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Photo courtesy of Tia Stephanie Tours
At a time when travelers are intent on having authentic in-depth experiences, Stephanie Schneiderman is particularly well suited to the task of providing them. She grew up in Mexico and now operates Tia Stephanie Tours, a specialist in culturally focused tours to Mexico and Colombia.
For those whose experience of Mexico is limited to travel to Cancun for a beach vacation, it may be surprising to hear Schneiderman talk about Mexico.
"Mexico has a depth of cultural richness that is almost unparalleled," said Schneiderman. "The typical traveler has no idea. In my case I am so lucky to have grown up in Mexico and chosen to travel there for many years to learn about it firsthand."
She spent her formative years there, from kindergarten to junior high school. "My whole childhood was immersed in Mexico," she said.
Schneiderman actually began her days in Cuba. She was born in Havana when her father was working there for Chase Manhattan Bank. Stephanie was born in 1959; not the best year to be born in Cuba. It was the year of Castro's revolution and with his nationalization of U.S. banks that year, "We had to get the hell out of Dodge," she said.
Schneiderman was still an infant when the family moved to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. A couple of years later they moved to Panama, and then in 1964 they moved to Mexico City for her father's next assignment. By then she was five years old. She remembers boarding the Pan Am flight and landing in Mexico.
"That begins my aware years as a child," she said. "I don't remember Cuba. I do remember some of Panama. St. Thomas I remember because it was so remarkable, the ocean, the beauty. I have a very clear memory of swimming on the beach."
For the first two weeks the family stayed at the Sheraton Maria Isabel, which had the grandeur to impress even a small child.
"It's an iconic hotel in the middle of Reforma Avenue, the Champs-Élysées of Mexico," said Schneiderman. It was an area rich in fine architecture and culture, much of it imported from France.
The family moved around from place to place for a few months until they finally were settled in a home in the upscale Jardines del Pedregal district.
Schneiderman's mother took it upon herself to show her children Mexico. She had been born in Nebraska, moved with her family to Chicago and later went to Mexico and learned Spanish.
"I asked myself how I would design tours so they wouldn't feel like tourism," she said. "I wanted the tours to feel like what I was experiencing as a traveler. I wanted everyone to feel like travelers, not tourists."
Schneiderman wanted to target the traveler that fell somewhere on the spectrum between the beach vacationer and the solo pilgrim who takes a travel book and heads into the mountains to meet a shaman.
"I said somewhere in between in this spectrum there is the traveler who would love to experience these places, people, traditions, culture and diversity, all these things I was seeing, and these people maybe don't speak the language. Maybe they don't know how to go about it, how to negotiate cultural and physical landscape, and I can provide that. Through the design of our tours we can help facilitate traveler experiences."
That was in 2004. Since then the company has become a recognized specialist in cultural travel to Mexico, providing tours for organizations such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Slow Food California, Florida International University/Frost Art Museum and the Toledo Museum of Art.
The company provides a wide range of tours to various regions in Mexico, focused on various special interests, such as culture and cuisine, textile traditions, ancient civilizations, art history and festivals. It also creates custom tours.
It's not only the clients whose lives are touched by the experiences.
The company created a tour to study the African heritage of Mexico for the Du Sable Museum of African American History in Chicago, and during the tour, Carol Adams, the then-director of the museum, addressed a group of Afro-Mexican people gathered with a group of Afro-American visitors.
"Something incredible happened," said Schneiderman. "Dr. Adams said, 'We have come to meet our brothers and our sisters, our aunts and our uncles and cousins. We were separated. History separated us but, here we are together again.'
"Everyone was so moved. I learned then that they weren't just learning about African heritage, they as people from the African diaspora who came to the U.S. involuntarily as slaves were meeting their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins who left from same place they did and instead of going to the United States they went to other places. That's when I learned that travel is transformational."
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and packages, Africa and the Middle East.
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