Reality Tours to the "Emerging World"

On "travel seminars," in nations with two thirds of the world's population, Americans are exploring the most important issues of our time

By , Friday, Jan 30, 2004, 12:00 AM

How many "worlds" do you know? To how many "worlds" have you traveled? Apart from a periodic jaunt to Mexico or the Caribbean, have you traveled to the "Emerging World," the "Third World"? And can those beach vacations at a Club Med in Cancun, or a casino-resort in Curacao, really be regarded as equivalents to the real thing?

Nine organizations outside the bounds of the normal travel industry have set about operating "reality tours" to the true Third World. Their aim is enlightenment rather than recreation or rest. Their area of activity is the poorest part of what is also called the "developing world": most of Central and South America, most of Africa, and some of Asia, a cauldron of struggle and promise. Their method is to stress contact with ordinary people of the Third World, to expose tour passengers to conditions experienced by residents of that "world" (who make up three-quarters of the population of the earth). And their search is for solutions: to poverty and debt, domestic instability and disease, the unequal allocation of income and resources.

So is the trip a chore, an exercise in self-flagellation? Far from it, say the backers of these odd travel ventures. For this, it is claimed, is "transformative travel" that irrevocably broadens the mind and liberates the spirit of those who engage in it, makes them clear-headed and emphatic in their public judgments, enhances their love for humankind, gives them goals and purpose. And some concessions are made to personal comfort: the use of modest hotels in place of mud huts, an occasional stay in modern dormitories or pleasant private homes.

Largest of all

The Center for Global Education, Augsburg College, 2211 Riverside Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55454 (phone 800/299-8889 or 612/ 330-1159, fax 612/330-1695, e-mail globaled@augsburg.edu, Website augsburg.edu/global), is the largest of the Third World tour operators. Though its base is that of a small Lutheran school with limited funds, it successfully sends out more than 40 groups a year -- more than twice a month -- to Mexico, Central America, Cuba and Southern Africa for the most part, but occasionally to Southeast Asia and the Pacific Rim area. Most tours are planned for seven to 14 days, at total tour costs of $1,300 to $3,000 per person, including airfare, accommodations, and all meals.

Trips here are called travel seminars, and seminars they most emphatically are: discussions from morning till night with a multitude of individuals and groups. In recent brochures, participants are scheduled to meet, on the one hand, with officials of the U.S. embassy in each capital, and with members of the U.S. business community there, for one viewpoint, but also with contrary-thinking clergy from "base Christian communities" and "grassroots organizations for social change" in each nation. And then, to inject still more "voices" into the talk:

In Nicaragua: "Dialogue with officials of the Nicaraguan government . . . with peasants and labor union leaders . . . Dialogue with religious and human rights organizations . . . Visits to development projects in rural Nicaragua."

In El Salvador: "Discussion of foreign policy issues with Salvadoran government officials. . . Dialogue with mothers of disappeared persons. . . Visit to repopulated refugee communities. . . Dialogue with representatives of the church."

In Mexico:"Visit to a squatter settlement in Cuernavaca and discussion with residents about their situation. . . Visit to a rural village and discussion with peasants."

Heavily influenced by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, the center's officials take pains to emphasize their use of his theories: that "experiential education" (here, a short-term immersion in travel) is the most potent form of self-education; that dialogue, in which people critically assess their own situation, can liberate them from prejudice and lead to beneficial social action; that even the illiterate can gain from such dialogue; and that communication can be achieved between the poor and non-poor, greatly benefiting both.

Accordingly, the center stresses advance preparation for travel, which "helps people recognize their biases and provides them with tools to discern the truth in the voices they will hear." En route, it exposes passengers to "a variety of political points of view so that they can reflect more critically on all the voices they hear." And though it seeks to meet with leaders and decision makers in the countries it visits, it "places emphasis on learning from the those struggling for political and economic justice -- those who do not often have an opportunity to speak."

Accommodations in most nations are in modest hotels, private homes, or in the organization's own dormitory-style residences in Mexico and Nicaragua. For literature, contact the center at the address above.

Toward "transformative education"

Plowshares Institute, 809 Hopmeadow St., P.O. Box 243, Simsbury, CT 06070 (phone 860/651-4304, fax 860/651-4305, e-mail plowshares@plowsharesinstitute.org or visit their website at plowsharesinstitute.com), operates a similar if smaller program, but to a broader array of geographical areas -- Africa, Asia, India, South America -- and with a particular emphasis on critical issues of U.S. foreign policy toward the Third World, debt and apartheid among them. The organization was founded in 1982 by a Protestant minister, the Rev. Robert Evans, whose life and outlook were profoundly changed by a stint as visiting professor in the African nation of Uganda; he resolved soon after to use travel as a means of "transformative education," and has since co-authored an important book often cited by others in the field, Pedagogies for the Non-Poor (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1994; $26.00).

The strategy of Plowshares is to visit areas and organizations of the Third World where active solutions are afoot to the area's classic problems; the group feels it is nonproductive simply to dwell upon festering conditions or to feel rage without hope. Once at the destination, according to former program director Hugh McLean, "we find articulate voices on all sides of each issue; the goal is to listen to as many voices as possible." On a past visit to Mexico, Plowshares travelers met with officials of IBM, but then with landless peasants; with members of the "PRI" (Mexico's ruling political party), but then with social workers and "base Christian communities in the barrios"; they lived in a dormitory of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mexico City, but then traveled to the poor and rural province of Hidalgo in the north to visit creative development projects.

Plowshares' travel seminars, although focusing on broad areas of social transition, still retain a strong religious pull. For instance, a tour to South Africa, led by Evans as well as black South African theologian and peace activist Margaret Steinegger-Keyser, commenced with an orientation by the Secretary General of the South African Council of Churches in an effort to show the church's role as a "reconciling and empowering agent." Travelers also met with members of Parliament in Cape Town, visited Afrikaaner communities in Pretoria, and stayed overnight in the former township of Soweto. This fourteen-night tour was offered for $3,500 per person all-inclusive (air from New York, all meals, lodgings and visa).

In 2004, Plowshares' tours explored US-Cuban relations; and human rights issues in China.

Plowshares passengers sign a "covenant": that they will engage in considerable preparation for the trip, live "at the level" of their hosts (dormitories, government rest houses, private homes), and tell of their experiences to others, in both formal and informal talks, for at least a year following the trip. For brochures, write to the address above (enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope) or visit the website for the most up-to-date information.

GATE (Global Awareness Through Experience)

Though it's been less strident in recent years, more conciliatory and subject to church discipline, this organization was once the reflection in travel of the surging and controversial "Liberation Theology" movement in the Catholic Church. Determined to expose a wider public to the realities and sufferings of emerging world nations, nuns of the Sisters of Charity founded the odd travel agency called GATE in 1981, in Mount St. Joseph, Ohio, then moved its offices in the early 90s to the Abbey of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, for greater effectiveness. From there, each month, simple, unadorned, one-color leaflets -- like none you've ever seen -- go cascading forth to every part of the nation, advertising GATE-led tours to Guatemala and the barrios of El Salvador, or to "base communities" in Mexico. In place of "today we journey to the famous waterfall," GATE's literature talks of "dialogues with ministers, professors, and the poor," attendance at "meetings of popular movements . . . supporting their search and struggle for freedom in their country." Tour rates (and amenities) are moderate in level; participation is ecumenical and increasingly promoted also by Protestant groups; tour leaders and destination representatives (some of them on-the-spot missionaries) are opinionated but non-controlling. Some tours go to countries of Eastern Europe.

Despite its recent move to the center (politically), there still remains a hint in GATE's approach of "Liberation Theology." That, as one of GATE's officials once described it to me, is "a theology in which we are all brothers and sisters achieving equality, freeing and then empowering the oppressed to achieve their full dignity, enabling them not always to be dominated by some white-faced person . . . ."

Most GATE tours (to the Czech Republic, Poland, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador) are 10 days in length, and consist of visits to untouristed local communities and homes, and daily seminars attended by persons representing every stripe of political thinking at the destination. Tour members learn, says GATE, "from the poor, as well as from social and political analysts, theologians and economists."

GATE tours are among the least expensive to anywhere, and generally start at $900, plus airfare, for 10 days of all-inclusive arrangements (all lodgings, meals, and transportation to programmed events), in addition to a non-refundable registration fee ranging from $100 to $150. On trips to Mexico, several times a year, participants meet in Mexico City and travel "to rural, indigenous communities, marginal settlements and the megalopolis . . . grow in global awareness of the social, religious, economic and political challenges" they face. In Guatemala, GATE travelers "explore human rights issues with a people whose tradition spans centuries of development, ancient, colonial and modern." In El Salvador, a nation "struggling for peace after years of civil war," participants hear the views of "campesinos, church leaders, teachers" and others. In Central Europe (Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland), a 13-day trip costing $1,800 plus $150 registration fee per person (again, non-inclusive of air fare), participants "dialogue with Christians and non-Christians about health, education, church, political, social and cultural life," and explore "dynamic changes in those countries."

For literature, you contact Maria Friedman, FSPA, GATE North American Coordinator, 912 Market Street, LaCrosse, WI 54601 (or phone 608/791-5283). They also have a Web site at gate-travel.org and can be reached bye-mail at gate@fspa.org. May I suggest that no better use could be made of our vacation time than to travel with them?

Another major source

Global Exchange, 2017 Mission Street, #303, San Francisco, CA 94110, phone 415/255-7296 or 1 800/497-1994, headed by the dynamic Medea Benjamin, rivals The Center for Global Education in the size of its following and frequency of its tours, possibly because it is a strongly activist organization, rushing to new areas as developments warrant their presence. In recent years it has maintained a major presence in Haiti, and more recently in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, monitoring the uprising of the so-called "Zapatistas." Their groups going to Chiapas meet with coffee producers, "campesinos," human rights workers, church leaders, both government and non-government organizations, including (it's rumored) the Zapatistas themselves. The nine-day trip to Chiapas is priced at $750 to $900, including lodgings, interior transportation, reading materials, translator, and two meals a day. Other trips go to Cuba, Iran, Ireland, Brazil, South Africa, India and Palestine and Israel. Visit their vibrant Web site for more information: globalexchange.org.

Other important groups

Marazul Charters, Inc, 725 River Rd., Edgewater, NJ 07020 (phone 800/223-5334 or 201-840-6711, e-mail info@marazulcharters.com) or view the Web site at marazulcharters.com. Marazul organizes over 700 trips to Cuba annually (direct, chartered flights from Miami and New York to Havana began July 1, 1998), organized at the specific request of individuals. The packages typically run from $750 to $1,250 per week from Miami for an average of 20 participants, inclusive of airfare, hotel accommodations, daily breakfast, and guide/translator. For packages from New York, add approximately $300. Marazul will organize custom designed conferences, university study abroad programs, professional classes and/or professional research programs for fields such as health care, law, and architecture (among others). Most trips pursue a specific theme-a trip sent a group of UN delegates to a weeklong Cuban conference on sustainable development. Past trips have included "Guatemalan Women Today" and "Health Care in Nicaragua," though Marazul is currenty only providing tours of Cuba. Intensely political, some of their literature refers to their trips as "progressive travel for progressive people." Marazul emphasizes they do not book leisure trips. Travelers must obtain a license from the U.S. Treasury Department.

Our Developing World, 13004 Paseo Presada, Saratoga, CA 95070-4125 (phone 408/379-4431 or e-mail odw@magiclink.net or on the web at magiclink.net/~odw), is another secular West Coast heavyweight in the Third World field. A nonprofit group whose husband and wife director team caters mainly to Californians, it generally schedules its all-inclusive packages from that state, but also allows for travelers to join them in their destination. The programs run on a three-year cycle. Each tour is an equal three weeks in length and limited to 10 people. The 2002 destination was South Africa -- nearly the entire country was explored from varying bases in major cities -- Soweto, Durban, etc. In 2003, the program visited Central America, travelling through Cuba, Nicaragua and Guatemala, concentrating on the problems of sustainable development. A 95-year old woman traveled with the group. The 2004 tour is scheduled to explore Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. All trips are concerned with "people and socio-economic development" and include some touring of cultural and geographical highlights.

Trips to South Africa and Southeast Asia average $4,000 per person, inclusive of airfare from either New York or San Francisco and L.A. (depending upon the trip), as well as breakfasts and some dinners, in-country ground transportation, a translator/guide. Rates for the Central American trip are typically around $3,500. The organization strives to put together "an extremely varied group of all ages (18-82) and occupations, as well as persons from other countries (than the U.S.)." In the words of co-director Vic Ulmer, "Our developing world strives to bring the realities of the Third World into the consciousness of North Americans through direct contact with the people of those areas." Thus, a three-week summer tour to Nicaragua will typically meet with peasants, social workers, church leaders, "members of Christian base communities," trade unionists, and government officials, and will visit facilities ranging from medical clinics to day-care centers.

Another sort of reality tour

People to People is the "centrist" of these groups, more heavily involved in broad public affairs than in special interest advocacy or politics, and so prestigious as to be frequently mistaken for a U.S. government agency.

It once was. President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded it in 1956 out of a belief that people-to-people contacts across national boundaries were as vital as government efforts to maintain world peace. He initially made the organization a part of the U.S. Information Agency, then in 1961 persuaded his friend, Joyce Hall, of Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, to fund the transition to a private, nonprofit corporation; the then former President Eisenhower was the first chairman of the board. Today, in addition to its many Student Ambassador Programs sending teenagers abroad, its Collegiate Study Programs Abroad, and American-homestay plans for foreign visitors to the U.S., PTPI organizes trips by several thousands of adult Americans each year to visit with their counterparts overseas: lawyers with lawyers, teachers with teachers, scientists with other scientists in their field. The goal: to "unleash the common interests among citizens of all countries and avoid the difference of national self-interest."

More than 200 overseas chapters in 39 countries make the arrangements for personal contacts; several prestigious U.S. tour operators handle the technical arrangements. Because itineraries involve an intricate schedule of meetings, briefings, speeches, and seminars, the trips aren't cheap. A typical 14-day program runs $4,200-inclusive of international air, accommodations, most meals, and in-country transportation-with an average of 35 participants. Some trips do run as low as $3,500 per person. The most popular programs, PTP reports, are those in China, Europe, Australia and New Zealand and South Africa. In addition, PTPI sends out U.S. government certified trips to Cuba. Contact People to People International, 501 East Armor Blvd, Kansas City, Missouri 64109 (phone 816/531-4701, fax 816/561-7502, email: ptpi@ptpi.org) or view the PTP Web site at ptpi.org.