Cynthia LeCount Samaké is founder of Behind the Scenes Adventures, she is a specialist in festival costume and traditional textiles, and enthusiastically shares her expertise during the trips. LeCount Samaké has a Master’s in Art History from the University of California; her thesis covered the evolution of Carnival costume and masks in Oruro, Bolivia. For many years, she taught World Textiles in the Design Department at UC Davis. Cynthia conducted field research in Peru and Bolivia for several years, and those studies resulted in her book called “Andean Folk Knitting: Traditions and Techniques from Peru and Bolivia.” She has actually lost count of how many times she has been to the Andean countries – at least forty times!
Cynthia was Academic Director of the University of California Research Expeditions Program (UREP) and she also led research expeditions to South America and Southeast Asia through UREP for many years. LeCount Samaké has been curator for many exhibitions of traditional textiles and festival costume at the UC Davis Design Museum, the Museum of Craft and Folk Art (MOCFA) in San Francisco and at Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. She was curator for “Rhythm and Hues: Cloth and Culture of Mali” at MOCFA. In addition to leading trips, Cynthia sometimes writes about textiles and travel for such publications as Piecework and Knitting Traditions.
How do the experiences you offer at Behind the Scenes Adventures give guests a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of the regions where you travel?
Tours with Behind the Scenes Adventures do exactly what the name implies: we interact with the local culture on a level that most tourists never experience, whether it be baking bread in an outdoor oven in Turkey, or stamping cloth with batik wax in Ghana, or learning natural dyeing techniques from Peruvian villagers. In the twenty years that we have been taking people on Behind the Scenes trips, we have many made friends in different countries – they are the mask-makers of Bolivian carnival and the dance organizers in Oaxaca, Mexico, the weavers of Guatemala, and the cloth dyers in Mali. They and their families are happy to share a meal or experience with us. We always hire local guides who in addition to offering the requisite cultural and historical information, enjoy sharing their personal experiences and social and political perspectives on life in the country visited.
How have the experiences that you offer evolved since their inception?
We know more PEOPLE in more countries; they are the key to Behind the Scenes experiences! We’ve also found excellent guides, perfect hotels, and excellent restaurants over the years, so that we can assure a great experience because we know exactly what we are getting into and how to deal with it.
What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?
The amount of work that goes into planning a seamless experience! People have no idea how much work goes into a trip before departure, before I even meet them at the airport. It starts with the organization of an itinerary that flows well and doesn’t exhaust people, and continues to making hotel reservations, discovering new or better/more interesting restaurants, engaging the perfect guide, and planning all extra activities and transportation.
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider participating in one of your trips?
I wish people would bring LESS LUGGAGE! I understand that women, especially the knitters I often travel with, need more space than a carry-on, but almost everyone brings too much stuff. Their trip would be so much easier without large bags to lug around and carry up stairs. Plus the hotels we stay at have laundry service, so packing light is the way to go!
Also, people in cities all over the world dress far better than some American travelers. It is a bit disrespectful to the local people to wear our typical sloppy style, plus it makes us stand out as tourists. Women on our trips feel more at ease if they bring along a nice knit top with rayon or knit pants, a comfortable skirt, or a simple sundress with a sweater on top. Comfy walking flats also look better than hiking shoes or sneakers–plus they are easy to slip on and off when entering temples and the homes of the families we visit.
Worldwide there are also many countries where the women rarely wear pants. If our travelers do wear pants, they should match them with a long tunic that falls 6-8″ below the “smile” on their buns. This is a simple way to feel more comfortable, while also being respectful of the people living in these conservative countries.
What is one piece of clothing or equipment guests should have to maximize their enjoyment of the experiences you offer?
Any good, hard-sided, medium-sized suitcase with four spinner wheels; these make travel much easier. A nylon day-pack or big purse is necessary too.
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
Volunteerism, done the correct way, with total respect for the local population and their realistic needs. Also the trend towards more hands-on experiences- to make travel more personal and heartwarming as people share work or creativity.
What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?
Go with the flow! Try not to compare your present situation with the US, or other countries, hotels or experiences. Be here now, on a trip; appreciate where you are at the moment. Don’t spend the whole time talking about ‘when we were in Bhutan, or Costa Rica….”
We have had a few people who wouldn’t accept things that are not as clean or modern as in the USA. I am not sure why these folks travel… for instance, in a hotel room in rural Mali, a window screen inspection showed a hole so small that the mosquito would have had to fold in her little wings and shimmy through, but one couple flat-out refused to sleep there. Sometimes ‘best available’ is exactly that–and travelers who can laugh and shrug it off will have a much better time.
Also do not order things in restaurants that are familiar to you, but not common or native to the country where you are! It is better not to ask for lasagna in Peru or Chinese fried rice in Ghana, because it will be very different than you expect, and perhaps distasteful in its substitute ingredients. Learning about and trying new foods are part of the travel experience.
What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow?
After 20 years of organizing trips with Behind the Scenes, about three-fourths of the travelers are now repeat customers. This is wonderful, and it forces me to explore other countries as destinations that these people haven’t visited before!
What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?
Probably the personalized experiences make our trips so popular — and my friendliness is probably the key to most signups and repeat customers. I wish I could say success is from organization or hard work, although it is some of both of those also. I really like most people, and I think that textiles and festivals as focus subjects often bring together nice people, interested in similar creativity and artistry. We very often become friends and visit when we travel elsewhere, or we communicate over the years and the miles. Travelers on a trip also become friends and keep in contact and visit each other long afterward.
I still accompany ALL trips myself, but usually now have an American assistant speaking the local language, or an excellent local guide who accompanies me and the group for the whole 2-3 weeks. Furthermore, I am incredibly loyal, returning to same restaurants and staying in same hotels for 20 years for instance, if they maintain great quality and staff–and my friendship and loyalty are rewarded with extra-special service.
Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.
Years ago, a group was stuck on the train back to Cuzco from Machu Picchu. The generator and all the lights had gone out, and the engineer sent word back that we could only sit on the siding until they fixed the problem. Some of these people were knitters; one woman continued with her project with a headlamp that she had cleverly brought along. The rest of us sat in the dark and joked and ate a few snacks for several hours, then the expensive and fancy Hiram Bingham Express shot by us on the main track. A group of three kept us entertained by writing a song to the tune of Gilligan’s Island about the experience, with the chorus of “…And the Hiram Bingham flew on by…” Eventually about midnight, the generator was repaired and we rolled into Cuzco hungry and tired but LAUGHING, about 8 hours late.
This is one example among many, of a group of mellow people making the best of an unpleasant situation, instead of grumbling and whining.