Sitting comfortably at home after traveling in the developing world for so long has certainly had benefits. The first few weeks I marveled at the softness of the toilet paper, the variety of products available in the stores and the ability to open the fridge to find it fully stocked. After being gone for so long these were things I really appreciated and unlike what so many people expected, I slipped back into this comfortable life without a problem. Reading emails from a friend who’s traveling in Asia as she describes the trough toilets and pit latrines I laugh with the knowledge of having been there and done that, having survived the worst bathrooms in the world.
Reflecting a bit about our trip, beyond the bathrooms and funny signs, I’ve begun to seriously ponder the impact of all that travel. Not our environmental impact, which we consciously tried to lessen, but our social impact. I’ve spent what seems like hours pondering and theorizing on what more we could and should do as a travel community. Is just traveling enough?
Speaking with other travelers, it’s clear I’m not the only one considering the larger impact of the travel community. Many of us travel because we love the people, the cultural interactions and the awareness of something new. We love teaching, learning and sharing. We love the places, we love the things and most of all we love the experience. Some people volunteer on their trip, others move through wanting to do something, but not knowing what to do. Others know what to do, but can’t find a way to make their efforts part of something larger. It is as though we need to take a page out of the outdoor community book and create our own “leave no trace” philosophy. Maybe we should call it “leave a trace.”
While traveling throughout the developing world, we were shocked to see the negative impact of aid organizations. We were disgusted hear about volunteers paying several thousand USD to volunteer for ineffective—and sometimes morally unethical—organizations. We were horrified to discover how much money had done so little and in response we wrote a series of posts, called Hunger Porn to call attention and raise awareness to what we saw. We were that third category of travelers above, we knew what to do, did it in our own way, but didn’t know how to make it a part of something greater.
Travelers are probably some of the most well positioned people in this world to increase awareness, raise interest and tell the everyday stories, triumphs and failures of these people and organizations. Beyond writing a single blog post how else can we connect not just ourselves but our network to these people in support of tackling some of the world’s biggest problems?
I’m not saying each and every blogger needs to take on an issue and save the world. I’m saying that perhaps we need to think beyond ourselves and use our travels to support, connect and engage. Let’s use our skills and our experiences on a larger scale, to support organizations we respect.
My proposal is simple. As you plan your next itinerary, make a plan for action. Find an organization you respect that operates in the places you are going. Offer your skills, think of a way you can be of assistance and contact them. Sure a day of volunteering can be rewarding, but what about teaching them to make a video for their next fundraising effort? What about taking pictures for them and developing them into a slide show? What about capturing and recording their member’s stories and instructing them on developing a blog. Do something that will help them not just for a day, but for a lifetime.
Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.