Holidays in Heck: The Allure of Reality Tourism

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Enjoy your stay: Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS — It is not every day that a California software engineer gets to grill a gathering of masked Zapatista rebels about their method of trash collection. That an Iowa State professor can draw them out about the "dreams and hopes" of their children. That a New Jersey high school teacher can query them on how they cope with paramilitary threats, or that a Seattle grant writer can talk to them about women in combat.

But so it was, deep in the cloud forest of southern Mexico, as 15 members of the town council of San Andres Sakamch'en, bedecked in ribboned sombreros and crimson tunics, welcomed a gaggle of nosy tourists. Tzotzil Indians who have broken off from the Mexican government, they patiently answered questions about their village of rutted streets and shuttered shops, donning ski masks and bandannas only when it came to picture taking. "As indigenous people, we are threatened and exploited," said council president Lucas Hernandez Ruiz. "We are happy you have come from afar to witness our resistance."

Weary of sun, shopping and sightseeing, tens of thousands of Americans are venturing abroad as "reality tourists." Got no appetite for that pastrymaking jaunt to Provence? For $1,665, including room, board and air fare from the U.S., you can spend a week in Guatemala to "learn about the history of repression and political violence," courtesy of the Center for Global Education in Minneapolis, Minn. Does scuba diving in Hawaii leave you cold? For $3,299, plus airfare, you can travel through Southeast Asia to meet with land-mine victims and "learn how the secret CIA war on Laos affected the people," a three-week tour organized by the group Our Developing World in Saratoga, Calif. Says Thomas Johnson of Cloudforest Initiatives in St. Paul, Minn., who has led 150 reality tours: "The experience is indelible. It gnaws at the back of the mind."

Unlike eco-tourism or adventure tourism, these close encounters with the Third World are overtly political. Popular destinations include Cuba, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, Iraq, Iran, South Africa, the Palestinian territories--and Mexico's Chiapas state. There the Zapatista uprising has subsided into a seven-year stalemate punctuated by sporadic violence, and 38 municipalities, including San Andres Sakamch'en, have declared themselves "autonomous." "Do not be alarmed if the group is questioned at immigration or military checkpoints," advised the confirmation letter from Global Exchange, a San Francisco human-rights group that sponsors two trips a year to southern Mexico. Guides don't promise face time with Subcomandante Marcos, but two of his top lieutenants happened to meet with a tour group last year.

Churches, academic institutions, unions and nonprofits have jumped into reality tourism in part to raise money and in part to spread an activist message. The tours are proving attractive to ordinary Americans seeking to put a human face on the headlines. Two years ago, Howard Lipoff, 37, a New Jersey teacher, went to the Palestinian territories with Global Exchange and met with both Israeli settlers and a spokesman from Hamas, the radical Islamic group. This year he signed up to meet the Zapatistas. "We find out how they live their lives," he says. "It's history in the making."

Reality tours can be grueling. In Chiapas, Lipoff and his 13 companions spent hours in dense briefings on indigenous-rights negotiations, Mexican elections, globalization, fair trade and biodiversity. Their $11-a-night hotel in San Cristobal de las Casas was spartan; little time was left for escapes to the colorful artisan markets and baroque churches of the 16th century city. On an overnight visit to Nuevo Yibeljoj, an impoverished community of displaced Zapatista sympathizers, the visitors lay their sleeping bags on bare planks, fought off mosquitoes and fleas and urinated behind bushes rather than face a stinking outhouse.

Still, the tourists thought Nuevo Yibeljoj was worth the inconvenience. The 96 families there are members of Las Abejas (the Bees), a lay Catholic group that was the target of an infamous 1997 massacre by paramilitaries in nearby Acteal. Amid clucking chickens and barefoot children, they welcomed the tourists with candles, incense and an hour-long prayer ceremony in Tzotzil. Agustin Vazquez, 34, a coffee farmer, told how he heard shots during the massacre, ran to Acteal and found pools of blood everywhere--and his niece and her three children among the dead. He thanked Global Exchange for its contributions to the village--800 pesos ($90) on this visit--and described the need for drinkable water, a road, electricity and wood to build homes. "We don't feel alone," he said. "Because you are with us." His message resonated with many in the group. "I will go back to my hometown and tell people about your bravery and your warm hearts," said Sarah Scharbach, 47, a professor at Massachusetts' Worcester State College.

But if some relished what seemed to be ringside seats at the revolution, others were more skeptical. They wanted to know why Global Exchange hadn't scheduled briefings with Mexican government officials, to hear from those who see indigenous demands as a threat to Mexican unity, for example. Ryan Zinn, the trip leader, said government representatives have declined to meet with reality tours and that the group is not set up to satisfy the complex visa requirements for official delegations. Meanwhile, not every event got the thumbs-up. At the end of the trip, eyes glazed over during a two-hour harangue by a bandanna-coiffed ideologue in the town of Oventic. "Even his fellow Zapatistas nodded off," noted Geoff Tani, 33, a software engineer from San Francisco.

Not all reality tours are as heavy on left-wing politics as the Chiapas trip. Global Exchange sponsors "Jammin' in Havana," with an emphasis on music, and its next visit to Iran focuses on Iranian cinema. Nor are all reality tourists liberals.

"Republicans are not uncommon," claims Global Exchange spokesman Jason Mark. He recalls with fondness a Texan who broke into God Bless America during a Cuba tour. "The Cubans groaned, and he demanded to know 'What's the problem? God or America?'" The trips have been known to provoke participants to activism. Two participants on a Global Exchange trip to Haiti afterward moved to the island to volunteer for charitable projects.

Reality-tour sponsors boast of building a "new grass-roots internationalism." But was it titillated voyeurism or earnest solidarity that the vacationers in Zapatista Land felt as the weathered campesinos of San Andres Sakamch'en pulled on their ski masks? A measure of both is what keeps reality tourists coming back for more.