Cuba

Womens Travel Groups: An Interview with Our Travel GirlFriend

Malia Everett, CEO of Altruvistas, oversees all of our women's travel groups going out each year to places like Kenya, Cuba, and Nicaragua!
Malia Everett, CEO of Altruvistas, oversees all of our women's travel groups going out each year to places like Kenya, Cuba, and Nicaragua!

This week's blog post is an interview with Malia Everett, who has over two decades of experience pioneering cultural and educational exchanges, and has graciously jumped in (with little immediate pay-off!) to oversee all of our GirlFriendCircles TravelCircles trips to such places as Cuba, Kenya, and Nicaragua!

Malia believes in the power of travel as a transformational tool for education and social change and facilitates tours to over 80 countries around the world focusing on international relations, human rights, political economy, sustainable development, women’s issues and the resilience of indigenous cultures.

As the founder and CEO of Altruvistas she is personally putting together the most thoughtful itineraries and experiences for all our trips geared around the woman's life and voice to each country!

At the bottom of the interview, we highlight some of our upcoming trips!

Shasta:  Malia, people talk all the time about how important it is to havepassion for their jobs, but there's passion and then there's the kindpassion you have!  It's deep and amazing-- can you share with us wherethat comes from?

Malia: I love what I do and I know my passion is contagious. Working in the world of socially responsible travel that is educational and truly philanthropic is a vocation for me. I consider myself deeply blessed to have found my calling and to share that with others. What keeps me excited about the work every day, is the same truth that has fed my soul for the past 20 years: I get to experience the transformational power of travel firsthand.

For example, when a GirlFriend comes back and calls me with excitement and enthusiasm sharing how the journey changed her life, that she learned things she'd never even thought about before; I know the work is worthwhile. The journeys create well-being, not only for the traveler but also for the host communities. This is being in service to me.

Shasta: When most of us hear of ethical travel, I'm not sure we even knowwhat's involved with that term!  What is important to you in the planningof trips to other countries?

Malia: In order for travel to be truly ethical, it needs to incorporate the best practices of both ecological and social responsibility. Some travel companies focus on one or the other. Altruvistas philosophy is holistic in its approach; we focus on both eco-consciousness  AND social responsibility because we believe that travelers should benefit the people and places they visit.

Sustainable Tourism helps sustain livelihoods, support local communities and conserve the world¹s natural and cultural heritage. At Altruvistas we know that responsible tourism is a powerful tool in poverty reduction. Our staff is experienced travel professionals with a shared commitment to sustainability and a passion to ensure the benefits of responsible tourism globally.  In order to maximize the benefits and full potential of tourism we must acknowledge that conventional tourism has negative impact. A few issues of concern to us are: capital flight in our globalized economy; the commodification of cultures and people (including sex tourism and human trafficking); and the environmental impacts of flying that contributes to greenhouse gases. In fact, climate change poses a severe threat to those things that responsible travelers hold sacred: ­ local communities, biodiversity, and environments around the world. Altruvistas tackles the lack of equity in the conventional tourism economy and encourages best practices for ourselves, for our travelers, and for those we partner with globally.

Shasta: You've been a huge advocate for our TravelCircles.... What, in youropinion, makes our trips special?

Malia: I LOVE the GirlFriendCircles brand and have personally and professional learned a lot from traveling with you, Shasta. During our first professional delegation of women to Cuba I saw firsthand how you facilitated

Malia and me in Cuba last summer, at a rooftop restaurant overlooking Havana!
Malia and me in Cuba last summer, at a rooftop restaurant overlooking Havana!

friendship circles and truly helped women quickly make friendships. Right away the group dynamic was smooth and connective. Since then I have seen how your ambassadors are deeply committed to the girlfriends well-being as they consistently encourage the travelers to meet and share with others.

I think TravelCircles are special as they combine the BEST of GFC and Altruvistas. Together we are creating unique experience. These are journeys BY and FOR women, to experience great sites in a sustainable way that honors the women you are traveling with and exchanging with. Yes all the trips see the major world heritage sites and important cultural monuments, yet we also get off the beaten path and into the businesses, schools, artists studios, organizations and homes of women.

Shasta: Some women have wondered about the safety of some of the countries we've chosen, including our trip to Afghanistan this fall, can you tellus why you think it's important to visit these countries?

Malia: Traveling to places, where the US or the West has strained political or economic relationships, is important. I believe that when we break bread together, learn about each others struggles, share hopes for the future and hear others aspirations for the future we create understanding and that fosters peace building. Traveling to Afghanistan, Iran and other countries  like Cuba are important examples of how GFC courageously embraces a women's citizen diplomacy. Women return informed and engaged with first hand stories that are much more complex and candid than dominant media coverage.

Shasta: One of the special elements on all our trips is visiting a few NGO'sin each country that are supporting the causes of women-- how do youthink that adds to the experience of a trip and why is it so important?

Malia: Meetings with women's organizations is a grounding element of the TravelCircles. This is one vital way for us to learn what our shared struggles and successes are as women. While the whole trip is not focused on a gender rights struggle or issue, we make intentional time to explore important issues impacting women's lives where we go. Our women are curious and engaged.  Thus adding a few meetings that examine themes like political representation, cultural and religious norms and gender rights, poverty and socioeconomic equity provide a lot of opportunities to exchange and share with our hosts and in our group. Additionally we have visited with NGO's serving elders and children, tackling domestic violence and human trafficking. These are important issues to not gloss over.  At TravelCircles we include these visits to bridge differences, to build solidarity between ourselves and our hosts, and hopefully to inspire Girlfriends to give back when back home.

Shasta: We make a donation every quarter and we'd love for you to pick one of your favorite causes and organizations-- tell us about the one you pick!

Malia: I am SO honored! I am really excited to share the work of MISSSEY with GFC. I love working locally and internationally and one of the issues very close to my heart is modern-day slavery. Altruvistas is a signatory of the ECPAT's Code  an industry-driven responsible tourism initiative with a mission to provide awareness, tools and support to the tourism industry in order to prevent the sexual exploitation of children. The work MISSSEY does is vital for educating and advocating for vulnerable Bay Area youth in the face of poverty, sexual exploitation and human trafficking. I've supported their work for years.

Shasta: On behalf of GirlFriendCircles.com, we will be making a donation to MISSSEY because of you!  And finally, each trip for us is connected to building friendships--tell us what role friendships play in your life right now.  In what waysis your life better because of your female friends?

I can not imagine my life without my friends! I am not just saying that either. After I become a mother in 2000 I had so little time to be me, just Malia. I was a mother of, lover of, worker of, activist of...I was always on!  After reading a book called the Red Tent, a friend and I decided to create a Full Moon circle, our own GirlFriendsCircle if you will. We needed a ritual to connect in our overwhelming lives. We are now celebrating 13 years in friendships. We have celebrated births and new loves together. We have toasted new jobs and beginnings. We have mourned the loss of parents and friends. We have held each other through divorce and break ups. We have giggled, danced, cried and eaten hours a way in fellowship. I count my wealth in the love I have of community, family and friends.

Thank you Malia!  Thank you not just for what you're giving to us GirlFriends as we travel the world, but to what you're giving and doing for the world overall! xoxo

Our TravelCircles are open to ALL women over the age of 21.  To be on our list that announces new trips, sign up here.

womens travel groups
womens travel groups

Plus, we currently have room for a couple more women to join us this fall to:

  • Nicaragua*
  • Greece
  • Cuba
  • Afghanistan
  •  Kenya*
  • Chile & Argentina

For all trips and details, go to www.WomensTravelGroups.com

*We also have two upcoming live Q & A calls where you can learn more about the trips to Nicaragua (Saturday May 17th at 9 am PST) and Kenya (Saturday, May 24th at 10 am PST) trips.  Email Malia@altruvistas.com for more information!

Why Travel with GirlFriendCircles?

Michelle Scott-- the beautiful GFC TravelCircle host and author of this guest post.
Michelle Scott-- the beautiful GFC TravelCircle host and author of this guest post.

Welcome home to the 15 women who just returned from our 2nd TravelCircle to Cuba!  And a huge thanks to Michelle Scott for not only being the GFC ambassador on this trip, but also for writing this guest blog that gives us a glimpse into the amazing experience you all had!

Also, Michelle is leading TWO of the 9 scheduled TravelCircles in 2014-- GirlFriends Eco-Adventuring in Nicaragua in August and the Women Dancing & Sipping through Argentina & Chile in November. Check them out--you'd be lucky to be in her care!  (All trips are highlighted at the end of the blog and can be found at www.WomensTravelCircles.com)

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by Michelle Scott

Planning an adventure is an interesting thing. You can spend months preparing an itinerary, but you never know when those magical moments will occur, or how, and with whom connections will develop. Such was our experience in Cuba.

Our first morning in Cuba, we sat in a circle, looking at 15 unfamiliar faces. Who were these women, who had made group travel to Cuba a priority?

One of many amazing meals we shared, talking and laughing, with the yummy Cuban drinks!
One of many amazing meals we shared, talking and laughing, with the yummy Cuban drinks!

Each of us had chosen to invest and engage in this particular adventure at this specific time. Most came to learn, some came to be inspired or to find direction, and at least one came to honor the memory of a loved one, who valued travel and culture. All were united in our value of friendship and adventure.

GirlFriendCircles (GFC) began TravelCircles this year. While each trip is unique, all focus on two main components. 1) We travel together with the intention of connecting with each other in a meaningful and honoring way. 2) We learn about the lives of women living in that particular country/region.

Our Travel Through Cuba

Because GFC teams with Altruvistas, we are able to experience Cuba or any country we travel to in a deeper, more connected and invested manner. In other words, we’re not there as passive tourists. We show up, ready to engage and build relationships with the people we meet.

A dance class where we got a chance to watch the best perform and then learn to do some of the steps ourselves!
A dance class where we got a chance to watch the best perform and then learn to do some of the steps ourselves!

On this particular trip, we learned from Cubans with firsthand knowledge of history, architecture, politics, healthcare, literacy and education, music, art, community development, and social services. At times, our role was more like new students, soaking up information. Other times, we were colleagues, processing what we were learning and integrating it with previous knowledge. Because there was mutual respect and interactive conversations, it was an engaging way of learning.

We learned about The Cuban 5 and how Cubans view the U.S. embargo/blockade. We learned about diversity and prejudice. We gained new appreciation for murals and the value of art within a community. We learned how to make our own perfume. We learned to dance, laugh and fan our way through Cutumba. While much of our itinerary was full (because learning hours are required for our visas), there were times, when we practiced slowing down enough to listen, engage and experience. And we loved those moments that unified us with little to no effort on our part other than being present in the moment and accepting its gifts.

“Why are you glad you went on this trip?”

But don't just take it from me, I asked some of the other women on the trip to answer the question: “Why are you glad you went on this trip?”

  • Kate S. from Chicago shared, “I have never been on a trip where I connected with so many different people. This trip provided the ability to have personal interactions with Cubans in a way that would not have been possible had I traveled independently. The stories we heard, the culture we experienced, and conversations we had will stay with me forever. The group of girls from GirlFriendCircles were the best people to share this experience with; I truly believe some of the friendships we made will last a lifetime.”
  • Our group!  We love each other.  What fun!
  • Amy from North Carolina responded, “I'm glad I saw Cuba just before what I anticipate to be a period of great change. It's amazing to be surrounded by such history and so little of our ubiquitous consumerist culture.”
  • Jennifer from Wisconsin replied, “I loved the feeling of truly being lost in another time. Some of my favorite moments were in Old Havana, with the bustling streets, amazing cars, music playing in the air, and the colorful patchwork textures and buildings all around. It was a treat for my senses. Cuba has a kind of raw energy that you don't see much elsewhere.”
  • Kirsten from British Columbia shared, “Cuba deserves so much credit for surviving as it has for so long against such overwhelming odds. I was grateful to be exposed to a different truth than the one many of us have learned. In the end I think there is truth on all sides. I was impressed by a different value system, one that places the emphasis on taking care of each other, rather than on individual achievement.”
  • Kimberly from Florida responded, “Mostly glad to meet such an amazing group of American women, but so glad to have seen the resiliency of the Cuban women and people. The countryside and architecture were beautiful!!”

Are you considering travel with GirlFriendCircles? Now is the time to express your interest. Many trips are planned for 2014. (See the list of all 9 trips below!) These adventures are full of great activities and opportunities to meet wonderful people, who also value friendship. What could be better than experiencing a new culture while building connection and friendship?

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travelCircle
travelCircle

Ready to Travel, GirlFriend? 

Scheduled TravelCircles that Still Have Availability in 2014:

GirlFriends Eco-Adventuring in Nicaragua August 2-11, 2014

For adventurous and active women this trip is filled with hikes, learning, and beauty! (Also, optional 2-day surfing lessons)

Women and Goddesses in Greece Aug 29-Sept. 9, 2014

Ready to explore the Parthenon, Acropolis, and the Temple of Zeus? This is trip with spirituality, myths, beauty, art, and the divine feminine.

Women of Compassion on Safari in Kenya September 27-October 6

Combine the best wildlife of a Safari with amazing opportunities to learn about social causes and regional issues affecting women in Africa.

Women & Current Affairs in Afghanistan October 4-13, 2014

Ready to understand a country in a more real way than just what we see on TV?  Watch history unfold in an intimate and local way.

Women Dancing & Sipping through Argentina & Chile Nov 1-11

Get ready to dance, cook, sip wine and inhale all the beauty, culture, and history of two amazing countries: Argentina and Chile!

www.WomensTravelCircles.com

brought to you by:

GirlFriendCircles_logo
GirlFriendCircles_logo

From Strangers to Friends: Our Travel Circle to Cuba

After we had all checked in at the Miami airport on June 16 for our charter flight to Cuba, I remember thinking, "Oh wow, I hope this works." And by this I meant, 15 women who had never met each other deciding to travel for 10 days together in a foreign country. It could go one of three ways: 15 women traveling beside each other but not really connecting as a group, 15 women getting sick of each other and whining and judging the whole time, or 15 women ending up feeling the bond of friendship.

In this photo we don't yet even know each others names... but the trip ahead of us is going to be amazing!
In this photo we don't yet even know each others names... but the trip ahead of us is going to be amazing!

I looked around at our group of strangers spread apart in age from 22 to 67, with one trying to figure out if she had time to get a manicure at the airport and others looking like they had never had a manicure in their lives, and observed how seemingly different we all were from each other.  While trying to remember each others names you could tell we each had our questions about how this experience would yet play out...

My Top 5 Take-Away's

  1. We don't have to be like each other to like each other.  No doubt we were all so very different: some women looked like they had stepped out of fashion magazines every day of the trip while others seemed to be wearing the same outfit in every photo; some women undoubtedly came with unlimited budgets while others were rationing out their CUC's with worried eyes; some looked like they were ready to dance anytime a tune was heard while others needed to put their feet up and rest in the van; some never turned down an opportunity to drink the island rum or local beer while others seemed much happier with water the whole time. We were an eclectic group to be sure. I say all that only to help highlight the beautiful truth that we all really, really, really liked each other. From day one all the way to day ten.
  2. One of my favorite aspects of the trip turned out to be the age span of the group.  It was SO enriching to build relationships with women you might not hang out with back home. What wisdom!
  3. Friendships are meaningful no matter how different they might look.  For some, this trip will simply be the starting point of their friendships: some women stayed up late into the night whispering with their roommates, others rented the classic old cars together for adventures where they spent the whole afternoon laughing and sharing. For all of us though, even if we didn't come home with new best amigas, we know we have new friends. Without being asked, we simply sat in different seats in the van and switched who we joined for meals-- making sure we all got to know each other in ways that mattered. We're all writing each other this week mentioning the withdrawals we're all feeling from not being together, sharing our photos, and planning a reunion dinner next month for those who can make it!  I expect to feel close to these women for quite some time.
  4. Toasting new friendships with one of many mojitos!
  5. Group travel encouraged stimulating conversations and sharing. We all too often go on a trip and get lost in our own thoughts; but in a group, we were able to hear different view points, externally process our own thoughts, ask questions, and honor our shared curiosity.  As we all tried to make sense of the impact of the U.S. embargo, how grateful Cubans were for Fidel Castro when most of us Americans had heard only negative things about him, and what socialism looked like in reality-- I was ever grateful to have a group of wise women each processing the same. Several of us walked through the Museum of the Revolution together trying to make sense of the history, my roommate shared with me some background to the political system, our local guide kept revealing how Cubans see their own experience, and all of us kept processing what we were learning in ways that served each other.  At lunches we'd often talk at tables about what we had learned in the mornings and dinners were filled with us sharing our highlight moments.
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  7. Learning makes my travel mean so much more! I've traveled to Mexico to lay on a beach without giving any thought to how their government is structured, gone to Italy to eat pizza without caring about their women's movement, or ridden a camel in Morocco without grasping what causes they are currently struggling with. In order to travel to Cuba legally, though, we had to apply for educational/professional/people-to-people visas which means we had to put in 40 hours of learning. That translated to sitting down with a university professor of gender and African studies to better understand the cultural shifts they've experienced and are still undergoing.  It meant visiting a neighborhood community center and dancing and singing with the locals.  It meant meeting an artist and having him share with us what his work means to him.  It meant meeting with the Federation of Cuban Women and hearing the history of the women's movement in that country.  It meant walking away with a greater appreciation not just for the country as a tourist experience but really understanding and admiring who that country has been and is today. Not every GirlFriendCircles.com Travel Circle itinerary will be as full of learning as Cuba needed to be... but I'm convinced I want to do a little more of it than simply sight-seeing and relaxing!
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  9. Women rock!!! Did you know that Cuba is ranked #3 globally in women's political participation with 48.9% women holding seats in their Parliament? (U.S. is ranked #79 this year!)  Not just are we committed to traveling as groups of women, but we want to learn about the women in the country we're visiting, too! So in Cuba that meant eating dinner in the home of the Three Anna's (a mom and her two daughters who rent out rooms to travelers) in Cuba de Santiago and asking them what it's like to be female entrepreneurs.  It meant dance classes and perfume making!  It meant looking at how free education and free healthcare leveled the playing field in that country for women and minority groups.  It meant that when we were guided through the fine arts museum that the female guide focused on women artists, the women who inspired the male artists, and how women were objectified or seen at different times.  Fascinating!  I loved being reminded of our connection with our sisters in another country.

Cuba was thought-provoking and fascinating.... the embargo means no Coca-Cola, McDonalds, or Starbucks. Where else have you been where you've seen that reality?

Easily the most famous face in Cuba... Che is one of about five revolutionary heroes.
Easily the most famous face in Cuba... Che is one of about five revolutionary heroes.

The whole country is like a land caught in a time warp where it may be decaying, but you can see the grandeur of their history since it hasn't yet been bull-dozed for condos or replaced with corporate skyscrapers. The people have dance and music running through their veins, along with big doses of idealism, love, and generosity.  While we uphold movie stars and singers, they revere their revolutionaries.  It was a city of dichotomy where the vision of who they want to be is so spectacular and yet how it plays out can sometimes leave you feeling pangs of sadness... (which is true of the U.S. too.) What a trip!

A huge thanks to the fourteen other women who made my trip so meaningful and memorable.  You each added such a special essence to our group chemistry.  I wouldn't have wanted it without a single one of you.

One of my favorite photos almost captures the whole group as we head out for an evening in Old Havana!
One of my favorite photos almost captures the whole group as we head out for an evening in Old Havana!

And to those who feel the tug to travel... We invite you on one of our upcoming trips this fall!  We have Egypt from Sept. 26-October 6, Iran from Sept 26-October 6, Peru from Sept. 29- October 11, and Cuba from Nov. 3-12.  So whether you want to cruise down the Nile in Egypt, behold Machu Picchu in Peru, see the Persepolis in Iran, or salsa in Cuba-- we will take good care of you and introduce you to new girlfriends who are drawn to travel! All our trips are for women, by women, about women.  You are so welcome to join the magic!