Geography major experiences life as global nomad

by Devin Foxall | 7/5/01 5:00am

Alexios Monopolis '03 has backpacked in almost 30 countries, dog sledded on an island near the top of the world, kayaked in the Arctic Ocean, journeyed with a camel caravan of Berber nomads in North Africa, and -- during a quieter moment -- slept in the Sahara Desert sand watching the stars above.

Monopolis, who is president of the Dartmouth Outing Club, has a way of talking in which his words come out in a steady stream, ricocheting off one another, creating new interlocking paths at every moment. In a matter of minutes he can go from talking about international environmental policy, to the Tao Te Ching, to baking bread in the African desert.

Suddenly he'll become quiet, his eyes will widen, and he'll say, "I've gotten this glimpse of how much there is to see in the world. I hope I never stop traveling, I hope I never settle down."

Global Nomad

Monopolis is from an island in Greece and has spent most of his life traveling between Greece and America; his home in the States is in Towson, Md.

"I've always had an interest in seeing the world. I've been addicted to National Geographic since I was a kid. I wanted to live National Geographic. What they study and photograph -- ecosystems, different cultures, political conflicts -- all that, I wanted to experience it for myself."

The vast majority of Alex's traveling has been during college. "I didn't really have the opportunity to travel this much before college, but once I came to Dartmouth, I was free. I have several different jobs during the year, make as much money as possible and pretty much spend it on travel during the summer or whenever I have a break."

Last summer, Alex and a friend backpacked through Europe.

"We were doing the regular backpacking thing, going to all these countries, and we had it sort of planned out, we knew what cities we wanted to go to, but then I went to Africa alone and I just wanted to explore," Alex said. "I didn't want to have a plan, didn't want to have an itinerary, I just hitchhiked everywhere, backpacked everywhere."

In Morocco, a shepherd invited him to his house, offering mint tea.

Monopolis remembered: "I just told them what I was doing, why I was down there -- I really wanted to experience a Muslim culture -- and one thing led to another and I was introduced to these Berber nomads that were going out into the desert on a camel caravan, and I just hitched a ride with them. They taught me how to bake bread in the sand and all sorts of incredible wilderness survival skills. At night, we would camp out in the sand under the stars, play drums and dance around a huge bon-fire for half the night."

On Top of the World

In March, Monopolis attended a wilderness management conference coordinated by the World Wild Fund for Nature.

The conference brought together Monopolis' interests in wilderness management, international diplomacy and political science. He is a Geography modified with Environmental Studies major, but his main focus is Global Environmental Political Science.

The conference was held in Svalbard, a cluster of islands far north of Scandinavia, in the inner clutch of the Arctic Circle.

Svalbard, about the size of West Virginia, is covered by snow and glaciers, mountains and ice caves. The nature is wild, beautiful and fragile. Its neighbor, a 600 mile whisper to the Northwest, is the North Pole.

Svalbard has numerous national parks, nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. It also has coal mining and a growing tourism industry, and with it an increase in humans, snowmobiles, cruise ships and pollution.

Varied interests competing for use of the land attended the conference. The local population, tourism businesses, the coal mining industry, government officials, scientists and environmentalists discussed management strategies for Svalbard.

After the two day conference, Monopolis embarked in the minus-50 degree Celsius weather on a dog sledding and sea kayaking expedition.

"It was great when I was a kid to read National Geographic, but to be able to live it, it's just a completely different experience -- it's the difference between knowledge and wisdom," he said.

Changes for the DOC

Monopolis said he is "planning ... big changes to the DOC in order to solve problems that have developed over the years."

"The DOC is viewed by some as elitist," he said, explaining that he would like to have more beginners' trips. "A lot of times people view the DOC as, 'only if you have done this stuff your whole life can you really be involved.' So if you're a beginner, where do you fit in?"

Another one of Monopolis' main goals is to make the DOC a more environmentally conscious organization, "one that uses nature for physical, emotional and spiritual renewal but which, at the same time, contributes to the preservation of the wilderness we revere and play in by becoming an active voice and ensuring that our opinions are heard by the political communities on every level."

He also hopes to increase graduate, faculty and staff involvement, so that the club incorporates more of the campus. "One of the original concepts of the DOC was that it was a Dartmouth community, not just necessarily undergraduate students which is what it's become. Everyone should be involved."

Alex also wants to continue taking different campus groups on DOC-led trips and increase community service.

"If these things start happening it will solve a lot of the problems within the DOC as far as its ethos is concerned," he said.

He couldn't be too specific about the changes, he said, because they "might involve an actual addition/amendment to the DOC Constitution which has never happened since the club's founding in the early 1900s."

The Territory Ahead

Life after Dartmouth will be about balance. On the one hand there is the desire to travel and spend time in nature; on the other hand, there's the need to be involved in politics, diplomacy and environmental advocacy, he said.

The one path Alex hopes not to take is to become like everyone else, succumbing to the common drum beat.

"If I ever get stuck in some office job, waking up every morning wishing I didn't have to go to work, then I'll be a failure. My job needs to be my passion," he said.

He says he's thought about -- among other things -- working for a Non-Governmental Organization promoting environmental preservation, becoming a diplomat for the U.S. or Greece, studying law, becoming a photojournalist for National Geographic or running for political office. Over winter break, he worked as an intern at the White House for the President's Council on Environmental Quality.

"A lot of people have this goal to save the world. That's always been a dream of mine. But going back to Taoism, my philosophy of life, it's always about having a balance. A part of me wants to commit my life to help other people, help the environment, just help. Alexios means 'helper of human kind,'" he explained.

"But the other side of me wants to enjoy life, I want to be able -- and this is why I'm involved with the Outing Club -- to get out in nature. I love solitude. I love going kayaking on my own, hiking on my own. I just love being out where there are no humans, just me and nature. I don't know, it's just ... wonderful."