For Barbara Gilmore, travel is a way of life shared with kindred spirits she leads on excursions to far away places to experience diverse cultures and better understand the world and its peoples
Barbara Gilmore is off to Kenya next month, Ireland in May and New York in September. She already has a trip to Cuba lined up for 2018.
And as usual, she’s not traveling alone.
Gilmore, who lives in the Town of Grafton, is a travel planner and, more remarkably, an expert globetrotter who has been to between 85 and 90 countries (so many she’s lost exact count) on six continents.
For 37 years, Gilmore has organized tours throughout the United States and around the world for her relatively tight-knit circle of customers who have become indoctrinated in her philosophy about traveling.
She calls her operation Many Hats Travel with Barbara Gilmore, but to describe it as a business is a bit of a misnomer.
“I do this for fun. I’m living my dream,” Gilmore said. “I don’t do this for money.”
If she has a business plan, it’s to book enough guests on each tour to cover her travel expenses and share with them what she finds so magical about exploring the world.
“Why do we go? We go because we like to learn,” she said. “And with education comes understanding. Education travel remains as a beacon of hope for the long haul ahead. It erases borders and brings people together in the best way, opening doors that failed diplomacy has shut and hearts that ignorance has hardened.
“Travel has never been as urgent and necessary as it is today.”
Gilmore describes her tours with what she calls the three Es — educational, environmental and economical.
A self-described “details person,” she works months in advance to arrange trip logistics, then accompanies the groups, which have ranged from 4 to 72 people but average between 10 and 20.
Don’t expect a highly structured cruise ship-style itinerary from Gilmore. She arranges transportation, lodging, tours and guides but leaves enough flexibility in her itineraries to allow people to explore as they wish.
“These are tours for people who don’t really like to travel in groups,” she said.
She doesn’t exactly hand-pick her customers but takes steps to ensure that she is traveling with kindred spirits.
“I don’t have a website and I don’t want one,” she said. “I have an email list of about 1,200 people who I have traveled with before or who I know will appreciate my tours.”
Gilmore got her start in travel planning in 1979 by arranging cross-country skiing trips throughout the Midwest for Riveredge Nature Center in the Town of Saukville.
After Yellowstone National Park opened its lodging in winter, Gilmore expanded her tours outside the Midwest.
“I told Andy Larsen, ‘We’ve got to go to Yellowstone,’” she said, referring to the former longtime executive director, now director emeritus, of Riveredge Nature Center. “We decided we’d go even if we could get just five people to come with. Turns out we had 40.”
Gilmore still arranges regular tours to Yellowstone.
But it was her first trip to Kenya in 1991 that was special.
“The first time I came to East Africa, I felt like I came home,” she said. “I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because Africa is the cradle of civilization.”
Among her favorite countries to visit are Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda in Africa and Bhutan, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka in Asia.
“Personally I like Africa and Asia a lot because their cultures are so different than ours,” she said.
Gilmore has been to some of the same countries a half dozen time or more, but she doesn’t mind revisiting favorite destinations. In fact, she enjoys it because with each visit she gains insight into cultures so different than hers.
“There are those who say, ‘Been there, done that,’ then move on to the next destination,” she said. “Not me. I find I’m a better question-asker when I come back to a country. It broadens my ability to appreciate the place and the culture.”
Gilmore admits that foreign languages are not her forte, but she has discovered that knowing how to speak a few key words in any language goes a long way.
“I’m not good with language,” she said. “So I give the people on my tours a cheat sheet with common words and exchange rates.
“One word I always try to teach people is the word for ‘beautiful.’ You can use it in so many ways, and people love to hear it.”
Gilmore fields many questions from those who travel with her, and one of the most often asked is whether the places they will visit are safe. Gilmore’s answer is to the point.
“I tell them, ‘If you don’t think it’s safe, don’t’ go,’” she said. “We obviously don’t go to war zones, and let’s face it, most accidents happen in or near your home, so I just don’t see it as much of an issue in regards to travel.”
That she knows from experience.
“No one has ever died on one of my tours,” she said.
The only person she can recall that needed to be hospitalized overseas was her after a day of skiing in Austria.
“The smart people didn’t go skiing that day,” Gilmore said.
On another tour, the group was split up while flying between countries in East Africa because half the contingent was late to the airport because of traffic.
“They weren’t that late but they were told they couldn’t board the plane,” she said. “We later learned that all we needed to do was slip some money to the people at the gate.
“The people who didn’t get on the plane and had to wait a day-and-a-half really enjoyed their time together and to this day are very good friends.”
Among the other lessons Gilmore has learned in her travels is how to respond to an unavoidable question — “Where are you from?”
“I ask them, ‘Where do you think I’m from?’” she said. “I used to correct them if they were wrong, but now I just tell them they’re right. It makes them feel good, although I don’t understand why people think I’m from England when I don’t even have an accent.”
When Gilmore describes her tours as educational, she is referring to the insights that can be gained from exploring far away places and cultures that are vastly different from those closer to home. But for novice travelers, there are other lessons to be learned, and Gilmore, whose worn passports serve as her curriculum vitae, is the guru who teaches them how to travel well.
Her Ten Commandments for Tourists is standard reading material on her tours.
“Thou shalt not expect to find things as thou hast them at home, for thou hast left home to find things differently,” is the first commandment.
Another is, “Blessed is the person who can say thank you in any language. In Swahili, it is Asante.”
Among the other advice she gives to her clients is this:
“Travel is how we learn about the world. So, journey with an open mind and a gentle heart. Revere and protect the natural environment which sustains all life. Accept with grace and gratitude the diversity we shall encounter. Strive to appreciate all cultures and offer your hand in friendship to everyone you meet.”
Image Information: A pair of dolls from Botswana were held by travel planner Barbara Gilmore, who said she has visited between 85 and 90 countries on six continents during her travels.