For the last 20 years, Jeanie Fundora has worked as a travel consultant specializing primarily in Africa, as well as the Indian subcontinent, South America, Australia and Turkey, first for Cox & Kings the Americas and then for Travel Beyond in Tampa, Florida.
While she was growing up in Florida, Fundora considered a few possible career paths before settling into one. Whatever it would be, it had to have travel at its core. Travel was part of her life from the beginning, like breathing.
Her family origins were scattered. The various geographical points of her family history converged in Washington D.C., where she was born. Her father had grown up in Cuba, but his parents took him out of the country in the 1960s, when he was nearing the age to be drafted into the Cuban army.
They went to Spain, the land of their family roots, and stayed there for a year as political refugees. Then they relocated to Puerto Rico, where Fundora’s father’s sister had been living since she married a Puerto Rican American student who had been forced to leave Cuba when diplomatic relations were severed between the U.S. and Cuba.
It was in Puerto Rico where Fundora’s father met her mother, who had moved there from the Dominican Republic. After they were married, Fundora’s parents moved to mainland U.S. and lived in Maryland. Fundora was only one year old when the family moved to Orlando, where she grew up.
Born in the USA
She was first-generation American, but her parents spoke Spanish in the home, and when she first attended school, she didn’t speak English.
“It was very interesting,” she said, “because kids would say, ‘Go back to where you came from.’ I thought, ‘Washington D.C.?’”
She had the experience of being an outsider, but also the benefit of a wider, multicultural world view from the beginning. To make it even more complex, her parents split up when she was four years old. Her family was broken into scattered fragments.
“I grew up traveling to Puerto Rico where we had family,” she said, “and to the Dominican Republic. And then in my 20s, I went to Cuba to visit family for the first time.”
It set the course for a life dedicated to travel.
“I’ve always loved travel,” she said, “so the idea of traveling wasn’t anything unusual. A lot of Americans grow up with the idea of international travel being something out of the ordinary. When your parents aren’t from here and you grow up traveling out of the country from a young age, travel just seems normal.”
After high school, she moved to Tampa to attend the University of South Florida, majoring in international relations and political science. She had a chance to study abroad in Perugia, Italy, which ignited a love affair with Italy, and solidified her commitment to pursue a career in travel.
“I knew travel had to be part of my work and my life,” she said. “But I didn’t know how it was exactly going to pan out. I thought I might get a job in an embassy or consulate. But I realized working for the government, you have to read from their script. I realized I wasn’t a terribly suitable candidate because I can be rather opinionated. I did get a job offer from Congressman Porter Goss’s office.”
Congressman Goss’s support of the Cuban embargo didn’t fit well with Fundora’s love of travel. And at close range, the political world was starting to look a little stiff.
“I had that job offer on the table and I also had an offer from Cox & Kings,” she said. “It was an entry level position and I didn’t know what I was doing. I would learn the ropes as I went.”
She took the plunge, and never looked back.
Falling in love with Africa
Fundora started with Cox & Kings in 1999, working with India, Bhutan, Nepal and the Himalayas. One day, a supplier came into the office and gave his presentation about Africa. Fundora was riveted, and transformed, as if she had experienced a religious conversion.
“By the end of the presentation, I was ready to move to Africa,” she said. “Where do I sign up? I’m out of here. I was age 23. I was like, man, this is amazing stuff! I got really excited.”
Then she got a chance to travel to Namibia and Botswana. “I got to go,” she said. “And I really fell in love with it.”
At the time, Cox & Kings was just starting its Africa program. Suddenly, there was an opening when the woman who had started the Africa program left the company. She had traveled to India, had a conversion of her own, and ended up moving there. Cox & Kings needed a new head for its new Africa department.
“The owner of the company was looking for someone with a lot of experience,” said Fundora, “but I practically threw myself at his feet. I had just taken that trip to Africa with him. I said, ‘I can do this. You cannot train someone to be passionate about how I feel about the experience I just had. Everybody needs to do this.’”
He gave her a chance. “I was very inexperienced,” she said. “I was 24. Under his guidance, I took over the Africa department. I learned a lot along the way, through bumps and bruises and personal experience.”
She threw herself into it, heart and soul. “I traveled a lot, helped with brochures, marketing, travel writing, attended trade shows,” she said. “I got to see lots of angles of the business, because we were so small. It was a period of tremendous opportunity, and professional and personal growth.”
Fundora worked at Cox & Kings from 1999-2010, until she was 34 years old. Then, she moved to Travel Beyond.
“I found a great company in Travel Beyond,” she said. “Here, I’m more in a sales role, not management or anything, just truly selling Africa, doing what I really feel I do best.”
Her work is based on close person-to-person interaction with clients. “That is, in part, because the company doesn’t have a huge presence in terms of brochures, which really become outdated and are a huge waste of paper,” she said. “They are tremendously costly overhead, and those costs get passed onto the consumer. We’re able to offer a great service with direct consultations with clients.”
In 20 years in the industry, Fundora has seen a lot of change. But some of her favorite things about the travel industry have endured. Although Africa is evolving rapidly, and its tourism industry is growing, Fundora is glad to see that the dedication to environmental protection has not been swept aside by the march toward economic development.
“It’s exciting to be in the business and see the industry evolved, the product evolved, the destinations evolved, but to see that conservation is still a big focus,” Fundora said. “The safari industry is still growing and it’s becoming more mainstream, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean it in a great way, because the more people go to Africa and learn to love everything that’s there, learn how unique it is and how wonderful it is, the more people in the world hopefully will help make sure that those things that are part of all of our natural heritage won’t disappear.”
Fundora is happy to be part of an industry that actually helps the people of Africa. “We know that sending people on safari can provide employment, and one person can support a whole family,” she said. “It has a huge trickle-down effect, and translates to education and better health services. It has to have a huge community element. The locals have to have ownership of what is happening on the ground for it to be a success.”
Fundora built a solid foundation of expertise on Africa through 25 trips to the continent and the creation of innumerable trips for clients. She earned the distinction of appearing on Travel + Leisure’s A-List of travel agents in the years 2009-2012.
The next chapter
As Fundora embarks on her next 20 years, she has a new dimension of enjoyment in travel, based on traveling with her daughter Daniela.
“My daughter has been my little travel sidekick for several years now,” said Fundora. “She’s been traveling with me since she was less than one year old. She’s been to Puerto Rico, Vancouver, California, India, South Africa, Kenya and Botswana. She’s on her second passport and she’s six.”
Daniela represents a new generation whose future stretches far into unforeseeable horizons. “She’s a really cool kid,” said Fundora. “I feel like travel has really shaped her and our life. As a parent, you realize your shortcomings all the time, but I’ll tell you what, I’m grateful that this industry, my employer, our suppliers and partners, and so many things have given me the opportunity to experience travel now on a different level, as a parent with my child, and to see the world through her eyes — and especially to see Africa through a kid’s eyes!”
From her beginnings as a child chastised as a foreigner, her travel experiences have helped her to break down the stereotypes that divide people.
“I love how travel has continued to help me think out of the box and not put people into little categories,” she said. “The more I travel, the more I’ve realized that people are people are people. Parents want their kids to be okay, to have an education, to work for a good life. We’re not all that different. We just live in different places, look a little different, sound a little different. But other than that, we’re still the same. I think that’s so important.”
And so, many years after taking a big plunge, one thing has stayed constant: “Now, here I am 20 years later, and the travel bug has not gone away,” Fundora said. “There’s no cure. I never grow tired of Africa.”
By David Cogswell