An Altruist's Vacation

How to Become a Voluntourist
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Nepal Works Wall Mixing
ALTRUISM IN ACTION: Nepali workers—and volunteers—mix mud for wall construction (courtesy, Cultural Restoration Tourism Project)
The Voluntourist’s Four-Step Program
David Clemmons, founder and co-director of Voluntourism International, offers the following advice for making the most of those voluntouristic impulses:
STEP 1: Know yourself and your limits. Be realistic about what you want—and expect—from your trip.
STEP 2: Research the options and pick a trip that resonates with you personally. "If you have a cause or issue you want to focus on, do some background reading." For example, Clemmons recommends the Peace Corps website (www.peacecorps.gov ) as a great source of first-hand information from people who may have experienced similar situations, albeit for longer periods of time.
STEP 3: Go with an open mind. "Once you get there, by connecting to the locals, your whole trip may change," he says. "These folks can turn you on to a part of the destination that doesn't exist in Frommer's or Fodor's."
STEP 4: Expect bumpy re-entry to your nine-to-five routine. Empowered and impassioned from your experience, hook up with organizations offering advice, resources, and outlets for your new-found perspective. Useful sites include www.volunteermatch.org , www.unitedway.org , and www.idealist.org.
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Unsurprisingly, it's impossible to pigeon-hole the typical "voluntourist." The demographic broadly skews older, usually toward baby boomers who perhaps have more time and money to commit to the cause. However, younger Gen Y types, especially students and those seeking out authentic (and intense) cross-cultural experiences, are another big market. "We get everything. I've gotten yoga teachers, I've gotten retired teachers, I've gotten young tycoons who've come to the end of the rope in terms of what they're doing in life," says Alexander Souri, president of humanitarian-focused, adventure-travel outfitter Relief Riders International.

But beyond having a big heart, the voluntourist should be realistic about what he or she wants to get from the experience. Many trips to the far reaches of the planet will bestow rudimentary accommodation, pit toilets, basic food and drink, and at-times harrowing glimpses of extreme poverty, medical conditions, or social distress. "Are you going to be comfortable in a place with 35-, 40-degree Celsius temperatures?" asks Voluntourism International's David Clemmons. "Sit down with some of your friends and ask them, ‘What can I really handle?'"

Alexander Souri's Relief Riders operation is certainly no ride in the park. The outfit leads up to 12 volunteer riders, plus support and guides, into India's northwestern desert to deliver aid to remote rural villages. To date, after only its fourth year, Relief Riders has provided free medical care to some 14,000 villagers and treated 6,900 children for worms. No doubt, riding up to 25 miles a day in Rajasthan's searing heat before helping needy communities demands great physical and mental fortitude. But it's a challenge for all comers. "Our youngest rider was ten, the oldest 70," Souri notes.

So before you go, research the options and fine print, feel comfortable with the cause to which you are committing, and be realistic about how much time you are prepared to commit and what kinds of condition you are willing to endure. Do you really want to be working eight-hour days and feel too bushwhacked to see the place in which you are volunteering, for example? Look for a balance that gives you what you want from your trip. "You may know what you can do when you travel," notes David Clemmons, "but we're talking about trips that involve more of a service element, here."

Ironically for such an altruistic undertaking, volunteers should initially indulge in some selfish introspection. "The key element of voluntourism is that individuals are coming and experiencing in a qualitative sense what they are doing," says Relief Riders' Alexander Souri. "It's a true experience without the presence of a hired-hand help to show you around." At the end of the day, then, your voluntourism voyage should be one of self-discovery as much as it is reaching out to people and places in need.


Published: 25 Jun 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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