Osh Kyrgyzstan

A Little Insight… What Goes Into a Sustainable Tourism Industry?

Around the time that I was struggling to hold down my breakfast, hiking at a clipped pace across the wild Kyrgyz countryside and up a mountain, I realized a few things needed to change. Having just finished hiking 500 miles of Spain’s Camino de Santiago a few weeks earlier, I was fit enough for the hike, but not yet acclimated to the altitude, or the breakneck pace.

Motioning my guides into a sunny pasture, I collapsed amidst the wildflowers, flushed and thoughtful. Was there a gentler path to the peak we sought, I asked? Could we slow the pace, add breaks where my guide explained the way of life for the Kyrgyz nomads living nearby?

His knowledge fluid and his smile quick, my guide began pointing out passes among the distant snowy peaks—that’s where he once hunted sly wolves in the dead of winter. And that visible break in the tree line usually boasted sightings of wild animals native to the region (though we were unlucky to spot not a one). He spoke of snow deeper than my wildest imagination some years, and told stories of his family hunkering down in the nearby yurt camp, content in a way of life Kyrgyz nomads have practiced for millennia.

I listened, captivated. I made notes, assessed potential, and continued hiking. Hours later, I bounced around ideas for adjustments to the tour with representatives from the local tourism team—a brand new non-profit Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) in the infancy stages of developing English-language tourism in this region of Kyrgyzstan. Working together, we created an itinerary and program for the hike that matched the potential and interest of tourists with the skills and knowledge of local Kyrgyz guides.

Pamir Mountains near Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

Seeking a Different Point of View

It was my second day on the job in Kyrgyzstan as a consultant for a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) project that had spent the previous three years laying the groundwork for a new layer of tourism infrastructure for the country. A giddy sense of collaborative power seeped into me when I collapsed into my bed that night.

For years, I’ve written stories underpinned by the central idea that, when done right, tourism can be a powerful force for good. Pairing my book that discussed the ethical pitfalls of international volunteering (a point of view endearing me to few in that industry) with stories of innovative social enterprises from around the world, I have shared hard-won personal perspectives from my decade on the road. My overriding message: responsible tourism is a guiding mindset, not a catchy buzzword.

That said, I had never been more than tourist and sometimes expat in these places.

Although I’ve seen tourism destinations on every range of the spectrum—from the glitzy shine of Paris’ many tours and kitschy souvenirs to hillside villages with nary a guesthouse or restaurant in sight—I had never considered what it takes to create a travelable destination.

Sustainable tourism only functions well when layers of prep work first ensure a destination has an equitable, community-driven plan to manage tourists and distribute economic benefits across both urban and rural areas. To work long-term, tourist influxes must slot into a purposefully-crafted infrastructure offering places to sleep, trained local guides for hire, and intriguing travel experiences that respect and honor the region’s cultural and environmental value.

Learning to make lepyoshka

Bonding with a beautiful Golden Eagle

But that intricate process is just the beginning. The world’s most celebrated travel destinations have identified the unique expectations they can meet once tourists arrive. It’s not a lark when you dream of the food in Italy, the beaches of Fiji, or the wildlife in Tanzania—each destination has developed experiences that not only create a cohesive brand identity, but reinforce its unique selling point once you arrive.

For 10 years, I have partaken the final product of tourism as I hopscotched the globe, but never before had I been involved in the foundational stages—the ground floor of creating an entirely new network of experiences that tourists will use for years to come. The project ended in June, and while it was a dead-sprint to the finish line, I am equal parts proud of the results and fascinated by the complex insights bubbling to the surface from my time working with the talented multinational crew who pulled it off. I’ve learned more new things about this industry than I dreamed possible. And guys, I loved the work.

I have long believed that tourism can be the greatest redistribution of wealth from developed to developing countries. This idea has kept me on the road, kept me sharing here on A Little Adrift, and elsewhere, too.

If we travel with a commitment to infusing money locally, it can profoundly effect the very real people living where you travel. As a tourist, I believed this as truth. I spoke about this at universities, just last week at a travel conference, and next month at a conference in Russia. It’s my main message honed over a decade of travel.

Now, after witnessing a new side of tourism development, I know it as truth. Here’s how it went down, and a few of the lessons learned from immersing in the flip side of travel industry.

Learning how to make a shyrdak felt craft

vendor at Osh Jayma Bazaar

lepyoshka bread making Osh

A Closer Look: The Project’s Who, What, and Where

The USAID Business Growth Initiative involved other sectors beyond tourism, but supporting travel and tourism was my singular focus (which, you know, totally makes sense). Kyrgyzstan was among the safest yet more difficult “Stans” to travel. Kazakhstan had a fair share of the region’s tourism industry, proving out the interest, so the USAID project would boost the capacity of Kyrgyzstan to compete for independent tourists from destinations outside of the region—appealing foreigners, like me. What’s more, the project elements that I worked on were a fraction of the tourism project’s scope, which also included the extensive mapping of trekking routes, road signs in English at key points for those road-tripping it, capacity building on the actual hospitality side, and more.

My friends Dan and Audrey—fellow travelers, tourism consultants, and two of my favorite friends gifted to me by this life on the road—helped architect the tourist-facing side of this new tourism industry. They assessed five destinations across Kyrgyzstan for tourism potential—what was the unique identity of each location that would attract travelers from all over the world? What tours, products, and services would entice travelers to stay longer once there, thus infusing money into the local economy?

They exhaustively surveyed everything someone could do in each place, and whittled the list to the most fascinating, immersive, and cultural experiences they should do.

When I joined the project in July 2017, a dozen tour products were under development, new experiences that would highlight the best of the region’s culture and food. My role: tell a compelling story for each destination through four local tourism websites. I would write all the content to ensure a wealth of accurate, actionable online travel information so independent travelers could not just visit Kyrgyzstan, but craft an incredible itinerary. I would use my background in sustainable travel and storytelling, coupled with my twelve years of SEO expertise, to solidify the distinct branding of each destination and surface information the rest of the tourism team had spent years putting in place. Dan and Audrey spearheaded the tech side, and together we launched four English language websites into the wild.

During my in-country visits, I would also test and finalize tours the DMOs would eventually run for international tourists. That’s how I found myself running up a peak in the Pamir-Alay Mountains and taste-testing each of the vegetarian-friendly food tours—poor me, right!

Eki Chat Yurt Camp

Danik and Yrskul the shepherds of Eki Chat Jyrgalan

Ashlan-fu, a traditional Kyrgyz dish popular in Karakol

The Invisible Side of Tourism Development

Everything created during this Kyrgyzstan project included the aspects that I have always taken for granted. It’s not just that the project put up road signs and “you are here” maps in the city-centers (which it did), but it resulted in hand-crafted experiences for tourists from the moment they hit the ground.

Over many months and a lot of work, the entire team—passionate locals working everyday alongside foreign consultants—created visible and invisible layers of welcome.

  • The visible: bus routes accessible in English, friendly staff at local tourist information centers, printed maps and brochures, thousands of miles of new GPS and marked trails through the Kyrgyz mountains, and a tourism website curating local knowledge and offering a comprehensive one-stop-shop for everything you might need to know to travel effectively in the Kyrgyz Republic.
  • The invisible: a cohesive brand meticulously presented to guide tourists through the myriad things to do, guesthouse owners trained to understand dietary restrictions like celiac and vegetarianism, mountain guides with first-aid training and the right gear to bring tourists into the mountains, and tours designed and marketed in alignment with the interests and expectations of foreign tourists (while ensuring every offered activity respects the local culture).

It wasn’t enough to bring tourists to Kyrgyzstan—in fact, it would harm if undertaken without consideration for, and dialogue with, those with actual skin in the game: local communities.

In the four core communities ultimately benefiting from this project, local tourism businesses united under a Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) operating as a nonprofit social enterprise. These hotels, restaurants, and tour operators would support the DMO’s efforts to develop local tours and interface with tourists, all the while funneling money back into projects that would better the local community—things like a new playspace for children in one of the villages; free wifi in the city center of another; and a gorgeous, redesigned riverside space to host festivals, concerts, and more.

And you know what—it was a lot of work!

Local staff numbered in the dozens, everyone collaborating to fine-tune the details of a connected tourism web spread across five cities spread all over Kyrgyzstan. Things that off-the-path travelers chalk up as story-worthy misadventures—confusing transport days and delightful cultural snafus—were issues to fix, not glorify on the pages on a travel blog. While it’s impossible to mitigate all potential misadventures (and those truly do make for great stories), if they happen at every turn then a destination earns a reputation as “difficult to visit,” a death knell for increasing mainstream, independent tourism.

And more than anything, everyone on the project was hopeful that this project could move the needle on Kyrgyzstan’s indie tourism industry. I LOVED the idea deeply and was all-in on immersing in each destination so I could help them craft a story compelling enough to lure North Americans and Europeans to the rugged peaks of the Tian Shan range and the cozy fireplaces of local yurt camps.

Kyrgyzstan charmed me, wholly and completely. The locals I met embraced every new challenge—hospitality training courses, capacity building sessions, and SEO and social media workshops (that was me), to name three. All with the hope of a tourism industry that was possible, but no surety.

Kyrgyz-Ata National Park

Jaichy Yurt Camp near South Shore Lake Issyk-Kul

Presenting on Social Media and SEO for Destination Osh DMO members.

The Tourism Development Project’s Outcome

So, what was the outcome this effort, which took just under a year of my life and far more time for the others on the project?

  • Four complete websites representing four DMOs located across the country highlighting practical travel information alongside the 40+ fascinating tours and treks developed and tested.
  • A special cultural and culinary identity for each city and village reinforced by a blogger/influencer campaign in summer 2017 (if you saw photos of Kyrgyzstan everywhere last fall, that’s why!).
  • A network of tours running across the country that ultimately end with locals having more money in their pocket, and more say in developing a local tourism industry in the manner they believe will best benefit travelers and locals alike. (Before this, international tour operators primarily shaped the country’s tourism industry).
  • Social media accounts and training on best practices that lure future travelers to Kyrgyzstan with beautiful photos of all these destinations offer.
  • Sustainability across the board—the USAID project has ended and handed everything over to the locals now running these websites, tours, and tourism experiences.
  • Oh, and I also have an insanely granular knowledge of the country, and can correctly spell the Kyrgyzstan in one shot. :)

We enticed travelers through food tourism in Karakol—a food crawl, ethnic Dungan dinner, and mai tokoch bread-making tour. Jyrgalan needed little more than a few photos to lure nature-lovers to this unspoilt village, now a byword for authentic Kyrgyz hospitality and beautiful hiking in what was once a former mining town suffering from decline and poverty. The South Shore of Lake Issyk-Kul holds the cultural heart of the country, where folk music tinkles across yurt camps. And historic Osh beckons with sprawling bazaars, welcoming locals, and a long culinary history influenced by its pivotal position on the ancient Silk Road.

Pretty compelling right?!

The four homepages of Destination Kyrgyzstan tourism sites
Homepages for the four tourism websites: Osh, Karakol, Jyrgalan, and South Shore.

If that doesn’t pique your interest then I have failed at year’s worth of work. Because that’s what I did, I wrote those websites and did a fair bit of consulting and capacity training, and even more listening—I permanently parked my assumptions and instead relearned the industry from the ground up. Learning from our local team members about their vision for tourism, and about the cultural and natural aspects of Kyrgyzstan that they were most proud to share with the world.

I am humbled and grateful for the team of people I worked with on this project—I surely learned more than I offered in return. So I offer thanks to the DMO staff in each place: I am still here, watching your Instagram accounts. I’m a cheerleader behind the scenes sending good vibes to your cities and villages as you bravely make your way through the surge in tourism I hope ever-increases (manageably) in the coming years. And a thanks to everyone at the USAID Business Growth Initiative in Bishkek—the tourism team members were master puppeteers orchestrating a complex dance connecting everyone as we launched these destinations into the world.

With the Tian Shan mountain range of Central Asia firmly in my rearview mirror, I am more committed than ever to promoting travel as one avenue of support for developing countries—an effective way to infuse money directly into the local economy. When done well, tourism can profoundly impact not just the travelers in search of transformative cultural experiences, but the very real people living, dreaming, and working in the places we’re fortunate enough to travel.

The contents of this article and website are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

A Little Delight… Stories of Responsible Travel in Hoi An, Vietnam

responsible travel guide Hoi An, VietnamDrizzling rain pattered on my umbrella as I wove through throngs of tourists, their rainbow-hued ponchos forming sudden pops of contrast against the canary-colored walls. I dodged locals pedaling rickety bicycles on the rain-drenched streets, and darted into the calm oasis of a local teahouse-cum-social enterprise in Hoi An, Vietnam. The rain hadn’t let up for a week and the teahouse was my daily respite from the chaos—a respite from the tedium of days spent peering from windows at waterlogged rice paddies and dark, pregnant skies.

I had landed in southern Vietnam weeks earlier with a vague plan to meander north for three months. Now into my tenth year on the road, my travel style has changed significantly. I no longer make meticulous travel plans and so I entered Vietnam with two vague goals: see beautiful things and find beautiful stories capable of inspiring others to use travel as a force for good.

Hoi An Ancient Town was a natural stop in my quest for beauty—a more charming town may not exist anywhere in the world. I have a deep love for towns many consider inauthentic. I passed through Antigua, Guatemala in the second year of my round the world trip and stayed for weeks. I loved Luang Prabang, Laos enough that I returned with my niece so she could soak in the laid-back Laotian culture and beautiful French colonial architecture. And Hoi An’s narrow streets and 18th century wooden houses enchanted me. Each of these towns share status as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and that is surely part of the charm—they are towns steeped in history and seemingly frozen in time.

aerial view of sustainable hoi an

responsible travel guide Hoi An, Vietnam

The Japanese Bridge in Hoi An.

sustainable traveling Hoi An, Vietnam

Quan Cong Temple ancient town temples

Hoi An at night with lanterns

Time moves forward, however, and touristy towns offer unique opportunities for responsible travelers that are impossible to find in more off-the-beaten-path locations. Tourism dollars facilitate innovations. Peeling back the layer of novelty from a travel experience uncovers fascinating ways for economic exchanges that support local economies and communities. And that’s my passion, finding ways to help travelers connect to causes and communities.

Before arriving in Hoi An, I puttered around the Mekong Delta for nearly a month. Few travelers venture into Vietnam’s Mekong for more than a day-trip, so I was a lone tourist biking through rice paddies and sipping coconuts bought from street-side vendors. In this situation, I knew my tourism dollars directly benefited the local economy because I placed each dong (Vietnam’s currency) into the hands of a local. Beyond this cash exchange for guesthouses and food, however, the lack of a tourism industry meant that I had no way to offer tourism dollars in support of local social issues lacking funding.

Supporting local businesses is enough in these situations, it’s a concrete and sustainable way to approach responsible tourism. But sustainable travel in more touristic places offers alternatives—fascinating alternatives, too! I loved my time in Hoi An not just because it’s a beautiful town, but also because locals are using tourism as a force for positive change in their community. Armed with information and curiosity, I delighted in discovering the many ways Hoi An’s doing sustainable, responsible tourism right.

responsible travel vietnam

Reaching Out: Providing Opportunities for People with Disabilities

reaching out teahouse vietnam
Fellow travelers Carmela and Raymund (on the right) passed through town on my last day, so we sipped coffee and swapped travel stories away from the bustle.

Reaching Out was the first of several Hoi An social enterprises I visited during my time in Hoi An, and it’s the one I frequented the most. The organization runs two businesses, an arts and crafts boutique and a traditional Vietnamese teahouse—both businesses employ people with disabilities.

Although I am not one for buying many souvenirs, I found a beautifully crafted silver ring in the shop and bought it as a Christmas/birthday present to myself. Employees craft the gifts by hand in the workroom at the back of the shop, so you can watch artisans weave placemats and blacksmith jewelry.

The teahouse, however, stands apart and houses my best memories. Hoi An’s Ancient Town is most famous for gorgeous teak houses filled with carved pillars and furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Just a block from the town’s iconic Japanese Bridge, the teahouse occupies a preserved building dating from the late 1800s. Hordes of passing foot traffic belies the serene interior. The teahouse staff are all deaf and hearing-impaired and the teahouse runs through written notes, small wooden blocks with messages for the servers, and when all else fails, the women are adept are sussing out any charades you throw their way.

Both businesses provide opportunities for people of disability to learn skills and gain meaningful employment so that they are able to integrate fully with their communities and lead independent and fulfilling lives. It’s not only a beautiful mission to support, but the entire experience is well crafted. Even though I had been in Vietnam for many weeks before arriving in Hoi An, I hadn’t yet sat down for a traditional Vietnamese tea service. The teahouse remedied that and provided me with a memorable experience.

In areas with a strong language barrier, participating in tourist experiences lifts the shade on the cultural window—it gives tourists a culturally appropriate way to interact and learn. Rather than seeming inauthentic, the teahouse experience gave me, a traveler, a clear understanding of how to access aspects of the culture that seemed distant or hard to penetrate. By finding these types of responsible tourism experiences, I can fumble my way through the etiquette, satiate my curiosity with questions, and ultimately support a worthy cause, too. For those, and for so many other reasons, Reaching Out added nuance and beauty to my weeks in Hoi An.

reaching out teahouse review

reaching out arts and crafts 

traditional vietnamese tea sampler

teahouse cookies  

shannon o'donnell a little bit adrift

try traditional vietnamese coffee

STREETS International: Training Disadvantaged Youth in the Hospitality Sector

My lunch at STREETS Restaurant Café in Hoi An was unequivocally my best meal in the city (and probably among my favorite dishes in Vietnam). Vietnam isn’t the easiest country for vegetarians and many local specialities are impossible to replicate without meat. Although I had read about cao lầu (a signature Hoi An dish served with pork), STREETS was on my radar wholly because of its social mission, not the food. So I was delighted to see vegetarian cao lầu on the menu during my first visit, and doubly delighted that it tasted as good as it looked!

STREETS International runs the cafe as a social enterprise supporting its hospitality and culinary training program for street kids and disadvantaged youth in Southeast Asia. Restaurant revenue sustains the training program while also providing practicum for the students—they run nearly every aspect of it, from cooking to serving.

STREETS became my regular haunt and I spent many afternoons people-watching from the wide, sunny windows and asking my servers candid questions about their long-term goals. They shared with me their hopes that this training would change the course of their life. By learning hard skills they could now contribute to their communities. Living in such a touristy town, hospitality training was their ticket to a better life and a future with real opportunities. Although our backgrounds couldn’t be more different, hoping to change the course of your life deeply resonates with me. Supporting this cafe offered a glimpse behind Hoi An’s beautiful veneer—no town or community is exempted from its share of hardship, and the servers at STREETS offer an uplifting story of how the aggregate of tourist dollars from responsible travelers creates sustainable change for local communities.

streets international social enterprise hoi an

The Wider Hoi An Region: Spreading Money into Local Communities

Hoi An suffers a fate facing many cities around the world: over tourism. The reasons I loved Ancient Town—the historic, well-preserved streets infused with centuries of history—were the same reasons I braved the rain and biked through the outskirts of Hoi An. Over tourism also affects my new home base in Barcelona—the city’s popularity has eclipsed sustainability. There is no single solution to over tourism and governments across the world are finding new ways to preserve historic cities. Tourists staying home is one easy solution. But then, that’s not ideal either! Mostly because they won’t stay home; tourists visit places regardless of their impact on sustainability. So one solution is to divert some of each traveler’s time into surrounding areas—to spread out the impact of those warm bodies treading through ancient wooden houses.

The perfect weather never materialized, so I donned a poncho and spent many days pedaling my rented bike on circuitous routes that delved deep into lesser touristed communities in the region. And it was lovely in every way. Misty rain coated the rice paddies. Heavy skies sat low on the horizon. School children vogued for my camera. Each day that I ventured out, I found delightful cafes and restaurants and fascinating slices of daily life in Vietnam.

biking around hoi an through the rice paddies

farmer in rural Vietnam

palms reflection on a rice paddy

school student Vietnam travel

bike riding around outskirts of Hoi An.

fisherman on a bay during my biking route

Smiles from an local Vietnamese man in a boat

geometric floor tiles in the temple

dragon reflections in the small pond

geometric floor tiles in the temple in Hoi An 

mahogany and mother-of-pearl inlay furniture

floor tiles 

Weeks of unabating rain eventually maxed out the capacity of the local reservoirs, which overflowed the river and flooded Hoi An’s Ancient Town.

The ancient houses contain pulley systems to raise historic furniture to the second floor and locals scurried to protect it all. And just as suddenly as the floodwaters appeared, the sun returned. Brilliant sunshine illuminated rivers of brackish water now flowing through the streets. These were among my last days in Hoi An, and the sunshine highlighted many of the serious sustainability challenges facing this pretty little city with history dating to the 15th century. Visiting social enterprises and spreading my money around the region doesn’t solve all of these deeper issues, but my time in Hoi An provided me with just enough insight to realize it was a credible start.

Flooding in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Dad on motorbike sustainable issues hoi an 

responsible travel Hoi An, Vietnam.

biking around hoi an

local street vendor in Hoi An

Historic Flooding in Hoi An 

Hoi An charmed me. It charmed me with its beauty, but also with its innovations—the local community facing down challenging social issues and bringing forward solutions.

Both businesses profiled here are beautiful ways for responsible travelers in Hoi An to leave behind money in a meaningful way. Over the years, I have shifted much of my time away from direct volunteering. When I left on my travels a decade ago, volunteering made sense—I had volunteered extensively in the U.S. and continued that form of contribution on the road. But the international volunteering industry is fraught with issues. In time, I found alternative ways to channel my goals to give back and serve communities.

Throughout my three months in Vietnam, I found countless Vietnamese social enterprises with similar stories of hope, similar goals to create change within their community. By the time I arrived in Vietnam, I was already tired from years on the road. My best friend had deeply loved her time in Vietnam so it was one place I was committed to exploring before finally creating a home base. Three months and more than a thousand miles later, the people, landscapes, and stories of Vietnam left me enchanted.

Quick Travel Tips: Hoi An Social Enterprises

Reaching Out Teahouse: 131 Trần Phú Street. Mon – Fri from 8:30 to 21:00, and Sat – Sun from 10:00 to 20:30.
Reaching Out Arts & Crafts: 103 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street. Same hours as the teahouse.
STREETS Restaurant: 17 Le Loi Street. Everyday from noon to 10:00pm.
9Grains by STREETS: 441A Hai Ba Trung. Daily from 7:00am to 6:00pm.
Jack’s Cat Cafe: Cuddle rescued strays at 12 Le Hong Phong. 11am – 3pm, everyday except Mon & Thur.

View my Vietnam Travel Guide for advice on every place I stayed and ate, as well as an interactive map of all the social enterprises in Vietnam.

stories of microfinance

A Little Portrait… Stories of Microfinance from the Women of the Oaxaca Valley, Mexico

It’s the scent of warm corn that most reminds me of my time in Oaxaca, Mexico. Corn is intrinsically woven into the fabric of Mexico’s culture and daily life. And in the rural areas of Mexico, this link is even stronger. First cultivated 10,000 years ago, indigenous cultures keep a link to their past as by cultivating heirloom varieties and maintaining a diet filled with corn in every form. Although I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Mexico in the past, it’s only while volunteering in the Oaxaca Valley that I discovered just what that corn tastes like when it’s ground each day fresh, then pressed into many different tasty foods. The tortillas were most common, but I also ate it shaved from the cob, and even thick and warm in a chocolate drink called champurrado. But this is not a story of corn, although it framed so much of my time with the women I met. Instead, it’s a story of microfinance, and the impact one organization has on empowering women to build strong businesses and thriving communities.

Let’s start at the beginning. Oaxaca City is a popular tourist destination, and it is also the Mexican State with the highest concentration of the indigenous cultures. Rural poverty here is higher than some other Mexican states, and tourism is mostly concentrated on the coast and in Oaxaca City itself. In recent years, many towns began implementing ecotourism programs as a way to pull tourism deeper into the Valley—this spreads tourism income into rural cities, towns, and villages. In practice, that means even remote villages often have clean, furnished cabanas and tour guides ready to lead hikes through the dry, rolling Sierra Norte mountains. Beyond ecotourism, cultural tourism is also growing. Trends are changing. Responsible tourism is a viable, growing industry. And travelers now look for ways to both enjoy their vacation, but to also experience a region’s indigenous cultures and languages.

microfinance in oaxaca mexico

En Vía’s tourism model allows the organization to leverage resources from tourism and direct them sustainably into communities, while connecting people to the ideas, strength and power of women working hard to improve their future.

Through friends and readers, I found Fundación En Vía before I even arrived in Oaxaca. And as I came to understand the organization’s mission and goals, I decided to give my time to the social enterprise’s impactful work supporting women in the Oaxaca Valley with education and microfinance. Even more than just loving its work, I loved the model it uses to implement its microfinance and tour programs. Oaxaca’s year-round tourism enables the foundation to use cultural tours as a funding source for interest-free microloans for women in six communities east of Oaxaca City. Tours run several times a week into the communities, and these tours generate the funds for the loan pool, which serves more than 300 women. Without En Vía, other loan programs charge as much as 200 percent interest—an impossible sum in poverty-stricken areas. And yet, even just $80 to $200 of upfront cash provides the women with much-needed capital to expand their businesses, purchase items at a discount in bulk, or even to take a risk on a new business venture. In addition to the microloans, women attend businesses classes on a variety of topics, and they have the support of their co-lenders and the small En Vía team at every stage.

I loved the structure and the idea behind using tourism as a force for sustainable social change. So it came down to finding a way to support the foundation’s mission. Luck was on my side. When I arrived, two volunteer photographers were leaving. That left me the chance to fill in the gap. Once a woman borrows money, a photographer visits to photograph her with her recent purchases. These photographs serve three purposes: they provides lasting proof of how the women spent the loan money, they provide fodder for marketing and promotional materials, and the photographs allow the organization to stay present in these women’s lives.

I spent six months in Oaxaca, and during that time I ventured into the communities once or twice a week. These communities are primarily Zapotec, a pre-Columbian civilization dating back more than 2,500 years (many archeological sites remain scattered around the region). And although Zapotec is the first language for most of the woman I met, they all communicated with me in Spanish. My job was to photograph the women, but even more, I listened to their stories, slurped homemade ice cream with their children, and I laughed with them over my bungled Spanish. During the weeks and months, I came to deeply respect their ambition and perseverance. Several of these women acted as community ambassadors, welcoming me into their homes when I visited and plying me with piping hot tortillas fresh off of the comal.

The stories below are snapshots of these women’s lives. When you read about microfinance and fair trade purchases, your purchasing power affects the lives of women like those profiled below. I have deep respect for the work En Vía does to support the women in these communities. And even more, I love how the organization offers a responsible way for tourists to learn about Mexico’s fascinating indigenous cultures and customs.

En Via Microfinance social enterprise in Oaxaca, Mexico
Leticia García García had a wide, welcoming grin when my tour group knocked at her door in Santo Domingo Tomaltepec. She ushered us into a long room and toward her stove, which pumped heat through the brick and clay. The orange flames flickered as she shared her story, and wafts of warm corn scented the air. My first act as a photographer for En Vía entailed taking a tour—the same tour tourists would take to visit the women in the six communities where En Vía works. Although the women in Tomaltepec run a range of shops and businesses, Leticia takes part in the hallmark business in Tomaltepec: empanadas. Empanadas are a tasty tortilla wrapped around juicy sauce and meat. She does brisk business every Sunday, selling about 150 empanadas, with locals and those from surrounding villages traveling to Tomaltepec for the town’s signature dish. With her En Vía loan, Leticia purchased corn and wood in bulk, which lowered her production costs, thus upping her profit. She was all smiles as several members of our group munched on her empanadas while she answered our questions.

Carmela Hernandez Martinez Teotitlán microfinance near Oaxaca
Sometimes the women contained a shining, infectious joy. Carmela Hernandez Martinez is one of those woman. When I arrived around noon, she had already been up for eleven hours preparing the 300+ loaves of fresh bread that she sells every day. And can I say—her shop smells amazing. Although she had finished baking for the day, the sweet, yeasty scent of bread permeated her home. Last year, a team of engineering students from Mexico City built Carmela a large wood-fire oven that cooks as many as 280 small loaves of bread at once. Beside the huge stove was an enormous pile of wood and sacks of wheat, which she had bulk purchased with her previous loan. Although my official purpose with each woman is to photograph them with their loan purchases, many also show off improvements they have made to their businesses. In this case, Carmela and her husband showed me new aspects their kitchen—which was pristine clean, with no evidence of the morning mess that must have happened when they prepared hundreds of loaves of bread. When talking about the future, she and her husband hope to use their increased profit margin to begin selling bread in nearby towns, which will require fuel for their car and increased bread production. They had a plan though, so I have no doubt that I’ll be visiting their bread mobile next time I’m in San Miguel del Valle.

The En Via Microfinance program Eulalia with her organic garden.
I first met Eulalia Florina Ruiz Morales as she directed a team of En Vía volunteers who were constructing a garden on her property in the outskirts of Teotitlán del Valle, a town in the Oaxaca Valley most famous for the exquisite weaving skills of its inhabitants. The name Teotitlán comes from the Nahuatl word for “land of the gods,” and I believe that description when I wander the patch of earth she is developing—it has a stunning view of the nearby mountains. Eulalia is a long-time borrower with a remarkable story. As the youngest daughter in her family, she cared for her aging parents for much of her life. Now that they have passed, she uses her succession of En Vía loans to develop a home, garden, and weaving workshop. She has maintained many of the older natural wool colors that are rare in modern tapetes, wool rugs. Plus, she has unique designs in traditional Zapotec patterns that are also rare nowadays. She’s also quite a character plans to max out the potential for her life. She has used every program En Vía offers, from business classes to textile workshops to English language classes. Before I left Oaxaca, I visited Eulalia one last time. She showed me her composting worms—a volunteer-led project En Vía implemented to jumpstart a garden on her dry plot of land—and then we snacked on bananas and chatted about her plans to finish her home and continue growing her skills and business.

fairtrade seamstress in oaxaca
María de Lourdes García Ojeda, known as Lulu to her friends, has a big dream for her sewing shop in San Sebastián Abasolo. Abasolo is a tiny community outside of Oaxaca City, and the women in this small town use microfinance loans to level up their businesses in an area with few local opportunities. While many in the town commute to nearby Oaxaca City, Lulu has used her loans to provide niche sewing services to the women in Abasolo. Before her microfinance loans, she would sew and mend clothes for the women in town, only charging for her time. With her loans, however, she has invested in fabric, buttons, and even a mannequin so that she can create dresses, skirts, and shirts from scratch. By providing both the services and the goods, she has greatly increased her profits. While she once sewed in a small area in the back of her home, she moved into a sunny room that overlooks the street. She was all smiles as she showed me the colorful buttons, stacks of fabric, and piles of zippers that she had purchased with her previous En Vía loan. She now has a larger stock of items for sale, and women place orders with her months in advance in anticipation of local holidays and fiestas.

En Via Microfinance program in Oaxaca
As well-known as Teotitlán is for wool rugs, San Miguel del Valle stands out for incredible embroidery. Visitors to San Miguel will most remember the gorgeous traditional dresses on every woman, even the tiny little girls. Reina Erica López Hernández is one of the younger seamstresses in town, and she has her finger on the pulse of rising trends. San Miguel is a traditional Zapotec community living at 6,000 feet in the foothills of the Sierra Madres. It’s located a 30 minute bus tide from the main highway running through the Oaxaca Valley, so the community has maintained a strong sense of language and culture. It’s one of the lesser touristed villages served by En Vía’s microfinance program. For this reason, many of the women’s businesses serve their community, rather than tourists. This focus allows them to survive and thrive so far from the tourist trail. But without tourism, it also means that they have less available cash available—the En Vía tours are one of the few ways that tourists reach this town. Over the past two decades, Reina explained to me that the women in San Miguel have begun to embrace intricate apron patterns, their full skirts filled with elaborate designs. While the aprons were always a part of their traditional dress, the aprons now contain flaming peacocks and meticulously embroidered flowers. She has watched the aprons grow more complicated and beautiful and grew her skills to match. Using a five session class En Vía workshop on textile design, she developed new designs and ideas that she has become known for in her community. In the photo above, she explained how she took inspiration for that apron from nature’s color palette found in corn. She even uses sequins to add a bit of flair to some designs. With her previous loan, she bought a second sewing machine so that her husband could help grow their budding business. She is confident and driven when she speaks of her goals, and it was an inspiration to learn of her precise plans as she charts a course for her future.

In my early days volunteering for En Vía, I hadn’t yet figured out the timeline for my appointments. In Santa María Guelacé, a community about 40 minutes outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, I had a two-hour gap between appointments. With time to kill, I found a bench in the church courtyard and settled in with my Kindle to pass the time. As a man passed, he sauntered over and questioned me: What on earth was I doing in this small community? One thing led to another, and he invited me to attend a festival hosted by the town’s mayordomo. He dropped me off with six women who were preparing a massive amount of tejate, a tasty chocolate and corn drink beloved in the Zapotec and Mixtec communities. As luck would have it, one of the women preparing tejate was an En Via borrower, and she explained to the others about the program and why I was visiting their small town. After they fed me quesadilla and tejate, the host asked me to wander the festival and photograph the other women preparing for the festivities. It was a welcoming and happy way to pass the hours. When I was due at my next appointment, my host (who had lived in the States for six years and was happy to speak English for a bit), zipped me across town and with a tip of his cowboy hat, he wished me a happy day. This level of generosity and hospitality greeted me every town I visited while photographing the women.

mexican tortilla preparation
One of the things that drew me to En Vía’s microfinance program is the organization’s “whole-person” approach. Juana Pérez Martínez is a perfect example of the range of services the foundation provides to woman in the program. Juana lives in Santo Domingo Tomaltepec and sells fresh tortillas and tlayudas. She uses her microfinance loans to bulk purchase corn and wood so that she maximizes her profit potential. Her husband was injured 30 years ago, so profit is important—she has long supported more than four people with her skills on the comal. En Vía uses tour fees to fund the loan pool for these woman, but through other projects—voluntours and special holiday tours—the foundation raises funds for other projects these women need. For Juana and her family, a new toilet was of utmost need. The volunteer engineering students from Mexico City had a tricky feat designing a composting toilet that met the space requirements and the special needs of her husband, who has limited mobility. This past summer, the team figured out a solution and built a composting toilet that will greatly increase the quality of life for their family.

santo domingo tomaltepec microfinance
The first time I showed up in Juana Espinoza Martínez’s shop, I was confused, late, and a bit flustered. The shared taxi left me a mile from town and I had hoofed along a sunny road in the blazing heat. Eventually, I found my way to Juana, and she won me over. I counted on her ready smile and generous help. Juana runs a bread supply shop with her husband. Like many of the En Vía women, Juana’s loans have allowed her to expand her merchandise and increase her profit margin. With the microloans, she is able to bulk buy bread staples: butter and flour. Although there is competition in town, Juana explained that she and her husband focus on customer service as their differentiator. And I believe it. They had an adorable daughter nearby and still took care and time to share their story with me. Even more, Juana and her husband took initiative to help me navigate their town. By the time our chat wound down, Juana’s brother-in-law showed up with a big grin and a willingness to spend the next two hours navigating me around town.

microfinance tours in mexico
As one of En Via’s first borrowers, Enedina Bazán Chávez has spent several years using microfinance to grow her business. She and her mother weave together in Teotitlán, and they have expanded their business through many rounds of loans and repayments. Like many of the women I met, the focus is not just on lifting themselves from rural poverty, but to also use the loans to lift the entire family. Enedina’s loans allowed her to build a stock of items. With a large supply, she expanded her storefront and began stocking items from other family members, too. Beyond selling her own beautiful wool rugs, tourists can purchase her mother’s handmade chocolate and her cousin’s textiles, as well as a selection of her daughter’s jewelry. Enedina and her family are not only warm and welcoming, but they are huge supporters of the program. It’s from their compound that I often organized my photography appointments (there is a delicious coffee shop in the compound, which didn’t hurt). And when I couldn’t find my next appointment, someone in the family sorted it out and sent me on my way.

teotitlan del valle, oaxaca, mexico
Weaving is a family affair for Angela Lazo Martínez. Angela lives in a compound in Teotitlán with 10 family members, and all make artisan crafts. They have a prime spot on the town’s main road, and they are prolific creators! Tapetes in every color and pattern fill their shop, along with cotton bedspreads, tablecloths, blouses, and more. When she was nine years old, Angela learned English; she sees this as a real advantage in her business. She has also passed that focus to her son, who she prodded into chatting with me, too. Angela’s English allows her to communicate better with visiting tourists, and fosters a connection that she believes encourages them to buy her items. One of the things she details for tourists is the process of hand-dyeing the cotton and wool used in their artisan crafts. Angela and her family buy the cotton and wool raw, and then undertake the process of boiling the colors—many from natural sources. Like many of En Vía’s borrowers, Angela uses the loans to bulk purchase items at a discounted price, and to maintain productivity in off-season, so that the shop has a stock of goods ready for tourist season.

zapotec community san miguel del valle
Of the six communities that En Vía serves in the Oaxaca Valley, Josefa Hernandez Hernandez lives in San Miguel del Valle, the least touristed one. Josefa runs a shop stocked with clothes and toys imported from her sister-in-law, who lives in North Carolina. And while her shop does a steady business in town—there are no others like it—she also kept alive the family business of weaving tapetes. More recently, because of health concerns, her doctor advised that she should no longer weave on the heavy looms. With the support of an En Vía loan, Josefa uses her sewing machine to build stock in her shop of the town’s signature aprons, as well as handkerchiefs and other embroidered items. In towns as off-the-path as San Miguel, changing professions would usually incur impossible debt. Instead, Josefa continues to work and produce despite the needed shift her focus.

oaxaca family life weaving
Delfina Contreras Mendoza oozes charm and joy. Her house is in a gorgeous spot in the foothills of the Sierra Juárez mountains overlooking Teotitlán. Delfina weaves gorgeous tapetes, rugs, on several large hand-operated looms that live in a covered courtyard in her home. Her husband’s carpentry workshop next door buzzed with noise during our visit, and I was lucky to catch two of her children at home. The older one worked the huge loom while his mom showed me her recent En Vía purchases. The youngest hung close to me so that he could show off his small woolen coasters, which are the first starting step as the children of weavers learn the family trade. Like many weavers, Delfina bought weaving supplies in bulk, and a huge variety of wool colors so she can expand her offerings. With several older children studying at university, she is hoping the En Vía loans will help grow her business and offset those high expenses.

freshly dyed wool for rugs in teotitlan del valle
There aren’t many tourists who make it up to the part of Teotitlán where Lourdes Mireya Jiménez López lives. So when I found myself turning my paper map in circles, desperately searching for a house number on that dusty track of road, I wasn’t sure I would ever find her house. Luckily, a husband and wife were nearby stoking a fire as they boiled a dark brown liquid that would dye the piles of raw wool. Needing help, I approached and asked for directions. When I visited these towns, I always needed to recite the woman’s entire name when asking for help since there are many similarly named women in every community. So I gave my spiel, asking where I could find Lourdes Mireya Jiménez López. The woman confirmed that I was close and directed me to the house next door. I trooped along and dutifully knocked on the door. Seconds later, that same woman answered the door with a huge grin. She had spotted me on the road, completely lost, and was keen to pull my leg. We had an appointment, so Lourdes knew that I was there on behalf of En Vía to photograph her recent loan purchases. All I could do was laugh at my goof and we both giggled together as she pulled piled her dyed wool, which would eventually become gorgeous tapetes, which would one day grace the walls and floors of visiting tourists.

tortilla maker in microfinance loan program
The warm, earthy scent of toasted corn tint my memories of Emiliana Antonio Miguel. When I first met Emiliana, she was supervising a team of volunteers who had journeyed from Minneapolis to build stoves for those women most in need. She produces hundreds of tortillas every day, and En Vía gifted her with a custom stove designed to meet her needs. The stove had three curved cooking plates, called a comal, and a spot to boil water. It all stood at waist height and allowed her to cook multiple tortillas at once, shortening the time she had to spend cooking each morning. Emiliana uses her En Vía loans to bulk purchase large sacks of corn (pictured behind her). Each time she saw me pass her home, which is located at the very center of town, she would pass me a fresh, warm tortilla. This made for ideal fuel as I huffed and puffed through the steep roads. If you’ve never had a large tortilla pulled off of a warm comal, then make it a bucket-list item — the flavor is unlike any tortilla you could buy in a store.

Teotitlan del Valle
Although weaving is the most popular artisan craft in Teotitlán, a handful of families specialize in candle-making. While her sister taught a cooking class upstairs, Sofia Ruiz Lorenzo showed me her workshop. Beautiful candles in various states of finish filled every corner. Candles have a strong significance in this region of Mexico — church ceremonies and indigenous rituals use large, elaborately decorated wax candles with flowing wax ribbons and colorful wax flowers. Sofia also explained that men are expected to present an intricate candle to the family of his future fiancé before he proposes. With so many events hinging on this skill, it’s no wonder that she is well-connected and respected in the community. Sofia started making candles when she was just nine years old; her paternal grandmother passed away and the family needed to finish the work she had started as a huge church even loomed. A natural talent, Sofia took to the task and has continued designing and constructing candles in the decades since. Sofia has two young daughters, and while she plans to teach them her craft, she also emphasized schooling and her dream that they will have a choice in their future work. Her loans have allowed her to cut significant costs from the candle production by buying 50 kilos of wax in bulk. This was once a huge expense when purchased kilo-by-kilo. It’s with these new opportunities that Sofia hopes to build a better future for her daughters.

Across the many months that I spent living in Oaxaca, it’s my time with the women in En Vía’s microfinance program that most profoundly shape my memories of this beautiful part of southern Mexico. I have traveled through many other parts of Mexico, from the Yucatan to my tiny west coast beach town. This time, however, I left Mexico with a more nuanced view of the peoples and cultures. It is through the deep connections to other people that I have found travel most transformative. These women welcomed me into their homes. They shared food and stories and laughter. I can only hope that I was able to give back as much as they offered me.


Visiting En Vía in Oaxaca, Mexico

What: Fundación En Vía offers tours for visitors interested in glimpsing rural life in Oaxaca, Mexico. The tours last most of the day and each tour visits about four women in a couple of the communities supported by En Vía’s microfinance program. At each stop, tourists chat with one of the borrowers, learn about her artisanal trade, business, or traditional food preparation. The entire tour fee is used 2.5 times to fund microloans for women. Once it’s been loaned and repaid twice, on the third time 50% of the fee goes back into the loan pool and 50% pays for the handful of employees running the foundation.

Where: En Vía’s main office is located in the central area of Oaxaca City. If you book a tour, they provide transportation from Oaxaca City into the Tlacolula Valley, which is where the women live.

When: The organization runs tours twice a week year-round, and offers extra tours during high season.

Volunteer: En Vía accepts long-term volunteers in a range of specializations. Those fluent in Spanish can act as tour guides. Basic proficiency in Spanish is needed for the photography volunteers. The foundation runs English language classes for kids in two of the towns and is always in need of teachers. And those with other skills can email and discuss if there is an opportunity to work with the program a special capacity (I met volunteers with health specializations, construction, computers, etc).

maasai east africa exploitation

A Little Story… How One Maasai Tribe Is Changing the Face of Responsible Tourism

The sharp guffaw of a wild baboon startled me from sleep. Close as a whisper, the eerie sound ricocheted through my dreams. I awoke in full fight or flight response mode. My eyes whipped open, careening around the space; they slowly adjusted to the soft ochre light emanating from the banked campfire. From somewhere outside the dim glow came soothing melodic murmurs. The language was at once familiar from my months in East Africa, yet incomprehensible.

My heartbeat slowed as my consciousness caught up with my surroundings. A wall of trees shrouded our campsite, creating an impenetrable ring of darkness. A carpet of thick bush began a mere spitting distance from my sleeping spot. Again, a flurry of baboon calls crept across the Loita Plains. The sound echoed in the far distance; it had seemed closer in my disoriented dregs of half-sleep. The ground murmured nearby; my gaze collided with the smiling eyes of Quela, a Maasai warrior and my fearless guide. His head quirked to the side, offering quiet reassurance.

A cushion of sage leaves hugged me as I snuggled into my sleeping bag. Deep breaths filled my lungs with gentle, sage-scented air. The shooting stars overhead left fiery trails—a riot of stars more numerous than I had ever before seen. A Fourth of July sparkler had splattered its joy across the sky. It was just shy of 4am and I was alone, but not. An earthly quiet settled over the night—a quiet that hummed with noise. The slow and methodic breathing of fellow travelers acted as a metronome for my thoughts. Moments and memories played like a slideshow across that canvas of glittering night sky.

maasai experience kenya women in shukas

Five days at the Maji Moto Maasai Cultural Camp. It seemed impossible. Time had contracted. Instead of measuring days, I had counted moments. I had collected hundreds of moments. Moments of learning, moments of beauty, and moments of friendship.

That first morning at Maji Moto, I woke with a happy jolt. My body wakes with the sun each day, and a quick glance out my window confirmed that darkness was giving way to light. I threw on my shuka, a colorful wrap the Maasai had gifted to me the night before. It braced me against the cool morning. Snatching my camera, I darted from our circle of manyattas, small mud huts that were well-appointed and cozy. I live for a good sunrise and I was looking forward to watching this one.

I walked to the edge of the campsite. The cool breeze ruffled the leaves and a snap of sticks sounded from the Maasai campfire nearby. Creeping into a new day, the sun began to tint the landscape. The sunrise washed Kenya’s Great Rift Valley in a pastel wonderland. A rising chatter of birds emanated from the thicket of trees—they were excited, too. Mirroring the shutter of my camera, I mentally froze that moment, pressing it into my memory.

review of Salaton's Maji Moto Culutral Camp in Kenya

sunrise in Maasai Mara ethically visit the Maasai of East Africa and experience sunrise in the Maasai Mara National Park sustainable tourism Kenya

After sunrise, and with the rest of the camp still drowsing, I grabbed my book and headed for the dining area. My visit to this Maasai camp in Kenya was the cornerstone experience of my four months in East Africa. Although I rarely plan my travels beforehand, I had booked this week at the Maji Moto Cultural Camp long before the other moving pieces and parts.

I visit social enterprises when I travel; it’s one of my favorite parts of discovering a new place. For months, I had corresponded with Susan, the U.S. facing partner of the Maji Moto camp. Now, I was finally in the one place where I could uncover answers to my many questions.

I visited with the hope and promise that tourism was the most profound commodity this Maasai chief needed in his village. I visited to support a social enterprise using tourism funds to create, run, and manage projects within its community.

In the months leading up to my visit, I had heard of canned tourist experiences with African tribes. Now that I was at Maji Moto, I again worried that my money had bought me a one-way ticket to cultural exploitation. Until now, my knowledge of the statuesque Maasai tribes came from the pages of National Geographic magazines. Over the years, internet shorthand and fading attention spans have reduced many ethnic groups to seductively exotic images. They are a blip on our Pinterest board. A rapid “like” in our Facebook feed. Deep thought has given way to a passing interest. In this digital world, we often forget to consider the stories behind those foreign faces and obscure traditions.

After an ethically sketchy slum tour in Cape Town, I had heightened my awareness of my lack of knowledge. There were questions larger than I was thinking to ask. There are issues in Africa deeper than outsiders can ever understand.

Ethical tourism is a complicated subject. The edges and boundaries of responsible travel experiences are soft and porous. Something unprecedented and innovative in one community might unravel in another. The underlying belief that there is a panacea to perceived problems has wrought havoc in Africa. But, I also believe that effective avenues of responsible tourism exist; there are ways to visit the region and support projects that steer far clear of the exploitative models of past colonialism. African-led businesses are solving local social issues and locals are shaping their own communities. But finding these voices among the cacophony of outside development solutions is difficult.

And so above all else, I hoped my presence at Maji Moto lived within the precept of “do no harm.” I wasn’t there to volunteer—I have no skills needed in their communities. Nor did I visit with a mission to change them. I visited with the hope and promise that tourism was the most profound commodity this Maasai chief needed in his village. I visited to support a social enterprise using tourism funds to create, run, and manage projects within its community.

campfire songs with the Maasai

Over my five days at the cultural camp, Salaton Ole Ntutu, the charismatic Maasai warrior chief of Maji Moto, led our small group through the customs of traditional Maasai life. With members of Maji Moto’s Maasai tribe as guides, we walked through the Loita Hills and learned the names of medicinal plants. We watched sunset from a rock outcropping. We sang around the campfire each evening. Grounding each day, we visited the local projects that run, in part, with support from the cultural camp.

On the surface, our trip was a simple way for us tourists to responsibly engage with the Maasai culture. Underneath, the cultural camp is a single string in a wider, interlocking web of projects bound by Salaton’s a vision and careful execution.

There’s the Enkiteng Lepa primary school, a gated building on a dusty dirt road a short walk from the cultural camp. That first day at Maji Moto, Rose walked us to the school. A dry baking heat pulsed around us as Rose explained the school’s importance to her community. Although it looks like schools most anywhere in the world—rows of windows, space to run—this one is unique. Enkiteng Lepa emphasizes two primary learning goals: a modern education and a comprehensive understanding of Maasai traditions.

It’s this adherence to traditions that underpinned so much of what I learned at Maji Moto. Although Salaton has created a modern tourism model for his community, every new project sympathetically marries modern development and cultural preservation. It’s this balance that has made his work successful. In addition to the school, the Cultural Camp supports a widow’s village and a girls dormitory.

Widows are unable to remarry in traditional Maasai culture, nor can they own property. As a result, many face difficulties supporting themselves and their children. Maji Moto’s Widow’s Village gives the women a support network they traditionally lack. It also provides them with a source of income—the women teach beadwork to the tourists and sell their exquisite, intricate jewelry.

One other piece of Salaton’s vision had a significant effect on my perception of the Maji Moto Cultural Camp. Salaton and other key leaders in his community are leading a campaign against early marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) within the Maasai community. He began this work with his mother, a renowned medicine woman and shamanic healer.

Over decades, many foreign NGOs and international groups have campaigned as outsiders against this practice. Salaton, his mother, and local Maasai leaders envisioned a different path that would shift attitudes and traditions. Together, their internal campaign is strong but mighty. It has the ability to affect lasting change in the practice of FGM among the Maasai. Together, they put in motion a movement that ripples across not only his community, but throughout East Africa.

Salaton Ole Ntutu, Maasai warrior chief

Women in the Widow's Village

Maji Moto Cultural Camp

ceremony at Maasai Widow's Village in Kenya Rose; review of Maji Moto Cultural Camp what it's like to meet Maasai women

Fighting for education in the Maasai tribes of East Africa exploring the Loita Plains near Maji Moto

The lake near Maji Moto, Kenya.

On my last evening at the camp, Meeri, one of my Maasai guides that week, shared with me her story. We were walking to a camping spot about two hours from the village. The Maasai had promised us a night of friendly conversation, singing by the campfire, and sleeping under the stars. Meeri and I walked side-by-side over the shrubby savannah.

She wasn’t always a part of the Maji Moto community. At her family’s prompting, Meeri dropped out the fourth grade to become circumcised and married. When most preteens are dreaming of their future goals, Meeri became the fifth wife of an old man. Not long after their marriage, her husband died. Meeri, however, was already pregnant. Her husband’s wives and their eldest sons seized Meeri’s possessions and forced her to leave.

She went to her father, but he denied her reentry into the family—he had received a dowry and did not want to return it. Meeri had few options.

She had vague knowledge of a widow’s village in a different Maasai camp; she set out alone and determined. She walked for three days. Each night, she slept in trees to avoid the wild animals. Once at Maji Moto, the community welcomed her. She now had a new future. The Widow’s Village provided Meeri with a support system that most Maasai communities lack. The other widows offered to raise Meeri’s child so she could return to school and continue her education.

The sun hung lower as Meeri and I walked, the soft tread of my uneven gait scuffed the dusty rocks. Although Merri’s words looped through my mind, Meeri continued with enthusiasm when she spoke of her future. Having finished at the local school, Meeri planned to continue her education. She hoped to become a certified guide. Her long-term goal was to lead tours through the nearby Maasai Mara Reserve.

After a time, Meeri left me to my thoughts. It was a lot to digest.

eliminating FGM among the Maasai


Maji Moto Cultural Camp

Walking the Maasai Mara in search of our camping spot for the night — we hit a goat traffic jam.

Salaton, a Maasai chief in Kenya working to end FGM among the Maasai. goats on the plains

A rock outcropping near Maji Moto.

Stories have the power to change us. Stories use a steel cable to cinch humanity closer; they bind us across cultures, time, and space. Once you have created a new story of a place, that connection can never be undone. It changes your perception of foreign events in far-off places. I will always have a connection to Kenya. A tapestry of stories bind me to the Maasai. In the span of a few days, I had solidified my once abstract associations. And though the Maasai had become more than just the magazine images from my youth, even more I realized that my role here was as a tourist.

The cultural camp affords the Maasai control over how the tourists experience their culture. Maji Moto’s mission is to create an experience that facilitates connections and stories between Maasai and tourists, while controlling outside impact on their culture. I would leave Maji Moto with a new story of East Africa’s Maasai and with a connection to a people different from my home country. But I would also leave behind my tourism dollars and the far greater impact that money has on this community’s ability to build and shape its future.

My moments of pressing introspection upon hearing Meeri’s story passed in a heartbeat. With alacrity, we arrived at our camping spot. Other warriors had arrived before us. They had prepared a bed of sage leaves for those who wanted to sleep outside, a few tents for others, and the beginnings of a large campfire. A goat rested in the corner; he would soon become dinner.

Once the sun had retired, we gathered around the campfire. Late into the night, I listened to the Maasai warriors converse through song. Melodies echoed with deep reverberations into the night. Some songs included high-pitched catcalls strong enough to pierce the star-studded sky. The Maasai’s contagious joy outlasted me; I crawled onto my sage pallet and into my sleeping bag. I fell asleep to the soft cadence of conversation as it warred with the rustling leaves and the distant hoot of birds.

Our group visiting the Maji Moto Camp, I was the only non-doctor or nurse in the group. Quela, a Maasai warrior who taught me so much about Maasai life. An elder in the community at Maji Moto helping to support women and stop FGM within the Maasai.

One of the Maasai warriors spins the stick quickly to create friction! the Maasai lighting a fire by hand learning how to make a campfire

roasting goat over a campfire

Traditional Maasai songs and dance. Experiencing an evening of Maasai song over a campfire

In the two years since I visited Maji Moto, I have pressed each moment into my memory bank. Like a treasured flower pressed into an age-worn book, some memories have faded with the passing of time. But like that flower, each time I open the book, memories rush back to me. Textures, colors, and scents fill each memory.

My time at Maji Moto is memorable for more than providing me weeklong glimpse into a different culture. Pressed into my memories are those moments of human connection. There’s Meeri’s crinkling smile as I peppered her with questions. I have forever preserved Quela’s infectious laugh as I misidentified the local medicinal herbs growing in the fertile plains. I open that book and I hear Salaton’s measured lilt as he spoke of his passion to preserve his culture through innovative sustainable tourism programs.

The Maji Moto camp, and the people who welcomed me, crafted the tourism experience that I didn’t know I needed. My visit landed squarely in the camp of cultural tourism. Salaton and the elders designed our experience to steer far clear of the cultural exploitation rampant elsewhere. Each moment was guided by a visionary chief working to define what modern responsible tourism looks like for the Maasai of East Africa.

The Maji Moto Cultural Camp operates year-round. They offer multi-night stays at the camp and safaris to the nearby Maasai Mara Reserve. Earlier this year, A Little Adrift readers visited with their two kids; they reported back that they had a wonderful family experience. The Maasai warriors are great with kids and have a range of activities designed to engage and interest them (from beadwork to warrior training). Be sure to book through the site linked here as the similarly named eco-camp nearby is not a part of this social enterprise.

A Little Story… And the Case for Planning a Trip to Nepal

An interpretive dancer sways to the music and delights the audience in the dim lighting of the Honen-in temple in Kyoto, Japan.

The first strings of a melody slid into the corners of the room as the musician strummed her guitar. The nearby interpretive dancer stood frozen in place, eyes cast upward as she waited for her cue. The tiny grandma behind me bobbed from side-to-side over my shoulder, attempting to see past my tall frame. I slouched deeper into my folding chair.

Minutes earlier, a volunteer at the Honen-in temple in Kyoto had stopped my aimless meander. With alacrity, he ushered into a room and said only: “Yes, yes, good.” I took it on faith that I’d like wherever they were leading me. Each new temple I visited presented an exercise in futility as I accepted a colorful pamphlet from the cheerful worker. Few were ever in English. I would walk away studying that page as you would a piece of delicate art, running my fingers across the lines of kanji, Japanese characters. Like those workers, the Japanese seemed unconcerned with my blank stares when they spoke Japanese to me—mostly unable to fathom that I didn’t understand them. People directed me around the country with effusive Japanese and enthusiastic gesturing reminiscent of an episode of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” I rarely knew what was happening. Instead, I learned to revel in the floating sense of discovery as each new experience unfolded.

In the temple, the song picked up speed. The singer began a cheerful tune and my brain snapped to attention.

I understood the words. How unexpected, since she was singing in neither Japanese nor English.

In that heartbeat, my awareness jolted me six years back in time to the side of a mountain in Nepal as Surya, my infuriatingly optimistic guide in the Himalayas, chanted the chorus of a Nepali folk song. He was prodding me to echo his lyrical voice, as I had every day since we started our trek. As the weakest link in our hiking trio, I was slower than the rest. My Nepali language was the best in the group, however, so Surya taught me Nepali songs as we trekked. The maze of lyrics and translations kept my mind from dwelling on the long days of 4,000-step staircases through dense, old-growth forests.

Hiking in the Himalayas to Poon Hill
Bringing up the rear on day two of our trek, which included five hours of staircases.

The easiest to learn was a beloved national folk song about a bird, Resham Firiri. It has a lilting chorus and it’s contagiously popular across Nepal. Other trekking guides would hear me coming in the distance as my voice bounced through the tall trees and the rough forest floor. As the source of the off-key—but enthusiastic!—rendition of their country’s beloved folk song, the guides rewarded me with boyish smiles. As our groups slid past each other on the narrow trails, invariably the guides’ voices would lift in song for the chorus, reaching me just before they faded into the distance.

As they slipped further away, they continued down the trail away from us, carrying the tune to other ears.

Sitting in a random temple in Japan years later, the Japanese singer and dancer progressed through the song’s verses. Past memories floated around me like the seeds of a plucked dandelion catching the breeze. We erupted into applause at the song’s end and the singer spoke for several minutes. From the vibe in the room, I imagine that she was talking about the recent earthquake, offering her song as a tribute to the people of Nepal. Throughout Japan, collection plates at temples and street corners noted that donations for the day would go to relief efforts in Nepal. So, in my mind at least, she was speaking to that. Then she launched into her next song, the incomprehensible lyrics were in Japanese this time. I was free to sink back into the anonymous flow of an English-speaker wandering in Japan.

As I write this now, the bouncy words of the chorus dance through the room, whispering memories of the past. That song linked two seeming disparate moments. Forged together now is a mountainside in Nepal and a dim room in a Japanese temple three thousand miles away. My Nepali guide’s child-like voice on the lush mountain trails sings in tandem with a crisp female vocalist lit by soft temple lights. I breathe in musty wet forest now and also remember a petite woman in red as she sways and twists and flows around a Japanese temple. Somehow, impossibly, time and space blended these two moments. They crystallized, forever linked for me.

Last year, I shared the bubbling laughter and connectedness I felt on a dala-dala in Tanzania. The women that day banded together to help me find my way, and cheered me on as I skipped into my hostel. Three years ago, I hung from my taxi window in a roundabout in Yangon, Myanmar. A love of travel swamped me—a love for the flood of scents that rush across you, the random, delightful experiences you never plan but find only by chance.

The world has rallied together to support Nepal. Our collective focus turned toward this small Himalayan nation, mourning the losses to people and history alike. And in the temple that day, I breathed in the drifting incense and realized yet again the reason I travel: for the connections. I travel for the ability to pull together a deep and nuanced story of the world and our shared role on this planet. Chimamanda Adichie shared a powerful TED Talk about the dangers of the single story. She spoke to the dangers of media and stereotypes that give us only one way to view places and people flickering across our news stream.

Last month, Nepal featured briefly on our collective radar. Mention the country and our first thoughts flit toward images of vast devastation. Thoughts swirl around the amount of human life affected by the earthquake in the Kathmandu Valley. Those images motivated the world to donate to extensive recovery and relief efforts needed across Nepal.

This moment in Japan reminded me that this is but one story of Nepal.

Little Nepali girl
A little girl enjoying Himalayan views from her home’s stone fence.

Cloudy day trekking
Two Nepali men were deep in conversation as night fell in the mountains.

Old man resting in a tree on our trek
A local man resting in a tree offered smiles as we pass him during our days of trekking.

Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu
Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, one of the buildings damaged during the earthquake and rebuilt.

Pharping, Nepal
Views of Pharping, a charming and unassuming town filled with monasteries located in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal. I volunteered in this small town for a month in 2009 and fell deeply in love with the graciousness of Nepali people.

Let’s not forget that Nepal has many stories. Many pieces of the country’s culture, people, and history went unsaid as we watched the earthquake disaster unfold. It’s easy to leave the country on that note. It is, however, short-sighted.

As Nepal rebuilds, it’s these other stories of a warm culture and a welcoming tourism industry that we need to continue telling. Through these other stories we form nuanced understandings of this complex nation. Alongside the rebuilding efforts, businesses are looking for ways to move past the earthquake. A Nepali-run adventure travel company reached out to me for advice. In the wake of such a powerful narrative about Nepal’s destruction, they wondered how they could help the world remember that they depend on tourism dollars for their livelihoods. They are not downplaying the severity of the disaster relief—this work is imperative to their recovery. But Nepal is a small country, and tourism impacts even remote villages. I spent two months volunteering and traveling through rural Nepal in 2009. My tour guides were quick to paint for me a snapshot of their daily lives. They shared stories about loving their lives in a small villages beyond the trekking path. They described the unparalleled dal baht they longed for at their parents’ remote farms. To a person, they had journeyed from a tiny villages into the bigger cities to make money so they could support their families back home.

I often write about grassroots tourism. I wrote about it for NatGeo. I launched an entire site dedicated to supporting the concept. Local-level travel has the power to impact the world. Spending tourism dollars directly within a local economy allows those people to use those funds to eat, live, and lift themselves out of poverty. Donations provide the deeply needed short-term relief, but the country’s long-term recovery strategy relies on rebuilding their tourism industry.

Some of my favorite memories from my two months traveling in Nepal.

So why should you plan that trip to Nepal?

Now, as ever, the transfer of dollars from the developed to the developing world through economic support and tourism has the greatest long-term impact. And maybe not right now, but in the coming months, and likely by the next trekking season, they’ll be ready for you. The Kathmandu Valley has a long, long path to recovery. It will take years. But much of the rest of the country is still working. The airports are running. Trekking guides are eager to help tourists tackle Annapurna Circuit. As the Nepali people in the Kathmandu Valley shovel rubble, they are also rebuilding their homes, rebuilding their hotels, and rebuilding their businesses. In the wake of the earthquake, those who want to rebuild their livelihoods in tourism are left wondering how they ask the world to come visit.

The Nepal tragedy already begins to fade from the media. As we move into summer and long for the cool breezes of fall to assuage the unrelenting heat, think about Nepal. The country is more than the latest victim of a natural disaster. Nepal is a beautiful, vibrant country with Nepali people eager to show you another story of their home.

Below are some of my favorite photos from my two months traveling through Nepal in 2009.

A Little Bit… About Grassroots Volunteering

After months in Africa this past spring, which was a tough trip for me, I spent summer on a hiatus from A Little Adrift and instead headed to the beach with my nieces and nephews, hiked a bit in the Pacific Northwest, spoke at convention in Atlanta, dinner-ed with friends in Florida, and lost myself in the streets of New York City. It was a needed break. But now, as hurricane season approaches Florida, the patter of raindrops and cool breezes send me back to my computer. And so, as I finish editing my 6,000+ photos from Africa, I’d like to share the what, why, and how about Grassroots Volunteering, a project I’ve mentioned a few times on A Little Adrift but somehow never formally shared.

grassroots volunteering

I beta-launched Grassroots Volunteering in 2011, three years into my travels, and the has site grown slowly in the background since then. As I traveled and learned more about the humanitarian and volunteering industries, the site’s mission solidified to give travelers tools to connect with local causes and communities all over the world. My trip to Africa expanded my understanding of the effects—both positive and negative—that travelers have on the places they visit and further shifted the way GV supports travelers wanting to be of service on the road.

GV grew into the community we have today because of the people who believed in the idea in the early days, as well as the early adopters using the site on their round the world trips. So before I delve into the specifics of what it is, why it’s important, and how I could use your help, a sincere and heartfelt thanks to those who have helped shape Grassroots Volunteering.

  • Bridgid and Brian, a husband and wife duo who built and coded the first iteration of the site; they created a dynamic, flexible site designed to grow with the GV community.
  • Hannah Loaring, the designer who transformed A Little Adrift last summer, donated her skills and created the beautiful, hand-painted logo you see on the GV site today.
  • National Geographic Traveler, they believed in the site before I was even confident GV was ready for a full launch into the world;  they helped grow the community wider and deeper than I could have imagined.


Social enterprises from all over the world
I have found wonderful social enterprises and grassroots business all over the world. From a weavers co-operative in Laos to a calligraphy project in Jordan, a cacao farm-stay in Panama to a Coffee Journey in the northern hills of Thailand. The are all tied together by a common thread: a for-profit organization supported by tourism dollars, founded by locals, and addressing social issues in their own communities.


Why is Grassroots Tourism Important?

The global travel and tourism industry is one of largest job creators in the world. This massive industry has the potential to become an equalizer and the greatest redistribution of wealth from developed economies to developing economies as tourists from all over the world put their money directly into local hands rather into the teeming bank accounts of multinational corporations. And yet, this is largely not happening, and is particularly not happening in the countries with the most need. The United Nations Environmental Programme notes that:

Of each US$ 100 spent on a vacation tour by a tourist from a developed country, only around US$ 5 actually stays in a developing-country destination’s economy.

As much as 95% of the money generated by an international trip is not serving the destination, people, or communities you pass through. Much of this comes from the effects of packaged tours and cruises, but travelers at every level often gravitate toward slick marketing and recognizable names when traveling, which are often signs of foreign influence. I saw so many signs of this trend in Africa—the safari companies with the largest marketing budgets receive the bulk of international money, even though small local operators offer boutique experiences just as likely to deliver an incredible trip to the Serengeti.

The alternative to this trend is deceptively simple: let’s shift the conversation to leaving leave more money inside the countries you visit.

It’s not a panacea, but it’s one more step in the right direction.

Let’s make a pledge to use travel as a force for good. Support social enterprises and mom-and-pop businesses offering incredible tourism experiences while also addressing local social issues. The voluntourism industry is seeing astronomical year-on-year growth, yet packaged voluntourism experiences have similar fault-lines to packaged travel—in most cases they miss the point of lasting economic impact. GV’s mission is to decommodify the travel and volunteering industries—we freely offer local organizations a platform to share their social enterprises and long-term volunteering opportunities.

My piece on the National Geographic blog provides more details on this idea shifting tourism dollars to local-level businesses as one effective part of the solution for addressing poverty.

What Exactly is GV?

gv iconGrassroots Volunteering is a dual database of community-based social enterprises and independent, long-term volunteer opportunities. These two databases form a core knowledge-base from which travelers can pull grassroots travel experiences that fit the needs of their next trip. The volunteering database displays more traditional forms of long-term international volunteering, while the social enterprise database supplements traditional travel—you use your time in a new city to patronize restaurants and organizations with an underlying social mission.

Social Enterprise Database
Not every (not even most) vacations are a good-fit for volunteering overseas, for that reason, the concept of supporting social enterprises is one I am particularly passionate about. Social enterprises are for-profit businesses operating to help address local social issues, usually through skills training and capacity-building, and are often funded by tourism dollars.

GV has the world’s largest geo-located database of social enterprises around the world. This database supports a sustainable tourism model that helps travelers engage in thoughtful, purposeful travel that expands perceptions and immerses them within the community. Travelers also leave their tourism dollars directly with the local communities and people; they give support and aid by exchanging their tourism dollars for locals services and experiences.

Independent Volunteering Database
Over the years, I have shifted and refined GV’s volunteering database to better support organizations relying on long-term skilled volunteers or interns. That being said, there are trips and projects in need of short-term help as well, and so GV’s volunteer database includes a mix of hand-vetted volunteer projects all over the world.

These projects are generally low-cost and take out the middle-man, which means it’s ideal for more confident travelers willing to research their destination and travel without some of the facilitation inherent in the massive voluntourism companies. Though vetted, anyone contacting a volunteer project should ask lots of questions and ensure their trip is a good-fit for what the organizations and communities need from their volunteers.

How Does GV Find Projects?

I funded Grassroots Volunteering myself, and the database is forever free for travelers. Like A Little Adrift, GV is ad-free and organizations cannot pay to be listed. Instead, organizations are hand-vetted before being added to the site. Members of the GV community regularly email me with their successes and the joys they found in supporting one of the listed organizations. Emails like:

“I used your site to support an organization in Guatemala, I’m in Ecuador now and here’s a local organization I found doing good work and in need of support.”

That is the heart of the GV database. One recommendation opened a traveler up to looking at communities in a new light. This network of travelers has vetted projects on-the-ground and added their discoveries into the database, expanding GV’s reach. But there’s more work to be done and I alone cannot map the world.

The GV Ambassadors program launched early this year, and in June seven GV Ambassadors committed to mapping the world as they travel. Ideal Ambassadors are expats and long-term travelers keen to volunteer their time to expand the database to better serve travelers walking the path after them. This is the single most important way to expand GV’s impact and ability to help a range of travelers connect to social causes and communities on their travels.

If you’re interested, I would love your help as a GV Ambassador mapping the world.

GV Ambassador

How Can You Help?

NatGeo Traveler‘s feature last year gave the project wings sooner than expected and spurred the sites most rapid growth to date. To continue growing, this is a call to arms for all readers who believe in the site’s mission and in the ability for the choices each of us make as we travel to catalyze positive change.

If you like the project, the mission, or even just like me enough to support something I am working on, here are a few ways I could use your help:

  • Use the site on your next trip. Our database of social enterprises span the globe and we have responsible travel guides for the most popular travel destinations.
  • Join us online. Join GV on Facebook, Twitter, or via Email.
  • Help map the world. If you’re a frequent traveler, expat or planning a round-the-world tripper, dedicate a tiny part of your time to find and vet projects for all the travelers coming after you. There are now seven ambassadors mapping regions of the world, join them.
  • Spread the word. Help this project and mission spread far and wide. Mention the site to any friends planning their vacation, share GV on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Heck, I’ll even take good vibes. :)

GV is small but mighty to be taking on the multi-nationals in travel and tourism. As more GV Ambassadors join, we are on target to expand manifold and truly become a hub of businesses and organizations all over the world in need of tourism and travel support. I believe in GV’s ability to shift perspectives and encourage a new wave of travelers setting off on their adventures to focus on supporting ethical and sustainable approaches to tourism.

Thank you for your help!



A Little Adrift… Dispatch from Africa: Grassroots Tourism Edition

My mornings in Uganda are a noisy affair as the town wakes up, birds and roosters too. But oh, the views.  The small town of Jinja is home to the point where the Nile River branches off from Lake Victoria, also known as the Source of the Nile. I found a shady spot and watched the boats criss-cross the waters for hours. This was a needed a break from catching up on work after traveling through remote regions of Kenya these past few weeks.

And speaking of those remote regions, I uncovered some wonderful community based initiatives. Good stuff, can’t wait to share more.

Source of the Nile River
The Source of the Nile River in Uganda flows from Lake Victoria. The river exits the lake in the lower left of the photo and flows to Egypt and empties into the Mediterranean Sea.

Time with the Maasai

Picture the statuesque figure of a Maasai warrior standing tall over the vast plains of East Africa. This iconic image is relatable to most of us who grew up on a steady diet of watching the National Geographic channel. Like anyone planning East Africa travels, I wanted to learn more about their culture. Ethically undertaking the task though, was harder.

Maasai women
Women from Maji Moto’s widow’s village welcome us to their compound with a lively traditional song and dance.

And the problem is, there are lots of opportunities, but not all are positive tourism initiatives.

My safari trip last month in Tanzania included a short visit to a Maasai camp on the path between the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti. The cultural experience set me back a mere $10 and the Maasai performed a spirited welcome dance and offered back story on the Maasai people. On the surface it was fascinating, here was the intricate and beautiful beadwork adorning the necks of the women. Warriors carried their sharp spears, a reminder of their fierce capabilities. And yet, 30 mins later, as we left the small circling of manyattasmud hutsthe experience felt hallow. It was a canned tourist experience repeated many times a day, week in, week out as safari tourists flood into the region.

Fast forward a few weeks and I found myself searching the markets of Narok, Kenya for Salaton, a charismatic Maasai chief running a cultural camp near Maasai Mara National Park.  A camp representative contacted me over the holidays, and from pre-trip research, the Maji Moto Cultural Camp looked like the perfect execution of a community-driven social enterprise. , I love supporting these types of businesses on the road (like in Panama and Thailand). At the core, this form of tourism puts the solution to a social issue directly into the hands of a local community. Social enterprises allow them to develop a sustainable solution on their own terms. (And it’s this exact tourism model that GV supports and it’s also the reason for my NatGeo honor.)

Maasai woman
I took a sunset hike to a nearby rock outcropping to learn more of the Maasai culture and stories. The view of the Loita Plains was stunning and vast.
Meeting the Maasai at Maji Moto
Decked out in traditional jewelry I borrowed so I could attend a nearby ceremony with Meri and Salaton, our two primary guides for my week in the African bush living at their cultural camp.
Sunrise over the Loita Plains in Kenya
Sunrise is a bold affair over the Loita Plains of Kenya. I bolted awake each morning just before 6am to the sounds of bird song and morning quiet and rushed from my manyatta so I could catch that day’s sunrise.

Salaton’s camp is a reversal from the idea of assembly line tourism. Rather than push tourists through the camp to increase revenue and appease snap-happy, camera-toting tourists, the Maasai at Maji Moto guide visitors into respectful interactions and welcome them to immerse in the traditional village life.

I joined a small group of touring medical volunteers to learn more about Salaton’s business model and the camp. Funds from the cultural camp support a nearby school, a health clinic, and a widows village he started to provide a safe-haven for girls escaping early marriage or genital circumcision.

My experiences over the five days I spent at Maji Moto are among my favorite from my Africa travels. I have thousands of photos to edit, more thoughts to process, and stories brimming to come to the surface from that week!

Learning about Rural Health Issues

Just after leaving Maji Moto, I met with Dan Ogola, the founder of a large health initiative in one of the poorest provinces in Kenya. Dan founded the Matibabu Foundation in 2001 to address the pervasive health issues in Ugenya, Kenya. What started as a single clinic for maternal and child health is now a hospital, a girl’s school, a nursing school, and much more.

matibabu, kenya
Visiting the Matibabu Health Clinic in Kenya. Right now we’re debating if I need another baby on my lap… the verdict? One will do. :-)

Dan asked me to visit his projects with the hope that through GV I can access long-term teaching, agricultural, and medical volunteers for his projects. After days of kind hospitality in this rural community, I am committed to supporting his projects. I also agreed to take on the title of Goodwill Ambassador for maternal child health; this role will allow me to continue working with Matibabu and supporting their efforts.

Weeks of low internet access means I still have hundreds of photos to process before I write more about my time in this rural region of Kenya. Realistically, this will happen in June when I return stateside.

What’s Next?

What dispatch would be complete without an update on what’s next?! I arrived in Uganda a few days ago and have reveled in lots of connectivity (during my time in the rural regions I mostly just had 3G on my phone… on a good day).

Next week I meet up with my favorite traveling and blogging couple, Dan and Audrey. They are finishing up a tour of the region and we plan on some hiking funnies together here and in Rwanda.

If you know of any projects I should check out in either of these two countries, please let me know!

Many thanks,


Kibera slum

A Little Adrift… Dispatch From Africa: Perspectives on Poverty

A month into my trip and travels thus far are filled with highs and lows; there were a few days last week where I just wanted to give up, which is normal on any given trip but usually later into the travels. Once Gary left, and I was on my own again, I was overwhelmed with the weight of balancing work and solo travel. But, I met new friendly faces in the past week, and partnering up for a few days helped straighten out some of the discombobulated feeling.

Pushing through the overwhelm, I finished out my time in Cape Town and caught a flight to Nairobi, Kenya. Arriving here was a surreal flashback to Mumbai—bustling traffic, congestion, and drive from the airport lined with slums. This is far from the Africa of travel brochures. A region that calls home to the “Big Five” animals travel dreams are made of is also a struggling, developing economy.

kibera, nairobi, kenya
Walking the railroad tracks in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya as the sun is sitting low and workers return home for the evening.

Conversations with Taxi Drivers

The moment I landed, however, my driver’s enthusiastic exclamation of karibu!—which means welcome in Swahili—had me smiling. Language barriers are a fear point for many travelers, and I can only say that the gap here is small. Nairobi hums with English and Swahili both as lingua franca, and most Kenyans speak with fluency. Which makes traveling and learning about the country infinitely easier.

Taxi drivers are fonts of information on this trip. Travels in Asia are often filled with stilted conversations and games of charades, but my African drivers converse with the skill of a veteran barman as they the bob and weave through gridlock traffic. They field any topic you throw their way with ease and insight, though the talk here, as in South Africa, often circles back to poverty and politics.

All smiles and a wealth of knowledge from our guide as we visited music projects and local initiatives in Kibera.

And as we talk of life (and even philosophy on one late-night ride) my taxi drivers ask me about America. The great American dream is alive here, and throughout most developing countries I visit. Yet it’s skewed. Hollywood and our media have done an excellent job selling others on the big dream, and my drivers are shocked and most don’t believe me when I mention things like poverty, racism, and homelessness in the United States. Our poverty is relative rather than systemic like in many developing countries, but these issues are not a part of the consciousness outside the U.S. We are a vast land of opportunity in comparison, this is not an argument against the U.S., but we are far from the Utopian image portrayed outside our borders.

It’s hard to explain to them that we have traded much for the sake of our take on prosperity. A moving documentary I watched last year, God Grew Tired of Us, follows three Sudanese men on a journey from wandering across sub-Saharan Africa to life in the U.S. Their initial elation gives way to deeper insights as the boys remark on the odd state of our communities, the unconnected lives we lead from each other, and the hard work it takes to even to subsist for many Americans.

Like the route our taxi took through the city, our conversations wove through all these complex issues this past week as I made my way through three airports and three thousand miles.

Slum Tourism

In the way of weaving, let’s shift topics a bit. I mentioned last week my plan to visit a township in Cape Town on the recommendation of many travelers and as many South Africans. The resounding question is: what did I think?

My conclusion is muddled. I just don’t know if this is a positive form of tourism. It had never before occurred to me to partake in one of these tours, but somehow I found myself on two tours in one week. The standard recommendation is to find the right operator, one using the funds to build community projects and empower those in the townships and slums. There is, without a doubt, great need in these areas, but as much as I push local-level tourism, this feels off on a large scale.

Langa township Cape Town
Outskirts of Cape Town’s townships

I didn’t love my Cape Town tour, and yet two days later I took a new friend up on a chance to see a different side of it all as he looked for partnerships in the Kibera slum in Nairobi for his music charity, Bridges for Music. I tagged along in the hopes of seeing an alternative side since we had a purpose, a reason for being there. And it was interesting, I learned a lot and saw incredible initiatives within the slums and heard some excellent local music to boot.

kibera bone crafts
A worker grinds bone into jewelry for sale locally in the markets and to tourists in Kibera.

But in both places, our guides carefully mentioned the need to photograph areas and not people as we walked the streets, to not peer into homes and invade their privacy… and having to stress that this is not a zoo-like experience (their words) is the very reason I can only say that mass slum tourism is an ethically ambiguous area and as such, others should tread carefully.

And one last thought, NGOs catch a lot of flack in Kenya and it only furthers this idea of whether aid and development are progressing in a positive direction. Cynicism abounds, especially in the projects within Kibera, and it didn’t take long for locals to point me to Aid for Aid, a home-grown parody series about an international NGO that accomplishes nothing but is filled with do-gooders.

Moving Forward

Switching countries came with a marked change in the attitudes and welcome here in East Africa, and these next weeks have me jazzed once again. When I asked the community for recommendations on grassroots projects, you guys gave me heaps of wonderful work being done over here! Enough that most of my weeks are planned out from here until June when I head home. So, thank you. And, if you have any others, let me know, I can always squeeze in more along the way.

Next week’s update is a big one for me as I am visiting my first safari this weekend! I’ll make sure to edit my photos asap so I can share photos of the Big Fivelion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephant.

Have a wonderful weekend.  :)