UW-Madison's Doug Whittle plans inspired trips for curious learners
by Tammy Kempfert, PortalWisconsin.org
Often, the most memorable travel moments happen spontaneously, which is why Doug Whittle has his work cut out for him.
The director of educational travel for University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies, Whittle organizes group tours for adult learners, everything from domestic arts and culture-themed trips to longer destinations overseas. It's a gig that has led him to the corners of the world, places like Peru, Egypt, England, Cambodia, and next summer, Tanzania. Closer to home, Whittle leads four-day excursions to Broadway, the Santa Fe Opera House, the Shaw Theater Festival in Ontario and more. He personally accompanies each tour group, which amounts to eight or nine trips per year.
Providing a safe, comfortable and valuable educational experience for a group of 20 travelers requires a good deal of concern and planning, he says, especially with international trips where every detail matters. But while planned spontaneity might sound oxymoronic, Whittle draws on his background as a world traveler to create unexpected adventures for his groups.
"Part of my goal is to bring these group tours to the level I experienced as a backpacker, the way that I learned how to travel," Whittle says. He served for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote village in Zaire (now, the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and spent subsequent summers backpacking abroad.
His strategy for offering inspired tours involves hiring the best experts and guides, who enhance the journeys with their local knowledge. He also works hard to limit the size of groups traveling abroad, and he builds leisure time into every trip. As a result, he says, "we're bringing small groups of rested, curious people on these tours, and the guides love it." Apparently the travelers love it, too, as many from previous groups sign on for future trips.
"There are moments on every trip, when people are overwhelmed by the beauty of a place, by the majesty of the surroundings, by the humanity," Whittle says, recounting in particular his trip to Viet Nam and Cambodia earlier this year. Throughout that trip, he had asked Sim, the group's driver and guide, to make a side excursion to his home village of Sophy; but Sim was hesitant to stray from the tour itinerary. He relented on the last leg of the trip--after viewing the Roulous group of temples in Siem Reap and stopping to buy baskets from roadside vendors--when the group found themselves within an hour of Sophy.
Whittle says that the experience in Sophy village marked the first time most of these travelers had strayed "off the tourist grid." Thanks to Sim, the group got an up-close view of rural Cambodian life. Besides seeing the traditional housing on stilts and a monastery, "Sim took us to a school--one of those classic rural schools that you've seen in all the movies--a mud building, and inside, 60 kids, all sitting around tables," Whittle explains.
After mingling with elementary students--singing, dancing, high-fiving--the group wound up, in the end, at Sim's house. "We drank coconut milk from coconuts off the tree. There was the smell of cookfires and outhouses, and goats wandering around. It was an uncomfortable day. Real hot, but thrilling." It was also a morning that changed the lives of his group, Whittle concludes. "You can't articulate the educational value of that."
Still, Whittle says bringing tourists to remote, sometimes delicate places concerns him: "I think about our footprint a lot. I hope that we don't simply take. I hope we leave a good impression." Bringing travel dollars to struggling rural areas helps. And in the case of Sophy, Whittle's group collected enough money (around $200) to purchase a hand water pump for Sim's rural development project, Homestay Volunteer Teachers Organization (HVTO). Back in the States, one of Whittle's colleagues, who was moved by the story, led a drive that funded the purchase of two additional pumps. The pumps provide clean water for the neediest families in and around Sophy village.
When asked what he appreciates most about his job, it's not the Pyramids of Giza or London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Whittle names. He says the people he meets through the trips are what make his work so satisfying. "They're just really, really interesting, intelligent people who want to keep learning and seeing the world. They're vibrant contributors to society. That's the kind of people we're attracting on these tours."
Interested in joining Doug Whittle on his next tour? The Department of Continuing Studies is currently accepting reservations for a arts and culture trips to Washington, D.C. in March and New York City in May.
Though the previously mentioned two-week trip to Tanzania beginning in June 2010 has sold out, Whittle says interested travelers should contact him, as he would consider booking a second trip to the East African nation. The itinerary includes a four-day African bush experience at Serengeti National Park, a canoe safari on Momela Lake, a visit with the
Hadzabe tribe along Lake Eyasi and much more.
For information on these trips and others, visit www.dcs.wisc.edu/lsa/travel on the Web, or call Whittle at 608-263-7787.