June 22, 2012
Traveling the High Road: Tips for Voluntouring
Get ready to get the most out of your work-cation
by Ruthanne Johnson
BEWARE “HUMANE-WASHING.” Not all volunteer trips are what they seem. In Africa, for example, unscrupulous operations charge volunteers thousands of dollars to care for orphaned lion cubs, who they say will be returned to the wild, says Humane Society International’s Teresa Telecky. “In fact, they pocket most of the money and never release lions.” Look for nonprofit organizations that teach the community about conservation, circulate tourist dollars back into animal care and the local economy, and give animal welfare top priority.
PREPARE TO ROUGH IT. Volunteer duties can be demanding or light. Make sure you can handle the work, climate, and living conditions. In Costa Rica, Kandice McDonald’s bed was a foam pad atop some boards. Intense humidity and cold showers were part of Alison Mulford’s Guatemalan experience. Also, check the political climate and area crime reports before booking your trip.
CONNECT WITH CULTURE. For an enriched experience, explore and learn the culture of the place. With help from HSI, ARCAS and Corcovado have developed ecotourism programs that enable local residents to derive incomes based on preserving, rather than exploiting, native wildlife. McDonald paid $25 a day to stay with a local family and experience everyday village life. “It was very slow pace, very ‘pura vida.’ ” she says. On expeditions led by local guides, Mulford visited the Mayan ruins in Tikal and went for a memorable candlelight swim in the turquoise pools of Semuc Champey.
LOOK CLOSER. If you don’t have weeks of vacation time, consider opportunities closer to home. For the past three years, Raji Karandikar and her 16-year-old son, Jay, have volunteered at Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, N.Y., five hours from their New Jersey home. They drive up on Friday evenings and spend Saturdays cleaning barns, painting outbuildings, or even brushing the cows or putting sunscreen on the pigs. “It’s like a great family outing,” says Raji. “I get to spend time with Jay and we stop for dinner [on the drive] and talk about school and other things, like which animals we are going to see this time and what we are going to do.”