What does it mean to take a volunteer vacation? Imagine yourself in a schoolroom in one of the most remote regions of one of the most hard-to-reach countries on earth. Nepal. The Lower Mustang region to be exact. To reach it takes a 14-hour flight from New York to Doha, Qatar. Then four hours by air to Kathmandu. Transfer at one of the world’s most dangerous airports to a 90-minute flight to Pokhara, followed by a jarring, eight-hour Jeep ride over a vertiginous dirt road – one side is a mountain wall, the other side a two-hundred foot cliff.
Finally you arrive, but it’s not just any schoolroom. It has been converted into an operating room so that doctors from New York Eye & Ear Infirmary can provide the gift of sight to 24 Nepalis who were blind due to advanced cataracts.
I witnessed this first hand. I was there as a traveler, but also as a volunteer.
A long-time traveler, I long wondered how I could explore the world and help the less fortunate even if I didn’t possess specialized skills. I wasn’t a medical doctor. I don’t climb, I can’t paddle the Amazon, and don’t expect me to mush a team of dogs. But I do know my way around a camera and some people think I can write. What I did know was that I am a lousy tourist, bored sitting on a beach or touring umpteen churches on a cruise ship excursion. I wanted a more meaningful role when I travel.
In 2013, I leveraged my storytelling skills to join an expedition to Nepal featuring a superstar team of ophthalmologists who knew that thousands of Nepalis with mature cataracts in both eyes were needlessly blind. Yet they lacked access to medical facilities and the approximately $25 per eye for the procedure. Embedded on a Dooley Intermed medical mission, I blogged and photographed the work of these doctors in a remote region of Nepal. I returned in 2017 to an even harder-hit area of the country, the epicenter of the 2015 earthquakes that killed over 9,000 Nepalis. Overnight, patients blind for years received what we called the “gift of sight.”
This life-changing experience led to a quest to better understand the voluntourism field – according to NPR (2014) there are 1.6 million active voluntourists in the U.S. spending $2 billion annually (Wilson Quarterly 2015). Somewhere, I knew, there was a book in all this.
I realized voluntourism didn’t have to be a heavy lift. Travelers can volunteer for an hour, an afternoon or full week at their destination. Or simply pack extra medical or school supplies in their baggage for distribution upon arrival. To research the book I volunteered in Antarctica as a high school chaperone, worked at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and bagged apples and onions at a Las Vegas food bank. I also pursed the Swedish art of “plogging” – picking up trash while enjoying the outdoors.
Can it be hard work building wells and schoolhouses or teaching English as a Second Language (ESL)? You bet. Are there unethical orphanages in Third World countries? Sadly, yes. Any personal safety issues? Certainly, especially if you pet wild monkeys or dogs, eat fruit salad from shady roadside stands, or fail to brush your teeth in bottled water.
My experience as a voluntourist taught me that voluntourism doesn’t take a particular outdoor skill, just plenty of sweat and the desire to see the world and leave it a better place.