National Geographic Traveler's new intern, Catherine Pearson, writes about her own experiences as a voluntourist and is hard at work contacting other voluntour organizations to learn more about them. We'd love to hear from you about your own experiences and recommendations. Please email us with suggestions or leave them in the comments below.
Work hard, play hard. Or, in this case, do both simultaneously. Roof a house, dig a well, nurse a wounded animal … and see the sights in São Paulo.
Voluntourism, a combination of volunteering and travel, is becoming increasingly popular. But this vogue practice is not exactly new. It’s been on the radar for the last fifty years, since the beginning of the Peace Corps and Volunteer Service Overseas.
But unprecedented access to international travel has swung wide the gates to a world of opportunities. Captivity in cubicles and finite vacation time exacerbate the urge to get away and do something great. And now, there's a wave of support for these helping-inclined: Entire websites are now devoted to voluntour possibilities, and travel websites, such as Travelocity.com, have tucked in special sections for the service-savvy jet-setters.
Even more impressive, but harder to come by, are scholarships and funding for these volunteer vacations. Travelocity's Change Ambassadors program offers quarterly grants for those who earnestly desire make a difference but can’t pay their own way. Perhaps sponsoring the voluntourist has become a trend in itself.
I am lucky enough to have experienced support firsthand. I traveled to Mozambique last summer, and an anonymous saint picked up the tab. Thanks to an unnamed member of the United Methodist Church, I got to build houses for orphans and vulnerable children in an African village, something I would have otherwise only dreamed of.
Once I realized I'd land on the continent debt-free, I arranged to stay an extra six weeks as a journalist and builder with Habitat for Humanity Mozambique. During my stay, more than 60 reed-walled and thatch-roofed houses materialized via the handiwork of Mozambican craftsmen and visiting volunteers.
I watched dozens of families move into dry sleeping quarters and out of the sandblasting wind. But the greatest impact I encountered in the community was the fundamental shift I saw in myself. I had set out to help others, and instead discovered my own helplessness.
From bucket baths to mosquito netting, daily bread to boiled water, I was utterly dependent on those I had come to serve. Heaps of humility yielded mountains of gratitude and admiration for the Mozambicans who befriended me. As it turns out, my richest memories and deepest laughs were spawned not from my capabilities, but my inabilities.
I couldn't have guessed I'd have those revelations. Sitting in the U.S. and pining for a means to cross the Atlantic, I simply wouldn't have drawn the same conclusion. But a mystery sponsor gave me the chance to get a glimpse of the world and a good look at myself.
I wish third-party funding were more readily available. It eliminates one of the greatest controversies surrounding volunteer vacations: Why not stay home and send the money instead? Voluntourism appeals to those likely to travel anyway. Recent graduates, retirees, honeymooners and high schoolers are looking for a way to see the world and feel good about the footprint they leave behind. And yes, it is possible that the most significant life change will be the one that takes place inside the traveler.
Photo: Above, Mozambique Habitat for Humanity; below, Catherine Pearson