Those of us who travel have wanderlust for different reasons, but we share one thing in common. When we drop ourselves in an unknown land, we are chasing after the unknown. For me, I chase the cultural unknown. I wrap myself in the discomfort of a new place, new language, new people and new food.
I don’t like to leave a place until I have made new friends, tried strange dishes, learned local phrases and can find my way around by following landmarks instead of a map. But being able to do let alone afford an experience like this can take time and money unavailable to me. That’s where voluntourism comes in.
Two of my trips to Latin America and one in the States (Texas is pretty exotic to an Ohioan) have involved volunteer tourism, a form of travel that turns vacation from one culture into immersion in another.
I wrap myself in the discomfort of a new place, new language, new people and new food.
Traveling to a foreign country is as intimidating as it is enlightening. As a solo woman traveler, placing myself into the machismo culture of Latin America felt like dangling a lamb in front of a coyote. It can be equally nerve-wracking and empowering. But to save ourselves from catcalls and fluttering stomach butterflies, many travelers choose to book scheduled group tours that handle all of the logistics.
Though fun, easy and educational, group tours drain a travel budget quickly. Even as a solo traveler, you might see your savings disappearing quicker than you hoped because you missed out on two-for-one deals.
Voluntourism not only opens your eyes to the local lifestyle but also helps you travel affordably. Shelling out money for a spot in a 12-bed hostel dorm room can suck up your travel fund before you know it. With voluntourism, you get to choose where you want to go and what you want to do. You can go through an organization or plan a homestay for just yourself.
Typically, you put forth a small amount of money—negligible to what you’ll save and gain from the experience—to help offset the cost of food and living. WWOOFing is one of the most well-known voluntourism opportunities. Find a country, choose a region and research the local homestay options to help out on organic farms.
Voluntourism not only opens your eyes to the local lifestyle but also helps you travel affordably.
Volunteering at schools or orphanages is common too, as are ecotourism positions in conservation like being a tour guide or wildlife caretaker. A budding zoologist in my college years, I twice employed voluntourism to help mold my career in the animal world, combining it with my love of culture. But just as memorable as my muddy days covered in monkey poop were my days spent building a school in Brazil.
Through the organization Amizade—“friendship” in Portuguese—I traveled with members of my university on an alternative spring break trip. The program plopped us into northern Brazil, where children ran barefoot through quiet towns skirting the Amazon rainforest. Relying on nothing but hand tools and muscles, I painstakingly learned the process of tearing down walls, mixing cement and laying bricks.
Raimundo, the foreman, and I laughed at our bold hand gestures for communicating despite the language barrier. On my lunch break, I plucked pitombas from the fruit tree in the school yard. One evening, I took a lesson in Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art dance, from some locals who helped us with the construction. I joined neighborhood kids for a game similar to dodgeball. I even ate a fish eyeball.
I wonder where life has taken him and whatever happened to that green hat.
The most memorable part of my trip, though, was my friendship with Bruno, a 12-year-old boy who, along with five other children, helped—or rather supervised—us on the project. Bruno taught me to sing Happy Birthday in Portuguese, which I still remember eight years later.
He developed a habit of stealing my bright green hat while I was hammering away, so on the night before my departure, I gave it to him. He smiled his contagious, cheesy grin, situated the cap on his head and broke into the Samba. Bruno and I remained pen pals for a few years after my visit. He is now an adult. I wonder where life has taken him and whatever happened to that green hat.
The most fulfilling voluntourism programs are not ones that reward yourself but those that reward the community. Truthfully, you do have to prepare yourself for dirty jobs, long and laborious hours, sketchy wifi and unpredictable living conditions. But when you realize the locals are relying on you, that you’re leaving more than just footprints in a community, the tarantulas you warded off in the middle of the night become worth it.
When I said goodbye to Santarém, Brazil in 2008, I took with me a three-inch scar on my thigh after falling off a rickety chair onto a nail at the worksite as Bruno laughed uncontrollably at my side. It burned like hell when I cleaned it up in the dusty confines of the half-built school. But now I have a scar that reminds me of the connection I made to a town and to an adolescent boy that once seemed so far, far away.
Top photo by David Schroeder (Creative Commons)