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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 7 Issue 4 Highlights

Tony Slater jaguar


Volunteering The HARD Way

I’ve done quite a bit of volunteering over the last six years in places as diverse as England, Thailand, Ecuador and Australia. People often tell me that they've always wanted to volunteer, and they ask me for tips on how to go about it. I’d like to say ‘DON’T get emotionally attached to the animals, or to the other volunteers’ - but I’d be wasting my breath. I never managed it myself; the hardest part of every voluntary project I’ve visited is leaving. If anyone has figured out the answer to this one, please let me know! Putting that aside, maybe the easiest way to give you tips on volunteering is to tell you about "volunteering the HARD way."


There are as many ways to volunteer as there are stars in the sky. Actually, that’s a lie. There are quite a few ways, but for every slick new company that emerges, promising to supply you with the most hassle-free volunteer holiday imaginable, there’s a handful of tiny grass-roots operations going under. Why? Because it’s so much easier to pay the big boys, with their flashy websites, to organize your volunteer experience for you.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I love those guys, I love that they’re expanding voluntourism and taking it to people who might otherwise be afraid to go – but they deal in making things easier – and that’s not really what I’m about.


There is a trickier way to volunteer – to organize it yourself, from a listing in a book like the Green Volunteers Guide or 700 Places To Volunteer Before You Die, make all the flight, bus, hostel and taxi bookings yourself, then just hitch up your rucksack and go.

But the hardest way of all?  Go and manage an exotic animal refuge, with no experience beyond owning a pet rabbit, and do it in a country where you don’t speak the language – and where ‘health and safety’ are just abstract concepts… No, I don’t recommend doing this! I did it because I’m an idiot, and because I thought it would be an adventure. As a result I nearly died on a daily basis for just over three months… and I’ve been doing it ever since!

Coatamundi - Tony Slater
I couldn’t believe my luck when they agreed to let me come and volunteer at Santa Martha animal refuge in the Avenue of Volcanoes in Ecuador, South America. I was excited and terrified in equal measure so I said yes and booked my flight to Quito before I could chicken out. As the date approached I started to realize that I wasn’t very well prepared… how little did I know! That in days I’d be chasing escaped bears through the cloud forest, fending off jaguars and crocodiles, being shot at by local robbers and electrocuted by my boss. Oh yes, Santa Martha was the kind of experience that would give Indiana Jones second thoughts. But it was the most fun, most incredible, most life-affirming experience I’ve ever had.

Since then, every time I’ve done some volunteering I’ve taken the time to research it myself. There is so much information on the internet – too much almost – and a lot of it is dominated by companies offering to tailor make your experience for you. Nothing wrong with that, especially if you don’t do much traveling normally, or are heading for somewhere a bit wild or scary. But if you look a little more carefully, past the first few search results on Google, you start to find charities that will take you on directly, deal with you personally and use your money wisely.

Paying to volunteer is usually necessary, of course. There’s a popular misconception that we in the west can nip over to developing countries, lend a hand for a couple of weeks, and they’ll be falling all over us in gratitude. In fact most of those places have all the spare manpower they could ever need – just no money to pay for it, or for vital supplies, teaching materials etc. That doesn’t mean we aren’t helping by volunteering – we are of course – but our application fee is every bit as helpful, in some cases more so, than our physical labour.

There’s a rather trite phrase which is quite widely known - ‘Give a man a fish and he will feed his family for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will feed his family for the rest of their lives.’

I think this is a misconception that goes right to the heart of the matter - our very western notion that we, as the masters of all knowledge, can descend upon these savages and teach them how to live their lives better – in other words, more like ours.

My own, slightly less poetic version of that phrase, goes like this: ‘Go fish with that man. He is probably the best fisherman you will ever meet. You will have an amazing time, maybe even learn a few techniques. Pay for the privilege, and with that money he can give his family something other than fish to eat for a few months. Tell your friends to do the same and you’ll make that man, his family, and his entire village very happy indeed!’

Tony Slater - bear in trashcan

Imagine if everyone who could afford a voluntourism holiday at some point in their lives, did it. Just once. Out of nine billion people on the planet, there has to be a healthy population of people who could - imagine if every single one of those would! Tens of billions, even hundreds of billions of dollars would pour into these economies - cash injected at grass-roots levels, given to individuals and charities that know exactly where it is needed the most. This to my eyes, is the ultimate dream of voluntourism; shifting vast amounts of the tourist trade into areas that have seldom seen it, and will benefit hugely from it. And, as an added bonus, a little piece of satisfaction - a feeling of having done something worthwhile; a moment of ‘Yeah! I did that!’ for every one of us.

This was my primary motivation when I started writing my book ‘That Bear Ate My Pants!’ I wanted to tell the world what an amazing, transformational experience they can have by volunteering. But because I’m me, I also wanted to make something ridiculously funny, that would give my readers a bit of a laugh rather than preaching to them. I also wanted to keep the book entertaining for people with no interest in actually doing any volunteering. I mean, why get bitten by a crocodile yourself, when you can read about it happening to me? And forget about picking the dead tarantulas out of a tank of fifty live ones - that's WAY more fun if someone else is doing it, and so much funnier when it all goes wrong...

So without further ado, here’s a little excerpt from the book:

This is a sample from near the beginning of ‘That Bear Ate My Pants!’, where my pint-sized boss Jimmy is showing me how to make fences that are jaguar-proof…

The Sharp End

My turn at machete work was more to my liking. True, by that point I’d already lost most of the skin on my palms, but I do love sharp things. My first attempt, with a white-knuckled death grip on the handle, resulted in score one for the tree. I deployed all my strength in one brutal swing, only to find that contact with the solid wooden trunk simply redirected most of the force back up my arm. As I staggered back clutching my shoulder the machete didn’t even have the good grace to remain lodged in the tree. It clattered to the ground, a steely ring of defiance from my adversary. “Take that!” The tree said. After a bout of extreme eye-rolling Jimmy demonstrated the proper technique again. With much exaggerated looseness and a precise swing he smoothly embedded the blade three inches deep. It looked effortless, as though he knew which parts of the tree were secretly made of painted foam. To me the problem was insurmountable – the tree was clearly harder than I was. But it was a sitting target! Could I really lose a fight with an inanimate object? Even if it was bigger than me?

Tony Slater feeding bear cub

I swung loose and was rewarded with a bite. Not quite a Jimmy, but a start – the narrow edge of the blade had chopped clear through the bark and on into virgin wood!

And it took nearly five minutes for me to get it back out.

Score two to the tree.

The blisters I’d acquired during the morning’s digging soon burst, making an icky mess of the machete’s cheap plastic handle. No matter how carefully I aimed, I just couldn’t hit the same spot twice. Sweat mingled with the dirt on my palms; each swing stung like fire, but I couldn’t show weakness. Not in front of Jimmy. Actually I think my weakness was pretty obvious, since after half an hour the tree was largely unharmed. I was bleeding, panting, dripping… and to be honest, I’d have done more damage with my teeth.

By the time I chopped down my first tree, Toby and Jimmy had cut enough posts between them for the rest of the enclosure. I consoled myself with the thought that there had to be a knack to it and it had to be learnable. Jimmy might actually have been a machete in a former life, but Toby was a Londoner. He had to have picked up his skills since he got here – I couldn’t see him hacking his way through rush hour on the tube train.
Felling a mighty giant of the forest made me feel a bit guilty. A proud living entity had been callously cut down in it’s prime, hacked to pieces by an arrogant youth with a knife fetish. But it was for the greater good, I told myself. And anyway, it served it right for being so cocky.

I reclaimed the machete and wiped my blood off the handle as the others eyed my handiwork. Jimmy’s critique was a simple, two stage process; first he pointed at the log he had just finished with. It’s end was a neat point, as was the corresponding end still rooted to the ground. Slivers of wood were scattered in a rough circle around the scene. Then he gestured towards the fruits of my labour. My tree had been severed by sheer violence. The length that lay on the ground was badly wounded by cuts ranging up all sides. The rooted portion showed evidence of the same treatment. It looked like Edward Scissorhands had had an epileptic fit in front of it. Everywhere lay chunks, shards, splinters, of wood. I was ankle deep in the stuff. Between the bit that was cut and the bit that was left, there had once existed a clear foot of tree trunk that I had reduced entirely to sawdust.

By the end of the day our new enclosure was finished. We’d hauled logs, raised logs, and jumped around the bases of them like wasted druids. Finally Jimmy had shown us to an area opposite the garage where several huge rolls of wire mesh lay slowly disintegrating. With much cursing in a mixture of languages we’d dragged the mesh over to the new enclosure, unrolled it, and nailed it firmly around the posts. It was, of course, a lot more work than that, but describing it is not even as much fun as doing it was.  Suffice to say the cage was built. Apart from the door; that would be tomorrow’s job.

The day had been one hell of a learning curve. In addition to turning half a tree into kindling I’d begun to understand the true meaning of the word ‘manpower’. I’d learnt that Jimmy, though tiny, was clearly made of the same stuff they built the Terminator out of. And that when people back home talked about making something with blood, sweat and tears they really had no idea. None.

I wasn’t going to let it defeat me though. Today had been a triumph! I had taken all the punishment thrown my way and asked for more. I’d dug, chopped and nailed harder than I’d thought possible. Work here was obviously going to be painful, but I could handle that. I was going to prove it. I would become a MAN!
The upwelling of pride carried me all the way back to the volunteer house and lasted right up to the moment I put my hands into a bowl of hot, soapy water.


‘That Bear Ate My Pants!’ is available as an eBook from:
Amazon.com, priced at $2.99 (US)
Amazon.co.uk priced at £2.99 (UK)

The first three chapters can be downloaded FREE from either site!

About Tony Slater

Tony James Slater
Tony James Slater, Author, That Bear Ate My Pants

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