Volunteers needed to explore Atlantis

Helike, Atlantis
Want to spend next summer excavating the lost ruins of Atlantis? Well, you can! There are only two catches–it may not be Atlantis, and you won’t get to ride in a UFO.

Wide-eyed crystal clutchers need not apply. This is real science and is far more interesting than New Age fantasy.

Archaeologists excavating the once-lost ancient city of Helike in Greece, are looking for volunteers this summer. The city is located in the Peloponnese, the peninsula in southwestern Greece that’s home to Corinth and Sparta. Inhabited from the Bronze Age onwards, it was thought lost after a massive earthquake in the winter of 373/372 B.C. supposedly sloughed it into the sea. All that was left were a few vague stories and the occasional statue trawled up in fishermen’s nets.

Helike, AtlantisSome scholars theorize Helike’s demise may have led to the legend of Atlantis, the famous lost kingdom that also sank into the sea. Others claim a more likely inspiration for Atlantis was Thera, also known as Santorini, an Aegean island that experienced a massive volcanic explosion in the mid second millennium BC that blew away most of its land and may have disrupted the nearby Minoan civilization.

In 2000 and 2001, a Greek team found Helike and discovered that it hadn’t sunk into the sea, but rather got submerged under an inland lagoon that later silted over. Not nearly as romantic, but nostalgia’s loss is our gain. Evidence of over three thousand years of habitation have been found. Intriguingly, excavators found a settlement dating to c.2600-2300 BC that may also have been submerged after an earthquake.

The city was dedicated to Poseidon Helikonios, god of the sea and the earthquakes. The citizens even put the god on their coinage. Considering that their entire city was destroyed by an earthquake and water, it appears their faith was misplaced.

Volunteers are needed for this summer’s excavations. You don’t need any prior experience and you’ll be trained in archaeological tasks like excavation, mapping, and lab work. If you’d rather dig somewhere else, there are hundreds of archaeological excavations around the world needing your help this summer. This list of links will get your started in your search.

Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Check the Helike Project website for more photos of this amazing site.

Rescuing wildlife in Namibia

Namibia
While 2011 has been a bad year for African wildlife, a foundation in Namibia is making a difference.

The N/a’an ku sê Foundation, which runs a wildlife sanctuary in Namibia, announced its best year to date, the Namibian reports. Last year the Foundation rescued, rehabilitated and re-released several animals, including five cheetahs, two leopards, one brown hyena, two caracals and one serval. It also rescued and cared for numerous other animals.

The Foundation was started by Namibian conservationists in 2006. Located near the capital Windhoek, the wildlife reserve relies on donations to survive and is open to volunteers, in case you want to have an adventure vacation that makes a difference. A wildlife sanctuary cares for injured or orphaned animals that can’t be released back into the wild. For some luxury travel, you can also stay at their lodge.

The main goal of the foundation is to find the best way for wildlife and humans to share the same land. Africa’s population is steadily growing, putting ever more pressure on wildlife. Yet wildlife is an economic boon to Africa, bringing in hard currency from tourism. The Foundation also provides primary education and healthcare to the San Bushmen and employs several to work with guests and the animals.

Photo courtesy Claire Wormley.

LivingSocial offers first volunteer vacation to New Orleans

Volunteer Vacation in New Orleans LivingSocial, the site that brings you discount deals on everything from microdermabrasions to movie tickets, has been offering travel deals as part of its LivingSocial Escapes branch since Fall 2010. Today, the company announced its first volunteer vacation opportunity – a curated trip to help Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans.

For $265, travelers who want to do a little good while they visit the Big Easy will get a two-night stay for two in the French Quarter; one full day of volunteering on-site with Habitat for Humanity; transportation to the work site; and some meals. Reservations are available Monday through Friday (sorry, no weekend getaway!) and there are blackout dates every month through the deal’s expiration on December 31, so check the fine print before booking. The Big Easy Volunteer Vacation must be purchased before August 30, 2011.

The timing for the LivingSocial Escapes deal is impeccable: this week marks the sixth anniversary since Hurricane Katrina made landfall, devastating the city of New Orleans as well as wide swathes of coastline from Louisiana to Florida. While New Orleans has seen quite a rebirth since Katrina, as witnessed by Gadling’s Paul Brady this summer on his Traveling the American Road trip, the need for volunteers in the recovery effort remains. This volunteer weekend jaunt may be just the opportunity to give back while experiencing one of America’s great cities.

[Photo credit Madeline Fox on Flickr]

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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