Tour Bus Travel vs Volunteering

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Have I been doing it wrong all these years?

I don’t exactly know where my inspiration came from to volunteer. I’ve always been the type of person to watch documentaries on starving children in Africa, feel absolutely heartbroken and vow to make a donation in the next ad break. But I don’t. I continue sitting on my couch, crying into my ice cream and feeling sad. The documentary finishes, ‘The Amazing Race’ comes on and I forget all about those starving children in Africa.

A year or so ago, in typical Hayley style, I started developing that familiar itch to travel again. I’ve been an obsessive traveller since I was 21 and have travelled to over 25 countries. Now, at 29 years old, something had changed in the way I wanted to travel.  I didn’t just want to watch a country go by as I looked out the window of a comfortable air-conditioned tour bus, hopping off intermittently to snap the obligatory photo of some pretty mountain. I wanted to get amongst it all. I wanted to help people. And I wanted to stop saying “one day I will” and just do it.
When planning my trip I stumbled across IVHQ, a New Zealand based organisation with volunteering projects all around the world. I was instantly hooked and applied for projects in Kenya and Mexico, two of the countries I planned to visit on my yearlong overseas holiday. I was accepted into both. Was I terrified I’d bitten off more than I could chew? YES… but I went anyway.
First stop.. Kenya. After orientation and a few days to catch my breath I was catapulted into what felt like an alternate universe. My job for the next month was to consult with pregnant mothers, assist in births, help sick babies and provide first aid and family planning classes to those who couldn’t afford to seek help elsewhere.  It seemed like every patient I saw was suffering from extreme poverty and starvation, and most of the women were HIV positive. On my second day at the clinic I sat in a room with a pregnant mother of three while she waited for the results of the HIV test we’d just given her. It was an intense five minutes and something I will remember for the rest of my life. You don’t get that experience sitting on an air-conditioned tour bus.

Fast forward three months to Cuernavaca, Mexico. It was to be my home for the next two months while I volunteered with Casa Hoy, a local organisation passionate about helping the community. They offer a variety of projects including teaching English, child care, environmental, animal welfare and computer assistance.  I learned that I would be volunteering in a foster home for children whose parents were in prison or too unfit to look after them. There were 29 children at the home, aged between 1 and 5 years old. And boy did I fall in love with each and every one of them.

There were many defining moments during those two months at the home. Those secret ‘high five’ moments that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But my most memorable was Clara*. Clara is 2 years old and lives at the home. She never smiled or laughed, never played with the other children and seemed to be in her own little world most of the time. I often wondered what kind of life she had led to make her like this. So, every day I would pay special attention to Clara – lots of playing, giving her cuddles, helping her with her lunch and just generally making her feel loved. The defining moment came about a month into my project when Clara finally smiled at me. Next came the laughter, interaction with the other kids and she even started sitting on my lap without being prompted. Success. To be honest, sometimes I questioned myself about why I was here spending my free time with these children when I could be at home playing with my three beautiful nieces. This was why. These defining moments. I will never forget Clara or my time spent at the foster home.

By the time I turn 30 (in 5 months eeek!) I will have travelled to 33 different countries. Did I love visiting those countries and seeing them through the window of my tour bus? Yes I did. But my time spent in Kenya and Mexico created a whole new depth of appreciation and love for the country and its people. Feeling that sense of family and belonging. Exchanging daily “hola’s” with the laundry lady and the man at the corner store. Getting involved in the community and helping people, even if it’s just by making them smile.

Volunteering changed the way I want to travel. It took me 9 years and 33 countries but I got there in the end. I got off the couch.

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Wal-mart style Voluntourism

When I was 10 years old all I wanted was an American Girl Doll. In my infinite pre-teen wisdom, I wrote the American Girl Doll company, suggesting that lowering the price of the doll would actually allow more girls or boys to purchase one. They kindly wrote back, including a finance plan on how to fundraise or save to buy my own doll. So much for my plea against violating my piggy bank. I’m no financial expert (my last checkbook is from 1998, when I opened my first bank account); the AGD company already knew what I now understand: selling more at a lower price, while great for consumers, is rarely ideal for producers. Wal-mart style consumerism, previously only for material goods, has now made its way into the service sector, and into my realm- the world of voluntourism.

Voluntourism hasn’t been around that long; therefore prices for a week or month long stay aren’t quite standardized. For all other forms of travel you know what the price range is and what to expect. You know that if you stay in a very cheap hostel that you’re most likely going to get barebones accommodations and bugs in your bed. If you pay for the more expensive bus ride maybe you’ll actually get a bathroom or a TV. All of those travel aspects are common knowledge for the average globe-trotter. If you’re looking to volunteer, however, prices can range from a mere $200 a week to more than $1000 a week. If you go through a trip provider it’s hard to know exactly where your money goes.

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A common misconception on many volunteers’ part is that if the company doesn’t charge a lot to volunteer, then they must be in it for the right reasons. But the correlation between price and being in it for the right reasons cannot be justified unless you actually research and get to know the company. Some organizations you volunteer with will cover all of your expenses when you’re with them. For others, your fee only covers administrative costs. As an independent organization, Casa HOY gave part of volunteers’ fees to support the projects where participants volunteered. Under the Wal-mart model, zero percent goes to the volunteer projects. And just because the price is cheaper doesn’t mean that volunteers donate that extra money to their projects, either. On the contrary; in general participants that pay less money overall per week expect more perks.

Another aspect of the Wal-mart business model is more for less. Same with commercialized voluntourism: The longer a volunteer stays, the cheaper it is. But it’s just like that giant jar of mayonnaise on the Wal-mart shelf. Why would you buy 2 gallons unless you own a hotdog stand or have eight children? The lady in her pajamas buying it (that’s been me before, although not with mayonnaise) will tell you it’s because it’s cheaper. The same situation can happen with volunteering. Unfortunately many volunteers stay a few extra weeks (or months) because the longer you stay, the cheaper a week is. Even if they have no plans to travel around the country or dedicate extra hours to their volunteer project, volunteers stay longer because they get more bang for their buck.

The moral of the story is that if you have to work to get a product (money or research-wise), you will value and cherish it more. You will also know exactly what you are paying for and be better prepared. The AGD company has the right business model. Once I finally saved up for and bought that American Girl doll, I didn’t let go of her. Voluntourism is a new product, and should therefore be researched with care. And while any type of traveler can backpack it or study abroad or take a tour, volunteering in another country is a participatory form of travel that should be done with serious dedication and interest, not just because it’s in your budget.