Gone are the days when travellers were happy to engage in picture-perfect, staged visits to local communities. Today’s high-end experiential traveller looks for profound, meaningful interactions, real exchanges and moments of true reciprocity – sometimes even unplanned outcomes.
Patti Seery from Silolona Sojourns in Indonesia is a firm believer in this kind of ‘real’ travel experience. She considers her most successful cultural bridges to be her two traditional Indonesian Phinisi ships: the 50-metre, five-cabin Silolona and the newly completed, 40-metre, three-cabin SiDatu Bua – both hand-built by craftsmen in Sulawesi, but nonetheless adhering to German Lloyds standards and designed specifically for safe cruising.
“Onboard the MSV Silolona we try to support local cultures and communities, especially in the realm of cultural preservation”, she explains. “Most traditional communities have a very strong belief in ‘Adat’, which means customary laws and traditions passed down from the ancestors.”
“For example, the local communities often carry out ceremonies involving an animal sacrifice – such as a goat, a pig or, for very large ceremonies, a water buffalo, which is very expensive for the villagers. I will personally visit the village community and ask the Adat leaders what ceremony the community would like to perform in order to appease their ancestors, but haven’t been able to due to the high cost of a water buffalo or other sacrificial animal. Frequently I offer to buy the water buffalo, pig, or sometimes only a chicken, with only one criteria: that the ceremony be performed on the day our guests arrive. Some ceremonies may last for weeks, so of course I emphasise that following the Adat and tradition is the most important aspect of my request.”
“If it is a very important ceremony, I also purchase traditional textiles from the villagers so that not only the villagers, the crew and I are properly dressed for the ceremony, but also our guests. After the ceremony has finished the guests take home a beautiful, hand-woven textile from that village as a reminder of their participation in the Adat ceremony. The hand-woven textile pattern is different in each region and village, but throughout the Indonesian Archipelago hand-woven textiles represent the female realm and especially spiritual protection.”
“Often the ceremony includes traditions chants and dancing where we all dance together, usually in a circle. By the time the guests leave they have made friends and often bid fond farewells, with even a few tears and a greater insight into the ancient ways of the ancestors and the community.”
Lucy Davison, Executive Director of Banyan Tours, shares this take on travelling for real. In Jodhpur, Banyan Tours works with Sambhali Trust, a local women’s empowerment NGO that helps women to earn their own income and improve their lives. Guests spend time with the women, share stories about their lives and witness them at work. As an example, this season they hosted a group of Americans who felt such a powerful connection that they created a fundraising campaign to give each of the thirty women they met their own sewing machine. This new relationship between the travellers and the local community has a large impact – one that reached far beyond the time and scope of the trip.
Shakti Himalaya, Banyan’s sister company, works in remote Himalayan regions. Himalayan people are naturally quite shy, but Shakti’s work with the communities has helped build their trust and led to them being accepted by locals. Shakti’s guests are thus welcomed with open arms and given access to a world they would not ordinarily see – be it spending time in the homes of the families from whom Shakti rents houses or visiting local monasteries.
Peru Empire was created for travellers seeking authentic, meaningful encounters with history, culture and people practising traditions unknown to the rest of the world – all of which help them to see their lives with fresh perspective. Founder and CEO Ignacio Masias works closely with Amantani, a charity that works to defend the rights of Quechua children in the Andes of Perú. For each traveller who visits the Andes under their guidance, Peru Empire makes a generous contribution to their boarding house project in Ccorca. Travellers who want to participate further in the programme receive a video from the children sharing an aspect of their culture in their own words.
This new way to travel calls for an open heart and a willingness to embrace the real, human, spontaneous interactions that are the very reason to travel in the first place.
Marcella Echavarria is a Colombian-born, New York-based entrepreneur contributing regularly about cultural and adventure travel, design and food to magazines in South America and the US. Alongside her work as a travel and lifestyle photojournalist and travel designer, Echavarria covers artisans around the world and works with them to preserve their craft by developing links between these vanishing communities and developed markets.