I always thought responsible travel was a good idea. The thought of going to a multinational resort, à la Club Med, has never appealed to me. The kind of resort where the western tourist is enclosed on the best beach, very separate from the local population is not my idea of a good time.
The Commission for Mission, through Uniting Journeys, is exploring a platform for people within and outside of the Uniting Church to travel responsibly. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the latest trip to Cambodia in April. This kind of a trip raises many questions.
Why is the church involved in this space? Surely there are many other organisations that provide these types of activities? How can it be a church trip with people from outside of the church involved? Can we travel and have fun, and ask spiritual and practical life questions as well? How can we do this with people of other faiths or denominations – even friends that have no faith?
To begin answering these questions one needs to understand that the Commission for Mission is in the business of making life a richer, deeper experience; whether that is a camping trip, working with other faiths and cultures or operating a restaurant for people in need through a UnitingCare agency.
Uniting Journeys recognises that Australians enjoy travel and will travel. It is the result of imagining what needs to happen for the Uniting Church community to realise a constructive vision of how church and travel might look in the future.
The philosophy behind Uniting Journeys assumes we live in the world with all kinds of people. We can walk alongside them constructively when travelling in the same way we can live together at home.
But travelling together is an intense experience – it focusses the mind and the spirit. As one of my fellow travellers said when she returned from Cambodia: “It’s really important to spend time with people that you don’t agree with, because it helps you to get to a place of really listening”.
To me, this reflects one of the best features of the Uniting Church. Taking an institution born out of Protestantism and turning it into a spiritual journey that builds communities of faith, but also walks constructively alongside others from a variety of backgrounds.
When I first became involved in responsible travel, I thought it was a much deeper concept and that it could be done perfectly. I thought there would always be a correct answer for everything one did.
What I learned is that responsible travel is much simpler than I imagined. And it is not perfect.
Without prompting, my fellow ‘journeyers’ came together and purposefully discussed what we saw, how it was done and whether it could be improved. Just that simple willingness to question ourselves, our experiences, our own preconceptions, and those of others around us made the experience ‘responsible’.
One example involved riding on a cyclo, a bike where the rider pushes you with pedals from behind while you sit in front.
For me it was a very disturbing experience, because I felt completely colonial. Here I was, a large western man, being peddled through the streets of Phnom Penh by a small Asian man. However, where does one draw the line if this is the cyclo driver’s only source of income?
Our local guide also rode in the cyclos with us, and the people doing the work were happy to provide a real service we valued, and something that brought them income with dignity (from their point of view anyway – I didn’t feel too dignified).
Our patronage made their lives just that bit easier, and I was happy to provide a little bit of money for their benefit. And it was certainly more environmentally sound than our tour bus.
Another example is children. Wherever one goes in Cambodia children are selling little scarves or bags of fruit – almost anything.
Some local experts told us not to buy things from children as it encouraged their parents to keep them out of school – they can make more money in the short-term by selling to tourists.
This is more difficult than it may seem. Not only are the children very cute, but as you engage with them they practise little bits of English. They are absolutely endearing.
In the end you have to make up your own mind, act accordingly and accept responsibility.
Another concept we explored was that of the ‘human zoo’ which was raised in contrasting ways by visits to two villages. Basically it revolves around mutual respect.
The fishing village of Kampong Phluk is located on the great lake of Tonle Sap. On this first visit we rode on a boat down a small canal, and then got out of the boat to walk through the village.
Nothing was organised for us as far as interacting with the people. We were most likely welcome; however, the experience was basically one of looking at an extremely impoverished community. Many of us felt voyeuristic.
Our second visit was to an amazing village called Komphiem, where we were introduced by our local tour guide through an NGO called HUSK.
We were briefed ahead of time as to the type of clothes we should wear and how to behave so as not to cause offense. Our local guide told us the locals were also a bit worried about breaking some of our cultural norms and they didn’t want to offend us.
We learned that the locals were very direct. They were fascinated by our size and, in many cases, by the whiteness of our skin. So by the time we were welcomed by the local community (who were excited to interact with us) we felt much better prepared whether we were Cambodian or Australian.
We were able to do a little bit of work to actually help build a house, and we enjoyed working and sharing a lunch with our new friends. We could learn from them and share stories with them. We discovered responsible travel is more of a two-way interaction.
It is also about having a great time and a great experience. There was plenty sightseeing too, but for me the most valuable part of the trip was meeting Cambodians and learning and sharing about our two countries and how we live.
By Chip Henriss
Uniting Journeys promises to bring more opportunities to people with in the wider church and outside. You can learn more by visiting www.responsible travel.org.au