Pachamama Women's Group, Ecuador

Today the world reflects for a moment to honor women. We bear homage to women who have made a difference in their communities; women that have struggled and resisted discrimination and injustice; women that have succeeded in the face of immense social, political and economic odds.  As Global Exchange’s blog said today, “we celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future” and in the quotes of our everyday heroines we acknowledge the struggle and the love that inspires us to organize, educate and sacrifice for our children, community, nation and planet.

Visiting with Lucy from Generacíon, in Lima, Peru

As a human rights advocate and someone blessed to have travelled the globe, I have seen how women across the world bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s material poverty and are usually the most vulnerable socioeconomically.  Indeed despite all the progress the women’s movements have made, we still have a lot of work todo. Just look at the UN Women’s proclamation today and spend a few moments reviewing their decades of  data. Clearly, women are more likely than men to be poor and at risk of hunger because of the systematic discrimination they face in decision-making, politics, education, healthcare, employment, and control of assets that often transcends physical borders.

Girl with Nan in Kabul, Afghanistan

All Reality Tours offer an in-depth look at the reality of destination countries through direct observation and engagement of the host society, however  we are instructive with our program officers to include women as speakers, and include women’s organizations, into the itineraries. For us, this is about balance and inclusion.

Women Cultivating Tea, Nepal

Have women’s lives improved since the downfall of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001? To what extent are women represented in the government in South Africa today? Are women and girls benefiting from the new education, health and job training programs that have been launched in Venezuela? Why are women and girls 80% of those being trafficked around the world today? How are economic reforms in Cuba effecting women? These are some of the questions that are explored on upcoming Reality Tours that examine women’s rights and gender discrimination.

Lastly, let me extend my deep admiration and gratitude to some the phenomenal women around the world that work their magic with us as program officers and advisors: Delia (Argentina), Marsha (Afghanistan), Virginia and Maisa (Brazil), Fan (China), Marta (Costa Rica), Isabel and Michelle (Cuba), Karen (Ireland), Annie (Guatemala), Rae (Haiti), Mala (India), Parvaneh (Iran), Faiza (Iraq & Jordan), Tasha (Jamaica), Noelia (Nicaragua), Hwayoung (North Korea), Lucy (Peru), Myesha (South Africa), Wanjinku (Uganda),  and Nhu (Viet Nam). You inspire me!

Ron Herman's image from Havana

A few weeks ago I received an email from Ron Herman, a dynamic and gifted photographer and chair of Foothill College’s photography department sharing with me a cover story in the Palo Alto Weekly about his customized Reality Tour to Cuba.

The article called “A Changing Cuba: Cuban, Local Photographers Reveal the Heart of the Country” featured the story of Ron and those that traveled with him. In it was a detailed narrative with beautiful imagery about the customized Reality Tour Ron made happen, a rich testament to dreams becoming reality, specifically Ron Herman’s photographic educational travel dream becoming a Reality Tour!

After reading the article, I asked Ron if I could share it and include a few of his words about why he created the customized Reality Tour and why he choose to partner with Global Exchange. Here is what he had to say:

Like many, the mystique of Cuba has always intrigued me. Right now, Cuba is at a transitional point, and I believe that the Cuba today will look and be very different from the Cuba tomorrow. I decided that the timing was right to make this trip a reality, and so I contacted Global Exchange to arrange a customized tour for my group of photography professionals.


Ron Herman's image from Havana

Global Exchange’s Reality Tours emphasize education and relationship building to improve international relations. Cultural exchange is very important to my personal travel philosophy, so I knew Global Exchange would be the right organization to arrange our trip. When developing our tour, they made sure that every day was one where we learned something new and unexpected about Cuba. They incorporated a variety of activities where both cultures could learn from each other, which in the end, resulted in a socially responsible and personally rewarding travel experience.

In 2010 and 2011, I led groups of photographers to Cuba to engage in activities that brought photographers from both countries together to share ideas and information. We mounted an exhibition of our work in Cuba and upon our return, mounted two joint photography exhibitions of Cuban and American work.  These exhibition opportunities are just one link in the chain that connects American and Cuban photographers, and I hope we’ll see more creative collaborations in the future.

Photo Credit:

On behalf of Reality Tours we thank Ron for working with us and look forward to building upon the relationships we have been developing between his community and those in Cuba. The relationships as captured by these Cuban and American artists are revealed in their images as is a shared spirit of education.

TAKE ACTION! For those of you in the Bay Area check out “Cuba in Focus,” an exhibition by 11 American photographers (Katherine Bazak, Mary Bender, Harlan Crowder, Lisa D’Alessandro, Ron Her- man, Bob Hills, Mary Ellen Kaschub, Robin Lockner, Laura Oliphant, Cynthia Sun and John Thacker) and seven Cuban photographers (Guillermo Bello, Raúl Cañibano, Mario Diaz, José Manuel Fors, Eduardo Garcia, Jorge Gavilondo and Perfecto Romero) at the  Krause Center for Innovation, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. The exhibition runs through Dec. 8.

As Eduardo Garcia, one of the Cuban photographers who met with the group and has work in the exhibition,  “We photographed together with common goals. Now our American friends can show our reality from their perspective. For us, it’s important to gain the friendship of people who care about Cuba.”

Go to Cuba! Find out how you can travel to Cuba with Global Exchange Reality Tours.

When Global Exchange founded Reality Tours back in 1988, it did so with the belief that travel can be a tool for promoting peace and cross-cultural understanding. Since then, we have committed ourselves to organizing enriching, thought provoking and philosophically complex Citizen Diplomacy delegations around the world, even when those nations are often demonized as enemy states or part of the “Axis of Evil”.

Citizen diplomacy is based on the concept that individuals have the right to help influence and shape foreign policies for their country by informally meeting with global citizens and learning about their reality.  As you will read  below, Ken Yale’s reflection and learning is exactly the kind of transformative experience that keeps us here at Reality Tours ever motivated to continue our work to have you “Meet the People, Learn the Facts, and Make a Difference”!


By Ken Yale, Reality Tours Palestine & Israel 2010 Past Participant

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” 
– Aldous Huxley

“Begin challenging your own assumptions.  Your assumptions are your windows on the world.  Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won’t come in. “  – -Alan Alda

We are often unconscious of the potential and significance of the moment in which we live.  This was certainly true for me in July, 2010, as I prepared to embark on a Global Exchange Reality Tour of the West Bank in a period when progressive movements in the region did not appear to be very strong.  Less than six months later, the Arab Spring began in Egypt and Tunisia.  Now it is hard for anyone with open eyes to miss the power of this unique historic moment as growing waves of mass uprisings for human rights, democracy, and social justice continue to spread outward from the Middle East and North Africa to nations on every continent.

It’s not easy for most of us in the US to understand the conditions and dynamics that are fueling such rapid change in the region and offering inspiration and hope for global social justice.  We struggle to either discover or unlearn decades of history that have been largely ignored, obfuscated, or distorted by a corporate controlled media and an educational system that discourages critical thought and examination.  For many of us who grew up in Jewish families, we are further challenged to find the courage to confront a lifetime of cultural and religious narratives that demand allegiance to a settler colonial Israeli state as a foundation of our identity.

As a young child growing up in a Jewish Chicago neighborhood, every Sunday morning my parents would send me off to temple with a donation for Israel.  For every dime, we would get a stamp with an image of a leaf to paste onto a drawing of a tree.  When you filled all the branches, you had funded another tree that would be planted in the newly formed nation of Israel, then only about ten years old.  We should feel proud, we were told, to support our people from all over the world, who were returning to the land God gave just to us and making the barren desert bloom despite being surrounded by hostile Arabs who were trying to push us into the sea.  This narrative, repeated in many forms throughout my childhood, was never questioned or challenged in my family or community.

Landing in Tel Aviv airport about fifty years later, I made my way to the baggage claim past a long hallway displaying Zionist art from the 1950’s.  Dozens of posters from the United Israel Appeal, with titles like “Conquering The Wasteland” and “One Million In Israel, On To The Second Million” encouraged the Jewish Diaspora to come settle in Israel with slogans and imagery eerily familiar from my childhood.   An Israeli cab driver picked me up and soon we came upon a group of 25 orthodox Jews blocking an intersection and screaming that we should not be driving on the Sabbath.  As we made a U-turn, 3 teenagers ran toward the taxi and flung eggplants the size of bricks against the cab.  “Welcome to the real Israel,” I thought!

Once I finally connected with Mohamed, the Global Exchange trip leader from the Siraj Center, I immediately felt more relaxed and secure.  He was warm, caring, articulate and insightful, with an amazingly deep knowledge of the history, politics, and culture of the region.   As we drove towards our orientation meeting, Mohamed noticed me staring at a very long, straight row of trees paralleling the highway for miles.  I was fantasizing about how the trees we helped fund as kids could have been planted in a place just like this, when Mohamed said,  “Beautiful, isn’t it?  You’d never know those trees were placed there so that people driving this popular highway won’t see the wall just behind it.”

Mohamed was referring to the 450 mile long separation barrier that Israel has constructed around much of the West Bank and Jerusalem, the most visible symbol of the apartheid state built through military conquest, occupation and the systematic dispossession of Palestinian land and human rights.  It is around 25 feet high in many areas, topped with concertina wire and electrified fence, monitored by surveillance cameras, snipers, dog patrols and soldiers.  It often divides Palestinian communities from their own land.  The wall is the backbone of the infrastructure and policies of occupation that include extensive military checkpoints, mandatory ID cards, restricted access to roads and water, demolitions of Palestinian homes, mass arrests, repressive legal, administrative, economic and military regulations, and the construction of Jewish settlements which confiscate Palestinian lands in violation of international law.  The wall is often covered with the graffiti of resistance, and is a frequent target of Palestinian, Israeli, and international protest.

Mohamed and I are about the same age, so we grew up at the same time, but in obviously two very different worlds.  Mohamed’s family has lived in Palestine for many generations, but they were displaced from their homes and can no longer travel freely.  Just before Palestine was partitioned in 1947, there was a total population of 1.75 million, one third of whom were Jewish, owning 6% of the land.  After the war of 1947-48, the new state of Israel was formed with 78% of the land, leaving just 22% for Palestinians, primarily in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.  Today, Gaza is under a military and economic blockade and 200,000 Israeli Jews have established settlements in East Jerusalem.  A report released during our tour by the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, said Jewish settlements now control more than 42 percent of the West Bank through their jurisdiction and regional councils.

On a daily basis, occupied Palestinian territories are increasingly being carved up into small, disconnected and impoverished enclaves, much like the Bantustans of South African apartheid.  Yet I, who had never set foot on this land before, had so many more rights than Mohamed and his family, including the ability to get full Israeli citizenship, based on nothing more than my being born a Jew thousands of miles away.  What a painful irony that this is rationalized in the name of liberating Jews from centuries of anti-Semitism.  “Never Again” we were often told in my community, with reference to the Holocaust.   But is “Never Again” only for Jews, or for everyone?  Justice or Just Us?  Can there be a humane and fulfilling life for any people, no matter how oppressed, that is built on a foundation of ethnic cleansing, denial of human rights for others, and alliance with international corporate and imperial powers?

One of the many things I appreciated about Mohamed was that despite his incredible knowledge, he would always say, “Please don’t just take it from me.  Engage people from every perspective, see with your own eyes, make your own meaning, discover your own truths.”  Our Global Exchange tour provided the opportunity to meet with two or three organizations and countless individuals every day, both Palestinian and Israeli, some activists and others not.  We heard stories, stories, and more stories, all very moving, from human rights groups, a prisoner’s group, military refuseniks, a woman’s art cooperative, a youth theater, a Jewish settler organization, the nonviolent direct action movement, residents of refugee camps and kibbutzim, politicians, university students and faculty, international solidarity activists, and so many more, including a wonderful home stay with an open and generous Palestinian family.

Perhaps the day that was most memorable was our trip to Hebron.  Despite its location on Palestinian land in the West Bank, a one square kilometer section of the Old City has been occupied by 400 Israeli settlers with the support of 1500 Israeli soldiers.  In Hebron as a whole, over 10,000 Jewish settlers live in 20 settlements.  The military has closed down a large section of the main street in the Old City, shuttering hundreds of Palestinian shops, evicting their owners, and banning Palestinians from even walking on the street.  I will never forget the striking image of dozens of stray dogs that roamed the once teeming market area, with more freedom of access than the rightful Palestinian residents of Hebron.

If you are considering visiting the Middle East at this incredible time in its history, I’d strongly encourage you to go with a Global Exchange Reality Tour and/or the Siraj Center.  They made it possible for me to make personal and organizational connections and experience the region in ways I couldn’t possibly have arranged on my own.  Every time I read the news these days, I access lenses and insights from the trip that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

But please, don’t just take it from me…

Photo from Inmagine

The following was written by Carol Steele, Global Exchange Director of Cuba Customized Reality Tours. She is an accomplished percussionist who has played with an eclectic range of musical acts, everything from Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, Joan Baez and Steve Winwood to Diana Ross and Tears for Fears.

The 27th Annual International Jazz Festival in Havana is coming up– you wonder, should you go?  And I say to you emphatically, ABSOLUTELY SI !!!!!!

It is a great time to be in Havana!  Usually right on the heels of the International Film Festival, Havana is buzzing with energy.  There are so many concerts in different venues all over town, lots of Cuban Jazz, as well as invited guests from around the world, and BEST of all (says the musician) the late night jam sessions!  You never know who might stop by and sit in on one of these nightly jams.  Once you have your pass for the festival, you can get into all of the shows, afternoon lecture demonstrations, and although I think there may be a small fee to go to the jam sessions – it’s a fee that’s well worth it as far as I’m concerned.

I started going to Cuba in 1987, during a time when I was working as a professional recording musician/percussionist, and wanted to go to the root – or “la mata” as my Cuban friends in New York used to say. (The root of my technique as a percussionist)  I was recording and working with Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, Bette Midler and Tears for Fears, to name a few, and going to Cuba during my time off.  I went to study, see, learn, absorb, breathe, play, dance, and see what it feels like to be in   “la mata” and what I can tell you is that it changed my life!

Carol Steele in action!

I am not a formally trained musician, I play by “ear” (and I would add, heart and soul.)  So for me, whether I get to play or not, just going to Cuba, and getting to be in the presence of the masters that are constantly taking modern Cuban music to new levels, or having the privilege of experiencing Afro-Cuban Folkloric music that is being played in the same way that it was handed down from Mother Africa – it inspires.  Whether I have ever put my hands on a drum or not, during any given visit over the past 25 years, I always come home playing something different, taking a different solo, and feeling my place in the music in just a very subtle and different way – inspired.

So, I have to say that the Jazz Festival is an incredibly unique time to be in Havana, with so much music happening in so many different places daily. Whether you are a musician or dancer, expert or novice, music aficionado or music critic………. You will come back changed in some way that you might not be able to put your finger on at first –  is it the music, the culture, the people, the food, the painting, the architecture, the history……………or is it just ALL of it!  Come with us and see – and by the way, let me know!


The 27th International Jazz Festival of Havana is taking place on December 11, 2011 – December 21, 2011. Find out how to travel there with Global Exchange.

You can see Carol in action & on percussion in this video!

Photo Credit: Tammy Gustafson

Accurate statistics are difficult to compile, but it is believed that between 600,00 and 800,000 human beings are trafficked across international borders each year, 80% of them women and children. It is estimated that approximately $9 billion dollars in profits are generated annually through slavery and trafficking, placing the trade in human trafficking in the top three most profitable criminal enterprises along with the drugs and arms trades.

The numbers are staggering, and actually confronting them and the shattered lives they represent can be an overwhelming prospect. Yet we are not powerless in the face of this monstrous industry, and the first step towards bringing it to a halt is education. That’s why the Not for Sale Campaign and Global Exchange Reality Tours together facilitate delegations to Thailand, Cambodia and other countries.

What are these trips all about?

A Not For Sale & Global Exchange trip (called “Delegation on Human Trafficking”) enables participants to understand the causes of human trafficking, meet with those who have been freed out of slavery, learn what it means to build a life as a survivor, and engage with those who are fighting human trafficking on the front lines. These educational trips are geared specifically to confronting the realities of the global trade in human beings.

Not for Sale is giving away a free trip!

Thanks to Not for Sale, those who register for the upcoming Global Forum on Human Trafficking will be entered for a chance to win a FREE trip to a Not For Sale International Project of their choice. You get the airfare, they get everything else (value up to $2300)

Register for what? For a chance to win whaaaaaat?!

  • Register for the Global Forum on Human Trafficking (hashtag #globalforum) happening Oct. 21-22 in Sunnyvale, CA, which is a gathering of people from all walks of life- from business leaders, people of faith, students, athletes, law enforcement and others brought together under one roof  to learn and explore different models being deployed to mobilize individuals to combat trafficking;
  • For a chance to win an (almost) all-expense-paid Immersion Trip/Reality Tour Trip to a Not For Sale International Project of your choice. *Almost means Not For Sale will pay for all program costs including all in-country costs. Winner will be responsible for round trip airfare to and from trip location.

Global Exchange’s Chie Abad will be speaking at the Global Forum on Human Trafficking.

For more about this upcoming event, here’s David Batstone, President and Co-founder of Not For Sale:

Global Forum 2011 – David Batstone Promo from Not For Sale Campaign on Vimeo.

Ready to Register for the Global Forum on Human Trafficking?

If you’re planning to register for the Global Forum on Human Trafficking, do it soon for your chance to win your FREE trip.  Not For Sale will randomly select the one lucky person who registers during the month of August to win the trip. The *Big Winner* will be determined the first week of September 2011.

It just keeps getting better!
When you register for the Global Forum on Human Trafficking, use the discount code “GXNFS” to receive 10% off your registration.

Good luck to all of you planning to register for the Global Forum on Human Trafficking. There’s a trip of a lifetime in it for one of you lucky attendees!

The following is the final installment in a 4-part series written by Sophia Michelen, a Global Exchange Reality Tours participant who was on the delegation to North Korea last September 2010. In this series, she reflects on her experiences in North Korea.


“So, Why North Korea?!” by Sophia Michelen

It goes without saying that my journey in North Korea was far from ordinary- far from a conventional destination, far from the known, and far from the typical place to celebrate a 23rd birthday. Upon returning to the US, and as mentioned, many times before departing, a question echoed: So, tell me again, why would you go to North Korea?

Travel, after all, is a means by which one can escape the ‘everyday.’ Routine does not exist while traveling and the ‘routine’ that is present is exciting at every moment (good or bad), which, by definition, is anything but ‘routine. In that moment of travel, in that place on that day, you have never experienced that exact ‘routine’ before. So the routine of travel is actually an adventure, evolving by the second. Moreover, travel is a way to liberate yourself – to free yourself, to dream and to grow, a way to leave your comfort zone. Travel is a balance between learning about foreign cultures, yet feeling the freedom to experience a different world – even just for a few days.

Nothing makes me feel more alive – more human and more free, then traveling. The joy of the freedom, starting thousands of feet in the air on a secluded plane, is indescribable – literally. My heart fills with butterflies, pure ecstasy runs through me, and I am able to breathe more easily. So why would I want to travel to a place that would prevent me from having any such freedom? Just to check off another unconventional country on my “have been to” list?

I was traveling to the antithesis of freedom, leaving the country of the free. Literally. How would I feel once my Air Koryo flight door closed, with “doors to manual” announced in Korean? No outside world as I knew it for a week. My laptop would not catch the local Starbucks free Wi-Fi, my phone (aka my lifeline to the world as I knew it) would be confiscated, my passport would be held captive. Technically, I would have no identity. I would not, and did not, know what was going on in the world outside of the hermit bubble. I was not free in this sense. But here is where the balance comes in. While I lost the traditional freedom we know of, I gained from the timeless feeling of travelling to North Korea. Because I was not free in this traditional sense, I was free to experience a new culture fully. Cell phones, Starbucks and computers – the link between continents – were not present. So, New York City and Dubai did not exist. The familiar was gone and for the first time in my life, and in my opinion in a place stuck in time, I was traveling as if I were living in the early 1960s. Technology, newspapers and chain restaurants did not exist. Many people dream of what it was like to live “back then” and move without technology or to be connected so rapidly – well here it was. I was given the freedom to live a past life in the present world.

So how can this freedom not thrill you? Yes, there are harsh realities and sometimes frustrating traditions, but through the experience I learned and I saw. I had only seen vintage Royal Enfield motorcycles in movies and museums – side car included. But here, I lived it – old motorbikes scooted around rampantly in the DMZ zone. And nature? I saw the most beautiful “mirror” lake I have ever seen – the water so, so still that the reflection of the valley did not feel real. I had to splash the water to make sure it wasn’t a mirage. I learned American-Korean history from both sides while on the Taedong River in the U.S. Spy Ship, Pueblo by having North Korean sailors and guards explain one side, while having an American marine on hand to explain the other. This is not to say that it is a peaceful topic, but it was the ultimate history class – primary and secondary sources surrounding me! Or even fun times – sharing fries and a drink with North Korean businessmen while bowling in a retro two-lane bowling alley in the basement of our hotel in Pyongyang. Americans and North Koreans bowling – who would have guessed? Language was clearly a barrier, but their screams of “AWESOME!!” (pronounced oh-ahh-sum) in a high-pitched voice, throwing hands in the air for the universal congratulations of a high-five when only a few pins fell was a site to see. Their excitement was as if they had bowled to perfection game in a national completion, and the imagery of this last night makes me laugh out loud – even as I write.

My trip to North Korea was extraordinary, but it was so because of the people on my trip – North Koreans and Americans. Yes, tours in the country are practically the same – the same locations, same remarks, and same routines, but each delegation is different. Not many people understand North Korea’s people. Putting politics aside, not many people bother to learn about the North’s cultural norms, and while friends and relatives back home see the photos and video clips brought back from travels; these modes of capturing the moment do little justice. No matter how many photos I took or how much I wrote in my journal, only my memory can be the full primary source of my trip. Sometimes, words just can’t explain the emotion behind certain situations – like the awe and astonishment of seeing over 60 000 individuals perform at the Arirang Mass Games. No other performance could compare to this, and being in that stadium, in that moment, was just priceless. While more than 60, 000 performers showed visitors their dances and acrobatics, both children and adult alike, people in New York City were grabbing their lattes to go, in a rush to get to the next meeting – two different worlds in that same moment.

I can’t be frustrated when friends or family react in a passive way for something I was so enthusiastic about. Grasping a concept or an experience that does not exist in this Western world is incredibly difficult to capture, almost impossible. I was fortunate to have had such a diverse group with me, but to those planning or wondering what it’s really like in North Korea – just go. Of course, there are endless blogs, thousands of photos, and even YouTube videos to be found that can give you an idea of what it is like. But if you go in impartially, just enter as a curious traveler – I promise that you will gain more. And once you return, you will join those other few individuals who have traveled there, who are the others to understand what it’s like to be inside the invisible walls of North Korea.

Join the Next Delegation to North Korea!

Interested in traveling to North Korea? We have a Reality Tour delegation coming up at the end of August, and other trips planned after that. Find out the details here.

The following is the third installment in a 4-part series written by Sophia Michelen, a Global Exchange Reality Tours participant who was on the delegation to North Korea last September 2010. In this series, she reflects on her experiences in North Korea.

“A Rare Flower” by Sophia Michelen
One lone female college graduate, on a plane to Beijing, then another to Pyongyang, meeting a group of passionate travelers, where the closest female companion was several decades my elder.

That was me.

I did not expect to take my North Korea adventure as a sort of high-school chaperoned trip, but I did imagine that there would be a fairly high chance of meeting another young female professional in the group. I know plenty of adventure-loving females, so why would this trip be any different? There just had to be someone who would be on the trip that I would be able to have age-appropriate discussions and conversations with.

I absolutely cherished the individuals traveling with me to North Korea. However, I found it a bit peculiar that there were no other female 20-somethings jumping at the opportunity. Nonetheless, my gypsy-like travel routine did not make me dependent on a travel buddy.

The night before departing for Pyongyang, our American-South Korean travel guide who would accompany us for the remainder of the trip, briefed us regarding our North Korea schedule and our tour guides. We would have two male guides and a male bus driver. This gendered specification was not surprising, for we were told that it is they, the males, who are most educated in the society – they who are given the opportunity to leave the country, visit Europe, pick up a degree or two, and learn second and third languages fluently [one of the two male tour guides would even be conversing with me in French!]. Our South Korea tour guide, after dinner, pulled me aside asking me why a young female like myself would be so drawn to visiting North Korea. I explained my decade-long curiosity and former Korean language tutorial; and how it felt the time was right for the trip. He happily listened and eagerly told me that on this trip, on a rare occasion, we would be having another tour guide – a young female guide, training to become a senior guide, and, best of all, that she was my age! I would never have guessed that the travel companion I so sought for would be a North Korean – a perfect cultural insider.

Once we landed in North Korea, our guides were waiting for us to pass custom. As normal for travelers visiting the country, they took our passports and mobile phones. Ms. Lee, the lone female guide, greeted us with a friendly smile, comported properly but seemingly excited by the prospect of showing a group of foreigners her country. “We have a lot to show you,” she would say. Getting on the bus, introductions were not lagging. Our South Korea guide said loud and proudly – “Ms. Lee, this is Sophia – you can practice your English with her and you can teach her North Korean culture. She is your age!” We laughed, and that’s where we began.

At our first stop, the Arch of Triumph, Ms. Lee and I conversed naturally, talking initially about the basics– place of birth, family, siblings, schooling, why I came to North Korea, why she became a tour guide. Language was also a topic of conversation – how and where I learned some Korean and why she decided to learn English. She proudly mentioned her previous travels – just a couple countries outside of North Korea, including China.

Moving throughout the sites and meals of our itinerary, Ms. Lee would respectfully sit with the elder guides. We would continuously invite her to sit with us, but politely she refused. But later in the trip she would warm up and she would be like our own private North Korea Wikipedia site. I would start by asking specific questions regarding our current location, before quickly diverging into other questions on my mind– from instruments [she plays the accordion], to friends, social events, TV shows, music [no she hadn’t heard of Lady Gaga],and growing up in North Korea. I was thirsty to know more about her insider’s perspective out of the world from North Korea, despite already knowing how the outside world may view her country.

My questions and these conversations lasted until the bus ride to the airport for our departure flight. However, my most memorable moment was at the demilitarized zone. We visited the old, very desolate and empty meeting room where delegations from both our countries met decades ago to sign the 1953 Armistice. Even the air smelled old. Everything was left intact – except for the Plexiglas casing over the table-top flags during the singing. Other than that, everything was original – original table, chairs, even the turf-like, green table covering was there. I must say I was surprised that these historic artifacts were not better kept or in a more “hands-off” environment, but passionate about original experiences, I treasured being able to interact with these objects in such a way.

As we walked around the zone together), Ms. Lee and I linked elbows and discussed potential change for our countries’ political relationship. Here we were, two citizens, females at that, with our country still technically at war with one another, having a peaceful conversation about future changes – near and distant- for our generation. She discussed how she longed to see the peninsula reunified – where both her people (North and South) would be able to merge again as one, learn from each other and be reunited with lost family. She still desires and hopes to travel abroad, and have some freedoms like her American counterparts while still keeping her strong and proud Korean identity. Not once did she insult or discriminate my country – not once did she impose any of her potential negative views of the States. We both know what is said about the others’ country, but there was no need to rehash the obvious.

At this point in our small walking tour, Ms. Lee and I find ourselves standing behind the actual table where the treaty was signed. We were so busy chatting; we barely realized the flow of the group. As we rushed for a photo-op before the next site in the zone, I paused to appreciate the moment – the rarity of these two individuals, from these two countries, discussing these topics, in this location. As Ms. Lee scurried to the bus, I walked behind the others, took my time, taking in the color of the grounds – a white and violet-petal, growing on a single flower amongst the overgrown grass. So peacefully swaying, I looked and smiled to myself, grateful for the moment. For the unique ability to experience this instant and the conversation I had just had with Ms.Lee. Just like the rarity of the flower amongst the weeds, the symbol of this small flower growing in the tensest boarder on earth reminded me of the unique moment with Ms. Lee, my friend, my peaceful North Korean companion, the fellow female counterpart I imagined having on the journey.

Join the Next Delegation to North Korea!

Come back here tomorrow to read the next installment in this 4-part series.

Interested in traveling to North Korea? We have a Reality Tour delegation coming up at the end of August, and other trips planned after that. Find out the details here.

The following is the second installment in a 4-part series written by Sophia Michelen, a Global Exchange Reality Tours participant who was on the delegation to North Korea last September 2010. In this series, she reflects on her experiences in North Korea.

“We are not crazy!” By Sophia Michelen
Most people, or rather the few that ask specifically about bus rides in North Korea, wonder how moving between regions with constant supervision could have been any more enjoyable than a lengthy car ride through a consistently monochrome and silent scenery. For our group it was nothing of the sort. At the beginning, everyone – age and generational differences aside – comported themselves in the best, most politically correct way possible. Thank yous, compliments, careful bows and nonexaggerated remarks abounded what our North Korean guides did, we did. We learned by following the cultural norms, carefully selecting conversation topics, and praising the sites we visited. So, with this [unspoken] code of conduct between both sides, our group moved through meals, visits and lengthy bus rides as we travelled throughout the DPRK on our tour.

I was not expecting my mannerisms to change or heavy political discussions to occur while on this trip. I knew that there were boundaries and I agreed to the standard set for me as a visitor to the Hermit Kingdom – their hermit kingdom. However, on the eve before our visit to Panmunjom, better known as the 38th parallel, after a day’s visit to the most anti-American museum I have ever seen or really, could have imagined, our silent bus ride because a high diplomatic meeting of sorts.

On this sunny afternoon, the silence was broken when Rob, our comedian and priest-in-training from the Midwest asked our guide, Mr. Kim a question that little did we know, would trigger a powerful and productive discussion. Rob prefaced the question in stating that this question was asked on all his trips, so he wanted to ask our new North Korean friend.

“Mr. Kim – now, I usually ask many people I meet while traveling this question, so I’d like to ask you: If you were live on American national television, what is one thing you would say to our country?”

A bit shocked but gently and sincerely smiling, Mr. Kim picked up the 1980s bus microphone looking as if it had been snatched from a vintage karaoke bar. Hesitating a bit while he gathered his thoughts to a question never asked of him, Mr. Kim faced us in it uniform composure and said:

“We are not crazy!!”

Bill and Mr. Kim

We could not believe it – the bus laughed. Not expecting such an out-of-character remark from our head guide, Mr. Kim continued: “I would tell America that we are not crazy.” This was the first time we saw any emotion or relations mentioned between both dueling nations. The most fascinating part of our discussion was the door that this question opened. Mr. Kim decided to, in turn, ask each of us what we were proud of. He commenced the dialogue by mentioning that he was proud of “Being Korean – of speaking Korean.” He handed each of us the mic and one by one the comments began: pride of being first generation, of immigrating to the U.S., of everything America has given us, of seeing the [US] form over the decades and seeing a country grow before technology. Even the driver commented, adding that he was proud of being a North Korean.

The dialogue was profound and brought us all closer – such open, judgment-free personal remarks brought down the invisible wall between our North Korean counterparts and ourselves. We were all equally human and felt the tension disseminate a bit more – ironically before entering one of the tensest latitudes on Earth at the DMZ.

With a more personable dynamic amongst us, we were circled around the back of the bus, nearly off our seats like children around a school teacher’s skirt hem – eager to be next to ask a question to Mr. Kim – holding onto every remark and trying to quickly capture every word. Adrenaline and excitement was our caffeine on our nearly coffee-less trip.

We asked questions regarding the recent Cheonan sinking, the Obama administration and U.S – DPRK politics. We asked questions regarding the Korean war and future potential positive relations between North Korea and America, about the Bush administration, the famine (although a denial was given as an answer), about DPRK citizen knowledge regarding understanding of their own country’s politics. More interestingly, we asked about 9/11. Mr. Kim paused a bit – what seemed to be in a way to figure out the most and more polite way to say it: some citizens do not even know it occurred. We were a bit perplexed, but not completely shocked. Mr. Kim continued in earnest saying that some people in the country thought it was not terrorism, but rather an American ploy, while others think it’s merely science fiction. Mr. Kim said he only found out because he happened to be in Europe, surrounded by German tourists at the time, when on the television in the background, the Germans yelled that the towers fell! Mr. Kim did not understand exactly what was happening, but the instantly panicking German men apparently quickly discussed an escape route off the European continent.

This ended the open conversation, but our amazement flooded us with exhaustion. It was such an intense and interactive discussion that the rest of the trip ended as it started – in silence. Here we were, freely conversing with the quintessential “enemy” of the U.S., in discussion that seemed like amongst friends. We were all human. We respected, we shared. While our nations were in constant and continuous tensions, here we were – a small group of a citizen delegation understanding the other side, while on their side, on unknown territory. This was a real-world high meeting. This was the way to fully understand the differences and appreciate the similarities.

Join the Next Delegation to North Korea!

Come back here tomorrow to read the next installment in this 4-part series.

Interested in traveling to North Korea? We have a Reality Tour delegation coming up at the end of August, and other trips planned after that. Find out the details here.

The following is the first in a 4-part series written by Sophia Michelen, a Global Exchange Reality Tours participant who was on the delegation to North Korea last September 2010. In this series, she reflects on her experiences in North Korea.

A first-generation American, Sophia Michelen has had a passion for travel and photography from a young age. With work from the illegal gold mining industry in Ghana to the hidden lives of North Koreans, the world is anything but foreign to her. After graduating from college, Sophia lived and worked in the Middle East with an international NGO office based in Dubai, UAE. Now, Sophia is continuing work in public health and international health policy research in Boston, MA, while preparing for her next trip and photography project.

Run-Away Crab Needed to Enter North Korea by Sophia Michelen

When most think of celebrating their 23rd birthday, eating out, nights on the town, or a weekend trip to a relaxing beach treat might come to mind. However, my 23rd was to be different – a secluded celebration with a trip to North Korea. Reflections, acquired wisdom, aspirations and new adventures often accompany another year of one’s life; so, to bring in my new year, I strictly started with the later of these – an adventure! Having just arrived back from several months living in the Middle East, I wanted to start my 23rd year with an adventure to a place I, like many Westerners, felt to be light years away (or rather, behind,); to a place I have been fascinated with for over a decade, to a place where very little is understood – North Korea.

You can imagine the shock of family and friends to my proposed trip, alone, to the DPRK. Just days after arriving back to the United States, I would be heading east again. No one really understood. With the Cheonan having been sunk just months prior to my trip, and with tense foreign relations between my country and theirs, many tried to dissuade me. They continually mentioned that North Korea would be there tomorrow and that there would thus be other opportunities to travel there. However, I knew for me the time was now – I wanted to experience a Soviet-style way of life that never existed in our Western world. So, on September 9th, 2010 I flew east – first stop, Beijing.

I am an avid traveler, fearless in all respects of flying. I am thrilled at being thousands of feet in the air – where time seems to stop, where my books, my journal and my mind are best friends; where iPhones and the internet are paused for these certain hours of your life, where everyone around is going to the same destination – despite nationality, age, language or race. These strangers become your friends and the plane, your home. However, out of the hundreds of flights I have taken, this plane ride felt different – my thoughts were uncertain as to what to expect. I was a young woman traveling alone to the other side of the world, to tour with people I had never seen in a country that few understand. Except for a few passages regarding North Korea in my Lonely Planet “Korea” book, even my usual companion of a guide book was not available this time. I was about to enter booming Beijing, only to quickly leave and enter primitive Pyongyang. I had plenty of time –literally – to ponder and assess just what I was getting myself into. However, even I was yet to fully understand my motivation for traveling to North Korea.

I landed in Beijing and within minutes of searching for the unknown face of my guide, I was approached by my smiling group leader. This was step one of starting my adventure into the DPRK.

After the rest of the group assembled at the airport, we headed downtown. Before soon, the infamous Beijing became apparent. We passed modern and ancient buildings, bikes, scooters and cars. However, I was unable to appreciate my surroundings in China – I was still waiting to move forward into North Korea. We settled into our rooms, familiarized ourselves with the schedule for night one, and soon headed to dinner nearby.

At the restaurant we sat in a private room at the end of a larger dining room where, as would be the norm for the remainder of the trip, food was brought to us without ever opening a menu– the meals would always be pre-chosen for us. The food was tasty and the camaraderie from the rest of the group was welcoming. Our Chinese guide was reviewing our Beijing itinerary with us while questions regarding North Korea were directed to our American group guide. In talking about trip formalities, the conversation was soon interrupted by a crab – which loosened the mood through a roar of laughter.

Our Chinese guide, mid-sentence, jumped after a live crab that had escaped the kitchen, tried to crawl up his leg. I just could not believe it – it literally felt like it was out of a movie. The crab kept crawling around the room until one waitress finally caught it… with chopsticks! Needless to say, I have never had an experience like this. But it was the after-dinner chit-chat that made me realize just how unique this trip would be.

No longer was I just going to enter a new country, but I would be entering North Korea with several unique individuals. Being the youngest, with over eight decades of history collected between the nine of us, I found myself surrounded with some of the most interesting people I had ever met – our guide, an Italian human rights activist from the Bay Area; a teacher from Jersey, having lived in Venezuela for years and having travelled the world to over 100 countries to date; a retired corrections officer that remembered the Midwest when horses were still tied to posts outside shops; a Chemist who migrated from the Philippines, now living in California; a pastor from Chicago, once one of President Obama’s neighbors; a 6-foot-four programmer, freelance comedian who is studying to become a priest; and a Chinese-American economist who moved to the U.S. when she was very young, now working for the World Bank. And then the real character of the group – an 82 year-old ex-Navy pilot who still flies his plane across the country and travels worldwide, whose stories mesmerized me as I listened for hours on American history– from the Great Depression, to the war, to life in South Boston before technology, and who would end up teaching me the samba and tango in the middle of a Pyongyang hotel lobby.

It was at this dinner that I realized that my trip had begun – that part of the adventure I had been searching for was transpiring through meeting these fellow Americans that, under any other circumstance, would be rare to meet. With this dinner, my trip to North Korea began.

Join the Next Delegation to North Korea!

Interested in traveling to North Korea? We have a Reality Tour delegation coming up at the end of August, and other trips planned after that. Find out the details here.

Lots going on in Cuba travel news. A few New York Times articles recently covered Cuba travel changes (and Global Exchange!), the Associated Press spoke with Global Exchange’s External Relations Director, and tonight the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations is in Cuba.

For more than 20 years now Global Exchange‘s Reality Tours program has promoted important people to people ties between North Americans and Cubans.  Our professional delegations, exchanges and licensed educational tours are again increasing in number after the Obama Administration eased some of the travel restrictions and authorized eight new U.S. Airports to offer charter flights to Cuba.

Our External Relations Director Malia Everette was recently interviewed by the Associated Press about the increasing demand for “People to People” Cuba tours that Global Exchange is experiencing for the article US issuing licenses for increased Cuba travel.

A recent New York Times article described one Global Exchange Reality Tour to Cuba:

A hot June sun glared over the Arroyo Arenas organic vegetable garden at the edge of Havana where Ms. Slezak, a 68-year-old retired social worker from Long Island, and 16 other Americans were visiting as part of a “food sovereignty” program organized by Global Exchange, a human rights organization, and Food First, a policy institute.

She and the beans were partly shaded by netting slung over the long trough-shaped beds, but it was hot, damp and sticky. She paused now and then to wipe her forehead.

Sweating in a Cuban field is not everyone’s idea of relaxation, and it is a far cry from the decadent gaiety that drew Americans to Havana before Fidel Castro came to power in 1959. But trips like this are one way of getting to see Cuba, and have just become accessible to most Americans.

Yet another New York Times article described the travel policy changes taking place:

Thanks to policy changes by President Obama earlier this year designed to encourage more contact between Americans and citizens of the Communist-ruled island, the Treasury Department is once again granting so-called “people-to-people” licenses, which greatly expand travel opportunities for Cuba-bound visitors. The new people-to-people measures make it easier for United States citizens who do not have special status as working journalists or scholars to visit Cuba legally, so long as they go with a licensed operator.

What continues to motivate Global Exchange Reality Tour trips to Cuba is how our participants return inspired by their Cuban counterparts and educated first-hand about the tenacity, ingenuity and integrity of the Cuban people. Yes, Global Exchange is also committed to challenging our government to normalize relations with Cuba, but also to build long term relationships between US and Cuban citizens based on respect and real engagement.

In fact this year, Global Exchange is organizing over 20 delegations and have customized another 30 trips to Cuba thus far!

If you’d like to read some insights shared by a recent Cuba Reality Tour participant check out this article written by Linda Slezak which originally appeared in the Slow Food East End newsletter.

Tonight on the Travel Channel: Anthony Bourdain in Cuba!

The premiere episode of the latest season of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations finds the show in Cuba. Here’s a sneak peek at tonight’s show, this part all about baseball:

Organizations & Institutions: Consider Partnering with Global Exchange
Perhaps you may get inspired tonight after watching the travel channel. As a licensed travel service provider, Global Exchange welcomes working with other organizations and institutions that have their own licenses and would love to develop new partnerships to customize journeys. Email to get started.

Now is THE time to Travel to Cuba!
With new flights recently cleared for lift off, now is the perfect time to plan your trip. We’d love for you to join us on one of our Reality Tours to Cuba.

The best time to go to Cuba? People who have gone on a Global Exchange New Years trip to Cuba come back…different. In a good way. Like they just went on a trip of a lifetime. To learn more about our New Years trips to Cuba this year, go here.

Save $150 on Cuba Trip: Global Exchange Reality Tours is offering a $150 DISCOUNT when you register for one of our Cuba trips by August 15th, 2011. Simply mention this blog post to receive your discount.

So what are you waiting for? Cuba awaits you.