Paul von Zielbauer pairs adventure travel with volunteerism
Paul von Zielbauer (’88) yearns for travel that sets his senses on fire. His adventure-philanthropy travel company, Roadmonkey, aims to ignite the hearts, minds, and bodies of travelers with challenging expeditions that also include volunteer service projects in communities at their destination.
“We want to create a singular travel experience,” says Zielbauer, 45, a former New York Times war correspondent who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., with his wife, Esther Chae. “Guided by your curiosity, open-mindedness, and guts, your travel experience can be a fulcrum to do something extraordinary.”
Zielbauer takes travelers on bike trips through Vietnam, hiking adventures
up Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, sailing excursions across the Caribbean, and kayaking journeys along the rocky Patagonian coast.
The volunteer projects, done in collaboration with local nonprofit organizations, have included installing a water pump house in Zanzibar, building a playground in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, and constructing a dye house for indigenous women weavers in a Peruvian village on the historic Inca Trail.
Mike Kessler, a writer for Outside magazine who led a recent Roadmonkey expedition in Vietnam, says Zielbauer is a great traveling companion.
“He has things under control, and if he doesn’t, he makes you think he does,” says Kessler. “He is deliberate, yet spontaneous. He knows how to find adventures, but also knows how to stay out of trouble.”
Zielbauer’s love for travel developed soon after graduation from Iowa State, where he majored in English, and found a home in the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house on Lincoln Way.
After graduation, he took a 10-week backpacking excursion to Europe, learning first-hand the transformational power of travel. He landed a job as a technical writer at Anderson Consulting in Chicago but soon grew tired of the corporate life. He left in 1991, began writing in his journal, and made his way westward on two-lane roads from the Midwest to Los Angeles.
Then he found a market for his writing, first in Windy City Sports, then at Chicago’s City News Bureau, covering cops, courts, and the city morgue. But the road beckoned with his first trip to Vietnam. He embarked on a four-month bike trip from Hanoi to Saigon, during which he developed a story on international commerce for Crain’s Chicago Business in 1994. After a stint at Columbia Journalism School, he was back on the road, this time in Europe in the Fulbright Young Journalist program, which sent him to Berlin, and later the Balkans. By 1999, he found a job at The New York Times, which led to his assignment in Iraq in 2006 and 2007.
He started Roadmonkey while still at the Times, leading two expeditions during his vacations. He left the paper in September 2009 to focus on it full time, with up to 20 expeditions planned for 2012.
“Travel teaches you how the world works,” says Zielbauer. “It challenges the preconceived notions you have, or didn’t know you have, about people, economics, culture, and society. It opens your mind, rewards your curiosity, and supports the best impulses in people: their persistence, empathy, and courage.”
About the Writer | David McKay Wilson is a veteran journalist who writes for college magazines around the country, including Harvard, Columbia, and Dartmouth. He is also a travel writer for Everett Potter’s Travel Report. He lives in Mahopac, N.Y. This article original appeared in the summer 2012 issue of VISIONS magazine.