In the 16 years that I have known my friend Mario I have heard many different tales of his world travels and he is one of those people who have lived, worked and hitchhiked through different exotic countries. Mario is a Toronto high school teacher and teaches French and world issues. He spent time living and working in places like Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico and Quebec and came face-to-face with often vastly different cultures.Mario is also an immigrant in two different countries, Australia where he moved as a small child in the 50s, and Canada, where he arrived as a teenager. Here is his story, the story of an immigrant, traveler and global adventurer.1. Please tell us a bit about your background. Where were you born and where did you grow up?I was born in San Vita al Tagliamento in northeastern Italy in the province of Friuli. But my parents are of Calabrese origin from Southern Italy. After his military service in the north of Italy my father decided to stay there due to his fondness for Friuli culture. In 1953 my father moved our family to Australia where he worked with a French contracting firm and we settled in Brisbane, Queensland when I was 2.5 years old. It was there that I had my first memories of the immigrant reality which was a very simple house made of wood. The roof leaked into our house and we had plants growing through the floor in the kitchen. The conditions were very basic, but this would set the stage for 11 years of a very challenging cultural adjustment period, following which my father moved us to Canada in 1964.At that time, Italians faced a lot of discrimination, even harassment or sometimes violence in different forms, physical and psychological. My family was actually the target of a number of different forms of attack because we were immigrants. It made for a rather paranoid existence, constantly having to looking over your shoulder.Remember, this was the 50s and Australia was still governed within the framework of the “White Australia Policy”, a form of institutionalized apartheid. I witnessed various acts of brutality towards Australian aborigines with whom I was often mistaken, given the darkness of my skin. The proximity to the sea, however, made me appreciate the beauty of Australia in its purest form. During this time I developed a strong sense of self-reliance and I learned the importance of defending myself.In the mid 70s I returned to Australia and I noticed that the work of many of those earlier immigrants had born fruit in the form of comfortable lifestyles and accomplished middle-class experiences. Italians had finally become mainstream and accepted. This also corresponded with Australia’s new multi-cultural policy. Australia started to open up to different nationalities, which made for a more tolerant society.2. You are a gifted multi-lingual individual. How many languages do you speak and what are they?English and Italian are my first two languages. I also speak French, Spanish and Portuguese at a pretty high level. In addition, I also get by in Indonesian and I speak basic German and some phrases in Russian. The sound of different foreign languages fascinates me and I also appreciate that speaking the language is the key to these foreign cultures. Apart from the initial period during high school when I was exposed to English, French and German for the first time, the rest of my languages were acquired through living in the culture.3. What was it like when you first came to Canada?I remember it being very very cold since we arrived in Canada on February 16, 1964. My first observation was a very abrupt introduction to the Canadian climate. For a good several years I found it very difficult to adapt to the climate. On the other hand, as far as culture went, I could finally tap into my Italian-ness. It was actually in Toronto that the whole notion of being an Italian took on a new meaning for me because I felt accepted. I felt embraced here and felt that I could express my Italian heritage which led to me perfecting my Italian, considering I had suppressed speaking Italian in Australia. Once we came to Toronto I felt a desire to further go into the language.High school in Canada was an appreciation of many other languages. We were offered courses in French, German, Latin and Spanish at the high school level. The school I went to reflected the transitional nature of Toronto at that time, which had been very WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant) until the 1960s and from then on started to change into a more cosmopolitan environment. There were people of different backgrounds which made you comfortable expressing yourself. By the time I went to university I was fairly at ease with my own intercultural identity.My appreciation for Portuguese started on a construction job in Tecumseh, Ontario, where 2 gangs of construction workers, one Italian, one Portuguese, were confined to a very small house, provided by the construction company and were forced to live and interact with one another. I started to appreciate the similarities and differences with Portuguese culture, which I found absolutely fascinating. This was my initiation into the Portuguese language.4. What were your earliest travel experiences?Apart from the immigrant boat travels, my first travel memories were when I hitchhiked to Niagara Falls and Barrie, a medium-size town 90 minutes north of Toronto, when I was 15 years old. This gave me a sense of independence and the ability to design my own path on any trip. I felt in control and decided where I wanted to go. We did not realize that we needed a passport to cross into the United States, so we learned the lesson that you need your documents in order when traveling to foreign countries.The next big trip was at the age of 17, crossing Canada with a fellow student in a VW beetle. We went to Vancouver for one month, picking strawberries, working on farms to survive. The second leg of that trip was to Mexico via California. This was the period of Height-Ashbury, the Summer of 68, and we truly experienced Flower Power in San Francisco. This left a lasting impression on me because of the freedom and the camaraderie among the youth. Anybody would open their house to you and you felt a bond with many young people.The paradox of this period was that it was during the Vietnam War. So just as you had young people bonding with each other, believing that peace was the answer to the world’s dilemmas, people were getting killed on the other side of the globe. The administration in Washington believed that war was the answer and these young people had in effect opted out of the system.Mexico in itself was an eye-opener. It was my initiation into Latino culture and decrepit third world conditions of the masses. This was my politicization when I realized the plight of the majority of humanity and it made me even more curious to go back and get in contact with these people.When I came back from Mexico it was very difficult to adjust to mundane middle-class values, just fitting into my place into my system. So I dropped out of 2nd year university and continued traveling without a set itinerary.I went to Europe first, starting with London, worked in a hospital, and then spent 2 months traveling Europe on a Eurail pass. After Spain I visited Morocco where I met a guy called Giovanni Pozzi who turned me onto images and illusions of Afghanistan, a place he had been to before. This created a great desire in me to also discover that part of the world.After Morocco I intended to meet up with Giovanni and travel with him from Brindisi, Italy, overland to Afghanistan. In September of 1971 I visited him in Milan after having gone back to discover my Italian heritage, and I then linked up with him in Brindisi from where we took a ferry to Greece and began our overland journey in the direction of Afghanistan.We made it to the Turkish-Iranian border after a harrowing incident on a Turkish train which derailed. Unfortunately I had not learned the lesson of my teen years and had not checked out visa requirements for Canadians. Iran required a visa for Canadians, so I had to return to an Iranian consulate on the Black Sea where I obtained my Iranian travel visa. Somehow Giovanni and I got separated and this was the beginning of true independent traveling. I learned never to depend on other people’s information, always double-check everything yourself.3. Please tell us of your experiences and impressions during your first trip to Asia.After traveling through Iran for about a week, which was during the repressive reign of the Shah, I hitchhiked with 2 Pakistani truck drivers from Tehran to Mashad, the site of the Blue Mosque, one of the most beautiful mosques in the Islamic world. From there we went to Herat, Kandahar and Kabul in Afghanistan, where I was privy to some of the most fantastic images of Afghan culture. I saw horsemen in bright green silk pants, in attire suited more to the Middle Ages than the 1970s. Afghanis appeared to be a very proud people, dignified and ferociously independent.After a short stay in Kabul I went through the Khyber Pass into Peshawar in Pakistan. This too was an amazing view into the gun culture of this region. Every man had a gun 4, 5 feet long and it was truly an overwhelming sight to see this much weaponry on display. Unfortunately this was to continue since a war would erupt between Pakistan and India at this time, and after leaving Pakistan I ended up traveling through India during a time of war.I was traveling on trains with a mobilized army, a people in frenetic motion not knowing what to do. The whole country was in a state of tension. Foreigners were asked to leave the country, so after a month in New Delhi I had to change my plans of visiting Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and take the next flight out of Calcutta in the direction of Bangkok. The flight ticket at that time cost US$80 one way in 1971. Calcutta was also the site of millions of refugees pouring in from what would eventually become Bangladesh. They literally overtook Calcutta. I was about to sleep outside when I was approached by a couple of Anglo-Bengalis who insisted that it was absolutely improper for a European to sleep on the ground that way. They then insisted that I go and stay with them for a couple of nights. Their only requested favour in return was to send them a Levi jacket when I’d get back to Australia.4. From India you moved on to Thailand. Please tell us about your experience in South East Asia.In Bangkok of 1971 I would stay at the Atlantic Hotel for $1 a night, Bangkok was still a relatively small capital at that time. I left Bangkok and headed south, hitchhiking where I was brutally initiated to Thai culture. I was at the back of a pickup truck and dangling my feet out of it, the pickup truck was passed by another vehicle whose occupants got out and threatened me, pointing to my feet. Luckily a young Canadian from Saskatoon, Murray Wright, was sitting in the front of my pickup and explained that it was a big mistake to show the soles of your feet. This is a major insult in Thai culture. I then realized that when traveling it is very important to understand non-verbal communication as well. This was a major lesson for me.This meeting with Murray was fortuitous. He had had an accident building a Japanese sugar factory and asked me if I would take over his job as a carpenter. This led to one month working with Thais and understanding to some degree Thai culture. It was also my first experience of amoebic dysentery, a tropical disease, which nearly killed me. This is how I was initiated to eating conditions in the developing world.
Scott contacted me about a week ago after having come across this website. We realized that we shared a lot of common philosophies and emails started flying back and forth furiously, capped off by a very long telephone conversation.Scott is an interesting individual, he has studied linguistics and finished his academic studies with a doctorate in theology. He has worked as a social activist, ranch hand, in social activism, in higher education, as an author, in technology education and in travel. He has travelled to many countries, despite the fact that he has to use a wheelchair. Along the way he has become an expert on disabled travel and “universal design”, a design philosophy that makes buildings and facilities available to all people: young, old, tall, short, strong, weak – not just the temporarily able-bodied.1. Please tell us a bit about yourself and your background.I grew up in Pacific Northwest. I believe I went camping once a month for all the years I was in Boy Scouts and on longer summer treks, canoe trips, or camps until I started working summers as a ranch hand on the North Platte River in Wyoming.2. A major life event occurred when you were 17 years old. Please tell us
about that.One Sunday before my 18th birthday I achieved what was then my life’s dream. I was certified as a ski instructor. That Thursday afternoon I awoke from a biopsy on a spinal tumor paralyzed.Three months later, my best friends convinced me that I should get out of the hospital and go to a concert with them. Later still that the same group of us camped outdoors for a week to attend the Ashland Oregon Shakespeare festival. One day, driving back to camp, a guy sped up along side our pickup on the country two-lane to ask if that was our wheelchair in the road about a mile back.It was, of course, and that was about the time that I started thinking, “I’m going to need to figure out a new way to pack for traveling. I guess every trip is going to be adventure travel now.3. You are a self-described adventurer and have traveled to many places
since you became disabled. Please tell us about the destinations you have
visited and some of your experiences.In college I studied in Brazil for a semester but I actually made a conscious decision not to travel as much as I could have when I returned in order to pursue the path of a social activist during the 1970’s and 1980’s. I kept on the move a bit with cross-country drives, a rail trip across Canada and academic travel to England and Wales. Mexico was on the itinerary as my wife and I took a group of students down for a service project. We actually won a free week in Kauai in the days before outfitters would let people with disabilities on Zodiac tours of the Na Pali Coast.Recently much of travel combines research on destination accessibility like trips to Austria, Slovakia, New Zealand, and a day in Argentina. I have been fortunate enough to explore Australia, Taiwan, Japan, and Brazil on visits to speak on Inclusive Tourism in those countries. I am looking forward to taking up invitations to Nepal, Thailand, and Romania.4. Please share with us your 3 favorite travel memories of all times.My all-time favorite is a story of compassion directed toward me as a college student while living in Brazil.A bit of history first.In the mineral rich Brazilian state of Minas Gerais the wealthy sponsored construction of numerous chapels and commissioned artwork during the colonial period. The most famous architect and artisan of the time was a disabled man known popularly as “Alejadinho.” One day, on my way to visit his most famous site in Congonhas, I asked three women begging in front of the church how best to enter in my wheelchair. Rather than answer me they placed all placed their entire day’s earnings and hurried away in spite of my protests. I don’t believethat I will ever be wealthier than I was at that moment.I also recall being scared to death as the Volcan de Agua erupted a large plume of steam a few feet in front of us in the caldera. My Guatemalan friend had only just finished weaving a yarn about how the god of the volcano didn’t like “gringos.”Right there at the top of my list is a much quieter memory. In the retelling it seems unremarkable, I suppose. Part of my doctoral work was done in Oxford, England. Meeting my fellow students was inspiring. One in particular had a life changing impact on me. What I recall most is that every day a small group of these friends walked me the two miles home – then walked back to their own homes.5. What are the unique travel challenges of someone with a disability? How
accessible are travel destinations to disabled travelers today?Quality information about accessible sites and services is key. People with disabilities travel by word-of-mouth recommendation more than other market segments I am told. Carting batteries for hearing aids; backups of medications; replacement parts for electric wheelchairs or speech synthesizers can all be part of the logistic task.Some countries, notably Jamaica, will not let you in with a service dog. Many hotel chains, beautifully accessible in the US, apparently do not want our money in some of the hottest tourist destinations. That’s unfortunate for them since the Harris Online survey commissioned by the Open Doors Organization in 2002 and again in 2005 documents that people with disabilities are traveling in ever greater numbers. In the US alone we number more than 46 million and spend in excess of $13 billion annually on travel. We also consistently report that we would travel more if the options were available.
When I first met Helga Smith at the Canada-US Servas Conference, she gave me a brief introduction to her life decade by decade, and every decade held something else that was interesting and completely different. Helga will have a chapter in a book called “Women Who Rock”, which is to be published in the near future. The book features a variety of female movers and shakers who stand out not so much for their financial and entrepreneurial success but for their unique way of overcoming major challenges in their lives, their athletic accomplishments and community involvement.The story starts in 1963 when Helga escaped from just outside of Berlin, in East Germany. A year and a half later she came to the United States without knowing any English. She got a job as a domestic and soon started to work in an office. Then she married an American who did not speak any German. Five years later she had three children and was single again.Without any source of income, Helga briefly went on welfare but also managed to complete an associate degree in computer science. She worked for two major financial institutions in New York, developing skills in graphic design and business presentations. Typical of so many other Servas members, she dedicates her spare time to community activities. She volunteers for numerous worthy causes and trains with blind people.As a matter of fact, Helga came to running in her late 50s. She initially accompanied her daughter, another enthusiastic Marathon runner, but got inspired to start running herself. Since then, Helga has completed several Marathons, including the highly competitive Boston Marathon.Helga’s athletic achievements don’t end here: she decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to raise funds for the Foundation for International Community Assistance. She raised $10,000 to help women in Tanzania obtain small loans for business creation. Mount Kilimanjaro was a special challenge for Helga: although any reasonably fit person can do it in theory, only 50% of the people starting the trek actually make it to the top. Interestingly, most of the failed attempts come from men in their early 20s who underestimate the power of the mountain and difficulties hiking in high altitude.Of course Helga is also a committed Servas traveller and has been part of the organization since 1985. Being located in New York City, a very popular travel destination, she has hosted several hundred Servas travellers. In return, she has visited more than 50 countries. Helga thinks outside the box and has passed her unconventional ways of thinking on to her children: her daughter has cycled around the world and now works for International Development. Her daughter has lived in Egypt for four years and is now assigned to another Middle Eastern country. Her son also lives in New York City, together with his Ecuadorian wife. They are both recognized and respected graffiti artists, producing murals for the City, for fun and for pay.Now, that Helga is semi-retired, she has joined another group of peace-builders: the “Non-Violent Peaceforce”. This is an organization that trains people to physically put themselves in harm’s way where a human buffer zone can be useful to defuse a potentially dangerous situation. She said that this would be a cause that she would be willing to take a risk for.Very soon we’ll be able to hear Helga’s story, her athletic achievements, community endeavours and future plans for activism.
I met a broad range of interesting folks at the recent Canada-US Servas Conference in Vancouver and among the first people I met were Robert & Bette Allekotte from New Jersey. They are both teachers and retired just recently, at only 53 years of age. Today they live on a little island off New Jersey that is connected by a bridge to the mainland.Robert & Bette joined Servas more than 25 years ago and were interested in the concept of “peace through travel” since they are both social studies teachers. Since then they have had the opportunity to travel to many countries, including Scandinavia, Japan, New Zealand, India, Singapore, Malta and various places throughout the United States. Through Servas they have shared people’s lives in their homes around the world, and they have brought up their children to have an open mind, opening their own home to travellers from all different countries.Robert and Bette are also volunteer interviewers for Servas and help to ensure that new travellers and hosts will share the Servas philosophy of building peace and intercultural understanding through travel. They also host about 10 to 15 different Servas travellers a year, many of them singles, others as couples or even families with children.Through Servas they have met some really interesting people, for example a “kinetic hypnotist and whale communicator” from Florida who lives on a motorcycle. Their first Servas travel experience was on the Danish island of Bornholm in 1977 where they stayed with an opera singer who also ran a minigolf course while also being a sailor. All this was happening right at the time when Elvis Presley died and they remember Elvis songs playing everywhere. Naturally this travel experience left some lasting memories.Robert and Bette commented that the most wonderful thing about being a Servas member is that you connect with people in their daily lives, you start to understand people’s roles in the host family and you get a true feeling for the culture. One time in Japan, Robert was invited by his host family to play the drums in a big parade during a local festival, something that would have never happened if he had been just a regular tourist.So all in all, Robert and Bette and their children have some pretty interesting stories to share about the places they visited, the people they met, the things they learned and the long-term friendships that have been created as a result of these hundreds of connections over close to 30 years. Stay tuned for their first-hand travel experiences and inter-cultural adventures.
For some reason or another, the work on this website keeps connecting me with some interesting and outstanding individuals. Scott Rain (Dr. Scott Rain, that is), contacted me this morning since he had come across my website and felt he wanted to contribute some of his expertise on disabled travel to the Travel and Transitions audience. Scott and I had a long chat this afternoon and based on our shared mutual interests, Scott will become a regular contributor here on this website as an expert on disabled travel.As a young man, undeterred by the practical necessities of earning a living or saving for retirement, this intrepid romantic studied Linguistics to the level of bachelor’s degree and studied Theology to the doctorate level. At the age of 18 he (involuntarily but permanently) adopted the sedentary position – long before the majority of his peers. His studies, profession, and innate wanderlust (Sagittarius) have put him in other compromising positions along multiple latitudes and longitudes.The terrain of Scott’s professional career is variegated. Equal parts high adventure and pilgrimage he has worked as a ranch hand, in social activism, in higher education, as an author, in technology education and in travel.Drawing on these experiences Scott contributes articles, photography, research and advice in various online settings. He is an independent travel professional and a member of the industry’s professional association, the Outside Sales Support Network (OSSN).Scott is also a Faculty Fellow of the Graduate Theological Foundation, and Travel and Disability Editor of Suite101.com. He is currently investigating the application of principles of universal design in the travel and hospitality industry. His other research interests include conflicting definitions of disability, identity issues among recently disabled seniors and those whose disability has been of longer duration, and the worldwide increase in the population with disabilities.Very soon Scott will be sharing with us his insights and travel experiences, particularly as viewed from the perspective of a disabled traveller.
When I first met Mary Jane at the recent Canadian-US Servas Conference in Vancouver, her youthful radiance struck me. I thought she might be in her early fifties, and then she revealed that she is 70! No wonder – here is a woman who exudes optimism, who always has a smile on her face. As a long-term member of Servas in the United States, Mary Jane has travelled the world, and by being a host she has brought the world into her home – in fact in almost 30 years she has opened her home to around 300 travellers from all over the world.Starting with her childhood during WWII, growing up with a mother from Austria-Hungary and a father from Japan, Mary Jane’s intercultural sensitivities got sharpened very early, and her commitment to social justice started when she was very young. Today she is involved in a whole range of causes in San Francisco and her time and dedication are making a difference – Mary Jane builds peace one person at a time. Here is a dynamic woman with a truly interesting story:1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from, what is your profession, where do you live now?I was born and raised in Pennsylvania. My parents were college educated but were looked down upon by the locals as foreigners. My father was prevented from becoming a citizen due to the federal 1924 Asian Exclusion Act until the early 1950 when the law was changed.Mary JaneMy mother lost her citizenship because in the 1920s when my parents were married, a woman who married a foreign man would loose her citizenship, no matter if she was a birth right citizen or a naturalized one. This was not the case for men. Thus, my mother was naturalized twice. This law was eventually changed in the 1930s. Citizenship and human rights became an important issues in my life.As a first generation American, with a mother from Austria-Hungary and a father from Japan, you can imagine the stares we received as a mixed race family with a 5′ 10″ Caucasian mother and a 5′ 6″ Asian dad. You can’t imagine how we were treated growing up during W.W.II with a German speaking mother and a Japanese speaking father.As a child, I was familiar with discrimination in society. When a very blue black Kenyan and a Japanese American from the Relocation Camps could not find a place to rent in the Philadelphia-Trenton area, they came to live with us. And there were others that stayed with us over the years, but that was before the 1964 Civil Right Act disallowed discrimination.Although I wanted to be an engineer like my dad, I realized after my second year in college that this would not be possible. In the 1950 women were not considered for engineering jobs. So when the Russians launched Sputnik, the United States launched a recruitment drive for math and science majors to become teachers.That is how I was recruited into the education profession where I have worked for over 35 years. I had many roles related to education in public and private schools, at the university level and with the US Department of Education — teaching, educational program evaluation, gender equity/civil rights/ de-segregation-integration, grant writing, budgeting and administration. Today, I am retired, but still work part time as a Title I math tutor to enable low achieving children to become successful in their regular classrooms.I live in San Francisco which has a rich history of civil right activism and provides many opportunities to support peace and social justice issues. My life is enriched by my many volunteer activities.2 You have been a Servas member for many years now. How did you hear about this organization and what was your first travel experience like?As a teacher you have a large block of time to travel in the summer. One summer, I visited Denmark and had the opportunity to have home hospitality though the Meet the Danes arranged by the Danish tourist bureau. I was impressed by the experience and all during my sabbatical trip round the world, I kept searching for home hospitality opportunities.It was not until 1977, when a cousin from Austria visited me here in San Francisco, told me how she was traveling around the US for 3 months with 5 others and visiting Americans using Servas. I was delighted to discover such an organization existed and joined Servas immediately — first as a host and then as a traveler.My first travel experience with Servas was as a host. Because I have a history of having people stay in my home, having Servas visitors came easy. It is only a two night stay and a good conversation. Being a host brings the travel experience into your home. My first visitors were a couple from Denmark, who helped me better understand what Servas represents. Because Servas was started in Denmark under the name Peace Builders and later changed to the Esperanto word Servas to serve, I realized that the purpose of the organization was to build peace one person at a time. That was for me!I have had over 300 Servas visitors in my 28 years in Servas and have learned so much from their questions about who I am, what I believe, what the USA is or is not, and how much more there is to learn. There are many ways to travel and see other places. One of the best ways to travel is through the open wide ranging conversations with a travelers whether it be in their home or mine.3. Please tell us a few stories about some of the international visitors that have stayed at your home or travellers you connected with, and tell us how some of these experiences have opened your eyes..The Russian Connection:
One of my visitors was a teacher in Russia and wanted to see inside a San Francisco public school. I arranged for him to visit a second grade class. The students enthusiastically welcomed him. He pulled up a bill out of his wallet and showed it to the class. He asked the class who the man was. Many hands went up and he discovered that they all thought the person to be Abraham Lincoln, because he was on money and had a beard. But, no it was Lenin who was also famous but in Russia. And where is Russia? Here on the map was Russia and here is San Francisco. I came away with a conscious awaking about my cultural lens. As I look at different situations as I travel, I may not perceive them correctly. I need to reflect, discuss what I think I perceive and ask for clarification.
Discovering antique quilts at Esprit, of all places:
A Servas visitor from Australia, was an artist who wanted to see the wall hangings at Esprit, a women’s clothes designer and distributor. I said I did not think they had quilts but would call to see if we could visit them. Much to my surprise, the company headquarters was filled with antique quilts, the company provided a catalogue of their quilts which could be purchased and there were open visiting hours. No, there was no publicity about this display and the company preferred word of mouth. When we visited, I did not know as we walked through the large brick walled building whether to look at the fabulous quilts or at how the company headquarters was organized. I realized that these quilts were made by women and were such designs as white on white squares that would be seen at the Museum of Modern Art a hundred or so years later. I realized that my visitor had shown me part of San Francisco that I was completely unaware of, but thanks to her I learned about them. When the company was sold, the quilts were donated to a museum for all to see.Learning about Tajikistan:
One of my most recent Servas visitors was from Tajikistan. I must say I did not know anything about this country or even where the country was on the map. So I went to the World Fact Book developed by the CIA. Yes, the CIA which offers very current country specific information freely on line. I learned that it was in Central Asia and formerly part of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union left, there was no structure of government. Tajikistan was destabilized by civil war which has resulted in tremendous personal losses, economic crisis, deep poverty and other social problems. Tajikistan had the lowest per capita GDP of all the 15 former Soviet Republics. Muborak, my guest said that many have left Tajikistan for safety and economic reasons and they send money home. For those that remain, the economy is very poor–the teachers receive $2 per month, the physicians $5 per month and the public servants do not always receive their government pay checks. Under these conditions, bad things are happening.
Last week I saw a brief feature on local TV about a Canadian couple who had mortgaged their home to create an international development organization in Peru, starting with shipping a container full of donated medical supplies to a small town on the Peruvian coast. I didn’t catch the person’s name, but I did catch the website: http://www.paraelmundo.org. Once on the site I sent an email, and Josh, the co-founder of this organization, got back to me in an email from Peru to arrange an interview with his wife, Danielle, who had came up with the idea for this project.Josh and Danielle remortgaged their home to raise $30,000 to start a non-profit community development organization in a town called Mancora, a small fishing town of 15,000 people, located in northern Peru on the Pacific coast, just south of the Ecuadorian border.They already started with organizing a shipment of medical supplies and also want to find a doctor who would be interested in volunteering his or her time and expertise to the community. Women’s health and men’s problems with alcoholism are among the top problems that the population in Mancora faces. Danielle and Josh also plan to work with the men and women in this town to address unemployment and social issues. Later on they also plan to obtain funding for a solar-powered drinking water system that will supply the town’s population with drinking water, a precious resource in this drought-stricken community. They have a long-term plan in mind to help this community and make it self-sufficient.Once one of Peru’s most important fishing communities, Mancora has faced economic hardship in the last 15 years associated with the collapse of the fish stocks, in part due to over-fishing, especially by foreign-owned mega-trawlers, as well as a devastating El NiÃ±o in 1989 which caused such extensive mudslides that they reshaped the coastline and changed coastal sea currents. This has led to a sharp rise in unemployment and social problems, and has slowed the pace of development.On the positive side, Mancora and the surrounding region have more recently begun to benefit from the rise of tourism, as they are blessed with a spectacular beach and one of the best surfing spots in South America. Peru in general has seen an increase in tourists over the last few decades, with adventurous travelers lured by the country’s amazingly diverse history, geography and culture.Danielle discovered Mancora when she was doing her one-year placement as part of her social work degree at Toronto’s York University. She got to know the town and the people and she fell in love with both of them.Danielle herself is a very interesting individual, a very friendly 26-year old woman, who left home at an early age to hitch-hike across Canada, with her guitar. Although this wasn’t necessarily the safest travel option, Danielle always felt protected while she was doing it and she came out of this trip with amazing experiences.Some time ago Danielle also went to Cuba, with very little money, and she ended up trading private ESL language classes for room and board with a local Cuban family. Danielle has a very strong social conscience and when I met her today I really recognized how much she wants to make a difference. She said she feels very privileged to have been this fortunate in life and she would like to make a contribution to help people in less fortunate places.Danielle and Josh put their own financial resources on the line when they started this venture. They are uprooting themselves and moving to a different continent to help an entire town in need. Their best friends are joining them on this venture and they will be reporting regularly from their experiences in Peru. They are now working with a grant writer and legal experts to obtain the funding to turn this spontaneous idea into a long-term development project.Stay tuned for this interview, and see how one Toronto couple turned their life upside down to make a difference.
Some time ago I noticed these odd shaped colourful bus-type vehicles in the streets of Toronto, and I was wondering what they were. I caught a second glimpse and I saw “Toronto Hippo Tours”, and I realized that these buses carry sightseeing passengers not just on the streets of Toronto, but also in the waters of Lake Ontario. Considering that this form of intermodal transportation is definitely unconventional, it just recently came to me that I should do an interview with this company and go on one of the vehicles myself.They are definitely funny looking vehicles with a rounded snout, bright painting saying “Ride the Hippo”, and an entry at the rear where you board walking up a set of retractable metal stairs.Today I met with Drew O’Gilvie who is the Director of Sales and Marketing for Toronto Hippo Tours. Drew used to be a Director of Sales for Delta Hotels and obviously has a lot of tourism-related marketing experience.1. Please tell us who came up with the idea of creating a company with a bus that floats? How long has the company been in business?Geoffrey Lind founded Toronto Hippo Tours 5 years ago since he wanted to bring the “duck concept”, the famous amphibian vehicle tours in Boston, to Toronto. Last year the company had 25,000 passengers and we expect to far surpass that number this year. Rather than calling ourselves a sightseeing company, we consider ourselves an “urban safari”, a true urban adventure.2. How many Hippos are there? What makes them special?We currently have 2 vehicles in operation with a 3rd one that was just recently completed and is just waiting for final licenses, a complicated process that involves federal and provincial authorities and safety checks. The vehicles are Canadian-designed and built, based on a school-bus platform. Contrary to other places, they are not recycled WWII or Korean war amphibian vehicles. They are carefully safety-checked and greased every morning. We affectionately call our 3 amphibian vehicles Harry, Happy and Henrietta, our newest addition.3. Please tell us about your route and your schedule. Are the tours narrated?The Hippo tours are 1.5 hours long and spend about 1 hour on land covering the major Toronto sites, all professionally narrated by a tour guide who is also licensed in first-aid. We run tours from the beginning of May to the end of October every hour from 11 am to 6 pm.4. Please tell us about the prices. Is it possible to book the vehicles for a private outing?Prices are very reasonable at C$35.00 per adult, or C$30.00 for seniors or students, and C$23.00 for children 12 years and under. The vehicles can also be chartered and are frequently rented for special occasions both by business organizations and private individuals for birthday parties. At C$500.00 per outing, which holds 40 passengers, this can be an extremely affordable special event.5. Please comment on the special training that your captains and tour guides receive.Our guides are certified in St. John’s Ambulance and CPR, and are all restricted engineers. They undergo strict testing with government authorities as marine captains and they have to obtain licenses to become school-bus drivers for operating the vessel on land.After interviewing Drew, I had a chance to actually sample the Hippo experience myself and I got on board, plunking myself down right behind the Captain, who in this case was a sporty-looking lady by the name of Catherine. We had another tour guide who competently and entertainingly mentioned the major sights along the way and cracked some dry jokes in between. Another guide by the name of Dan also accompanied us. He is just finishing up his road licensing and has already completed the marine portion of the licensing process.The vehicle passes through the streets of Toronto at a very leisurely pace. Our route included major sites such as the Royal York Hotel, Union Station, Yonge Street with the Bay, the Eaton Centre and Dundas Square. We then headed over on Elm Street and down on Bay Street past Old and New City Hall. I particularly enjoyed the gargoyle story about Old Toronto City Hall, where a famous architect took revenge on Toronto city counsellors who criticized him for his cost overruns by depicting their likenesses as ugly gargoyles. We then headed up University Avenue past Queens Park (the provincial government buildings) and on to the University of Toronto campus.From there we snaked our way down through the Garment District, admiring all of Toronto’s loft conversions and condo developments past the CNE grounds (the Canadian National Exhibition grounds) to a ramp near Ontario Place, where we were getting ready for THE BIG SPLASH – the Hippo’s entry into the water.It sure was a weird feeling, being on a bus whose windshield is all of a sudden fully submerged by water. But the vehicle straightened itself out pretty quickly and we started chugging slowly into the waters surrounding Ontario Place. “Happy the Hippo’s” top speed is about 5 knots, and the vehicle has a single engine that propels the bus’ transmission on land as well as the propeller in the water. At 20 tons it’s a pretty heavy vehicle and a special ramp had to be built to give it access to Lake Ontario.We took a little spin over off the west end of the Exhibition Grounds where we had a good look at Toronto’s only wind turbine (we are finally making baby-steps towards greener energy production….) where we turned around and headed back towards Ontario place.While Dan was driving during the water portion of the trip, Catherine, the other captain, and I stood at the back of the vessel and had a great conversation. Catherine is a former insurance sales expert and after being laid off she went into a completely new career – first as a Hippo tour guide, and she has also become a fully certified and licensed Hippo captain. Catherine also knows lots about fixing the vehicle and doesn’t mind getting her fingers greasy when she performs maintenance duties on the bus on a daily basis. In her off -months from November to April Catherine does some cool things, such as volunteering her services to an animal conservation area to protect sloths in Costa Rica, or travelling extensively to Cuba. As a matter of fact, Catherine is a pretty cool and interesting individual herself and I will be doing a follow-up intereview with her in the near future.Back on land we passed by Harbourfront and headed back up towards the famous Royal York hotel. Shortly after we made a quick turn left and headed back to the Hippo Tours parking spot at 151 Front Street, just a tiny bit east of the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre (formerly called the Skydome), Toronto’s multi-purpose stadium with the retractable roof.Catherine and I had a chance to catch up for about 10 minutes after the tour was over, and we briefly talked about doing a language study trip to Cuba, something that Catherine was interested in. I shared some information with her since I have had the opportunity to study Spanish at the University of Havana earlier this year.It seems to me that Catherine is a bit of an adventurer and I am really looking forward to catching up with her to find out more about her new, unconventional lifestyle that went from corporate sales to being a road/lake captain for 6 months of the year, and doing some other cool stuff in the months between..Thanks again to Drew and the whole crew at Toronto Hippo Tours for spending their time with me and for giving me the opportunity to explore Toronto on a bus – on land and on the water…….
The first impression of Pablo Chufeni is that he’s just a bundle of energy – Pablo just radiates optimism and enthusiasm. He is from Argentina, in his twenties, and works in a variety of professions, including as a professor teaching theatre, and as a TV producer. He got his first work experience at a local program of a developing bank, working with poor teenagers. Beyond these varied work activities, Pablo dedicates a huge amount of his time as a volunteer for Servas, and as you will find out soon, he is working on setting up a number of exciting international youth initiatives for this organization.Pablo originally discovered Servas through his uncle. He has had an opportunity to travel to the Netherlands, to Belgium, France and England, and he credits Servas for making these travels possible since he would otherwise not have been able to visit these countries. Servas allowed him to travel cost-effectively and gave him the opportunity to really get to know these places.Upon returning from these trips, Pablo decided to create a local Servas chapter in Rosario, Argentina’s second largest city. Today there are 15 very active Servas members and the group has already hosted 2 national meetings with people from 5 different provinces.Pablo told me of his experiences in Montevideo where he met a young Brazilian woman who wanted to study Spanish. Pablo thought that Servas offered a phenomenal international network of open-minded people, and somehow this network could be harnessed in productive ways. He ended up designing a program for youth to study abroad. This young Brazilian woman ended up staying a whole month in different Servas member homes in Argentina while a teacher gave her free Spanish language lessons. She also had a chance to take tango lessons, a real introduction to Argentinean culture. This was enhanced by a scholarship at a theatre arranged by Pablo, which normally would have cost $700. In return for this experience, Argentina sent a young Servas member to Brazil to study Portuguese.This initiative has now expanded, and in addition to Brazil and Argentina, Pablo is setting up free youth language exchange programs in Mexico and Uruguay, and he is currently working on expanding the Servas language learning and cultural exchange experience into Canada and the United States. All in all, this program will be able to offer free learning programs to 18 to 30 year old Servas members in 4 languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French and English.In addition, Pablo is also working on organizing the first International Servas Youth Meeting in the Southern Hemisphere. The event is called “Patagonia 06” and will be held during the 3rd week of January of 2006. Servas members from all over the world will be invited to share their experiences of how to enhance the organization’s effectiveness for promoting peace. Pablo also intends the event to make Servas more dynamic and more accessible to young people. He feels there are so many possibilities of harnessing this international network of like-minded people for the peaceful development of the world.Patagonia 06 will be hosted in the well-known Argentinean resort town of Bariloche and it will be an extremely affordable event: The conference program including accommodation and meals will only cost US$160.00. This low cost will allow young people from all over the world to participate.On a more local level, Pablo hosts “diversity meals”, dinners that are intended to get more young people involved in Servas. So far he has hosted 4 meals with 4 participants each, and 6 of these people have now become active Servas members, another example of the success of local outreach programs.Pablo’s imagination never rests. In addition to his current projects he is already thinking of combining Servas travel with farm work experiences as well as international job shadowing and internship opportunities. Very soon you’ll hear from this whirlwind of positive energy himself, how he develops all these creative ideas and finds the time to implement them in his spare-time.