The Hawaiian Vanilla Company Experience

Lisa Brochu, my wife and consulting partner in Heartfelt Associates, recently celebrated a birthday and suggested we have her birthday lunch at the Hawaiian Vanilla Company. In two decades of traveling to 24 countries and 50 U.S. states to train and consult on heritage interpretation and visitor experiences, we had somehow managed to miss visiting a vanilla farm, so it seemed the perfect opportunity.

 

Jim Reddekopp founded the Hawaiian Vanilla Company in 1998 following up on a dream to develop his own unique agritourism business. His in-laws were orchid enthusiasts and explained to him that the vanilla orchid is the only orchid that produces an edible fruit. He began his journey to create America’s first commercial vanilla company and admits today he might not have pursued this dream had he known the complexity and challenges ahead.

 

We live on the Kona or west side of the Big Island of Hawaii and have a small coffee farm where we also raise miniature horses. I teach tourism and destination planning at Palamanui Campus of Hawaii Community College and learning more about unique tourism experiences is always of value. Many of our students grow up on unique Big Island farming operations but don’t always realize the tourism opportunities available with most kinds of farming.

 

Jim Reddekopp prepares the appetizer table side.

They have a capacity of 24 people per day, but I booked two tickets easily over the Internet, choosing the combination of the Vanilla Luncheon and a guided tour of the vanilla farm, a total of $84 plus tax. The tour alone is $25. The farm is about three miles uphill from the main highway between Honokaa to Hilo at the village of Paauilo, almost a two-hour drive for us. We arrived about noon at the yellow building that houses their food service and Vanilla Shoppe. The building was once a coffee processing plant and later a meat processing operation, since this part of eastern Hawaii has had a rich history of changing agricultural fortunes from sugar cane to coffee to ranching.

 

The lunch began with Jim, the founder, cooking an appetizer at table side that consisted of a delicious shrimp with vanilla infused spice rub, sautéed in olive oil and served on a crisp bread with vanilla mango chutney. The entrée was a tasty vanilla citrus bourbon chicken sandwich topped with vanilla caramelized onions on a vanilla-flavored sweet bread bun with a choice of vanilla aioli or vanilla BBQ sauce, roasted spiced potatoes and an organic tossed salad with a vanilla raspberry balsamic vinegar dressing topped with spicy honey-peppered pecans. We tried the vanilla-flavored Jimmy Boy beverage, their own version of the Arnold Palmer combination of lemonade and iced tea. The meal was delicious and Jim shared the story of how vanilla accentuates flavors when activated by citrus, cream or alcohol. He also shared how to make your own vanilla extract by combining slit vanilla pods in a bottle with your favorite alcohol – vodka, whiskey, rum or whatever.

 

After lunch, Ian, Jim’s son, took us down the hill for a visit to the shade houses used to grow the vanilla orchid vines. Ian told the story of their learning journey very well. They credit Tom Kadooka, a Big Island orchid specialist with getting them started. Visits to Mexico farms that produce vanilla and Madagascar where the very best vanilla is produced added to their knowledge bases. Their approaches to growing and harvesting evolved over several years, but the current

Ian shared their unique story while showing us the growing vanilla vines.

system seems to be working well. Orchid vines take from two to five years to mature enough to produce flowers, depending on propagation methods. An orchid flower opens for only 4 hours and must be hand-pollinated in that period or no seed pod is produced. It is a very labor intensive farming activity, perhaps only second to the production of saffron. The pods have to grow for two months, be picked green and blanched, and then stored in a very specific environment and hand massaged to produce the best vanilla. The five Reddekopp children have grown up working to produce the unique crop and their good efforts show.

 

After the tour, we returned to the Vanilla Shoppe and snack bar. Cold water and a cup of vanilla ice cream completed the tour, along with a short video to reinforce what we’d just learned about the process of growing and harvesting vanilla, followed by a cup of vanilla flavored coffee (along with cream and vanilla sugar if desired). Jim answered questions and shared a favorite quote, “dreams come one size too big so you can grow into them.” They had a big dream twenty years ago and they have grown into it, producing more than 1,700 pounds of vanilla pods each year. They also produce more than 80 unique products using their vanilla as an ingredient. It would be challenging to go through the meal and tour and then leave without buying vanilla flavored items at their gift shop and so of course, we loaded up a basket of goodies to enjoy later, including the “make your own extract” kit of a bottle with three vanilla beans (add your own liquor).

 

You can stop by during daily hours for a quick snack and shop in their gift store.

The Reddekopp family added the tourism component to a very successful vanilla production farm to create year-round employment for their best employees. It’s a labor-intensive business and keeping a well-trained workforce makes it all better. For the Big Island it is a unique attraction and one more place for tourists and island residents to get a glimpse of a unique agri-business. We left the experience with new stories to tell and a new appreciation of the complex flavors enhanced by vanilla.

 

-Tim Merriman

 

 

Dolphin Swims on the Big Island

Sometimes there are no easy answers to complex problems. Dolphin swims on the Big Island have been around for several decades as a recreational activity. As visitors to the island we, like many others, enjoyed amazing experiences on dolphin swims with Dolphin

Family groups cruise by when you are near dolphins in the water.

Family groups cruise by when you are near dolphins in the water.

Journeys’ Captain Nancy Sweatt. She always provided a high quality and very ethical experience, emphasizing respect for the spinner dolphins and other marine life we would see.

 

A dolphin swim is one of the most connecting experiences I have ever had on land or in the water. Her boat, Dolphin TLC, would drop us off in an area where dolphins were sighted cruising in about 60 to 90 feet of water over light colored sand. We were instructed to wait for dolphins to come near on their own, and told not to pursue them or swim toward them. We watched, took photographs, and kept memories close to our hearts. These experiences caused us to do

It works well to just be there and wait. They come up to breathe, jump and spin, or just cruise by.

It works well to just be there and wait. They come up to breathe, jump and spin, or just cruise by.

more research on spinner dolphins and learn more about the controversies surrounding human interaction with them.

 

Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) spend their nights diving down as deep as 1,000 meters to feed on fish and squid. In the daytime they cruise to shallow bays (100 feet or less) usually over sand or an open bottom to rest. One side of their brain sleeps while the other keeps them cruising down near the bottom for several minutes with quick moves to the surface for a breath and then back to the bottom. They need this resting period each day to remain healthy and strong enough to head back out to deeper waters to feed.

 

Some come close to take a look at us as we study them.

Some come close to take a look at us as we study them.

When we first went out with Dolphin Journeys, ours was often the only boat around, with just six swimmers and a crew member in the water to encourage respectful behavior. In recent years the number of operators has grown to a dozen or more in Kailua-Kona area alone. Dolphins in four bays on Hawaii and one on Maui might have as many as sixteen boats near them and 60 to 100 swimmers in the water each morning. Some boats have crew members helping and other seem to just drop their clients in the water, picking them up if the dolphins leave the area or their schedule dictates time to go.

 

Watching dolphins from a boat is interesting but not nearly as powerful, as connecting as seeing them close while in the water. They approach boats and sometimes cruise along with them, seemingly for fun.

Watching dolphins from a boat is interesting but not nearly as powerful, as connecting as seeing them close while in the water. They approach boats and sometimes cruise along with them, seemingly for fun.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) has a policy and enforcement role related to marine mammals and they have set previous guidelines which include directions to not harass dolphins. Recently NOAA’s scientists have expressed concern about increased pressure on dolphins from swimmers, primarily associated with commercial boat tours but also in bays easily reached from the shore, such as Honaunau Bay.

 

A new proposal by NOAA will effectively ban dolphin swims from boats and in coastal waters throughout the islands. It will require swimmers to leave areas of a bay if dolphins come in to rest. NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office is holding six public hearings to get comments about the new regulations. I attended the first one at Konawaena High School and stayed for the first 3 hours of what likely turned out to be five or six hours of comments from 100 or more people with a total audience of 200 or more. As you might expect there were comments both directions – don’t change the regulations and implement the complete ban in coastal waters. Perhaps three-quarters at that meeting preferred the “no change” option.

 

My comments were from my unique perspective with more than four decades of working in interpretation of natural and cultural resources. Swimming near spinner dolphins is one of the most connecting experiences I have ever had. While there are definitely differences in species and circumstances, the situation reminds me of the mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

 

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Mountain gorillas have come back from the brink of extinction in E. Africa. Tourism is a critical component for it pays for protection and helps people understand these poorly understood primate relatives of humans.

Researcher Dian Fosse opposed gorilla tourism. After her death, other biologists worked with government officials to develop gorilla tourism in hopes of saving habitat for and providing protection for gorillas. The mountain gorilla population was down to only 220 individuals. Largely due to the anti-poaching protection afforded by tourists with armed guides and guards, it has grown to more than 900 today. A strictly regulated number of tourists go out each day in Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo with wild but habituated gorillas. Gorilla tourists often describe the experience as life changing. Swimming with dolphins has that feel also.

 

Who is helping people learn about dolphins and connect with these fascinating mammals since government agencies do not put ocean interpreters on the water with the public? More than 3,000 paid interpreters with National Park Service and 70,000 volunteers interpret 413 national parks, monuments and battlefields. A few dozen environmental educators and interpreters do similar duties in marine sanctuaries. For the most part, interpretation of dolphins and other marine mammals is left to private dolphin swim operators.

 

Spinner dolphins out swim us with little effort. When they come close, you feel privileged to get a good look. They are amazing.

Spinner dolphins out swim us with little effort. When they come close, we feel privileged to get a good look. They are amazing.

I think these activities should be allowed with some reasonable and enforceable regulations, but the proposed regulations do not seem reasonable or enforceable. NOAA law enforcement representative indicated fines could be as much as $100,000 and a year in jail – just for swimming near dolphins. NOAA lacks the staff to actually monitor these rules and if they did make arrests and get convictions, the public relations reactions could be more damaging than helpful.

 

Most of us who have been near them in the water have stories of dolphins coming over to inspect us, sometimes playfully, sometimes slowly, watching with care. Several who gave comments told anecdotes of dolphins seeking human help to untangle fishing line from their flippers or tails.

 

Largely missed in this conversation is the opportunity for citizen science. If the researchers at NOAA provided survey forms and training to boat operators and dolphin watchers from the shore, data could be collected that might answer some of the many unanswered questions about these unique creatures. Are spinner dolphin populations increasing, staying the same or in decline? What time of day do they arrive at each bay and what time do they leave? What exactly do they do while resting if undisturbed and how does that differ from when they interact with humans? It was interesting that everyone in the room shared a passion for helping dolphins. How do we harness that passion and commonality?

 

Can dolphin watchers, lovers, swimmers and advocates be allowed some accommodation to sharing the waters of Hawaii?

 

If ever we needed more inter-species understanding it is now and those who love dolphins would enjoy being involved in better protection and interpretation of them. NOAA is an agency of science and policy charged with protecting oceans and the atmosphere. We do appreciate what they do as an agency. We also need a grand effort to interpret oceans and connect people with these vital bodies of water and their inhabitants. Here is a great chance to collaborate, protect and interpret these fascinating animals.

 

– Tim Merriman

 

 

A Visit with Mountain Gorillas – CANCELLED 3/21/16

Due to not meeting the minimum travelers needed to tour Rwanda in October, we have cancelled the trip as of March 21, 2016. If you have a group of six or more interested in a tour of Rwanda with us as your interpretive guides, let us know and we can plan for your specific group.

Cook’s Journey

Cook's monument is visible from any point on Kealakekua Bay.

Cook’s monument is visible from any point on Kealakekua Bay.

Each morning I go out for a 2.5 mile jog in our neighborhood on the Big Island of Hawaii. In one stretch of the run I am looking down at Kealakekua Bay and the white obelisk erected to commemorate the location where famed explorer Captain James Cook was killed at age 50 on February 14, 1779. Cook circumnavigated the Earth, mapping many coastlines for the first time, proving New Zealand to be an island and disproving the hoped for Northwest Passage. Cook’s journey ended on the Big Island when he returned to Kealakekua Bay to replace a broken mast. He took King Kalani’opu’u into custody to leverage return of one of his landing boats borrowed by local people. He was stabbed to death by warriors and villagers loyal to the king, ending his third journey of discovery into the uncharted waters of the Pacific Ocean and Coral Sea.

 

PW4JbbgvxHYCSense of place is based on many components with human history being an important element. Our move to this hillside coffee farm on Mauna Loa volcano stimulated me to begin reading Cook’s journals, which I downloaded from Amazon.com. He wrote more than a million words over the years. I found them deadly dull with observations of sailing conditions, bland references to shipboard conditions and reports of disease or punishments handed out, but few of his motivations for exploring. Then I found Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who wrote for the Wall Street Journal and New Yorker.

 

Many biographies have been written about Captain Cook. This book takes you on a unique journey with the author and colorful Aussie friend, Roger, to the modern-day locations Cook visited in the 1760s and 1770s. Horwitz blends his thoughtful observations of the modern realities of his stops along the way with Cook’s own words in his journals. The author speculates about Cook’s motivations and choices after interviewing local people and Cook historians at the locales visited. His extensive research of the varied side stories add charm and detail where needed to help sort out conflicting versions.

 

Horwitz started his research with a tortuous week-long internship as a sailor on a replica of Cook’s first ship, a wooden coal-hauling sailing vessel. Just one week convinced him that surviving a trip with Cook must have required incredible patience and endurance. Later in his research he traveled the Aleutian Islands on a ferry and learned that modern ships sometimes provide a miserable experience in the rugged waters of Alaska and the Bering Sea. His ferry captain observed that Cook’s feats were astonishing in surviving the rugged waters of the arctic.

 

The author also points out the broad influences of Cook on popular culture. I had never made the connection with the fictional Captain James Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, who also traveled with his trusted medical officer, Bones, and Science Officer Spock. James Cook traveled on the HMS Endeavor on his first journey with his trusted surgeon and science specialist.

 

By Nathaniel Dance-Holland - from the National Maritime Museum, United Kingdom - James Cook official portrait

By Nathaniel Dance-Holland – from the National Maritime Museum, United Kingdom – James Cook official portrait

Captain James Cook was a steady and fair captain by most accounts until the last few weeks of his life. He was a whiz at math, a master mapmaker, and ahead of his times in using fresh and preserved foods in keeping his crew alive without the losses from scurvy that plagued other sailors in his time. He traveled tens of thousands of miles in the worst possible conditions, but returned to his home in London for brief visits with family back in England before setting off on another exploration. His words from the 1770s sound like something a NASA astronaut might say today,

            Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.

Those of us who interpret nature and history rely on biographies to interpret key events and characters in history. Every additional source adds nuance.

Horowitz’ interpretation of Cook’s life and journey is the best biographical and travel reading experience I have ever had. It especially makes a great read before visiting any of the places Cook lived or traveled – Yorkshire UK, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, Alaska and Hawaii.

 

  • Tim Merriman

 

P.S. Did I mention we live in Captain Cook, Hawaii?

 

 

Though Boys Throw Stones at Frogs in Sport

A very long time ago Bion of Borysthenes, (325-250 B.C.) wrote,

 

Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest.

 

This Greek slave, later a freedman turned philosopher, shared several ideas that get interpreted lots of ways and still resonate today. The boys throwing stones quote came to mind as I read the many Facebook posted stories about the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil, the 13-year old male lion, in Zimbabwe. It died for no reason beyond the grownup greed of a dentist wanting a trophy.

 

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National Geographic Society estimates that 100,000 elephants were poached in the past three years for their ivory. Yet some licenses were still sold in Zimbabwe to allow shooting of these incredible animals using the claim that it was necessary management, not just the big price claimed for a license.

Trophy hunters like the dentist rationalize their big kills of large predators and vulnerable but rare hoofed animals. It’s easy to rationalize if you are rich and the government allows your bad behaviors because you’ve paid for the right to take a life. A poor person shooting any animal on a preserve for food is simply labeled a poacher.

 

Here’s the problem with trophy hunting rationalizations. They’re just plain wrong. Some of the most common lies told in the name of excusing a completely unnecessary and undesirable behavior:

 

  • I removed an over-mature male from the population (big antlers), making room for younger healthy animals to grow up. What this really means is I removed a dominant, successful breeder. It’s kind of like a farmer saying I killed my best bull for meat instead of keeping it in the breeding herd. No farmer does this but wildlife agencies allow trophy hunting of the biggest and best breeders in wildlife populations because they want the fees, which brings us to the next misconception.
  • My big fee for hunting supports the local community and gives them jobs as guides, porters, food preparers and drivers. Photography safaris do this even more effectively because they leave the animals for others to see instead of putting a head on the wall. Also the big money for licenses and safaris goes mostly to large landowners, resort owners and sometimes to corrupt government officials. There are many more effective ways to help local communities around the world. Mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda and Uganda shows the real power of non-consumptive tourism to help local communities and protect vulnerable wildlife populations. Every license fee includes a percentage back to local communities. Mountain gorilla populations have increased over fourfold in two decades due to the protections offered by non-consumptive tourism.
  • We are keeping the herd numbers controlled. If we really wanted to keep a herd or population of animals from overeating the food supply, we would return the appropriate predators to the area to do that job. Trophy hunters do not want old, sick and injured animals which are the ones targeted by natural predators.
  • We removed a dangerous predator to protect people. The only real predator of consequence for humans are other humans. Large, dangerous predators in natural areas play a key role in removal of prey from populations based on natural selection of sick, injured and unfit to survive animals.
  • We killed this animal to protect local villages from damage to their farms. All over the world, people are finding creative ways to live next to wildlife without having someone fly in from halfway around the world to kill animals to “help.” When outsiders take it upon themselves to solve a problem, there’s a good chance the animal killed is not even the one causing the problem. And if this is a real need, shouldn’t local people be involved in the decision and asked whether that kind of help is really needed?

 

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Photographic safaris help people make a connection with the majestic large predators of the world, while protecting them and their habitats.

Trophy hunting has been a blind spot in wildlife management for many decades. Sport hunting is a big industry with powerful lobbies. Animals suffer incredible indignities and very real suffering as injured animals, shot by ego-junkies. Cecil was injured and tracked 40 hours before being killed. Surely there’s a more humane way to decorate a living room.

 

Aldo Leopold is often regarded as the “Father of Wildlife Management” for writing an early textbook on the subject. Over time he has become even better known more widely for his land ethic. He wrote,

 

The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land… In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

 

Human greed trumps and perverts our understanding of ecological principles. The power of money and large egos have twisted our ethics on every front. We allow trophy hunting despite there being no basis for it in wildlife management that makes sense.

 

Bion of Borysthenes also is quoted,

 

The miser did not possess wealth, but was possessed by it.

 

A dentist who will pay $50,000 to kill a large animal for its head and the joy of killing cannot make that action make sense to anyone but another greedy trophy hunter. We need a real movement to change the decision-making in wildlife management toward practices that are more humane and sustainable. It’s a good time to get started. This lion died in earnest, but perhaps he will not have died in vain.

 

– Tim Merriman

 

 

The Uncertain Future of Elephants

Earth’s largest land animals, elephants, have never been more threatened. Dozens, if not hundreds, of organizations and individuals are working on various tactics in hopes of turning the current very negative trend.

 

Sheldrick Wild Animal Trust allows daily visits to the orphaned elephants, a chance to tell the story of poaching and habitat destruction.

Sheldrick Wild Animal Trust allows daily visits to the orphaned elephants, a chance to tell the story of poaching and habitat destruction.

Since 1977 the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has been devoted to protecting elephants. Their Orphans Project is noted for rescuing, raising and rehabilitating elephants and rhinos for eventual release at Tsavo National Park. Tourists are moved by seeing orphaned baby elephants at Sheldrick Trust’s elephant orphanage in Kenya and they chip in to help by “adopting” an elephant or rhino, helping to pay the costs of raising these big babies. It’s hard to resist these youngsters and certainly, we didn’t even try to do so on our visit there, promptly adopting two elephants and one rhino for a two-year period.

 

Females have tusks so they are at risk with poachers. The little ones will only survive if their mothers do also.

Females have tusks so they are at risk with poachers. The little ones will only survive if their mothers do also.

Safaris take people out to see elephants in the wild, but too often people enjoy the safari experience without understanding the unseen threat of poachers that is one of the causes for so many elephant and rhino orphans. These highly engaged tourists could be donors if their guides would share the stories of how populations are declining and options for where to make contributions.

 

An old bull is nicknamed a "tusker." This identity reminds us that their tusks are so valuable that these mature animals are especially at risk.

An old bull is nicknamed a “tusker.” This identity reminds us that their tusks are so valuable that these mature animals are especially at risk.

Elephant orphanages and ecotours do not offer a panacea in the battle to save elephants. They are one piece of a complex puzzle that might build greater empathy among tourists for the plight faced by elephants. Better monitoring of populations is important to detect and interdict poachers. Research informs biologists how populations are changing. Enforcement officers must be on hand to catch poachers and get them prosecuted. Laws have to hold poachers and ivory buyers accountable. Sadly, the big money behind ivory poaching also contributes to corruption among government officials. Some are paid to look the other way and in many places this allows poaching to go unchecked.

 

Legitimate government and non-government organizational commitments to support habitat conservation, anti-poaching efforts, and education programs all require money and very often, that does not come unless there is broad understanding by people of the importance of the issues involved.

 

Most folks will never take a safari or see baby elephants in an orphanage. The zoo or a television program provides their one chance to learn about the plight of elephants in the wild. Can you imagine telling your grandchildren one day of the majestic herds of elephants that once roamed the forests and savannahs of Asia and Africa that have been wiped out? Although keeping such a large, social animal in a zoo is certainly controversial, we need opportunities to tell the elephants’ stories skillfully. Many zoos, even some without captive elephants, do that quite well. Some also take donations to protect habitat, hire rangers and guard remaining wild populations.

 

We live in a time when our knowledge of environmental threats has never been greater. And yet our political will and tools to protect elephants may not be adequate to the challenge. About 400,000 African elephants remain in nature with more than 35,000 being killed each year. About 40,000 Asian elephants live in their greatly diminished range. And the current rate of killing could reduce this noble animal to near extinction in a dozen more years at this level of poaching.

 

I think it has been shown over and over that we need ecosystems approaches to how we deal with the world’s environmental problems. Thoughtful policy, law enforcement, habitat protection, monitoring and interpretation each play a vital role. Some agencies and organizations choose one or two of these tools in preference to using all of them, but a balanced approach is needed overall. Strategic partnerships are vital in getting organizations working together to save the world’s elephants. Individuals can simply reject the purchase or display of anything made of ivory and help advocate for better support for elephant conservation.

 

World Elephant Day approaches on August 12th and it’s a chance for people from all over the world to speak up about the threat to elephants and the need for diverse approaches to protecting them. A balanced approach is needed if elephants are to be saved as keystone species in their natural ranges.

 

– Tim Merriman

 

Only elephants should wear ivory.

 

 

 

The Power of Real People

Using photos of real people on signs and exhibits is an especially powerful method of telling the stories of communities. Here are some examples we have seen around the world that were interesting choices connecting visitors to real people in the region.

The people of the Warm Springs area are shown on life-size cutouts behind the museum stage reminding you that the Paiute and Wasco people still live nearby.

The Native American  people of the Warm Springs area in Oregon are shown on life-size cutouts behind the museum stage reminding you that the Warm Springs, Paiute and Wasco people still live nearby.

The Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute people of Oregon share their stories in the Warm Springs Museum and their images appear beside the projection screen in the museum theater. Cultural stories could be told just with artifacts and artist’s drawings as is done in some places, but photos of local people help visitors understand that this community is still here and the people in it serve as your hosts.

This sign at the Mamu Tropical Skywalk explains that you are visiting the traditional lands of the Mamu people. That alone would not make much of a connection to the community.

This sign at the Mamu Tropical Skywalk explains that you are visiting the traditional lands of the Mamu people. That alone would not make much of a connection to the community.

Other signs like this one have photos of elders and community members with text that interprets their community.

Other signs like this one have photos of elders and community members with text that interprets their community.

The signs are engaging and the photos really keep the Mamu people on your mind as you look at the beautiful landscape. The highly reflective material and text very low on the signs make reading a bit difficult. Those are design choices to be considered when placing signs along a trail. It is easier to read text if at chest or eye level.

The signs are engaging and the photos really keep the Mamu people on your mind as you look at the beautiful landscape.

The highly reflective material and text placed very low on the signs make these signs at Mamu Tropical Skywalk challenging to read, but the intent in using Aboriginal community members as spokespeople is sound. It would be easier for visitors to make the important connection to the stories of local people if text was placed closer to average eye level and sign material made non-reflective.

Dr. Chris Mayer worked with Vivamos Major, a non-profit, in the Santa Clara La Laguna by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

Dr. Chris Mayer worked with Vivamos Major, a non-profit, in the Santa Clara La Laguna by Lake Atitlan in Guatemala to plan and develop The Refuge Trail using local images.

The signs placed on The Refuge Trail at Lake Atitalan used artist’s images of local people to create a strong connection with the project. The planner  engaged local artists and artisans in designing and building the trail and signage so they had a great sense of ownership and pride in their creative skills.
(Photo by Chris Mayer from Put the Heart Back In Your Community.)

This sign in the highlands of Malaysia at a Semai village show one of the guides who lead ecotours into the forest nearby.

This sign at a Semai village in the highlands of Malaysia  show one of the local guides with a Rafflesia flower.

The Malaysian Nature Society assisted this Semai village economically in shifting away from selling bird-winged butterflies and Rafflesia buds from the world’s largest flower to museum shops with ecotourism training in guest experience design. When you visit this charming village in the highlands a guide from the community takes you into the forest to see the Rafflesia, the butterflies and amazing insects found only there. Income from ecotourism is much greater than the income from selling organisms and they are now protecting their local forests and its inhabitants.

In Singapore they have life-sized posters of local customer service agents with an inviting message.

In Singapore life-sized posters of local customer service agents invite guests to learn more.

In Singapore, the history of the community is shared on interpretive signs on the streets. These interesting cutouts of life-sized photos of local customer service workers made it clear that they are proud of their friendly welcome for visitors. Since staff cannot always be on duty, the sign lets you know that assistance is available.

It is important that representing real recognizable people on signs and exhibits is done tastefully and with permission of those whose images are used. Talking about indigenous communities and local guides may be good but photos of them provide a much more direct connection to the community.

– Tim Merriman