Mind and Body

Travels with Toby expands its vision

The trips to Haiti offer opportunity to celebrate the way that women talking together can make a market

Photo courtesy of Toby Simon

The most recent group of Travels with Toby in Haiti, combining adventure and exploration in an open-minded fashion. The leader, Toby Simon, is fourth from the left. the group had just hiked two miles up a hill to the Citadel.

By Toby Simon
Posted 12/4/17
Travels with Toby, a small Rhode Island business created to bring small groups of women to Haiti, recently included its first man as part of the tour group, leading to some cultural observations about talking – and listening.
Can the model being developed with Travels with Toby in Haiti, with its focus on women travelers, be expanded to other islands in Caribbean, such as Puerto Rico, now struggling to recover from devastating hurricanes to help rebuild a tourist industry with a different approach? What is the cultural balance between women bonding by traveling together and the inclusion of men in such a group? What are the examples here in Rhode Island where women are “making a market” of economic opportunity?
The demonizing of the “other” as a political strategy successfully employed by President Donald Trump has lead to some strange contradictions: the Republican party of fiscal hawks passed a series of tax cuts projected to add some $1.4 trillion to the deficit. And, the Republican party that often preaches about the need for a strong moral compass appears ready to support a candidate for Senate accused by a number of women of being a sexual predator, alleging having preyed on targeting teen-age girls in malls.
To change the dynamic, Travels with Toby offers a potential solution for how to restart the conversation about race, power, class and gender in America: women talking with each other, to make a marketplace of ideas and economic opportunity. Including men in the conversation seems a natural outgrowth of creating islands of hope within our disrupted society.

PROVIDENCE – My husband Peter and I began going to Haiti 22 years ago. Our early years were spent in the central part of the country, at the Hopital Albert Schweitzer in rural Deschappelles.

Peter worked as a pediatrician to give the Haitian physicians some needed time off and I worked in the Community Health division training health workers on a variety of topics.

Over the course of two decades, my work in Haiti has been varied and in different parts of the country. Since the earthquake in 2010, friends and mere acquaintances have often told me they wanted to travel to Haiti with me, to “help” or “do something.”

So I started thinking about ways I might be able to bring people to Haiti, to give them a glimpse of the country that I feel deeply connected to and a place that keeps calling me back. Why not bring tourists?

Open-minded tourists
Haiti is a country with many assets – primarily her people but additionally her natural resources, culture, history, food, art and architecture.

Although the Dominican Republic, the other country making up the island of Hispaniola, has a thriving tourist industry, Haiti does not.

There are and have been some attempts to develop the tourism industry in Haiti, but the lack of infrastructure offers many challenges. So, as people asked about traveling to Haiti with me, I began thinking that there may be a niche for a different kind of tourist: someone looking for some adventure; and someone who didn’t need posh hotels or all-inclusive resorts.

They’d need to be flexible and adventurous travelers. They'd need to enjoy local food, crowded streets, crazy market scenes, awesome local beer, and the need sometimes for a Plan B.

Travels with Toby

Around three years ago I began my small eco/edu travel business, bringing interested women to Haiti. The groups are very small – no more than four or five travelers plus myself.

I called my “ti biznis” Travels With Toby. It had some simple goals:

Time spent in Haiti would add a bit to the country’s tourism efforts

Most of the participants in the tours will choose to donate to the organizations we visit, and

People will gain a new and hopefully positive perspective on Haiti.

Women’s issues
The work of a majority of the non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, in Haiti does not address the root causes of poverty in sustainable ways.

I felt it was important for my travelers to understand the difference between sustainable development and those groups with rescue fantasies about Haiti.

I decided to focus the educational component of the tours with visits to several organizations addressing women’s issues. Although Haitian women are the pillars of the society, being a woman there can be truly difficult.

As a result, Travels With Toby tours have been women-only tours. On each trip the women often commented that they were glad there weren’t any men participating. The consensus was that there was a different dynamic when the group was all female, that the women felt more comfortable to open up.

The decision to bring women only on the TWT tours came about organically but it seemed to be a model that worked. And, since people seemed to enjoy that aspect of the trip, I stuck with that format for three years. Until last month.

Bringing a man along
When one of the group members had to drop out at the last minute, I asked the remaining three women if they knew someone who might want to join our group. Following an orientation session prior to the trip, one of the women emailed me saying her husband was interested in going. She added he was a good man.

Our trip took place two weeks ago. I’m happy to report that this man was a welcomed addition to our group. What I’m about to say may annoy some but it’s hardly an original comment: he was an excellent listener and never felt any need to dominate the conversation or interrupt anyone mid-sentence. There was no mansplaining or man spreading. He was a delight; the dynamic in the group didn’t feel much different than other groups.

I suppose one could argue it takes a certain kind of man to travel with four talkative, curious and extremely intelligent women. Maybe the dynamic worked just fine because we were in Haiti and the experience was a brand new one for all the travelers. Maybe it was about women being the majority in the group. Either way, it made me rethink the idea of women-only groups.

Race, power, class and gender
These trips to Haiti always provide fodder for rethinking race, power, class and gender. The intense conversations that take place have always flowed naturally as a result of what travelers witness in Haiti.

As groups of women having these conversations, there has always been a level of intimacy, respect, and safety as we talked. Adding a man to the mix was something new and although this time it worked out, it’s hard to speculate based on such a small sample. I still believe there’s a need for women-only travel opportunities.

There’s a great Haitian proverb: “Twa fanm sifi pou fe yon mache” – three women are enough to make a market. Or, figuratively – a few women make a lot of talk.

The markets in Haiti are crazy busy, lively and full of women merchants. It seems as if everyone is talking – talking to the seller, talking to other merchants, talking to the buyer, talking to the passers-by.

Think “hustle and bustle” and you can envision a Haitian market. From my own experiences with groups of women, I know there’s never any notable length of silence, so I look at this proverb with pride. I love “making a market,” and I know I’m not alone.

Toby Simon is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI.

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