As Myths and Mountains approaches its 25th anniversary, Founder and President Toni Neubauer looks back at the early days and the continually evolving journey of bringing her dream to life.
How did it all begin?
It was 1983 or so when my friend Nancy phoned and said, “I’m going to Nepal. Are you coming?” I said, “I guess if you’re going, I’m going.” We phoned another friend, and she decided to go, too. Four of us ended up going, and we all had an incredible trip.
At the time I spoke five languages and taught French, Spanish, and English, but knew nothing about Nepal – a place where the most basic things of life – how you eat, how you say “hello,” or how you go to the bathroom – are different. On that first trip, a temple guard almost shot me for sitting on Vishnu – He looked like a rock to me! Returning to the States, I found a freshman from Nepal at Bryn Mawr and said, “Okay, you teach me Nepali, and I’ll teach you how to use a washing machine!” She became my adopted “Nepali daughter,” and her parents adopted me in Nepal. After learning Nepali, I returned to the country. People asked if they could go with me, and then, “Where are we going next?” That was the beginning.
What made Myths and Mountains different from what other travel companies were doing?
Back then, people were doing destinations and activities, but they weren’t doing concepts. I was an academic, so the goal was to figure out what a country was about, and design itineraries around these ideas. We focused on four areas – religions and pilgrimage sites, cultures and crafts, traditional medicine and natural healing, and environment and natural history.
This was also about the time of the Gulf War, and there had been a real problem with flights to Asia over Arab areas. Several travel companies had major problems, so it seemed logical to have a foot in two hemispheres, Asia and South America. I had family in Ecuador, and had done some traveling there, so Ecuador became our first South American destination.
Then we started looking at hubs. If you go to Nepal, it’s important to also understand India, Bhutan, and Tibet. From there it was logical to branch out into Southeast Asia. In South America it was very much the same thing: If we were going to work in Ecuador it made sense to work in Peru, then Chile, then Argentina and Brazil. Those were the mechanics of expansion.
I was also very lucky, because I did a lot of writing and had had several things published in magazines. As I was starting to organize Myths and Mountains, Backpacker asked me to do a story on some of the founders of early travel companies. I consider myself sort of the second generation, and just interviewing these pioneers about how they got started and what they did taught me a huge amount and gave me many ideas.
I always liked small groups, I love to be able to customize things, and I love to be able to get inside a culture. All of those things were fundamental to what Myths and Mountains was and is about. Myths and Mountains was never designed to be a company where we would just pull itineraries off a shelf.
We have a very clear mission – to offer signature itineraries for discerning travelers based on their unique travel preferences, to give something back to the communities we visit, and to make people come back to travel with us again and again. I think that combination of quality and giving back is why we have been recognized as a premier provider of unique custom travel experiences.
What’s it been like to bring this dream to fruition?
I love it. For me, Myths and Mountains is everything I ever did before, combined into one company, but in an international setting. If you take someone on a trip you teach a class, in the best possible way, through experiential learning. Designing a program is really like designing a curriculum. Running a company is running a school, and creating the nonprofit organization READ Global is an amalgam of all of my nonprofit work. One thing I love about Myths and Mountains is that you really change people’s lives on both sides of the world, not just the travelers but the other people involved as well.
Myths and Mountains is truly the sum of all the people who work with us and have helped build the organization, and the passion the entire team shares. Allie Almario, our vice president, is a marvelous example of this devotion. Half the fun of coming into the office is the people and how much they love what they’re doing. The other thing is the friendships we’ve made over the years with travelers and operators. We really begin to know them, to care about their families, their health, and their lives.
I think by establishing READ Global as a nonprofit arm of Myths and Mountains there’s no question that we’ve really given back to some of these countries in a way that is totally meaningful. That doesn’t always happen with travel. In some cases “giving,” despite the best of intentions, becomes charity and creates dependence. READ is the antithesis of charity and we consistently tell people not to hand out money in ways that create beggars. That’s so important.
If you’re going to do anything for 25 years you really have to love it. You never stop learning about people, countries, cultures, religions, and places.
How has Myths and Mountains changed over the years?
In the early days people thought of us as a trekking company and identified us with Nepal. It took time to really go beyond that. Now we really do more touring than trekking. In those days, too, adventure travel was really for a select group. Now it’s a much broader concept, and everyone’s an adventure traveler.
I have to laugh when I think about changes. In the early days people wrote letters and you booked trips two years out. In emergencies you sent telexes and no one understood anything you wanted to say because it was all abbreviated. Then came fax machines, which were just fascinating. And then along came computers. Now everything has to be done yesterday. That’s been a huge, huge change in 25 years.
These days you have to be skilled at helping people get off the beaten path, while still staying in a luxury hotel room at night. That’s an art.
What does the future hold?
I don’t think we ever want to grow into a really huge company. That’s not who we are. If we can maintain the quality that we’ve always had while expanding to about three million in sales, that would be a fine goal. Also key is becoming better business people and better humanitarians – very important in these times. Taking people out of our comfort zone into foreign cultures, and helping them understand and value how others live and think – this one of the best ways of fostering peace. I can’t think of anything else we could do to better promote global peace and understanding.