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.