When Toni Neubauer heard the news on April 25 about Nepal’s deadly 7.8 earthquake that killed more than 5,000 and left countless others homeless, she had one overwhelming thought. “It’s not fair,” she says. “This is such a poor country with people who struggle so hard just to survive. How can this happen to them?”
Neubauer, 71, is based in Incline village, Nevada – but her heart is in Nepal. A former educator and longtime intrepid traveler, she has been trekking there alone and in groups since since 1984, when she instantly fell head over heels in love with the country and its residents. Since then, she’s formed an adventure travel company, Myths and Mountains, that specializes in trips to Nepal and other remote locales, along with a nonprofit, READ Global, that helps to build libraries in Nepal (and now Bhutan and India, too).
Since READ launched in 1984, its work has helped to double what was a dismal 33 percent literacy rate in the country. In 2006 the nonprofit won the Bill & Melinda Gates Access to Learning Award; these days, READ is its own separate nonprofit. (The photo at top shows Toni being welcomed at a READ library.)
Neubauer continues to make trips to some of the most remote parts of Nepal on a regular basis. “I’ve probably seen more of Nepal than any Westerner today,” she says. Last year, she took her daughter, son-in-law and four of her seven grandchildren with her.
Senior Planet caught up with Neubauer by phone, learning how her can-do mindset is helping her plan how best to continue helping the residents and plan more trips to the place that stole her heart.
Will you go back to Nepal soon?
Yes, I will go back this fall. Of course! I traveled with groups all during the 13-year civil war and never had any problems at all. A mere earthquake can’t get in the way. I would love to jump on a plane right now… but the best thing I can do is stay here, raise money to assist and be a spokesperson for the country and returning tourism.
There are several READ library centers in the path of the earthquake that have experienced a lot of the damage. READ will be working with these villages over the long term to help them rebuild their lives and homes. We are asking that donations go directly to READ.
When did this love affair with Nepal start?
I was scuba diving with a friend back in 1984. She said she was going to Nepal and I should go. I said sure. Growing up, traveling was always part of family life. My mother had toured Europe and my father was an artist, a starving artist bumming his way around Europe. My favorite part of traveling was always to get down and dirty, if you will.
Can you talk about some of your most memorable Nepal trips?
I’ve had a lot of remote adventures. On one trip, we were on routes with 36 hours of nonstop snow at 15,000 feet in the middle of nowhere. We made it through slowly, one foot in front of the other. We slept in a cave at the top of one of the mountains. If you weren’t careful, you would fall off the mountain when you went to the bathroom. When the snow stopped, we started trekking up across the two 17,000-foot passes and then came down….You had to break trail over those passes. One step and the snow was up to your knees, and the next up to your shoulder. It took three days to get back to the main Everest trail.
I usually do an average of one to two trips a year, usually with a group. I also like to do a certain number of ‘reconnaissance’ trips… I go by myself and check it out.
How did your literacy program start?
On one tour, I asked the tour guide, ‘What would you do if you could do anything for your village?’ He said he would like a place to read newspapers. When he said it, a lightbulb went off. I thought, if you build a library, you create a resource for the whole village.
In 1991, the guide, six porters and I trekked on foot, carrying in 900 books in Nepali over a 10,000-foot and 12,000-foot pass to establish the first READ center in Junbesi.
I didn’t want to support it for the rest of my life. So one of the questions was, how do you make this sustainable. First we tried an apple orchard. Librarians don’t take care of apple orchards. We moved on to other businesses [to sustain the libraries], such as a furniture factory, storefront rentals and cable TV.
READ provides three to five thousand books and seeds the business that will sustain the library. It provides other training within the town, too.
What’s the payoff for you from READ Global?
It really changes lives. People have learned to read and write. They no longer live in a mud hut but a brick house. READ was never about a library, it was about making a village a viable place to live, learn, raise their children, make a living and prosper. If you know Nepal, you know they had a 13-year civil war and over 17,000 people died. During that time nobody touched a READ library. They would bomb schools… but not the library.
Tell us about Myths and Mountains.
Staying in the Ritz Carlton is nice, but it doesn’t teach you anything about the people. We wanted to look at a country and see what it is about – the customs, the environment, how people interact with it.
What does aging with attitude mean to you?
It’s getting up every day and saying thank you, lake, mountains, birds, sky for being part of my life and I a part of yours. It’s really cherishing every single moment. You know you’re mortal but there is a part of me that’s tired of going to doctors and having lab tests and finding out all the things you could have… you have to go through life. Doctors, they tell me what to do and I do what I want.
Life is really a book. It’s like different chapters. You have to know when to end the chapter.