November 24, 2013

12 reasons it's better to travel in a group

‘GROUP TRAVEL’ has become a byword for the lazy, frightened, and inexperienced traveler. It conjures the stereotype of a ‘packaged’ experience — a commodity — letting tourists off the hook from the ‘burden’ of independent travel.
For a long time I was an independent travel snob. A lone wolf, a headstrong, know-it-all, adventure-and-backstreet addict, who could think of nothing worse than arriving in a small village in Peru in a shiny white tour bus and being ushered like livestock through a local market.
But a recent group tour in the Peruvian Amazon caused me to ponder: Might travel experiences be better shared among a small group of like-minded individuals? Here are 12 reasons why the answer is yes.
1. You’ll gain valuable local knowledge.
Two people making food
Laughing up a storm on a group food tour, Siem Reap Province, Cambodia
In my 14 years of traveling, I have never regretted hiring a guide at a heritage site or for a nature trek. The expertise of a good local guide is priceless. From pinpointing off-road diners, music venues, reading spots, gardens, and beaches, to having stories to complement each location, experienced group leaders have evolved tourism from ‘ticking off’ sightseeing boxes to a more interactive cultural experience.
After four years of working in Cambodia as an anthropologist, I had bypassed hiring a guide at local sites, thinking I was enough of an ‘expert’ on the region. It wasn’t until my family came to visit that I hired a local tour company. I was astonished at the magnitude of in-depth historical information I learnt about Khmer culture, family life, and customs from a local’s perspective.
2. You can save money.
Paying up front for group travel can be daunting but may actually save you some coin in the long run. In 2006, my little brother and I decided to deviate from our ‘milk run’ route through Malaysia — Kuala Lumpur to the Perhentian Islands — and make a pit-stop in the Cameron Highlands. We were thrifty students in those days; traveling independently meant we could cut corners and keep our budget in check. But after a few too many karaoke-beers in KL’s Chinatown, Chris and I stumbled into the office of a tour company.
I was adamant this was not the path for us, convinced we were about to get swindled. Chris told me to hear the salesperson out. After punching in various calculations, I swallowed my pride and admitted that we would save 30% by traveling with a group. The package included transfers, meals, accommodations, and activities, sold collectively at a reduced cost. Group travel harnesses the power of buying in bulk, and spreads the cost of guides, ground transportation, and other items across the whole group, giving you more experience per dollar.
3. You can relax.
Independent travel can be a worrisome job. Whenever you venture off the beaten track to countries where visas are complicated and access difficult — especially when you have limited time — organized group travel can be the most sensible route to follow. Navigating red tape on your own can be exhausting, especially when you don’t know the language or customs.
On the Southeast Asian leg of a one-year sabbatical, my partner and I joined an educational group tour exploring indigenous communities in Northern Laos. The company negotiated our visas and transfers at the Thai/Laos border. We received VIP treatment, skipped lines, and sailed through immigration. The hassle of organizing transport and negotiating on transfer rates was eradicated, allowing us to actually enjoy the place.
4. You’ll maximize your precious time off.
People riding camels
Camel trek through the deserts of Northern Rajasthan, India
Vacation time is a commodity. Packing in Rajasthan, Delhi, the Taj Mahal, coastal Goa; partaking in local holidays; and dealing with transport and seasonal weather on a quick trip to India would be hard to coordinate without a guide organizing it. Although I have traveled extensively in this region, I seem to craft these logistically impossible itineraries that work in opposition to my limited travel time.
During my last trip I popped into the local tourism office in Delhi to get a free pen and gather some advice on transport. I was welcomed with a chorus of laughter. “You want to do what and go where? Do you know how big our country is, lady?” I pulled my shoulders back, handed the tourism official my map scrawled with my red-penned route, and asked him to “please make it possible.” He dismissed me and waved me in the direction of an international group tour company office. And thank goodness he did.
Along with the coordination of transport and accommodation, the group organizer also injected my itinerary with an adventure package through Rajasthan and Nepal. My time in the region was so limited that without this aid I would have never reached Nepal, trekked to Annapurna, camped in the Indian sand dunes, or tracked Bengal tigers.
5. You can maintain a sense of balance.
When time is tight and you’re attempting to check off a long list of activities, having a sound itinerary is vital. Tour groups have the ability to balance engagement in activities and down time to a tee. Though most tours will cram in as many experiences as possible, they still retain a degree of flexibility for those who need extra R&R and those who want some solo time.
After my big move to New York this year, a good friend came for a visit. The trip was last minute and there was little to no time to research. Evenings together in Brooklyn became stressed, with Caroline concerned she’d missed sights that day. Rather than a relaxing holiday, she was bombarded with self-imposed pressure and had no equilibrium.
After some recent reflection, we discussed the potential benefits of using the services of tour companies during short trips. She observed, “At least (on a group tour) you can go to sleep at night, knowing that you’re not missing out, that the next day will be as exciting and fulfilling as the one before.”
A person at Angkor
Partner in crime, James, exploring Angkor Wat
6. You’ll share first-time experiences with someone else.
Seeing a wonder of the world, tasting something new, reaching a goal, and watching a new culture unfold by yourself can — to be blunt — suck. I have traveled extensively through Cambodia alone. The first time I visited Angkor Wat, I went solo. I spent a lovely but lonely day, stopping strangers to ask them to take a classic ‘me and a temple’ photo.
I couldn’t help this nagging feeling that I was missing out. I returned to Angkor Wat four years later with my partner and basked in his smile and excitement as we cycled up to the first temple. Beaming in awe of this man-made wonder, he remarked, “Take a load of that, girl!” This memory makes me smile. Sharing a special moment with others is what travel is all about.
7. You can find a travel family.
When your crew is unable to travel with you, organized group travel presents a solution. My family have all been fortunate enough to travel extensively. When my mother recently asked my father if he would like to take a trip to Morocco, he replied with a dismissive grunt: “I am too tired dear.” A lone traveler for the first time at the age of 55, Mum packed her lens and journal and joined a food tour for a week.
Gorging on mutton tagine and dancing through the spice markets of Marrakech, she had a ball. We were all so proud of her. She took a leap of faith and ventured outside her comfort zone. She didn’t let fear or dislike of solo travel deter her from ticking an item off her bucket list; instead, she did so in the company of individuals with interests similar to her own.
8. You’ll practice patience.
Traveling with a group can be a selfless practice; you must share your space, deviate from your personal tempo, and move in synchronicity with others. Rather than seeing this an annoyance, it can be celebrated as a challenge.
A year ago I joined a group of detox-ers at a yoga retreat in Bali. Every morning we would rise before the sun and stroll down the cliffs to the water. I often changed my pace in order to enjoy varied conversation and to keep a few stragglers company. I realized that slowing down actually meant I listened more attentively and took in more of the surroundings. Practicing patience through group activities was a rewarding exercise for me.
9. You just might find love.
“Do you like to travel?”
This was one of the first questions I used to ask potential suitors. It became a deal breaker if the response was no. My love for seeing the world and experiencing new cultures is part of my soul. I find that my energy levels and spirit soar when I’m out on the road, a realm where socially acceptable laws of attraction go out the window, granting you freedom to truly shine and be yourself.
Coupled with attributes common to those choosing group travel — such as a desire for exposure to differing cultures and a drive for adventure — it seems a no-brainer that this form of travel could spark romance.
10. You can more easily access challenging destinations.
There are certainly some destinations where it comes highly recommended you take a little help from experts. Trekking up Kilimanjaro or venturing to Everest Base Camp with all the logistics in hiring a Sherpa / porter team would be near impossible without the backup of an experienced trekking organisation.
In 2004, a group of us Scots embarked on a trek to Kilimanjaro in memory of Hazel Scott Aiton, a family member who had passed away in an accident six months prior. The journey, supported by the Scottish public, recruited a team of her mates, friends of the family, and the clan. A pick’n’mix of backgrounds, fitness levels, climbing ability, and travel experience, our team was a comical sight! As amateur climbers, we hired support from professional guides. In challenging terrain, there is no shame in employing the services of a tour company — in fact, it’s just common sense.
11. You’ll meet different kinds of people.
People at Kilimanjaro
The family clan ready to take on Kilimanjaro!
People who travel in groups are bound to connect with others who they would never have given the time to at home. Characters we meet and learn about as we venture outside our familiar home environment can significantly enhance understanding, tolerance, and humanity, both nationally and globally.
I was recently fortunate to be invited on a press trip to the Amazon Jungle in Peru. One of the most rewarding parts of this experience was meeting and enjoying conversation with such a wonderful range of people, all with differing backgrounds, cultures, and travel experiences. Making human connections with people of other cultures and beliefs helps to build mutual respect and good faith. Personally, I consider this the main value of travel and a major component for building more peaceful communities.
12. You can make friends for life.
Following my group tour in Peru, our gang has demonstrated lasting connections, creating a shared dropbox for images, exchanging blog posts and articles, and building a social network through email and Facebook. The bonds we established during this trip will not be forgotten; perhaps in the future we will have an opportunity to experience other regions of the world together. 

November 14, 2013

Students interview Hotel Rwanda Hero

In preparation for our Investigative Journalism Rwanda Trip, Friendship Tours brings Paul Rusesabagina, the Hotel Rwanda hero who saved over 1200 people during the genocide. Santa Barbara Middle School Students interview Paul Rusesabagina in a casual conversational environment. See parts one and two below. 

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November 13, 2013

Paul Rusesabagina, Rwanda's hotel hero

In preparation for our Investigative Journalism Rwanda Trip with Harvard-Westlake School  and ABC News, Friendship Tours brings Paul Rusesabagina to California to meet students and tell his story. Recall that Paul is the Hotel Rwanda hero who saved over 1200 people from slaughter during the genocide. Celebrated Los Angeles Times journalist Patt Morrison interviews Paul in the Op-Ed section today.

In April 1994, as general manager of the luxury hotel where he worked, he protected more than 1,000 people who had fled the killing rampage in the country. Now he lectures about human rights.

Most bio-pics are made about somebodies — warriors, kings, artists. This was a bio-pic about a nobody who became a somebody during the Rwandan genocide, a bloody crossroads for a country with deep-seated ethnic frictions. In April 1994, Paul Rusesabagina was brevetted as general manager of the luxury hotel where he worked, and where more than 1,000 people had fled from the killing rampage. For more than two months, he managed to protect them from being slaughtered. Ten years later, the world saw "Hotel Rwanda." Today, there is no love lost between Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Rusesabagina, who lives in San Antonio and travels to lecture about human rights, as he did in Los Angeles not long ago.
Is there such a thing as a post-ethnic society? The government in Rwanda wants everyone to be not Hutu or Tutsi but Rwandan.
The problem with today's Rwandan government is trying to say that ethnicities do not exist. That is maybe because we fear what we did ourselves, [now] we want to say all of us are Rwandans. We have a group of [mostly Tutsi] elite who are taking power because they [proclaim that they are] Rwandans.
Whenever they talk about ethnicity, they always talk [of] Hutus who kill Tutsis — bad guys who kill good guys. They position themselves as victims and others as perpetrators. They say whatever they think will solve their problem for that minute. When they become victims, they become Tutsis. When they are not victims and they are in power, they are Rwandans.
Didn't European colonists codify these distinctions with ID cards?
Yes and no. Go to the meaning of the words. "Tutsi" means "the elite, one who is better, who has wealth." Wealth before colonization was measured in cows. "Hutu" means "follower, a servant, a slave." These words were created by us, not by colonizers.
But then isn't it a good idea to get rid of names that reinforce distinctions?
Anything can be good, but the way they are doing it is the wrong way. [For example,] in 2008 someone decided overnight that Rwanda should become an English-speaking country. Anything which is forced always becomes a bad thing.
What do you miss most about Rwanda?
I miss everything! The hill where I used to sit in the afternoon every rainy day, and when the whole sky would break clear and I would see maybe 100 miles. I miss the place where I was born and raised.
Have you been back since you left in 1996?
I went back in 2004 before the movie came out. I sensed what was going to happen: the hatred from the Rwandan president seeing a Hutu becoming a hero, where he had positioned himself with his people as heroes. So we took our three younger kids there so they would know where they came from.
What do you think of efforts to discredit you, such as protesters showing up when you speak?
I like it. This shows the weakness of [the Rwandan] government. I can never imagine a president who is supposed to be busy [with] politics running after me, a small citizen. The president is making me more important than I am supposed to be.
Do you worry that you are still a target?
If I were to worry, I wouldn't do anything. I would just lock myself in my house. So if anyone wants to kill me, I think that will be that person's problem, not mine. In 1994, this helped me to go on. I was targeted because I was protecting the most wanted people. The elite intellectuals were in my hotel. The business elite, also ordinary and common human beings were there. I said to myself, "Oh well, I will be killed; shall I give up? No. let me do one more small thing before I die." I kept on going like that. Since that time, every day, every month, every year, I call it a bonus.
What do you think of the United Nations' role in Rwanda then?
I was disappointed on many occasions. When the United Nations came to Rwanda in October 1993, we were sensing something. We were smelling death. The whole country was nervous and tense. When the United Nations sent in forces, we called them peacekeepers. Their mission was not to keep peace. Their mission was to observe. As weak as they were, when we saw the United Nations pulling out of Rwanda, abandoning our nation to thugs and gangsters and running away, all of us were caught. So I was disappointed at that time by the United Nations.
How do you regard American misperceptions of Africa?
There have been reasons why Americans do not really think about Africa. One reason is that Africa is far from America. The American continent is more or less self-sufficient. But since 9/11, Americans would like to know what is happening elsewhere. The opinion is changing, and we want to be part of the change.
You've been speaking at places like Harvard-Westlake School. Why those audiences?
This is my mission, telling tomorrow's leaders that you guys are rich, you are safe, but there are many kids [who] do not have that chance in a country called Rwanda. These kids will only be saved by you. All those kids worth talking to today are tomorrow's congressmen and women, tomorrow's secretaries of state, tomorrow's presidents.
Some in the West point to Rwanda now as a model, with decent schools, electricity, clean streets.
In 2011, in Rwanda, [U.N. Ambassador] Susan Rice was taken to the genocide memorials. They showed her the new [office] towers they had built, and I loved her statement. [Rice praised Rwanda's educational, economic and agricultural advancements.] She [also] told them, "Listen, as long as there is no democracy in this country, as long as human rights records remain as they are, as long as there is no freedom of speech, all these achievements will be like a castle made of paper."
Are you worried Rwanda could turn on itself again?
Unfortunately, history repeats itself, and we never learn lessons. As long as you have so many people silenced, so many people outside the country as refugees, you are sitting ducks. As long as you [deny] people the opportunity to talk together, as long as people can't criticize — that can never last forever. Rwanda is more or less like a simmering volcano that might erupt at any time.
What could change that?
There are powerful countries that have a lot of influence on President Kagame — the United States, the United Kingdom. If they take their courage and tell him, "You have had your 15 minutes." Every leader who is there for 10 years, 20 years, will not bring anything new to his people besides reinforcing dictatorship.
The best way to solve this conflict is through words. We have tried for 60 years and more to solve our conflicts through guns. It is clear that guns have failed, so why don't we sit around the table, face to face, bring whole truths to that table. Who did what? The people know; they witnessed everything. Give them an opportunity to express themselves freely. This is the only way that justice can be practiced and that sustainable peace can come to Rwanda and the whole region.
If you could ask President Obama to do something for the 20th anniversary of the genocide, what would it be?
I would ask him to tell Rwandans and the whole world that it is high time that people should sit down together and solve conflicts.
What's the path to justice and reconciliation?
The way the Rwandan government has done it is very weak and biased. It has been politicized; it is not clean.
In the beginning, Rwandans were willing to cooperate and tell who did what. But when they saw the government just taking all the Hutus into prison, killing them, innocents and criminals, they decided to remain silent. The Rwandan government wants people to say, "OK, I did it," even if they're not criminals. President Kagame said all Hutus, even those who were not born in 1994, will have to pay a price to Tutsis.
What do you mean when you say the Rwandan government is selling genocide like a product?
The Rwandan government has confused politics and genocide. With the international community, they always play the genocide card: Everybody should apologize to them [for not intervening]. You saw Bill ClintonTony Blair: "We are sorry, we are sorry." Whoever tries to raise a voice is silenced by this word "genocide." The Rwandan Patriotic Front [the current ruling party] killed many Hutus before the war. "Genocide" is losing its value because they are playing around with it. It is a pity.
I lost many members of my immediate family [including his Tutsi wife's mother and siblings, nieces and nephews]. It is our legacy; seeing someone selling it, it makes us mad.
Your mother was Tutsi, your father Hutu. What does that make you?
I was born to a mixed couple, but in Rwanda, we follow our fathers. I am very proud to be what my father was. And my father was a gentleman.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. Twitter:@pattmlatimes

November 4, 2013

Paul Rusesabagina, hero of Hotel Rwanda

This hero will speak about the Rwandan genocide and how the courage of ordinary people standing up to evil can make a difference.

When: Friday, Nov. 8, 3 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.
Where: SBCC, 721 Cliff Dr., Santa Barbara
Cost: Free
Age limit: Not available
Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who saved thousands of lives during the Rwandan genocide and was portrayed by Don Cheadle in movie Hotel Rwanda, will speak. He will show video clips from the film and speak about the genocide and how the courage of ordinary people standing up to evil can make a difference. He will be signing his autobiography, An Ordinary Man.
Alethea Tyner Paradis, founder of Friendship Tours World Travel, has organized a trip for high school students to Rwanda in January. “This adventure invites students to experience an insider’s look at a beautiful, lush, now-peaceful country that imploded with unimaginable violence just 20 years ago. The scale of the killing and recovery cannot be completely grasped with the rational mind. 800,000 people killed in 100 days, is eight thousand lives per day, more than five murders per minute. It was rooted in perceptions of racial hate, and officials running the country used the mass media to whip the populace into a killing frenzy to eliminate all Tutsis.”
Paul’s message is simple: Words can multiply hate—as in the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide—or they can broker peace and reconciliation. With a mixture of diplomacy and dissuasion, Paul talked madmen killers out of their mission to butcher over 1200 Tutsis and Hutus hiding in the hotel for 77 consecutive days. He will discuss how recognizing the humanity in others – even your enemy—can mean the difference between deadly conflict and life-saving solutions.
Rwanda today is one of the safest African countries. Victims and perpetrators now live in peace, side by side with an impossible pain. All survivors agree that the genocide was the product of an inverted reality: wrong became right, insanity seemed normal, and resistance to the mob was impossible. According to Paradis, “The goal of our Rwanda trip is to understand the beauty and healing beyond the tragedy, to capture the stories of survivors, and to illuminate a cautionary tale for our times: Human beings living in a diverse world must cultivate their power to act for peace.”
In Room PS 101, East Campus of SBCC.
Event posted Oct. 29, 2013
Last updated Oct. 30, 2013