Four years ago my wife and I volunteered in Costa Rica, a country blessed with postcard-ready coastlines, surfing beaches, jungles and national parks. We signed on with Habitat for Humanity in the town of Rio Claro, a dusty, southern agricultural community that for most tourists is little more than a gas-and-food stop on the way to iconic Corcovado National Park or the expansive sands of Playa Zancudo. As part of a contingent of North Americans who had forgone the usual surf-and-sand holiday, we were treated to a genuine hospitality that is sometimes lacking in places where the human exchange is reduced to a monetary transaction between tourist and local. We lifted cement cinder blocks and mixed mortar under the subtropical sun, building simple houses for people who otherwise might never have had a roof overhead. We worked alongside the locals, or “Ticos,” as they call themselves, broke bread and shared jugs of water, as well as a few laughs. In so doing, we enriched our lives, and in a small but no less profound way, those of the local people we encountered.
Which is the whole point of “voluntouring” – it allows travellers to leave behind something other than dollars in the destinations they visit. It also gives them access to the B-side of a country, the gritty soul that may not be fit for glossy brochures, but is closer to the authentic character of a destination. The opportunities are as diverse as the needs that exist around the world in the fields of environmental, social, humanitarian and cultural development. Here are a few ideas for your next volunteer vacation.
Traversing Africa from tip to tail, participants in the annual Tour d’Afrique travel from Cairo to Cape Town, passing through 10 countries and cycling nearly 12,000 kilometres in 120 days. It’s an incredible opportunity to experience Africa’s astounding natural and ˛ cultural diversity from, as the Toronto-based organizers say, “the best seat in the house – the seat of your bicycle.”
The tour launched in 2003 with a few dozen riders. Today some 400 cyclists tackle the demanding continental ride. Entry fees support efforts to donate bicycles to community health and development groups in Africa, and the riders serve as ambassadors for the bicycle as a viable means of transport. Furthermore, these intrepid riders are encouraged to raise funds for the charity of their choice. Since Tour d’Afrique’s inception, participants have raised more than 700,000 euros ($910,000 Cdn.) for non-profits such as the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research, the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, Equiterre and WaterAid.
In an effort he has dubbed H20pia, Edmonton resident and AMA member Michael Paull is raising funds for Hope International Development Agency, a Canadian organization that delivers potable water to communities in Ethiopia. When reached by email in Malawi, the halfway point of the journey, he’d already raised $67,000 for his cause.
Paull underwent a gruelling routine in preparation for the tour: running six days a week, spin class five days a week and weight training three times a week, plus stationary-bike riding and aerobics. And it paid off – the days in the saddle are long, he says, and the searing sun takes a toll. But the experience is infinitely rewarding. “Each country is so unique, and there are constant hellos from everyone you pass by,” Paull says. “Sometimes . . . they’re not used to seeing people like us on bikes. But when we stop and try to communicate with them, the open arms and the friendliness are amazing.”
Botswana reminded him of home: “Think of a perfect summer day in Alberta and that is what it is like to ride through Botswana,” he wrote on his blog (h2opia.ca). “The temperature was 28 degrees and there was a nice tail wind and tall grass as far as the eye [could] see.” But later that day came a reminder of the difference between there and home: an elephant came to camp and “slowly passed several tents with a glare of ‘don’t mess with me’ as he walked by.”
Paull estimated he was burning a whopping 5,500 to 8,500 calories per day on the journey. Luckily, the tour package includes four hearty meals a day, centred around starchy energy-makers such as porridge, sandwiches, soup, pasta and rice. Accommodation is self-provided, in the form of tents – the group sleeps in campgrounds and bush camps (a.ka. roadsides) along the route. Tour d’Afrique’s ride-along staff always includes at least one nurse or doctor to deal with health issues – most commonly sunburn, sores, blisters and stomach ailments. A fee of $13,900 covers meals, lodging and ground support (flights, cycling and camping equipment, travel visas and food on rest days are the rider’s responsibility). Aspiring participants without the time or ambition to tackle the entire route may enter at various stages, starting at $1,400. tourdafrique.com
Do feed the elephants
The people of Thailand revere the symbol of the elephant – its image appears in the modern and ancient art of Siam, on T-shirts and the labels of ubiquitous Chang beer bottles. However, this iconic species is under threat. Historically, the Karen and other hill tribe people of northern Thailand have used domesticated elephants for logging or as trekking animals in tourist camps. Sadly for the elephant, life after this (often dangerous and abusive) service is even less kind, with many of them ending up abandoned or neglected. Which is why, in 1999, Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, an idealistic Thai woman, decided to do something about it and opened the Chiang Mai Elephant Nature Park, where elephants are adopted into a caring environment. Volunteer opportunities exist for both professional veterinarians and ordinary travellers wanting to experience these wonderful animals up close.
“The work was easy, fun and relaxing,” says Kara Sorensen, a 47-year-old massage therapist from Victoria, B.C., of her January 2010 visit. “We spent time preparing their food, washing pesticides from produce, shucking corn, collecting pumpkins, hacking down corn, and picking oranges. We also collected and bagged sand as bedding for baby elephants.”
Accommodation at the nature park is rustic – simple thatched, open-air huts with mosquito nets – but the camaraderie among staff and volunteers is heartening and the food delicious. The highlight for Sorenson was a hike with other volunteers into the nearby hills for a camp-out with a couple of elephants, giving the animals the opportunity to graze on plants and trees in a natural setting. A local woman who has worked with the elephants for many years leads the group. “She cooks a great Thai feast and tells a wonderful story,” says Sorensen.
A fee of $400 per week covers volunteers’ food and lodging and also helps fund the elephant park. elephantnaturepark.org
Care for Guatemalan orphans
Guatemala’s stunning volcanoes, ancient Mayan ruins of Tikal and El Mirador, rainforests and Spanish colonial treasures have long made it a favourite among travellers to Latin America. However, the country, where indigenous Mayans still account for more than 50 per cent of the population, has had a troubled modern history of civil war and enduring poverty. Sadly, children often suffer the most. Though Guatemala has enjoyed peace for more than a decade, youngsters are still in need. Since 1977 Casa Guatemala, a remote facility on the banks of Rio Dulce in the heart of Guatemala’s steamy eastern lowlands, has been a home and sanctuary of support, education, health care and healing for around 250 orphaned, abandoned and abused children. The facility relies on volunteer support to meet the needs of its young charges.
Canadian Heather Graham was planning a trip to Central Guatemala 11 years ago and was drawn to a volunteer stint after researching Casa Guatemala. She stayed three years, assisting with management of the orphanage’s farm, butcher shop and Hotel Backpackers (which supports the facility and houses short-term volunteers), eventually getting involved in the administration of the whole project. She loved it so much it became her career; she now works for the non-profit as communications and fundraising director.
“At first it can be overwhelming. There is such mixed emotion. You feel sad for the children as you learn about their pasts and the sometimes horrible experiences that brought them all to Casa Guatemala. But as you make your way through the project, it becomes apparent that they are all very happy and well-loved,” Graham says.
The orphanage has two volunteer programs: short-term and long-term. Short-term volunteers (who must be 18 or older), stay at the hotel and travel to and from the orphanage to help with daily activities. Long-term volunteers live onsite and must commit to a minimum of three months, speak basic Spanish and be over 24 years old. They can work as house supervisors, or as teachers alongside local, paid educators. Others help on the farm or with coordinating the children’s activities during free time. The short-term volunteer program costs $250 per week and includes lodging and lunches. The long-term program costs $300 and includes food and accommodation at the orphanage. casa-guatemala.org
Channel Indiana — Jones, that is
Hollywood blockbusters such as Raiders of the Lost Ark tap a natural human fascination with the esoteric and unknown. Luckily, opportunities abound for travellers wanting to be on the leading edge of archaeological discovery. Romania was shrouded behind the Iron Curtain until dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown in the country’s tumultuous 1989 revolution. Since then, archaeologists have pored over the country’s rich history, peering back to the time of 15th-century ruler Vlad the Impaler, on whom Bram Stoker’s gothic 1897 novel Dracula was based. Projects Abroad has multi-week opportunities in Romania for volunteers with a penchant for historical discovery.
“I spent a month in Romania where I worked on different archaeological projects,” says Jacinda Bottomley, a 23-year-old anthropology student from Winnipeg who travelled to Romania in 2009. “We excavated an ancient pool, a wall and a well, which was thought to be where the Romans would offer sacrifices to Hades. We found lots of artifacts and animal bones.”
Volunteers live and eat with host families in the city of Brasov, while working with archaeologists at the Museum of History, classifying artifacts and restoring ancient tools and pottery. They may also partake in expeditions throughout the Transylvania region, helping with digs and studying ancient ruins, such as spectacular fortified Saxon churches.
“It was a great experience and confirmed for me the fact that I want to become an archaeologist,” Bottomley says.
Two-week archaeology volunteer vacations start at $3,295 and include food, lodging, heatlh insurance and in-country transport and logistical support from local Projects Abroad staff. Projects abroad.ca/destinations/Romania
Muck in at an organic farm
If you’ve ever wanted to get dirt under your fingernails, pound fence posts or sheer sheep, there’s a farmer – actually thousands of farmers – around the world looking for your labour. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, emerged in 1971 from the imagination of London secretary Sue Coppard, who realized that office-bound urbanites needed a way to get back to the country. The idea exploded into a global network of organic farmers willing to swap room and board for farm labour. These days WWOOFers, young and seasoned alike, alleviate the costs of travel while gaining hands-on agricultural experience and hanging out with independent-minded farmers. Green thumb Jordan Marr WWOOFed in the Yukon, New Brunswick and British Columbia before he decided to make a living from the land.
“My partner Vanessa and I found out about a WWOOFing opportunity in Knowlesville, New Brunswick. We slept in the spare cabin, and took our breakfasts and lunches in the main communal house where all the employees ate. That was a cool aspect of that particular stay,” Marr says over the phone from Summerland, B.C. “The work was varied. It was mid-fall so there was a lot of putting the garden to bed for winter.” Generally WWOOFers can expect to put in 25 hours of physical work per week. Marr says a solid work ethic and a willingness to get dirty will serve you well. So will an open mind. More than 90 countries now have WWOOF organizations, each with hundreds of host farms. (There are 63 WWOOFable farms in Alberta alone.) To participate in a particular country, you must register with that country’s WWOOF organization. You pay a registration fee to gain access to the host listings. Each WWOOF host farm sets its own schedule and rules (for example, some welcome families with children and some are adults-only).
Tips for voluntouring
“Decide what your interests are and where and when you want to travel, then search for a volunteer opportunity that meets your needs,” says Rob Levine, director for Projects Abroad Canada.
Before choosing an organization, ask yourself: are you able-bodied enough to do physical labour and work outdoors? Are you comfortable with shared or spartan accommodation — or boarding with a local family? Will you be volunteering alone or as part of a family or group? Do you have any specialty skills, such as nursing, architecture, early childhood education, mapping, teaching or animal care that you might be able to contribute? Is there a particular skill you might like to acquire in exchange for contributing your time and energy? The answers will help narrow your search.
Next, research any prospective organization’s background. Ideally, the organization will have been in existence for a minimum of five years and have support staff on the ground to problem-solve and help volunteers integrate with host organizations and locals. Before you commit, ask what’s included for food, lodging and transportation. Be sure you know the full cost of participation, including program fees and any extra costs or required equipment.
If possible, contact a past volunteer for an opinion on the experience. And when you arrive, be outgoing and engaging with locals, advises Levine: “Those are always the people who have the most positive experiences.”