Many of the volunteer organizations that are active today are concerned with a variety of projects in a variety of places. In many cases, this is because they want to appeal to a variety of volunteers. Indeed, volunteering with a large organization like Cross-Cultural Solutions or Habitat for Humanity means you have a lot of choices about where you go and what you do. You can volunteer with the same organization many times and each time, work with a different community on a different project. I think this does appeal to volunteers and I understand why. But there is also something to be said for the focused organization with a single community in mind. Focused organizations put down roots in one place. They have lasting relationships with local people and they do sustainable work that builds over time. Volunteering with an organization like this means you get to participate in enduring change. You get to see how that change has affected children, children who are now thriving adults. You witness the good an organization can do in ten or twenty years. I think, of necessity, this is missing from a lot of volunteer opportunities and I think seeing this kind of change can really inspire in a way that more transient projects just can’t.
When I was a little girl (like many dreamy-eyed little girls) I wanted to be a marine biologist. I was fascinated by whales: their enormous bodies, buoyed by undulating ocean currents; their ultrasonic songs, traveling hundreds of miles through the water like whispers with wings; and their mysterious lives, hidden from the prying eyes of researchers, lived deep beneath the shimmering surface. To me, nothing was more beautiful, more magical, or more exciting. Then I learned about whaling and the bloody history of commerce on the open water. I learned about strandings, the result of sonic pollution, and saw pictures in the newspaper of hundreds of glorious humpbacks drying to dust in the noon sun.
When the average America thinks of high-profile humanitarian work, she probably thinks of Angelina Jolie. Of all the activist celebrities, only Jolie has become a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations. She’s a glamorous celebrity, and I think that makes it easy to dismiss her, but in truth she has helped an extraordinary number of people. From the point of view of my very non-Hollywood life, she seems superhuman. She has six kids, acts in movies, and manages to devote a huge percentage of her time traveling to far off places to give back. I think we should all be looking to her for guidance. She has all the privilege in the world and yet, she uses her power for good! She could be basking in the spotlight, frolicking in the Riviera, and showing off her crazy handsome fiance. Instead, she works hard, every day, to make the world a better place.
One of the most difficult challenges to overcome when traveling overseas, particularly to developing countries, is what I call economic armor. It’s the suit made of expensive traveling clothes, luggage, shiny rented cars… it’s the air of privilege that surrounds many American travelers like a cloud. It makes good sense that people without money or material goods see these travelers as an opportunity. They see economic gain for themselves and their families—food, shelter, a lifeline. Imagine yourself in dire straits, struggling to feed your family. Wouldn’t you see privileged tourists this way too?
I love bugs. All bugs. Creepy crawly spiders (yes, I’m calling arachnids bugs for the time being), annoying mosquitoes, destructive termites, stinging wasps, even the terrifyingly fascinating bot flies of Central and South America (they lay eggs under your skin and the larva hatch, their fat wormy bodies bursting forth like the Aliens in Alien.) I’ve never been particularly squeamish and I find the little creatures fascinating. There are so many insect species—more than any other group of animals on earth—and they’re startling diversity is matched by their startlingly clever survival mechanisms. Some of them are intensely social, like bees and ants, while others are brutal loners, like the praying mantis or black widow. They live in all but the most severe climates. They pollinate our flowers, provide us with delicious foods (like that honey in your tea), and feed a dizzying array of other animals.