TRAVEL AND LEISURE, OFTEN SEEN AS SELFISH ENTERTAINMENT THAT UNEVENLY CONTRIBUTES TO LESS DEVELOPED ECONOMIES, AND IS SOMETIMES ECOLOGICALLY DESTRUCTIVE, IS SEEING A POSITIVE SHIFT IN THE FORM OF SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS TRAVEL THAT IS JUSTLY CONTRIBUTIVE TO THE COMMUNITIES IT REACHES.
By Meghan Black, Absolute Travel
It is easy to make a list of beautiful places around the world such as waterfalls, temples, and idyllic towns, then travel to these chosen sites, check them off, capture a photo and dream of the next to come. The stories that return after such trips are joyful but fleeting, a highlight along an otherwise even path.
An expanded roster of onboard performances, activities and enrichment programs round-out daily, round-the-clock experiences for guests, from singing comedy impressionists and dueling pianos to wine-blending and Mediterranean cooking classes. A large outdoor screen on the pool deck broadcasts first-run films and nail-biting sporting events.
It is another thing entirely to choose travel as a way of knowing, a journey towards friendships, towards passions, towards touching upon everyday realities that ebb and flow, towards returning with stories that linger and influence the next step taken. This is how the American Jewish World Service travels.
Inspired by the Jewish commitment to justice, American Jewish World Service (AJWS) works to realize human rights and end poverty in the developing world. They “pursue lasting change by providing financial support to local grassroots and global human rights organizations working in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean by mobilizing American Jews and others in the U.S. to advocate for policies that will benefit people in the developing world.”
One tool to initiate this mobilization is through study tours and donor trips. In 2008, AJWS partnered with the award-winning travel company Absolute Travel to facilitate these trips, bringing potential donors closer than ever before to their project sites. Through the study tours and donor trips, individuals have the opportunity to see the need on-the-ground, and more importantly they facilitate lasting bonds between the participants, the local communities and the places they visit. After these trips, it is not uncommon to see participants moved to tears as they recall their experience and how the trajectory of their life changed afterward, even years after the fact.
As Barbara Dobkin, AJWS board chair, says, “I cannot yet tell people about [my] trip [with AJWS] in a way that translates the emotional impact it had on me, and perhaps I never will. But I will continue to find ways to articulate our journey.”
As we approach the New Year, AJWS and Absolute Travel prepare for three life changing journeys:
In February, a trip to Burma will dig deep beneath the façade to connect with the fledglings of democracy within a country that has long suffered from human rights violations and relative isolation. Participants will meet with youth from the Pa-O ethnic communities near Inle to hear how these twenty-something farmers became community organizers, developed a radio program and created the first citizen journalism paper in the country. They will join a cooking class with an indigenous women’s group and experience how the class creates a rare forum for women to come together to discuss gender, health and political issues. They will hear the inspirational stories of women who were formally incarcerated as political prisoners and today are encouraging Burma’s youth to continue pushing for further reform. And they will visit the last synagogue in Yangon.
I cannot yet tell people about [my] trip [with AJWS] in a way that translates the emotional impact it had on me, and perhaps I never will. But I will continue to find ways to articulate our journey.
In June, AJWS and Absolute Travel will journey to Oaxaca and Mexico City to experience the power grassroots political movements have domestically and internationally. Participants will meet with an indigenous women’s group working to prevent discrimination and domestic violence through the use of traditional puppet theatre. They will converse with the internationally acclaimed political theatre group, Las Reinas Chulas, who use theatre to educate communities on gender rights, current events and the effects of narcotics trafficking. Visits to rural farming villages will illuminate how the communities are fighting mining industries threatening the land they depend on for survival, including the “magic town,” a community that has declared itself free of mining, a real life David and Goliath success story!
A November trip to Cambodia will close the year. During the journey, AJWS participants will learn about the country’s tortured past at the S21 museum, which occupies the renovated former Khmer Rouge prison, and be awed by the magnificent ruins of Angkor Wat. They will meet with rural youth who use radio, journalism, and social media to teach sustainable farming techniques to their parents and community members, and then travel to Phnom Penh’s garment district to meet young women demanding safer working conditions and higher wages in sweat shops. Excursions to the countryside surrounding Siem Reap and Phnom Penh illuminate the significant impact hydroelectric dams have had throughout Cambodia, and introduce participants to the farming and youth groups working to protect land rights.
“The trips AJWS organizes are what all of our clients want to experience,” says Absolute Travel’s Managing Director Leslie Overton, who now oversees the company’s relationship with AJWS.” As an AJWS traveler you have the opportunity to sit down with community members and really get a glimpse of their lives. This genuine interaction goes beyond the normal strictures of tourism, of viewing people from the outside, into a very intimate interaction.” She concludes with the sentiment so many AJWS tour participants share, which is that powerful sense that “traveling with AJWS has led me to a deeper understanding of the issues that face people in the destinations that I love.”