by Chris Mackay, Co-founder of Crooked Trails
Volunteer tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the tourism industry. Why? Do we feel guilty when we see poverty in other countries? Do we feel we have something special to give? Do we feel we have something to teach? Is it true unabashed altruistic intentions? Or, are we hungry for a new experience in a new place?
Often when people are asked to dig deep and look at the reasons they are going abroad to volunteer, it stems from the pain they experience when they see others in the world suffering and the guilt they feel about everything they have been given. However, if we dig deeper, there is often a more enigmatic reason for wanting to travel. Our experience at Crooked Trails over the past 10 years has shed light on this topic and we would like to share that epiphany with you.
Almost all the clients we have taken abroad to work on a service project, have initially signed on because they wanted to give back and make a difference in the life of another- who perhaps has not been so fortunate. Yet when they return, almost no one has stated that the most important experience on their program was that they got to help build a school or work on a service project. Instead, participants describe in great detail the humbling compassion they experienced from their host family and within themselves while on their home-stay. Clients talk of their experience in terms of moments.. ‘I remember walking down the trail with a child’s hand in mine’…. ‘I loved the quiet time sitting with the grandmother of my host family’.. ‘I just remember how the family liked to dance every night and how they constantly involved me’. It is these moments of interaction which form the beginnings of a relationship, a relationship which the participant is longing for well before they departed their home country, but didn’t know it. These times are so astonishingly memorable that they become the focal point for reflection on the trip. It’s all about relationships. A CT friend, volunteer, and consultant told us just recently “you are in the business of relationships”. He is right. For years we have established lasting and strong bonds with the communities and partner organizations we work with around the world, so that we can extend that relationship onto those who travel with us. The people we work with abroad know that Crooked Trails’ participants are coming to them well versed in responsible travel ethics and with the open heart to learn and share. They trust us.
So, it’s not all about the service. It is about sharing. It is about the relationship one can experience with another culture which may be very different than our own. But because we all feel we need to give back, we pursue the service, all the while wishing for the relationship. At Crooked Trails we understand this. That is why many service projects are included in our programs. However we understand that service is not the most important and memorable experience you will have on one of our programs, rather it is time spent sharing yourself with others and learning from those who you are visiting. That is why we include significant time spent with communities on our programs. This time may be spent in service, but we have so much to learn from the people around the world and we can only do this if we take the time to listen. So if going abroad to offer service is something you have always wanted to do, ask yourself why. In reality we have as much to learn as we have to offer. Combining service with time in the community is a great way to both give and receive.
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