Voluntourism: Packing Heart on Your Next Vacation


Street child in Bangladesh

— by Ann Craig-Cinnamon

Let’s face it: some of the most fascinating places in the world are located in some of the most impoverished places in the world. You can’t visit the Pyramids of Giza without driving through the slums of Cairo. The Taj Mahal, arguably the most beautiful building ever built, sits amid some of the worst poverty anywhere. Even vacationing on a beautiful Caribbean island, your luxury resort is an anomaly; the ugly truth is all around you.

I’ve been traveling for most of my life and, in fact, I lived in Tehran, Iran as a young woman back in the mid 1970’s. Poverty was all around me there. I had a beggar friend that I passed every day on the street. We were warned not to give money to beggars because if you did, they wouldn’t leave you alone and you might draw an unwanted crowd. So I didn’t give him anything, and for his part, he never asked.  We just had a friendly salaam and a smile for each other each day. But I always felt bad about it.  

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The commonly-used rationalization about the poor not knowing any better never held any truth for me. It’s more “there but for the grace of God go I” that sums up my feelings more accurately. I don’t know how you can witness other human beings struggling for their everyday existence and not get changed by it.

As much as I love to travel to exciting and exotic spots around the world, I have always had lot of trouble justifying my own good fortune being able to enjoy the best of what a country has to offer while the people there, many of them poor, are waiting on me and treating me like a king. I understand and agree with the logic that, by going, I am helping to create jobs and am contributing to the economy.  But it just doesn’t seem like enough.

A few years ago I read about a couple who, on their own, raised money, medical supplies and clothing at their workplace and church which they personally delivered to an orphanage in Nairobi. So when my husband and I decided to travel to Kenya we thought we would try the same thing. We raised several thousand dollars, lots of clothing, and had a local pharmaceutical company donate medical supplies which we then took with us to the New Life Children’s Home in Nairobi. We packed everything in old suitcases that we just left there. It wasn’t a difficult thing to do; it just took a little thought and planning. And we received way more than we gave when we had the opportunity to visit with those beautiful children and see the good work the orphanage was doing in a country devastated by Aids and other diseases.

More recently, when we visited Cambodia, we noticed wells that had signs on them. We asked our guide about it and learned that the wells had been donated by tourists who wanted to help when they saw the poverty that the people of Cambodia were living in. We decided to donate a well ourselves so our guide took us to an area near Siem Reap where the government had given small plots of land to the poor and the disabled. Many of these people had nothing but a shack to live in, and no water nearby. Drinking dirty polluted water was a common occurrence and people often became ill and even died because of it. So, we donated enough money to have a well built in an area where several families lived. Believe it or not, the well only cost us $200. For the cost of a utility bill here at home, several families would have fresh, clean water to drink. It was an easy thing to do. We didn’t even lift a finger.

There are a lot of non-profit organizations that offer what are called “voluntourism” trips, in which the travelers get involved in charitable work while they are visiting a poor country. And that is a great way to help. But if you are the kind of traveler who wants to go on your own, but still you’d like to do something to help while you are visiting, you can, if you seek it out. It doesn’t have to be Cambodia or Kenya. It can be closer to home, like in the Caribbean. Just do a little research ahead of the visit time to find an organization that is legitimate, contact them to see what they might need, and start a fundraiser of your own at your synagogue before you go. Tour guides are often a great source too. You have the added bonus of seeing for yourself that your donation is going to a good cause. I guarantee you that you will enjoy your trip a lot more if you leave something meaningful behind, rather than taking lots of things home with you.

Ann Craig-Cinnamon has spent 30 years in both radio and television broadcasting in the Indianapolis market. After living in Tehran, she developed a love for travel and has visited all 50 states and more than 70 countries on all seven continents. She is also the author of the new book, Walking Naked in Tehran.

Book Chat: All Roads Lead to Austen

— Hannah Lee

I’ve finished All Roads Lead to Austen: A Year-long Journey with Jane by Amy Elizabeth Smith and I’m in love!  This memoir details the author’s sabbatical from teaching English literature.  Giving herself a final creative project as assigned to her students, Smith traveled to six countries in Latin America and led reading groups on Jane Austen’s novels.

I learned that Chilean Spanish is the hardest accent to master and Buenos Aires is the best city for booklovers. Smith’s difficulty in adjusting to the different accents in the six countries reminded me that my elder daughter had great language pedagogy in high school, where each teacher had an accent from a different part of the Spanish-speaking Americas. When the author first referred to herself as estadounidense, I thought she was mocking herself, but this is now the way to say you’re from the United States. In high school, I’d learned to identify myself as, americana or de Estado Unidos, but a politically neutral phrase has evolved in the 34 years since I’ve studied the language.

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Last year, my book group read A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz and we were disappointed. (No, we’re not members of JASNA, the Jane Austen Society of North America, and we do read other authors.)  That book offered hardly any new insight for us and we disliked how the author disparaged his family and friends in print, although we noticed that he’d waited until his father had passed away.

In Smith’s memoir, she traveled to six Latin-American countries — Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina — where by intent or by happenstance, she found readers to discuss Austen’s novels.  What is marvelous to me is that people from humble backgrounds had just as much insight into Austen’s motivations and her characters as those of the literati.  What was delightful to Smith was finding that readers in Latin America had just as much a visceral response to Austen’s writing as her students in California.  Austen does translate well into Spanish-speaking America!  

The Latin-American readers all connected to the “believable happiness” of Austen’s protagonists, where they “all find love, but it’s embedded in situations we can identify with: money woes; frustrating relatives; unavoidable personality clashes.”  Smith recorded arguments in Spanish over the characters, including the loud one by the Chilean readers over the relationship between Marianne and Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, because it was the most implausible liaison of the Austen heroines.

Smith discovered to her dismay how often and quickly she made assumptions about the people she encountered in each country — and she met her own Señor Darcy.  If every one of us can learn to withhold judgment of others, then it would be a worthy journey of the soul.

Travel as transformation is depicted in The Tao of Travel, edited by Paul Theroux, in which Mark Twain is quoted thus:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on those 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.

Book Chat: An Economist Gets Lunch

By Hannah Lee

It’s about time that an economist weighs in on the foodie scene and the locavore movement.  Despite the negative advance press about Tyler Cowen’s new book, An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, I kept an open mind.  I was rewarded by a delightful read and I learned lots of fascinating strategies for finding good, affordable food, especially when one is away from home.

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Tyler CowenA professor at George Mason University, Cowen is a foodie who keeps his passion in check with a studied knowledge of market forces.  Since food is a product of economic supply and demand, his three principles to guide him in his food choices are to “figure out where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed.”

It was on a trip to Nicaragua, a place not known to offer good food, that Cowen first developed his tactics for finding decent meals. Upon arriving in the country past lunchtime, he engaged a “relatively old” taxi driver — chosen for safety (he’s survived his own driving?), good local stories, and information — and offered him both lunch and payment to find “something really special to eat, something very Nicaraguan.”  So, where would the driver take him, but the best that he would himself want to eat and on his client’s expense?  The lunch of quesillos cost him $12, including the bonus payment.  (He knew to be wary of agua corriente (running water), so he ordered bottled drinks and he was amazed to learn that his leftover drinks were poured into plastic bags, placed on ice, and held for re-sale.)  The only bad meal he had was seafood, but that led to another tip, “when donkey carts are common and women carry baskets on their heads, eat your fish right by the ocean or lake,” because the transportation is slow and refrigeration is rudimentary.

Cowen challenges the snobbery of food writers, commentators, and foodies and their mistaken adherence to three rules: the best food is expensive; large agribusiness is bad; and consumers are not a trusted source of innovation. Despite being a foodie and an environmentalist, I was impressed by the data he uses to support his debunking of these guidelines.  His chapter on the agricultural revolution convinced me that technological progress and agricultural commercialization have brought major and lasting improvements to much of the world.  (I was reminded that the first agricultural revolution was when the Aztecs learned to release the goodness of corn with the addition of mineral lime.)  Finally, his chapter on a greener planet may irk those who’ve made a conscious decision to leave a smaller carbon footprint.  Cowen writes that shopping locally may not be the best choice because transportation costs are only 11% of the total energy cost of food.  My take-home lesson was that foods delivered by cargo ship have the lowest environmental impact (as “floating things are much easier to move”) while air freight has the highest.  Another lesson for readers is to reduce our meat intake.  A Carnegie Mellon study has found that cutting back on red meat one day a week does more for the environment than eating all locally sources foods for all of our meals.

In a chapter on why American food got so bad, he implicated the Prohibition, children, and television.  Furthermore, during World War II, Americans actually ate more meat, but it was of poor quality, including canned meat (Spam, with its high fat and salt content).  Europe, which suffered actual food shortages, did not turn to convenience food (they had no factories to produce them), so what food they had tasted better.  The only bright spot in our history was the arrival of immigrants who vastly improved and diversified our food culture.

The chapter on the American supermarket and Cowen’s month-long experiment to shop only in an Asian market dovetailed with my experience shopping in such markets where the selection of greens is varied and cheap (offered as loss leaders to bring in the customers), the seafood is fresh and smelly which disgusts Americans, and the staff is neither friendly nor fluent in English.  His advice to not block our creativity is to eschew the convenience of the conventional supermarket.

The book has chapters on barbecue, the ultimate “slow food”; why hospitals, cinemas, and city centers have such bad food, and how to find the best meals cheaply.  The chapter on Asian food is a contrast to standard travel guides, in that Cowen does not list best restaurants, but how to find the best food.  The five countries that he deems as having the worst Chinese food are: Italy, Germany, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Chile (for different reasons).  Our family’s worst meal in a Chinese establishment occurred in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, where the Chinese folk are descendants of immigrants of the 19th century, thus out of touch with their cultural touchstones.  He details the traits of the different Asian cuisines and how they fare in America.  The chapter ends with his prescription for how to get a decent Chinese meal at any place.

Here’s a recommendation from Cowen that you would never find in a guidebook:

“In a lot of restaurants, it is a propitious omen if the diners are screaming at each other and appear to be fighting and pursuing blood feuds.  It’s a sign they are regular customers and that they feel at home in the restaurant.  It’s a sign they go there a lot.  Few people show up at a strange restaurant and behave that way, but they might do so in a place where they know the proprietor and staff.  A lot of Chinese restaurants are full of screaming Chinese patrons — don’t ask me if it’s fighting.  I have no idea– but it is a sign I want to be there too.”

 Cowen does not know that three Chinese speaking together do sound like they’re screaming.

The chapter on Mexican food is a case study for the impact of law and wealth on the quality and variety of food.  Cowen compared the sister cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, which were one until after the Mexican-American War of 1848, for their respective meat, cheese (made by Mennonites in Mexico!), lard, tortilla, and tomatoes.  Hands down, the Mexican food is tastier, but the American food is more varied, consistent, and fresh.  He noted that Mexicans regard vegetarians as odd or absurd.  Dietary restriction, other than for Lent, is a notion not well appreciated.

The best chapter for world travelers is the one on how to find great food anywhere and how and why the food in countries are different.  In France (and only in France), Cowen recommends using a Michelin guidebook to identify the cheapest restaurants, i.e., no stars and one or two forks.  Two-forked places are “comfortable,” but the starred places are awarded for culinary innovation and the chef’s prestige.  He writes, “I don’t need the extra innovation and probably I am trying to avoid the innovation.  I seek the perfect pot-au-feu.”  He further describes the best methods for finding good food in Tokyo, Singapore, India, London, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Sicily, Spain, and Istanbul.  I’ll try to apply his strategies on our summer vacation in Scotland.