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About Me

How travel got into my blood

About Me - My Story

 I knew I was different when I was a boy growing up in the early 1960s.  That's when I used to play the board game "Pirate and Traveler" with my friends.  The board displayed a map of the world and distant ports with names like Cape Town, Bombay, Valparaiso and Godthaab - names that cast a spell over me.  Who lived there, what were these places like, I wondered, without having the slightest notion that some day I'd set foot in them.  (Well, I still haven't made it to Godthaab, recently renamed Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, but I'll get there one day.)

 

Several years later, shortly after dropping out of college, I picked up a burly, bearded hitchhiker while driving to my dull office job.  He had thumbed all the way from his hometown of Hungry Horse, Montana - talk about enchanting names! - and regaled me with stories about places he'd wandered and jobs he'd held throughout the American West, which at the time seemed as distant and unknown to me as the moon.  And I still remember what he said just before I let him out: "Travel is the best education in the world."  He was such an unforgettable character, and such an inspiration, that fourteen months later - January 1974, to be exact - after returning to college, and with nothing to do during a long winter break, I decided to fly from New York to Phoenix, Arizona - my first time in a plane - and hitchhike back home.  I was so hooked on travel, that when summer came around that year, I tried, and failed, to hitchhike all the way to Alaska (which to this day is the only state I haven't been to).

 

Forty years and eighty-seven countries later, I often look back at those two trips.  I was only twenty at the time, and even though they were tame in comparison to many adventures that followed, they still stand out as among the best experiences of my life.  And unique in their own way.  In fact, the first trip is the only one in my life I've ever made in harsh winter conditions, enduring a blizzard, eight below zero cold, and black ice conditions so treacherous that I-70 in Illinois was shut down and I had to sleep on the floor of a truck stop; the second trip is the only time I've ever seen the otherworldly Northern Lights, and a bear running across the road fifty yards from where I stood!

 

But that was just the beginning.  Years later, after I finally graduated from college and could not find employment, I ended up by chance in the home heating oil business, driving an oil truck.  This is cold weather work which gets very slow in the summer months.  For someone like me, who had a burning desire to see the world, it was perfect.  Through the 1980s, before marriage and children came along and brought my wandering days to a temporary halt, I would take the entire summer off and travel - usually alone, staying in the cheapest hotels and using public transport, which in some parts of the world can be dangerous and undependable.  Occasionally, in countries where solo travel is very difficult or impossible - as in central Africa - I joined basic tours, which sometimes involved camping and cooking our own meals.  But for the most part I lived my dream doing it on my own, seeing most of North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and beyond.  And I couldn't agree more: Travel is the best education in the world.

 

But age and responsibilities have taken their toll, and in the past ten years I've made only two extended trips to far-flung corners of the world.  The most recent, in the summer of 2013, was a 7-week journey to Cambodia, Vietnam, China and North Korea, the last of which was a life-changer.  You can read all about it on the North Korea page.  But here let me explain why I started Orinoco Travel.

 

First and foremost, I discovered that there's a huge void in authentic travel for students, by which I mean the pleasure of discovery that comes from seeing new places at ground level.  After reading through the websites of the four or five student tour companies that most schools use, I learned that they thrive on what I call motorcoach (deluxe bus) mob tours which, sadly, is the norm in the travel industry. Sure, some kids enjoy themselves on these trips, but how "educational" is it to be zooming around on expressways, either here or in Europe, to see a handful of famous cities and sights, then park next to a fleet of other tour buses that have just let off throngs of other tourists?  Despite all the hype about personal enrichment and learning about the world, these are "touristy" tours of the worst and most shallow kind.  And don't get me wrong: everyone who goes to Paris or New York should see the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.  But to me, sightseeing and enlightening travel are two different things; or better said, spending time in big cities and at famous sights is the lesser part of travel.

 

I realize that most people feel a lot more comfortable going with an established company that's been around a long time.  That's just human nature.  But it could very well be a huge mistake.  I did my homework, taking a close look at two of the largest and oldest companies.  Their websites are attractive and engaging, with many nice photos and videos.  They seem to be staffed by dedicated professionals with many years of experience.  You get the impression that you can't go wrong by booking with them.  But if you do a Google search by typing in their names and the word "complaint" there appears a long list of detailed postings written by disgusted parents who paid to send their children on these tours.  Some of these stories are truly outrageous.  Even if half of them are true - and I have no reason to doubt that all of them are - I can't understand how these outfits stay in business.

 

I did come across one prominent company that seems to always do things honestly and efficiently.  However, they are very expensive - prohibitively so for many parents - they work with large groups and fancy hotels, and all they offer are the usual whirlwind itineraries in late model coaches with plush seats, which keep their young passengers insulated from the country they came to learn about.  Nevertheless, they do get rave reviews from parents and teachers alike.  All I can say is, there are a lot of people who have no idea what they're missing.

 

You know, I don't like to be negative.  I'm not trying to build myself up by tearing others down.  But you ought to know that there are scam artists in the student travel field.  You need to question whether a pile of money buys anything of value for your child.  And you should know that my approach to student travel is a world apart, as I explain on the "My Philosophy and Your Budget" page.

 

I had a quality education and have been a voracious reader my whole life, but more than anything else, travel - seeing and experiencing the world outside of my familiar surroundings - has been my primary source of knowledge and has shaped the way I view world affairs.  Some of my viewpoints differ sharply from those who have never traveled far from their homes.  One of the unique features of this website is that I inject a good deal of personal sentiment and commentary, particularly on the North Korea page, most of which has been forged by what I've observed in my travels.  I know that some of my opinions will rub some people the wrong way, but I'm also confident that some will enthusiastically relate to what I have to say.

 

I founded Orinoco Travel in equal part to supplement my income and to stimulate the minds of young people who are a cut above their peers.  The thought of packing a bus with 45 or 50 average students, as lucrative as that would be, doesn't interest me.  What interests me is taking a group of intelligent and inquisitive teenagers one-third that size to someplace they've never been before, in the hope that they'll derive maximum enrichment and satisfaction, and with the aim of sharing my expertise so that they'll get the most out of their future travels.

    

This is the only student travel website that features everything from South Dakota to North Korea.  Quite honestly, as a newcomer in this business, I don't know what people will express an interest in, so I'm putting everything on the table - everything, that is, that I consider a safe and edifying destination.

    

I hope I've made it clear how important travel has been in my own life, and how much I want to share its wonderful benefits with others.  Wherever you wish to go, I look forward to talking travel with you.