Images of wide-smiled African, Asian and South American children in need, pepper our media so much so that we become immune to them. Even those of us who sponsor a child, or community through charities such as Oxfam Community Aid Abroad, Save the Children and World Vision, can become numb to why we do this. The money comes from our account every month, and once in a while we browse the newsletters sent to us, but it is hard to sustain the level of empathy that made us sign up in the first place.
Well, there is a way to reconnect with that empathy. It is a form of tourism that has been around for a while, but is now experiencing a surge of interest. It is known as ‘Voluntourism’, where travellers can pay an organisation – a charity or tour company – to participate in hands-on charity work. You travel to a developing nation and have the privilege of building a home, or assisting in an agricultural project, or even teaching the local children.
Some people even turn this type of travel into a new life. In 2002 Australian Jane Gavell travelled through Central and South America, including Peru, and then spent eight months in Cusco learning Spanish. In 2003, she started Peru’s Challenge with her partner Selvy, a native Peruvian. Peru’s Challenge runs community-based projects which directly benefit children of Peru. In addition, Jane and her small staff host other like-minded travellers who want to give their time to Peruvian children, and pay to do so, as the charity is completely self-funded.
Intrepid Travel has just released promotional material for their M.A.D. (Make a Difference) trips, which span four continents, and range from two to six weeks in duration. The trips are not costly. The accommodation and food are simple. The time is divided between seeing some of the host country and assisting the local communities.
In these and other such trips, you would pay money and then spend a significant chunk of your holiday time helping others.
So, why would someone choose to do this?
I have pondered this question this past week, ever since I received Intrepid’s newsletter, and knew instantly that I want to take one of these trips – either to Africa or South-east Asia. And the answer for me is simple: it is the children.
Now, perhaps strains of ‘I believe the children are our future, teach them well…’ are floating through your mind. And yes, I realise that saying I want to help the children is a little, well, wanky? Naff? Miss America Wanna-be? (I hope those references cover all my readership) But the fact is, when I have travelled to other countries – and particularly developing nations – it is the children who fascinate me, and often reveal something about the place, about the culture.
The country where my encounters with children resonated the most, is Peru.
I was on a organised tour and was struck down with Salmonella. I missed the Inca Trail, and I was devastated, but that is a whole other blog post. Days later, when I could remain upright for a few hours at a time, my guide – and friend – Geraldine, put me on the back of a motor cycle, and rode me across the countryside so we could catch up with the rest of our group at Machu Picchu.
We stopped to take some photos of the magnificent valley, and right there at the side of the road in the middle of ‘nowhere’ were two women, a blanket laid with wares, and a small boy.
The boy, who was 2 or 3, picked up one of the mobiles from the blanket and presented it to me. I did not want to buy it for many reasons, but mostly because we were traveling light and I would have had to carry it. I said hello and greeted him warmly, kneeling down to take a look at what he presented. He smiled at me, a tiny salesman, until I said “No” and shook my head. Then the smile disappeared. He looked at me hard, suddenly a serious little man, then turned away and tottered back to his mother. I wondered how many times a day he did this. He had Winnie the Pooh on his hat, but I doubted that he had many playthings waiting at home.
Another child I encountered with this same ‘old’ look in her eyes, was the daughter of a 15-year old girl on the Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca. She, too, handed me something from her mother’s blanket of hand-crafted goods. When I gently said, “No, Sweetie” and picked up something else that had caught my eye, she hit me with it. I was not deterred, and wanted to get that smile. I cajoled her, making faces at her; her mother tickled her to help me in my quest. Nothing. The same stoic little three-year-old face. I bought something and moved along, but I was intrigued by this little person, with her permanent frown, and I watched as she moved independently around the island.
I had encountered quite a few of these old souls, so it was refreshing and heartening to meet the children at our home-stay on Amantani Island, also on Lake Titicaca.
The people of Amantani speak Quechua, which is an Indian dialect, and some speak a little Spanish. I was on the home-stay with a fellow traveller from Canada and our guide, Geraldine. Geraldine knew no Quechua and Sylvia, our home-stay ‘mama’ knew about as much Spanish as I did (not a whole lot). Our communication over the time we were there consisted of gesturing, pointing, some primitive sign language, and lots of smiles.
Sylvia lived with her parents, her grandparents, her sister and brother-in-law, and her two children, Brian and Jessie. Yes, those were the names of the baby and toddler on this small island in the middle of a giant lake, where no one speaks English and only a smattering of Spanish is known. Brian and Jessie. I asked Geraldine about it, and she said that the home-stays are part of the sustainable tourism program on the island, and that a lot of the small children have ‘western’ names, because the women hear them and like the sounds of them.
Jessie was a delightful two-year-old, who welcomed our gifts of pencils and paper. She laughed constantly, and loved playing peekaboo. She wanted to be tickled, even though she pretended to ‘run away’, which she did in fits of giggles. Brian, about 15 months, had that serious little face I had seen many times before, but when his mother picked him up, his face lit up and a smile erupted.
The home was rustic, with no electricity, no running water, and all the cooking was done in the small ‘kitchen’. This room was separate from the rest of the house, had a low ceiling and a hot fire, and the interior walls were covered in soot. We spent a lot of time in there the evening of our stay, as the temperature outside – and in our room – was very cold. We ate potato stew served over rice with bread on the side. It was delicious, and carried a smoky flavour from the fire on which it was cooked.
Our room had three beds, each covered in layers of blankets, all made on the island. I thought that the four blankets on my bed was a little, um, generous, but later that night when I burrowed underneath them and got toasty warm despite the cold air, I was grateful for the foresight. At dawn, Sylvia brought a large bowl of steaming water for us to use to wash ourselves. I was mindful that she and her mother had been up before dawn to boil the water for us.
As well as the gifts for the children, we were asked to bring gifts of sugar, rice and flour for the family. I would have brought much more, but the families are paid a small stipend for the accommodation through their local government. To bring anymore would be inappropriate, almost an insult, and there was nothing ‘poor’ about these people. The children were happy and clearly loved, the family members were close, and the farms and houses well maintained.
The ‘home-stay’ program is run on a rotating roster governed by one of the island elders. He distributes the home-stays and the fees collected from our tour company – and others – who visit regularly.
We could inject money into the local economy by purchasing the local crafts. And I did. I bought beautiful hand-woven, hand-knitted alpaca scarves, socks, hats and finger puppets. The Christmas of 2006 my family and friends received many Peruvian gifts.
I would have happily stayed on Amantani Island for many more days. I would have tended to the children, or fed the animals, or peeled potatoes for stew. It was a community with harmony at its core, and I wanted to stay longer than our overnight home-stay. The island, that community, those children tapped into something that is vital to a happy life: humility. I have so much, and because of that, it is incumbent upon me to give back. Somehow.
There were tears when we said good-bye to Sylvia. She was a lovely young woman, who went out of her way to spoil us. We hadn’t needed words to communicate that we were happy to be there, and had so enjoyed meeting her young family. Her husband, who was working on another island, must be so proud of them.
I often think of Brian and Jessie, and then of the children who were not so happy, and were doing it much tougher than these two. There are far too many children in the world doing it tough, and children should never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or where they will sleep tonight.
This brings me full circle. I do not plan to be a parent, but I am an awesome Aunty. As a school teacher, I am fortunate to be in a position to educate and contribute to the development of children, but at times I just want to do more, give more.
I will head to Africa or to South-east Asia, hopefully this year, and I will give back, because I am fortunate, and because I can.