Jennifer Cook always considered herself outside the status quo.
Instead of celebrity crush photos inside her locker at Kenmore Middle School in Landover, she had a “Save the Whales” movement poster. Rather than going to the movies with friends in her days at Laurel High School, she went to the Laurel library to read hard bound encyclopedias to learn about the world.
For Cook, reading worldly stories turned into traveling the world over the last 27 years.
A public speaker and published author, Cook, 42, is now back in Laurel after starting her travel company, The Wonder of the World, where she shares the diversities and possibilities outside everyone's own backyard.
“What I'm trying to do is help people discover what's so wonderful about the world, but also inspire them to preserve it,” Cook said. “If you can show people how valuable and beautiful something is, they'll care and when we care about things, we want to protect them.”
Cook's cultural and nature trips — which she calls “journeys” — allow people to explore a country's history, art, cuisine and environment, while avoiding the pitfalls of modern-day tourism that Cooks says are contributing to their destruction.
Most importantly, Cook said, every journey and seminar raises money for companion causes that are donated as part of the proceeds to help preserve the planet's cultural and natural beauty.
“I really think there's a substantial difference between being a real traveler and being a tourist,” Cook said. “I've seen people trampling the corral, touching animals and pictures they're not supposed to touch and completely disregarding cultural morals. This kind of stuff really breaks my heart.”
Cook said her outlook on other cultures changed when, at 15 years old, she traveled to Germany alone to visit a pen pal after frequent letter exchanges. Although her mother worried about her daughter's safety, Cook said she used her own baby sitting money to buy a plane ticket.
“I wasn't even nervous at that point because I didn't really know what I was getting into,” Cook said. “I was shocked when I got there and nobody was speaking English because [my pen pal] wrote me in English. ... Everything was so foreign.”
Cook said she stayed with the German family for five weeks in a remote town in Bavaria, where the culture debunked her “American assumptions” of an English-speaking community and medical practices.
Her itch to travel continued as she graduated from Laurel High, Salisbury University and Brandeis University, where she received a doctorate in English and American literature.
While working as an English professor at Bentley University, Cook said she fulfilled her wanderlust nature to travel by presenting at international conferences in many places, including Britain, Australia, Argentina, France, Spain, Turkey and Denmark.
Other travels have also taken her to dozens of other countries, including New Zealand, Japan, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Monaco, Greece, Norway, Uruguay and Guatemala.
But Laurel remained her home.
Growing up, Cook said she appreciated the wonders of her hometown, learning of her stepfather, Leamon “Butch” Tuttle, and his family history in the Laurel community, beginning with his grandfather's work at the historic train station. Tuttle's father owned the Katherine Shop on Fourth and Montgomery streets, she said, and Tuttle worked for the Main Street post office for more than 35 years.
“Most people tend to take home for granted,” she said. “When you talk to people, it can also remind you about what's special where you come from.”
In 2014, Cook left her position at Bentley and moved to Britain to focus on the formation of her company, which launched its website in 2015.
For her environmentally friendly and “anti-tourism tours,” Cook hires local guides and stays in local establishments.
“It won't be one of these superficial tours that I see every time with the huge group following the person with the umbrella,” she added. “I also don't go anywhere with anybody that I haven't personally been, experienced and loved. These are places that I've been, I know the locals, I have these deep connections and often I speak the language.”
During travels with Wonder of the World, Cook said each trip varies in length, but is usually a week or two long, with small groups each week. Within each journey, Cook includes elements to discover the country's beauty through historical, artistic and natural sites, she explained, as well as harnesses that inspiration.
Her next journey will take interested travelers to Florence, Italy in June to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1966 flood, which covered and damaged its renaissance art with mud and fuel.
“But it's also a very inspiring story because volunteers from around the world came to Florence and helped save the art. They were called 'mud angels,'“ Cook said. “In tradition of the mud angels, not only are we going to experience all of the amazing art, but we're actually going to be restoring one of those paintings that was covered in mud and destroyed in the flood.”
Cook also started the Janet Dunne Memorial Scholarship Fund to help those who are less fortunate to travel. Cook said Dunne, who died of cancer in 2015, lived on Jersey in the Channel Islands, and her friend shared a passion and curiosity very similar to her own.
On a trip to Belize in 2015, Cook met fellow traveler Chris Ward. Both Cook and Ward were the only two staying at the Chaa Creek jungle camp.
“This is where I first got to see Jennifer's passion for wildlife,” Ward said. “The following morning we went bird watching [and] I was amazed at her knowledge of all the different varieties we saw. On that night, we went on the night crawl trip [to] look for all the nocturnal creatures, [and] again, her knowledge was first class.”
While most of his explorations had been throughout Europe, Ward, a resident of Britain, said he began branching out to other areas in 2012, including the United State, China, Mongolia and Russia.
During his final night in Ambergris Caye, Belize, Ward said he and Cook swapped stories of their travels. At that moment, he said, Ward realized how passionate Cook was about the world and life.
“I don't think I've ever met anyone [with the] desire to right all the wrongs about our world, so I think this new venture of hers is the ideal platform for her,” Ward said.
Karen Tuttle, Cook's mother, said her daughter's curiosity has taken her far and will continue to do so in the future.
“We called her 'bright eyes' as a little girl because she was always looking around,” Tuttle said. “When you travel, you do so much and it just opens your eyes. You do this purposeful travel, where you're giving back.”
As the world traveler prepares for her two-week journey to Florence, Cook said Laurel will stay with her every step of the way.
“Laurel is always my base and I think that's been really important for me because when you're this nomadic, you have no secure place anywhere,” Cook said. “I think Laurel is that for me. It has nourished me in that way that I can always come home.”
For more information on Cook's journeys and seminars, go to thewonderoftheworld.org.
Cook said travelers have until the end of March to sign up for the Florence journey. There will also be a meet-and-greet on Saturday, March 19 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at Laurel’s More Than Java as well as a seminar at Blueberry Gardens on April 17.