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Volunteering When Traveling Abroad: I Wanted to Save the Turtles, But I Was Wrong

After teaching, working in a hospital and doing other things, I understood that what they really needed was for me to buy them a bag of rice and school supplies

Turtle Project in Sri Lnka. Photo. Michael Lepetit

The orphanage didn’t need my help. I didn’t wow anyone with my soccer skills or save any lives that day. What they needed was my financial aid. For a split second I felt used, maybe even angry. But I quickly became okay with it. It was naive of me to think that my mere presence could do much for these kids. But a bag of rice would go far.

Save the turtles” is a war cry that I hear my students exclaim almost every day now.  It’s their catchall phrase for helping the environment, inspired by, I think, a video of a man pulling a straw out of a turtle’s nose.  About fifteen years ago, I myself was looking to save the turtles, but really, I was looking to save myself from boredom.  I had graduated from college, spent some time in Sri Lanka, worked as an electrician for about 9 months and was feeling some serious wanderlust.  I was looking for somewhere to go and I really thought that my next trip had to involve improving the planet.

After a very quick internet search I decided that it was the sea turtles in Costa Rica that really needed my help.  I told my dad my plans but he was hung up on one detail: this trip in which I was to volunteer and use all my talents to help baby sea turtles would cost me about $1,500.   I explained to him that included in the package was day trips and kayaking and lodging and a lot of fun.  He never told me not to go, but his skepticism rang through in my head and I started thinking.  “With all this fun I’ll be having how much sea turtle saving could I be doing?   Lodging can be really cheap in Costa Rica, why is this so expensive?  Do sea turtles really need my help?”  So, I decided against it and that summer I backpacked across central Europe with my friend. There was a lot less caring for the planet and a lot more beer.

It was the following year, while crossing the Atlas mountains in a sweaty van that I caught wind of some really good advice.  A woman told me that she had volunteered in an orphanage in Malawi.  When I asked her through which program had she done this, she told me that she simply walked up to an orphanage while already in Malawi and asked if they would like her help.  That was it.  She just walked in and they took her.  No package.  No sales pitch.  She told me that they did ask for a small rent fee of about $5 a day.  They did feed her after all.

Barefoot football in orphanage in Malawi. Photo Wikimedia Commons .org

This is not to say that sea turtles don’t need help.  And it is possible that these packages do provide some very valuable aid, but that woman’s words in the van made a lot more sense to me.  “If these places really need you, they’ll do whatever they can to keep you.” On many subsequent trips I have volunteered one way or another.  While I was traveling through Kenya and Tanzania, I met a medical student who was traveling with a friend.  His friend was finishing her internship working for the UN and he was going to start an internship working at a hospital deep in Maasai territory.

He asked if I wanted to join him.  He went to the hospital and I went on a safari.  When I returned, I gave him a call, took the most harrowing bus ride of my life (a story for another day) and spent a few days in a remote village at a hospital.  He spent much of his time helping the patients.  Many had AIDS and all were treated for malaria –just in case.  While he spoke with patients and saved lives, I threw away expired medicine and sifted through band aids for a few days until it was time for me to leave.  I’m not a doctor so I felt it was best that I stayed away from the patients.

Maasai people. Photo WikimediaCommons.org

It was in Nepal that I really got to use my skill.  I befriended a man from Sweden who said that while he was walking around Kathmandu someone struck up a conversation and asked him if he would volunteer in a school.  The Nepalese man, as it turned out, was renting a room in the school, which was one way the school raised money.  The man from Sweden, (also named Mike) found out that I was a teacher and asked if I would join.  I spent a few days in classrooms, teaching English to students who were the same age as my own back home.  The children were receptive and excited to have me, and so was the principal.  Finding out that I was a teacher in New York, he asked me for advice, most of which was too much for me to think about.  He wanted to know if I thought he should build another floor to his school or just better serve the students he already had.  He asked me my thoughts on discipline and effective teaching methods.  And while I couldn’t answer some of these questions, I was more or less in my wheelhouse.  I wasn’t fumbling with sea turtles or saving AIDS patients.  I was teaching, something I’ve done for years.

Nepalese School. Photo Wikimedia Commons

One problem with volunteering trips is that they often require people to use a skill they don’t have.  One year I was staying at a lodge in Zanzibar.  It was a quiet sleepy place on the beach until a group of about twenty American college age volunteers showed up.  Their goal, it seemed, was to build a hospital.  And while these students had only the best of intentions, I’m not sure that I would really want to be treated in a hospital built by some undergraduate arts students.  They spent a few hours a day working and a few swimming with dolphins and snorkeling.

I would never want to discourage someone from trying to do good in this world, but I think that as travelers we must find the way that each of us can contribute the most.  I learned how I could do the most good while in Cambodia. Having seen Apocalypse Now! a few too many times, I decided to get to Cambodia from Vietnam via a boat on the Mekong river.  The port in Phnom Penh was as I was hoping it would be, bustling, colorful, and hectic.  Tourists, locals, and goods were all being shuffled on and off boats.  Through the chaotic crowds I found a taxi driver who said he would take me to a nice hotel and while en route, he asked me if I wanted to volunteer for a morning at a local orphanage.  Sizing him up for a quick moment I said, “sure”.  He seemed nice enough, after all.  So, bright and early, he picked me up at my hotel.  We zipped across the city in his tiny tuk-tuk, eventually stopping by a grocery store.  “Would you like to buy some rice, for the orphanage?”  The cynical New Yorker in me felt like I was being hustled, but I went along and said, “okay”.  I bought a bag of rice bigger than myself and loaded it into our taxi and off we went.

The orphanage was not nearly what I imagined, although I’m not really sure what I was expecting.  There were about four buildings around a courtyard.  Each building looked like a camp bunk, with kids of all ages playing and doing homework.  In the middle of the courtyard was a volleyball net.  My driver walked around and shook hands with the adults and waved to all the kids.  Everyone seemed to know him well.  He said something to some of the kids who came out and together we kicked a soccer ball around.

My presence was hardly the saving grace I thought it would be, however.  Yes, we had some fun kicking a ball around but the kids seemed more or less indifferent to me.  Soccer isn’t even my thing.  Eventually our game petered out and I felt a bit useless.  Sweaty and embarrassingly, a little out of breath, I walked back over to my driver who was talking with some of the other adults in the shade of a tree.  One of the other adults directed my attention to a table with t-shirts and bracelets on it.  He asked me if I wanted anything, and told me that the kids made the bracelets.  It was then that I had my epiphany.  The orphanage didn’t need my help.  I didn’t wow anyone with my soccer skills or save any lives that day.  What they needed was my financial aid.  For a split second I felt used, maybe even angry.  But I quickly became okay with it.  It was naive of me to think that my mere presence could do much for these kids.  But a bag of rice would go far.  The few dollars I’d spend on these items might help them with what they really needed.

I also realized that I didn’t play soccer for their benefit, they did it for mine.  They were told to play soccer to appease me, so that I could go back and tell everyone that I really connected with local orphans, and that made me chuckle.  I kept this lesson with me as I rode to the school in Kathmandu.  I knew that despite the years of teaching experience I had I wouldn’t really be able to do much.  So, along the way I stopped and grabbed some notebooks, pencils, and pens for the kids.

Traveling to a needy country can be a great opportunity to not only make great memories but to give back– so long as we give back the way the locals really need us to.  The work you do may look less like kayaking with turtles and more like stocking basic medical supplies or donating to a local school, soccer skills be damned.

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