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Controversial Topics: Our Readers Respond

How do you feel about discussing controversial topics during your adventures? Are there any in particular you remember?

Posted on 9/1/2020 12:00:00 AM in The Buzz

O.A.T. travelers discover the dark reality of what life was like during the Bosnian War in Sarajevo with the help of their local Trip Experience Leader.

Any Politics But Our Own

On my last trip the guide asked that we not discuss American politics, and I was grateful. Usually I'm the one who has to ask that we not do that because it creates an unnecessary friction that we are trying to get some peace from. But I love to discuss the controversies of the country I am visiting. The Chinese guide was very candid but careful. The Myanmar guide gave the government version of the Rohingya situation which surprised me since it had already been declared a genocide by the UN. Did he not know, or was he too afraid? Most of the time the guides are willing to talk and I like that.

Thanks to: Carole Alexander, 9-time traveler from Manhasset, NY


Left My Heart in Sarajevo

I was honored to work in Sarajevo for 10 months, back in 2015. I learned a great deal about the history of the city, still recovering from the war 20 years before. One of the most powerful was my visit to the tunnel built under the airport to smuggle in people, food, medicine, etc. One can’t walk all the way anymore, as the airport is active now and it is dangerous. Just the short walk is dramatic. Small, wet, stuffy, filled with pictures and information about how and why it was built.

I left my heart in Sarajevo.

Thanks to: Jimmye Warren, 5-time traveler from Denver, CO

Editor’s Note: While Jimmye didn’t experience this with O.A.T., you can visit the so-called “Tunnel of Hope” in Sarajevo during Crossroads of the Adriatic: Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Slovenia.


A New Dimension

I have found on my many trips with O.A.T. that the guides are very open about talking about past and present political situations in their countries. They never seem to be uncomfortable or hesitant about explaining how or why things occurred. Their openness gives a new dimension to the trips and understanding of their culture.

Thanks to: Kathryn Coughlan, 10-time traveler & 3-time Vacation Ambassador from Pittsboro, NC


A Hidden Hittite Marvel

Somewhere in Turkey, 2012. We were on the way south to Antalya, traveling on a two lane road through miles and miles of farmland planted in sugar beets. Very few signs of civilization. The bus slowed and stopped in the middle of nowhere. Set back from the side of the road was a pond. Water vegetation grew all around the edges. From the center rose three enormous rectangular blocks of stone. A closer look revealed the head of a bull carved on each. Streams of water still spouted from a few of the holes in the rock. Some of the fountain’s plumbing still worked. Our guide told us it was built by the Hittites. Hittites! The Romans are comparative newcomers by over a thousand years. I loved Turkey. It is a history lover’s Disney World. Our guide was stellar.

Suggestion: Please review Iona Abbey on the west coast of Scotland. Founded in the 6th century, it was one of the oldest Christian sites in Western Europe. Today, it is no longer specific to any one religion, but is a popular spiritual site.

Thanks to: Anne Schaffner, 6-time traveler from Venice, FL ? Turkey’s Magical Hideaways

Editor’s Note: Thanks for the suggestion, Anne! We visit the Isle of Iona and its fascinating abbey during our new Scotland Revealed: Legends, Lochs & Highland Landscapes adventure.


Two Sides to Every Story

I am a 7-time traveler and an avid reader of your weekly newsletter. Thank you for continuing this tradition during these isolated times. Prior to COVID I made jokes about the frequency of the O.A.T. materials which arrived in my mailbox. On some days the O.A.T. catalog was the only way I knew the mail had been delivered. I never thought I would miss the 2-3 mailings each week... but I do!

Recently you proposed we tell you about controversial subjects which O.A.T. leaders have shared with us.

In November, 2019 I was lucky enough to be on the trip to South Korea and Japan entitled: Temples, Shrines & Seaside Treasures. I have two topics of controversy to relate from this exceptional trip.

While in Seoul we visited the statue of the "Comfort Woman" which is strategically placed facing the Japanese Embassy. This memorial is "guarded" by women who spend hours in the vicinity to assure the statue remains in place. There is no dispute that the "comfort women" were kidnapped and used as sex slaves for the Japanese Army during World War II. Korean citizens are seeking a sincere apology and compensation from the Japanese government for this atrocity.

The following week, while in Japan, our O.A.T. leader told the "other side of the story." The Japanese acknowledge this shameful part of history; however, they assert that they have made apologies and compensation on numerous occasions and in fact, both governments signed a pact to "settle the issue" again in 2015. Japanese would like to put this history in the past and move forward with more positive relations with their neighbor. As a visitor in both countries, it was fascinating to hear differing viewpoints.

In the manner of taboo subjects, while in Japan, our leader told us about "hikikomori", sometimes referred to as "hermits of the modern age" (Wikipedia). Since this is a shameful topic it cannot be mentioned in the presence of other Japanese.

The hikikiomori are middle-aged people, perhaps in their 40s to 50s who live in one room in their parents' house. They never leave the room. Parents provide food for them outside the door. They spend their time reading, playing games or on the internet. They do not interact with anyone, even their parents. If neighbors inquire about them, parents lie, often saying they are living abroad. Hikikomori are not physically or mentally disabled. They experience shame because they have failed at something, perhaps a job. Parents put so much pressure on their children to succeed that a "failure to launch" causes this extreme reaction. The government refers to this situation as the "50/80" program which suggests the children are in their 50s living off their pensioner parents who are in their 80s. There is a fear, as longevity increases, it will become the "60/90" program.

Thank you for listening to my reminiscences. I look forward to resuming my travels with you. I am already booked for two trips in 2021 and two in 2022. As soon as that vaccine hits...I am on the road with O.A.T.!

Thanks to: Linda Oroszko, 7-time traveler from Boylston, MA ? South Korea & Japan: Temples, Shrines & Seaside Treasures


By Women, for Women

Some of the most interesting "controversial topics" to me have related to the position of women in the society being visited and experienced. Female trip leaders have been the ones to discuss such issues, but, in my experience, most trip leaders have been male. As you know, the majority of O.A.T. travelers are women, and it has usually been the case that exposure to women who speak English and are willing and able to discuss such issues is limited. I have long suggested that, when the trip leader is a male, there should automatically be a scheduled session with a local woman so that such issues can be discussed.

Thanks to: Leslie Boss, 34-time traveler & 8-time Vacation Ambassador from Silver Spring, MD

Editor’s Note: We agree with you, Leslie! Whenever possible, our discussions around controversial topics are now led by a woman with firsthand experience or a female family member.


More Commonalities than Differences

I grew up in the 50s and remember memorizing a speech on the evils of communism and practicing hiding under my desk if there was a nuclear attack. How naive our teachers and we were to think that would actually save us!

On the Soul of India trip, our guide Jaysingh announced one day that we would be going to a communist center to hear a talk by a woman who was elected in that region. When we approached the center, seeing the red flag with the hammer and sickle outside, a wave of fear come over me. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen, but I knew it couldn’t be good.

The woman spoke at length about their efforts in the region: attempting to get pensions for the elderly, health care for the poor and how their approach compared with other communist countries. Once I relaxed, I found their desires were not that different than people worldwide, to have basic needs met. I did download and read the Communist Manifesto when I got home. While I never see myself becoming a communist, I rediscovered what I learn whenever I travel. We all have more in common as people than there are differences. Governments are another story!

Thanks to: Maureen Rauscher, 18-time traveler & 3-time Vacation Ambassador from St. Louis, MO


A Well-Rounded Understanding

First, thank you for the weekly letter which I very much look forward to. And thank you for managing a well-run and ethical company. My husband, Ward Hoffman, and I have been on many O.A.T. trips (18?), and they have all been superb. And we have made a number of donations to the Grand Circle Foundation, feeling confident that the money will be used appropriately for the people who need it the most.

A controversial topic that stands out for me is one that came up in our most recent trip, Ultimate Africa, which we took in July 2019. James, our outstanding tour leader, covered so many difficult topics and did it so very well. Toward the end of the trip we were in our last camp, in Botswana's Okavango Delta, and James brought up the topic of elephants one afternoon. Should elephants be culled in Botswana? At the beginning of the conversation, it seemed there was a sort of knee-jerk reaction: "No, you can't cull (kill) wildlife." But sentiments softened as we discussed the damage to life and property caused by too many elephants, and how their own survival was being compromised by lack of food and water. Back in 1992, we took our first trip to Botswana and spent a few days in the Okavango Delta. It was a lush, green area, with lots of water, and we enjoyed mokoro trips to little islands where we could walk among the wildlife.

In last year's visit to the Okavango Delta, we saw virtually no water, this we were told was due to lack of rainfall upstream in Angola. The forests were a shambles, with trees stripped of bark and knocked down. It was a sad and sobering sight. The contrast 28 years after our first trip was shocking.

On the one hand, Botswana has done a pretty good job of protecting elephants. Although poachers have killed many elephants there, it's been less of a problem than in neighboring countries. So the elephant population has grown and perhaps has OUT-grown the resources needed to sustain them. One figure we heard was that in one area of the country the current elephant population was perhaps 10 times what would be a healthy number.

A difficult topic indeed. I certainly don't know the answer, but I have a much better idea of what some of the issues are. For that I thank James—and O.A.T.

Oh, and lately I've been reading about the mysterious death of several hundred elephants in Botswana. What's going on?!

With hopes for our two (one postponed and one previously booked) O.A.T. trips in 2021. Bring on the vaccine.

Thanks to: Karlette Warner, 18-time traveler & 4-time Vacation Ambassador from Palo Alto, CA ? Ultimate Africa: Botswana, Zambia & Zimbabwe Safari


Strong Words Have Staying Power

I think the most memorable talk on controversial subjects was during our visit to Lithuania in The Baltic Capitals & St. Petersburg a few years ago. A Lithuanian government official in Vilnius said, “The only things standing between our independence and becoming Russian satellites again are the United States government and NATO.” These comments were so direct that they became quite memorable for me. Interestingly, the same message was repeated in Riga, Latvia, and Tallinn, Estonia, but not in such direct language. I have contemplated those remarks often as I have watched world political events unfold since that trip.

Later in the talk the official told a popular joke in the Baltic countries to emphasize the point he made earlier. “The President of Lithuania calls the President of Latvia and says, ‘The Russians are coming. Send me all your tanks.’ The President of Latvia replies, ‘Do you want one or both?’”

Thanks to: Michael Thompson, 26-time traveler & 3-time Vacation Ambassador from Kenosha, WI ? The Baltic Capitals & St. Petersburg


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