Very often I get the question - why are you doing these trips? Is it eco-tourism, volunteer action, social justice? Its a great question, and I want to see if I can come up with an articulate answer.
I have been doing trips to the Global South - always somewhere in Latin America for over 20 years now, sometimes with students, sometimes with adults - teachers and school staffs - and sometimes by myself.
My reason for doing these trips has changed a little over the past two decades. First, I have to admit it was simply the thrill of seeing new cultures, learning new ideas about real social justice and quite frankly, I felt I needed to be exposed to the incredible poverty I have witnessed on every trip over the years.
Now its deeper than that. To me it seems that for most of us to have a real conversersion, to really see the terrible injustices that exist in this world we need to bear witness, we need to go there and see what is going on. All the charity drives we do will not make a huge impact on the problems of Latin America and the Global South. We need to see the world through their eyes, even if it is only for a few days so we can begin to understand that we live in a world where resources are not shared in a fair manner.
As I write this, I have mental pictures flashing past me. The poor rural schools of El Salvador that never have the resources they need to do their work, the poor children of Cuernavaca, Mexico who sell gum and candy on the streets to make a little more income for their families, the terrible working conditions of Haitian sugar cane planters in the Dominican Republic.
These images can paralyze you, make you feel that there is nothing you can do.
But that is not the right reaction. There is so much one can do by taking part in these experiences. Most importantly, by going to Latin America you are showing the people you meet that you are in solidarity with them and that you want to be part of their story. By going down there, you are converted to seeing the world in a very different way, you can't return home and live the same way knowing there is terrible inequity and injustice so close to your home.
So, I will continue to bring people down to Latin American whenever I am capable of doing so. It is so important to see how others live. We deprive ourselves of an important life experience if we don't make the effort to go down there. We allow ourselves to stay shielded. We really miss something special.
So, is this tourism, volunteerism or social justice? I think it is all three and much more. It is also what you make it. If you are open to the experience you can gain so much.