"Traveling with Dartmouth provides the intellectual stimulation of a Smithsonian or National Geographic tour," says Bob Davidson '67, just back from a trip he and his wife, Betsy, made to Vietnam with the Dartmouth Alumni Travel program this fall. "And there's the added value of connecting with the College, because you get to know current and retired faculty and alumni of different generations. I've made many new friends on these trips. That's why, once we began doing it, we stuck with it."
Indeed. Since his first trip with Dartmouth Alumni Travel in 1988, Davidson has taken an amazing 14 trips with the program—and he's just booked his 15th, earning him the title "Most Frequent Traveler" with the alumni travel program he calls "one of the best in the country."
The Davidsons have trekked with Dartmouth faculty, alumni, and friends through France, Spain, Italy, Greece, China, the Amazon rain forests of Peru, Ireland, Patagonia, the Dalmatian Coast, Libya, Tunisia, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, the Silk Road countries (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan), and Vietnam. They've enjoyed presentations by Dartmouth faculty in settings including ruins, trails, town squares, museums, and ships, and Bob has often lit out with faculty and other adventuresome members of the group for extracurricular learning experiences not on the itinerary.
"Betsy and I decided years ago that since we don't have children, we'd spend our spare time and money on travel, and for years we traveled on our own," says Davidson, who recently retired as an executive in the U.S. Department of Education and works as an education consultant.
Many passport stamps later, Davidson recounts his travels with great detail and pleasure. One of his earliest trips was to Chile's famed Patagonia region with Marysa Navarro, now the Charles Collis Professor of History. Davidson has observed that while many Dartmouth professors know more about an area's history than the local tour guides do, they generally wait until a private gathering to share their knowledge and views with the Dartmouth group.
"But not Marysa," Davidson recalls with a delighted laugh. "We went to the downtown square of Santiago, where Marysa was excited to see the newly erected statue of Salvador Allende, whom the U.S. had helped overthrow. But our local guide was an apologist for Pinochet, and many Chileans still have no sympathy for Allende. It was interesting to have our Dartmouth faculty leader get into a joust with our local guide on the streets in the central square."
The trip to the Silk Road—the ancient Eurasian caravan route—ranks among Davidson's all-time favorites, because of the region's "deep and fascinating history, diverse people and culture, and spectacular pre-mogul architecture." In Samarkand, Uzbekistan, the alumni travelers visited the Registan, a trio of ornate, centuries-old Muslim clergy academies, along with the Gur-e Amir, the mausoleum of Timur the Great (Tamerlane), which Davidson thinks rivals the Taj Mahal as the most beautiful building in the world.
Although he prizes all of his excursions with Dartmouth Alumni Travel, Davidson has a special place in his heart for the four trips he's taken with Dirk Vandewalle, associate professor of government, his favorite faculty trip leader.
In addition to thoroughly preparing his lectures, "Dirk is very much one of the gang," Davidson says. "He's very personal and takes an interest in everybody."
Professor Vandewalle shares with Davidson an interest in photography and what Davidson calls a "risky but fun" eagerness to "break off from the group and run up alleys" to experience the parts of a city that tourists aren't generally expected to see.
In Samarkand, says Davidson, Vandewalle bribed a guard to let the Dartmouth group into Gur-e Amir's crypt of Timur after visiting hours—"an especially spooky experience," he says. Later, after a similar exchange involving guards, Davidson and other Dartmouth explorers climbed a tall, narrow minaret in the dark so they could shoot photos of the Registan and the roofs of Samarkand at dawn.
Exploring the Indochinese countries of Burma and Laos with Professor Vandewalle in March 2008 remains one of Davidson's most extraordinary travel experiences.
"One day we explored Burma's Bagan plain, an archaeologist's delight because of its 2,000-plus stupas, and temples dating to the 9th and 10th centuries," recalls Davidson. "The next day, Dirk and I woke at dawn to visit the temples via private horse carts." In Yangon, the Dartmouth group visited the 2,500-year-old Schwedagon pagoda during the day, and that night Davidson and the professor returned to the spectacularly illuminated site, to join saffron-robed pilgrims circling the sacred, gold-plated pagoda once visited by Marco Polo.
"Misty and mystical" is how Davidson describes his most recent trip, to Vietnam, led by Mike Mastanduno, government professor and associate dean for the social sciences. "Mike's lectures on the Vietnam War (called "the American War" in Vietnam) were awesome," says Davidson. "Especially an ad hoc lecture on Nixon's 'secret plan to end the war' that he gave—responding to our popular demand—during our bus trip from Saigon to the Chu Chi battlefield." The lectures and discussions have inspired a post-trip email dialogue among some of the travelers.
"There's seldom a dull moment," Davidson notes happily of his travels. "I see a Dartmouth alumni trip as a reprise of the Freshman Trip experience—a more upscale version, of course—combined with a senior seminar with a top professor."
As Dartmouth Alumni Travel celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, this devoted traveler reflects that time has been good to the program. In the two decades that he and Betsy have had a relationship with Dartmouth Alumni Travel, the program, like the College, has become "way more diverse, and has greatly expanded the opportunities it offers," Davidson observes.
Although Davidson, who calls himself a "Dartmouth-aholic," has just been elected president of the highly active Dartmouth Club of Washington, DC, and has a full calendar, he has no intention of putting away his passport anytime soon. There are "many, many, many" more interesting sites and foreign locales, he says, that he'd like to explore with the alumni travel program.
"I'd like to go to Israel," he says, ticking them off. "I want to see Damascus sometime, and Jordan. I'd like to go to Nepal and Bhutan. I'd like to go to South Africa. I've never been to New Zealand or Australia. I'd like to see the sand dunes of Namibia in West Africa and maybe see the gorillas in Uganda.... I could go on and on."
In the company of friends, of course!
You can get there from here: See Bob's great alumni travel photos at his Flickr gallery.
Deborah Klenotic is the Alumni Relations Web editor. Brittany Coombs '10 is the Alumni Relations Web writing intern.