Guest post from Chelsea Yamase, a photographer, environmentalist and storyteller from Hawaii.
I am very blessed to have grown up with infinite options of who to become and what to do with my life. Yet having traveled extensively these last few years, I've been humbled and inspired by all those creating a vibrant life for themselves with far fewer opportunities.
I recently travelled through Jordan with both Treadright, a nonprofit focused on sustainable positive impact travel, and Contiki Cares, the youth travel company’s sustainability initiative. The focus of this trip was to visit just a few of the local female run organizations that Treadright supports, offering business training opportunities in order to empower these women to grow viable businesses.
The memories I want to share with you all, are from our visit to the Iraq Al Amir Women’s Cooperative.
Our bus rumbles up the dusty road and we stop in a rural neighborhood abutting some beautiful sandstone cliffs. The morning air is cool and quiet, until the green door of the Cooperative swings open and out pours some of the twelve women making up Iraq Al Amir. The heat from the oven mingles with the scent of rising dough, smiling faces, strings of Arabic, and of course the ever present welcome gift of hot tea with mint.
Through our translator Muna, I learn that the Cooperative formerly supported more women (up to 40 at one point), but was reliant on outside donations. Now it houses and supports 12 women who engage in a multitude of entrepreneurial activities, from teaching classes on paper making, to ceramics or hosting hikers making their way across the Jordan Trail. With Treadright’s help they are in the process of expanding their gift shop to sell more of their handmade products.
The women of Iraq Al Amir are mostly unmarried, which is quite uncommon in Jordan. As I learn to smooth the dough into flat ovals and sprinkle them with sesame seeds, we have the chance to ask more questions about the women’s daily lives. I learn about the bus system and their pride in growing the best figs and pomegranates. I learn that being a part of the Cooperative gives them status and a sense of community that otherwise would be hard to find in their position. One of our most basic human needs is to feel a sense of progress and meaning in our lives. As I spend time picking fruit or hand painting ceramics with the ladies, it becomes very apparent that this place is much more than just a job to them – it’s a craft and a life and a sense of contribution.
We eat and hang out for a few hours under the shade of the patio. The women tolerate our funny requests for specific shots for our videos with grace and patience and a ton of laughing amongst themselves.
I wished so much in those moments that I could speak Arabic, if only to be in on the sisterhood of their little jokes.
Traveling with Treadright and Contiki Cares gave me an interesting look into how tourism can be a force for good and a source of deeper experience as a traveler. Of course I love to see the photogenic sites and popular destinations, but there is something about having the chance to connect with someone in their everyday life that ends up holding such a sacred space in my memories. I got to learn how to cook out of a grandma’s rooftop kitchen in Amman, and have a spin on the pottery wheel with the ladies of Iraq Al Amir. It made it more real to me in a way that a photo simply does not. Perhaps one is more shareable and one is more personal and it becomes a balance of experiencing both.
As more of us have the opportunity to step outside our borders, I think it’s a beautiful joint responsibility to also examine the how and the why of the way we go about exploring the world. There are endless opportunities to learn, to grow, and to hopefully give something back along the way.
If this type of travel appeals to you, I highly recommend visiting the tenacious group of women at the Iraq Al Amir Women’s Cooperative. Travelling on Contiki’s Israel and Jordan Uncovered trip, you’ll visit the women whilst travelling through Amman, and I can guarantee it will be the highlight experience of your entire adventure.