By: Ken Budd
Okay, it’s a ludicrous idea. And yet the notion that a voluntourism trip could create global harmony is sooo ludicrous that it might have merit. I’ve taken six of these trips, from New Orleans to China to Ecuador, so I don’t want to overstate the value of short-term service. To think that an unskilled dork like me could embark on a 14-day do-gooder trek, perform the type of low-tech labor one normally associates with prison road crews, and somehow trigger a We-Are-the-World wave of love and understanding is more than just naïve. It’s annoying.
But in its own microscopic way, voluntourism really could help mankind achieve that elusive goal of—quick, grab the Pepto—world peace. Because everywhere I volunteered, interactions occurred that would never happen otherwise. Between volunteers from different nations. Between volunteers and locals. And when you work with strangers—when you eat together, drink together, laugh, sweat, sing, debate—they’re no longer strangers. They’re real people, not newscast stereotypes. And misconceptions slowly die.
I saw this on a volunteer gig in the West Bank. The work was simple but necessary: sprucing up the scruffy grounds of a women’s center, clearing stubborn brush on an olive farm for a farmer fighting to save his land. Yet the local Palestinians seemed as grateful for our presence as the work. Tourists aren’t exactly pouring through checkpoints to visit places like Hebron.
So when volunteers from nearly 15 countries cleaned littered Manger Street in Bethlehem shortly before Christmas, smiling taxi drivers honked horns in approval. A restaurant owner brought trays of Arab coffee. Another invited us for a complimentary feast.
“I see you working today,” he told us. “It makes me feel very happy.”
The reaction wasn’t because we were wonderful people (trust me—we weren’t) or that we performed highly specialized technical work (we picked up trash). They appreciated the gesture, and the spirit of the gesture. And I would feel the same way if a group of Palestinian volunteers cleaned a park near my office in D.C. Small gestures can have meaning, and lasting impact, and they can change our perceptions of others.
One night a few of us visited a family at their apartment in the Beit Jibrin refugee camp, a gritty community just minutes from the Church of the Nativity. The family was Muslim, yet a tiny Christmas tree glittered on a table. We talked until midnight about politics, history, religion, and race, the topics flowing like our host’s mint tea. The mother served orange slices. The father smoked and, yes, expressed disdain for President Obama. But he also spoke fondly of his childhood with Jewish neighbors. The families looked out for each other, he said, and spoke each other’s languages, and the parents watched each other’s kids. I heard nostalgic variations of this throughout my time in the West Bank—
Our families helped their families, and their families helped our families.
It’s not the rhetoric we usually hear in the U.S. As we left that night, I felt a too-rare cultural exchange had occurred: they learned about us, and we learned about them.
This happened everywhere I volunteered. In China, I worked for two weeks with a friend at a special needs school in Xi’an. I was primarily paired with a student who had developmental disabilities, but I always thought our greatest contribution was just being there. The teachers work incredibly difficult jobs, and we were an English-speaking novelty—a break in their tiring routines. They would write me notes in garbled English, and I would struggle to speak mangled Chinese, and our friendship grew, despite our frequent Abbott and Chinese Costello conversations.
One day a teacher wrote me a note, asking about my family. “Your wife beautiful?” she asked.
“Oh yes,” I said. And then, because I’m a báichî, which is roughly the Chinese word for dunderhead, I added: “But really—what answer could I possibly give?”
This innocent-yet-misguided aside led to roughly 15 minutes of my explaining that the only way to answer the question “Your wife beautiful?” is with a “yes,” because to say “no” would make me an insensitive creep.
“Your wife not beautiful?” the teacher said.
“No, no—wife beautiful. But can’t say no. Must say yes.”
“Why wife not beautiful?”
“Wife is beautiful. I make joke. Be funny. You know: ha ha.”
This led to a discussion about the word “funny,” and what funny means, and what funny is, and how one defines funny, and when I again explained that saying “no” to the “your wife beautiful” question would get me in trouble, the teacher said, “Your wife troubled?” But the women at the school seemed to enjoy these exchanges as much as I did, and to experience something outside their daily norm.
“We seem to laugh more when volunteers are here,” a teacher said after we left.
These encounters have ripple effects, because the communication often continues. I maintain a dialogue with friends I made at each stop of my journey, from China to Kenya to the West Bank. And we all benefit from these connections—from humanizing the unfamiliar. A Palestinian college student I met in Bethlehem spent this past summer in Montana on a work exchange program. We’ve stayed in touch via Facebook, and met for lunch in Virginia before he returned home. A Montana man called him a terrorist, he told me. Another asked if Palestinians have electricity and TVs.
“He thinks we’re in the Stone Age,” he said.
But my friend also rode a bus from Helena to D.C., and he saw the American heartland, and he talked with average citizens and army vets who’d served in Iraq. Small exchanges like these can obliterate biases—and it extends far beyond Montana or the Middle East. I befriended many Brits in my volunteer travels, and a few confessed that before meeting Americans, they thought many of us were, well… yokels. When my wife and I volunteered at an elementary school in Costa Rica, I learned that many Costa Ricans think Americans are lazy. Their views are shaped by television; by sitcom slackers killing time in coffee shops and bars. Hillary Clinton commented on this in 2011: an Afghan general thought all American women wore bikinis because he watched Baywatch.
Voluntourism can change this, which is not to say it’s perfect. Critics charge that globetrotting do-gooders are engaged in a form of feel-good neocolonialism. That noble intentions can have negative consequences. The criticisms are legit, if not always true. But really, this isn’t about volunteering. It’s about ripping yourself from the tourist cocoon; from the bubbles that surround us in our neighborhoods, offices, churches, and lives. It’s about making new connections, because even the briefest encounters can change perceptions—and diminish hatred.
Yes, it’s a ludicrous idea. But the line between what’s preposterous and what’s possible can be as thin as a well-worn passport.
About The Voluntourist
Ken’s book, The Voluntourist: A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem (www.thevoluntouristbook.com), recently won a silver award in the Nautilus Book Awards, for books that “inspire and connect our lives as individuals, communities and global citizens.” Previous Nautilus winners include the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. You can connect on Twitter at @VoluntouristKen and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AuthorKenBudd.