“The Anti-Ugly American—Peter Voll’s utopian travel vision” appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine on Sunday, March 18, 2007.
Who do you call if you’re working for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and are asked to improve foreign relations? It had better be someone experienced at working in culturally ambiguous situations, someone who is diplomatic, persuasive and adept at navigating bureaucratic channels. It should be someone who is well-connected and effective at brokering new relationships. Ideally, it would be someone who is passionate about increasing cross-cultural understanding, someone people are willing to follow to the ends of the earth.
Peter Voll is such a person. A pioneer in educational group travel, he took some of the first Western travelers to areas as far-flung as the People’s Republic of China, the North Pole and Burma, and has planned and run tours to more than 200 destinations worldwide. Carolyn Sheaff, who directed UC Berkeley’s alumni travel program from 1983 to 2005, visited Saudi Arabia with Voll and a handful of other educational travel leaders in 1998. “The government of Saudi Arabia turned to him for advice on how to increase tourism—a new concept at that time,” Sheaff explains. “Assisted by a Saudi citizen who had graduated from Stanford, Voll skillfully demonstrated to our hosts and the local tour providers how to develop a destination. He knows how to calculate the risks involved, how to set up an exceptional trip and how to make a positive difference in the world through educational tourism.”
Wait a minute … a Cal trip set up with the assistance of a Stanford graduate? It gets better: Voll built Stanford’s alumni travel study program, and ran it from 1974 to 1993. At the same time, he served as a mentor to Sheaff, who was developing Cal’s then-fledgling program. “His influence on Cal’s program was greater than some loyal Blues might like,” Sheaff admits. She and Voll worked together to develop the first Cal-Stanford trip, a Mississippi River cruise that adroitly balanced the two schools’ long-standing rivalry with mutual admiration for their respective academic contributions.
This kind of bridge-building is not new to Voll; in fact, it’s his life’s work. “People around the world are very similar. When you get them together one on one, without their governments, they develop relationships, which eventually come to mean something, and to create change. The more we can foster that kind of activity, the better chance we have of creating a more hospitable, secure world. Mikhail Gorbachev was a product of relationships like this.” Voll should know: He took groups behind the Iron Curtain to Eastern bloc countries in the ’70s, and to the Soviet Union in the early ’80s.
“My mission,” Voll says, “is opening the roads to different societies and cultures. I like to call it peace through tourism.” Steve Ridgway, a longtime colleague and principal at Palo Alto’s Travel Concepts, recalls the time Voll opened a road in Saudi Arabia. The Nabataeans built a sister city to Petra, Jordan, at Mada’in Saleh on the frankincense trail through Saudi Arabia, and its remains comprise a significant and remarkably well-preserved archaeological site. But because of poor access, Voll was unable to include it on his cruise tours. “He lobbied the Saudi government,” Ridgway recalls, shaking his head in amazement at Voll’s powers of persuasion, “urging them to build a road between the Red Sea fishing village of Al Wajh and Mada’in Saleh, so passenger ships could offer shore excursions.” The result is an all-weather road winding through beautiful hill country to the archaeological site.
“What I do is cross barriers, establish relationships and create the opportunity for travelers to have a good experience based on the local scene and culture,” Voll says. “I try to figure out what is the essence of a place, and how to structure a tour to include experiences that let people develop a meaningful understanding of other cultures.” One of Voll’s trips to Saudi Arabia is an example: Saudi culture requires that even non-Muslim women wear long, black robes, called abayas, and scarves, so only their hands, neck and face remain exposed. Abayas are widely regarded as a symbol of oppression; they’re not the sort of thing one typically imposes on paying travelers. But Voll was undaunted.
He explained the situation ahead of time, procured two abayas for each female traveler, and scheduled an abaya-fitting party in the airport lounge. The women wore them throughout the trip and came away with a much deeper experience of Saudi culture than they would otherwise have had.
What kind of background provides a person with this type of cross-cultural fluency? A fourth-generation Californian, Voll grew up in the central San Joaquin Valley—ranch country—riding horses and searching for arrowheads in the Sierra foothills. He was well aware of the area’s American-Indian history, and spent his summers steeped in cultural diversity: irrigating and picking cotton with Mexicans and African Americans. Voll remembers Sunday afternoon drives during his childhood in the 1940s. “My grandfather drove, and the little kids sat in the backseat. We would drive around town to see new housing developments in Bakersfield, maybe have a picnic along the Kern River. The adults would discuss everything from agriculture to local politics and economic development. It was like a tour. My brother and I sat patiently, listening to them talk and waiting for them to pull into a root beer stand, which was always the topper to the trip. We were like eager little puppies, knowing if we behaved correctly we would be rewarded with a frosty mug of root beer.
“Now I’m in the driver’s seat,” Voll says with an impish smile. He has followed up on a childhood fascination with remote areas and indigenous peoples, beginning with explorations of Hopi, Navajo and Inuit villages. Voll scouted the areas ahead of time, by himself or with a government escort, meeting with elders and learning about the culture. Resourcefulness is one of the characteristics he admires most. “I’ve never been more impressed by any people than the Inuit. They are so tough, so self-sufficient and so successful at achieving a very high quality of life under the most physically challenging circumstances. And talk about laughter; the Inuit peoples are unmatched! It’s like an epiphany to go out into the remotest places and discover the brilliance—the absolute brilliance—of these old traditional civilizations that are disappearing.”
Bedouin society fascinates him, too. The nature of nomadic people is hospitable and welcoming; travelers are traditionally offered food and shelter for up to three days by any encampment they come upon, with no expectation of repayment. “In the early ’90s I began to spend time in the Arab world, and learned how generous and humorous these people are. I became determined to organize trips to the Arabian peninsula to introduce Americans to the often misunderstood and under-appreciated Arabs.”
These days, Voll travels on behalf of San Francisco’s High Country Passage, a behind-the-scenes tour operator that develops and runs educational travel programs for clients such as the California Academy of Sciences, the Commonwealth Club, Smithsonian Journeys, the American Museum of Natural History Expeditions and National Geographic, as well as for the alumni associations of distinguished institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cal and Stanford. HCP specializes in providing small groups with access to people and places individual travelers could not visit on their own.
Last year the group cruised the Baltic Sea with Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa and other international leaders of the Cold War era, discussing recent history with the people who made it. In July, they’ll run a trip to the Russian Arctic, learning firsthand about global climate change with Tom Brokaw and four world-class scientists. This fall, they’ve scheduled a cruise to the Dalmatian coast—Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina—with Madeline Albright leading a discussion of balkanization.
Voll’s eyes twinkle when he talks about a trip he’s planning now: “There is this ancient cattle and goat market in Nizwa [Oman]; it’s filled with people in native costumes, buying and selling animals and wonderful foods and spices. Further down the road in Dubai, Sheik Mohammed’s thoroughbred stables and falcon souks are fascinating. Those who wish may stay with a Saudi family, and both men and women can take cooking lessons and learn firsthand about daily life in the home and in the village.” Voll would say more, but someone from the Ethiopian embassy is on the phone; he downs the last of his root beer and gets back to work.
IF YOU GO
Educational travel resources
Peter Voll develops tours for all the all the organizations listed below, which specialize in groups of between 20 and 80 travelers. Each tour includes one or more expert study leaders, who help provide a deeper understanding of the region’s art, archaeology, natural history, religion, culture and contemporary issues.
© 2009 Laurie McAndish King
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