Voluntourism – Helpful Aid Or Just A Warm Fuzzie?

(Source: Google images)

There has been something of an explosion in the travel industry of a new form of travel dubbed “voluntourism”. Part community service, part holiday, participants agree to help out as volunteers as part of their holiday package. The range of opportunities on offer and the number of companies getting in on the action has expanded dramatically over the last ten years.

But is it a good thing?

Most of us would react positively to the idea of helping our fellow members of the human race in some capacity and if we can combine it with a holiday, all the better. And the community we work in benefits from our efforts. It’s a win-win, right?

Except that not all volunteering is created equal. Some offerings are more about providing that “warm fuzzie” moment for the traveller than of providing any lasting benefit to the recipient. Spending a week playing with orphans in Africa may make you feel good but what does it do to the children if you bond with them and then disappear forever?

“But surely they would be grateful for whatever we offered?” Someone actually said that to me once when I was voicing my concerns about some voluntourism organisations.

If my local childcare centre announced they were getting in a bunch of twenty-somethings from overseas to play with the children and that a different group would turn up each week, there would be an outcry. “Who are these people?” we would ask. “What checks have there been to guarantee my child’s safety?” we would demand. “It can’t be good for the children to have such a high turnover of carers,” we would mutter.

So if it’s not good enough for us, why must it be good enough for the poor?

It is also an industry open to exploitation. Cambodia, for example, has seen a massive increase in the number of orphanages being established in the last ten years despite there being no real reason for an increase in orphaned children. Foreigners seeking volunteer opportunities in Cambodia – and willing to pay large sums for the privilege – are actually fuelling the establishment of ‘orphanages’ that are often filled with children who are not orphans. There are no checks and balances and the money often doesn’t go to the care of the children. (Reference)

I am not against voluntourism. In fact, I am a participant myself. In 2009, I travelled to Peru as part of a World Expeditions Community Project. You can read about the experience here.

The bridge we built. (It’s concrete. That’s just the wooden frame.)

I did my research. I read extensively about the pros and cons, what to look for in an organisation, what to avoid and I must have read the prospectus of almost every company offering volunteer opportunities at the time. I was clear on what an organisation should be offering and what was most likely to be beneficial.

Interested in voluntourism? Here’s what to look for:

◊ Is the company offering the project a reputable, well-established company? Check out what they are about, what their beliefs are and how they rank on ethical tourism standards.

◊ Has the project been established in consultation with the local community? In other words, will you be working on something that the community actually needs and wants?

◊ Is the project of lasting benefit? Playing with orphans may make you feel good but what lasting benefit does it provide to the children? Better projects involve building or renovating something the community needs such as a school or community building, sanitation, etc.

◊ Is the project sustainable? In my research, I came across the story of an organisation that built a school for a village. When they visited the following year, the building was being used to house animals. There was no point in building a school for a community that didn’t have the money for furniture, books or the wages of a teacher. So choose a project that does not have ongoing costs and can stand alone once finished. Otherwise, check that the organisation is continuing to support the community to provide what is needed to sustain the project.

◊ Does the project employ local people? The last thing you want to do is take jobs away from other people. Check that the project has employed a local foreman and/or employs local trades people. It’s okay to be the grunt or muscle to get a job done.

◊ Where is your money going? Make sure you are clear on what you are paying for and where the money is allocated.

I would recommend a volunteering trip to anyone, if chosen carefully. It had an enormous impact on my life and is an experience I will never forget. Just make sure you are providing helpful aid to the community and not just a warm fuzzie to yourself.

In October, I will be participating in another World Expeditions Community Project. As part of their Rebuild Nepal program, I will spend ten days in the village of Lura with a team of volunteers and local people working to rebuild the local school that was damaged in the earthquake last April. More information here.




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When MOSY Met Harry And Sally

Sally Albright: Well, I guess we’re not going to be friends then.

Harry Burns: I guess not.

Sally Albright: That’s too bad. You were the only person I knew in New York.

One of my all-time favourite movies is When Harry Met Sally starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. At the height my passion, I could quote whole tracts of dialogue and to this day I can’t see pecan pie on a menu without descending into a silly voice – “But I would be proud to partake of your pecan pie. Peeecaan piiiieeeee.”

(Interestingly, in doing some research for this post, I discovered that the silly voice scene was improvised by Billy Crystal and he dragged Meg Ryan along (you can see her look over at director Rob Reiner in confusion at one point).)

So on a recent jaunt to New York City, how could I not be excited to find myself in places where Harry and Sally once stood?

It’s not that I went on a When Harry Met Sally scene hunt. (Although, I have been known to do that. Harry Potter in Oxford, Doctor Who in Cardiff, James Bond in Monte Carlo…) Most times we just stumbled across it or were there for other reasons and the movie connection was just a bonus.

Of course, no visit to New York is complete without a visit to Katz’s Delicatessen.



I told myself I was there for the pastrami but really, why go to New York and not visit the site of that infamous orgasm scene?

Eating at a diner one night, I ordered apple pie for dessert (of course).

Pie Ala Mode

When the waiter confirmed, “Pie a la mode?” it took all my willpower not to launch into a complicated pie request for heated/not heated, vanilla/strawberry icecream, real/canned cream.

We had very limited time on our visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (I know, I know, we managed our timing badly. So sue me) so we picked out the ‘must see’ items in our guidebook. One of these was the Temple of Dendur.

Temple of Dendur 1


Temple of Dendur 2

It was only when we walked into the space that I realised it was where my favourite pecan pie scene was filmed. I also love Harry’s view on hieroglyphics.

I only purposely hunted down one site from the movie. I had assumed the archway where Sally drops off Harry in New York was at Central Park.

Running around the park twice a few days after we arrived, I could not see it anywhere. But on a visit to the top of the Empire State Building, there on the mounted guides of what we were looking at was the arch. It’s at Washington Square Park. So off we trekked and found it.

Washington Square 1

Washington Square 2

We found it full of people with pillows. We’d stumbled across International Pillow Fight Day. Well, that was just a bonus, really.

Pillow Fight

While I didn’t find the arch in Central Park, we did pass the Loeb Boathouse restaurant and Bethesda Terrace on our rambling travels one day which also feature in the film.


I’m sure, had I thought to watch the movie before we left, I could have gone to more locations both intentionally and accidentally but in the end, I loved the spontaneous and serendipitous nature of it.

Hm. Speaking of Serendipity, this place was familiar.

Ice Rink

Oh, that’s right…




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9 Things I Learned In New York City

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” ~ Mark Twain

They say that travel broadens the mind but I think you have to open that mind up first. No amount of travel is going to change your perspective if you arrive expecting (or even demanding) it to conform to familiar territory.

New York City was not my pick. It wasn’t even anywhere on my bucket list after a bad experience in my youth. (It was a much scarier place back then.) I agreed to it because it was what the Husband wanted and these are the kinds of things you do in a marriage.

NY Manhattan

I didn’t want it but I left my mind open to the possibility I might enjoy it.

And I did. And I learned things.

1. New Yorkers like to live on the edge. Either that or they’re all born with a death wish.

NY Crossing

And no, I am not talking about the lax gun laws. They don’t wear seat belts or bicycle helmets and pedestrian crossing lights are merely decorative. Coming from a country that introduced mandatory seatbelt laws in the 1970s, compulsory bike helmet laws in the 1980s and strict gun control laws in the 1990s, this laissez-faire attitude to their safety was concerning.

2. If you want to drive in New York City, your vehicle must be either a yellow cab or a black Suburban.

NY Traffic

I don’t know why anyone would want to drive in New York City but those who do (and who are not taxi drivers) almost all seem to drive large black vehicles. Grey or silver is also acceptable and white is tolerated (but could be mistaken for a delivery vehicle). Driving a colourful car (say, red) is stepping way outside the line.

3. The best way to see New York City is on foot.

Yeah, sure, the subway is a useful way to get from one end to another. And I get that you may need to be somewhere in a hurry and jumping in a cab works for you. But if you’re there as a traveller (as opposed to a mere tourist), the only way to really experience New York City is to take Shanks’ pony. It’s the only way to notice the differing architecture, to recognise the iconic places, to stumble across the quirky and bizarre.

4. A bagel goes a long way.

NY Bagel

Baguettes in France, Würst Im Brot in Germany, wherever we travel we find the one thing that is cheap and filling to eat and pretty much live off it. In New York, that was the bagel. I’m going to miss that bagel shop.

5. New Yorkers don’t really understand customer service.

I don’t know if it’s the prevailing tipping culture (more on that here) but New Yorkers just don’t seem to ‘get’ the concept of customer service for the customer’s sake. If they think they’re likely to score a large tip, then yes, they will turn on the charm, pay attention, make sure you have everything you want. But I lost count of the number of cashiers and ticket sellers who conducted a conversation with their workmate whilst serving me. I found it horrifying and, frankly, insulting. Dear Customer Service Representative: You are being paid (lowly, I admit) to serve me. Not to glance at me, tell me how much and then proceed to ignore me and talk to someone else while I pay my money and take my goods. Just saying.

6. They don’t drink wine in New York City.

Well, yes, that’s a sweeping statement and obviously untrue but it was certainly more difficult to find a shop selling wine than it was to find one selling beer. Fortunately, we tracked one down eventually and tried a bottle of the local drop as is our wont.

NY Wine

7. New York City is really just one big television/movie set so things may not always be as they seem.

NY Movie Set

Like the crashed FBI van outside the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue.

8. Good coffee in New York City is hard to find.

NY Starbucks

I don’t care if there is a Starbucks on every corner. I said good coffee. Thankfully, several Australians – actually, more importantly, Melburnians* – have opened Aussie-style – actually, more importantly, Melbourne-style – cafés in New York City.


Why is it important that they are Melbourne-style? Because Melbourne is the coffee capital of Australia. The waves of Italian migrants arriving after World War 2 brought us out of the dark shame of International Roast consumption and into the glorious light of true espresso. Two weeks without proper coffee is too much to ask of anyone. It cost me nearly double what it would at home but that first true cappuccino was oh so worth it.

Coffee and Avocado Smash - An Aussie Café Tradition

Coffee and Avocado Smash – An Aussie Café Tradition

*No, this is not missing an ‘o’. Yes, that is how you spell it.

9. Spring in New York City is colder than the depths of winter at home.

NY Snow

And let me point out that I live in a part of Australia that has a winter. We wear coats and gloves and scarves and complain about the bitter cold (when it gets below 10°C). I’m not sure what I was expecting. I knew it wouldn’t be warm. But I don’t think I expected snow falling out of the sky (even if it didn’t stay on the ground). When the temperature climbed to 15°C one day, we were practically in t-shirts. (Not really, but we did see others in t-shirts and shorts!) I had to keep reminding myself that this sort of weather was the average for the middle of winter back home.


There’s good and bad in that list. But there’s good and bad wherever you go. In the end, I came, I saw and I changed my mind about New York City.


“Give me such shows – give me the streets of Manhattan!” ~ Walt Whitman



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Not Touristing In The City Again

Do people who live in countries that drive on the left side of the road automatically walk on the left? And does the reverse apply for those who live in countries that drive on the wrong right side of the road? And is that why people kept walking into me on my city walk today?

I was back in the Big Smoke to do the hospital run for a friend and while I waited I took myself off to a different part of the city.

Warning: This is another ‘I am not a tourist’ excursion so there will be no photos. Well, maybe one. If you’re lucky.

I didn’t walk any great distance today because I was wearing my holy socks. No, they do not help me walk on water! What are you talking about? Oh.

Take 2: I didn’t walk any great distance today because I was wearing my holey socks.

Kids, spelling is important.


Lygon Street – known as Little Italy – is the mecca for Italian food and good coffee. Well, one of the meccas. There’s one thing to be said about this city – you can always get a good coffee pretty much wherever you go.

It was too early for the restaurant spruikers to be out so I had a peaceful walk down the street.

One of the last truly independent bookshops is on this street. Overheard inside:

Father to Young Son: You don’t need a bookmark. Just bend the page over. That’s what everyone else does.

Some people have no business having books. Or children.

I went to Brunetti’s café for coffee and cake. It’s almost illegal not to go to Brunetti’s if you’re in Lygon Street. Unless you’re a student at the nearby university. Then it’s a) boring to go all the time and b) you can’t afford it anyway.

Brunetti's - Cake Mecca

Brunetti’s – Cake Mecca

From Lygon Street I headed into the city proper. This is where I encountered the walking directional problem. Maybe we need arrows on the footpath to show tourists where to walk.

For a little while, I followed a small group of four women and one man. The women were carrying music stands but only the man carried what looked like an instrument case (but I can’t say what the instrument was).

“Singers,” I thought.

“Or harmonica players,” said Musician Me.


“They could have them in their handbags. Or piccolos. Tin whistles.”

Sometimes I worry about Musician Me.

“They could be a Kazoo Orchestra,” said Always-Takes-Things-Too-Far Me.

Actually, when you think about it, there are all sorts of instruments you could hide about your person or in a small bag.

Ooh! There could be a Hidden Orchestra! No, listen, stay with me. Picture this:

One of the world’s great concert halls. On the stage are the seats and music stands of a great orchestra. As the lights go down, musicians in all their penguin-suited finery walk in and sit down. The audience is confused. Where are the instruments?? The conductor walks on to hesitant applause. She steps up to the podium, raises her hands and, as one, the musicians reveal from about their persons, small instruments – harmonicas, mouth harps, maracas, etc – and start to play.

Cool, huh?

I’m claiming copyright so no stealing the idea.

It was another warm Spring day but there was no lying in the sunshine today. I got my first quota of sunburn for the season last week so I was avoiding the UV. But a walk is always an endless source of writer’s fodder, eh?

And one last observation for the day:

It is very hard to watch a friend struggle against enormous odds and know there is nothing you can do to make it all right.



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Kind Hearts Are The Gardens – A Journey Across The USA

Kind hearts are the gardens, Kind thoughts are the roots,
Kind words are the flowers, Kind deeds are the fruits,
Take care of your garden, And keep out the weeds,
Fill it with sunshine, Kind words and kind deeds.
– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In the early 1990s I made a 7-week trip across the USA from New York to Los Angeles by Greyhound bus (seriously). I was alone, in my early 20s and I don’t know what I was thinking.

The trip was the tail end of a traditional young Australian rite of passage to travel to the other side of the globe for a year or so. Having already spent nine months in Europe, I was on my way home via the States.

I was ready to go home, I was heading in the right direction and it could have been the miserable journey of a long drawn out homecoming.

Ah, but for the kind hearts I met along the way…

Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.
– Henry James

Some were pre-prepared. A year living in Kentucky before I was old enough to hold memories and subsequent study by my father for his PhD at the University of Cincinnati (not to mention the conference contacts to which this lofty attainment would lead), gave me ready-made homes away from home across the country, strangers as they were to me.

I arrived, terrified and drowning in the horror stories, at JFK Airport in New York at 9.30pm in the middle of December. Adamant that I would put my safety first and stay in the nearest airport hotel until morning, the purse strings didn’t agree and I found myself inexplicably on a bus on my way to Port Authority Bus Terminal. Next plan – find the closest hotel to the bus station I could afford. Mad scrambling through the guidebook (this being prior to the days of Tripadvisor and its ilk). Alighting the bus, I made a beeline for the hotel, late at night, in the dark and politely ignoring the gentleman who offered to carry my bag.

The next morning, I picked up a payphone and called my first angel of mercy, living in New Jersey. In the daylight, I was brave enough to cover enough of the essentials to be able to say “I’ve been to New York” and then I hotfooted it out of that den of iniquity to the relative safety of the NJ ‘burbs.

They picked me up, took me home, fed me, gave me a bed, introduced me to their friends and kept me safe.


The first kind fruits of my garden.

But there were more to be harvested.

Christmas in Cleveland, Ohio – unexpected gifts and dinners as one of the family.


New Year in Lexington, Kentucky – a connection to my babyhood and the patient tour of the places of my history but not my memories.


A stop in Gainsville, Florida – after a lengthy ride from Philly and the one face I actually remembered when collected at the bus station. And another in Tuscaloosa, Alabama – an extended family welcome and unexpected snow.


The contacts my parents had so assiduously maintained over the years brought kindness and love into a tired, travelling, homesick life.

And my garden of kindness grew.

You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Some angels I had collected in my travels, like souvenirs, but souvenirs that were useful and didn’t gather dust.

A place to rest in Philadelphia after a 30 hour bus ride from Kentucky. I was a total stranger but their friends – the London family for whom I had worked as an au pair – had spoken highly of this strange, young Australian and they welcomed me into their home and family.


A mid-country stop in Houston, Texas – the result of a chance encounter on a bus en route to the Taizé Community in France. At the time, they moved on quickly to their next destination while I stayed on for a fortnight but at their urging, we re-acquainted at their home, thousands of kilometres from where we first met.  As I was moving ever closer to the flight to take me home, their substitute parental love and care was both soothing and heartbreaking as I longed for my own family.

Shall we make a new rule of life from tonight: always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?
J. M. Barrie, The Little White Bird

And some – perhaps the best? – were random.

The woman who struck up a conversation on Boston Common and invited me home for lunch.

The actor on his way to Hollywood who kept me company on the long bus ride from San Antonio to Los Angeles.

The mother of the girlfriend of the grandson of the couple who took me in at Tuscaloosa, Alabama (did you get that?!) who gave me a place to live and a bicycle to travel by at UCLA in Los Angeles and saved me from my mortal fear of living in a big city that still lingered from the starting point of this American journey. And she took me to Disneyland.



These were the kind hearts who were the gardens of my USA travels. Some known to me, some not. Some are still known but many have been lost in the passageways of time, a result of the communication slackness of young adulthood. Some have left us, now true angels no longer earthbound.

All of them the roots, the flowers and the fruits of my garden of kindness.

Give us days to be filled with small rebellions – senseless, brutal acts of kindness from us all.
– Jars of Clay, Small Rebellions


A response to the Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge – Honey versus Vinegar which made me think of all the acts of kindness I’ve experienced on my travels. These are just some of them.



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Getting a Grip 2: A Dose of Perspective in the Third World

In 2009 I participated in a Community Project trip to Peru with World Expeditions. It was one long experience of perspective.

Part holiday, part volunteer project, we trekked through the Andes for four days to the village of Tastayoq. There we spent four days building a new bridge across the river so the children could cross safely to get to school. Here’s what the original bridge looked like:

The original bridge

The original bridge

Being there in the dry season, the river was little more than a creek but when the water comes, it can be a raging torrent. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want my children crossing a fast-flowing river on this bridge.

At almost 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) above sea-level, we lugged rocks, mixed cement by hand, pushed wheelbarrows full of gravel and toiled away beside our Peruvian hosts to build this (The timber is just to hold the frame for the cement slab. It was removed after we left.):

The new bridge

When completed, we held an official opening and blessing of the new bridge and celebrated with the villagers. We had brought supplies for the school and some of these were handed out to the children as gifts.

Excitement as gifts are handed out.

This was my strongest lesson in perspective. The children were so excited to receive a pad of paper and a few pencils. When you live in a stone hut with a dirt floor and no running water, when your toys are the sticks and stones outside your door, some shiny new paper and sharp pencils all of your own must seem like a treasure bounty.

When I returned home, so many people greeted me with “Welcome back to the real world.” If only they knew. I had actually left the real world and come home to Fantasy Land.

For weeks after I returned, I couldn’t even sit with other parents waiting to pick up their children at school. The complaints of “Susie’s gymnastics teacher just doesn’t understand her” or “Johnny isn’t getting enough time on the basketball court” left me with an overwhelming urge to grab the parent by the shoulders and yell, “Get a grip!!”.

I shamefully admit that I did acclimatise back into Fantasy Land eventually and even now I find myself complaining of similar trivial issues. However, I am regularly reminded of my experiences in Tastayoq. On our trek to the village, we had pretty extreme weather. One day it rained so much I got wet right through my coat and three layers of clothing. Now, every time it rains, I remember that experience. It brings first a feeling of exhilaration (I loved our time trekking even when it snowed) then a reminder of the Tastayoq children. And I get a grip on my problems and remember how lucky I am.



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Thursday’s Child

Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
But the child who is born on the Sabbath Day
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay.

I was born on a Thursday. It fits. Born with itchy feet, I have spent my life pursuing whatever lies around the next corner, over the next hill, in the next country (or as far away as I can get). It’s perhaps the reason I am a Jack of All Trades; once I’ve tried one thing, I want to try something new, rarely sticking around to become an expert at anything.

So strong was my inbuilt need to explore the planet, I arrived two years earlier than expected by my parents. They were due to take my three older siblings to live overseas for a year while my father was on sabbatical and they planned to have more children after they returned home. Obviously, I got wind of the plan (wherever I was) and decided there was no way they were going without me. My first passport photo was taken in the hospital after my birth – you can see the identity bracelet on my wrist. Even though I remember none of it, I love the fact that this is a part of my history. I’m not so sure my parents were as thrilled, suddenly finding themselves travelling with a 3 month old baby in addition to three children under 10.

I learnt to walk as soon as possible. I was so small, I could walk under the coffee table. And I became a notorious wanderer. Taking me shopping inevitably led to an announcement over the store PA: “We have a small girl at the front desk. She is about two years old and wearing a green jumper, brown corduroy pants and red lace up shoes. If her mother is in the store, could she please come and collect her.”

When I was three years old, I rode my tricycle from our home to a neighbouring suburb nearly four miles (about 6 km) away, crossing several major arterial roads en route. A friend of the family found me. Unbeknownst to me, my parents had the entire neighbourhood out looking for me. I wasn’t worried. I was out on an adventure!

Thursday's Child

I ran away when I was six. It had grown dark by the time I reached the house of my friend who had agreed to run away with me. I was still standing outside her house, waiting… and waiting… when my parents pulled up in our car to take me home. My friend never came out. I’ve never really forgiven her for that. I could have made my getaway if I hadn’t had to wait.

Lucky enough to be taken overseas again when I was twelve, I spent the next eleven years saving my money to go back. And sure enough, at 23, I made the traditional young backpacker’s pilgrimage to grotty hostels, dodgy trains and fleeting friendships.

I’ve been fortunate in my adult life to be able to travel regularly. I’ve seen some amazing parts of the world and experienced the wonder of our diverse cultures but a common understanding of life.

Now, you may be reading this thinking, “Well, I was born on a Wednesday and I’ve always been complimented on my sunny and optimistic disposition.” Of course. After all, it’s a poem not a proven prophesy. Like the broken clock, with so many people on the planet, it has to get it right some time.

Amusingly, I tend to fit the prescribed traits of both my star sign and the numerology for my name.

Whether you are a devout believer, dismissive atheist or bemused agnostic when it comes to allocated character traits, sometimes it can be useful to know what yours are. It doesn’t have to dictate your path in life, but it could help frame your personal narrative, give context to self-understanding or perhaps just contribute a humorous facet to a story from your past as it has for me.

I’m always looking for the next adventure. It doesn’t have to be overseas travel. It may be local travel or it may not even be travel at all. I continue to try new things, take up new hobbies, explore new places, always wanting to see what else is out there. As a Thursday’s Child, I still have far to go.



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