A Case for Volunteer Travel

Pack your bags, you’re going on a guilt trip.

Many of us have resorted to spend time with our families. This resort style vacation with our family includes hours at the community watering hole, unfortunate group photographs complete with sun-burn lines and Caribbean-inspired braiding. As far as we know, we could be at the Hyatt in the Bahamas, San Diego or Darfur. Inside the compound, life is bliss. Outside, a complete mystery. We have no idea how the locals live, and that is sort of the idea.

As the family vacation becomes the party vacation, there is very little difference. Once again safely nestled within the resort enclosure with limited access to the local life outside, spring break and fleeting romance whirls with each sip of sex on the beach. It’s exactly the same as before, except now we’re drunk. We boast great deals on all-inclusive resort packages that keep us entirely all-exclusive.

Finally, we embark on our first journey across international waters — and it’s only just now that I wonder if there is any statistical correlation between the popularity of Americans traveling abroad and the increase in sales of multi-pocketed khaki shorts. On a memorable day, we hunt down an internet café in the “sketchy” part of town, login to Yelp to find the best locals bar in Berlin and set off on a wild adventure through cobble-stoned streets and outdoor markets to find this very spot. We pack the newest (and heaviest) edition of Lonely Planet and keep our money belt safely tucked inside our pants for four consecutive days, you know, just to be safe.

A book may ignite the imagination with thoughts of far away places, but it could never give you the exhilaration that comes with getting frightfully lost in a place unknown and coming out the other side to realize that you have found yourself — and neither can isolated travel.

I’ve traveled from Hiltons to hostels to “Hodi” (in Kiswahili, it’s the proper way to announce yourself before walking into someone’s home), and what I have found is that, wherever I am in the world, traveling is always about the people and culture first.

In the last ten years, the popularity of volunteer travel has grown immensely. More and more students fresh out of college are looking for a new batch of adjectives to add throughout their next networking event. Exhilarating. Transformative. Inspirational. Uplifting. Non-profit organizations and for-profit volunteer mills alike are incorporating a variety of opportunities into their programs, such as building schools out of plastic bottles in Guatemala or caring for abused elephants at a sanctuary in Thailand.

The topic of volunteer travel has provoked many serious discussions about the degree in which humanitarians can make a difference, as well as a series of recent satire articles about photographing yourself with African children. Many argue about the exploitation of children, the messiah complex or for-profit companies capitalizing on the heartstrings of young coeds and under-delivering promises to their third world beneficiaries — ultimately creating more harm than good.

The truth is, it isn’t about helping people. It’s not about helping people in the way skeptics worldwide think about humanitarians helping people in third world countries. One month is simply not enough time to institute progress. But you still need to go. Volunteering abroad is about much more than teaching English for two weeks, cooking in a kitchen for 300 orphans or spoiling children with candy and posing for Facebook-worthy photo shoots. It’s about engaging with a culture, and narrowing the culture gap. It’s about creating global interconnectedness.

Across six continents (without regard to global warming, Antarctica is safe, for now), wars rage between nations, religions, races, tribes and sexes. We don’t understand one another, and the planet is raging. Volunteer travel offers an opportunity unlike any other type of travel — it offers the ability to act as a non-political liaison between nations. In some sense, a volunteer becomes the voice of his or her country, as well as the voice of those people encountered on his or her journey. Stories, traditions, games, music, recipes, jokes, fears and hopes are shared on late nights and a world of compassion develops because of a mutual understanding about how other people live, struggle and experience joy. When dropping bombs on our global neighbors means dropping bombs on the people and places that we have grown to love, we would all think differently. It’s a lack of understanding that keeps people hateful — because you simply can not love what or whom you do not know.

A few years ago, while I was working in Kenya, other volunteers and I heard a few of the children awake one night at the orphanage. We went outside and were enveloped by the twinkling sky. A country dimly lit by candlelight beneath a sky that is dark, vast and brightly speckled with the mysteries of the Universe. This is a God-loving, God-fearing country whose education in astronomy begins and ends with the Sun, Moon and stars. On this night, we sat among the constellations, explaining as best we could with our amateur knowledge of astronomy all we knew and all we could never explain. Conceptualizing how people live in America or Japan is brought with great difficulty for the children in Kenya — the breadth of the Universe, nearly impossible. Some children asked impatiently, nervously and excitedly if there were other planets with life. Some were in disbelief. Some quietly listened with their eyes wide. Some even questioned everything they had never been told. It was on this night I realized the global impact of volunteer travel.

Once you travel by way of the locals and experience the music, food, art and realities of a world outside of your own — all other forms of travel just seem false. Much like the forced smile in a staged photograph — it’s nothing but an illusion. It’s not how things really were, but how you chose to remember them.

Next time you travel, experience what #nofilter really means. Get lost, get dirty, get real.

Amy Martin

Amy was born on the wrong side of the Holland Tunnel, and has considered this just-missed connection to be a metaphor for her life ever since. Later, she traveled north to New England and received her degrees in Philosophy, Theatre and French. The years to follow have been spent traveling the world and working on multiple projects in Kenya, in a desperate attempt to save humanity. Amy spends most of her free time daydreaming about being French — but you can also find her in the garden, in the kitchen or on her yoga mat. Amy writes about travel, ethics, life and everything in-between.

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