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Bridge-building among the Mayas

November 13, 2005|Stephen Franklin | Chicago Tribune

A vast stretch of greenery in southeastern Mexico, Chiapas is caressed by clouds that march across its mountains and slice over San Cristobal de las Casas, its reclusive mountaintop heart, a compact city with the cobble-stoned ambience of an old Spanish colonial town. But we are not here to ogle nature. This is a "reality tour," an adventure into being socially responsible and finding meaning in a foreign place.

A primer on reality tours

Participants in these tours -- which evolved from the ecotourism of the 1970s -- often visit the world's less-fortunate places and people, working in medical clinics, teaching in schools, and sometimes just dancing or singing or listening to their music while paying attention to tales of their hosts' lives and struggles. At least a dozen groups in the U.S. offer them, some more politically charged than others. "Socially responsible travel is not only socially just -- it is good business," says a brochure by Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights organization that arranged this tour.

Not your average tour

Other handouts tell me that the person leading my tour will be a program coordinator and an expert in her field, not a so-called tour guide; that I should be mindful of my fellow travelers' differences in age, race and social class; that I should try to eat as much food as is served in the villages we visit because in a "climate of scarcity it is rude to waste food"; and, ultimately, that I should think of ways of overcoming the image of the "boorish and arrogant" American tourist.

A gentle warning

"Go into the meetings with your eyes and hearts open," Eva Marie Schulte, our coordinator, tells us on the first morning we meet. She explains the nuances of the Mayas we will meet in the Zapatista communities. You do not, for example, ask about people's overall mood -- a concept unfamiliar to the Mayas -- but instead ask what is in their hearts.

Shacks and a church

After a few days of lectures, we head into the countryside, toward a newly created village spun off by Indians from this village. They wanted their own land to farm and took over a rancher's plot. There are only a few shacks and a newly built church for the 35 families who recently claimed the land.

Meeting the locals

Wrapped in serapes against the chill, the women of the village -- not the men -- welcome us. We ask about their lives, and their shyness ever so slowly melts. It is still very hard, they say. No medicine. No electricity. The children are often sick. But they have land to grow crops.

The opposing viewpoint?

Did we ever hear from the other side, or meet anyone with a neutral view about what's been taking place in Chiapas? No, and I wish we had. That is on my mind at our last gathering, in a large outdoor restaurant on the warm, sunny edge of a river in Tuxtla Gutierrez.

The tour's lingering effect

But within a few days, I realize that -- because of the brevity of the tour -- it is nearly impossible to expect any meaningful connection with the villagers beyond a few words and images. But that, I decide, doesn't take away from the tour's value. From listening to the others, I have the sense that the tour's effect will linger. Some of us, I suspect, will be stirred toward similar kinds of trips. Some will keep the trip as a mental bookmark, reminding them to consider the humanity as well as the lovely vistas the next time they travel.

Tour deals

Global Exchange provides housing (two to a room), two meals daily, transportation to the villages and transfers back and forth to the nearest airport, in Tuxtla Gutierrez, for $900. Global Exchange's next Chiapas trip will be Dec. 26 to Jan. 3. The organization offers about 100 tours yearly. Prices range from $650 to $2,650; (415) 255-7296, The Center for Global Education, Augsburg College, Minneapolis, has about 50 tours from one to three weeks as well as 10 three-month semester programs yearly. Prices range from $900 to $4,000; (800) 299-8889,

Getting there

Overseas airfare is usually not included in these groups' charges. For Chiapas, Mexicana and Aeromexico offers connecting service (change of planes) from LAX. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $458. Tour employees will pick you up in Tuxtla Gutierrez and shuttle you to the tour's starting point in San Cristobal.

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