She Wants to See the Whole World

She Wants to See the Whole World

Mar 27, 2013| by administrator

Originally published in the Gainesville Sun, November 1980. 

When it comes to getting to know people, Giovanna Holbrook believes sleeping on the floor next to them is a great icebreaker.

She says she's done it a lot, with all sorts of fancy folks, like the heir to an automobile fortune, a renowned author, scholars and professionals. And they apparently love it because they keep coming back for more, from all over the world.

"You know people when you are on the floor. If they are sick you tend to listen to them," says travel agent Giovanna Holbrook, in her northern Italian accent with British overtones. "You don't know people when they are giving you a big party."

Sleeping on the ground, sometimes among penguins, is not all of it. Sometimes the tourists even get a clean bed in a Spartan workers' dormitory in China because the hotel was backlogged. But, in between, there are numerous first-class hotels sprinkled through the itinerary as well.

Giovanna Holbrook specializes in tours of the exotic. There's usually a jet flight and maybe then a ship ride to the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, where her groups see plants and animals that exist nowhere else in the world and fascinated Charles Darwin. Or they backpack for four days to the ancient Inca capital of Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes. Or they climb Mount Kilimanjaro in five days and explore a wild game reserve in Tanzania.

She says she accompanies about half of her tours and is away from Gainesville about four months of the year. She first checks out the facilities reserved for her clients. Reputation, she says, is most important to her. In August, after starting one tour in the Seychelles Islands off East Africa, she flew to Nairobi, Rome, New York and San Francisco to meet a tour group heading to China.

To Holbrook, travel is more than entertainment. There is no way to understand how other cultures think "unless we travel and unless we really reach them at their levels, and not at our own," she says. "It's very much like when you are invited to somebody's house. You just eat what they prepare, and you accept the hospitality as they have it so that you really get to know why they do something. You understand the economy, what they have to go through to reach a certain standard. You go back to find out history, why they believe in a certain manner. Then you do not criticize them. You try to figure out why."

Her intensity shines through her bespectacled gray-blue eyes. A large-boned woman with slightly disheveled salt-and-pepper hair, she sits at a desk covered with papers in her office, a converted NW 13th Street house. Travel and bird books fill the shelves. A map of the Galapagos and pictures of animals from there and East Africa cover the two walls opposite large, uncurtained windows.

At about age 11 travel fever infected Holbrook, the daughter of a farmer father and schoolteacher mother in the Piedmont region of northern Italy near Turin. Her family roots in the land are traced back almost 500 years. She was the second youngest of 10 children. When asked her age she responds with her birthyear - 1933 - explaining she doesn't count her years.

Her school required students to study a foreign country each year and then travel there during breaks. At 19 she went to London as an au pair - a governess-maid - for a rich English family she says became like her own during the three years she was with them. They sent her and other young people who wouldn't have otherwise afforded school to City College, and she remained as a teacher and translator of Italian. She remained in London longer than she expected, and when she was 26 she met Juan Holbrook, a Chilean engineer and physicist attending the Royal Imperial College. A year later they were married, and she returned with him to Santiago.

There they became friends with scientists from various American universities including astronomers from the University of Florida. A Princeton professor encouraged Juan Holbrook to apply for a National Science Foundation scholarship and the Holbrooks went to Cornell University where Juan Holbrook earned his master's degree in physics.

In 1969, the Holbrooks came to Gainesville, where they had friends, so Juan Holbrook could earn his doctorate. He continued his post-doctorate work. Giovanna Holbrook, after working in a travel agency, went into business for herself by 1975.

As a tour guide in Chile she came to realize "it was much easier to deal with people who traveled with purposes. I had the sensation of preparing a nice dish and people come in and don't taste it or don't like it," says Holbrook. "I got very taken with the idea of expeditions and being able to travel the way you are without carrying a lot of baggage or having to dress up and impress people, and I got very interested in travel with nature. I found relations with nature and man in different countries."

Travel, she warns, is habit forming. "The more you see, the more you see what you have not seen," she says. "You go to a country and say 'next time.'" For two or three of her clients, the younger ones, there was no need to return. They waived the trip home and stayed, she recalls.

Unlike the usual glossy, hyped-up travel brochures, hers are thin and almost all printed in black and white. No puffy writing and little illustration. "I limit paper as much as I can, because paper is trees that are cut down," she explains. "I try to be as austere as I can, so people who cannot read or ned to have a picture don't come on our trips."

She limits many of the tours to 20 to 25 persons because she says they backpack better and can stay in small villages.

Her business ways are not exactly conventional. When a client checked her reference with the chamber of commerce, she offered to accept payment after the client returned from the trip. Her austerity reflects her countryside childhood in war-time Italy. She says she bikes to work at least half the time. Juan Holbrook notes that his wife will recycle envelopes rather than take a new one. She also disapproves of credit and borrowing money unless really needed, he says. Juan Holbrook says Giovanna still rakes in the chicken manure in the colorful flower garden in front of the office. His wife's lack of higher education makes her a "self-made" woman, says Holbrook. "Sometimes a formal education actually hinders you from developing because you're following the rules," he says.

Dr. Barrie Straus calls Giovanna Holbrook "one of the smartest women I know. Not the most educated, but just a joy to be with. She has a real love for people and life." When Straus, a UF associate professor of English, came here in 1971 she rented a cottage from the Holbrooks beside their NW 12th Road home. She says she soon became part of the Holbrook family. Giovanna Holbrook, says Straus, is "a terrific role model" because she has "an enormous sense of family and a warm heart - just the opposite people would expect from a successful businesswoman."

Straus says she has seen Holbrook return to Gainesville from a trip at 3 a.m. and be up at 8 a.m. making breakfast. On a Galapagos trip, she was preparing the last four days for her return home despite the exotic sights, according to Straus. "She always has the family going with her in her head."

Mary Stringfellow, who has taken the East Africa tour eight times, says of Giovanna Holbrook "nothing gets her down," even when the cook on the ship to the Galapagos didn't show up. Giovanna Holbrook, says Stringfellow, bought the food and cooked all the meals for seven days and was later offered a job by the shipline.

The Rev. C. D. Weaver, who described Giovanna Holbrook as a friend, not a parishioner, says he looks to her to make "a very significant contribution" to the world.

Two of the Holbrooks' three children still live with their parents. David, 20, attends Wesleyan University. Cornelia, 16, is a student at Gainesville High School. Andrea, 11, goes to Westwood Middle School.

The Holbrooks spent all of last year supervising a crew of 10 in renovating the three-story, Queen Anne-style McKenzie house at 617 E. University Ave., built in 1897. Giovanna Holbrook yearns to return some day to farm life, but her husband doesn't like it. They bought a 60-acre farm in High Springs which they lease, and Giovanna hopes that Juan will some day change his mind.

She prefers to live in Gainesville for "the vegetation and the trees," even though being located in a big city like Atlanta would help business. "The cement oppresses me. The asphalt chokes me," she says.

And she prefers to remain intense. "Whatever you do, if you do it with passion, then you don't feel tired," Giovanna Holbrook says. "You must also be in contact with the right type of people. People who need to be entertained, I wouldn't like. If you need jokes on the bus rather than learning the economy, then I would not do it for any money in the world."

Written by Linda Miklowitz.