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Voluntourism – the selfish way

Eleven months ago we left our nonprofit jobs in the U.S. and kicked off an around-the-world trip. Since then, in addition to spending a lot of time asking for directions, we’ve counted whale sharks in the Philippines, collected trash at Everest Base Camp, and delivered books to kids in rural Laos – all in pursuit of our goal to volunteer at least one day each week, no matter where the trip took us.

It’s not what most people think of when they hear the word “voluntourism”—which typically involves a trip to a single place for a defined period, all organised by a third party organisation.

But when it came to our trip of a lifetime, we were selfish. We weren’t ready to give up months of our time for one project in one place. We also weren’t ready (or able) to fork out the hefty fee usually required by the well-meaning organisations that organise volunteer trips.

So we decided to take a different route, going where we’ve always dreamed of (Nepal, Borneo, India, to name a few), while finding short-term volunteer opportunities along the way.

After nearly a year and with lots of volunteer days behind us—we can tell you volunteering even just one day each week is an incredibly rewarding, educational, and fun thing to do as part of any journey. It’s also a way to make a difference, not only for the traveller, but also for the people and places seen along the way.

So, what type of things could a volunteering traveller expect? Here are a few examples from our trip so far:

– On Earth Day in Palau, we worked underwater with local divers and snorkeling school children to clean up the bottom of a bay. They were as happy to have the help as we were providing it

– Near Burma’s Inle Lake, we befriended a local boatman, who wanted to practice his English with us. The next day, we met him to continue our discussions, and he invited us to his home, where he said his daughter was studying. We ended up helping the young girl for the next two days with her English homework—reading by candlelight in her family’s hut as her proud parents looked on

– Hiking to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, we tied trash bags to our packs and filled them with countless candy bar wrappers, plastic bottles and other rubbish found along the route. The best part was when villagers or fellow travellers saw what we were doing, they would join in, some trekking with us for kilometers as we cleaned the trails together. It was as contagious an act as any we saw on the trip

Some opportunities, like Earth Day in Palau, were set up in advance. Many others happened spontaneously and became the highlights of our travels.

This type of voluntourism is not without its challenges. First there’s identifying the opportunities, which for us involves lots of online research before we arrive somewhere, as well as training our eyes to see areas we could lend a helping hand without making things worse.

We also learned to watch out for organisations that seek to take advantage of tourists, such as the “orphanage” we were led to in Bodh Gaya, India. All seemed OK until the manager told the kids to line up in rows and “perform” while he simultaneously asked us for money and flipped through a guest book listing pages of donations supposedly bilked from previous visitors.

As we near the end of our trip and consider returning home to look for jobs, we aren’t under any false impressions that what we did somehow changed the world. What we are carrying with us is that we were able to take the trip we’ve always dreamed of, while giving back a little something to many of the places and people that gave so much to us. We saw that simple acts of kindness, such as picking up trash on a beach or helping a local load her produce on top of a bus, are infectious.

And best of all, this trip also taught us that whether at home or far from it, there’s always something we can do to help others—even if it’s just one day each week.

Kip Patrick and Liz Zipse

Read Kip and Liz’s tips for others looking to do volunteering while travelling