Why volunteering is better than traveling
The following post is from our guest-blogger, Steve Jackson, who lives in Granada, Nicaragua.
Have you ever had that look from a local when you're new in a foreign town?
You know the one. A mixture of weariness and eyes-to-heaven exasperation. You know their unspoken words. The first one is unprintable here. The second one is "tourists!"
What provoked it? Well, maybe you were haggling over a price and, well, perhaps you don't really know what that price should be. You don't really know what the item is worth but thought you'd give it a go.
They do haggle here, right?
Or perhaps you thought that the new ethnic togs you bought from that hillside shack were just the thing. If you want to bargain, then dressing like the locals has got to help, right? So how come they're all laughing at you?
The truth is, perhaps dressing like the shopkeeper's country cousin's Grandma won't earn you that much respect. So what does?
In truth you're never really going to blend in. The sooner you realise that the better. That seems to me one of the first lessons of a long stay in a country. Cut out the clothes that will insult, don't try to be something you're not, and anything in between should be fine.
Much the same rules can be applied to you behaviour. You may not know local customs but as long as you show respect you'll get by.
It's these things you learn when you live and work overseas. Previously I had taken a year off to travel and loved it. But I was just another rich westerner with a backpack. Shamefully I parroted this horrible expression:
"If you pay the man too much then he will come to expect it and you'll ruin it for other backpackers."
Later, when I worked for a charity restaurant, I read customer complaints form querying our very reasonable prices. It stated: "There should be more cheap food on the menu. I should not be expected to pay these prices as I am a backpacker."
Now since when did backpackers become a charity? Trust me, if you can afford a flight halfway around the world, then financially you can look after yourself.
It's an attitude that often pervades budget travelling. An ugly victim mentality, despite being surrounded by real poverty.
Take a little time to live in a country and you start to change you views. When I saw a western girl in hot-pants in Hanoi, I thought, "Ouch." She is not going to have a fun day.
When I saw dreadlocked travellers, arguing to the point of anger, with a shopkeeper to get five cents knocked off the price of their illegally-copied DVD, I cringed.
Other times, when I was putting up notices in hostels for upcoming fundraisers, I saw the TV room packed with people watching American Idol. You come here and you do this?
Volunteering was the single best thing I did with my life. Vietnam is such a bizarre confusing place that I will never understand its culture. Not even after two years. But I least I knew that. I didn't pretend that wearing a shirt made by the Hmong tribe of Sapa, while supping noodles on a street corner, made me an expert.
Volunteering is about ups and downs. They say your lows are the lowest and the highs are off the chart. It is true. Without your family and friends you sometimes just want to crawl into a hole. Your work challenges and your private life can conspire to tip you over the edge. (For example, see my blog post here.)
But that's the whole point. Who wants their life to be steady?
On the day of my leaving do I got to say goodbye to the wonderful KOTO trainees. I bear-hugged a dozen of them at once. We sobbed together.
Later when my eyes had dried the staff and I went out for a few drinks. My phone rang and I started to receive call after call from young people who had graduated from our program. They couldn't be with me because they were working.
They were working in jobs that KOTO had trained them for. Only a year or so earlier they had been living on the streets.
The next day, when I returned to clear out my desk, I was given this.
How can you ever go back to travelling after that? I don't honestly know how much I really helped. But somehow I managed to touch these young people's lives.
That has to beat sucking down banana milkshakes and sleeping till noon. Doesn't it?
I just read this post from Rachie in Living for Disco. She once wrote that reading my blog had inspired her to volunteer. I am very proud of that. It sounds like she too has endured those high and lows and has had to reassess her life in the wake of it all.
Another link here: 10 Reasons why Volunteering is Better than Travelling, which is an article I wrote for Brave New Traveler.
From a personal point of view the best thing I can say about volunteering is how lucky it makes me feel. Lucky in so many ways.
I may have been on a subsistence wage but I was a high earner by local standards. I was born into a family that was comparatively wealthy. I have two supportive parents. I am healthy.
In that respect I was born lucky.
But the real luck was just the chance to do this. To be in places like Vietnam and now, Nicaragua and to live like this. What did I do so right to deserve this?
I feel like the luckiest man in the world. Now who wouldn't want to feel like that?
See Steve's blog post from yesterday, "How I Wound Up Living Overseas," by clicking here. You can find Steve's blog at OurManInGranada.com, where he talks about life, love, and his work as a fund raiser for a non-profit project called CafeChavalos.
North Korea puts on a show
More than 100,000 Korean gymnasts take part in the Arirang Festival's Mass Games, a tightly synchronized performance reenacting the country's history--or its Communist leaders' version, at any rate. This year's first installation, held in a giant Pyongyang stadium, concluded on May 15, but you can catch the one-of-a-kind spectacle when it returns August 1-September 10, 2007. While North Korea has agreed to grant U.S. citizens visas for the event, trips must typically be arranged through a government-sanctioned tour operator. Companies such as Geographic Expeditions, New Korea Tours, and Koryo Tours are among the options. Be prepared for little, if any, freedom of movement within the country and for the sense that you've been transported back in time. You can get a sneak peek at what exactly the capital of North Korea (part of the "axis of evil"!) looks like by checking out our slide show of photos from Charlie Crane's new book, Welcome to Pyongyang. (The picture above is of a bride and groom posing in Mansudae Fountain Park.) You can read an excerpt from the introduction here. For more on the freedom to travel, read an editor's letter from Erik Torkells and our recent article To Boycott or Not to Boycott. And if you've ever been to North Korea, share your impressions!
City of Light...and good food
This week, Clotilde Dusoulier tours the U.S. to promote her cookbook Chocolate & Zucchini. Mademoiselle Dusoulier won fame and fortune by creating a food blog (see here). And she won our hearts in 2005 with her Budget Travel article "My Paris is Better than Yours" Find out if she'll be visiting your city by clicking here. Meanwhile, on June 6, Dusoulier will answer your questions about Paris and food in a live online chat at BudgetTravel.com.
What is black water rafting?
Reader Stephanie Johnson of Manhattan Beach, Calif., recently shared with us a fascinating thrill she has experienced... On my most recent trip to New Zealand, I went on an adventure tour with my sister and a group of American college students. Our two-week tour dropped us in Waitomo, New Zealand, to go "Black Water Rafting." I had no idea what this activity could possibly entail, but I was up for the challenge. First, we practiced abseiling, which is like repelling, or roping down. Then we were off to a small platform from which we abseiled to underground caves. Out of the eight of us, I was number five. I slowly stepped off the platform and was completely supported by a rope and a sling. This was it. I lowered myself toward complete darkness through a tight tunnel, the end of which I could not see. Friends at the bottom cheered when I arrived underground. </p> <p> </p> <p>_uacct = "UA-1844627-1";</p> <p>urchinTracker();</p> <p> The next step was to ride on a zipline through the first cave. Once again, there was no visibility, but it was a thrilling ride to an unknown destination. Our guides pulled out two inner tubes. Those inner tubes would soon be the only thing holding us together and afloat. We were instructed to place the inner tubes on our behinds and jump off the ledge into the water. Not knowing how far down it was, we all hesitated, but we knew this would be the only way out. When we splashed into the water below, we weren't sure how we would move though the caves. We connected our tubes and were pulled by our guides. This was black water rafting! As we laid back and looked toward what would be the sky, we saw millions of tiny bright lights. Outside the sun was shining, but in the caves, the glowworms created a beautiful night sky of twinkling stars. We enjoyed the relaxing ride, but soon our bodies and minds would be put to the test. We waded through cold, dark water to the base of a gorgeous waterfall whose source was an above-ground spring. Our guides informed us that this would be the only way to get out. We would be challenged to climb up a series of three waterfalls in order to see the sunlight. There would be rushing water, wet rocks, tight spaces, and unexpected physical and mental challenges. I did my best. When I saw daylight, I knew I was close and I pushed ahead, making my way toward the last hurdle. I emerged from the caves with the highest feeling of accomplishment. This achievement deserved celebration, but first, we needed breakfast. To learn more about black water rafting in New Zealand, click here. You may also want to see our 2007 Cool Thrills List, complete with videos of selected thrills. (Note: Stephanie's email was edited for publication.)
Morocco's national drink: Berber whiskey
Melissa Kronenthal, who runs the blog Traveler's Lunchbox, recently visited Morocco. Here, she shares an anecdote from her trip and offers an insight into that country's culture. By the time we arrived at our riad, it was early evening in Marrakesh and we were starving. We were desperate to drop our bags as quickly as possible and set out in search of dinner, but the riad manager, Omar, had other ideas. He assured us we couldn't leave without first accepting some traditional Moroccan hospitality. "Our custom in Morocco is to offer all guests some refreshment," he said, escorting us up to the riad's expansive roof terrace, "and customary for all guests to accept it." "Alright," we acquiesced, certainly not keen to start our trip by contravening tradition, "what kind of refreshment do you offer?" "A glass of whiskey berbere, naturally," he said with a grand gesture, and disappeared. "Uh, okay," we said exchanging confused looks. Wasn't it awfully risqué to offer alcohol in a Muslim country, particularly with the mosque next door in plain sight? But before we could ponder the mystery further Omar was back, carrying a worn steel tray, two small glasses, and an ornate silver teapot. Of course, we should have guessed - whiskey berbere is nothing other than the tongue-in-cheek name for mint tea. The joke may have been casual, but the analogy isn't actually so farfetched, as we would soon discover. Like whiskey in Scotland, mint tea isn't a quaint tourist gimmick - it's a national obsession. Hot, sweet, and bracingly bitter, it punctuates Moroccan life like clockwork: mint tea to wake up, mint tea with pastries in the afternoon, mint tea to round out every meal. It's served with panache, poured from a great height out of bulbous silver pots into glasses barely bigger than thimbles; the aeration is important for developing the flavor, we were told, and the size of the glasses insures your tea will never get cold (and makes it easier to down the three obligatory cups that tradition dictates, I imagine). In a country where alcohol is forbidden and water is often of questionable quality, it's a beverage that has acquired tremendous practical and symbolic value, functioning as digestive aid, pick-me-up, negotiation facilitator and simple sustenance. I wouldn't be surprised if Moroccans have it running through their veins instead of blood. As we sat there in the growing twilight, sipping our tea and listening to the call to prayer reverberate across the rooftops, it seemed about as perfect a first taste of the country as we could have asked for. You can read more about Melissa's trip to Morocco by clicking here. For Budget Travel's advice on visiting Morocco and the Sahara Desert, click here.