In January, I had the great privilege of travelling to Colombia to experience fair trade in action with my wife and two daughters. There are dozens of stories I could tell – but I’ve chosen two that I think best illustrate the enormous impact this trip had on our family: A story about hospitality, and a story about hope.
When you travel, it’s tempting to stick to the sanitized areas. I totally understand, because I’ve been there myself. But when you can go beyond the tourist traps – when you have the opportunity to get to know some of the locals and experience a taste of what life is truly like for them – it makes for a very different sort of trip.
We felt welcomed and embraced by the many Colombians we met along the way – and I know that the sense of belonging that my daughters felt, in a very different part of the world, will leave a lasting impression on them as they mature and find their own place in the world.
We witnessed varying degrees of poverty and need over the course of our 10-day journey throughout several regions of Colombia. But the moment when it became most “real” for my daughters was when we visited the home of a young girl we’d met at a school that’s sponsored by Level Ground Trading.
After a long walk through the hills on a narrow, well-worn dirt track, we arrived at a small clearing, surrounded by steep fields planted with coffee bushes. In the middle of the clearing was a tiny house. The young girl’s mother invited us into the bedroom, the only other room besides the kitchen. (There was a toilet and sink in a separate little shelter.)
We all sat down in their crowded bedroom, which contained a small dresser, a single bed for the little girl, and a small double bed for her parents. As we discussed what daily life is like for them, I could see our girls looking around, soaking it all in. It wasn’t hard to decipher what was going on in their minds: “My bedroom is as big as this entire house – and yet, all three of them have to sleep together in this tiny room. And where are all the toys?!”
The family shared openly about how hard it is for people in that region to get steady, predictable work. During coffee harvest season, there’s more than enough to go around – but there are other times when there’s nothing, and you have to hope you’ve saved enough to make it through those dry spells.
Still, in the midst of instability and unpredictability, this family expressed hope for the future. Their daughter has the chance to attend an excellent school, where the teacher’s salary is subsidized by Level Ground. With some ongoing support, it’s realistic that she will be able to complete secondary school, and possibly even go on to post-secondary education.
EMPATHETIC GLOBAL CITIZENS
When we travel, it’s usually because we want a break from reality, so the last thing we want to do is confront things that make us uncomfortable. We don’t really want poverty and homelessness staring us in the face as we’re trying to relax and rejuvenate.
Tracy and I were nervous about how our daughters would react to these realities as we prepared for the trip. But our experience in Colombia taught us that children are more resilient than we often give them credit for.
They came away from this trip with a much broader awareness of what life is like for many people around the world. To be welcomed by people whose day-to-day lives are so different than ours – and to witness heartfelt expressions of hope for the future in the midst of poverty and uncertainty – were overwhelming, humbling experiences for all of us.
There is much good in the world. But there is also much sadness and pain and struggle. To be empathetic global citizens, it’s important that we become educated about the realities that surround us, both near and far. For my family, this trip planted in us the desire to experience more of the world – not just the beautiful bits, and not as we wish it were, but as it truly is.
Wherever you go this summer – whether it’s to the local park, or to a campground, to Walt Disney World, or maybe even somewhere exotic – even if it’s only for a small portion of your time away, exposing yourself to new ideas, new cultures and new perspectives is one important way you can expand your understanding of, and empathy for, those whose life experiences are worlds different from your own.