Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Belated Sermon

A few days before I flew south to Brazil, an acquaintance asked me why I would choose to use my limited vacation time volunteering for manual labor. I was distracted by last minute travel preparations, and my answer was inadequate and perfunctory, but I recalled her question this week and decided that I should address it.

We live, as we're so often reminded, in an age of global interconnectivity. Every year, millions of people (of a certain means) visit far flung places. Recreation and relaxation are their priorities. Excluding work-related trips, contemporary travel is less about the destination than it is escape; we flee our mundane existence. Although this attitude is an indication of pervasive ennui, there's nothing wrong with taking a break from the hectic schedules and frivolous intrigues of contemporary living. Indeed, it's essential that we find time to enjoy life, but we needn't travel to do so; we can center our lives without leaving home. This approach is sometimes called a "stay-cation."

Furthermore, although most people think of a vacation as an opportunity to take stock and de-stress, it's usually anything but. We travel to places where the local "recreation" feeds our consumer impulses, and "relaxation" is centered around food and drink. After all, we associate the word "vacation" with overfull shopping bags on the Champs-Elysees or mojitos on the beach. The vacation is, above all else, a recess from guilt. We sleep too much, eat too much, spend too much...and revel in the excess. Away from our community, we discard our moral compass. What happens in Costa Rica stays in Costa Rica.

Yet some of us insist, sincerely, that we don't travel for escapist reasons and, furthermore, that it is irresponsible to do so. We cite as our impetus the geography and culture of the chosen destination. The trouble is, you don't "know" a place by sight-seeing. A guided stroll away from the cruise ship or a double-decker bus tour only superficially acquaint the tourist with the place they visit. To be fair, you don't really know a place until you live there, and for some years at that.

Unfortunately, none of us has enough years to live in all the places we'd like to "know," so visits have to suffice. The best way to make the visit (and the place) memorable is to participate more fully in local life. And what better way to participate than to work alongside people who do live there?

Consider, too, that the infrastructure international travel requires - the true price, if you will - necessitates that the conscientious traveler give something back to the destination community. In other words, travel isn't just about your having fun or relaxing (again, you can do this at home), but about being exposed to a new place, new people, and new ideas.

Groups like the Sierra Club, Earthwatch, Global Volunteers, and others(1) offer travel/work opportunities. More people should take advantage of these trips. Volunteers interact directly with the local culture and assist with valuable work. As a result, the trip is more meaningful (and, as an added bonus, it costs less than conventional tourism).

(1) Visit the travel page at for an impressive list of volunteer travel opportunities.

Photo credit: Hungry Hyaena, 2007

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