Saturday Is National Archaeology Day

This Saturday, October 20, has officially been declared National Archaeology Day here in the U.S. and to celebrate, the Archaeological Institute of America is hosting a number of events across the country. Additionally, the National Park Service is helping to promote the day as well, offering up opportunities to visit archaeological sites and even volunteer on a live dig.

Now in its second year, National Archaeology Day was founded to not only help raise awareness of the importance of archaeology but also to celebrate the thrill and excitement of discovery. To that end, the AIA, working in conjunction with local chapters and clubs, has come up with some fun, family-friendly activities that can help everyone get into the spirit of the celebration. There are literally dozens of events taking place across the U.S. (and some abroad!) that will give everyone the opportunity to learn what archaeology is all about. To find an event close to you, check out the NAD events page. You’ll find everything from film screenings, guided tours, lectures, simulated digs and much more.

Many U.S. national parks were created around important historical sites, making them popular destinations for professional and amateur archaeologists alike. For those interested in gaining first hand experience and knowledge of what takes place on an archaeological dig, the Park Service has posted a list of volunteer opportunities within the system. Those opportunities include fieldwork with the Smithsonian Institute and the AIA, volunteer programs with the Forest Service and collaborations with various archaeology centers across the nation.

If you’re someone who is fascinated by the study of human history or would just like to know more about archaeology in general, than Saturday will definitely be a day for you. Judging from the various activities that will be taking place around the country, it should be a fun and fascinating day.

Celebrate 2012 National Public Lands Day With Free Entry To National Parks

Saturday is National Public Lands Day in the U.S. and to celebrate, the National Park Service is waiving entry fees to all of the parks. The day is set aside on an annual basis to not only recognize the value and importance of public lands but to organize opportunities to maintain and protect them as well.

During last year’s National Public Lands Day, more than 170,000 volunteers worked on 2067 sites spread out across every state in the country. They spent the day collecting over 23,000 pounds of invasive plants, building or maintaining 1500 miles of trails, removing 500 tons of trash and planting 100,000 trees, shrubs and other native plants. Their efforts helped to improve some of our favorite national parks and forests while protecting the environment and other natural resources. A similar number of volunteers are expected to turn out this Saturday as well, with opportunities in abundance once again. To find a work site near you, simply click here.

Even if you don’t plan on volunteering for the day, you can still enjoy free entry into the national parks. For a complete list of locations that will be completely free on Saturday, click here.

On a related note, the final fee-free days for the national parks in 2012 will be November 10-12 in celebration of Veterans Day.

The Dos And Don’ts Of Voluntourism

In Juarez, Mexico, a group of American university students build houses. In Quito, Ecuador, medical professionals spend two weeks correcting cataracts – pro bono. In Kenya, handfuls of Hollywood stars try “making a difference” at orphanages. At the same time, these volunteers are having a travel experience. They stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and try to bond with locals. They are volunteer traveler hybrids known as voluntourists. Can they really see the world and save it too?

A rising tide of do-good travelers

“Voluntourism,” writes David Clemmons, founder of, “is the conscious, seamlessly-integrated combination of voluntary service to a destination with the traditional elements of travel and tourism – arts, culture, geography, history and recreation – while in the destination.”

Over the past 20 years, companies and organizations have sprouted up to meet mushrooming demand for these experiences. In kind, journalists and researchers have also begun investigating the impacts. A recent ABC report, for example, examines the downsides of medical missions.

The benefits for the voluntourist are clear: meaningful cross-cultural exchanges; the chance to contribute to a vital humanitarian cause or project; and insights about life from people with different perspectives. But critics have legitimate questions. Can cross-cultural exchanges also lead to greater misunderstanding and loss? Can well-intentioned individuals on short-term schedules make a lasting difference? Is it really about the destination, or just an ego trip? The solution is complex.

Theory versus practice

In academic circles, best practices have been suggested to avoid voluntourism’s potential dark side. Academics cite potential negative impacts such as the overruling of locals’ desires, outright cultural loss or change, low quality of work completed, decreased demand for local labor, and poverty rationalization (i.e. a reinforcement of misconceptions about poverty).

Meanwhile, on the front lines of voluntourism, organizations have years of ground-level experience with connecting travelers to volunteer opportunities all over the world. Volunteer coordinators admit the road isn’t always smooth, and that when trying to place affluent Westerners in impoverished populations, anything can happen.

In a collection of interviews I collected with volunteer placement coordinators all over the world, however, the academic skepticism remained a distant abstraction. Coordinators recalled very few bad voluntourist scenarios, noting that experiences are overwhelmingly positive. Based on their diverse experiences, they offered their wisdom on practices to avoid as a voluntourist and how to volunteer abroad like you mean it. A cross section of those conversations follows.

What not to do as a voluntourist

Tim Rowse is is the director of WAVES for Development, which combines surf tourism on the Peruvian coast with community service projects. He recalled a difficult experience with one particular individual. “Pre-departure, we spent time corresponding with the volunteer on in-country travel logistics, setting up lodging, keying up staff for their arrival in Lobitos, Peru,” Rowse explains. “Preferring to trust that individuals will deliver on their commitments, we let payment slide until his arrival. Turns out, the volunteer decided to bypass WAVES all together and live in an unaffiliated hotel. His idea was to volunteer for WAVES from outside our system. That’s fine, we get people who don’t know about WAVES and show up in Lobitos wanting to help, but we couldn’t help but feel frustrated at how the events occurred.”

Perpetua Opoku-Agyemang is general manager of Student and Youth Travel Organization in Accra, Ghana, which provides a range of cross-cultural programs and support services. She laments some volunteers’ uncompromising attitudes. “We’ve had cases where a volunteer isn’t satisfied with the condition of our bicycles, so halfway through the journey, she or he abandons the bicycle and walks the rest of the way.”

Laurel Carlton is a volunteer coordinator in Xela, Guatemala, at EntreMundos, a non-profit that provides organizations and communities with training opportunities, resources and volunteers. Because EntreMundos emphasizes clients’ needs over volunteers’ requirements, personal irresponsibility can cause substantial problems.

“One volunteer went to an organization that networks with local producers of fair trade and organic products,” says Carlton. “The volunteer spoke Spanish, had marketing skills and, prior to arrival, she indicated she would stay for at least two months. The organization was quite enthusiastic about the volunteer, and spent several days training her and preparing an individual project. After her first week, the volunteer stopped showing up, and the organization was unable to contact her via email and telephone. Three weeks later, they received an email that she had decided to move on with her travels. The organization was so frustrated by this waste of their time, energy and resources that they have discontinued their volunteer relationship entirely.”

How to volunteer abroad like you mean it

Ground-level managers all look for similar things – a willing attitude, language capabilities, cultural sensitivity, applicable skills and open-mindedness – and they tend to agree that longer stays are most effective.

Carlton describes an ideal experience: “One young woman spoke advanced Spanish and had extensive marketing skills. She was exemplary in her work with an indigenous women’s weaving cooperative. She successfully won the organization over $1000 in funds to buy two much-needed sewing machines, she held several successful fundraising events, and she focused on improving ties with the weaving store’s external markets.”

A similar anecdote comes from Chris Engler, a program coordinator at World Unite. “We recently had a 43-year-old man, Olaf from Germany, who works in public relations. He came for six weeks to Tanzania to volunteer with an NGO that is dealing with female genital mutilation, which is a very sensitive issue. A lot of knowledge about local culture is needed to address rural tribal communities about the topic successfully. Olaf was excellent in listening to the NGO members and developing a PR strategy. He also raised funds for its implementation. Olaf is still in touch with us and is continuing with PR work for all the NGOs in Tanzania he got to know.”

Engler says that a positive attitude and cultural sensitivity are the key criteria of good voluntourists. Carlton, aside from prizing strong Spanish skills in EntreMundos’ voluntourists, agrees. “Great volunteers display flexibility, independence, personal maturity, initiative and a high level of openness and tolerance to a different culture. Humility and awareness of their status as a visitor in another country are also highly important.”

Sustainable Bolivia’s assistant national director, Erin Beasley, succinctly outlines a very healthy overall approach for would-be volunteers. “Observe what needs to be done and help to make that happen. Leave the place cleaner than when you arrived. When you receive generosity, respond with generosity. Be direct, thoughtful and patient when communicating with your new colleagues. And have fun! Your energy and spirit of helping is a great addition to your host organization.”

Voluntourism Dos and Don’ts


  • Overstate your skills and abilities
  • Make commitments you can’t keep
  • Expect a free ride just because you are working
  • Forget your priorities: In voluntourism, ‘tourism’ comes second


  • Your homework. Look for transparency about how your fees are being used
  • A deep self-evaluation of your motives and expectations before voluntouring
  • Plan to stay awhile. The longer you stay, the more effective you can be
  • Try it at least once in your life, no matter your age or experience level

Ready to volunteer abroad?

WWOOF Worldwide
EntreMundos, Guatemala
WAVES for Development, Peru
Conscious Journeys
Sustainable Bolivia
World Unite
SYTO Ghana

[Images courtesy WWOOF Canada and World Unite]

Human Hammocks And Howler Monkeys: Visiting Costa Rica’s Jaguar Rescue Center

“Why don’t they like me?” my travel companion huffed in frustration, abandoning what he had hoped would be a welcoming hand gesture toward a group of rehabilitated baby howler monkeys. Maybe they sensed our initial apprehension. After all, we had been nervous to visit the Jaguar Rescue Center, given the world’s alarming amount of faux sanctuaries that operate more akin to zoos and tourist destinations, but many locals in Puerto Viejo, a small beach town in the southern Caribbean of Costa Rica, spoke highly of the experience in Playa Chiquita, telling of the daily free-range policies where the animals may decide for themselves if they are ready to leave.

So we rented bicycles in town: cruisers – the kind with large baskets and banana seats that position the rider as almost a parody of leisure (our uptight go-go city bikes would never forgive us for crossing over). Truth be told, the lazy cycling on stretched lanes along the Caribbean with backpacks snug in our front baskets seemed like perfection when compared with the pre-traumatic stress of avoiding car doors that so often invade Chicago’s bike lanes.
No – here things were different. Here, tranquility was the goal. Costa Rica sinks into the bloodstream like a rich dessert – best enjoyed slowly.

After a 20-minute ride down a sun-drenched road dotted with open-walled cafes, vegan restaurants and yoga schools, we rolled into the Jaguar Rescue Center for an 11:30 a.m. tour.Founded by Barcelona Primatologist Encar García and her herpetologist husband, Sandro Alviani, the rescue serves as an educational beacon along Costa Rica’s Caribbean edge. Jaguar strives to rehabilitate its residents with the end goal of releasing sloths, toucans, ocelots and howler monkeys back into the wild.

We joined the dozen or so in the small crowd and were immediately greeted by Encar, a serene and natural beauty whose eyes smiled and set in exhaustion on the horizon of her cherub cheekbones – a ringer for a young Jane Goodall on several counts.

Perched on her hand was a toucan whose beak had been mangled by a feral dog one year earlier. We were pleased to learn that the complicated operation of gluing its beak back together at the facility had allowed the strange bird to heal properly and once again enjoy a staple of fruits. Soon, Encar explained, it would leave the sanctuary like many before.

A guide directed us through an exhibit of venomous snakes and small tree frog habitats. The intimacy of the tour allowed its guests to share their own stories in between the cooing and chittering of happy travelers facing a sloth’s crooked smile.

We excitedly approached the baby howler monkey lodging, realizing for the first time that we were going to be allowed to touch them. But suddenly, our guide directed his attention to Encar who let out a surprised cry.

The tour followed, surrounding the sanctuary’s founder. She was calling to a wild adolescent howler monkey that had scurried in from the deep canopy. The animal recognized her and ran in for a full embrace, Encar holding it to her chest and crying. “This is a special moment,” she revealed to the crowd. “I have not seen her for a long time; we raised her and she left into the wild.”

The monkey who came back was Cuca, one of the original animals housed when the rescue center first opened. At the time she was a tiny baby, malnourished and ill. “We did everything we could,” the founder explained. “We were not sure if she was going to recover.”

She did recover, and three years later left the rescue center on her own accord. This return was touching (Encar later emailed that not long after, Cuca joined a wild troop and is now fully rehabilitated); it only further fueled our excitement to hold a howler ourselves. Our guide ushered us into the cage and we extended our arms and waited, but to no avail.

“Am I doing something wrong?” I asked in concern. The small faces could not answer beyond sharp chirps.

A volunteer leaned in with an insider’s tip: “They like it if you make a hammock shape with your arms.”

We folded them into cradles and before I could finish asking, “Like this?” four howler monkeys jumped into our arms, channeling a cartoon dust cloud of pushing and fighting, all vying for the ultimate comfort of resting one of their apple-sized heads in the palms of our hands. We smiled from ear to ear, happy to oblige as one winner wrapped its digits around our “pillows,” fluffing for comfort and allowing us to study the similarities of our fingernails.

It was peculiar to be so close to an animal whose more wild brethren stirred us from our cabinas each morning with a startling bellow. In time, perhaps these little heads would soon echo the chant throughout the canopy and only vaguely recall the time spent here at the rescue center.

The Jaguar Rescue Center offers tours ($15 per person) Monday through Saturday at 9:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. They accept volunteers for a minimum commitment of three weeks. For more information visit

[First image courtesy of Jaguar Rescue Center; second by Robin Whitney]

Heifer International: Working To End World Hunger, One Llama At A Time

Got an extra $20 burning a hole in your pocket and want to make a difference in the lives of others? Buy a flock of ducks. Eighty-five dollars will get you a camel share, while a mere $48 purchases a share in a “Knitter’s Gift Basket (a llama, alpaca, sheep and angora rabbit).”

Since 1944, Heifer International has provided livestock, and animal husbandry, agricultural and community development training to over 125 countries, including the U.S. The goal: to help end world hunger and poverty by improving breeding stock, providing valuable dietary supplements such as milk and eggs, and creating viable business enterprises for commodity products such as cheese, wool, honey, or crops cultivated by draft animals like horses and water buffalo.

The livestock species used to support disenfranchised communities are diverse, but traditional to their respective regions. They include goats, sheep, honeybees, beef and dairy cattle, water buffalo, yaks, horses, donkeys, llamas, alpacas, camels, rabbits, guinea pigs and poultry.

When I was a kid growing up on a small ranch in Southern California, we used to donate our male dairy goat kids (which, if sold here, would most likely be relegated to dinner) to Heifer. Although the program no longer ships live animals overseas (it’s easier and safer/more humane to ship frozen semen), the concept remains the same: using top bloodlines to improve the quality and enhance the genetic diversity of herds or flocks in impoverished regions.

Heifer teaches the concept of the “Seven M’s: Milk, Manure, Meat, Material, Money, Motivation and Muscle.” These are the benefits livestock animals provide to people in developing nations. With the training provided by Heifer employees and volunteers, the cycle of poverty can be broken, and families and villages can thrive. During the holidays or for birthdays, I like to make animal gift donations in the name of the recipient, an especially valuable lesson for children (who, let’s face it, really don’t need another electronic piece of crap to foster their ADD and lack of global awareness).

Never doubt the power of a furry friend to change the world. To make a donation, click here.

Check out this Heifer International gallery of animals and their proud owners from around the world: