This site will first and foremost be about traveling, volunteering, and living life in adventurous ways. That being said, this is my one little rant about not taking advantage of your travel experiences.
I will be visiting Nicaragua this summer with a student-run volunteer program called ATRAVES (click here & get involved), which works at schools and health clinics in Managua and the surrounding neighborhoods. ATRAVES does a variety of public service tasks like health education, English lessons, etc.
Wait, nope, long story, I am actually on the delegation for the Pangea World Service Team to Ecuador this summer to promote sustainable agriculture and social justice. It is run through my University, and just seemed a better fit for both me and my future goals (plus I get to climb a volcano).
But anyway, I have been thinking a lot, and I mean a lot, about what this trip will be like. And more importantly, what I want to get out of it. And one of the things I had been thinking about specifically was how to let people know that we truly want to help them – but how to do that without seeming like a typical American tourist, or worse, a condescending tourist who is simply there to see how others live. As it turns out, this presents a somewhat interesting situation.
I am a firm believer in the fact that international volunteer work is an important and amazing way to make your personal impact on the world, especially for students like myself who are simply trying to find themselves. But – it is always important to remember WHY we want to travel and volunteer somewhere.
My interest in traveling has led me to read countless blogs and articles, and far too many seem to always center on people traveling around poverty-stricken countries to distribute things like clothes, shoes, and personal hygiene items, all the while reflecting on how good their own life is. People often write about how an experience in a third world country made them truly appreciate their own cushy life in America. My personal favorite story involved parents reflecting about how such a trip would “teach their kids a lesson about the necessities of life”.
But here lies a murky area in volunteer work, where there is a line between being helpful and life-changing or being condescending. At what price comes feeling better about your own life in America? By looking down on those in other countries and seeing how little they have? Telling yourself that you can now overcome anything because you at least have running water and electricity? Because make no mistake, poor people of impoverished “third-world” countries aren’t stupid. They aren’t ignorant of the fact that most Americans will possess more than they could ever hope. And they know how much money you spent on a plane ticket to come pass out bottles of shampoo, they see the difference between your clothes and the clothes you pass out, and they understand that when you tell your children “be thankful for what you have”, you really mean you could never live the way they do.
Too often I feel that sometimes we volunteer for ourselves. Coming from a large, competitive college, I see people refer to volunteer work as a “resume builder”. Or we volunteer to seem exotic and adventurous. And yes, such work can have an overwhelming positive impact on your life while also helping you score that big job. But don’t let that be at the cost of the dignity of others. Because what may seem like a cool, exotic, or old-fashioned lifestyle to you is someone else’s everyday life. And we must all be careful not to allow an international experience to turn into sightseeing and photography shoots to prove to the world how cool and well-traveled we are.
What I am saying basically is that your work and interactions are very valuable, but they lose some of this value if done for the wrong reasons. Always be mindful that when reflecting on your experiences, looking at photos, and telling your friends about your amazing experiences, it is important to be respectful. Plastering your Facebook wall with photos of African children or sharing stories with your friends about the poor village in South America where you “roughed it” isn’t cool if you did it just to seem exotic. You have to actually mean it. Or it’s not really the life-changing, eye-opening experience it could be.
So by all means travel, just remember why you want to do it. For the human connection and the innate understanding of life from another’s perspective, which can only come from immersion, living, and most importantly, understanding.