Celebrate Cultural Connections: Women Preserving their Heritage

I observe when I travel. It is part of my sightseeing experience, but more often part of my post –trip reflections. I have felt the tears of history in Vietnam; observed how clotheslines can reflect how an entire society lives all over the world, and very particularly in India; and beyond doubt, how women preserve their culture and heritage worldwide. I am sure that men participate somehow along the line, but it seems that the role of women is more prominent. Performing small acts or rituals to preserve cultural heritage is truly something to celebrate no matter the culture. For an understanding of different cultures makes us richer. Many countries have women’s cooperatives where this activity is nourished, and the women are afforded a livelihood as well.  As it turns out, the countries where I have observed this most prominently were countries I also wanted to return. In two cases, these were countries I visited on an independent trip and later returned with Overseas Adventure Travels. In the case of India, I took an OAT trip there to two separate regions, but also included independent travel.  In all cases, the way the women preserved their heritage was unmistakable.

Photos: Jann Segal

I begin to notice this on a trip to Guatemala a few years ago travelling solo. I saw women performing traditional acts like weaving in the textile mills that are so famous there. They would later walk in the streets that tourists visit and try to sell their wares in open markets in Antigua and Chichicastenango and other parts of the Guatemalan highlands. .  Some were being sold in colorful blankets on the ground, some walking around selling them on their heads.  These textiles represent a part of the Mayan culture that many say has disappeared forever. Yet when you meet many Guatemalans, they are proud of their Mayan ancestry and openly lay claim to it. There is  a women’s cooperative called TRAMA which produces and sells woven textiles in the Mayan tradition, and they even provide classes for those who want to learn to keep their tradition alive. Men can be very involved in the business of it too. But the women? If not for their role, there would be nothing to sell, not as much of their culture to preserve. I took the OAT Route of the Maya trip, where we visited Paulines’ cooperative. There, 80 people are involved in the production of the fine woven goods, about half of them are women, working with vibrantly colored textiles indigenous to the region. We were in their small villages across Lake Atitlan from Panajachel in the Guatemalan  highlands  Another way to see these women traveling solo is through Elizabeth Bell Antigua Tours.

I also traveled Morocco independently. And like Guatemala, I have plans to return on an OAT trip later this year on their trip Morocco’s Sahara Odyssey. No matter how you see it however, it is impossible to miss the women selling their number one Fountain of Youth product, Argan Oil. These women’s cooperatives throughout the country are too numerous to mention by name. But a traditionally dressed woman will greet you when you go to one, explain all their products you you, and show you other women who are taking the argan nuts and preparing them by hand. The oil is extracted from these nuts which have gone through the digestive system of a goat. If you are lucky, you will see some of these goats standing on the limbs of trees like Christmas tree ornaments.  Morocco is not a strict Muslim society, so you will not necessarily see all women with their heads covered. But you will see many women covered from head to toe in black  burkas, or you might just see them wearing a modern looking hajib. These women are not just keeping Moroccan tradition alive, but religious practices for women. Still, because of this, they stand out probably more than the men do. Selling derivative products from the argan oil and other beauty products is a socially acceptable livelihood for them, and it seems to have paid off. The vast majority of hair products in the United States at least now contain argan oil from Morocco. To see these sights independently, many tours are available on Viator.com

India is filled with places where women keep their traditions alive, although India is an extraordinarily complex country.  I first traveled to the north in OAT’s Heart of India trip, and we visited an area in Rajasthan by Ranthambore National Park that was filled with women working on handicrafts. One of them was a women’s’ cooperative.  There are many handicraft stores in this area and you can see the women working away by hand and sewing machine to produce goods to sell. This is complex beyond measure, because these women live in a society that condones abuses to women and honor killings, yet also provides a way for them to make a meager living.  I returned two years later to explore the south  in OAT’s Soul of India trip, and explored even further another two weeks on my own. What you see in both the north and south that is so unique is the women wearing their colorful saris, waking with jugs of water and baskets of food balanced on their heads.

Women keep religious traditions alive in probably all societies. In India not far from Madurai, we met nuns of the JAINS faith walking on the road bare foot. These holy women had walked from Chennai and were carrying brooms, an empty pot for a small amount of food or water,  and  were dressed in white .They have renounced their earthly lives and family. They chatted with us a bit before walking on, and I offered a donation, but they refused. They walk barefoot and live a life of penance. They eat just one meal a day, and walk from house to house to stay with other members of the JAINS faith. As they left us, they  walked with their backs to us down a dusty road on a hot day with little food or water. But they had more faith, courage, and a sense of tradition then most could understand. And like their sisters in so many of the countries I have visited, they were the ones keeping their particular traditions alive. 

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