James Ruggia | April 10, 2015 2:26 PM ET
'I Know You're Lost, 'Cause You're Here'
Once, as a young hitchhiker going coast to coast, I was dropped off in a part of Chicago where I was not welcome. In those days the South Side suffered a 27 percent unemployment rate and Richard Daly Senior was mayor, just a few years after his big star turn as local warlord during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Divided then, as we are now, you couldn’t just walk carefree in any American neighborhood. And that’s still the case for many American people in America.
Just as I was beginning to feel uncomfortably unwelcome that afternoon in Chicago, a taxi pulled up and the very large African American driver ordered me to get in the car and when I did, he turned to me and said, “I know you’re lost, ‘cause you’re here.”
That line has been with me across a lifetime of traveling and I’m still thankful to that driver who took me to the highway entrance that headed west to San Francisco, my destination. But I left Chicago with an important understanding of the havoc that economic and racial divisions were waging on our country. That’s the beauty of traveling in “hot” places; the fear drives home truths.
I recently ran into Muna Haddad at the ITB in Berlin. Haddad is the director of Baraka, a company dedicated to developing sustainable tourism. A Jordanian, she came up through travel industry ranks as something of a protégé of Aqel Biltaji, Jordan’s one time minister of tourism and the current mayor of Amman. In my almost 30 years in the travel industry, I have never met anyone as wise as Aqel Biltaji and so my respect for him flows naturally to anyone he respected.
Haddad and I met at the Feynan Ecolodge in the Jordanian desert known as the Wadi Araba back in the spring of 2011. Haddad is a consultant to the 26-room solar powered lodge that’s located on the edge of the Great Rift Valley in an area dotted with Roman and Byzantine ruins as well as Neolithic sites that are up to 12,000 years old. The lodge, run by a local Bedouin, is lit totally by candles at night. Trails wander out through desert canyons past Bedouin camps with their black tents, their goats and their camels.
My last night there I joined Haddad and a group of Feynan guests at a campfire to drink strong coffee and listen to a man recite traditional Bedouin love poetry to the accompaniment of the large drum he was pounding. It was a completely magical night. I woke up early the next morning in order to catch a flight from Amman to Baden Baden where I would write my next story. I had a 9 a.m. interview with the owner of Baden Baden’s Hotel der Kleine Prinz. Halfway through the interview he told me that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.
In all honesty and with some shame, one of the first things I thought when I heard about Bin Laden’s death was that I was glad that I’d left the Middle East before the news broke. Baden Baden, where half the people seem to be in that post-massage float, felt like just the right place to sit out a conflict. But four years later, on the other side of Germany at the Berlin ITB, I was once again with Haddad drinking coffee. She wanted to know what had happened to the U.S. market to Jordan. And I told her that the brutal ISIS videos were acting as an anti-advertising campaign for the whole Middle East. “But Jordan is perfectly safe,” she insisted.
“That may be true,” I said, “but American travelers constitute a market of consumers and like all consumers, when things are all equal, will always choose a place with no risk, over a place with even a little. It’s like water finding its own level.”
She told me the Feynan Lodge had lost more than half its business. The Bedouins, who had come to see tourism as a way to communicate their world, were losing hope. Where was the dedication of all those passionate ecotourists? This was a sample of sustainability that was working. The lodge was bringing people from different cultures and beliefs together in a way that was eliminating the kind of prejudice that created all the problems in the first place. “Where were they?”
It was ITB. I had to go. She had to go. At ITB, the world’s greatest travel show, you know your current interview is done because the next one is calling. But we, Haddad and I, were frustrated with our conversation and so she sent me an article that she’d written for the website Spotlight on Sustainable Tourism. The article picked up where we’d left off in our contentious coffee klatch.
Haddad writes, “We all know sustainable tourism is great, but when a destination is abandoned due to perceived risks, the impacts of its absence are detrimental to nature conservation and local communities. As an industry, we have agreed on a set of values, on ethos that has become the foundation of sustainable tourism. Let us honor that ethos by being the resilient ones in the market that know the difference between perceived risk and real risk.”
And I remembered my taxi driver in Chicago and I thought sometimes you’re not lost when you’re there, even if you are taking a risk. Travelers take risks when they SCUBA dive or when they go downhill skiing. If it’s worth the risk to feel the adrenalin on a killer slope and worth the risk to see hammerheads up close, isn’t it worth the risk for the cultural privilege to camp with Bedouin? There’s an implicit promise we make when we encourage the development of places like the Feynan Ecolodge and we should keep our promises.
It was great to experience the passion and dedication of Haddad in the Wadi Araba and in Berlin at ITB. It reminded me of what a privilege it was to travel in Kosovo with Aqel Biltaji some years ago. Everywhere we went in Kosovo people opened up for him. Complete strangers immediately were engaged in his charisma. I asked him what his secret was. He said, “You know Jim, you like people, I can see that. You just need to disarm yourself and respect other people wherever you go and they’ll open up for you too. It’s always worked for me.”
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