Taiwan Teddy Tourism

Eight Twelve Eleven

Obviously Nichole and I love international travel. This is our latest international adventure.

Nichole had been very young the first time she visited Taiwan and I had never traveled anywhere in Asia, so we planned a trip, packed our bags, and prepared for a new experience. My wife’s uncle, Todd, studied Chinese in college and ended up completing a year abroad in Taiwan where he fell in love with his wife, Jackie. They have two awesome boys, Austin and Colin. We couldn’t have asked for better hosts and tour guides throughout our trip!

The flight to China I think is the longest that I have ever flown. We took the cost saving route and had an extra long layover (8 hours) in Houston. Nichole slept a lot (read: the entire flight) and I watched all the movies from the past year that I hadn’t seen. We finally landed in Beijing…

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poverty, in landscapes of scarcity and abundance

I haven’t been posting any new writing in a while because I’ve been off getting married to the love of my life! Everything went amazingly with the food, pictures, families, and the party after the ceremony. I couldn’t have been a happier person on that day, nor will I ever be happier than I was that day – at least until some other huge life events.

We spent 10 days on our honeymoon in Peru. Many people asked us how in the world we chose Peru. The truth is that we found a great deal on plane tickets and it was cheaper than Hawaii. What sealed the deal was that we both had never traveled anywhere in South America and wanted to see one of the wonders of the world: Machu Picchu. As long as our horrible Spanish was deciphered, we could buy the lower deck seats on the overnight buses (top deck feels like riding in a boat), and could find some fresh produce to eat – all of which are not necessarily easy, then we did alright. People were helpful, the Plazas de Armas were beautiful and manicured, the mountain scenery was incredible, and there were plenty of tourists – Peruvian and foreign alike.

What most shocked me about the experience was going back to work the Monday after we returned from our honeymoon. Driving down areas near Grand Boulevard and Trumbull:

Detroit’s poverty hit me hard.

I know that poverty and urban decline in Detroit have become romantically connected to the grit of America and its loss of industry, but this was different. I wasn’t excited to see the “ruin porn” or the decay of Detroit’s empty landmarks. I was having true culture shock. Growing up near Flint, urban decay and vacant industrial buildings were nothing new. On this drive, however, I could see the downtown Detroit skyline from the expressway while on my left and right were neighborhoods falling apart and huge structures with broken windows and without any activity.

The stark contrast was the difference between the poverty of abundance and the poverty of scarcity. Peru is not a wealthy country. The country gets a steady stream of tourists from around the world due to its pivotal location hosting the Incan empire and its prized city on the hill, Machu Picchu. Beyond the Plazas de Armas and the tourist meccas, there are obvious signs of poverty. My wife commented that just two or three blocks away from the manicured Plazas seemed to be the boundary for where any wealth reached. I recently wrote about how Mount Kilimanjaro is known for having the highest percentage of tourist dollars go back into the communities nearby, Peru made me wonder where all the tourist dollars were going besides improving tourism. In every city, we were met with street vendors, but also women and children dressed in traditional clothing asking if we wanted to take pictures with them for a fee. It hurt to see because it seemed to be a selling of their spirit, their culture, but it was one of the few ways they had to get by. Taking the taxi from Cuzco to Poroy train station gave a clear visual of the layers of wealth and poverty based on access to tourist dollars. The housing became more and more rundown as we went further from Cuzco and down into Poroy, where the best looking building was the train station. On many long bus rides we also witnessed the vast, empty, barren spaces were dotted with square homes. The poverty of scarcity was obvious in Peru, but it was also mostly hidden from tourists.

Maybe the reason that Detroit’s poverty hit me hardest was because Detroit doesn’t try to hid its poverty. There is no large tourism industry in Detroit and buildings lie abandoned, burned out, and collapsed. Our honeymoon to Peru really highlighted the differences between poverty based in areas of scarcity and poverty in places of apparent abundance. Even while Detroit has a history of abundance, many could argue that it is just as much a landscape of scarcity.

world record for enriching the poor goes to. . .

Mount Kilimanjaro sets the example for tourism that directly benefits local development, says the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), the UK based think tank that promotes evidence-based development theory. ODI’s report on tourism dollars in Northern Tanzania indicates, “that local residents earn 28 percent of the total revenue raised at Kilimanjaro from foreign visitors.” Granted this report (full report available here) publishes data collected from May – October of 2008. A lot can change in three years, especially in developing economic areas.

The study’s conclusion was that this represented the world’s highest and most successful transfer of resources from tourists to local poor people. “This is the most successful transfer of resources from international tourists to poor people living around the destination that ever seen anywhere in Africa or Asia,” stated Mr Elibariki Heriel-Mtui the SNV Adviser in Private Sector Development (quote from allAfrica). It is very unclear where the measures come or other examples of tourist dollars transferring to local people. Rarely are there stories about how a local resources actually benefit local communities instead of being exploited by outside interests. However, is 28 percent really the best that can be done?

Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak on the African continent at over 19,000 feet and attracts roughly 35,000 climbers per year. The ODI averages total in-country tourist expenditures at around US $50 million. Therefore, the 28 percent that makes it into the local economy is around $13 million. That $13 million is considered “pro-poor expenditure” – I wonder if it can be written off as a tax deductible donation? The report goes on to talk about other high tourist areas of Tanzania including Ngorogoro crater, which attracts almost 400,000 visitors, but has only 18 percent of expenditures considered pro-poor.

What makes Kilimanjaro so much better? Is it the specialized skills needed to assist climbers to the peak? Is it the difficult and remote terrain? How can 28 percent be considered a world record of pro-poor expenditure? There must be other high tourist sites around the world where there is a higher percentage of expenditure that is returned to the local economy. Anyone have examples from other areas of the world?

two voltas, one ghana, three africas

The past two Thursdays we have traveled to the Volta region – one trip to witness tradition, the other to indulge in tourism. Both were early morning trips to the furthest eastern region of Ghana. The region is the major Ewe region of Ghana, it was decided by the British to slice Ewe-land in two after the defeat of the Germans in World War I. The major ethnic group and the remainder of Ewe-land is in Togo. The British were greedy. The route we took was a toll road, no speed bumps or potholes (relatively smooth ride) straight across from Accra into Togo. I couldn’t sleep and our guide accompanying us told us before we left that in the Volta Region we would see things that we may have only dreamed about. Everyone tells us that whenever we travel we will see something so different. This really say something for the small country of Ghana, that just traveling to a different corner of the country can be such a unique experience – this says something more for Africa, since Ghana is one of its smaller countries.

27 May 2007
As we left the Accra area we passed many huge, mansion style, western homes built far from the city’s busy, crowded and slightly imposing character. These palatial (check that out mom) homes seemed to present a city of their own set above the rest. Further out was the land of big trucks and truck stops. Rows upon rows upon rows of trucks; tanker, flatbed, carrier, produce, waiting for cargo filled a long stretch of road. Even further from the city everything turned to green. Oh so green, we passed a lush landscape dotted with trees and two-person high mounds of red dirt – this was the kingdom of the termites. The mountains in the distance were highlighted by the rainclouds overhead. After crossing the man-made River Volta we were finally in the Volta Region. Here we were treated to a very different ride – massive potholes. The bus zigzagged the roadway to avoid the potholes and crevasses – it felt as if we were in a Star Wars asteroid field. It seems that the government does not have much to do with the region.

We first went to visit the local chief of the village of Klikor, which is one of the important settlements of the Ewe people. The chief has ruled over a kingdom that is over 400 years old. The chief commented on this related to development. He noted that they were much older than the US, but that they were less than one-tenth as developed. He orated a great history of his people, village, and how they eventually settled in Klikor. It was almost like living the reality of so many books that I have read. He also gave us a history of Ford and what he did for the US. He mentioned that everyone here (Klikor) had benefitted from the Ford Foundation, how I am not sure. But he did make a great point that President Ford was not one of the wealthiest men, but he left a great deal to charity and his foundation. The chief went on to tell us what to tell our friends back home, but instead jumped into a lecture on the US and Iraq. This is about the fourth such lecture that I have experienced on this trip. He made an important note that even the ‘smallest mistake of the US’ has an impact around the world. One of the students later commented on how “Africa-esk” that experience was – this is Africa!

We then traveled to another part of the village to experience traditional African religious practices. We were to see a ritual possession ceremony. Before the ceremony we were treated to the most simple, but delicious meal that I have had yet -the best tuna that I have ever eaten. We changed into the proper dress – a wrapped cloth. We were welcomed with drum and song and given kola nut and whiter clay as a sign of welcome along with a small, narrow, triple shot coconut cup of dry gin which tantalized the throat and assisted with the dancing later.

The possession had already begun and the high priestess already conveying messages from the sea-god. I have complete respect for the traditions of the village, but throughout the ceremony I could not help but think that this was a performance. I think Kyle put it best during our discussion of the ceremony, “It is like a choir performance, we may never understand what is happening, but it is still a performance.” The performers exchanged knowing looks and laughs and my thoughts were solidified. I mean no disrespect, and I really think that our experience would have been different had we been embedded in a village and taken part in the ceremony firsthand.

The rains had come as we ate and continued throughout the day. We left and our bus navigated the narrow ‘roads’ of the village where bikes and motorcycles dominate the streets. The typical houses were mud and thatch, the wealthy had cinder block houses. We returned home in the growing rainstorm.

31 May 2007
Memorial day spent in Ghana, I hope the water is not too cold for putting the dock in. This is the first time that I have really thought of home. It is plenty warm here to put a dock in any day.

This was another early morning headed back to the Volta Region to see the waterfalls. We took a much different route than before since the falls are about 6 hours drive from Accra: three hours to Volta and then three hours more in Volta. This time as we crossed the Volta River, we stopped at a riverfront hotel. This hotel was very nice, a prime place to spot an Obrooni. There were none, but there were monkeys and exotic birds in cages. There were speedboats and jet skis to be rented and a very nice pool to swim in. We had entered the second Volta. We crossed the river this time by way of a nice large bridge. and the roads showed that the government had not neglected this tourist favorable side of Volta. We arrived at the falls and met our guide. He took us on the 40 minute walk to the falls and showed us some of the local trees and wildlife as we went. He told us that behind the mountain pictured was Togo, so close.

We journeyed through the beautiful wilderness and finally heard the sound of the falls and saw its wonder. The falls were amazing, the tallest in all of West Africa. The fruit bats covered the mountain side and screeched and sprang to life as the group screamed and swam in the falls below. It was incredible to see. I wish that I had not forgotten my swim trunks. Next time.

These experiences brought to life my thoughts that there are two Voltas in Ghana. We saw them both and I guess if you can bring the government tourist money then you will have paved roads, nice hotels, and the access to basic infrastructure like electricity. This also makes me think of George Packer’s chapter in The Village of Waiting titled ‘Three Africas.’ I think it is very interesting that what he explains in the pages of his book, I have seen in my limited African experience. I saw the ‘village’ Africa while traveling rural Uganda, the ‘tourist’ Africa in the Queen Elizabeth National Park of Uganda and the waterfalls of Volta, and the new, growing, struggling Africa in the booming city of Accra, Ghana. Full of new technology, development, and thriving with entrepreneurs. These three Africas can be seen on any travel to Africa, but most of the time these three very different Africas are only seen one at a time. Does that mean that I have seen the true and complete Africa? I think not, I have only traveled to three countries in Africa – there is so much more to see!

Index of blog post series on Ghana.