Volunteer Tourism …

I view volunteerism with a healthy dose of skepticism, living as I do in a place where first world religions, NGOs and commercial volunteer organizations prey on the most vulnerable members of society, with many arguably doing more harm than good.  The often stateless people of the hill tribes are also targeted by drug dealer, human traffickers and the sexually perverted but I don’t want to talk about the organizations today or their questionable effects on the local population.  I want to relate a personal experience with a very young volunteer.

In my day people joined the military, the Peace Corp or went on a religious mission to see the world.  In today’s fast paced world people don’t care to invest years into this enterprise or any other pursuits it would seem.  Out of this recognition of short attention spans has grown the industry of volunteer tourism, reportedly more than a billion dollar business with over a million volunteers.

I wasn’t sure what to think when close family friends mentioned their granddaughter, fresh out of high school, was planning a gap-year experience as a volunteer tourist and would be spending a couple of months in Thailand after first going to Argentina, Peru and Sri Lanka.  What started off as little more than being listed as an in-country reference, culminated in our picking her up at the airport and having her spend her first night in Thailand at our house.

My knowledge of American teenagers is limited to what I see in the news and I have never had children of my own, so I really didn’t know what to expect as my wife and I sat in the arrival lounge of Chiang Rai’s airport.  From the moment she walked through those doors we were struck by her poise and manner, finding it hard to believe she was only eighteen years old.  Knowing her grandparents as I do, I am not sure why I was surprised.

After completing the formalities of meeting someone new, one of the first questions from me was where did she come up with this idea and how in the world did she talk her parents into letting her go gallivanting around the world, before applying herself to university studies.  Respecting her privacy, I don’t care to go into the details of her answers but lets just say my wife and I were truly impressed with what she had to say.

It was a long day of interesting conversation, sightseeing, eating and mundane tasks like catching up on her laundry.  I can’t remember the last time I had a conversation with a Chiang Rai expat which lasted as long or was even half as interesting and enlightening.  There was no starry-eyed idealism or naiveté, which one might expect from someone so young.  Her stories of how she started down this path and what she had experience in the countries she had visited before reaching Thailand, helped me understand how this kind of travel can appeal to young people from first world countries.

Her experiences where in my opinion far richer and more rewarding than the typical jaunt off to a tourist resort in a foreign land.  Meeting like minded travelers, exposer to local cultures, people and experiences, activities to facilitate interaction and a chance to see a very different world than what one is used to, make a very compelling story for partaking in this kind of tourism.  Learning how to find your way in unfamiliar surroundings can also provide a tremendous boost to confidence and self-esteem.  Some may argue that you can do the same thing on your own but I am not convinced that is true.  Just as you can go hiking and camping on your own, in certain environments you will gain more from hiring an outfitter who is familiar with the area.

Returning home from an adventure like this, one will never be the same, and that can be a good thing or a bad thing.  I see this as a good thing, as you might expect, considering my life experience.  Others may not see it in such a positive light, as it can lead to a sense of dissatisfaction with the norms of society and the traditional path one is often expected to follow.

My hope is that this particular young woman will enter university with more direction than I did and come out with the skills needed to follow a life of adventure and discovery.  It can be scary, abandoning the certainty of the well worn path, but the rewards of an uncommon life are worth the effort in my opinion.