TT: Welcome to Gail Shore, founder of Cultural Jambalaya, an amazing resource for teachers that provides complimentary educational photos and videos from around the world. Gail, tell us about your background.
G: For more than 40 years, I have traveled around the world to places that are culturally unique, many of them remote. I photograph areas that most people will never experience, and some places many cannot find on a map. I travel alone but always have a guide for safety and for access.
I was born and raised in the Milwaukee area and cut my teeth in the airline business – my first proper job. At first, I visited more conventional places but then in the early 80s I went to East Africa, which turned my travel life upside down. For the first time, I experienced a truly different culture, including the people and their customs and traditions… not to mention the animals and environment. That adventure completely refocused my travel on places that are culturally unique. I left the airline many years ago, but I continue to travel regularly. And over the years, these amazing experiences have reshaped my life.
I‘m not a teacher by profession, although I spend a huge part of my time working in cultural education. Today, my day job is in public relations. I own and operate a small firm that allows a lot of flexibility. Each fall, I typically take one big trip for 3 weeks or so. Because I travel alone my trips are not inexpensive. I’m single, no kids, and I pour all my savings into global travel. It’s a different kind of life to be sure.
TT: Fascinating! What kinds of unique places do you travel to?
G: I’ve been globetrotting for decades and particularly enjoy places most people know very little about – that’s what makes them interesting. I want to learn more about people from other cultures, including their backgrounds, customs and traditions, and certainly their history and religion. I’ve visited geopolitically interesting and isolated spots such as North Korea, Syria, Mali, Turkmenistan and Myanmar, and remote places including the Amazon, Bhutan, Nepal and Papua New Guinea.
TT: Wow! Tell us about your nonprofit, Cultural Jambalaya.
G: For many years, I’ve shared my photographs and images at galleries, exhibits and hundreds of presentations. My friends and colleagues persistently asked what I planned to do with all my photos… and stories. Many for-profit business ideas surfaced but creating a nonprofit just felt like the right thing to do. We put together a well-connected board of business professionals, educators and activists, and enlisted volunteers including marketers, designers and communicators. In 2005, we formed the nonprofit and named it Cultural Jambalaya, my other job.
TT: Love it! What does Cultural Jambalaya do in schools?
G: Our volunteer-based nonprofit immediately recognized that our work belonged in schools, specifically with educators that could use the images to broaden world views of students. We decided to create photo-based educational videos for middle school and high school teachers to use as a resource in a variety of subjects, including social studies, geography, history, language and current events. The videos and accompanying study guides are available online without charge. They serve as creative teaching tools in the classroom to ignite our curiosity about the world and its rich cultures in order to promote understanding and respect for all people. We are extremely proud of this work, which has already earned six national awards for excellence in cultural education.
Our one-of-a-kind, 5-part educational series includes Cultural Jambalaya’s first video “Windows & Mirrors” plus programs on the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Our approach simply asks us to observe our similarities as well as our differences because the more we know about each other’s background, history and religion, the more respectful we can become of one another – and that’s the first step in breaking down cultural barriers.
Our nonprofit has no paid staff and no overhead. And, my travels are all completely self-funded. None of the funds raised for the nonprofit or from our donors supports my travel.
TT: That is absolutely amazing. So inspiring. Thank you for the great work you do! So, do you have a favorite place you have traveled to?
G: I’m asked this all the time and it’s impossible to answer because every place is so different. I suppose one of the more memorable places I’ve experienced is Bhutan.
When I was there some years ago, I learned that Bhutan is the only place on the planet that puts its culture and environment before economic development. There’s no place like it. It’s also the only country whose official religion is Mahayana Buddhism.
These were the most respectful, kind and compassionate people I’ve ever encountered. And they’re all happy! The country is governed by its GNH – Gross National Happiness – the philosophy of attaining human happiness through sustainable measures. Talk about unique! This experience had a profound effect on me.
The most unique place I’ve visited has to be North Korea — perhaps because so few American outsiders have ever been there. My experience included a completely orchestrated itinerary under close supervision that emphasized the DPRK’s nationalism. I was not allowed to roam freely and was accompanied by 3 government officials, which were my guides and drivers. It was mandatory to stick to the rules. I was showed every monument and museum in the greater Pyongyang area, which proudly display the country’s ideology and patriotism. I also attended the unbelievable Mass Games with 100,000 young performers (similar to the opening of the Olympic Games) and visited the DMZ (for the second time; the first time was from the border of South Korea). I worked through a British intermediary that does business with the Chinese, which has a relationship with and represents the DPRK. The trip took quite a long time to get approved but gave me a glimpse into one of the most isolated and mysterious places on earth.
TT: Wow! Tell us about a travel experience that was particularly powerful.
G: Two experiences come to mind. With all negativism and misunderstanding surrounding the Middle East, I had two unforgettable experiences in Syria. One happened when my guide blew a tire in the middle of the desert near Dayr az Zawr, which is on the eastern side of Syria. A good Samaritan from the Bakara tribe stopped to help us only to find out the spare was also flat. So he offered to drive about 40 miles to the nearest town, waited for someone to arrive to fix the rim and tire, drove another 40 miles back to our car and changed the tire. I couldn’t help but wonder who in America would take several hours out of their day without compensation to help out a complete stranger. Just a simple random act of kindness.
Then the very next day, also in the middle of the desert, I stumbled upon a large outdoor family gathering of Bedouin and Eastern Syrian farmers who were celebrating Holy Week. The elder, who was hesitant at first, graciously granted me permission to photograph their private get-together – men, women, kids, goats, everyone. Then, to my further surprise, he insisted that I take part in their family feast! The Bedouin are known for their hospitality, but again, who in America would allow a total stranger to come into to their privacy to be photographed, never mind, join them for a personal family occasion? Pretty remarkable.
I will always have a place in my heart for so many kind and compassionate people I met in Syria and throughout the Middle East.
TT: Beautiful. How have your travels impacted you professionally and personally?
G: Traveling to other cultures has opened my eyes in ways I could never have imagined.
When people begin to travel globally, we first notice that folks in other countries dress, eat, speak… and pray differently. That may be true on the surface. But if we take a moment to interact and try to get to know them, we will find that we are all the same.
We all want the same things. We want a roof over our heads and food to eat. We want to work and go to school. We want healthy families and safe communities. All of the things that make up our personal and spiritual lives are pretty much the same wherever you go.
And furthermore, many of the happiest people I’ve met are from some of the most remote and underdeveloped places on earth. Folks that many judge as poor or uneducated are some of the richest individuals I have ever met. No, they don’t have a fancy car, the latest I-phone or trendy clothes. But they don’t need all the stuff that we think makes us happy.
This cultural understanding has changed my life professionally. Taking photographs and telling stories of people and places around the world was the impetus behind the forming of Cultural Jambalaya. I am committed to sharing these experiences with others, particularly with teachers and students, with hopes our work will ignite discussion in the classroom, shatter stereotypes and broaden their world views. It’s an important mission.
But as significant is how these cultural experiences have changed the way I think and hopefully, the way I behave. As a result of over 40 years of global travel, I believe I have a deeper respect for others, regardless of their backgrounds and religions. I try to approach others with understanding instead of judgment. And while it’s oftentimes difficult, I try to respect other’s opinions, even if they greatly differ from mine.
TT: What advice do you have for teachers and others who are dreaming of travel?
G: Traveling to other lands gives us a wider, global perspective that ignites critical thinking about our ever-changing world. Cultural understanding is at the very core of tackling issues that influence us and affect us… and sometimes frighten us, and even threaten us.
Whether you are a teacher or a student, or a parent or a politician, Cultural understanding helps us see the relationship between the past and how it affects current issues. Today’s complex problems can only be addressed by those who have a deeper, human perspective about the very people who come from places and circumstances that we least understand. And right now, these future leaders are in today’s classrooms.
So be curious. Explore. Soak in as much as you can about our amazing planet. There is so much to learn and so much to share.
TT: Thanks so much, Gail! Cultural Jambalaya’s award-winning educational resources are available without charge at www.CulturalJam.org. Readers, what questions or comments do you have?* So far, this article has been read by ... fans. Share it around! *