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Know the West

Some tourists opt for a dose of reality


Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article appears as a sidebar to another news article,"'Ecotourism' - a gold mine for ailing agencies?"

While many of us bolt to the beach or head for the hills when vacation time rolls around, a few groups around the West have discovered that some crave a dose of reality instead.

"People want to be engaged with the world around them," says Lisa Russ, who works for the San Francisco-based nonprofit Global Exchange. Last year, her group started running "reality tours' in California, giving clients an inside look at migrant workers, struggling California timber towns, and life along the U.S.-Mexican border.

"We work really hard on these trips," she says. "It's not really a vacation."

So why would anyone pay to spend their free time looking at life's down side?

"This is something right up my alley," says Palo Alto, Calif., public accountant Celia Boyle, who spent a week with Global Exchange last July, learning about communities and environmental issues in California's redwood country.

"I had always been interested in the redwood controversies. I had given to the causes and signed all the petitions," she says. "But I had never seen it firsthand."

The trip was a wake-up call for Boyle and her group, which ranged in age from a 70-year-old peace activist to high school kids. "No matter what, you're going to be on the outside looking in," she admits, but the trip gave them a close look at the people and their worries, not just the scenery.

The tour made a lasting impression, says Boyle. Within a month of the trip, she and three other course participants were back in redwood country for a timber protest.

While reality tours don't make an activist out of everyone, they are a great way to get beyond the simplistic views of the media and away from a beach, says Russ. "This is not a voyeuristic, fluffy, drink-Chardonnay-and-watch-the-people kind of thing. We're trying to make sense of the world around us."

For more information, call Global Exchange at 415/255-7296 or find their Web page at www.globalexchange.org.