Understanding Travelers Philanthropy

Smart Money Magazine tries Voluntourism
December 13, 2008, 11:37 pm
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What I did on my Volunteer Vacation- Smart Money Magazine

FOR SOME AMERICANS these days, vacationing is becoming a lot more than just a week at the beach.

“Voluntourism,” a fast-growing travel trend that combines overseas tourism with a dose of do-gooderism, has long been the province of college students and retirees willing to accept a long-term assignment. But increasingly, such lend-a-hand holidays attract boomers who can spare only a week away from the office.

Indeed, one online poll by Travelocity found that 38 percent of travelers say they intend to volunteer while vacationing this year, up from 11 percent in 2007. Hundreds of outfits now offer short-term stints, ranging from hard-core Habitat for Humanity construction projects to the Ritz-Carlton’s “Give Back Getaways” that mix luxe accommodations with half-day gigs like mapping the whereabouts of Cayman Island iguanas or supplying music therapy to disabled kids in Instanbul.

But even organizers say it’s not always easy to persuade these tourists to take on challenging tasks like caring for the elderly. “Save a turtle, hug an orphan — that’s what people like,” says Alexia Nestora, a volunteer-travel consultant based in Littleton, Colo.

And these trips aren’t cheap: Despite often Spartan accommodations, typical prices range from $1,000 a week to $3,000 for a multistop tour (before airfare); a family of four could easily blow $10,000 for a week in a mud hut.

In our case, we head to the outskirts of Cusco, Peru, former capital of the ancient Incan empire, for a trip organized by a nonprofit group in Texas. Our goal: visit a children’s home there — and hopefully, help out.

The hardest part of a volunteer vacation may be just booking the trip. All we really want is a South American destination, a flush toilet and some assurance that we won’t be surrounded by a gaggle of dreamy-eyed college kids. Industry portals like VolunTourism.org provide a good starting point for the search, but we are quickly overwhelmed by the sameness of all the tour sites: hyperbolic taglines (“Change the World”), gushing endorsements (“It was the most amazing experience of my life!”) and photos of smiling Americans surrounded by a half-dozen grateful natives.

We do better by calling travel companies directly; all employ specialists who suggest trips that fit our criteria and provide references from past customers. We finally book with Globe Aware (“Adventures in Service”), a 10-year-old, Dallas-based nonprofit that arranges volunteer stays in 15 countries. Its “Care for Cusco” package promises, among other things, modern plumbing, delicious Andean meals and “a chance to forget you are living in the 21st century.”

What it doesn’t promise is luxury; upon arrival we discover we’re bunking in a chilly, dingy dorm room with five other volunteers — and a long list of house rules (no drinking; lights out at 10). Hello, summer camp!

The accommodations hardly dampen the mood of our group, a collection of 15 extremely enthusiastic Americans who easily fit the educated, well-off, people-oriented profile of voluntourists. Turns out all their good cheer proves essential, since for several days our role at the children’s home — a brightly painted compound on a dusty street outside central Cusco—remains a mystery.

Our information packets are confusing. The promised orientation never happens. Random children wave from windows, race across the yard and pop up on the staircase wielding mops. What’s the deal? Out-of-date Web site information led some of us to believe we’re at a home for deaf orphans. Others were told (correctly) that the kids attend school here during the week and return to their villages on the weekend. Are we supposed to teach them English? Play Go Fish with them?

What actually keeps us busy is an impressive itinerary of cultural excursions. There are long day trips to the legendary mountain ruins of Machu Picchu and the walled fortress of Sacsayhuamán. There are evenings out to sample local fare (yes, guinea pig tastes a little like chicken) along with trips to the craft market and the agricultural fair. Our Cusco-born coordinator, Rocio, who speaks strained English and doubles as the home’s administrator, knows the best place to watch the solemn Incan New Year street procession and the location of the nearest ATM. Every afternoon we feast on delicious Peruvian meals prepared by Alicia, a cook who really knows her way around a cauliflower.

At one point, we are ferried to an Andean mountain village for an unexpected do-gooder project: building a new mud stove for a widowed onion farmer. Since none of us actually knows anything about building an adobe stove, our actual role in the process is limited. We tramp around in the farmer’s backyard mud pit, mixing straw and muck with our feet while we worry aloud about our pedicure and our fellow voluntourists snap photos.

Afterward, we take turns hauling the adobe mixture into the farmer’s dirt-floor kitchen, pausing to gawk at the guinea pigs inside. It’s hard to tell if we’re doing the farmer a favor —imagine some foreign billionaires descending on your home to photograph your kitchen and install a new dishwasher. Still, when the stove is completed—by a local hired hand — the farmer gives a one-word response: “Bien.”

It’s not actually until day four that we’re formally introduced to the kids—31 in all. The next day encounters like these are not uncommon: “Hola, Rosa! Cómo estás?” “Estoy bien!”—after which we stare and smile until it gets really uncomfortable. While some tour operators require volunteers to speak the local language, Globe Aware doesn’t — and all the goodwill in the world, it seems, does little to overcome a language barrier.

So we’re not exactly teaching them anything. But we do spend almost two days doing chores around the compound. Working under the bright winter sun, we help build a rough fence around the gardens and construct an irrigation ditch around the basketball court—introducing us to the joys of mixing cement. It’s all accompanied by plenty of picture taking and, thanks to a tool shortage, a lot of standing around. A few volunteers sew dog beds for Chuleta and Osa, the home’s copulation-crazed mutts.

Rocio tells us that since the home started hosting volunteers two years ago, visitors have made many improvements and repairs that the tiny staff couldn’t have managed alone. Plus, nearly a third of the $1,250 volunteer fee goes directly to fund the home. In a country like Peru, that’s significant cash. Many voluntourism outfits refuse to split the fee for fear of encouraging dependency and creating a situation in which visitors are welcomed for their money and entertained with meaningless busywork.

But given the endless excursions and lavish meals we enjoy — not to mention the fact that we’re contributing just 15 hours of service — the arrangement seems only fair. (Globe Aware Executive Director Kimberly Haley-Coleman calls the minimal workload an anomaly; volunteers should expect to work 30 hours a week.)

Over the last few days, there’s a burst of activity with the kids. On “gift night” the volunteers present the children with socks, pencils and books; hugs ensue. On “game night” skeptical teenage boys are convinced that it really is fun to play Twister. And at the farewell party, the kids put on a charming show complete with songs, poems and break dancing. Encouraged to reciprocate, we offer a rousing rendition of “Old MacDonald,” all 15 of us crowing, braying, flapping our wings and waving our elephant trunks. The children look alarmed. When we’re finished, they present us with homemade cards — and more hugs. Perhaps they’re thankful that we won’t be performing again.

The next morning we all pack our bags and recount the highlights. Words like “amazing” and “unforgettable” pop up again and again. As we wait for the taxis to whisk us away, the staff and kids wave goodbye. In just a few hours, another group will swoop in from el norte, starting the whole pageant anew.

Learn More:
Smart Money Magazine: What I Did on My Volunteer Vacation
Wall Street Journal: Voluntourism Questioned
Canada’s National Post Newspaper: Philanthropic Travelers
What’s the Good News about Voluntourism?


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