So You May Know
VolunTourism: A Starting Point
It is difficult to discern the truth as to who can use the assistance more: travelers or the residents of the communities to which we travel. The good news is that both parties can benefit from VolunTourism. Uppermost in our minds as VolunTourists and practitioners of VolunTourism must be honoring the fact that service is reciprocal. This will be so, if, and only if, our attitude is in alignment with the notion that we, too, are in need.
About thirteen years ago, I attended a symposium at which the keynote speaker was Marianne Williamson. She walked out to the podium and stood before the group. Through my personal filters, this is what I heard her say in her opening remarks: “All that I have, all that I have accomplished, I owe it all to one thing: meditation.”
I thumbed through the brochure and noted that this was a woman who had written critically acclaimed books, was well-recognized for her speaking ability, had been featured in numerous magazines and interviews, and simply emanated success, sincerity, and common decency.
“And she just said that all of these things came through meditation… count me in.”
Since then, I have made the effort to meditate every day. What can I tell you that I have realized during that period? What kernel of wisdom can I pass along?
There is only one point on the meditation continuum and that is the “starting” point. This is the point at which you make the determination that meditation is something that you plan to in-corporate into your life practice. There is no other point beyond it - as far as I have determined.
And so it is that we come to VolunTourism - a “starting” point, for some, on the journey of discovering that which is within and beyond oneself.
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I have read much in the last several months about the heated debate ongoing in the UK around VolunTourism. The terms “Neo-Colonialism” and “spurious” have been used in some circles to describe the nature of these trips. I think it is wonderful that a topic can kindle passionate discussion. However, I would simply ask those of the development community and those who hold such words as sustainable and developed in great reverence this question: “Do you believe that there is an actual ‘end’ point – a point at which time you will be able to say that something is fully sustainable or fully developed?” Einstein would laugh out loud; and for good reason.
We speak as though development and sustainability are achievable; there exists a point at which we will have “arrived.” How can we be so presumptuous? Why are we so busy holding onto the notion that there is a “finish line” in relation to these ideals?
VolunTourism is an effort to unify two of the biggest industries within their respective sectors – the for-profit and non-profit arenas.
According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) web site, economic activity as it relates to tourism will top $7 trillion USD in 2007. In the United States alone, voluntary service contributed the equivalent of nearly $60 billion from September 2005 to September 2006. [This number was calculated by combining 2006 estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (61.2 million volunteers and a median of 52 annual volunteer hours per person) and Independent Sector's figure ($18.77 USD/hour valuation for voluntary service).]
This is a starting point. Instead of utilizing our resources to determine how this ‘grand unification’ will not work, why don’t we spend our energy and brain power in discovering how it can work? I would argue that voluntary service needs travel & tourism; likewise, travel & tourism need voluntary service. It is a symbiotic relationship.
The light of our developing consciousness and the principles to which we are collectively beginning to adhere cannot continue to endure in the darkness of our “scraping-for-survival” mentality that has mushroomed into gluttony and self-aggrandizement. What was originally intended as a prod to acquire adequate food, clothing, and shelter has, for some, become an unnatural accumulation of well-beyond-that-which-we-need. How can we introduce a reality check?
I believe that VolunTourism is a starting point in what will be an ever-evolving, never-ending process. We have been programmed to gather, forage and stockpile for our very survival. But, you will not see the squirrel trying to bury an oak tree in a hole to make sure he/she has an adequate acorn supply for the winter. On many levels we have lost touch with the natural balance of things in the “developed” world. Everyday-wisdom and intuitive understanding that is commonplace in the “developing” world has been razed in the race for the accumulation of things. VolunTourism is a chance to reconnect with this “village” wisdom and to grant a much larger audience the opportunity to do so without the obstacle of time commitment standing in the way.
Part of the duty of VolunTourism, therefore, is to open the door for those who do not have six months, one year, or two years to lay aside for long-term voluntary service to still experience a “taste” of what this can mean. Does it make the service any less legitimate? Absolutely not! Does it require organizations that offer these experiences to be open to reformulating their approach to “development” work? Absolutely! And it can start by educating communities in which development organizations operate on the value of their unique contribution to the enlightenment of Volun-Tourists. If you give residents a chance to understand the reciprocity of service that they can offer while a visitor works to help them build a school for their children to learn to read and write, you have communicated well. And the results will be staggering.
It is the cap of Croesus that sits infinitely more comfortably on the head of a villager who intuitively understands his/her unity with nature and all living creatures but does not always have sufficient food, shelter, and/or clothing. It is a relatively simple process to address such needs.
It is a far more difficult task to uproot the habitual thoughts of differentiation and distinction that have been fostered in the “developed” world. Yet Volun-Tourism can be an excellent starting point for this most difficult task. And we most assuredly need a starting point.
Travel expands the mind; voluntary service expands the heart. The combination can make us more re-ceptive to the “natural” wisdom that we have lost in our manufactured world. With even a short-term experience of such expansion, and by including proper guidance and “technical support,” VolunTourists have the opportunity to take a real first step in changing their perspective, in reacquiring the knowledge they have lost. If communities un-derstand their role in this process and the potential benefits that may accrue, for their guests and themselves, as a result of this reciprocity, they will likely embrace the opportunity far more quickly than we could ever imagine.
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