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Hands Up Holidays – Luxury voluntourism

It may seem like a bit of an oxymoron — luxury voluntourism. The volunteer trips we have experienced would most certainly not qualify as luxury. Comfortable, safe? Yes. But luxurious? Um,no.  It certainly sounds intriguing and a great way to balance a desire to give back while also enjoying a luxury vacation.

Hands Up Holidays offers just that and is a unique hybrid in the volunteer travel industry. They combine tailor-made luxury travel experiences with philanthropic opportunities to interact with the local people of a destination in meaningful ways.  They have trips for singles, couples and families.  They also have a separate division for corporate incentive travel.

Recently, we had a chance to interview Hands Up founder Christopher Hill

 So first up — what makes Hands Up Holidays a “luxury” volunteer travel experience?

The main way our trips are luxury is the obvious way: in terms of accommodation. We focus on eco-luxury hotels, e.g. those luxury hotels that have high standards of environmental and social responsibility wherever possible.  Also, the fact that all our trips are tailor-made in order to ensure that the trip perfectly fits our clients’ requirements adds to the luxury feel.  Last, but not least, our personal, highly qualified guides for the sightseeing portion of the trip also make for a premium experience.

Could you tell us a little bit about how HandsUp got started?

My background was a degree in law and in finance, and after university I spent 6 years working in Corporate Finance here in London. I learned a lot of skills, but continually felt like there was more to life, and on a trip to South Africa in 2002 I found my calling! On that trip, I indulged in all the usual aspects of a luxury trip to Africa: incredible safari experiences, and enjoying all that gorgeous Cape Town and surrounds have to offer. But what was pivotal was the time I spent helping build a house for a family in Khayaletsha township, just outside Cape Town. This enriched the whole experience, as I got to interact meaningfully with the local people, gain insights into their lives, share stories, and also ,make a positive difference in their lives, tangibly, with a house they can call their own.  For me it was the perfect vacation: luxury hotels, amazing sights, and time to give back and go deeper. And I reasoned that I was not alone, that other people would like to travel this way, so I decided to leave my career and start up Hands Up Holidays to enable others to have similar experiences to me.

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 How did you develop your mission?  

After South Africa, and leaving my job and deciding to set up a luxury voluntourism company, I spent the next 2.5 years travelling the world, building relationships with communities and local partners, before we were ready to launch in early 2006.

What are some of your signature trips?  Our most popular destinations are:

– India (sights such as Taj Mahal, Rajasthan, Kerala, combined with teaching or renovation work in the slums of Delhi)

– Costa Rica (sights such as Arenal vacation, nature reserves, gorgeous beaches, combined with wildlife conservation)

– South Africa (sights such as safari, Cape Town, Cape peninsula, winelands, combined with orphanage renovation)

– Belize (sights such as Mayan ruins, waterfalls, chocolate making, diving and snorkeling, combined with installing energy efficient stoves in the homes of those who can’t afford them)

– Guatemala (sights such as Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Tikal, combined with building a house for an impoverished family)

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I’m curious about how you build relationships within the communities you serve. Do you have guidelines for how that’s done or is it more of an organic case-by-case process?

It is more the latter, but the guiding principle is consultation, asking lots of questions, and never imposing what we think should be done.

Have you noticed any emerging trends in the voluntourism industry?

There is a trend for companies to get involved, either as part of an off-site meeting, an incentive trip, or as a dedicated team building event. For this we have opened a separate division Hands Up Incentives

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What do you imagine the future of voluntourism will look like?

I imagine it will be more “niched” in that there will be organizations specializing in a particular voluntourist, such as retirees, or particular type of volunteering, such as archeology.

What have been “the ripple effects” (or positive lasting effects) that have resulted both personally and in general?

I would say this varies with each client, and the most dramatic ripple effects would be cases where our clients have been so impacted by their voluntourism experience that they have relocated to live in that destination and give back on a permanent/long-term basis. This happens more with retirees, but has also happened with families.

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Journeys for Good volunteer travels in Cambodia

Here is a video we produced for our voluntour partner, Globe Aware. We had an amazing experience in Cambodia and are now beginning post production on the program for public television. We will be posting more content from the trip on this page so please stay tuned for more…..

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Journeys for Good: Cambodia – Voluntourism series for public television

Check out these images from our recent volunteer trip to Cambodia with Globe Aware.

Journeys for Good volunteer travels with generous spirits and ready hands to this Kingdom of Wonder. Building wheelchairs, teaching English and offering assistance, we bring our good will across the miles.  Our goals are not lofty, just to connect and to make life a bit better for these indomitable people who never allow their hardship to define them.

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Jakera offers voluntourism in Venezuela

Jakera is an innovative hybrid voluntour provider, combining Spanish language immersion opportunities for students, along with adventure travel and volunteer projects.  Recently, we had a chance to interview Jakera’s founder, Chris Patterson.  Originally from Scotland, Chris fell in love with Venezuela and it was there that his dream for an innovative adventure volunteer travel company began. 

Could you tell me a little bit about how Jakera got started? How did you develop your mission?

I arrived in Venezuela in the mid 90’s by sailboat, having previously spent a number of years sailing the Carribean islands. I was eager to see the jungle and meet the indigenous peoples of South America that I had heard so much about, so I bought a trip to the Orinoco Delta with my last $200. I was fascinated with what I saw and the Warao people in particular and when I got back to the marina I told the story of my trip to the other sailors in the bar. To my delight they were equally fascinated and eager to go themselves at the earliest opportunity. The guide who took me was not available the following day to make another trip, so I ended up taking a group of French sailors there myself. I charged them the same as I had paid, paid for the lodge and transport and threw in a few cases of beer, and still had some dollars left over ! I had a fantastic time showing these newcomers what I had learned on my last trip and learned a hell of a lot more from our Warao boat driver and guides.  I realized that these Warao had a lot of knowledge, and that their ancient way of living harmoniously with their surroundings was something really special and worth showing to the world.

Jakera adventurers and volunteers

 

What are some of your signature trips?

That would have to be the ‘Travelling Classroom’. This program brings together everything we do, a full cultural immersion combining Spanish language tuition, real adventure travel delivered in an eco friendly way and community based volunteering. There is a huge interest and demand for volunteer projects but we feel that volunterism works best as a two way process – the Travelling Classroom is front loaded with Spanish language and adventure travel so students get a feel for where they are and understand the issues and context before they start volunteering. By the time the volunteer phase of the program starts, students are ready to ‘put something back’, and are more comfortable and able to interact with local people.

My favorite is a kayaking emersion deep into the Orinoco Delta with Warao guides. The key to this trip is we enter the Delta and see it from the view point of the locals, traveling slowly by kayak, foraging for food, making  shelter and surviving in this inhospitable jungle. It’s tough, but so is life for the Warao! We also hike to the top of the highest tepui in the Gran Sabana, MountRoraima, with local Pemon guides, learning about their unique and ancient culture along the way.

 

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What kinds of volunteer experiences do your participants engage in?

We have a whole range of volunteer programs, ranging from working with underprivileged kids and poor communities to reforestation and reef conservation programs. They are all very hands on and we encourage students to give there ideas and input as much as possible. Many of our projects are participant inspired.

 Our house ‘Jakera Club’ is based in Playa Colorada. We built a community centre there a few years ago and now pack it with activities – for example, after school activities for local kids such as arts and crafts, sports etc, information sessions and activities for adults. We also have a tree nursery and are planting trees in the surrounding hillside to mitigate against landslides which have caused serious problems in the recent past. We also partner organisations such as Don Bosco (Street Kids project) and Imparque (National Parks). Lots to do!!

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I’m curious about how you build relationships with the communities you serve. Do you have guidelines for how that’s done or is it more of an organic case-by-case process?

Organic is best – the most effective and enduring projects require engagement of local communities. It can take time for issues to surface and solutions to emerge. I guess the philosophy is about bringing people together – local people and our student volunteers – a dialogue based on sharing and exchanging. Removing ‘us and them’ distinctions!

It has been a very organic process from the start. We feel that it’s all about sharing experiences and achieving goals together. We try to involve as many locals as possible in our projects, to make them feel part of it and continue the work after we leave. It about sharing, building trust and making friendships.

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 Have you noticed any emerging trends in the voluntourism industry? What do you imagine the future of voluntourism will look like?

I guess it becoming more and more popular. People these days want to do something good when they travel, get involved and really get to know the people in the country they are visiting, not just see the sights and take some pictures. If this trend continues it can only be positive for the host countries.

I also think – and hope! – that expectations are becoming more realistic. It’s a process and not an overnight one… A paternalistic approach is finally giving way to the realization that we – the volunteer – are getting as much out of the experience as the community we serve.  Voluntourism gives travelers the opportunity to get closer to people than ever before – this is a privilege and a responsibility.

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What have been “the ripple effects” (or positive lasting effects) that have resulted from Jakera both personally and in general? 

We have a base in Playa Colorada, a little fishing village. Over the years we have become a very important part of that community, supporting the school, keeping the beaches and islands clean, hosting community meetings in the community centre that we built… our neighbours come to us on a regular bases now with ideas and requests, or asking for help or advice. I feel that we have a big responsibility now and it would be hard to leave or to move somewhere else.  That said,  I don’t want us to come across as too worthy. We’re having great fun – as we say in Venezuela – viva la vida!

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Journeys for Good volunteer travels in Cambodia – Part 4

New Year’s Day, 2013.  Today brought the first of our small-scale construction projects.  Dine Tuy, our in-country coordinator, has identified several projects for our group to accomplish during our short visit.  Since Dine has an insider’s knowledge of the locals and their needs, Globe Aware works with him to choose the most beneficial projects.

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Mean Nok with his family at the work site.

We drove to an outlying area, rural and impoverished.  We were there to help the family of Mean Nok, a 22 year old disabled man who had received a wheelchair from another Globe Aware group last year.   We learned that he had become disabled at 8 months old due to tainted polio vaccine.  It is surprising and heartbreaking to learn how many Cambodians were affected in this way. The wheelchair had enabled him to receive training to become an artist so that now he was able to bring income to his family.

Mean lived with his mother and, like many houses in Siem Reap, the home was built on stilts, with the living area up a steep ladder-like staircase.  During the wet season, this type of construction is essential to avoid flooding. But for Mean, the arrangement is very difficult.  In order to go to the bathroom, he must crawl on his hands out into the weedy area behind the house.  In the wet season, he becomes covered in mud and the situation is treacherous and unhealthy.  It was hard to imagine this gentle man withstanding such a hardship as a regular part of his life.

Mean looks on as the project begins.

Mean looks on as the project begins.

We had 2 projects to accomplish during our 1 day visit. First, we were adding a toilet to the ground level for Mean. A previous group has built a small enclosed toilet on a concrete slab and we were there to add concrete to the exterior so that the next group can paint.  This “tag team” approach is what enables Globe Aware volunteers to have an impact over time, each group stepping in where the previous group leaves off.

Previously built bathroom.

Previously built bathroom.

The other part of our project was to add a thatched roof to a previously installed pump well.  Accessing clean water is a huge challenge and this water pump serves the entire village.  Adding the thatch will add shelter and privacy.

Thatch team sets to work.

Thatch team sets to work.

Our group of 14 quickly separated into groups.  Some of the tallest immediately took on the thatching project since their height was a distinct advantage in fastening the palm fronds to the bamboo structure.  Ryan D’Arcy, a strapping Australian contractor, led the cement team, guiding us with his expertise.  We also had a local contractor who had been employed to oversee the project, another benefit of our voluntourism dollars.

Ryan and Stephen load buckets with sand.

Ryan and Stephen load buckets with sand while Australian contractor, Ryan D ‘Arcy oversees their efforts.

We combined large buckets of red sand, water and cement mix, stirring it by hand to the right consistency to apply to the exterior.  We only had 2 shovels and 2 plastic buckets, so we all took turns using them.  Our son Ryan, age 9, and Stephen, a 12 year-old from Austin, Texas, got busy filling the buckets with sand.  Then, the same buckets were used to bring water from the pump over to the mixing area.  Let’s just say that there was absolutely nothing automated about this process.  No machinery aided our efforts in the 90 degree heat.  But by taking turns, we moved forward, each person in the group finding a task and filling in where it was needed.

This is one of my favorite things about voluntourism groups.  Usually, the folks who take these types of trips are drawn from a similar cloth.  Though we all come from different areas of the world and have completely different stories back home, we have all traveled here to help, and to work, and to try to make life a bit better for a few Cambodians.  It’s a bond of purpose that enables us, as strangers, to find a rhythm as we work together.

Success for Team Thatch.

Success for Team Thatch.

The other cool aspect of volunteer work is that you’re not expected to have particular skills.  So, Alexander, an 11 year-old from Australia, is given equal opportunity for troweling the cement onto the exterior as Robert, a 24 year-old Google employee from Chicago. Everyone is needed and every effort is appreciated.  This is rarely the case in the States, where so many safeguards and legalities get in the way of such open participation.   It’s especially terrific for the kids who get to feel the importance of doing “big” work.

Australian contractor, Ryan instructs his assistant, Ryan in evening the concrete.

Australian contractor, Ryan instructs his assistant, Ryan in evening the concrete.

We worked steadily for 5 or 6 hours and accomplished both tasks.  We were dusty, sweaty, hot and blistered, but as we said goodbye to Mean and his family, it felt great to know that we left things a bit better off.  As Ben, a father of two boys, said so eloquently, “This is a step towards giving Mean a bit more dignity in his life, despite his disability.”    It was a nice way to kick off the new year.

Globe Aware volunteers celebrate a job well done.

Globe Aware volunteers celebrate a job well done.