Los Ramos Says Many Thanks!

The Help Los Ramos Rebuild donation website has been extremely successful. Thanks to YOUR support for this lovely indigenous community, you have given them hope and encouragement to rebuild their community of 125 families who were affected by the October 8th landslides on Ometepe Island.


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Part Two: Natives With Netiquette

Globalization, as defined by rich people like us, is a very nice thing… you are talking about the Internet, you are talking about cell phones, you are talking about computers. This doesn’t affect two-thirds of the people of the world.
Jimmy Carter

Part Two in a series of travelers vs tourists. The first part was: Codes of Responsible Travelers. In this post, I explore the problems that arise with sustainable and cultural tourism through the eyes of the indigenous community of Los Ramos.

Ten years ago, we gave our cell phone to Francisco of the Los Ramos indigenous community because we were returning to the states. For generations, this community lacked any means of high-tech communication. Grandpa Cabo announced special events in the community with his ancient bull horn.  With my used cell phone and a tall tree, the people could now climb to the top of the tree to receive a stronger signal…and voila…they were connected to the world. Although, it worried Francisco when his grandmother became trapped in the tree and he had to rescue her…picture a cat in a tree meowing frantically… the cell phone signified a new beginning for this isolated community.

DSCN0694Years later, progress in Los Ramos advanced rapidly. With generous donations, they bought an electric transformer…yes, you have to buy your own transformers in Nicaragua…to run a pump from the well located two miles down a long, sloping, dusty path to the beach. Now, they had running water in Los Ramos. Their lives became a lot easier.

Getting water in Los RamosThis agricultural community continued planting and harvesting their frioles, plantains, and sesame seeds. However, they were losing their young people to Costa Rica and other more cosmopolitan places in Nicaragua. There were no jobs to keep this community intact. Something had to be done to help their young families bring in the hay.

Bringing in the hayEnter sustainable/cultural tourism in Los Ramos. With the help of many knowledgeable and professional tourism people…including my son, Cory, and his good friend Sam…they compiled lists of available resources in Los Ramos, developed 12 cultural tourism programs, created brochures and a website, and perfected their programs with ‘fake’ travelers. Zac, the Peace Corps volunteer, helped them create a budget and worked closely with the community to develop an accounting system.

Front page of BrochureWord spread quickly about the authentic cultural programs in Los Ramos. Los Ramos hired their local son, Ever, as their new tourism director. They have a well-organized system of accounting, preparing, and planning for their programs. Yet, cultural tourism isn’t without its pitfalls. This indigenous community has learned that there is a fine balance between providing authentic cultural experiences and maintaining, yet improving their lifestyles, culture, and traditions passed down through generations.

First, they have learned that marketing their programs requires computers, cell phones, and internet access. Grandma can’t climb that tree anymore to call the world. It’s a dichotomy of development… a clash of cultures. The world was suddenly at their fingertips, if they learned how to boot-up the computer.  They had to quickly become natives with netiquette to run their programs.

Second, they experienced language barriers. More travelers passing through their community, meant they needed someone who could speak some English. Fortunately, Ever has the skills to explain their programs, provide answers to questions, and help tourists limited to English only.

Third, more visitors = more money for the community. More money = more ‘conveniences’ for tourists, as well as their own families. Does providing authentic cultural experiences mean that they can’t buy microwaves, big refrigerators, open an internet café, start a smoothie bar, or buy a big flat-screened TV or iPhone? How do they balance authentic experiences with wanting to offer more comfort and ease for everyone involved in their lives? They are beginning to understand the dilemmas they face. Tourists seek authentic cultural experiences, then they complain about lacking a comfortable mattress, a hot shower, wi-fi, or ice cubes in their freshly squeezed orange juice. Where’s the balance?

Fourth, more money coming into the community always partners with jealousy and power. Host families have to offer safe, comfortable housing for their guests. When non-host families see the money coming into their neighbors’ host homes, they want to become host families, too. Yet, their only accommodations are the pig sty behind their house or the chicken coop. Then, little fights break out, feelings are hurt, and jealousies erupt like the active volcano looming at the top of their community.

Sustainable tourism, in my opinion, is a viable option for Los Ramos, especially considering the alternatives…high rise resorts, where the locals become the maids and gardeners…young men moving to Costa Rica to find jobs to support their families left behind…or cleaning houses in foreign gated communities. I have no doubts that this lovely community will be able to resolve these problems…poco a poco. They are resourceful, creative, and oh…the places they can go with a little help from their friends. This vivacious community of natives with netiquette are learning as they progress to…keep their traditions close to their hearts…proudly share their lifestyles with the world…and most importantly, love their neighbors.

Los Ramos Mi Casa es tu Casa website.
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The Codes of Responsible Travelers

Ask Nicaraguans taking English classes why they want to learn English, and I’ll bet the majority of them say, “Because I want to be a tour guide.” Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in Nicaragua. It is a people-oriented business, geared to revitalizing local communities and providing many jobs. However, like other industries, tourism has its downsides such as: ecological degradation, locals forced to relocate because of increased cost of housing, food, transportation, and other services, loss of cultural heritage, increased petty crime, and economic dependence on foreigners.

We are victims of our own popularity. We’ve seen the impact mainstream tourism has on our tiny Ometepe Island. Its long-term effects on our local island communities have led many of our expats and local islanders to explore programs offering alternative vacations. The problems that go with mainstream tourism will doom Ometepe Island if left untethered. The proposed Nicaraguan canal could prove to be an ecological disaster. (I’m writing a post about the canal soon.) Sustainable tourism is the perfect alternative for responsible travelers seeking educational and low-impact adventures that will benefit the local communities of Ometepe Island.

Notice that I use the word ‘travelers’ instead of ‘tourists.’ A tourist visits to be entertained by experiences and images created especially for the tourist market. Think…luaus…beach cocktails with paper umbrellas…going somewhere just to check it off the list…white sneakers…camera draped around the neck…you get the picture.  A traveler…blends in with the locals…travels by local transportation…considers a trip a journey or a quest…researches, plans, and explores the culture.

Before developing programs, we need to know what responsible travelers really want, what resources we have available on our Biosphere Reserve, and how we can provide sustainable tourism that respects both the local people and the travelers, the cultural heritage, and our environment. In order to understand the needs of travelers, first, we must learn the codes of responsible travelers.

                                    The Codes of Responsible Travelers

1. Prepare in Advance
Travelers learn about the culture, customs, history, and language of foreign lands long before their passports are stamped. They are avid researchers. Ask a traveler for a list of websites, blogs, and books to read and you’ll be surprised at the number of resources a traveler can recall off the top of his/her head. Travelers tend to be expert packers, too. They have memorized the airport codes and know the best days and times to book a flight, or all the locations of the local bus stops, including a schedule of the times of departure.

Brochure for Los Ramos2. Choose the Right Tour Operator
Travelers choose home stays and locally operated hotels and hostels over expensive resource-consuming international hotels. They select tours that support small-scale projects and employ local guides. They seek tours that are designed with the input of the local community.

DSCN06773. Respect Local Customs, Cultures, and Lifestyles
R-E-S-P-E-C-T…the mantra of travelers. They are sensitive to the intrusion of photographing people and places. They respect the local customs and try to “fit in”. Offensive behaviors such as drunkenness, sexual advances, and improper dress are avoided at all costs. Travelers accept that people have different, not wrong or inferior, ways of living. They understand the myths of poverty and instead of tossing money to beggars, they offer them clothes, shelter, or food.

IMG_23784. Consider the Impact of Presence
Travelers eat the local food, not only because it’s adventuresome, but because the expenditure will stay in the country. They shun McDonald’s and Burger King, instead going for places with names like Pizza Hot or the Mini-Super. They avoid buying products that are made from protected species, never litter, and try to conserve limited local non-renewable resources like firewood or water. They enjoy cold showers…

IMG_0027and local drinks. They are aware of the impact of tourism on the people and places that they visit. Travelers are careful when bargaining that they don’t exploit the local vendors. They walk, run, hike, bike, and explore the country using local transportation instead of large, energy-consuming tour buses.

IMG_52665. Present Yourself Realistically
Travelers learn to speak the language and present themselves as citizens of the world. They share ideas and other information with the local people about their social, economic, and environmental realities in their home countries. They do not glamorize their lifestyles or their culture. They focus on similarities, instead of differences. They empathize.

IMG_02366. Continue the Experience
When travelers return home, they often share their stories…but they DO so much more. They are activists. Travelers are not content simply sharing photos of their experiences. They join human rights and environmental protection groups, volunteer their services, and share their experiences in the hopes that we can all become citizens of the world. Travelers are our eyes without borders, our dreams and hopes for a better future, our voices for those who cannot advocate for themselves.

IMG_0864                                      Are you a traveler or a tourist?

The six codes of responsible travelers were taken from the UNESCO website called Being a Traveler-Six General Principles.