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Harriet: In Her Own Words

For me, travel is addictive: It’s thrilling to add pages to my passport. And as my passport grows, so do I—both emotionally and spiritually. By meeting new people and seeing how they live their lives, I see how alike we all are, and I’m reminded that this truly is one world, and no matter what our age, there’s always more to learn. The person I am today is a direct result of the lessons I’ve encountered in my roles as a teacher, wife, mother, and female traveler. Here, I share my story with you …

Growing up

I grew up in a suburban town outside of Boston, Massachusetts, and was raised in a traditional New England family. Even at an early age, I loved travel. I would fantasize about going to Africa to see the lions and elephants and wide-open land, or to London to see the bridges falling down. I remember reading magazines like Life and The New Yorker and cutting out the travel articles, or sending away for more information about interesting destinations.

I also enjoyed children’s books that took place in distant countries—one of my favorites being Five Chinese Brothers. The characters lived in China, which seemed to be an exotic place, and were able to do magic. I’ve always associated travel with this supernatural element … magical things can happen wherever you go. The theater also influenced my travel dreams. The King & I made me want to visit Siam (and when I finally traveled to Thailand in the early 1990s, it surpassed my expectations!).

My mother, who was a nurse, was one of my greatest inspirations for what would become one of my most important roles in life. Early on, she instilled in me the importance of making a positive difference in another person’s life. She would tell me stories about helping and connecting with her patients, and how much she enjoyed this special bond. So when I was 14, I volunteered as a candy striper at a hospital for severely disabled children. It was incredibly rewarding to be able to help them and bring joy to the lives of children who didn’t receive much attention from others. It was here that I decided I wanted to teach children with special needs.

Education and my years as a teacher

I attended college at Kent State University in Ohio, where I majored in Special Education. After graduating, I moved to Washington, D.C., to teach in a middle school for emotionally disturbed children. I’ll always remember one of the directors at the school, an inspiring man who gave me written and verbal feedback each and every day. This advice helped me set goals and measure my future successes. His constructive criticism also helped teach me about giving—and receiving—feedback that I’ve continued to use throughout my life.

I loved my students. It was gratifying to see their behavior change based on my newfound teaching skills. My patience was tested while I honed this craft each day, but I enjoyed the challenge. This period in my life was an unbelievable learning experience for me. It’s when I realized that I could “do it on my own”—paying bills, making decisions, and feeling confidently free.

After two years working at the school in Washington, D.C., I moved back to Boston, where I helped to start a school for inner-city children. I was still in my early 20s, and basically learning what I didn’t know how to do while attempting to do it. I thought that I was in over my head, but I loved every minute of the challenge … and I wanted to do it. I also learned how to ask for help—something I continue to carry with me today.

As an educator, you have the opportunity to see something in someone else that they don’t necessarily see in themselves—and as a teacher, I learned how to be better about motivating people, telling them the truth, and seeing greatness in others.

Teaching truly is a healing profession: You both get and give love—and you get a chance to make a difference in other people’s lives while giving of yourself.

Starting a family

People often ask me how Alan and I got together. We met in high school, but after a few rocky dates, we went our separate ways. Upon returning to Boston from Washington, D.C., we reconnected. Although we considered ourselves complete opposites, we both shared a passion for world travel and a desire to help people. Certainly an odd couple—I was a special-education teacher and Alan was an entrepreneur—we married in 1979.

Our son Edward was born in December of 1981, and daughter Charlotte in March of 1984. As parents, we wanted to give our children the values and confidence, as well as the opportunities, to travel—and truly appreciate—the world. One of our first trips as a family was to Costa Rica. We drove all over the place in a 4x4 … explored the rain forest … hiked around the rim of a volcano … and got close to the local birds and wildlife. But what I’ll always remember (and the kids will certainly never forget!) were the howler monkeys. We could hear them in the trees from the safety of our 4x4, so the kids insisted that I get out of the vehicle to take pictures. How could I say no? But as soon as I got out of the 4x4, the monkeys began throwing sticks at me. I jumped back in and slammed the door while the monkeys banged mercilessly on the roof. We couldn’t stop laughing.

It’s moments like these (and we certainly had our fair share of them) that remind me how travel truly is the best gift we can give our children. We’ve always encouraged Edward and Charlotte to be open-minded, take more risks, and do things they never imagined they’d do. I think they’ve learned these lessons well, since we can’t seem to keep them in one spot for very long … they’re always planning their next adventures!

Changing people's lives

By 1985, Alan and I had been together for 13 years and married for six. In that time, we got into the habit of taking long walks together whenever we needed to make important decisions. We’ll walk just about anywhere. One day, while walking along the beach on Captiva Island in Florida, Alan shared news with me that would become one of the most momentous decisions of our lives: Grand Circle Travel was up for sale, and he wanted to buy it.

I was torn, but in the end, the decision turned out to be pretty easy. Travel has always been our passion. It has enriched our lives in countless ways. We’ve seen amazing things, made friends everywhere we’ve gone, and had such fun along the way. As we walked along the beach, we talked about what we should do. We wanted to give other people the opportunity to experience travel the way we had: up-close, personal, and with a deep human connection. By the time we were ready to turn around and walk home, we had our goal: We wanted to help change people’s lives in our company, in our community, and around the world.

Philanthropy and Grand Circle Foundation

In February of 1992, Alan and I decided to head to northern Arizona for an unusual adventure: We were going to take part in an 11-day vision quest. We wanted to discover more about ourselves, work on our personal relationship, and learn how to serve a greater purpose in our lives. We had high hopes, but we never guessed it would be one of the most powerful experiences of our lives.

Completely isolated from the rest of our group of 28, Alan and I spent four days without a tent, radio, phone, or food. We had sleeping bags and water. But the last rule was hardest of all: We weren’t allowed to talk to each other for four days. Although it isn’t beyond either of us to break rules every so often, we didn’t speak the whole time we were there.

On the third night, Alan woke up at three in the morning with a revelation: To really achieve something bigger than ourselves, we needed to make a stronger commitment. He shared his journal notes with me. His idea—a charitable foundation (which became Grand Circle Foundation)—would end up growing through the years to help countless people around the world, and engage our associates, travelers, and people in local communities.

The Foundation had plenty of challenges in those early days and we made a lot of mistakes. But the turning point came when I got personally involved in a school project in Costa Rica in 2005. As Chairman of the Foundation, I often went into the field to evaluate projects. But this new project—which involved six schools—held a special interest for me. Many lessons came out of this endeavor—and it even laid the groundwork for our World Classroom initiative, which now supports nearly 100 schools in 60 villages around the world. And we realized that these lessons could apply almost everywhere we went. The formula we created is now known as “Harriet’s Philosophy:” It’s important to have a strong leader; people need to help themselves as part of the process (reciprocity); know the value of a dollar and ensure the money gets used wisely (which includes making certain that all parties know where funds are going and their purpose); and the more people are engaged, partnered, and involved (the people themselves, communities, local vendors, travelers, and associates), the better the results.

Early on, I realized we had an important opportunity to change people’s lives through both our foundation and our travel business—just as my own travels have changed my life and my outlook. I truly believe that if we all have more interactions with other cultures, we’ll find more common ground, be more open-minded—and ultimately, change the world.

Traveling the world

The first time I traveled out of the country was in 1972—when I was 21—just after I graduated from Kent State. I went to Europe with three of my girlfriends. I bought a tiny backpack from the Army-Navy store and packed two rolls of toilet paper and a copy of Europe on $5 a Day. We rented a VW Beetle, sang Judy Collins songs, and slept in hostels.

I felt totally free and was in awe of everything I experienced. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was like a sponge absorbing everything I encountered, and I was always wondering, “What’s next?” I talked politics with a bunch of Jordanian communists in Bulgaria, and listened to a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer in Turkey. There were chickens in my train compartment. I was just constantly surprised. I knew right then that travel was going to be a big part of my life.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to go to Africa. After Alan and I were married, I expressed my desire to travel there. He wasn’t that interested in coming along, so I told him I was going to go to Kenya and Tanzania with one of my girlfriends. He said, “OK, go!” And I went. It’s one of my most favorite trips because it was so different from anything I’d experienced. When I was there, I felt truly alive and at home.

There’s something very unique about traveling on your own or with your friends. When you’re with your family, spouse, or significant other, it’s a different kind of trip. It’s in a woman’s nature to be concerned about the other person’s comfort level and whether or not they’re having a good time. You’re always checking in with them to make sure they’re OK. You focus your attention on them instead of on yourself and your own experiences. But when you travel with your girlfriends, you’re able to be more spontaneous. You’re only responsible for yourself and your own experiences. When you’re with the girls, it’s your trip.

Learning life lessons through travel

Forever and always a student (as well as a teacher), I’m constantly striving to learn more. And one of my greatest travel lessons came while trekking in the Himalayas many years ago. While I was hiking, I came upon an especially beautiful place with an amazing view of Mount Everest. The area was steep, and an 80-year-old woman was there with her guide. She was just sitting on a rock, and I stopped for a moment to talk (I was very glad for the rest because I was out of breath!). She said to me, “You young people are always in such a rush. I’m going slowly because I have waited such a long time to be in Nepal.” I was just trying to get where I was going because I might never be there again. But from that point on, I was careful to appreciate every small step along the way.

Today, I’ve visited more than 100 countries. Throughout these adventures, I’ve had some uniquely amazing experiences … I’ve harvested rice alongside local farmers in the fields of Thailand … heard the boom and watched as glowing lava oozed down the side of a volcano erupting in Costa Rica … I’ve stood—quite literally—in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nothing but white in Antarctica … and been vigorously soaped, rinsed, and scrubbed in a Turkish hammam … among many other memorable adventures. But through it all, I’ve always remembered what I learned during that hike in Nepal: There’s no need to rush—savor every moment you have.

During my trip to Thailand in the early 1990s, I learned another important lesson while visiting a small village. The people I met explained to me that they made it a point to clear the air every night before they went to bed. If you have an issue with someone, you make amends with them. You tell them you love them. If you had a great experience with them, say thank you. This way, if you pass away during the night, you’ll have a clean slate with everybody. It’s something that’s always stuck with me.

I have a lot of travel stories to share, however, most of my memorable discoveries stem from spontaneous interactions I’ve had with people I meet along the way. I’ll never forget one such unexpected moment I had during a trip to Italy with Alan—a story that’s forever locked in my “memory bank.”  We decided to go to a local restaurant, which we found by driving up the side of a mountain in a rural area of Italy. When we arrived, we saw an older woman (whom we soon learned was the owner of the restaurant), dressed in black with striking silver hair, clear eyes, and gorgeous skin, sitting at a table by herself. I was in awe of her beauty. As I smiled at her, she smiled back. I couldn’t help myself, so I walked over and told her how lovely she was. She took my hand and motioned for me to join her at the table. Her sons soon came over to us and I asked them to tell their mother how unbelievably gorgeous she was. When her sons passed along this message, she smiled, and her eyes began to fill with tears. We continued to communicate, even though I spoke no Italian, and she spoke no English.

I smile every time I think of this story because it was then that I realized that when you travel, you can make these spontaneous and joyous connections. Names and languages don’t matter. The experience is enjoyable for both parties involved. You just have to be open to it.

My travel philosophy

So often, when I meet the women who travel with Grand Circle and OAT, I feel like we know one another. It makes sense, because our reasons for exploring the world are the same. At our stage in life, we’ve played many roles that have required us to give of ourselves or take care of others—we’ve been wives, partners, mothers, and parents to our parents. We’ve shared joy and sorrow, opened our hearts and our souls. And now, we’ve reached a stage when it’s our time, our turn.

So here is my advice for you (advice I live by every day of my life): Get out and travel while you still can. Choose the most difficult destinations and strenuous trips now while you’re healthy and active. Make sure you go to the most diverse places because the world is changing quickly. And wherever you choose to go, be willing to engage with others and be moved by history and the human condition. But most of all, bring an open mind (and a small suitcase) along with you. It’s one of the best travel companions you can have.

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