December 3, 2010

Seeing Global and Thinking Peace

I first traveled with Friendship Tours World Travel when I was a junior in high school. I had been interested in travel from a young age, likely instilled by my parents’ stories of their youthful adventures: traveling to Europe by cargo ship, diving in Bolivia, trekking through the vast planes of the Serengeti. I wanted to see the world of their stories. I wanted to understand the connection between all of us, experience different cultures, taste unfamiliar foods, appreciate the complexity and beauty of the world. When I heard my school was offering a trip to Vietnam (another landscape of family legend as both my mother and father lost friends and relatives in the war), I knew I had to go. I signed up for Ms. Tyner’s Vietnam War Seminar and eagerly anticipated and fantasized about my forthcoming travels.

My time in Vietnam with Friendship Tours World Travel far outstripped anything I could have imagined. I embraced each unfamiliar taste, smell, sound, word. I was entranced by it all. This was the concrete space I had heard of from my dad and learned about in the classroom. This was Vietnam, the once-threat to democracy, the distant land of a bloody war, the infamous “quagmire” of US foreign policy. And we were here. From our work at the Vietnam Friendship Village to our haunting float through Halong Bay; from a disorienting crawl through the Cu Chi Tunnels to the everyday of meeting new people and tasting new dishes—each piece fell together to create a dynamic understanding not just of Vietnam and its people, but also of the US’s relation to it and more simply, our own connection to the place.

My trip to Vietnam was the catalyst to many an adventure from Brazil to West Africa and most recently, again re-united with Friendship Tours World Travel, to Burma (Myanmar). Vietnam, opened for me a new passion and approach to learning—allowing me to see the world outside the cut and dried pages of a text book and in its vibrant, breathing and complex vivacity. The world is more globally connected than it ever has been. Despite political delineations, each country and each person is linked to one another, from economic policy and development theory to the latest hit song playing worldwide: we are a global community. I look at my travels as a way of better understanding this community and establishing cross-cultural connections. So when Alethea first approached me about working with Friendship Tours World Travel and traveling with her to Burma, I was more than thrilled.

Our trip to Burma, exemplified for me the importance of travel and the mission of Friendship Tours World Travel. Burma, which just last month played host to its first elections in twenty years, is best known for its corrupt military government and civil rights abuses. Since the early 90s, Burma (re-named by the military junta as “Myanmar”) has been cut off from the Western World by economic sanctions and travel boycotts. Before our departure, we had little knowledge of the place, besides the violence expressed through news reels. I spent the week leading up to our trip imagining grimacing military cronies conducting extensive searches of all my belongings and interviewing me for hours before arresting me and finally sending me home after somehow unearthing my high school work with Amnesty International.

In this case especially, the reality of Burma differed greatly from my paranoid imaginings. Never have I been to a place as beautiful and enchanting, not to mention filled with such fascinating and friendly people. We had no problem getting into the country and while the austerity of the military government can certainly be felt, it was not nearly as Orwellian as I had imagined. The junta, propped by Chinese money and interests have been little affected by western isolation policy. Instead it was the local people whose voices had been shut off from the rest of the world. Not to say that climbing 800 year old temples in Bagan or boating through the floating gardens of Inle Lake wasn’t absolutely spectacular, but again it was the people thatwe met that made the strongest impression. Everyone we ran into was eager to share with us their life stories and to learn about our country and background. Only through travel were we able to see the everyday of Burma, to meet the people, largely quantified and forgotten in news reels and foreign policy and open up positive cross-cultural exchange.

Now, back in the United States, I am eagerly looking forward to our next adventure, this time to Cuba in 2011, where we hope to further our goal of peace by spreading awareness and global citizenship.

November 18, 2010

"Seeing With My Senses" by former traveler, Kaitlin Kall

We are happy to feature a guest blog post by former Traveler, Kaitlin Kall.  If you are also interested in guest blogging for FTWT, please let us know

I traveled to Vietnam with Friendship Tours World my junior year of high school. Vietnam was a name I had grown up hearing: a place my father had tried to avoid, a war he and my mom had protested against, the battlefield where my uncle lost his sight to a landmine. When I heard about the spring trip to Vietnam, I knew immediately I had to go. I wanted to see first hand this mythic land of family chronicle and better understand the history and place behind the stories. In preparation for our trip, I took Ms. Tyner’s Vietnam War Seminar Class in hopes of widening my perspective on US history and our global relations. But it wasn’t till I stepped off the plane and into Hanoi’s sweet, humid air did all the pieces-the histories, stories, images and statistics-start to weave together.

As we drove into Hanoi, a sat silent, my face glued to the window-I was trying to take in as much as possible, to chronicle each blade of grass. Our first stop on the way to the hotel was to a restaurant downtown. I sat, still shocked from the long flight, the unfamiliar air, and watched as waiters brought plate after plate of again unfamiliar, but delicious smelling food. FTW used immersion to integrate us into the country: eating local cuisine, listening to the stories of the local people, walking through the market and haggling for goods and most importantly, seeing and participating in the everyday lives of the people who lived there. With each day that passed, I felt more at ease with the country and its culture. By visiting the sights we had learned in class, by engaging our tactile senses, through tastes, smell, sound and sight Vietnam, in its dynamic complexity, came to life in a way that far outstripped my own imagination.

The memories that have always stood out most clearly for me are ones associated with our work at the Vietnam Friendship Village. VFV is an orphanage founded by two former Veterans, one American and one Vietnamese, for children and veterans affected by Agent Orange poisoning. The majority of the residents are orphans born long after the end of the war, but who were still harmed by the lasting effects of the American-sprayed defoliant. Many of the children had mental disabilities or were physically disfigured. And I arrived to the facility with a daunting sense of guilt and sadness that we had once been enemies, able to dehumanize, to shoot and kill one another. But VFV was not about guilt. It was about healing; bringing people together from both sides of the battlefield to work in common, to understand one another and to find a shared thread within their mutual humanity.

On my trip we worked to build an organic garden for the orphanage, clearing a plot, tilling the soil and planting seeds. We ate a simple lunch at the orphanage and in the afternoon, painted and played with the children. Despite language and cultural barriers, play provided a space where everyone could come together: a language through which we could communicate and connect. It was at that point that I really understood the importance of travel. Not for the romanticism of an exotic adventure, but to meet people, to make friends, to understand different cultures, to humanize people who were once dismissed as the “other” and to work together as human beings for our mutual benefit.

When I returned home from Vietnam it was with a new understanding and perspective, not just on one country, but on the importance of friendly global relations: seeing people as people no matter where they come from. My trip with Friendship Tours World inspired in me a passion for world travel and international relations that took me on trips around the globe and influenced my decision to major in Anthropology. Now working on social justice in the prison system, I still look back on my travels with FTW as the source of my desire to work to help build a better community, to look past social constructed stigmas and see the real people and issues that lie beneath.

November 4, 2010

The Economist Just Published a New Article on Myanmar’s Election

Slowly, the Myanmar army eases its grip and an unfair and un-free poll stirs plenty of cynicism. But a political transition may be starting at last.

Here's the full story via The Economist: "Myanmar's election - Slowly, the army eases its grip"
Photo credit: The Economist/ Reuters

November 2, 2010

Clinton Says Khmer Rouge Trials Should Continue by

It is amazing to see Secretary of State Clinton visiting one of the key sites on our Cambodia itinerary. What better way to prevent genocide in the future than facing those evil moments of the past?

Hillary Rodham Clinton visited a former Khmer Rouge torture house in Cambodia on Monday and urged the nation to proceed with trials of the former regime’s surviving leaders in order to “confront its past.”

Click here for the full story via the New York Times: In Cambodia, Clinton Advocates Khmer Rouge Trials.

November 1, 2010