With the temps and humidity in the high 90s, sweat collided with dirt on my face and rolled down it in rivulets, creating grotesque streaks. My hair matted to my head under my hat, and my shirt stuck to my chest, armpits and back like shrink-wrap. My hands ached from hours of gripping a shovel handle as I turned up rocks deeply imbedded in the terrain, mile after mile.
But I could not have been happier as I was doing my part as a volunteer trail builder for a conservation organization for two weeks. It was some of the most rewarding work I have ever done, not only because it was for a good cause and would be extremely helpful for not just recreational hikers, but it would also benefit the people who lived in the area and relied on the trail system to travel with ease from one village to another.
I have also stayed at farm-stays in Europe, paying to work on organic farms, hoeing weeds, picking beans, apples and even grapes. I always considered these to be labors of joy. Often at the end of very long days, we would sit around a big communal table and dig into the food we had just harvested and toast the hardworking farm owner.
Today, many travelers are choosing volunteer vacations over traditional vacations. People have occasionally asked me what I think about it and how I chose a particular opportunity. I’d say volunteering while you travel gives you a chance to both travel—sometimes in very remote areas—while taking part in a worthwhile project, like helping to lift people out of poverty, assist in a health or rescue effort, or even assist in the preservation of endangered animals or ecosystems through wildlife conservation programs.
Of course, part of volunteer vacations are also about having fun, but I don’t think that should be the only driver. The reasons you could/should do this are many: to share or hone a specific skill, to practice a language or to learn about a country or culture, or simply to share your good fortune with others less fortunate. Just make sure you’re very clear with yourself about why you want to get involved and what you hope to gain. As for how I chose a volunteer travel opportunity…honestly, sometimes, I just stumbled on a particularly one (word of mouth from one traveler to another or saw a sign); others I very consciously sought out. I would say how much time you should devote to making this decision depends on where you plan to go. I will urge this: so-called Third World or “developing” countries require an extra level of caution and consciousness.
Below, Dr. Matthias Hammer, executive director of non-profit wildlife conservation volunteer organization Biosphere Expeditions, offers his top 10 tips on how to choose the right volunteer vacation. I am sharing it here at play east sleep repeat not only because I believe that volunteer vacations are an extremely rewarding means of travel, but traveling this way can also change lives—yours and the people/communities/organizations benefitting from it. But whether you call it voluntravelism or voluntourism, it isn’t without some controversy, particularly in the last couple of years. Some experts believe that this type of travel mostly benefits the volunteer.
Some things to consider: Are the projects sustainable (what happens after you leave?) and are you displacing local labor? That last point is probably the most critical, and one that actually isn’t addressed by Dr. Hammer. The money you pay to participate, say volunteering to help build desks for a classroom in Indian, might have actually been better spent on hiring teachers. To learn more about deciphering those criteria visit:http://www.ethicalvolunteering.org/index.html
Dr. Hammers 10 Tips on Choosing a Volunteer Vacation
1. Make sure it is a well-established organization with a proven track record of making a real difference in the projects it has become involved with—has it won any awards for its work?
2. If for example the project is about wildlife conservation, make sure that the program is run on verifiable scientific grounds. While you give your time as an interested traveler who wants to make a difference, you need to have peace of mind that the project you are helping with is being run by a qualified scientist.
3. Ask where your money goes. To truly make a difference, it is best if as much money and resources as possible go to help the local environment in the country the project is in. Reputable organizations will always publish information about how funds are distributed to the public.
4. Make sure that the organization keeps you up to date on how your volunteer project is progressing. Even though you may have only been there for one or two weeks, many volunteer programs run for many years. Make sure that you will be sent regular reports to see what is happening with the program.
5. Many volunteer vacations will take place in remote parts of the world where you may have close encounters with potentially dangerous wild animals. Make sure the organization that you are volunteering with has an excellent safety record and takes the whole issue seriously.
6. Do some background research on your expedition leader and make sure that they are qualified. To some extent you may be putting your life in their hands, so you need to be sure they have all the necessary qualifications.
7. Determine what new skills you will learn on your volunteer vacation and how you will be taught these skills. One of the biggest bonuses of a volunteer program may be learning something new in an exciting environment and you want to make sure that the people who are teaching you are well qualified.
8. Make sure that you have clear goals about what you hope to accomplish out of the whole experience and don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek the views of travelers who have gone before you. Reputable organizations will always offer to put you in touch with previous travellers – if they don’t, beware.
9. Find out who your work-stay companions will be. You may be virtually living “next door” to each other for some time, so you need to be comfortable with the type of people you are likely to be with. The organization should be able to tell you about the kind of people who typically attends their projects. Facebook, blog pages, and social media outlets can be invaluable information gathering tools for volunteer vacations.
10. Determine if it will be fun. Although most volunteer vacations have a serious purpose, you should have fun considering that you are spending your valuable vacation time “giving back”.
For more tips, advice, and information about volunteer vacations and volunteer wildlife conservation programs visit the Biosphere Expeditions website at http://www.biosphere-expeditions.org or contact Stephanie Moreland at firstname.lastname@example.org.