Not long ago I wrote a rather extensive rant in which I explained the many reasons I do not recommend or endorse voluntourism as a way of traveling, or any of the work away from home programs into which many of the younger backpackers eagerly enroll into. Having to work for a business that actually makes profit and doing it in exchange of just a bed and at most a meal is wrong, because really, we all deserve compensation for our work, especially when that work we are doing is producing a revenue.
Read more of what I think of voluntourism on my post “Is voluntourism really worth the time and money?“
As with every rule, however, there has to be an exception. And I found my exception to the “no voluntourism” rule in Indonesia, and more precisely in Melo, a lovely village in Eastern Indonesia.
The real face of Indonesia: Melo
Melo is set at about 17 km from Labuan Bajo (access point to the fabulous Komodo and Rinca islands), in the island of Flores and thousands of miles away from the lively chaos of Jakarta and of other cities in Indonesia. More than anything else, it is a fantastic place to visit in what evidently is my favourite part of the country. Here is where I got to know the life of the local Manggraian community. This is where I was able to experience the Ndundu Dake dance and other Caci performances. This is where I felt I wanted to stay longer, way longer.
Read more about Komodo and Rinca Islands on my post “How to find heaven on earth.”
One of the women of Melo carries her identity proudly
I arrived in Melo on a hot October day. Together with other visitors, I was met by the head of the local community in the Panorama hut, a bamboo hut that is located in the highest spot in the village and whose name really gives an idea of the stunning view that it embraces: the sea and the islands of Komodo National Park, as well as the surrounding hills and mountains. There, the head of the community introduced us to the local culture through some traditional rituals, he offered us a drink of sopi, a local liquor made of palm, and then invited us to take part in the dance we had been seeing, too.
Melo people will always spare a smile
Melo village doesn’t offer much in terms of comforts, but it is charming to say the least. People live in modest homes and the only electricity is that generated by solar panels. The main livelihood is farming. They live their lives according to their traditions, proudly speaking their language, and keeping their culture and identity alive. People in Melo are welcoming, they smile a lot, they are completely charming and always willing to share their lives, their experiences and their culture with the visitors that occasionally venture in their village. I could see them peeping through their doors and windows, at times shying away as I walked by, and other times inviting me in, proudly posing for pictures. It all felt very peaceful, very real, and very relaxing.
This older lady did not mind posing for me, but the rest of the people in the house were shy!
Taman Bacaan Pelangi: volunteering done right
My visit to Melo, however, was not restricted to observing and experiencing the beautiful local culture. Melo village, indeed, is one of the locations of the project of Taman Bacaan Pelangi (Rainbow Reading Gardens), a no-profit organization that focuses on establishing children’s libraries in remote areas of eastern Indonesia, which has the lowest literacy rate in the country. Taman Bacaan Pelangi got word that a bunch of tourists was in the area and asked us to visit for an afternoon and volunteer for them. As a former human rights lawyer who has worked closely with disadvantaged communities, I could not help being curious about this project. I have always believed in education as a key factor in empowering people, and in my previous career I strived to promote equality in access to education too.
A relaxing walk around Melo – photo courtesy of Seth Carnill
The right to education is indeed considered a fundamental human rights, that has been codified in a variety of international legal instruments, but that some countries still struggle to guarantee. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, in article 26 states that ‘everyone has the right to education’ and, further, on paragraph 2, ‘education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship […].’ Education has been linked to the development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and, according to the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966, it enables people to participate effectively in a free society. The right to education has also been stressed by article 28 of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child of 1989.
Having a good laugh with the kids at Taman Bacaan Pelangi – photo courtesy of Seth Carnill
Taman Bacaan Pelangi fully understood the importance of education as a way to improve the lives of children who live in the most remote areas of Indonesia. Its project is quite simple: providing children with books, so that through reading they will broaden their horizons and opportunities. It does not simply ask for financial contributions (which are by all means accepted) but it encourages its supporters to donate books, which can be sent to its various locations via mail and even be dropped off directly. It really is a simple, yet ambitious project that in my view is bound to success.
That is why, even though I am not a supporter of voluntourism as a way to travel, if I had to pick a project to become a volunteer in Indonesia and have the chance to experience more of this gorgeous country, I would surely apply for Taman Bacaan Pelangi. Not only it is located in what to me is the most beautiful and remote part of the country, which is amazing to explore, but I also truly believe in the great potential of the project. Because really, when deciding to volunteer, the decision has to be made based on the project rather than the location and the tourism that may be involved with it. I feel that the volunteering project of Taman Bacaan Belangi rightly answers all the questions that a volunteer-to-be should consider before committing his time and effort. The first, and most important one is on the type of organization it is.
Lesson time with the volunteers – photo courtesy of Umei Teh
This no-profit organization works in a way that does not demand volunteers (who are screened through a proper application process) to pay any fee in order to take part in the volunteering program. Taman Bacaan Pelangi partners with other international no-profit organizations too. It has a clear mandate, a clear project and it benefits the local community, with the aim of empowering children so that they have better opportunities in life. It is a well established organization, founded in November 2009 when the first library, with only 200 books, was opened in Roe, a small village at the foothills of Flores. The project has since developed and to date, 37 libraries have been opened all over Eastern Indonesia. All this information, which can be found on the Taman Bacaan Pelangi’s website, goes to show that Taman Bacaan Pelangi is seriously committed to improve the living conditions of the local communities and aims at empowering the local people.
A relaxing stroll in Melo, on the island of Flores – photo courtesy of Seth Carnill
I only spent an afternoon volunteering with the children of Taman Bacaan Pelangi, but during that time I have had the chance to meet and chat to some longer term volunteers who arrived all the way from Germany and who committed themselves to 18 months of work. Their duties vary, but they all generally contribute to the maintenance and running of the library; they help the children with their homework; they teach English as well as sports and crafts; they take part in environmental protection education workshops and they hold the much needed and very welcomed reading classes.
People in Melo live a modest life, and so do the volunteer of Taman Bacaan Pelangi
Volunteers usually live and eat together with the local community, so there really is a proper cultural exchange and they really do get to embrace the local way of life. They receive a small allowance by their government and, in their free time, they have the opportunity to explore the wonderful area in which the village is located. Their feedbacks convinced me even more that this is a viable, recommendable project and that if anybody who is interested in combining their travels to this part of the world with a bit of field work asked me, I would eagerly recommend to apply.
I gave volunteering a second chance
The time I spent with the children that participate in the Taman Bacaan Pelangi project was by far the highlight of my visit to Melo. The skeptical part of me, the one that is always checking for how a good organization should work, had yet to be convinced about the effectiveness and viability of the project. But then I tagged along, and I am happy I did. I was indeed thoroughly overwhelmed by emotions as the multitude of children surrounded me and the other volunteers, observing us, smiling at us, holding our hands, asking us questions, making us feel as whatever little effort we made was helping them in achieving a better life, and making a proper show of their reading and other skills for us.
Trying to explain where Sardinia is on the map – I could not reach as high!
All we really had to do during the few hours we spent at Taman Bacaan Belangi was tell the children about ourselves, share our stories and show them that travel can open minds, build bridges, and create opportunities. We taught them songs, we played with them. The children were eager to listen, curious about us and our country, they wanted to chat in whatever little English they spoke (it was quite good, actually!), they wanted their picture taken and asked to pose with us. But, more than anything, they wanted to learn, and they were hopeful and happy. Hopeful that one day they can do big things in life, that they will have a choice in deciding what to do.
It really felt like a mutual exchange, however, where we, the volunteers, learned about life just as much as they did. I left with a huge smile on my face. And to me, anything that puts a smile on my face, anything that puts a smile on anybody’s face is bound to be good.
Indonesia has a huge heart, and one of the things to do in Indonesia is volunteering. I am pretty sure that its heart is well set in Melo. And that is where I left my heart too.
Read more about Indonesia on my post “Fantastic things to do in Indonesia.”
Have you ever taken part to a volunteering project? What was your experience?
Legal Disclaimer: This article was written in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia as part of the #WonderfulIndonesia campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience.
A lot of travel bloggers enjoy bragging. They are all about the number of countries they have visited (hint: often times, they have just gone through a country during a bus ride on their way to a different once, but since they got a stamp on their passport they still think it’s ok to tick it off their list). They talk about the epic trips they have taken. They show off their ability to pack light and to travel on an extreme shoestring, to go local, to get off the beaten path and what not. If this is what it takes to become a good travel blogger, then I may well be in the wrong place and will soon have start working on a different project, because I don’t think I can fit in with any of that.
Get that passport stamped! – courtesy of roadjunky.com
Am I a lousy backpacker?
I may well be the lamest traveller in the blogging community because I can’t nearly top the 70+ countries that many others claim to have visited. I have “only” visited 40. Although granted, I have been to most of those 40 two or three times. I have lived in 4 of them for longer than 3 months. And I can actually give directions to a taxi driver to take me to my hostel in Granada, Nicaragua, from Managua international airport.
You may call me Turtle
Besides, despite my best efforts I haven’t mastered the art of packing light and during my last trip across South America my big backpack weighted a full 16 kg (that’s when I actually wore all the heaviest clothes) and my small one was around 10. Fine, I got carried away in Argentina and bought 3 bottles of wine that I carried around for months (no, I didn’t want to drink them because they were presents, and yes, I broke the rule of all budget backpackers – I did buy presents!) and I even had a whole pharmacy with me because I am really, truly, tremendously afraid of being sick on the road and not having any medication, just in case I can’t get in touch with my health insurance company (ok, I am sounding lamer by the minute – did I just admit that I travel with an insurance?).
But hey, at least I can prove that despite being small I am tough and strong, right? Besides, what would you say if I told you that it was a technique I carefully devised to meet the locals? I got many bemused stares, a few of them congratulated me on being so strong, others offered their help (which started a conversation!) and some simply laughed (and helped me) when they saw that I could not pick up the pack of tissues I accidentally dropped on the floor, because I could not really bend under the weight and if I did I risked falling on my back and looking much like an upside down turtle. Not too bad, huh?
Blogger girl who quit her job to travel, actually travelled and spent all her money on it
Ok, I am mocking some of the most sensationalist media title here… But, check this out! Instead of travelling with no money at all, I have managed to spend all my savings on travel. Yup. Quite shameful considering that there apparently are millions of ways to travel for (almost) free, to get free accommodation and to even make money while travelling. There even are ways to hitch boat rides that go through amazing places, such as the San Blas islands in Panama. All it takes to catch those rides is patience.
Did you say “patience”?
But, did I mention I am the most inpatient person you may meet? Seriously. Even the hyperactive globetrotter Diana – master of shoestring travel, incredible travel writer (she actually gets promoted from being a “just a blogger” because she’s won prizes with her short stories, plus she is a journalist) and amazing friend – who’s not really a champion at patience, managed to score a free ride that took her from Panama to Colombia. She may have spent 2 full weeks in Portobelo, she may have become the subject of a few jokes at the hostel, but who cares, when she managed to save the $550 USD that the ride normally costs?
Why ride a car, if you can go by horse? – photo courtesy of George Kenyon
All of this, when I was the good student to begin with. I did all the homework: researching the best boat companies that crossed from Panama to Colombia, enquiring on dates, routes, and discounts, reading all the online reviews, checking the recommendations to get a decent boat and stocking up on motion sickness pills “just in case” I may unexpectedly get seasick. I studied so hard that then, when I had to sit the exams, I was so nervous that I failed: I happily boarded a boat that was a whopping $110 USD cheaper than the rest. “Blimey”, you may say, “that is actually quite good saving!”
Doing my homework looking for good deals online
Ha, I say. Wait till you hear the rest of the story. Because you see, on top of being over 1/5 cheaper, the boat was also smaller and more crowded – understandable, considering that there were 10 passengers, including the 3 backpackers who had actually managed to score a free ride (how did I miss on that?). The crowd, combined with the worst case of seasickness ever (you can read about it here) led me to abandon the boat after 24 hours of suffering (even back then I knew I was lame, and proudly so!), having to wave farewells at my $440 USD, to arrange my return to Panama City and eventually find a flight to take me to Cartagena.
Read more about my horrible sailing experience on my post “Sailing San Blas.”
So, just to give you a rough overview of my expenses: something that normally costs around $500 USD, and that a few good backpackers manage to do for free ended up costing me around $800 USD, including the one night accommodation in Isla Porvenir, the extra meals, the fast boat and 4X4 ride back to Panama City, the extra night at the hostel in Panama City and the flight.
A sunrise worth $800 USD
Call me lazy
Yay me, I am the champion of going over the budget! Now, don’t come to me and say: “Oh Claudia, that’s ok – you didn’t really know that you could travel on a budget, and get freebies in exchange for a little bit of work!” Errrrr… actually? I knew. All those beautiful programmes that allow backpackers to get in touch with farms, hostels and to do homestays, housesitting, and “volunteer” were known to me. I even subscribed to one – and paid my subscription.
Cockroaches as roommates = not fun! – photo courtesy of Anil Jadhav (flickr)
But really, is it not my fault that all those gorgeous farms were infested with cockroaches and I really really have a phobia for them so when I got to the third one in a month and the (very green, tree hugging) owner told me I should just tell them to go away I thought I’d had it. It is not my fault if I like to eat real food and all those very green and very environmentally friendly farmers think they can save the world by eating (and feeding others) just mango and papaya. And truth be told, as a former human rights lawyer, I cringe at the thought that people consider working all day in exchange for a bed at a farm or at an hostel (aka actual businesses making profits) as “volunteering” when in actual legal terms it should be considered slavery. Never mind the lawyer in me! Call me a lazy ass, but quite frankly I could not be bothered to work while travelling after having spent years and years working hard and saving to be able to backpack across Latin America. Not my idea of fun! Besides, I may be picky but I really am not interested in the oh-so-cultural experience of dealing with a bunch of 20-something western drunk and often stinky backpackers; and I have already done my good share of toilet scrubbing, dish washing, glasses filling, plates serving, fruit picking, animal rescuing which is enough for 3 lifetimes (and, shame on me!, I did not even do that to support my travel addiction but to actually pay my tuition fees while at university). Read more about my opinion on voluntourism on my post “Is voluntourism really worth the time and money?”
I voluntarily spent all my money on travel
It’s not that I have anything against 20-something western backpackers (I have also been 20, you know), but although a good portion of the travel media industry tries to perpetuate the idea that age doesn’t matter, to me it does – I am 40, for Christ’s sake! (thank you, thank you, I do get told that I look younger!) I do get tired, I do get back pains, I can’t be bothered to binge drink and party all night (been there, done that), I need a good meal at least once a day, I value my beauty sleep and my idea of getting to know a local culture has evolved into a more sophisticated, quieter and introspective one that sometimes required taking part in a guided tour (and paying for that). Mind you, I am not against the concept of working while travelling, when one doesn’t otherwise have money. But yaaaaawn – been there, done that, end of story. Read more about my opinion on guided tours on this post.
What’s wrong with being a tourist, anyways?
I also confess that I don’t get the big frenzy about going to off the beaten path places. Wait a second, what did you just say? “Going local, silly!” Oh, ok. “Getting to know the culture of a place, darling!” Mmmm. True. Granted. Then forgive me, but I truly must be less than intelligent. Because I actually do enjoy touristic destinations, so much so that I even pay the entrance fees without trying to find a way to sneak in for free, and on top of that, I even go to the same place three times!
Tourist x 3 – I have actually been to Machu Picchu 3 times!
The Colosseum in Rome is touristy? Call me a tourist then, fine by me! Everyone goes to Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu? I am one of those everyone. There are better sites than Tulum? Matter of opinion, I say – but, come to think of it, I really have been to pretty much all Mayan sites in Yucatan and I have yet to find one as beautiful as Tulum. Besides, I think some locals must take a real pity on me because even if I find myself in the middle of tourist-landia Cartagena, or right at the market in crowded Cusco, I eventually get to talk to the them. They really must feel bad for me that they eventually start spilling little local secrets about the city. Oh no, I swear they were not trying to rip me off! Unless being offered a whole bunch of eucalyptus leaves to cure my sore throat is an attempt at poisoning. Mind you, I don’t have anything against going off the beaten path. I actually end up off the beaten path – because I get lost, or stuck. Or both. Like the time I went to the insanely beautiful Marcahuasi, in Peru, and realised there was no bus going back to Chosica, where I could catch the bus to Lima. So I did the only thing to do: spend the night in the lovely, quiet (aka isolated) village of San Pedro de Casta, listening to the village donkeys bray, do like the locals, and wait around. Some bus would come. Eventually. Just in time to catch my plane from Lima to Cusco.
Getting off the beaten path in Peru: my only company was a dog!
One thing I do well when I travel, though. “Finally!”, I hear you say. “Ha, you see?!”, I answer. Yes. I do eat street food. I really do. Except when I do get a terrible stomach infection from eating tacos in Palenque and end up having to stay in bed for 2 full days (well, not really just in bed, but you get what I mean). And except the times when I really, really want to read a menu and sit at a table and eat whatever I am served in more than the 5 minutes it takes to gorge down street food.
Mmmmmm, street food! – photo courtesy of Bill Walsh (flickr)
Why am I telling you all of this? Why am I spilling the dirtiest travelling secrets I have? It is not like my opinion matters more than that of anybody else, or that I am more authoritative on the subject. Not at all. But I am tired of reading article after article that try to give the definitive and right idea of what travel should be, and since I am at it, and I write a travel blog, I may as well give my very humble opinion. What I want you to understand is that it is ok to make budgeting mistakes (ahem, it is, isn’t it?). We are not all accountants who walk around with an in-built spread sheet to tick off expenses as we go. I am not even good at math – in fact, I am so bad at it that my sister keeps saying I am a perfect target to rip offs, although with time I managed to master the art of haggling.
I also think it is ok to be attracted by touristic destinations and major attractions. Because seriously, for as crowded as it is, for as expensive at it may be, Venice is an incredible place to visit (and you’d be surprised, even I managed to do good there). And, more than anything else, it is ok to travel and spend money, because money comes and goes and there will always be a chance to make some and ultimately, travel is a huge revenue and a great source of income in many countries (even the ones where it is possible to travel on a shoestring, such as Nicaragua) and we may as well show a little support for the local economy.
Do whatever makes you happy!
So no, I do not feel like a loser and I don’t feel less than amazing for having spent all my money on travel (except when I don’t have money to buy a new fancy camera, that is). The truth is that travelling already is epic enough and already brings us outside of our comfort zones for having to deal with places we don’t know, cultures we are not familiar with, and languages we may not understand. We are free to enjoy it in whichever form we want – an all inclusive luxury resort were we splurge and pamper ourselves, or a bed in the cheapest hostel in town. That’s the beauty of travelling: there is something for anybody.
Pin It For Later
An increasing number of travellers are volunteering during their vacations, but sometimes they do more harm than good. The desire of so many travellers to go on a trip and at the same time do some good has fueled the industry of voluntourism: a number of companies now offer tourists the possibility to work on a variety of projects, from monitoring wildlife to teaching English abroad. But the real teaching programmes are actually paid. For example, a friend of mine went to teach English in China: it was a good way for her to make some money on the go, learn about the culture and way of life of the country, and travel around (slowly and locally).
I am not a big fan of voluntourism, perhaps because thanks to my previous job experience I have a very clear and possibly strict idea of how volunteering should work. Most of the time, when I read about voluntourism programmes – ones that people pay for in order to join – I get really angry, as in my mind nobody should be made to pay in order to work. But there is more to it than just paying. My personal experience may help shed some light into my cynical views on voluntourism.
Is this cute child going to benefit from voluntourism?
I am a former human rights lawyer and researcher, I have spent most of my life working for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and International Organisations. In my years in the field, I have learned that every little bit helps, but that in order for that to really make a difference it has to be done a certain way that requires certain specific skills. That is why NGOs that work on human rights or sustainable development projects have a very tough selection process even for volunteering positions. The whole idea behind it is that volunteers can actually bring help to the community (rather than to a single individual), by spending a number of months (sometimes even years) working on projects that are long term. The same goes for organisations that work on the protection and care of animals. They do require real commitment and a certain number of skills too.
NGOs and voluntourism programmes
While working on the protection of the Roma minorities in Europe, I have had the chance to visit a number of Roma settlements. Every time I went to one of those settlements, I was overwhelmed by the amount of work there was to be done to achieve full integration of the Roma, and I was thankful that a number of volunteers would help in the daily issues that people living in those settlements would face – from taking the children to school, to running post-school play camps, to helping parents take the children to the doctors. Some of the work volunteers did was highly skilled – creating a play-camp for children meant having some sort of background in social work or education. But what mattered the most was the level of trust between the families and the volunteers, something that could only be achieved by devoting a lot of time and effort to the cause. Volunteering in this sense is a long term commitment, that goes well beyond the 2 or 3 weeks of voluntourism programmes.
Before deciding to give up my career in human rights law altogether, I applied to work as a “volunteer” for Peace Brigades International in Colombia. This is a very reputable international NGO whose mission is “to open a space for peace in which conflicts can be dealt with non-violently” and which uses the strategy of international presence and concern that supports local initiatives and aims to develop a culture of peace and justice. PBI is present in Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Nepal.
Wildlife conservation programmes are very popular in voluntourism
The application to work as a volunteer and the selection process was a long and strenuous one. I thought that, with all my skills and expertise, it would not be hard to become a volunteer for PBI. I was wrong! The application required me to fill in a number of documents, write essays, get reference letters from my previous work supervisors. I was then selected for a skype interview which was successful and, subsequent to that, over a number of months, I was given various assignments that involved a lot of studying and writing about the political, social and human rights situation in Colombia. Provided that my work was satisfactory I would then be selected for the final training before being sent to Colombia, where I was expected to live and work for at least 18 months, having my flight and living expenses covered and a small stipend each month.
The overall selection process lasted 10 months. I was eventually accepted, but decided not to go in the end, as I was unsure I would be able to commit myself for the minimum 18 months required and I was considering having a career change (which then brought me to blogging, but that is a different story). It was out of respect for the organisation and their incredible work that I decided not to go in the end. I saw how much effort they put in selecting suitable volunteers and I would feel irresponsible to let them down while they most needed me.
Volunteering while travelling, or travelling to volunteer – voluntourism
A number of travellers and backpackers on a tight budget opt to work while on the road, to save some money here and there on food and accommodation. Quite a few of them pick up jobs in hostels, occasionally in bars, and others opt to work in farms, on a number of projects that go from permaculture to actually helping build a home. Sure, working a few hours per day in exchange of a bed can be useful – one can get some work experience, learn new skills and even meet some interesting people. However, there are no real projects let alone missions that benefit a community. A volunteer in a hostel has the unique mission of making sure that the employer saves money from actually employing (and paying) a local. Because really, all the employer is providing in exchange of the hours worked is usually just a bed in a dorm, that would most likely not be rented anyways. To me, that can’t be called voluntourism, and for sure it does not even remotely resemble volunteering because there is no community benefit but just a business agenda.
Voluntourism with children
Regardless of what I consider or not as proper volunteering, I was keen to save some pennies during my travels in Central America, and I made a few attempts at working while on the road. I failed miserably. I suppose that someone with my kind of background really has high expectations when it comes to projects in so called volunteering. I don’t mind manual job, really. But I did not see much sense in having to scrub the dirtiest kitchen and doing other heavy manual jobs (some of them actually requiring specific skills such as those of a plumber or a construction worker, which I do not have) in what was only pretending to be a permaculture farm and where the only long term plan was to eventually make profits.
To me, that was not volunteering, but it was the attempt of a person who could not afford to run her own business to get it up and running without investing a minimum amount of time, effort and money on it. It may be an overly cynical way to see things, but I was not getting anything out of it other than a bed and an amount of food that was insufficient even to a small girl like I am. There was certainly no tourism attached to it as the area was so isolated that it was impossible to even just go on a day trip on the only free day I had per week. I was certainly not learning anything new. And sure enough I was not helping a community. All I was doing was helping a person in getting her profitable business up and running. It really looked and felt like slavery. So I left.
In recent years, it has become more and more fashionable to join volunteering programmes in developing countries, and voluntourism has become a new way to travel. So much so that even leading tour operators organise trips that take people to working camps. These programmes imply that the volunteer pays a fee to travel to said country, receive accommodation and food and work in a community. The companies organising the trips actually do make profits from it and the thought of it makes me shiver altogether, as I get the impression that they are cheating reputable NGOs who have significant projects that aim at improving the lives of people, and end up giving people the wrong idea of what volunteering is all about.
Mind you, it is not only big tour operators that attract travellers willing to volunteer. Small or large companies that try to make a profit from “exploiting” the volounturism trend are hidden everywhere on the web, even on sites that are beyond any suspicion of wanting to make profits. Again, my experience in this sense is a useful example.
Before embarking on my big backpacking trip through Central America, I considered a few options that may help me save a bit of money and thus allow me to travel for a longer time. The first obvious place to look to me was Couchsurfing, a hospitality exchange and social networking website that provides a platform for members to stay as a guest at a host’s home for free. If used in the right way, it is a great means to meet the locals, to have a real cultural exchange and to share experiences. As I looked for places to stay in Santa Elena, Guatemala, I stumbled upon an inviting profile: a local family offered to host travellers and it seemed like a genuine place to stay. I asked to be hosted and in turn I was sent back to another page that publicised working camps and which clearly highlighted the fees to pay in order to participate.
It was fairly simple: whoever wanted to be hosted by a local family and “volunteer” would have to pay a fee to cover accommodation and living expenses. The higher the fee, the better the accommodation. But what I found most interesting was that the higher the fee paid was, the less amount of hours one was expected to work. It pretty much looked like paying was a way to bail oneself out of work.
I am not exactly a beginner traveller, but I must say even I was tempted at the idea of living with a local family for one or two weeks. But then I thought: “wait a second, why would I have to pay to work, and why the more I pay, the less I have to work?” To me, this really deceived the whole purpose of volunteering. Besides, what I really disliked and found distasteful was the fact that that company (a small, local company) used a platform like Couchsurfing for its marketing purposes in the sneakiest kind of way. Mind you, this is not uncommon, and in fact I came across other individuals who used Couchsurfing to promote their business (ie camping sites). So, I did the only sensible thing I could do in this case: I reported the profile and Couchsurfing (which are great at responding) immediately took it down. But I am pretty sure that, if even a seasoned traveller like I am was lurked into reading that page, many younger ones actually fell for the trap.
There are plenty of voluntourism programmes for wildlife conservation – courtesy of George Kenyon
Finding a good voluntourism programme
What is important to keep in mind when considering voluntourism programmes is that large NGOs usually cover transportation and accommodation fees for qualified workers such as doctors, nurses, veterinarians and engineers, because they do need those skills and they can’t find them in the country where they are running their projects. They demand a strong commitment – as PBI did with me when I planned to work for them. Unskilled workers willing to volunteer – especially for smaller NGOs – on a short basis usually have to pay for their own expenses, or else that money could and should be used by the NGO to hire a local worker. And that is ok too.
I found myself discussing voluntourism with other travel bloggers, and most of us agreed that it is important that NGOs do hire local workers when they are looking for unskilled labour. These ideas should be the benchmark when it comes to volunteering, as Mike Huxley of Bemused Backpacker believes. Like me, Mike has participated in “real” volunteering projects with larger NGOs and he dislikes the concept and the ideas behind voluntourism. He thinks that it is morally wrong for companies such as tour operators to turn volunteering into a profitable business where there is no benefit to the community involved and where the volunteering is engineered in order to keep streams of revenue generating tourists coming in to do jobs that really make no difference.
The fact that I am so cynical in my views on voluntourism doesn’t mean I am completely against it. In fact, it is quite the opposite. I think that, provided that it is done in the right ways and with the right mind-frame, it is a great and enriching experience both for the volunteer and for the community, and even if done for a short term. So, here are a few simple tips to help choosing the right volunteering programme.
Look for a reputable organisation: biggest and best known NGOs, International Organisations and charities may be more difficult to get in, the application process may be more time consuming and the level of commitment higher, but they have meaningful programmes that really do make a difference and working for them is an enriching experience that actually also looks good on the curriculum. A good charity will not demand a fee in order to volunteer but may expect volunteers to cover their own expenses if they commit for a short time.
Check the programme and the mission of the organisation: a reputable organisation will have a clear mission statement and a very specific programme highlighting why the work of volunteers is needed, how the local community will benefit from it, and why locals can’t be hired for the same job. Is the programme actually sustainable?
Ask the right questions, and be honest in answering them. Questions to be asked include: why do I want to volunteer? Is the community going to benefit from my work and from the programme in the long term? Is there any possibility that I may do more harm than good? Am I stopping a local from being hired to do the same job? Do I have the necessary skills? How long can I commit for? Will I learn anything new?
Finally, before travelling to a far away country to join a volunteering programme, make sure to read a lot about that country, its community, its way of life, its history and culture.
Have you ever volunteered in a foreign country? What are your thoughts on voluntourism? Let me know in the comments below!
I have abruptly terminated my first try at WWOOFing in Costa Rica after only three days, as it was close to a total disappointment for me. And apparently I am not the only one who had a bad experience. I literally fled the place after having a bad argument with the owner. There was nothing organic there except the dirt. The owner portrayed the farm as a natural, organic place where she’d grow coffee, fruits and vegetables and take care of animals. It was nothing like this: she had the animals, and she may want to grow her own things eventually, but so far, she has nothing. And again, the cockroaches, only this time not the small ones, but the large ones, and I am not supposed to dislike them or try to kill them, but I am supposed to politely ask them to leave. SERIOUSLY.
A coffee farm in Costa Rica
I went there ready to do my share of work, but my understanding was that I would not be the only one having to work. It appears to me that the owner here does her own thing (who knows what? To me it seems like she did nothing and since the minute I walked in the property she would be on vacation, I would be working while she spoke nonsense to me) while I had to clean, scrub, feed the pigs, the horse, the dogs and the cat – who, by the way, are absolutely adorable and loving. So there I arrived, understanding that in exchange of my work I would be given 3 meals per day and a place to stay. I was getting a nice place to stay, indeed, but no real meals. Indeed, I was pretty much starving.
The owner is an obsessed and obsessive vegan who does not allow the consumption of any animal products there (no dairy, no eggs), and of course no alcohol. This would have been ok if she was not trying to swiftly but firmly impose her way of life on me. So, the reality was that she doesn’t really eat, and she won’t let others eat either. One thing is to be vegan, one thing is to starve! I was only given coffee and fruits in the morning, then no real lunch or dinner. I was preparing my own meals in the cafeteria that she had me working on so that – I am guessing – she can open it again.
My only memory of WWOOFing is the cockroaches
Everything was ruined, rusty, rotten, dirty and cockroaches are all around. The only working fridge was in her house, and I had no access to it. In order to have a working fridge, I had spent my days washing a huge professional fridge sitting unused in the cafeteria, which was completely rotten inside (and I was doing this using a mixture of vinegar, water, baking soda and salt) and still needed to be painted on the outside. Same thing with the oven and the rest of the oppressive, dark, dusty and rotten cafeteria.
I went to buy bread, and the owner pointed out that bread is processed and she expected I would want to eat all natural food. I told her I was starving, and she said we could bake our own bread. I replied that yes, we could, but not till I fixed and cleaned the (obviously) rotten, greasy, dirty oven, and meantime I needed to eat as fruit was not enough to fill me up. She was almost shocked. I am sorry, but having just fruit is not going to keep me going 4 hours, but 1 at most!
The gorgeous nature of Costa Rica
Another thing she did, which I think was crazy. I was expected to only consume coffee in the cafeteria. I like having my coffee by myself in the morning, it is my introvert moment, and I very much needed to recharge and prepare myself in order to be sociable. So I went in the filthy cafeteria in the morning and made myself coffee which I brought back to my room. She told me she was really disappointed, and she was shocked when she went to the cafeteria and could not find her “precious” French cafetiere. So, it looks I am only allowed to drink coffee in the cafeteria, which I do not want to as it is dark, mouldy, dirty and not cozy at all in there. I want some light, fresh air, and a clean place to relax while I have my morning coffee! What could be so wrong about it? Having noticed that she has several Italian coffee pots she did not use, I asked if I could use that instead, and if it was ok to take that to my room, and warned her that in order to use that I would have to run the coffee in the pot at least once in order for it to be drinkable (I know how Italian coffee pots work, you know!).
She said she doesn’t get the whole point, she said she knows a whole lot about coffee and the French press is, in any case, much better to make coffee (what does she care how I like my coffee?), and when I eventually asked her if I can buy the pot from her, she said no. 5 minutes later, she gave me some cheaper quality coffee, gave me the Italian pot, and put the coffee she normally uses in a bag which she took away to her place, as if I would “steal” it otherwise. She then justified herself the morning after, saying that she did it because, since we were not having coffee together in the morning, she’d also want to have it at her place. Yeah, and I am so fool I would believe it (most of all, as she barely drank coffee!). As if I had not been the only one working on her knees to clean scrub etc while she just stands there talking nonsense about organic, vegan etc (oh, btw, when we got out for a snack, she actually had mayonnaise on her tortilla, which is NOT vegan and is so processed that there is nothing natural about it!).
The best part was when at the market, while I was picking toothpaste, she “suggested” I should be making my own with baking soda and salt (btw, that is BAD for the teeth, it scratches them badly) as the one over the counter would have chemicals in it (this is the same person who is using regular detergent for her clothes and dishes, not organic one!). What when I asked her if she has an extra pair of gloves that I could use for cleaning, and she said she doesn’t as she never uses them. I guess, what she should have said is she never cleans, but demands her volunteers to do so.
A sloth in Costa Rica
The last drop was when, yesterday morning, my toilet leaked – it leaked everything (poo etc: she never fixes broken things!) so I ran to ask for a mop and other stuff to clean the bathroom. She gave me stuff (I then realise the mop was no real mop, but a rag!) and spent over an hour to wash away the poo, clean the bathroom and disinfect it till it would be fixed. I was obviously late for breakfast (yeah, she calls that breakfast), and when she eventually walked in and told me “this is not our schedule, so that you know!” I did not even attempt to reply, I just told her “I am leaving tomorrow” (remember, it was 1st of January, many things would be closed!), she said I would then have to pay the extra night, so I told her I was leaving the same day, and she said ok. I went back to my room, and packed, and after 5 minutes she was there, knocking at the door, saying I would have to pay the previous night. I told her she could forget it, as I worked so hard the last few days to get nothing in exchange, not even real food, and she started screaming, saying that she had been trying to make me more comfortable (how so? Putting me on my knees to scrub a rotten fridge?). I told her that her overall attitude is ridiculous, like with the coffee issue, and that I am not a child anymore, but I am a 38 year old who holds a PhD and she can’t bully me around. I then shut the door in her face and told her to leave me alone. She kept talking from outside, and said she was going to call the police (what for?). She then started carrying staff to my room, ie coffee, the left over fruits, etc, saying I should take them with me (I guess she thinks I am a miserable broke?).
I ended up leaving while she was crying (what for? I should be the one crying), saying “Please talk to me, I am sorry!” and I was just so infuriated that I ignored her. I hitchhiked to the main village (a police officer stopped!), then got information on a bus to Cartago, which would then connect me to San Jose. While waiting, she drove by – she had gone look for me – and again told me to go back, she asked me to talk to her (ie wanted to force me to do that), that I could leave tomorrow, when the buses would be running. I suppose she wanted me to stay longer (of course, when would she ever get other people to work for free and so well?), but I left. I am sorry, but I have to think about myself and my health first, especially my mental health!
Anyways, my take is that she wanted to open up a business, like a café-restaurant of sort, but she has no real money to do so, so she calls in volunteers which have to live by her absurd rules (ie starve) and do jobs which she would otherwise have to pay for. I eventually told her that, if she has no money to invest in a business, she would just have to give up, without having to treat people like thieves and slaves which she would try to indoctrinate.
WWOOF was created as a way to connect travelers and farms for a rich cultural exchange. My overall view though? Farms that can’t afford to pay for skilled workers exploit labour of travellers and make profit from it. This is not an exchange and I didn’t learn anything from it. Other than I should stay away from it!
My baby, Minnie – the face I miss the most when I am away from home
What to do when you are on the road and miss your canine or feline companion
I know there are many animal lovers among backpackers. I recently saw a video about the story of a dog in Brazil who, every night, risks her life to carry food to her friends. That got me thinking… Hardly any human being would do that, and we have a lesson to learn from this amazing dog. I don’t have dogs at home in Italy – I have several cats, all adopted. I have volunteered at a cat shelter for years, and I keep helping local shelters with donations, or searching for a home for their guests. I always campaign in favour of sterilisation of pets and strays, to reduce the risk of spreading letal diseases (such as feline HIV or leukemia which are spread through bites and scratches during fights, to give just one example) and to minimize the chances that new puppies or kitties are born for which no family can be found. I am convinced that sterilisation is the best way to ensure cats and dogs don’t end up living in crowded shelters or, even worst, in the streets of city jungles, where they desperately search for food and shelter against the heat or rain or cold weather; with nobody to take care of them if they get sick.
Believe it or not, whenever I travel, the face I miss the most is that of my cat Minnie, closely followed by that of my other cats. It breaks my heart not seeing them every day, not listening to their soft purrs, not being there to play. Yet, I somehow end up meeting lovely cats and dogs. Many hostels have their own, so it happened a few times that I shared my bed with one of them (although this meant breaking the rules as I was not supposed to let them in, but shhhh don’t tell anybody!). While travelling in Argentina in 2012, a couple of dogs followed me around El Calafate. I eventually went to a pet shop to buy them food, and each night, after dinner, I would carry my leftovers (and at times the leftovers of the whole restaurant) to feed the strays. I know giving human food to animals is not great, but at least it was something. Through the hostel, I even made a donation to a local shelter.
Mono looks so much like my cat Arturo I could not help but let him on my bed!
A rather funny scene I saw in November 2013 was that of two dogs who, in Flores (Guatemala), jumped in the lake. At first I thought they wanted to just cool down a bit, but then I noticed that they started swimming towards the other side of the lake. The one in the front kept looking back to make sure his friend was following. It took them about 15 minutes to get to the other side. But then, we all know dogs are good swimmers.
He also enjoyed the view from the Volcano Pacaya
Last February, I was walking around aimlessly in Cartagena, Colombia, at night, enjoying the cool breeze after the daily heat. A dog started to follow me around. I thought she may be hungry so I stopped to buy her food. I fed her but she did not seem really interested. Eventually a lady who observed the scene told me: “no busca comida, busca familia!” “She is not looking for food, she is looking for a family”. I wish I could be her family! Eventually, she decided other travellers were more interesting to follow, so she abandoned me.
A Peruvian naked dog in Trujillo
However, the top of my experience with dogs on the road was in Peru. I went on a hike to Marcahuasi, the most remote place you can imagine. The main village in the area, San Pedro de Casta, is very small and there are many dogs around. One even walked me to the hospedaje municipal (the only accommodation for travellers in the area), right to my room. I guess he wanted to make sure it was clean and everything worked ok. When I started my hike, at 6:00 am the day after, a dog started following me. I thought he would leave eventually, as the trek was tiring. He actually joined me all the way up, and then down, for a full 8 hours of huffing and puffing. It was a lonely but enjoyable walk (I met 3 peasants on the way, a lady with a donkey, and a lonely donkey, and that was it), so Barbon (that’s how I named him) was my only company. Each time I stopped for breath, he stopped too, and if he thought I was taking too long a break, he’d yelp to encourage me to keep on walking. When I reached the top of Marcahuasi, I shared my snacks with him, and we posed for pictures together. He then guided me back down. I later learned from other friends who went on the same hike that he also followed them (I had asked them specifically to look for him!). I will always carry him in my heart.
Posing with Barbon in Marcahuasi
So, what can backpackers living on a budget do to help animals they meet during their wanders? The first and most logical thing would be feeding them. At some point or another, you will have leftovers, you won’t be able to finish your meal. So take them and make a dog happy – as I have already said, human food is not great for dogs, but strays end up having bad food in the street anyways, and they have to fight for it too. The other thing you can do is giving them fresh, clean water. Donations to local shelters and associations are an easy way to help: ask locally or search the web, make sure the association is a genuine one you can trust, and not working for profit – the cat shelter I volunteered for in Italy devoted 100% of the donations it received to the cure of its animals, whether it was for health care or food. Even if you can spare just a few dollars, it helps. Last but not least… Have you thought about voluntourism? This means, quite literally, taking volunteer vacations: the same association you can donate money to will most likely need a hand, either to take care of their animals or to raise more funds. One example? If you are a good photographer, take pictures of the cats and dogs living at the shelter, and put together a calendar with a very short story of them and of the association. In most countries, many calendars are sold over the Christmas period to be given as presents. If you find a tipography that prints them for a reasonable price and sponsors which in exchange for some publicity on the calendar give you some of the funds, you can be more than sure to make profits for the shelter. This is a great way to put together your love for animals and your passion for wandering the world. I will definitely do it on my next trip. What about you?