Naturally, the voluntourism industry aims to serve the largest number of people possible. It’s kind of like politics: one party trying to appeal to the largest demographic by riding the middle. As the market grows, more and more organizations are providing streamlined, polished, non-threatening excursions that get people excited without frightening them. This is great because it means more people are deciding to travel and volunteer. But for adventurous volunteers who are looking for something less polished—something challenging, remote, and raw—these voluntours may not be a good fit. These travelers are the third party voters, people who like small organizations that don’t compromise on specific issues (like adventure). For them I suggest Fronteering, an exciting volunteering organization that brings travelers off the beaten path to experience isolated cultures in remote areas.
When I was about nine years old, I decided to save the whales. I wrote up a petition and collected over 500 signatures from my neighbors (this was before the Internet, when 500 signatures meant a solid two weeks of canvassing). I sent my petition to my senator and got a hand-written response and an invitation to the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute to learn more about conservation. It was thrilling to feel like I’d done something to help the animals I loved the most, and to be recognized for my passion and desire to help. I’ve mentioned this project here before because it was the first time I ever stood up for something I believed in. It was the moment in my life when I realized that activism is possible for anyone, even for nine-year-old girls, and that every one of us needs to stand up for animals because they can’t stand up for themselves.
Elephants are some of the world’s most majestic creatures. They’re the largest living land animals on Earth. Known for their memory and intelligence, Elephants are a symbol of wisdom in Asian cultures. When I was a girl living in Kenya, I spent long days by the game preserve’s salt lick, watching the elephants interacting with each other and caring for their young. Once, three hyenas tried to attack one of the babies and the adults surrounded her in a giant circle, trumpeting their furious sounds and rearing up, thrashing their massive tusks in the air. The hyenas skulked back into the underbrush. The baby was safe. Elephants migrate over huge distances, through deserts, to find watering holes. The matriarchs teach the younger females how to find the water, where to find food, how far to march… elephants are some of the only animals besides humans that have culture. They have history. They have communities. They have no natural predators and yet, elephants all over the world are facing possible extinction.
Ecological concern is almost a prerequisite for existing in the world in 2012. Everywhere we look we see environmental disasters—irresponsible manufacturing, drilling, fracking, and dumping—that are imperiling our precious and delicate world every single day. It feels like an insurmountable obstacle when all of the things we use every day—the cars we all drive, the energy that fuels our homes, airplane fuel, the products we buy—all contribute to our landfills, to polluting our oceans, and to damaging the delicate balance of our climate. I was talking to my younger sister about this the other day and she said, “what can one person really do?” It was such a sad statement coming from an idealistic, smart, and savvy young woman. One person can do a tremendous amount of good: in small ways and in large ones. But we’re not a nation of individuals. We are a team. What we really need is to unify our people towards a common goal—saving the planet and her people.
I lived in Kenya when I was a child so Africa has always held a special place in my heart. The sunsets were spectacular, like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world. They’re orange and pink, expansive, like a painting on velvet. I was only seven when I lived there but I made three lifelong friends—each of them uniquely bright, energized, curious, and kind. I fed giraffes and walked with elephants. I tended a carnivorous pitcher plant in my own backyard. Africa is magical. It’s full of incredible creatures, each more fascinating than the last—the stark stripes of the zebra, the proboscis of the anteater, the mischievous cunning of the spider monkey. And it’s full of incredible people, many of whom face unimaginable challenges and hardships. Organizations that serve Africa help to protect this magical place while they help to improve the lives of her people. If you have never been to Africa, go! It will change your life forever.