This week I’ve been exploring the interesting intersections between tourism and learning. In some cases, like Return to Freedom (the American wild horse sanctuary) and the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute, volunteer tourists learn directly through work. They help take care of animals, help with research, work on the farm, and help conceive of new sustainable projects. In other cases, like the Texas A&M Volunteer Entomology Training Program, volunteers learn in the traditional way, in the classroom. At EcoTeach, the subject of today’s article, volunteer tourists learn in a combination of ways—through wilderness expeditions (a classroom in the forest), conservation work, cultural exchange, and guided exploration.
The more I read about voluntourism, the more I realize how in-demand eco-friendly projects have become. In part, I’m sure this is a result of trends: caring about the Earth has become a popular culture movement, and that’s great. But whenever something becomes popular, it also becomes the focus of our capitalist machine. Part of me squirms at the idea that something so important would be co-opted by an industry to make money. It’s my idealistic side. I still feel, deep in my heart, that we should all do things for the purity of them, not for the industry. I know I’m being naïve and impractical. The more people who care about the Earth the better, regardless of how they go about spending their money. Still, I am hyper aware of the interplay: ideology vs. capitalism. It’s a puzzling tension and I think being aware of it makes us more critical consumers, and that’s important.
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!