“I feel guilty traveling to fabulous places when there is so much suffering and poverty in the world. Maybe I should volunteer to build houses with locals on my next trip,” my friend Saida mused. I looked at Saida. She’s 59 years old, has back problems, and recently injured her shoulder doing yoga. If she showed up for construction work, the locals likely would end up taking care of her.
Maybe you are like Saida. You believe that travel can be more than consuming abroad. You’d like to help others, but you’re not prepared to engage in “volun-tourism” right now. So how can you do something good and worthwhile when you hit the road? I’ve recently discovered a way: I call it “quiet activism.”
In the South Pacific
A few months ago, my husband, Paul, and I were on the remote South Pacific island of Malekula, in exotic and fascinating Vanuatu, visiting the Small Nambas tribe. The men, who wore penis sheaths, and the topless women, adorned in woven grass skirts, danced, sang, and shared their culture with us. The women showed us Stone Age techniques that their ancestors had used for cooking taro and sweet potato. The men used sticks to draw on the ground, demonstrating how they communicate through sand drawings.
Then they gathered around us, and their chief thanked us for coming. He said that they would be willing to answer questions if we had any. I looked at their open faces, and something unexpected came out of my mouth.
“That’s an old model I no longer believe in,” I told the chief. He looked surprised, so I continued. “Of course, we have many questions, but don’t you have questions for us, too? It would be really great to have cultural exchange. You ask us. We ask you. We share what we have to offer and learn about each other.”
The Small Nambas were completely befuddled. They conferred with each other, and then the chief addressed us. “We get very few visitors,” he explained, “and I don’t think we have asked foreigners any questions before.”
I reached into my bag and pulled out a postcard of Native Americans in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I live. The tribe gathered around, looking at the image, mesmerized. Then a young man piped up. “Do the Indians live in houses or tents?” he asked. Before I could answer, he excused himself for the silly question.
“There are no silly questions,” I replied, quite honestly, and I answered him. Then I turned to the others, soliciting their queries.
“I hope this does not offend you,” an older man said, “but can you tell us if the United States also killed his son when Bin Laden was murdered?”
“That is my question, too,” several other tribe members chimed in.
I said that I didn’t know, and as I answered, I realized that they were horrified by the idea of a huge power like the United States killing the son. We got into a discussion about terrorism and murder. When we left, the tribe hugged us and thanked us for the exchange. I left the postcard with them. They said the experience had been very important for them.
Last summer, Paul and I flew to Tunisia, one of my favorite countries, for our eighth visit. I wanted to see how things were developing on the road to democracy after their revolution a year ago. As I boarded the plane, I got an email informing me that there were unruly demonstrations in downtown Tunis (the capital), a curfew was being enforced, and the main streets were closed. There was no way to access the hotel where I had reserved a room. We would arrive at 11 p.m., after curfew, with nowhere to sleep.
I turned to the people around me in the plane and asked if they knew of out-of-the-way hotels where we could stay. The next thing I knew, people on the plane were whispering about “the Americans,” and it struck me that everyone else on the plane was Tunisian, Libyan, or Algerian. And they wanted to ask us questions about democracy. Were such demonstrations normal? Yes. How about strikes? Of course. And then the name “Bin Laden” came up.
A few minutes later, I was standing in the aisle of the plane, fielding questions in French.
“If you are a democracy, why did you kill Bin Laden, instead of bringing him to trial? Isn’t that what a democracy is supposed to do?”
I took a deep breath and answered that I, personally, had not been there the night Bin Laden was killed. And I completely agreed with them. No matter how heinous the crime, perpetrators should not be held indefinitely, and they should have a fair trial.
“Do other Americans agree with you?” they asked.
“Yes, of course,” I replied.
There was an audible sigh of relief, and then, for the rest of the flight, we talked about democracy, their revolutions, America, and the Muslim Arab world. Many of the passengers said they had never had a substantive conversation with an American before.
Just before we landed, a tall, beautiful woman stood up at the rear of the plane. She invited us to come to her house, because our hotel was not accessible. Her sister, a well-known Tunisian actress, greeted us at the door. The woman who invited us turned out to be a basketball star who had played in the United States. And their mother whipped up lamb couscous for us at midnight.
In Chiapas, Mexico
In Chiapas, Mexico, I was attending a conference, and we had a little free time. I walked to the Museum of Maya Medicine, which had mannequins about Maya healing, a live healer performing a cleansing, films and dioramas about childbirth, as well as there being ceremonies and many other things that interested me. I was furiously taking notes, afraid I would forget what I was learning, when a handsome young man addressed me.
“Are you a healer?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. “I’m a lawyer, and I represent the indigenous people.” We talked for more than an hour. He told me about foreign drug companies wanting the Maya to sell them patents on local plants, and how the Maya tried to explain that you can’t patent or own a plant because it comes from nature and belongs to the earth, the people, the world.
Tensions were escalating. Negotiations were getting nowhere, and the Maya finally decided on a new strategy: they offered the drug companies the plants for free to share them with the world. Although they are poor, they asked for nothing in return, but to just allow humanity to benefit from the healing properties of the plants. The drug companies turned down the offer. They said it would cost them a fortune for development, and they could not proceed without owning the patents so they could make a profit.
I listened. And listened. I said I would try to stay abreast of developments when I came home, and perhaps write something. When I left, the lawyer stared me in the eyes and thanked me deeply. Then he hugged me.
So What Did I Do?
So when I look back on it, what did I really do? Not much. I didn’t build schools or volunteer to help people in need. I encouraged the Small Nambas to ask questions and gave them a postcard. I showed Muslim Arabs, whose compatriots are literally dying for democracy, that Americans are still evolving their own democracy and have concern for them and their struggles. I talked to a lawyer and learned what is important to the Maya people with whom he works.
Actually, all I did was answer questions, ask them, and really, truly listen. To me, this is activism. Quiet activism. You can do good in the world by having heartfelt exchange with other people. By talking to and listening to them.
Judging by the response of the people I met, this is a useful, purposeful thing to do. And anyone can do it. Even by reading this story, you are already on the quiet activist path.