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February 2006 - Feature Article 1

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FEATURE ARTICLE 1

The Wandering Star

I had the opportunity to have lunch with Angie Ruiz, a young and aspiring actress in Hollywood, and discuss her recent VolunTourism venture to Tanzania. Here is an overview and some excerpts from our conversation.

In the peerless wisdom of a grandfather were uttered these three words to describe his toddling granddaughter. No doubt, he was able to perceive the mark of wanderlust attached to the feet of one Angie Ruiz.

As fortune would have it, I was able to catch those wandering feet “fresh” with the dust of East-African soil still clinging to them following her return visit to Tanzania. That’s right, a return visit; but this was no ordinary return visit. Indeed, this was a promise made by Angie to the villagers, to herself, and to the legacy of a Latin family.

I first discovered Angie Ruiz while conducting research for the monthly “VT Lines” section of this newsletter. Angie had visited Tanzania via a volunteer vacation organized and hosted by Cross Cultural Solutions. My curiosity was piqued. Here was a Hollywood actress with family roots in Durango, Mexico, volunteering in Sub-Saharan Africa – Why?

I contacted her agent and began the tedious process of coordinating schedules. January 16 th was slated for a Sunset Blvd rendezvous. As I wended my way along the 5 North from San Diego, CA, I was catching bits of the “I Have A Dream” speech inked by Martin Luther King, Jr., on National Public Radio. I began reflecting on my own dream about VolunTourism; perhaps, this day of meeting Angie would prove auspicious.

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I am not a regular visitor to LA; thus it took me a little time to find Cravings restaurant, but it was right where the directions said it would be. I sat in the parking lot for a few minutes collecting my thoughts and reviewing my questions. I certainly had specific items that I was hopeful she would address. But once we were seated and she began sharing her latest visit, this time with her husband, Mark, I decided that listening might provide me with answers to questions that I had not thought to ask. (Often, I find the initial moments of face-to-face conversation with “strangers” may be stiff, but Angie was speaking a language that demonstrated how this experience had inspired her. It is this language, in my work with VolunTourism, with which I am most familiar.)

She spoke appreciatively of the people she had met; of taking them on safari with her on a spontaneous whim that became an amazing episode in her life and theirs. She gave me details of a visit to a convenience store – well-removed from the village - with some of the children and how they had responded to the jaunt like a small child would to an amusement park. It provided insight and understanding into a culture and simplicity of life that few in the Western World ever know.

Prior to this point in the conversation, I had ventured little effort in coaxing particular threads of discussions. Angie was doing marvelously well in conveying both her excitement and sincere appreciation of her experiences – as she weaved bits and pieces from both journeys into her remarks. But I did ask her one question, rhetorically, that I think is worth mentioning: “When did you feel authentically you?” I asked her not to answer the question, but to simply reflect on it. It is one that I have asked myself, and, in various iterations, others with whom I have contacted regarding the nature of VolunTourism experiences. Through traditional travel and tourism, an individual may never have to ask this question, or even notice the transition within him/herself from “traveler-self” to “self-self.” But everyone I have met, in some way, could articulate this “shift-point” and what had sparked it.

We continued with discussion on the variety of food and the culture of living that certainly had impacted her in unique ways. She recanted her initial reaction to the slow-paced lifestyle of village existence and great lessons it taught her about herself. For Angie, the big lesson, in her words, was “Patience.”

“I did not realize how impatient Westerners are – including myself.”

She spoke specifically about the challenges that other volunteer vacationers in her initial group had in adjusting, and, in some cases, adjusting not. Some who found themselves so far beyond their comfort zones never quite made the adjustment. Angie mentioned that this did not go unnoticed by the villagers. They could feel the angst beneath the smiling faces of the visitors.

I interjected, “This is what I think makes VolunTourism so important.” “There needs to be an interim opportunity in which individuals can really assess their readiness for longer term experiences – two to three weeks, for example. Short periods of volunteering – a day, two, or even three – within the context of a week-long or 10-day travel experience, can really give VolunTourists a chance to test their mettle. Many individuals may have provided several years of service to assist residents of homeless shelters, or construct houses for impoverished families, but are they ready to spend three weeks in an African village? I don’t think so, especially if they are not international travelers. It takes more than a ‘marathon’ mentality and will power to truly engage in volunteering with the people of another land and another culture.”

Angie agreed; and in light of the conversations she had with the villagers and their response to her return visit, she definitely recognizes the challenge. “You came back?!?” was the response of the villagers, in unison. They were even more overwhelmed by the fact that she remembered their names. And to have brought her husband Mark, a venture capitalist from LA with Dutch roots, they may have even gone into slight shock.

I looked around and noticed that all of the lunch guests that arrived after us had now departed. I decided I would ask some questions:

David: What life experiences brought forth an appreciation for travel and voluntary service?

Angie: I began traveling internationally at an early age via a visit to Ensenada, Mexico. We went to see the blowholes at La Bufadora. I began my service career with Meals On Wheels. Our family has been supporting communities in Durango for many years. Of course, my grandfather gave me the nickname, ‘The Wandering Star,’ and it has stuck with me since my early childhood.

David: Prior to selecting Africa, what other destinations did you consider?

Angie: Peru and China were on my original list, especially China because of the infant abandonment issue there.

David: What was the lure to Africa?

Angie: Quite a number of my friends in the entertainment community had been speaking about the AIDS/HIV pandemic. I had no knowledge of the subject, personally, and prior to endorsing anything, I felt that it would be important to discover for myself the extent of the issue there. It was this interest in educating myself about AIDS/HIV that made me finally decide on going to Africa.

David: How did your experience change your perspective on your own life?

Angie: First, there was the cultivation and appreciation of patience. I had not realized just how important this was and how much I needed to develop it. Being in a Tanzanian village and participating in its daily life provided me with the opportunity to learn this very valuable trait. It has also helped me to feel more complete, content, if you will. The easefulness of life is what I appreciated most spending time there. I had the chance to reflect on my life purpose. Now I feel very connected with these people and want to do what I can to continue helping them.

It was not an easy task to say goodbye. I felt that I had found another kindred spirit. If you want to know one of the reasons for becoming a VolunTourist, you get to have lunch with a person like Angie Ruiz.

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