Getting Paid to See The World

by Susan Crandell

Rob Geyer-Sylvia loved to travel, but life kept getting in the way. Then, at age 51 he found an exciting new job on the road.
 
A Taste for Travel

One of Rob Geyer-Sylvia’s best memories of childhood is road trips exploring the cities within range of his Connecticut hometown. “Back in the 1960s, flying was for upper-crust folks, and we were a working-class family,” he says. “But that didn’t stop us. We’d get in the old Hudson and hit the road.”

Ironically, it was the Coast Guard that put Rob into the air for the first time, transporting him to a base in Puerto Rico. “I loved it,” he says. “I still think flying is magical.” Stationed in San Juan for a year and a half, he rented an apartment in the old city, developing a taste for living in a different place. He married in his midtwenties and had two daughters. Like his parents, Rob and Zelda took the girls on trips whenever they could. When Ruth and Marta were four and two, the family spent three weeks in England, Rob’s first trip outside North America. They rented a cottage in Cornwall, drove over to Wales, traveled through Cotswolds, and soaked up London’s pleasures. Eight years later, they rented a house in Tuscany with two other couples for an idyllic week touring the Italian countryside.

  The confidence and seasoning of
   midlife can serve you well, particularly
   when you’re shepherding an unruly
   group in a place you’ve never been.

An Unexpected Offer

Rob worked as a social worker and then a teacher, and Zelda’s career as a health industry executive took them from Vermont to upstate New York, and finally to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Life was busy, and, with saving for college a priority, their next chance to go overseas didn’t come until both girls were in high school: Zelda, who runs the University of Michigan’s HMO, agreed, with one condition: that her husband go, too. As it turned out, paying Rob’s way was a wise investment; the tour company recruited an able new employee. One of the firm’s owners happened to be along, and she and Rob hit it off. At the end of the trip, she asked him if he’d consider hosting other tours. The answer was immediate: “Absolutely.”

His first destination was China. As tour manager, Rob would be the majordomo, making sure that the local service providers were doing their jobs—that guides would be there to greet the group, that local transportation arrived on time. He flew to Beijing with a company owner, who returned to the States after five days. “I had no idea I would be on my own,” Rob says. “I guess she knew I could do the job. I counted bodies, smoothed a few things over, did a lot of schmoozing. It’s patience and common sense. When someone fell at the Great Wall, I got her to the hospital.” Rob loved the work, and his job performance earned an encore invitation.

He was delighted to find himself on the way to Chile and Argentina. “I jumped at this trip,” Rob says. “I’ve got a little Iberian blood, and I was dying to see Patagonia.” It was a magical trip, including a lake crossing in Argentina memorialized in Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries.

Next up was a six-week stint overseeing back-to-back seven-day barge cruises between Amsterdam and Budapest. Rob had been able to dovetail the other trips with his teaching schedule. But this time he’d miss the start of classes in September. Suddenly, the employment disadvantage of being middle-aged paid in unexpected dividend. When they moved to Ann Arbor, Rob has been unable to land a high school teaching job. “No one’s going to touch a 50-year-old with 14 years of experience and a master’s degree,” he says. “I never even got an interview at a Michigan public school.” The director of the adult education program where Rob teaches GED prep courses, social studies, and government values his knowledge and experience, offering flexibility to keep him. “I sent e-mails from Europe, left maps, and they did a ‘Where in the world is Rob?’ schtick until I got back and picked up the class,” he says.

The barge trip was the toughest yet. “I was on duty from the time I got up until I went to bed, 44 days nonstop.” His company has never partnered with the barge operator before, which put Rob at the helm of a shakedown cruise. “There are 67 locks between Budapest and Amsterdam,” he says. “You’d better make your lock, or your find yourself traveling through the Danube’s picturesque Wachau Valley in the middle of the night.”

Experience: Priceless

So far, Rob has averaged a trip a year and wouldn’t mind doubling the schedule, especially if it could include some of his dream destinations. “I’d love to go to New Zealand or Southeast Asia. I’ve always wanted to see Angkor Wat. Antarctica? I’m there!” He knows his charmed life as someone who’s paid to travel to some of the world’s most alluring destinations could be cut short at any time. “If I ever have to take a 9-to-5 job, that’s it for the travel. The pay is so modest, I have to make sure I don’t spend it all before I get home.” But it’s like the MasterCard commercial: salary: miniscule; experience: priceless. “All of this is possible because of Zelda, the big job she has, the money she earns,” Rob says. Is she envious of Rob’s travels? “Not at all. She knows how tough it is. When she joined me for a week on the barge trip, I put her to work.”

Zelda and Rob just sent their younger daughter off to college. Their long-range plan is to run a small business together, and they’re still puzzling over what that enterprise should be. “One thing’s for certain,” Rob says. “I’d like to be busy at certain times of the year, free at others. Now that I’ve seen the world, I have to keep traveling.”

Susan Crandell, the former editor of More magazine, is the author of “Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife.”

Republished with permission of Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2007 Susan Crandell. All rights reserved.

 


by Susan Crandell | Friday, April 10, 2009 | Career Change, Career Change, Dream Careers

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