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The VolunTourist™ is a premium Newsletter for the Travel Trade. For those interested in discovering what is happening in the world of VolunTourism™ and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies, this is your Source.

Volume 4 Issue 3 Highlights



Tuesdays 10am ET/7am PT


Here Comes The Sun

VolunTourism is shedding light on the potential of travel & tourism in ways never before thought possible. Larry Beck, PhD, a Professor in the School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at San Diego State University, delivers personal insights into the convergence of culture, art, history, geography, and service via a recounting of his own recent adventure to Peru.

The rising sun pierces the jagged Andes on our early flight from Lima to Cuzco for a week of cultural immersion in southern Peru. I am traveling with my good friend, Jeff. At an elevation of more than 10,000 feet, Cuzco is the heart of the famed Inca empire. The date is June 21, which is significant because this is the winter solstice. The Incas worshipped the sun and the next week will be full of festivities and celebration. The days will be getting longer.

I have embarked on this trip with Globe Aware, a nonprofit organization that specializes in volunteer tourism, for personal and professional reasons. I’m in need of an adventure in my life—I like to see new places and I like to help people—and I have recently been teaching a course titled “Cross-Cultural Perspectives of Tourism” as part of my assignment at San Diego State University. This trip will facilitate a more credible discussion of volunteer tourism in class. Always up for an adventure, Jeff is here for that reason alone.

I have broken my observations into several categories, as follows, each of which could be an extensive article in itself.

Choosing A Destination

Machu Picchu is listed as one of the “Seven Wonders of the World.” For some time I wanted to visit this enchanted place. I also hoped to work with children since I had volunteered for years teaching kids at the San Diego Rescue Mission and found that fulfilling. I wanted an adventure that would offer a fairly even split between volunteerism and tourism. And I sought a nonprofit organization that provided authentic and meaningful work projects that were locally determined.

The Organization

Globe Aware offered all of my criteria for choosing a program and more. Their mission and philosophy resonate with my own values. They offer adventures in service that focus on cultural awareness and sustainability. Globe Aware volunteers work side-by-side with locals to fully promote cultural exchange. Their motto is: “Help People. Have Fun.”

Fellow Travelers

Our group was atypically large with a family of four, a recently married couple, a mother and daughter, a couple pairs of friends, and a few traveling solo for a total of fifteen. About midway through the week I compiled a list of characteristics that make up someone who would do this, thinking about the good people I was with.

Here is that list. The volunteer traveler is easy to get along with, trusting, patient, and adventuresome. He or she is not quarrelsome and has a good work ethic. This kind of traveler is oriented toward wanting to help other people. Finally, the volunteer tourist is genuine, joyful, and emotional. The last quality bears some explanation in that I mean it in the best sense of the word. If you are emotional it suggests that you are alive, that you have a heart, and that you care.

The Place

Volunteers stay on-site at an albergue (shelter) for children. The facility is a compound of two buildings on an acre of land in a poor section of Cuzco. Albergue Hatun Soncco Wassi offers room and board for students (ages 9-19) who come from poor highland villages without access to education. There are 31 boys and girls housed here who attend school in town during the day. At the albergue they live in dorm-style rooms with bunk beds. We stay in the same building as the children. The four men bunk downstairs in one room and the women sleep upstairs.

This is winter in the southern hemisphere with lows in the 30s. The building is not heated, so we each sleep under several layers of wool blankets. There is one common bathroom for each gender. Strong water pressure and hot water are uncertain and we keep occasional showers short. The meals feature Andean cuisine with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. We are also served coca tea which is a good remedy for altitude sickness (and most anything else).

The Sights

The first night we celebrated the birthday of one of the girls, Angie, who turned ten, and were immediately brought into the “family” of our hosts. We then went to the Plaza de Armas for an outdoor concert and fireworks in recognition of the winter solstice. The plaza was overflowing with thousands of people from all over the world. The celebration was “in the shadow” of the ornate and enormous “La Catedral” started in the 16 th century after the Spanish conquest. The cathedral sits on the site of a former Inca palace which is symbolic of this region so heavily influenced by indigenous beliefs on the one hand, and Catholicism on the other. But here we all were, watching fireworks and swaying to the haunting flute music late into the night.

The next morning we were up at 4:00 a.m. to take the train to Aguas Calientes, the staging area for Machu Picchu. The route is along the base of sheer cliffs and follows the Urubamba River, a tributary of the Amazon. Machu Picchu is in such a remote and forbidding location it is no wonder it wasn’t “discovered” until 1911. We had a guide for the first several hours, who interpreted our surroundings, and then we were left to explore on our own after lunch. We were among the last to leave that day and the place becomes even more magical as the crowds disperse and the rich light of the setting sun saturates the “lost city of the Incas” in hues of gold.

Work Projects

One of our “projects” was to work with the children helping them with English. We did this formally at times, but mostly informally over the course of our stay. We worked and played with the children and had plenty of time to interact. One evening I played soccer with Christopher, whose father recently died. He played goalie and kept retrieving the ball and feeding it back to me. If not for the eventual darkness he would have played all night.

The physical projects consisted of working on a drainage ditch and building fences. The tools we used were low-tech, old, and sometimes ineffective. For the drainage ditch we worked with concrete. Among other things we used shovels, wheelbarrows, wood frames, sledge hammers, and crowbars. We also built small fences and painted them with turpentine.

Who Is The "VolunTourist"?

"The volunteer traveler is easy to get along with, trusting, patient, and adven-turesome. He or she is not quarrelsome and has a good work ethic. This kind of traveler is oriented toward wanting to help other people. Finally, the volunteer tourist is genuine, joyful, and emotional. The last quality bears some explanation in that I mean it in the best sense of the word. If you are emotional it suggests that you are alive, that you have a heart, and that you care."

Larry Beck, PhD.

Mid-week we traveled to Occopata, a small village in the Andes highlands. Here we constructed “Lorena Stoves” in two small dwellings. We cut straw and mixed it with mud in a pit to make adobe. Then we shoveled the adobe into each hut and built the stoves around sheet metal templates. We also worked with the local kids here by assisting them with their English skills.

Going to Occopata was like going back in time. All of the buildings were made of adobe bricks. We watched a woman weaving bright traditional tapestry on a loom. There were villagers carrying enormous loads of straw on their backs. Others were herding sheep and llamas along the dirt road. A common observation for many travelers exposed to poverty is to see that the local people have so little and yet live with integrity and joy.

The Benefits

Much of tourism limits contact with other cultures to the exchange of money for goods and services. Volunteer tourism allows for cultural immersion in ways not otherwise possible since the traveler learns about local people from working and playing with them. This more intimate interaction allows for bonding to occur. From working together we share feelings of collaboration and accomplishment. There is also a sense of camaraderie through play as we let down our defenses in joy and laughter. We saw many traditional tourism destinations (markets, museums, and a fair) during our stay and were able to do so in the company of our local friends. This, of course, resulted in a deeper interpretation of the place.

Along with the travelers, the hosts gain in many ways; most obviously the work we performed. The projects we worked on—the drainage ditch and fences—simply wouldn’t have happened otherwise. The kids got attention and were assisted in learning their lessons in ways more profound than can be conveyed. Those we interacted closest with were able to learn about our culture, contributing to their global awareness and understanding of other people. Our fees helped support the albergue and the staff who work there. Finally, the broader community benefited from our expenditures at the markets and museums we visited.

The Last Night

On the last night the children performed for us. Several recited poems. One offered a flute solo. Several small groups performed traditional dances. Then we sang an American medley we put together for the kids: “This Land is Your Land,” “Yankee Doodle,” and “Old MacDonald’s Farm.”

They gave speeches and we gave speeches. They thanked us for coming, and for caring about them so much, and for teaching them, and for helping out around their home. We told them how much we enjoyed spending time with them and getting to know them. Then there was dancing. And then hugs. More dancing. More hugs. And finally the farewells which brought many to tears.

The Upshot

Reflecting on this experience brings to mind the story of “The Star Thrower,” an essay initially written by Loren Eiseley in The Unexpected Universe, but since adapted. The story is about an old man who sees a younger man throwing starfish into the sea. The old man suggests that such efforts are futile given that the beach goes on for miles with seemingly countless starfish stranded on the sand. He concludes, “You can’t possibly make a difference.” The young man listened politely, then picked up yet another starfish and threw it into the ocean saying, “I made a difference for that one!”

We can choose to be participants, not just observers, in the universe. We can all make a difference, perhaps only a small difference, but a difference nonetheless and we, ourselves, can be transformed in the process.

One of our great dreams must be to find some place between the extremes of doing things for ourselves and doing things for others, a balance in which we can live without regret. Sometimes we have the opportunity to do both at the same time and this may be as close as we come, in this life, to paradise.

On that first cold night as we launched this unique travel experience—celebrating the winter solstice amidst thousands of people of different beliefs—I sensed there can be harmony in my own life, and in the world, where we all might live with a sense of peace, serenity, thanksgiving, and joy.

Larry Beck

Larry Beck, Ph.D., is a professor in the school of hospitality and tourism management at San Diego State University. He has written extensively in the area of cultural and environmental interpretation.

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