Traveling in the spirit of Christmas

34 cindy2NEAT TREE  — A South American Christmas tree, made entirely of poinsettia plants was photographed by Habets for her wandering travel column.  Photo courtesy of Cindy Habets Peterson

 

 

Special to the I-O by Cindy Habets Peterson

Several years ago, when asking the eternal holiday question “What’s on your Christmas list?”, my parents gave a new and unexpected answer:  “We want you to do something for someone less fortunate. Someone who really needs help this holiday season.  Give us a card telling us what you did, and that will be your gift to us.”

I admire my parents for many reasons, and this new holiday tradition is no exception.  Each year it requires us to search out a person or a cause that we believe is worthy of our parents’ gift.  And in requesting this gift each and every year, our parents ensure that we all remember the true spirit of Christmas – to give of ourselves, and do our part to increase peace and love in the world.

You’re probably thinking: ‘What does this Christmas story have to do with traveling?’.  After all, isn’t travel about “me time”, and “getting away from it all”?  Sure, that’s true – everyone needs a break and traveling is a great way to recharge your batteries, as they say.  But travel can also have everything do to with giving, charity, and the Christmas spirit, at any time of the year.

My husband and I recently finished a three-week volunteer program in Peru, working with an indigenous community in the mountains outside of Cusco.  This was our gift to my parents this Christmas, and in the end was the best gift we could have given ourselves.  We have volunteered in other countries throughout the year – teaching English in an orphanage in Cambodia and judging high school English debate competitions in predominantly Muslim Java, Indonesia.  As we look back on all our experiences over this past year, these are the ones that stand out the most in our memories.

I’ll never forget one day in particular of our most recent volunteer assignment. As part of our volunteer assignment in Peru, we visited a family.  Our task was to take and put together a bed for their two young girls, who before had shared the only bed the family owned with their parents and baby sister.

Through the local social worker visiting the house with us, we learned that the woman’s husband had left for 12 days to look for work, leaving her with only five soles (the equivalent of less than $2) for food.  She and her children were starving.  For what we would spend on a single meal in a restaurant in Cusco (even on a backpacker’s budget), we bought this woman enough food to feed her family for entire week.

It is all too easy, especially when traveling in developing countries, to see only what you and even the countries themselves want you to see.  Shiny new hotels, beautiful restored historical monuments, amazing natural beauty, American-style food.  Following the tourist path is easy, convenient, pleasurable – you might even call it a no-brainer.

Next time you travel, experiment with ways to learn more about the culture.  Talk to the locals.  Eat with them in their food stalls.  Go to their schools and their markets to observe and participate in daily life.  Learn about the people, their culture, and their views of the world.  You might find out things that surprise you:  Conservatively dressed Muslim teenagers in central Java love Facebook and Rachel Ray.  A talented Indian chef and businesswoman is obligated by her upbringing to return all her earnings to her elderly parents.  The local cheese maker in rural Marciac, France has a PhD in Biochemistry.  This knowledge of the people and the places you visit will bring them alive in your memory long after you have returned home. It will change how you travel, and why you travel.  It may even change what you view as a vacation.

Carry the Christmas spirit with you the next time you make a journey, whether it’s to the next state or around the world.  Give something back to the people you visit, even if it’s just a good impression of an American or a Montanan.  Smile.  Talk to people.  Learn about their culture.  It is the best travel gift you can give yourself.

Whether you are traveling to see family this holiday season, or tucked in safely at home, I wish each and every one of you peace and joy.  Merry Christmas!

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Happy Traveling!

For anyone interested in volunteering or charitable contributions further from home, here are a few places to start:
http://www.voluntourism.org/ ... Learn about voluntourism and opportunities available
http://www.heifer.org/ ... Teaching sustainable agricultural practices to end poverty and care for the earth
http://peruschallenge.com ... Make a difference in Peru with this well-run organization.
http://www.globeaware.org/ ... Providing mini-peace corps opportunities around the world