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Volunteer tourism, already a hit overseas, is finding its feet in Australia. Kirk Owers investigates the urge to travel and work for free on a visit to India.
Paying for a holiday where you’re expected to work for no financial reward seems a difficult concept to embrace. Yet it’s already popular in the UK and North America and is gaining advocates throughout the western world. Google “volunteer tourism” and over 16 million web sites are listed – many links to organisations offering to place travellers in third world projects. Travel industry experts predict it will be as popular as eco–tourism by the end of this decade.
Specifically volunteer tourism is any form of travel where you offer your services for free. It’s a huge category which includes conservationist, medical, educational, community and building projects. The choices offered are as diverse as the world’s problems: you can help save otters from extinction in Bolivia, assist HIV patients in Africa or teach under-privileged children in India. Primarily it’s a holiday but one which seeks to benefit the local people as well as the traveller.
Most programs offer an experience which is unobtainable for the average tourist. They are your “in” to the local culture. For however long you participate you’ll be a valued part of a local community. If you’re open-minded benefits should be reciprocated. You may teach English but learn Spanish. Build a schoolroom but learn stone-masonry. Scratch your legs to bits but save a Bolivian Giant Otter from certain death.
At least that’s what the brochures will tell you. But what’s it really like? And more importantly, is it for you?
Is it for me?
“Volunteer travel is for anyone who wants to contribute something worthwhile to a local community as part of their holiday experience. We’ve had everyone from school-leavers to retired farmers join our programs,” says Jane Castledine, from tour company, Imaginative Traveller. Participants don’t need particular skills or qualifications but enthusiasm, patience and cultural sensitivity are considered necessary. Also you must be prepared to rough it.
The Imaginative Traveller brochure gives a good indication of what sort of conditions to expect: “A limited variety of foods may be available and accommodation could be in tents or even sleeping on the floor in a village hall with a cold bucket of water to use for washing.” Experiencing village life in the third world will, literarily, take you out of your comfort zone.
The same brochure helpfully warns: “You will almost certainly have to contend with relative inefficiency, a more relaxed attitude to time, cancellations and closures without explanation, outdated facilities, suspect plumbing and apparently mindless bureaucracy.” But then all developing world travellers face relaxed attitudes to just about everything, including plumbing. Tour groups generally encounter less of this than independent travellers.
What programs are out there?
The Imaginative Traveller, who are a global company with a home base in the UK, offer tours to nine countries which generally include between four and six days of volunteer work as part of a three week travel itinerary. They work with local charity groups and require clients to donate a minimum sum to the charity. “They’ve been hugely successful for our company in the UK and there’s every indication that they will take off in Australia,” says media officer, Jane Castledine.
Their volunteer trips are divided into three categories: construction, community and conservation. Construction projects take place in Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Kenya and are self-explanatory. Community projects can also involve building but are more flexible to fit in with the current needs of the host community (you might be milking goats, fixing roofs or digging compost toilets). Conservation projects take place in Botswana, Ecuador and Thailand and involve work with endangered species, re-forestation or park maintenance.
“Our most popular tour has been the Elephants and Adventure trip to Thailand,” says Castledine. Elephant numbers in Thailand have dwindled alarmingly in recent years and the tour works alongside a local conservation group to address the problem. Travellers assist the trainers and veterinarians at the nature park including hands on cleaning and feeding of the animals. They also seek to educate the local people about preserving the elephant.
Colin Carpenter, MD of Antipodeans Abroad has been involved in education-based adventure travel for many years. His company recently moved into volunteer tourism due, in part, to client interest. “We were already offering a volunteer component to some of our overseas tours. But some people were expressing an interest in staying and working for longer.” Antipodeans’ Immersion programs were launched as a result.
The Immersion programs take place in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Peru and India. Placements are offered for periods of two to twelve weeks, although Ecuador, Ghana and Peru all require a commitment of at least one month. Teaching English is the major focus but other jobs include: Working with disabled kids, building schools, assisting street kids and helping out in orphanages.
This is more work-orientated travel but clients will still have time for sight-seeing or can organise travel itineraries with Antipodeans. For those who want to combine principally travel with a little bit of community work the company runs a selection of community travel expeditions called ‘journeys’.
Antipodeans main volunteer business derives from their Year Out programs which are designed specifically for students wishing to take a gap year. The gap year is generally taken as a break from study between tertiary and university. It allows a young person some breathing space to consider their career and education path and to grow as a person.
The Year Out program places groups of students in a community project in the developing world. They live with a local family and learn independence, confidence and leadership skills, while also benefiting a community usually by teaching English in the local school. The programs last for three months and take place in Peru, Vietnam, India, Nepal and Ghana. Students are trained before they leave and receive on-site support while away.
Volunteering in Tanzania
Ken Coglan, 56, from Cairns booked a trip to Vietnam with a different travel company, Antipodeans. The itinerary included three days of volunteer work in a small mountain village. “We laid a concrete slab for a school at an isolated community called Laochai,” he remembers. “It was a long hike in and out of the village and there were no tools, not even a wheel barrow. It was three days of hard physical work - but it was fantastic. So many people came up and thanked us afterwards . It really gave you a warm, fuzzy feeling.”
Many other reports from volunteer travellers are equally rich with praise. Some find helping less fortunate people in third world countries puts their own workaday stress and problems into perspective. Others talk of friendships formed, challenges overcome or of new skills learnt. Perth businessman Fabio Cavilli regards his four week teaching experience in India with Antipodeans as nothing short of life-changing. But all would agree - it’s not for everyone.
Critics might argue that volunteer tourism capitalises on western guilt or that it’s meddling in foreign affairs. This seems, to me, a cynical view. In the age of the global economy we all meddle in foreign affairs - the high standard of living in the West often comes at the expense of developing nations. And cashing in on people’s good will is surely better than profiting from its selfishness. That there is even a market for this type of travel is a positive thing.
While some program’s proposed input does seem tokenistic most I looked into appear to be genuinely beneficial for the communities they work alongside. But I must admit I was surprised by the price tags. Two weeks of volunteer teaching in India is likely to set you back over $1,500, excluding airfares. To put that into perspective, India is a country where you can live comfortably on $30 a day.
Colin Carpenter of Antipodeans notes that confidant travellers may be able to organise their own volunteer work while on the road. His company’s target demographic is more people who are time poor or unfamiliar with third world travel. Clients are not exchanging services for food and accommodation but paying to benefit from a well organised existing volunteer program.
My Indian Experience
My own volunteer experience was with Antipodeans Abroad. I travelled with a group of journalists and visited two of their Immersion programs in northern India. It was a short trip and more a look at locations and infrastructure than a taste of an actual volunteering holiday. But it was fun and, in its way, enlightening.
Our first stop was Dehra Dun, six hours north of Delhi. Here we spent two nights at a home stay (great food) and visited the local Pestalozzi school. Students here are selected from under-privileged regions of India, Nepal and Tibet on the basis of academic ability. English is the only language allowed and the kids were eager to test it on us. They asked thoughtful questions about Shane Warne and serenaded us with a joyful version of “Lean on Me.”. An exam would be sat at the end of eight months – the successful ones offered something we take for granted: high school.
Next we travelled to Than Gaon, a tiny village in the foothills of the Himalayas. Here we were guests of honour at a primary school with 30 bright-eyed students. The kids were shy at first but soon opened up. Viewing portraits taken with digital cameras proved a big hit and the source of much commotion. Rakesh, Suni and gap-toothed Guddi became my new best friends.
It was a fun afternoon and a scenic, relaxing setting. But a real stay, teaching in a classroom every weekday would be very different. Challenging, I would imagine, but also educational and rewarding. The days began and finished with a yoga class and, I don’t know if it was the peaceful setting, the peaceful instructor or the peaceful twittering of the peaceful birds but afterwards I felt angry as hell. Joking, I felt calm and relaxed in a way I rarely do.
Our remaining days were spent exploring the surrounding area. We visited nearby Rishkesh, a colourful town on the banks of the Ganges popular with yoga masters, guru mystics and the spiritually curious. We limbered up in Than Goan before hiking half a day through Himalayan foothills to a nearby (but much further than we anticipated) town called Mussoorie. And we caught rickshaws into Old Delhi before we flew home. What a crazy ol’ town that is.
I found India fascinating. I wanted to stay longer. The volunteer projects I thought were great. Too much travel is a superficial experience. You skip across the surface of a culture without ever really penetrating. I think most people would learn a lot from a volunteer holiday. I think it’d be a great learning experience, full-filling, life-changing even. But, as mentioned in the article, it’s not for everyone.