Sunday, March 23, 2008

Voluntouring continued...

A reader, who’s currently on a DIY voluntour, sent me an email with some very thoughtful comments and observations. She wishes to remain anonymous, because she doesn’t want her boss in real life to see what she’s up to. (And by the way, since when have I become the leading internet authority on DIY volunteer trips?)

This woman is not exactly a volunteer virgin, she did a fee-based program abroad with one of the many non-profits that offer them.  She liked the idea and decided to do something on her own. Emailing from an internet café somewhere in South-East Asia, she described how totally unprepared she was for the reality on the ground. According to her, fee-based programs, while providing a valuable service, shield their participants from the day-to-day realities that the local people live with. She likened the experience to an organized safari trip, or a “volunteer theme park” (her words, not mine), where you get a glimpse of what life is like, get down and dirty, think you’re roughing it, and go home feeling good about yourself.

Honestly, I wouldn’t know. I have never participated in a fee-based volunteer program abroad. I’m simply not that rich. And even if I had that much money (those fees can run into thousands of dollars), I can think of a few much better ways to spend it. There’s this one slum school in India that could really use some books for their students, know what I’m saying?

But, in all other respects, I have to agree with my reader. You are never truly prepared for what you will see at your destination. Every day when you wake up, you marvel at the resilience of the human race, and watch in awe how people, who have so little, manage to cope with smiles on their faces.

And then, there’s the issue of cultural sensitivities. And it's not just proper attire we're talking about.

As a DIY volunteer, you will most likely live with a local family. Your digs will be far from luxurious, just a piece of floor space to unroll your sleeping bag, and a couple of hooks for a mosquito net, if you’re THAT lucky. Yet, hosting you will be a source of enormous pride to the family, and they will frequently forgo their own comforts for your benefit. Daughters may be delegated to sleep outside, wives – to borrow chickens or eggs from the neighbors, and fathers - to work extra hours in order to provide you with basic meals. Your attempts at financial renumeration will be scoffed at, if not considered outright offensive.

My reader is in such a situation right now, and I have been there more than once myself.

How to relieve your hosts from the obvious burden that you are to them, yet without hurting their pride and honor? I still don’t have a good answer to that.

But here are some ideas that worked for me:

-    Make a deal with the family that since the woman of the house cooks for you, you should buy weekly provisions for the whole household. It will cost you less than a week of lattes at Starbucks back home.

-    Hire the daughter to do your laundry, or the sons to fetch your water. After insisting that these amenities should be free for their “guest”, they will eventually agree to your arrangement. Such barter system is normally accepted and you’ll be respected for your suggestions.

-    If money is scoffed at, contribute in other ways – buy the family a few chickens, or a goat if you can afford it, or new seedlings for their garden. Call it a payment for their services, NOT a payment for their hospitality. That subtle difference will allow them to save their face.

-    The parents may balk at outright charity, (yes they may be poor, but they also have dignity), but as most parents the world over, they will appreciate your praise of their children.

-    It’s much easier to convince a family to accept a gift, if it’s for the little wee ones in the house. Just make sure it’s not a mindless souvenir.

-    And finally, don’t force your charity on your hosts, it will be most likely resented.


Happy voluntouring!

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