions in this post are courtesy of Roadmonkey.
*Please remember all photos on this website are copyrighted and property of BeersandBeans.com, NarikosNest.com & Bethany Salvon. Please do not use them without my permission. If you want to use one of them please contact me first because I do love to share and I would be flattered. Thanks!
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