By Chris Marchand
You’re not likely to find Tabitha Kroeker in a seaside resort compound sipping cocktails by the pool. When this 27 year-old world traveler sets off, escape usually isn’t on the agenda.
Instead, Kroeker is more apt to seek reality, to immerse herself fully in the culture of her surroundings. Understanding the social dynamics of a place takes time and a commitment to becoming a part of a community.
This week, Kroeker boarded a plane to Iceland where she will take a job as a nanny — a radically different destination from her usual equatorial haunts of the past decade.
Kroeker says she caught the travel bug at age 19 during a semester in South Africa, part of her early post-secondary studies in peace and social justice with Canadian Mennonite University.
“After that I just knew I had to go back to Africa,” she said.
At age 20 she left Canada to teach school in the African nation of Ghana, beginning a longstanding relationship with a village in which she has since logged extended stays totalling 18 months.
She’s taught school in El Salvador and Honduras.
Kroeker says that working in these places is key to forming relationships with the locals and learning the culture.
“I like to go and be a part of a community,” she said. “You’re not just a tourist seeing the sights. You really get to know people when you work with them. You see things from a different perspective that way and you see the inner culture rather than what’s on the surface. The longer you stay the more you learn about a place. I like to stay at least three months.”
Relationships, she says, are at the heart of her love of travel.
“Real friendships with people, real relationships are the most important thing to me,” she said. “To have relationships with people that have all different kinds of viewpoints and perspectives and dreams. It’s what I love about travel.”
Kroeker’s studied the Israel/Palestine conflict at close quarters, living with Palestinian families. She’s studied yoga and holistic health practices in India and lent her hand to disaster relief efforts in Western Sumatra.
Often traveling in places that are no stranger to conflict, Kroeker says people’s fears about travelling in foreign cultures are often baseless. She follows her gut when it comes to potentially uncomfortable situations.
“I guess I’ve never had huge fears about putting myself in dangerous situations,” she said. “It’s hard at first to know how to respond when everybody else is telling you how. I try to be as responsible as I can. I just feel safe and confident and secure and when you put out that energy then I think you’re less likely to be vulnerable to bad things that can happen.”
Most recently, Kroeker returned to North America, lacing up her hiking boots for a 1,900-mile, six-month traverse of the Appalachian Trail.
Starting in Georgia and ending in Maine, she walked through 14 different U.S. states. She says she found no less of a community among the gypsy caravan of trail walkers.
“You get this really odd, amazing mix of people,” she said. “Everyone is there for different reasons. Some are there for a spiritual experience, some just hitch-hike from town to town and party all along the trail, some people just want to be outside for six months. Some people quit really good jobs, or sell their homes to do it.”
Kroeker says she was looking to get in touch with who she was by taking on a big personal challenge.
“I really wanted to have an experience where I wasn’t accountable for anybody but myself,” she said. “I love volunteering, but you’re in somebody else’s culture and you really want to make a good impression. Every culture has its expectations and it can be stressful trying to fit into that to become part of the community. I just wanted some time to be who I am, be outside and just live with the bare minimum for a good chunk of time.”