TRAVEL IS MY LIFE
I love traveling. I live for it actually. I don’t own a bed, or a television or a couch. I’m never in one place long enough to buy anything permanent. In the past I’ve been known to forgo food and even showers in order to scrimp and save for a train ticket. While traveling across southern Europe with my little sister, I once forced her (at 17) to carry a supersize tube of yellow mustard and a jar of pickles in her backpack for over a week, just so that we could save enough money on food to make it to Greece.
LOOKING FOR SOMETHING MORE
You see, when I arrive at a border, my body aches to take one step further. It’s nearly impossible not to, knowing that beyond that frontier is another world which is invisible only as long I remain gridlocked where I stand. Then one day last year, after returning from one of the most incredible treks of my life, I just couldn’t do it anymore. Not a single step. Something was missing. Instead of the usual elation I felt at planning my next big trek, I felt nothing. Emptiness.
Despite all of the cultural appreciation and eye opening experiences my travels have brought me, I suddenly realized that much of my trekking, my life’s work, lacked a clear purpose. While on the road I often think about what I can do to mark these moments in time, to make the connections with people I meet count, not only in my life history, but in theirs as well. However, back home, these good intentions go with the wind, quickly swept away by my hunger for the next great adventure. This time, I was determined not to let this happen. I decided that for my next trek I would try something a little different.
VOLUNTEER TRAVEL AND THE DEVELOPMENT DILEMMA
I had heard about “volunteer” travel and as someone who has spent a significant amount of time both working with and studying the vast universe of international and local non- profits, I was a bit skeptical. Could a volunteer really have any sort of impact in a few weeks or a few months time? I was leery that volunteer travel exacerbates one of the biggest issues facing development: lack of consistency in program implementation. Since I am a firm advocate of locally led development solutions, I wondered to what extent this tourism model perpetuates the paradigm of south-north dependency. Curious to investigate for myself, I set off with my husband to Siem Reap Cambodia with the UK registered charity GLOBALTEER (http://www.globalteer.org/about.aspx).
In Siem Reap, I discovered an extensive network of well-traveled like-minded globetrekkers of all ages, brought together by the same goal of exploring the world with a purpose. I worked side-by-side with volunteers and local Khmer staff at an English School for underprivileged children, employing my teaching skills to assess the level of English of individual students for class placement. The children were excited to meet and talk to a new visitor, yet the core curriculum remained in the hands of the experienced Khmer staff and long-term volunteers. I biked to work in the morning with the rest of the volunteers, ate lunch with the local staff and spent my evenings exploring fish massages, lively markets and eating street food with local staff and international volunteers.
IS THIS DAWN OF A NEW TYPE OF GLOBETREKKING?
In one week I met over thirty volunteers and conducted in depth interviews with seven individuals and a group interview with four others. Most trekkers agree that their time volunteering will not change the face of development in Cambodia. However, through the positive and productive interaction between locals and tourists working towards a common goal, a reciprocal sense of cultural toleration and awareness develops. Is this the beginning of a new socially conscious way of trekking? Watch the video. You decide.