When I was 17, fresh out of high school and raring to go, Costa Rica was just one of about 50 different countries I wanted to visit. I grew up in a privileged suburb of Boston and was expected to head off to college alongside the rest of my graduating class. At the time, it wasn’t quite as fashionable to spend a year abroad. It was the kind of choice kids made who hadn’t applied to college, couldn’t pay for it, or otherwise didn’t have much direction. Even though I lived in a fancy suburb, my family had fallen on some tough times and I suddenly found myself in the “couldn’t pay for it” college category. I look back now and can’t understand how anyone pays for college but at the time it was a real blow. After busting my hump for four years with a singular focus—making high honor roll every semester, doing a bazillion extra-curriculars, and then getting into my top choice school—I was piping mad that money was holding me back. I was completely unable to put my situation in perspective. Never mind the millions of children in the world who get zero education, I deserved college. It was my right!
Did you ever play the game of ‘Life’ when you were a kid? I did, and I always cheated to make sure the job I got was Travel Agent. I have been wanting to travel the world since I was a little girl and as I grew older, I wanted that travel to make a difference. There are, of course, the obvious ways of making a difference while traveling the world such as joining the Peace Corps but I’ve never been a “doing the obvious” kind of girl. There are many opportunities out there for voluntourism but the one I’m drawn to the most is the United Nations Volunteers program. While I’m kind of internet famous, I don’t have the same kind of influence that Angelina Jolie has to be a Goodwill Ambassador.
Okay, you get onto a plane and find yourself seated next to a family who is beginning a “volunteer vacation.” Where are they going? Why are they going there, and what do they hope to get out of the trip? What can they expect to be the best parts, and the worst parts, of the trip?
SeaTurtle.org links volunteer travelers to many exciting websites that support turtle conservation, both through direct donation and through opportunities for ethical vacationing. Voluntourism in support of sea turtles gives us real opportunities for self-development, to make a difference, to participate in scientific research, and to connect with the water and animals.
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.