2007.09.19: September 19, 2007: Headlines: COS - Korea: Adventure: thaca Times: Korea RPCV Don Montague founded South American Explorers

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Korea: Peace Corps Korea : Peace Corps Korea: Newest Stories: 2007.09.19: September 19, 2007: Headlines: COS - Korea: Adventure: thaca Times: Korea RPCV Don Montague founded South American Explorers

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Korea RPCV Don Montague founded South American Explorers

Korea RPCV Don Montague founded South American Explorers

A graduate of Columbia University and the New York University School of Law, Montague stepped off the legal career track early on for a Peace Corps stint in South Korea. He likes to tell how, when asked whether there was any place he wouldn't go for Peace Corps, he named South America. He didn't think it was sufficiently exotic, he says: "I thought it was like Mexico all the way down - not that I even knew much about Mexico." Back in New York City after his Peace Corps service, Montague worked as a news assignment editor and noticed that the film stock he saw from South America tended to be of low quality. He spotted an opportunity in this grainy footage. "I thought if I contacted some of my old Peace Corps pals we could extend the adventure, if you will," he says. So he began putting together a freelance crew to shoot newsreel and documentary footage in South America. His friends "had some realistic objections to this, like we didn't speak the language," Montague remembers. Language wasn't the only hitch: The would-be crew also lacked experience behind the camera.

Korea RPCV Don Montague founded South American Explorers

A Discovery Channel

By: Shawna Williams


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Northwest of Ithaca's center, past the Cayuga Medical Center and down a quiet road lined with fields and well-spaced houses, alert drivers might notice something a little out of place. In front of one house, stickers on a large yellow mailbox spell out "SA EXPLORERS." It's the only outward indication that this ordinary-looking house is the world headquarters of South American Explorers (SAE), a non-profit which for three decades has been helping independent travelers find their way around South America.

SAE's thousands of members in 42 countries receive a quarterly magazine and access to SAE's treasure trove of travel information on almost any conceivable brand of adventure. They're also welcome in the members-only lounges of the organization's four South American clubhouses, expat havens offering advice, Internet access, storage, community, and a cup of tea. The whole operation is directed by founder Don Montague from above his garage on Indian Creek Road.

Longtime friend (and SAE board member) Rick Vecchio describes Montague as "the consummate man of letters, a visionary, a refugee from a J.D. Salinger novel... a man possessed of a razor-sharp wit, wacky charm, and a profound sense of the absurd."

A graduate of Columbia University and the New York University School of Law, Montague stepped off the legal career track early on for a Peace Corps stint in South Korea. He likes to tell how, when asked whether there was any place he wouldn't go for Peace Corps, he named South America. He didn't think it was sufficiently exotic, he says: "I thought it was like Mexico all the way down - not that I even knew much about Mexico."

Back in New York City after his Peace Corps service, Montague worked as a news assignment editor and noticed that the film stock he saw from South America tended to be of low quality. He spotted an opportunity in this grainy footage. "I thought if I contacted some of my old Peace Corps pals we could extend the adventure, if you will," he says. So he began putting together a freelance crew to shoot newsreel and documentary footage in South America. His friends "had some realistic objections to this, like we didn't speak the language," Montague remembers. Language wasn't the only hitch: The would-be crew also lacked experience behind the camera.

Nevertheless, he persuaded two friends to come south with him in 1971. "It was bad in the beginning - it was terrible," he says. "We spent all our money on buying the equipment, and we didn't have anybody to teach us how to use it." He remembers covering "a lot of airport arrivals," a coup, and a host of features. "One of the worst was alpaca hot pants - hot pants were big in those days," he says. "Then we were getting better, so we covered Princess Anne's honeymoon."

The crew called it quits in 1977. "It was a great adventure until you really learned how to do it," Montague explains. "I mean, in Argentina we'd show up at the police station after a bomb went off... It was grim stuff."

On his way back to the United States, Montague stopped off in Lima for a few weeks to visit friends. While there he was offered a job writing for a Peruvian newspaper, but because he wasn't interested in covering politics or economics, "it wasn't tempting at all," he says. Instead he made a counter-offer: he would start a magazine "that would cover things like lost cities and condor studies and just good feature material," paired with a club where travelers would gather and, in the process, be mined for stories. The paper's owner put up some seed money, but Montague found that making the operation viable was a tough job.

"When the club first started out we were sort of a pale imitation of New York Explorers Club: We visualized climbing mountains and skydiving and kayaking rivers and stuff," he says. "The original club in Lima had several rooms, some maps, and no furniture, of course - that came later - and it just sort of evolved from there." A one-year membership in South American Explorers (then called the South American Explorers Club) came with four issues of South American Explorer magazine, which was supposed to be a quarterly magazine - but early on, the publishing schedule was so erratic that a one-year membership often lasted for two or more years in practice. On top of the difficulty of producing the magazine, Montague and friends struggled to publicize the club to potential members, and even to get the magazine to subscribers: Most members lived in the United States, and mailing costs were prohibitive.

The seed money quickly ran out, and with a membership in the dozens, the organization badly needed additional sources of revenue. Eleanor Griffis, a friend of Montague's who first met him in Lima in the early 1970s, recalls one meeting with a potential sponsor, the owner of Lima's Gold Museum:

"The meeting was held at the private home in the museum grounds. We walked into a huge glass room surrounded by gardens and tall trees, only to discover that it was the game room, full of big game trophies. Montague was trying to start up an explorers' information network on archaeology and wildlife and here we were, sitting among glass coffee tables propped on elephant feet, polar bear and leopard skin rugs scattered all over the flagstone floor, lamp stands made of antlers and wild goat hooves. There were several lion and tiger heads, and the tops of the four walls were studded with heads of taruca, a small Andean deer. You can imagine, that association didn't go any further."

Somehow SAE limped along despite its lack of a benefactor, and even grew. In 1979 Montague and his then-partner decided the best response to crippling international postage rates was to set up a base in the United States, so they moved to Denver, leaving someone else to manage the Lima clubhouse. There was another, less tangible benefit to establishing a North American presence: "There was a sort of a credibility gap - Americans were reluctant to send money to South America, and we thought that if we had some sort of US or European presence that that would help," Montague says. Even with this new credibility, it would be years before he could quit his day job. "When I first got back, heaven forbid, I worked at 7-11, and of course it was terrible," he says; his other jobs in Denver included a position at the Sierra Club.

With no outside revenue, the Lima clubhouse had to meet its own expenses by selling memberships. It helped that Montague and the other club staff listened to members' questions and suggestions, and tailored SAE's offerings accordingly: The New York Explorers Club-knockoff phase didn't last for long. For one thing, "the New York Explorers Club, back in those days, didn't let women in," he explains. "We did, and so women right off the bat didn't seem too interested in more testosterone-driven experiences." Montague was surprised at the demand for information about volunteer opportunities; the club set up a volunteer database in response.

The staff researched other frequently-asked questions and compiled the results in information packets, low-tech printouts covering topics that range from alternatives to the Inca trail to driving in South America to rundowns on specific locales, such as Bolivia, Lake Titicaca, or the Peruvian jungle. "I remember one day we got a call from someone interested in adoption," Montague says. He didn't know anything about adopting in South America, and told the caller so. But adoption inquiries continued to trickle in over the next few months, and now SAE offers a 73-page information packet on the process. "Over time the whole sort of character of the club has changed," Montague says.

SAE has expanded its locations as well as its services over the years. Peru now boasts two clubhouses, in Lima and Cusco. There's also a location in Quito, Ecuador, and a new one in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The clubhouses are many things to many people; this is how Rick Vecchio, now a freelance journalist and tour agent in Lima, remembers his experiences while teaching in Peru in the late 1990s:

"In the midst of Lima's own dreary chaos of that time, SAE was a haven, a respite, a warm blanket for alienated expatriates and bewildered backpackers. It was a unique rendezvous point where a letter from your mother would actually be waiting for you, faithfully filed alphabetically in a cabinet drawer under your name. It was one of the few places you could send or receive email before the advent of Internet cafes, which are now available in virtually every corner of the Andes."

And it was the repository of the most amazing information: filing cabinets and binders full of reports on trail and road conditions, far and away more up-to-date than the guidebooks; linguistics studies of isolated indigenous tribes; a complete English-language library containing volumes on pre-Inca civilizations, traditional weaving, Latin American history and classic novels.

Heather MacBrayne, who manages the Cusco clubhouse, explains, "One great thing about the club is that it has a very broad mission, which allows us to get involved in the community in lots of different ways, and to carry out varied activities. In Cusco, the most important thing we do is to promote intercultural understanding... This takes many forms, from recommending independent local guides and service providers - making sure the tourist dollars reach the people who need them most - to getting involved in community and environmental projects."

SAE's variety of services have sometimes been a liability when it comes to marketing. Says Montague, "After all these years you'd think we'd be able to define in easy terms what the club does, and we've tried all sorts of things: information service, and just your home away from home... it's really an all-purpose sort of information network and you can go there and you can store your goods and there are evening presentations in these clubhouses, and there's trip planning, there's advisories, you get a free subscription to the magazine - it goes on and on."

But SAE's adaptability and shoestring budget - it still survives entirely on membership fees, now at $50/year, as well as advertising revenue from the magazine and Web site - have enabled it to weather an assortment of crises.

Local political upheavals sometimes reduced the flow of new members to one clubhouse or another to a trickle, but SAE as a whole took its biggest hit after September 11: Membership plunged from about 7,200 to fewer than 4,000, and for the first time, most members were not American. SAE is still recovering from that blow; membership now sits at just under 5,000.

The club has also met the challenge posed by travel information posted freely online. "A lot of people figure they can get all the information they need off the Internet, so why bother reading a guidebook, let alone joining the South American Explorers," Montague says.

However, many people turn to the club for help making sense of it all, he says: "more people want you to analyze the information that you give them, and they actually want to tap into your experience and get your opinion on their itinerary... I mean, a lot of people think it would be romantic to go down the Amazon. Well as a matter of fact no, it's awful. The trip lasts forever, you don't see anything, and the animals are not there on the riversides - they've done clear-cutting on both banks."

Montague and his wife, Marianne, moved from Denver to Ithaca in 1991. Don, who'd grown up near Rhinebeck, NY, just across the Hudson from Catskill Park, felt "like a salmon returning to its place of birth," he says. Now 69 and still brimming with energy, he works with one staff member in a cozy office with maps stuck to the sloped ceiling and cats who mark their favorite chairs with thin coats of fur.

Now in its 30th year, the club has become something of a legend, recommended by guidebooks and relied upon by vacationers, adventure travelers, researchers, and longtime expatriates alike. Montague hasn't had to work outside the club since moving to Ithaca.

"It's been an unexpected sort of adventure on its own," he says of SAE. He's seen many changes since embarking on that adventure, not only in the club and its tourist milieu, but in South America itself. Before, for example, "these countries had national parks, but they named it a national park and that was it. Or if they had park rangers, these guys were licensed poachers - they weren't out there doing anything for the park."

Now, he says, "That's changed remarkably. Whatever the reason is, South American countries are beginning to look at their natural resources as assets, not only for money, but as a source of attracting scientists... the whole thing has been one of the heartening, or, shall we say, less depressing events in world history."

As for the tourists, Montague has seen a shift from an agenda of "go see Machu Picchu and a few other things and go home." Many travelers now "want to know something about the cultures and people, understand them... they're willing to actually live there under relatively spartan conditions, and do something useful."

Montague is humble about his own contributions to cross-cultural understanding. "I'm not sure what else I would have done if I hadn't stumbled into the club by accident," he says. "Yogi Berra once said that when you come to a fork in the road, take it. And I feel I've sort of done that."

For more information on South American Explorers, visit http://www.saexplorers.org/ or call (607) 277 0488.

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