Paul von Zielbauer, a New York Times reporter and Iraq war correspondent, launched Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy, www.roadmonkey.net, in 2008 to give more people the chance to explore the world and do good things along the way. I asked him to write a blurb about Adventure Philanthropy and the creation of Road Monkey.
I hear the question more and more nowadays. “What’s Roadmonkey?” When I started Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy Inc. last year, I didn’t have a prepared answer, just an idea to combine ass-kicking adventures and meaningful volunteer work into a new, integrated kind of foreign travel experience. I didn’t know if anyone would think it was a good idea, or if anyone would go with me.
A year or so later, as I write this aboard a 767 flying to Kilimanjaro, Tanzania, to meet nine other Roadmonkey expedition members, I have better answers to that question. Roadmonkey means pushing our physical and cultural comfort zones to experience new corners of the planet in an interactive way, and completing a sustainable, custom-made project while we’re there. It means digging below the tourist surface, and getting sweaty and a little dirty in the process. Roadmonkey, in other words, is small-group travel for people who don’t like traveling in groups.
What we practice is the art of “planned serendipity.” That’s what adventure philanthropy is all about.
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As a reporter for The New York Times, I’ve covered the Iraq war from Baghdad, the American military justice system from Camp Pendleton, Calif., and the New York City jail system from Rikers Island. Newspaper reporters are paid (not that well, by the way) to reveal problems that others will hopefully solve. I launched Roadmonkey last year to solve some of the problems I was reporting and writing about, and find some high adventure along the way.
We launched our first adventure philanthropy expedition last November, in Vietnam, a country I first experienced in 1993, when most Westerners were still assumed to be Russian and almost no one north of the former DMZ spoke English. For 9 days, our Roadmonkey crew – four women and seven men, from Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Toronto and Madrid – cycled through the stunning hills and valleys of northwest Vietnam, near the Chinese and Lao borders, through monsoon rains, cotton-thick mountain fog and past rushing chocolate-colored mountain rivers. (see attached photo)
“It literally takes your breath away,” said one guy in our group, an L.A.-based producer named Philip Ruddy, after bombing down a particularly gorgeous stretch of mountain road.
After covering about 300 miles on bikes, we spent four days building a playground for orphans at a remote facility west of Hanoi. (see attached photo) We used money Roadmonkey raised with its non-profit partner in Vietnam, the Worldwide Orphans Foundation, www.wwo.org.
Watching the kids jump and play on that playground was extraordinarily gratifying, and that feeling is also what Roadmonkey want to be about on each expedition we lead.
I think we’re have a good start in Tanzania now. For six days, we’ll climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, all 19,345 feet, arriving at dawn on June 26. Then, after an 8-hour “buffalo bus” ride from Moshi, at the base of the mountain, to Dar es Salaam, on Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coast, we’ll go to work building a clean-water system and painting classrooms at a small school for about 100 children, one-third of whom have been orphaned by East Africa’s AIDS epidemic.
This November, Roadmonkey heads back to Vietnam, this time to cycling through the central highlands for a week, then build a small farm at a boarding school for ethnic minority kids, with our non-profit partner there, the East Meets West Foundation, www.eastmeetswest.org. The farm will grow vegetables and fruit that will be sold at market to help more kids pay tuition and get a solid education in one of Vietnam’s poorest regions.
Next year, Roadmonkey pioneers adventure philanthropy in two new places: Peru and Nicaragua, where the adventure will involve surfing (lessons) and river kayaking through the Peruvian Amazon, on our way to building more playgrounds and more clean-water systems for villages that now drink contaminated well water.
So now when someone asks me, “What is Roadmonkey?” I give them a much better answer.