In 1983, an older friend asked if I wanted to come down into deep Mexico, for a week, to help him with some volunteer work there. At that time, he didn’t think of it as “voluntourism,” an “ethical holiday,” or “sustainable tourism.” He called it going down to see some friends.
We drove through the border at El Paso, and into Juarez, in his old camper truck. The ride seemed innocuous enough, until we got down south out of the populated area. Within a couple of miles, I saw an abandoned car by the side of the road and … stopped breathing for a minute. It’s one thing to see a car on blocks with the tires gone. It’s another thing to see a car with the engine gone, the axles gone, the side panels gone, the hood gone, the seats all gone, the steering wheel gone … later, when the Terminator movies came out, I thought of that car. It looked like Hunter-Killer robots had mined it for any possible morsel of salable scrap. The stripped chassis of the car screamed “survival mode.” We ain’t in Kansas any more, Dorothy.
We arrived in a rural area about ten hours south, not close enough to a city to matter, and said hello to the family that we would eat dinner with. And in those two hours, for the first time in my life, I gained a visceral sense of what it means to live in poverty.
Wall-to-wall carpet? The “floor” was dirt. There was no permanent roof on the house. Without the slightest exaggeration, you and I wouldn’t have accepted this home for use as a tool shed in the back yard. There was a 1940′s-era stove in the kitchen, and a pretty local woman was standing at it, already cooking our dinner.
She beamed as she spooned a bit of greens, and a bit of rice, and another spoonful of beans, onto our plates. She set out tortillas, one for each person. There was salsa. She was proud of our meal. “They were really putting on the dog,” my Texas friend confided to me later.
The father sat down eagerly, slapping us on the back, heartily glad to see us. The children played happily. Everybody smiled all the time; this was a happy family. A person’s environment is more than her high-def TV, cell phone, and Droid. A person’s environment is the people around her.
I kept thinking, my friend’s camper was loaded with American food, and we should be sharing with them, not the other way around. But that would have denied them their chance to share with us.
Indeed my friend had brought gifts – eyeglasses to pass out, financial sharing from a network of friends, and he would teach English and other classes. But we were the ones who received the important gifts.
Most Americans worry that they are not being generous enough with their wealth. A vague little thought scratches at the backs of our minds, that perhaps somebody somewhere would like something to eat, and it bothers us. Then we go ahead and swipe our debit cards and buy the iPhones.
There is a truly 21st-century solution to our American conflicts, and it is raging like wildfire. With volunteer travel, Americans can combine a hyper-tourism experience with a chance to give to a local community. Such a vacation might be as simple as donating three days to cleaning up wildlife areas with the local citizens, and then spending a couple of days in tourist activities after that. The tourist experience is intensified. Rather than merely taking a week off, the voluntourist may find real enlightenment.
For the local community, there is the benefit of the voluntourist’s service itself. There is the benefit of her financial business in the local hotels, restaurants, and stores. And, at voluntourism’s best, the local citizen will gain the benefit of connecting with a new friend. A poor young child may sparkle at the chance to take his new friend to the corner grocery and show him where the 10-cent bottles of Coke are, and where the penny candy is. The child is eight years old, and the child is in a senior role as tour guide.
For the “voluntourist,” there is an opportunity to connect with the foreign culture, geography, art, and recreation while doing something to make the world a better place. As Robin Williams said in Dead Poets Society — not a bad way to spend an evening!
Americans like the idea of guilt-free vacations. And which do you remember more? The recreational vacation you took to the beach? Or the tourism vacation you took and saw things you’d never seen before? A volunteer vacation to France, for example, could include service as well as trips to see sights like this medieval construction project in Treigny. Discovering France can mean more than a snapshot of the Eiffel Tower.
More than 10 million Americans took “Journeys for Good” in 2011 alone; more than 55 million have taken such a vacation to date. Another 100 million intend to do so. Okay, let’s see. ::ticking items off on fingers:: A magnified tourism experience, a chance to receive enlightenment, and a guarantee that we’ll … matter.