Friday 26 December 2014

Voluntourism: I spent my holiday counting rhino turds – and I loved it

Forget sunbathing – more and more of us are becoming ‘voluntourists’, writes AilinQuinlan.

Would you spend your annual holiday counting rhino turds — or slaving for hours beneath the sweltering African sun building an outdoor bathroom?

For a growing number of people, not only is this their idea of the perfect break — but they’ll pay to do it, whether it’s dishing up lunch in a Guatemalan soup kitchen, caring for children with HIV in South Africa, working on an orang-utan sanctuary in Borneo, or helping single mothers from the hill-tribes of Thailand.

People of all ages and from all walks of life are abandoning the traditional sun holiday to sign up. In the past five or six years, interest in voluntourism has spiralled with the organisations involved reporting increases of up to 25% in the number of people who want to spend their down-time having fun abroad while doing good works.

“The expression we hear most from our volunteers is ‘it changed my life!’ That’s followed by ‘I’m definitely going back’ and ‘this is the best thing I’ve ever done’,” says Jennifer Perkes, founder and managing director of the UK-based Trav- ellers Worldwide which sends around 1,000 people a year on voluntourism projects in more than 20 countries.

Dublin engineer Con O’Donovan agrees — he spent two weeks on a wildlife reserve in Kenya last October working on a major research project on the black rhino.

His duties, which involved a variety of tasks, including counting rhino dung, searching for a vanishing species of antelope and measuring acacia trees, brought him into the wild on a daily basis:

“It was a fantastic experience — we were walking in the African wild and around the corner you’d see oryx or buffalo staring at you.

“For any kid who ever watched safari programmes on TV, this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I was one of those kids so for me this was hugely memorable. It will always stay with me,” says the 37-year-old, one of about 1,600 Earthwatch volunteers sent to projects around the world every year.

“I saw conservation on the ground and understand a lot more about how it works. I now evangelise to my friends about the value of this work instead of going on a traditional fortnight’s sun holiday. It has a huge impact on you.”

Deirdre Kelly returned home a different person after spending January and February 2010 working in northern Thailand at a centre for single mothers in crisis outside the city of Chang Mai.

The refuge sheltered a variety of women, including girls as young as 13 or 14 who had been cast out by their hill-tribe communities:

“For hill-tribe women in Thailand, out-of-wedlock pregnancy is not accepted within the hill-tribe community and the woman is forced to leave,” explains the Co Laois-based 32- year-old.

Some of the girls I met were pregnant at 13 or 14, others were in their 20s and they were literally cast out from their tribe – they’d be disowned by their family and their community. I later learned the hill tribes have very strong traditions and a single pregnancy is taboo.”

“When I came back from Thailand, I was different in some ways — I was more content. I don’t get as stressed about things.

“I got to see how tough life can really be and it left a lasting impression. I find the little things don’t tend to bother me any more — you’re the better person for this.” She also had a fabulous cultural experience: ‘

You get a really good understanding of a culture — when you volunteer you get to see the real face of the country and meet the real people there. “

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