Voluntourism – the Latest Trend for Travelers
Guest Post by Mikaya Heart
Tourism is a very important source of income in many poor countries. Voluntourism, where you pay your hosts while you work, is the latest in-thing, and it’s a great option if you don’t have the money to travel in style but want to be somewhat taken care of. You can visit places and be fully immersed in a culture, having experiences you would never get any other way. Feeling like you are actually able to contribute to the people and the environment in poorer countries is a delightful bonus. The work asked of you is rarely unpleasant.
There are various organisations that set up different kinds of programs, usually requiring a commitment of at least two weeks in one place, although most will transfer you somewhere else if you find your chosen placement really doesn’t work for you once you get there. I first did one in Argentina with I-to-I. Not being a “people person,” I wanted to work with animals in a rehabilitation center, and that proved a little tricky because they weren’t always taking very good care of them by my standards (Argentina is not a first world country, after all). But getting close to some of those animals, such as a sloth, a cougar, and an ocelot, was awesome, and I did enjoy getting to know some of the local Argentinians. I was boarded in the house of a local woman who was wonderful.
This year I have done two placements with the African Conservation Experience on large reserves in South Africa and in Botswana. They were in fairly remote locations, particularly the Botswanan one, and conditions were rustic, but if you like the idea of hearing lions calling nearby at night, visiting hyena dens, watching elephants play, or seeing cheetah chewing on their kill, to say nothing about watching herds of antelope, giraffe, zebra and wildebeest roaming around right beside the driving tracks, then these placements might be for you. I spent several hours a day in the back of an open Landrover, getting spectacularly close to wild lions, cheetahs, rhinos, hippos, elephants, and a few other less “common” critters, such as aardwolf, serval, and bat-eared foxes. Work consisted of collecting data and counting and identifying animals, although my financial contribution was probably my greatest asset. I also assisted tracing collared wild dogs, and ostensibly helped to capture antelope and lion – not that I got out of the truck until the animals were unconscious. While I have my criticisms around some of the research projects and some of the methods used, I’m aware that the ultimate aim of the conservationists working on these reserves is very laudable, and I’m happy to support them. I would have enjoyed being able to use some of my skills as a carpenter and a mechanic to improve various buildings and machinery that were not in a great state of repair—but not surprisingly, I wasn’t going to be trusted with something like that in a two week stint.
If you need something closer to civilisation there are plenty of placements that work with injured or orphaned animals. Want to mother a white rhino calf whose real mother was murdered by poachers? Take orphaned lion cubs for walks? Ride horses amongst sable antelope, an endangered species? If you’d prefer to work with kids in schools, orphanages, or even in hospitals, there is plenty of call for that, and you can choose from many different countries in Asia and South and Central America as well as Africa.
I paid around $2500 for two weeks, which included board, lodging, and in-country transport, which was well-organised and comfortable. My only complaint might be the enforced close quarters with other volunteers, who sometimes weren’t people I’d choose to hang out with. In Argentina, they were almost all under the age of twenty-two, and I was occasionally appalled at their incessant need to party and the way they treated their hosts. (Did I behave like that when I was twenty?) But being an older woman had certain benefits, like being given the best room, and the volunteers in Africa were more mature. It’s certainly an experience I recommend for anyone who wants an adventure and doesn’t need to be mollycoddled.
Mikaya Heart is an award-winning author and a teacher, using shamanistic methods to help people to learn how to operate from a place of trust instead of fear. She writes on subjects as varied as orgasm, shamanism, travel, and sports, always with a view to opening minds and hearts. For more info, see www.mikayaheart.org