by Malia Everette de la Campa
Director Reality Tours, Global Exchange
"If you come here to help me, you're wasting your time.
If you come because your liberation is bound up with mine,
then let us work together." -Lilla Watson, Australian Aborigine
Travel transforms lives. It highlights the exquisite cultural and biological diversity of our world and, at the same time, exposes the common struggles of our human condition. Travel can help us overcome our fear of the unknown and inspire hope. Travel can also be a catalyst for personal growth and introduce us to integrative solutions for our common challenges. For me, travel has opened my heart and mind, made me a better listener and observer, and has motivated me to work for peace and cultural understanding both within the U.S. and abroad.
Socially responsible travel seeks a symbiotic relationship where more than dollars are exchanged. When traveling, it's important to see host communities as well as their world famous landmarks. Before going to the Taj Majal in India, the Great Wall of China, the Great Pyramids of Giza, or even the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, ask yourself, "Who lives there?" What do you know about them - their culture and their history? What are your stereotypes and preconceptions of their lives? This careful reflection is the first step in what I call a Learning Methodology for Travel.
The next step is to make a list of questions and identify ten things you want to learn from the locals. Refer to this list at least once during your journey. Then, upon return, go back to those preconceived ideas and challenge yourself to write down your new truths. What has changed? What is the same? What surprised you?
You can use our Reality Tours as a guide and design your travel around one issue. For example, on our "Tierra y Libertad" (Land and Liberty) tour to Mexico, we try to see first-hand the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on the indigenous population in Chiapas. We set up meetings with NGOs, women's cooperatives, unions and faith based organizations, farmers, teachers and artists so that the participants hear different perspectives and engage them face-to-face. Why this is so powerful is that both the traveler and the host have direct access to exchange with one another in an organic and dynamic environment (in the fields, stores, schools, etc.). People make connections and talk about how NAFTA impacts both countries. These meetings have generated solidarity, sister-school relationships, technical and educational exchanges, and much more.
A past participant describes how such a tour was life transforming. He spoke about walking the cornfields with indigenous farmers and learning how sacred corn was for the culture as well as their diet. He spoke of how affected he was to hear about bio-prospecting and the spread of genetically modified corn in traditional communities. A farmer himself, he was well versed in modern agriculture but did not see before how local struggles are often global in scope.
You might not get the same kind of access traveling on your own but you can open some doors by doing some research beforehand and contacting local or international organizations where you plan to visit. When you meet with them, ask if they can recommend other meetings for you.
Ultimately, the key to traveling with purpose is to build human relationships. Even if the only locals you meet are those working in the tourist industry, you can still engage them in a meaningful way. Every encounter has the potential to transform your visit, but be sure to follow these guidelines:
|1. ||Internalize the "golden rule" and treat each person you meet as an equal.|
|2. ||Respect local traditions and cultural norms.|
|3. ||Don't make promises you won't keep (like sending photos or medicines back to them when you really don't want to).|
|4. ||And teach only when you are asked to.|
Traveling with purpose means being a citizen diplomat. Whether you are aware of it or not you represent the country you come from and your interactions with those you meet can make a deep impression.
When you return home with an enlightened perspective and expanded worldview, share it with family, friends and coworkers. Help others learn through your journey: present a slide show at your local book store; write an article for your local newspaper or get involved a few hours a month with an organization.
As Gandhi said, "be the change you wish to see." Let your journey be a catalyst for change.