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The Rise in Voluntourism

"On their side," he says, "the misconception is that Americans can come in and sort things out that they can't." Rosenthal founded CCS on the principle that community organizations know best what their communities need, but locals still tend to treat volunteers like experts. In fact, most volunteers bring little expertise to their work. CCS asks travelers to send a résumé and fill out a four-page questionnaire, ranking both their work experience and their interest in everything from arts and crafts and sports to counseling, medicine, and computers. Many do have useful professional experience, and some of them, like Saul Goldstein, are eager to share it. But at least as often, travelers prefer to do something besides what they do for a living, and CCS respects that—after all, they aren't hiring aid workers, they're sending people on a vacation. "Some teachers will tell us, 'I don't care what I do, just don't put me in front of a room full of kids,'" Rosenthal says.

Then there are the logistics. When you run an organization like CCS, Rosenthal explains, "you're also running a hotel, a restaurant, and a taxi service. And you're dealing with human beings who are going through a potentially life-changing experience." Sometimes, travelers don't respond well to the frustrations of working in a developing country. Rosenthal, a bit perversely, thinks that's a valuable part of any volunteer vacation. "The role of international volunteering is to build bridges of understanding and to provide cultural immersion through service. It's not providing service—it's cultural immersion through service," Rosenthal says. "And cultural immersion doesn't mean walking through the street in a dreamlike state. It means being frustrated when things aren't working the way you expect them to."

Still, he knows that an international incident can be just one outburst away. Shortly before I traveled to India, a CCS volunteer lost patience with the conditions of the health clinic where he worked and lashed out at the directors; after he left, the clinic refused to accept any more volunteers.

Sometimes, worthy work can be tedious. On an Earthwatch trip to Bali, Saul and Ann spent two weeks recording the number of times male macaques thrust when they get amorous with a lady macaque ("Bang, bang, bang—it's over," Saul recalls.) And sometimes, it can be dangerous. A young volunteer who left Dharmsala just before I arrived was badly bitten by one of the ragged dogs that run through the streets in packs after dark. On an Earthwatch program in the Congo, Saul had an unnerving exchange with drunken rebels.

Faced with a world of complexities, even highly regarded tour companies like CCS and Global Volunteers disagree on some fundamental elements of a good program. CCS, for instance, encourages travelers to work half-day shifts and then sightsee in the afternoons or arrange informal visits with locals. CCS held a picnic for us one afternoon outside the Masroor Rock Temple, a short drive from Dharmsala. They also brought us to the Norublingka Institute, an art and theology school for the region's large Tibetan community (the Dalai Lama lives a couple of miles up the road). Global Volunteers, on the other hand, urges participants to work a 40-hour week.

In addition to insisting that volunteers shop at local markets, CCS contributes to community economies by hiring locals as staff—more than a half-dozen in Dharmsala, including cooks, drivers, translators, and organizers. But it won't give money to organizations that accept CCS volunteers. "There's a whole set of people out there who look at volunteers as a moneymaking opportunity," Rosenthal says. "It's just rotten to the core." Global Volunteers and Habitat for Humanity, however, make donations of cash or materials a priority. "In India, where we care for children, they really have no money," Global Volunteers president Bud Philbrook says. "For four hundred dollars a year, we can provide a kid's food, lodging, medicine, tuition, clothing, and athletic equipment. And we do." He argues that anything less would be irresponsible. "There's no debate among development experts that there should be capital infusion," he says.

Michael Edwards, a development scholar with the Ford Foundation and a veteran of Britain's answer to the Peace Corps, Voluntary Service Overseas, thinks either approach can work. What's most important, he says, is being honest about the kind of difference volunteer vacations can make: "It's extremely unlikely that the major benefit of these trips will be developmental or technical." Meaningful cultural exchange, he stresses, is benefit enough. "It's absolutely essential that people from different parts of the world have face time together if we're going to forge international relationships—which we have to do if we're going to survive."

"I'm frustrated," Ann says. She is sitting on the front porch of the CCS apartment, the bottom floor of a sunny yellow house perched on the edge of a steep hillside. From our white plastic lawn chairs, we can see dozens of blue-gray Himalayan peaks fading out to the horizon.

"I get disappointed, too," Melanie says. "But you have to lower your expectations."

"You're here only a few weeks," Ann agrees, sighing heavily. "And you can't just walk over them."

"You have Pooja," Melanie answers. "You can make a difference in her life."

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