I thought they would never find everyone at the outdoor reception to take us back to our hotels. It was dark, people were drunk, and the party was clearly still going. Even though the town of Swakopmund is very small, the delegates were spread out over several dozen hotels. It took a while to get everyone dropped off.
About mid-way through the drop-off, one of the guys from Slovenia got really upset at the anti-gay woman from Croatia and told her off. Graeme who was sitting next to me said “You’re loving this, aren’t you?” I was. I really was. After the tongue-lashing she’d given me about gay people, it was nice to hear someone really go at this woman. I’m not a vengeful person, or vindictive, but this particular interchange brought a certain kind of social justice smile to my face.
I was finally dropped off to check into my hotel, only to discover that the doors were locked. So there I was in Africa. Bags at my ankles, in a sleepy little … oddly German looking … town, with no local phone, no-one to call, and my driver had left. Ughhh….
I walked along the side of the building to a big gate that opened onto the grounds of the hotel. I started to climb it. About halfway up, it suddenly started opening.
“What are you doing?” asked a large security guard. “I’m supposed to be staying at this hotel,” I replied. “Well get off that fence, before you get hurt. That’s an electrical wire just above your hand there. Grab that and I’m liable to take you to a hospital. Come on in and we’ll see if we can find you a room key.”
We walked through a lovely garden and into a hotel that looked a bit like a hospital. The door to my room was easily big enough to wheel a bed through.
When I got up in the morning and stepped out of my room I looked around at the other guests and realized I was in fact staying in a hospital – or at least sort of an assisted-living kind of place. I had no idea that these places ever rented for overnight stays for people of my generation, but I guess they had to use every available bed in town to accommodate all the ATTA guests!
In the morning I walked to the convention. I really might as well have been in Germany based on the houses I was looking at.
I was afraid that the convention would be a rather boring affair, but our host, the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), has got style. Around the pool, several representatives from the former Yugoslavia and from Norway were already drinking, and they insisted I have a morning drink before my meetings. Once inside, I was pleased to see that this event was just fabulously delivered. The ATTA spared no expense … and once again, there were more almost-naked people on stage. Africa is certainly not Utah!
I next stopped for a networking lunch at the pool area, where I ran into the Minister of Tourism for Zimbabwe.
“Do you bring people to Zimbabwe?” He asked me.
“Yes, we do, to Victoria Falls, ” I replied.
“This is fantastic! Which local vendor do you use?” He inquired.
“Welcome Tourism Company” was my response.
“What?” He exclaimed. “This is terrible! Welcome Tourism is a South African company. Use a Zimbabwe operator. They will give you a much more authentic experience.”
“Well, it kind of depends on what sort of authenticity you’ll provide. For instance, how do you feel about us bringing a group of gay men to your country?” I asked
“This would not be acceptable. We do not want them!” He yelled, waving his hands at me in disgust.
“Well, we are already bringing them. They want to see Victoria Falls, but we use a South African company instead of a Zimbabwe company because of your attitudes. We use a company that celebrates our customers’ diversity. They go out of their way to welcome us … perhaps that’s why they’re called Welcome Tourism” I replied.
“This is an abomination!” He yelled at me, fury in his eyes. “You have no right to be consuming our beauty with your vile groups!”
“Do you have children?” I asked.
“Yes, I have children, and I will work to protect them from people like you!” He practically spit that in my face.
In the calmest, but most stern voice I could possibly muster I said, “One day your children will be adults. They will see the money that has been sent to South Africa instead of Zimbabwe due to your choices. They will see that we came to your country anyway, and that their short-sighted parents kept them poor in order to discriminate against my people. Your children will welcome us, and you will no longer have a say. Because that’s what children do. They grow up, they rebel, and eventually make their own choices.”
I have rarely seen the amount of fire in somebody’s eyes that I saw in this man’s eyes. His face was red, and he looked like he was about to lose it. The security guards approached us, and asked if everything was okay. People had taken notice of the escalating tension in our corner.
“I see no point to continuing this.” I said.
“Nor do I.” This was the last word exchanged between us at the entire convention.
Later that night when I walked to my hotel, the brief but frightening thought crossed my mind that perhaps for safety sake, I should not argue with officials from other African countries. Then I thought, no, he was wrong, and I’m not in his country. I’m in Namibia, where the president has stated that he welcomes gay people.
There are gay people suffering all over the world due to a handful of bigoted hateful people in visible leadership positions, and as a person working on a very public stage, it’s my job to stand up for those who are suffering. I suddenly realized that I wasn’t just creating and selling gay travel, I was actually helping make a difference for gay people all over the world.
We bring them hope when we visit these places. We bring our money to the people that fight for the cause and full participation of our fellow gay human beings around the world. For the gay community, borders are meaningless. Gay people come from every country, race, and creed. We are all one big gay family. We are making the world a safer place for all gay people when we connect with local gay people and their neighbors, and share our ideas. When we visit a place, we can provide an example of how gay travelers have the same aspirations and respect for the places we visit as anyone else.
I decided that day what my higher purpose is. It’s about the mark we leave when we go somewhere.
I was the only representative from a gay travel company at the ATTA convention. Likewise, HE Travel is the only gay tour operator that is a member of the National Tour Association, and in both organizations our voices have been welcomed at the table. It’s great to see the changes that have been happening in my own country and many others, but the reality is, progress is slow in too many parts of the world (including parts of my own country). We’ve got a long way to go, but I’m excited to be a part of it.
On a more fun note, after my rich experiences in Namibia, I’m designing a tour there … stay tuned!