Five easy ways be a philanthropic traveler

philanthropic travelVoluntourism is the newest warm fuzzy of the travel industry. Under ideal circumstances, it’s a sustainable, experiential way to see the world and give back at the same time. Whether you’re helping to build a new school or clearing a trail, a working holiday is, for some, the best possible expenditure of disposable income.

But there’s the rub. Along with multitudinous other factors that make voluntourism a dicey concept, it doesn’t come cheap. Some organized volunteer holidays cost as much as a luxury vacation or adventure trip of the same length. That’s great if you can afford both the time and expense, but many of us don’t have that option.

The good news? You can still be a philanthropic traveler regardless of your income, physical ability, educational background, or destination. Below, five easy ways to make a difference on every trip.

1. Donate.
Clothing, shoes, school supplies, basic medical supplies (Neosporin, aspirin, antidiarrheals, bandages), food (fresh fruit and dry goods such as rice, flour, or beans are often good choices, depending upon where you’re traveling; avoid processed foods and candy).

In regard to donations, I’ve found it’s best to do a bit of research beforehand (even if it just involves talking to some fellow travelers or travel operators in the region, or locals). You don’t want to inadvertently cause offense or shame by giving freebies; on the other hand, don’t be put off if you’re asked to help if you can. Some reputable outfitters may request that clients donate any unwanted items of clothing at the trip’s end. These items significantly help local communities (especially children) or the families of contracted staff such as porters or cooks. Donating gently used clothing and shoes is also a greener way to travel.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Visions Service Adventures]philanthropic travelAsk–tour operators, guides, community leaders–before donating medical items, even if they’re OTC; ditto food. Guidebooks, travel articles, and local travel literature often note what items are in short supply in specific destinations.

For example, when I did a farmstay on a remote island on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, my guidebook suggested I bring fresh fruit for my host family, as residents could only purchase it on the mainland. The farm patriarch also let me know at the end of my visit that any clothing donations for his children would be greatly appreciated. Depending upon your cultural and/or economic background, such a request may appear brazen or appallingly rude. Coming from a humble man whose entire family had welcomed me into their single-room home, fed me, and treated me as one of their own (rather than just a fast source of income), it was a request I was only too happy to honor.

2.Volunteer…for free
Voluntourism is something you can do yourself, assuming you ask permission when appropriate, and act in accordance with local and cultural mores (Behave Yourself! The Essential Guide to International Etiquette is an entertaining and informative book I recommend for all travelers). Whether you pick up trash on a beach, offer to work reception at a locally-owned backpacker’s for a few hours or days, or teach useful foreign language phrases to children, you’re giving back to that community.

I realize how colonialist this may sound, but the fact is, English speakers are in great demand worldwide. Even in the most impoverished countries or regions, locals who speak English (or French, Italian, German, etc.), no matter how rudimentary, can find employment or offer their services as guides, taxi drivers, hostel employees, or translators. Fluency in a foreign language(s) gives them an advantage in a competitive market. Think about it. It’s never a bad thing to learn a language other than your own, no matter who you are, where you live, or how much money you make.
philanthropic travel
3. Buy local handicrafts and food
Just like shopping your farmers market back home, buying local supports a local economy, and usually eliminates the need for a middle-man. A bonus: many specific destinations all over the world are famed for their food, textiles, woodcarving, pottery, etc.. Every time I look at certain items in my home–no matter how inexpensive they may be—I’m reminded of the adventures and experiences that led to their purchase.

4. Immerse yourself
You don’t need to “go native,” but the best travel experiences usually entail a certain amount of surrender to a place or culture. Learn a few key phrases in the local language or dialect; treat the people–even if they’re urbanites in an industrialized nation–with respect and observe their rules or customs when appropriate; be a gracious traveler or guest. Your actions may not provide monetary or physical relief, but giving back isn’t always about what’s tangible.

5. Reduce your footprint.
It’s impossible not to have a carbon footprint, and as recreational travelers, that impact increases exponentially. But there’s no need to eradicate “frivolous” travel; indeed, experiencing other cultures and sharing our own helps foster tolerance and empathy. Rather, we should be mindful travelers, and do our best to conserve natural resources and preserve the integrity of the places we visit. Just as with camping, leave a place better than you found it. Even if the locals aren’t putting these philosophies into practice, there’s no reason you can’t.

[Photo credits: schoolchildren, Flickr user A.K.M.Ali hossain;vendor, Laurel Miller]

Ultimate recyling project: Building a soda bottle classroom

What happens when Peace Corps volunteers, the non-profit organization, Hug it Forward and a bevvy of school children and teachers in Guatemala recycle plastic bottles and trash? A school classroom.

The collected bottles were stuffed with trash and used to form the walls for a classroom addition at a school in Granados, a small mountain town in the Baja Verapaz region of the country. Amazing.

This video shows how the project was done. The music is a fitting addition to a project that brought the widest smiles to dozens of faces.

Imagine what might happen if similar projects happened on a massive scale world wide. There are a lot of plastic bottles on the planet.

For another version of a building project that fits into travel and activism, check out this gallery on house building with teens, college students and adults in Mexico through Amor Ministries, another non-profit that welcomes volunteers.

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The Galavanting Girls help the children of Roatan

Travel writer, founder of The Galavanting Girls, and creator of the Travel Blog Exchange conference, Kim Mance will soon be setting off on a cruise to visit, among other places, the island of Roatan in Honduras. Rather than spend her time in port sunning on the beautiful West Bay or browsing the new shops at the Port of Roatan, Kim and her crew decided to do something a little more constructive with their time.

While their Princess Cruises ship is in port on November 11, Kim and the other Galavanting Girls will head to Elfrida Brooks School in the area’s capital city of Coxen Hole. Honduras is the second-poorest Caribbean nation (behind only Haiti) and the school, which educates 180 children, is desperately in need of funding.

The Galavanting Girls will be spending the day at the school and dropping off supplies they’ve rounded up. They’re also taking online donations, as little as $5 per person, through the Roatan Children’s Fund on the secure First Giving website. The Girls have already raised $550 for the project, more than double the goal. They’ll be videotaping their visit to the school and will post the footage on their website after November 11.

Make a difference in December (in warm Costa Rica)

Those of you living in southern states, granted, may not feel the need to disappear when the December winds start to blow. I hear it all around me in New York every winter: it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s awful. Frankly, I dig winter, but I realize I’m in the minority, especially when the temperatures hit rock bottom. And New York’s got nothin’ on the likes of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Maine. Well, if you yearn for a warm place when the frigid temperatures hit, Holiday Project 2009 will make you warm on the outside and on the inside.

For nine days, you can soak up the sun in Costa Rica with Tropical Adventures. Raft down a river, feel unfettered freedom on a zip line and make a difference in a local community. This new program costs $1,595 (for adults, $985 for kids) and includes all on-the-ground transportation, two nights at a hotel in San Jose, four nights with a host family in Puerto Viejo and two nights on the indigenous reservation. You’ll mingle with local children and seniors at three holiday parties and take three adventure tours. It’s a packed itinerary that includes thrills and a chance to make the world a better place.

So, when you start to plan your winter escape, maybe you can mix in a bit of holiday goodwill. The trip runs from December 19 – 27, 2009, and you have to book by November 30.

Climbing Kilimanjaro with Roadmonkey

A few months back we wrote about travel company Roadmonkey, which offered unique travel experiences that combined adventure with the opportunity to leave a lasting impact on the places you visit. For instance, one of their 2009 expeditions is a mountain biking tour through the remote jungles of Vietnam that culminates with a volunteer project to build a farm that will grow fruits and vegetables on the campus of a boarding school in that country.

Their other 2009 expedition combines a project to build a clean water system to a school in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with a climb on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Roadmonkey was founded by Paul von Zielbauer, who formerly worked as a war correspondent in Iraq. He is currently in Tanzania and guiding the team up Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa. Throughout the trip he is providing regular updates on their progress for the National Geographic Adventure Blog.

The first of Paul’s blog entires can be found here. He reports that the team has arrived in Moshi, Tanzania, where he and nine other adventure travelers were just about to begin their six day trek up the mountain. On the morning that the post was written, it was raining quite hard, but everyone was eager to hit the trail and begin their climb none the less.

Over the course of the expedition, Paul and the others are expected to check-in and report on their progress, both on Kilimanjaro itself, and again while they are working on the new water system. The dispatches should be very interesting to follow and give some good insights what it is like to travel with Roadmonkey. Check in with the NG Adventure blog over the next week or so to follow their progress, and to see “voluntourism” in action.