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A new way to travel like a local, or at least experience local life.
In 2016, when I was living that expat life in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, I met Gevorg Babayan, an Armenian man working in the tourism industry. He was managing hostels and running tours of Cambodia at the time.
That was before Prime Minister Hun Sen cracked down on the free media and international organizations. Phnom Penh was an international city that attracted all kinds of people, from do-gooders documenting the history of the Khmer Rouge genocide or working on development projects to unsavory old Australian sex tourists to reporters like me, out looking for an interesting story.
That was when Gevorg ran into American peace corps volunteers and learned about their focus on cross-cultural exchanges. The peace corps has a tradition of organizing special training sessions to integrate its volunteers into local communities, he learned. Gevorg was intrigued.
"I realized we do something wrong in the tourism industry as all our focus is on the money," he told me. "We create displays for the largest, the oldest, the newest, the best of the best, but not the reality."
Gevorg saw how excited people were when they attended a Cambodian wedding. It wasn't because it was a luxurious or expensive event, but because it was a little sliver of real life they had the privilege of participating in. He decided he wanted to create that for people, too.
Back home in Armenia, he witnessed something similar. He organized tours of the country for foreigners, and one day he brought a group of tourists to a small village to have lunch with a family, a painter, his wife, and their three kids. The family lived in a small house with an outdoor toilet. The walls were unpainted.
At the end of the trip, after visiting some of the world's oldest monasteries, Gevorg asked the group what the highlight of the day was. Everyone said it was the family lunch.
Some people are naturally inclined to meet locals when they travel. Maybe they pick up languages quickly or are outgoing. They find it easy to make local friends and slot themselves into their lives. But what about everyone else? What about shy people, or those with limited time to travel? Shouldn't they also have those experiences?
"I started to do my own research, to learn more about cross-cultural exchange during travel. Apparently, there is not much academic knowledge about it," Gevorg said. "The tourism industry is still only about numbers, the number of people, the amount of money, but not about the quality of interactions."
In 2020, Gevorg launched his organization LikeLocal.io, which allows travelers to attend weddings, birthdays, dinners, or other special events with locals, so they can experience some of what life would feel like if they were from the place they are visiting.
Right now, LikeLocal operates in Armenia, Cambodia, and Vietnam. They have plans to expand to Argentina, Georgia, Greece, Thailand, and Japan soon.
For Gevorg, who grew up in a country where people believe they are constantly surrounded by enemies, promoting intercultural experiences changed his worldview. He realized that being tolerant of others isn't enough. You have to engage with people who are different from you and learn to understand them. Traveling alone won't open most people's minds, he said. You have to build new relationships and share meaningful experiences with people, too.
"I grew up with war. There was war in the 1990s," says Gevorg. "You have to ask, why are people killing each other? I think it's because they don't know each other."
Gevorg has a message for Lazo Letter readers:
"I'd like to ask them to close their eyes and imagine a world where everyone is open to each other," he said. "Where everyone is eager to share and learn."
What I'm writing:
• I spoke to North Macedonia's former Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov about his country's EU accession process, the relationship with neighboring Bulgaria, and the role the U.S. is playing in the Western Balkans. This interview is unlocked and free to read.
• Capitol Hill began gearing up for debate over a new supplemental funding bill for Ukraine after defense spending became a key sticking point in debt-ceiling negotiations last week.
Hawkish Republicans in the Senate are calling for more defense spending, while their colleagues in the House want less. But congressional sources familiar with the discussions say the Biden administration will wait until the 2023 fiscal year ends in late September, if not longer, before formally requesting more money for Kyiv. That will give lawmakers more time to negotiate. This story is unlocked and free to read.
What I'm reading:
• The Nazi iconography occasionally worn by Ukrainian troops at the frontline threatens to reinforce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda and fuel his false claims that Ukraine must be “de-Nazified,” the New York Times reports.
• Three months before saboteurs bombed the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline, the Biden administration learned from a close European ally that the Ukrainian military planned a covert attack on the undersea network, using a small team of divers who reported directly to the commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, the Washington Post reports. This is an exclusive based on the Discord Leaks.
• The Kyiv Independent has a long read into the effort to save people and pets in the Ukrainian city of Kherson from flooding after the Nova Kakhovka dam collapsed.
• The Nova Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power plant on the Dnipro River near the front line in Ukraine were destroyed, the Washington Post reports. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy blamed Russia and called for an emergency meeting of the National Security Council. The governor of nearby Kherson, Oleksandr Prokudin, said on Telegram that the water would reach “critical levels” within hours and urged residents in Ukrainian-controlled parts of the region to evacuate immediately.
• Russian forces are shooting at Ukrainian rescuers trying to reach survivors trapped in flooded areas of occupied Kherson, Politico Europe reports.
• Ukraine-backed troops said they crossed into Russia, seized territory, and captured two Russian soldiers, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Very often, Ukraine was subject to shelling from Luhansk. Very often, the mercenary groups were crossing the line into Ukraine and did the ambushes there and combat operations there against the Ukrainian military. My commander at that time — who was a Serbian national — was trying to avoid combat operations. I'm grateful for that.
• Paramilitary organization Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin posted a video he says proves his claim that Russia’s defense ministry is targeting his troops, the Wall Street Journal reports.
• Prigozhin also dismissed Russia’s claims to have inflicted heavy losses on Ukraine when Kyiv attempted offensive action, the BBC reports. Russia’s defense ministry claimed Ukraine suffered over 3,700 casualties, but Prigozhin said the claim was “simply wild and absurd science fiction.”
• Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry filed a complaint with the government of Hungary over its use of an official video with a map of Ukraine that did not include the Russian-occupied region of Crimea, Radio Free Europe reports.
• Una Hajdari reports for EuroNews on massive protests in Poland against a new law that will form a commission to investigate alleged Russian influence and collaboration with Russian authorities in Poland starting in 2007. The opposition claims that the law will be used to bar people from running for office. The demonstrations were some of Poland’s largest since the fall of communism.
• Left-wing protesters and police clashed in Germany’s eastern city of Leipzig over a jail term given to Lina E, a woman convicted of vigilante attacks on neo-Nazis, the BBC reports.
• The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is polling at 17-19% nationwide, a record high for the party that now vies with Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats for second place in some surveys.
• A strong rise of the far-right is spooking Germany’s political class, sparking concerns ahead of upcoming regional elections and broader unease over the right in Europe, Politico Europe reports.
• European Union's interior ministers agreed to “historical” reforms of its migration and asylum laws, including charging member states that refuse to host refugees €20,000 per person, the Guardian reports.
• Australia announced it will introduce a national ban on Nazi symbols, the BBC reports. Public displays of the swastika or SS symbols will be punishable by up to a year in prison.
• More than 80 Afghan students and teachers were seemingly poisoned over two days, the Washington Post reports. Most of the victims were girls in an attack that mirrored recent attacks on schoolgirls in Iran.
• Iran reopened its embassy in Saudi Arabia, the BBC reports. The reopening comes seven years after the rivals severed diplomatic ties.
• A large rebel force mobilized in Sudan’s South Kordofan State, Reuters reports. The rebel force, the SPLM-N, is led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu and is estimated to contain tens of thousands of men and heavy weaponry. The mobilization raises fears that internal conflict could spread in the country’s southern regions.
• The U.S. Agency for International Aid is suspending food aid to Ethiopia because donations are being diverted from those in need, the BBC reports. According to a leaked memo, Ethiopian government agencies and the military are behind the diversion scheme.
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