The Covid-19 pandemic may have paused much of international travel, but there are many other ways we can head overseas, and reflect on travel in a more mindful way.
A brown paper bag is creased in one hand with the circular curve of khobz, bread, peaking out, the smell of the fresh bake sifting through the air and sunlight heating the surroundings. Her other hand is used to wave salaam alaykum to stall owners in the medina. This is Gail Leonard, my family friend who I’ve known my entire life, and the co-founder of Plan-it Morocco (plan-it-morocco.com), a female owned, fully licensed travel agency – and this is the medina in Fez, Morocco. It’s agencies like this that Rough Guides is raising awareness on, as we inform on issues and practices relating to responsible travel and the empowerment of women on an international scale. And here, in the medina, there are plenty of characters. Gail and I pass by endless stalls, pyramids of olives, tubs of harissa, and rows of hand-made leather shoes from the nearby Chouara Tannery. One cheery owner is stretching out thin dough, msmen, with her hands to make into a flatbread, while another smiles as she sells an array of dazzling love potions to a young couple.
Gail made the 9,000 plus alleys of the Fez medina her home once. While there, Plan-it Morocco was born. The company originated from the combined vision of Gail and co-founder Michele Reeves and being inspired by “anti-mass tourism”. They wanted to bring a new life to the tours around the Fez medina, and around the country. The travel agency offers authentic, memorable experiences which empower women by working with female guides, workshop leaders, lecturers, chefs or facilitators. Michele explains that it’s “not just to help financially but to give opportunities to women through self-empowerment, education and experience”. Plan-it Morocco always tries to work with organisations and associations run by women, and for women, and female-owned businesses. Michele states that “our core values were originally formed within our team, made up mainly of Moroccan female graduates – Be Brave, Belong, Stay True and Be Committed”. Staying true to form, Plan-it Morocco delves deep into the fascinating country and seeks out the “the unusual, the exotic, the authentic experiences” and shares these with travellers. Exciting opportunities such as hand rolling couscous classes with Berber women and attending Moroccan dance workshops are all here. And it’s these types of empowering experiences that have drawn me back to the country over the years, including a trip where a female friend and I almost got stranded in Essaouira at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown, but that’s another story to be told.
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As lockdowns have put restrictions on the world, it’s become apparent that, sometimes, travel is not always about putting one foot in front of the other in a foreign, exotic place. That face-to-face interaction, the initial conversation and exchange of storytelling between someone you’ve met in another land. Travel possesses many glorious dimensions that we have explored so thoroughly while we have been sat put. Picking up a guidebook and devouring its pages, listening to music from another culture, or plugging into a travel-themed podcast. Gail appeared on the award-nominated Insight Guides: the Travel Podcast, the sister series to The Rough Guide to Everywhere podcast, and talked endlessly about the Fez medina. I scripted the episode, ‘Discovering the Fez Medina’, and Gail talks joyfully and freely about beekeepers and you can hear the buzz of a conversation in the medina in the background, but of course, a podcast being a podcast, we can’t see said beekeeper, and we can’t see these people chatting. But travel is sometimes about people we have never seen or met, and how people’s presence can make a difference to each other, and empower one another, particularly in this virtual world that we are now so accustomed to.
I, for one, have been heavily empowered by someone who I have never met, and sadly will never be able to. During the pandemic, I was honoured to receive the Sophie Christopher Volunteer Award. The publishers, Transworld, set up a sponsored volunteering scheme to honour the memory of Sophie who worked as a Senior Publicity Manager for the company, who at the age of 28 passed away from a pulmonary embolism. Sophie’s work wasn’t limited to publicity though, she wanted to improve the lives of others. She co-founded The FLIP, an interview series presenting outstanding women in the publishing world, and worked with Beyond the Streets, a charity which strives to end sexual exploitation. With Sophie’s added love of travel, Penguin Random House partnered with the responsible volunteer organisation, People and Places, to sponsor anyone who works in publishing and bookselling to support the Treak Community Centre in Cambodia with a two-week programme there. A bright, ambitious and bubbly character, I can feel Sophie’s presence without having ever met her. She fought strongly for women’s rights and in turn I will be helping women in Cambodia because of her.
People and places isn't just limited to Southeast Asia, they match volunteers’ skill sets to project needs around the globe, from The Gambia and Nepal to Morocco. Sallie Grayson, one of the people who created the charity, along with Kate Stefanko and Harold Goodwin, states that “our volunteers work with not instead of local people. Our core values are respect, equality and transparency”. Sallie, Kate and Harold started people and places in 2007 as they believed that “volunteers and the communities they worked with could be better served”. And that they have done successfully for years.
The Covid-19 pandemic may have put a halt on international volunteer placements, but people and places has adapted their programmes incredibly effectively. So much so that they won the WTM World Responsible Tourism Award last year for their innovation in their e-volunteer programme. They are also a finalist in the GoAbroad Innovation Awards 2021 in Innovation in Online Programming. For the moment volunteers are helping online with everything from creating storytelling videos to visual guides about how to plant seeds in community gardens. The enriching experience of helping a community without actually being there has led me to e-volunteer until I can travel to Cambodia. These women out there that I have met virtually have enriched my life. I will eventually go there and help with school curriculums, but they in turn have asked things of me that I never thought that I could do, notably producing a podcast about Cambodia from scratch.
And that really is the core of people and places – “it is possible to create a volunteer programme that is sustainable, inclusive and empowering for the local communities and the volunteers”. It’s about both the local community and you, the volunteer. And with the right attitude, volunteering can be an incredible process. Sallie concludes that “outsiders who impose their own cultural norms or their own agenda, and fail to include local people in decisions, can leave behind disruption and even destruction, and more problems than they solve, making life even tougher”. It’s about being mindful, present and respectful.
At Rough Guides, we feel this responsibility, too. This need to support and promote female-led businesses and female-led initiatives. In the future we hope that travellers will continue to think responsibly about what they do when they travel and who and how they can support these types of organisations. We include women-led tours and women-owned businesses in our guidebooks, online articles and tailor-made trips, and yes, Plan-it Morocco is featured and people and places will appear. And as the future unfolds, and the Covid-19 pandemic may just be a distant memory, we are hopeful that travellers will be more conscious of how they travel, as we all have a part to play. And we may just come out of this in a brighter, better and more mindful light.
Find out more about Rough Guides Responsible Travel Policy.
Top image: Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech, Morocco © Migel/Shutterstock