By Joyce Major
Northwest Asian Weekly
Did you feel less than gratified after your last vacation as if basking in the sun or visiting far away places had lost some of its appeal? Perhaps the next time you plan a vacation you’ll add a new twist to your travel plans with a growing trend called “voluntourism,” where travel meets volunteering with a variety of projects around the globe.
According to the Travel Industry Association of America, more than 55 million Americans have participated in volunteer vacations and the Boomer Project rates voluntourism among the top 10 travel trends for travelers over 50.
Need more encouragement? A recent Corporation for National and Community Service Report shows that volunteers have greater longevity, higher functional ability, lower rates of depression and less incidence of heart disease than non-volunteers.
Volunteer vacations run the gamut from projects involving children, communities, wildlife and conservation with most requiring no prior experience, only your enthusiasm. If teaching English sounds appealing, volunteer with the Global Volunteer Network, a well-organized group. I taught high school English in Yantai, China, in Shandong province, while I learned about the culture.
For one month I lived in a private room with bath in the school dorm and ate at the school cafeteria and local restaurants. Each week I taught eight classes of 70 well-behaved students each and the only requirement for this project was to speak English.
Though the students had been studying English since elementary school, I started my classes with a slow pace, gradually increasing the speed of my conversation. I learned about my students’ lives, hopes and dreams for the future and built friendships with the Chinese staff. Surprisingly, I had complete freedom to speak about my life in the U.S. and to describe high school in the U.S., as there was no censorship or set curriculum for me to use.
If you prefer volunteering with wildlife, the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, provides an amazing opportunity to work with rescued domestic elephants. Many of their stories will bring tears to your eyes from an elephant blinded by her owners to one forced to take amphetamines to make her work all day and night. But now all are safe to enjoy their lives, wander around the park with enough food and love from their own mahout, who cares for them.
Volunteer chores vary from washing veggies and fruit for elephant meals, to helping feed them by placing large chunks of food in their mouths or within reach of their trunks, a very exciting experience. After lunch volunteers bathe the elephants in the nearby river, scrubbing them with a brush and dumping water on their heads!
If you would prefer something less rustic, try your hand as an office volunteer promoting orangutan conservation in Indonesia. The Sumatran Orangutan welcomes long-term volunteers to support their office in Ubud, Bali, with experience in fundraising, PR, marketing, education or conservation awareness campaigns.
Your volunteer work will bring awareness to the plight of the critically endangered orangutans, which are rapidly declining in numbers due to oil palm plantations, illegal logging and the illegal pet trade.
Located in the wonderful village of Ubud, which is known as the cultural center of Bali, you will learn about the local culture, witness various ceremonies and dances, and enjoy the gentle people of Bali and the delicious foods. During my five-month stay in Ubud, I witnessed the King’s cremation, the mass village cremation and many other interesting ceremonies while living in a quiet, comfortable homestay that included breakfast.
Regardless of what project you choose, you will find like-minded people wherever you go who believe that helping another culture is the best way to travel. At the very least, you will be rewarded with a sense of accomplishment working with a team to better a situation.
For more information on Global Volunteer Network, visit www.volunteer.org.nz. For more information on Elephant Nature Park, visit www.elephantnaturepark.org. For more information on the Sumatran Orangutan, visit www.orangutans-sos.org.
Joyce Major, author of “Smiling at the World,” teaches classes at the UW Experimental College, SCCC, NSCC and BCC on how to find inexpensive international volunteer projects. Visit her Web site at www.smilingattheworld.com.
Joyce Major can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.