The Altruistic Tourist: Putting Your Vacation to Good Use
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, May/June 2013 issue
By Martha Beach
Imagine you are standing in the hot sun on an exotic holiday wearing shorts and sandals. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and you’re looking forward to an evening bike ride. Now imagine you feel absolutely energized as you push a wheelbarrow filled with bricks across a dirt yard to help finish the wall of a house. For some vacationers, the first part sounds like the perfect holiday. For others, it’s the second half of that image that is an ideal way to spend their free time.
Volunteer travelling—dubbed voluntourism—has become very popular in the last 25 years. Voluntourists range in age from teens to 70s and their personal reasons for participation vary widely. They want to travel, learn, and experience community in a way that typical on-and-off-the-bus tourists would not. Through fundraising or out-of-pocket payment, voluntourists spend their vacation time visiting developing countries to help teach orphans, build houses, or take blood pressure.
No matter the task, voluntourists break from routine, see the world, and learn about themselves and their community. Sean and Gwen Pennylegion took a month out of their yearly three-month cycling vacation last winter to volunteer at an English school in Siem Reap, Cambodia. They’re no strangers to volunteering at home in Haliburton, Ontario, and they knew they wanted to try it abroad. “The first time we rode out there just to have a look at the orphanage, I went through those little concrete pillar gates and I knew as soon as I saw the looks on theses kids’ faces that I was supposed to be there,” says Sean Pennylegion.
Finding that sense of purpose starts with research, and talking to people is a great way to get started. “We all have so many contacts that we develop through our lives,” says Anne Lindsay, a Toronto-based violinist and music teacher who volunteered at Majengo orphanage in Tanzania this past winter. Lindsay had the perfect contact (her neighbour and the orphanage’s founder, Lynn Connell) who could help her get started so she chose to travel alone. “It’s just wonderful to have that personal foot-in-the door introduction. But if you can’t think of anybody there are other groups you can go to.”
Volunteering with a well-researched group is one way to ensure your money and time are going to something in which you believe. Organizations like Free the Children and Habitat for Humanity are known for reputable, volunteer work worldwide. But newer organizations choose small ways to make a big difference. Laurie Myles is one of three co-founders of Give Get Go, which focuses on building. “It’s something that is sustainable. You build something and it’s there for tens of dozens of years,” says Myles. They conduct the build in a way that fits the community. “It doesn’t take over the jobs. Often, it’s a boost to the build to move it along,” Myles says. Give Get Go volunteers will do whatever the local skilled labour can’t do, like hauling dirt, hammering nails, making lunch, or carrying water. In most cases, everybody works at their own level. “We had a 73-year-old lady on our last trip. She did what she could do. She would help prepare lunch and carry water,” says Myles.
In 2009, Hillary Brown travelled with her parents and local church group (with adults of various ages) to Uganda to build a school’s extension. Her father Tom, a cardiovascular nurse near London, Ontario, prefers travelling with an organized group and has since been on two other trips to Haiti as part of a medical team. “You don’t have to think about it. Accommodations and travel are planned. It’s just so easy,” he says. Hillary also felt at ease on her 2009 trip. “It was exceptionally well-organized. The house had a wall surrounding the property, as well as an armed guard on duty,” she says. “Except for the occasional loss of hot water, we felt quite at home. The only downside was the rooster that insisted on waking up the whole house at four in the morning.”
Some organizations provide more rest than others. Give Get Go offers a recreation period at the end of the build. “It’s actually the motivation to get more people to go if they know there’s something great to do afterwards as a reward,” says Myles. “If you’re in Africa there’s no way you don’t want to go see the big five animals.” Throughout the build there are also cultural activities, like visits to an orphanage or organized bike rides.
Lindsay’s goal was to really be involved in the culture and to experience the real community. “I did not just be a voyeur looking in,” she says. “Every day I was talking with local people, whether they were teachers at the school or the nurse coming in. In fact, the nurse invited me to her retirement ceremony. It was a big social event in the village. I was able to see how they celebrate a notable person in the community.”
The work, the accomplishment, and the community experience are top notch. Accommodations, on the other hand, are not always spectacular, especially for the lone traveller paying their own expenses. Lindsay’s hotel was the most rustic part of her trip in Tanzania. The power went out quite often and with it went the running water. “Most of the toilets were squat toilets. They’re pretty stinky,” Lindsay says. But she adapted. “You just learn to hold your breath.”
Often, human comforts are not the only worry. Depending on the destination, illness and safety are the greatest concerns. Pennylegion’s greatest worry was about safety—not his own, but the safety of the children. “There was no police check and we were never expected to demonstrate our English proficiency,” says Pennylegion. “The kids are just so sweet and so innocent and so keen and so giving. They deserve to have volunteers who have the same kind of approach.” Pennylegion did his own research to find the school.
Research is extremely important. Call organizations and look up testimonials to find out all you can about what exactly you will be doing, where you’ll be staying, and (when travelling with a group) if you agree with the organization’s methods and ideologies. Voluntourism is not the best option for everyone, and some people disagree with this method of outreach. Do your research to avoid any upsets.
Daniel Claret did not do as much research as he should have. The Toronto-based chef wanted to make a real impact as part of a medical team touring Africa. “In the beginning it sounded so good and interesting, but now I look back and I don’t think I made an impact,” he says. The organization he travelled with spent a lot of energy on short-term solutions and medication. “The problems don’t need medication, they need prevention.” Claret did not find out this was the case until it was too late. “I spent a lot of money and I spent all of my time working—sometimes six thirty in the morning until 10 or 11 at night. We were there two months and we made no difference,” he says. “I was expecting more of a passing on of knowledge,” but those expectations were not met.
The Pennylegions expected to be teachers’ helpers, but this wasn’t the case. “When we arrived we were essentially handed these classrooms with big smiles. The teachers became students immediately,” says Pennylegion. “They were just like sponges. There was no screwing around. Had I asked everybody to stand on their head they would have done it.”
Despite this surprising amount of responsibility, the Pennylegions loved every moment. “We had a wonderful time. It was exhausting,” he says. “It exceeded any expectations that I had.” They are already planning on returning next winter.
Whether you return from voluntouring with a horror story or tales of wonder, you will most certainly bring home a different outlook on life. “We were warned that we could have a bit of depression or guilt when we got home,” says Tom Brown. That warning came before his first trip with Hillary to Uganda. “We are very blessed and we take it for granted a lot of the time. It grounds you and it makes you rearrange your priorities.”
Lindsay also felt things shift. “I really had this incredible awakening of social consciousness, of wanting to be active not just in international communities but even more active in my community,” she says. “I’d gone all the way across the world to engage in and contribute to this community there. But then I came back here and was walking up the street and I thought ‘Wow, there are a lot of ways here I can be involved.’”
“They will find their own strengths, their own ways in which they would like to contribute,” says Myles. “Often you have to sit with the experience for a while. It gets you so deeply you need to let it sit with yourself and figure out how you want to contribute in the future.”
You don’t need to travel half way around the world to make a difference. There are voluntourism options in Canada and there are numerous ways to make a difference in your community. Do a bit of research. Talk to your neighbours. You may not need to travel farther than a few kilometers to explore a community, learn something new, and make a difference.
Organizations that can help you voluntour locally and abroad
Give Get Go (Toronto-based)
Habitat for Humanity (Local and worldwide)
Me to We (Youth-oriented, local and worldwide opportunities)
Mission to Haiti Canada (Religious affiliations)
Free the Children (This has family-volunteer options)