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Going the distance
19 February 2004
by Douglas McGray

John Huba shows Nirmal Bhalla, a member of Cross Cultural Solutions' staff in Dharmsala, India, at a local school.John Huba shows Nirmal Bhalla, a member of Cross Cultural Solutions' staff in Dharmsala, India, at a local school.
New York, USA: Melanie Dow was always the beach and spa type. But you can really spend only so many vacations lying around, she says, as our taxi weaves up a pitted dirt road crowded with trucks, gas-powered rickshaws, and young boys with livestock in tow. She's 32, she tells me, and until a few months ago she had a great job at Goldman Sachs in New York City. She liked her colleagues; she liked the money. One Saturday at the office, though, she decided she was tired of fluorescent-lit, carpal-tunnel weekends. She needed a vacation—but not just any vacation. She needed a change.

Our driver speeds into a narrow, blind turn (as most turns are here in the foothills south of Dharmsala, India), then jams on the brakes and jerks us to the shoulder of the road so a freight truck can pass. Around the bend, the road narrows and drops away into a valley. Only a shallow river and a clutter of boulders come in anything but a shade of monsoon green.

When we get to Dharmsala, a slow-paced town of 19,000 not far from Tibet, Melanie will swap her jeans and T-shirt for a traditional Indian salwar suit—loose cotton pants and a flowing, square-cut top that falls to her knees—and report for work at the local Red Cross building. She hadn't volunteered much back at home ("I couldn't even find time to talk to my mother," she says, laughing, "so how could I find time to work with kids?"), but for the next few weeks she will spend her mornings leading a group of Indian police officers and soldiers through drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Cross Cultural Solutions, a nonprofit New York-based tour company that specializes in such increasingly popular "volunteer vacations," arranged all the details: the job placement, the modest house where Melanie and I and half a dozen other American volunteers will live, daily home-cooked meals, translators, afternoon field trips—even the taxi ride into town.

By now, Melanie knows what to expect. She gave up her apartment and quit her job to spend the past five months on one CCS trip after another, moving from an orphanage in Brazil to a home for the mentally disabled in Thailand to here, the Indian countryside. I ask her about the cost—approximately $2,400 for each three-week trip, not counting airfare. She laughs. "I would have just wasted the money going out to eat in New York."

Until recently, volunteering abroad had far more to do with activism than with tourism. French pacifist Pierre Ceresole organized the first formal volunteer trips shortly after the end of World War I. His organization, Service Civil International, rallied groups of young people from France and Germany to rebuild towns wrecked by the war. Although volunteer work camps later appeared across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and some travelers set off on kibbutz or missionary trips, international volunteering didn't really hit the mainstream in the United States until Operation Crossroads Africa sent its first wave of workers on a six-week trip to Ghana in 1958; three years later, President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps. Still, these programs were largely for idealistic kids, not affluent adults.

An organization called Earthwatch began to change that in the seventies, though entirely by accident. Federal funding for scientific field research had ebbed, and foreign research stations were struggling to keep their projects alive. Earthwatch emerged to try to make up the difference with tourist dollars. Travelers would pay generously, the founders believed, for the chance to watch scientists track wild animals or dig up ancient ruins. They were half right. Donors did sign up for the trips. "But they decided they didn't just want to observe—they wanted to participate," says Earthwatch president Roger Bergen. "And scientists discovered that the volunteers, surprisingly, had the ability to do a lot of data collecting."

Although Earthwatch started pitching itself as a kind of scientific Peace Corps, it was, in fact, something quite new: a first stab at work-based tourism. Unlike the Peace Corps, Earthwatch demanded only a few weeks from its volunteers, so most traveled during their regular vacations; unlike a work camp, an Earthwatch trip was relatively costly, something only older professionals could afford. A decade later, St. Paul-based Global Volunteers brought the Earthwatch approach to Peace Corps-style projects—building houses and roads in developing countries, assisting in health clinics, teaching English—and a volunteer-travel industry began to mature.

Saul and Ann Goldstein, two other participants in Cross Cultural Solutions' program in Dharmsala, have watched it happen. They're on their 15th volunteer vacation—the first 14 with Earthwatch. "When we started, in 1986, nobody had heard of Earthwatch," Ann says. "Now we have to register early. The trips fill up way in advance." Bill McMillon, who first published his popular guide Volunteer Vacations in 1987, has seen that growth play out in unexpected ways. "In the first couple of editions, I had a lot of religious organizations," he says. "After about the fourth or fifth edition, they started asking to be taken out." They worried about secular vacationers muddling their evangelical, and often denominational, message. "One organization not only got out of the book but on its Web site and printed material it says, 'This is not a volunteer vacation.'"

The rise of volunteer vacations seems to be the product of a serendipitous alignment: 10 to 15 years ago, at the same time that trips abroad became easier and less expensive and better-traveled Americans began to seek out more unusual travel experiences, volunteering also became the stuff of national conversation. Every president since Ronald Reagan has pushed service as a high-profile campaign issue, from George Bush Sr.'s Points of Light to his son's faith-based initiatives. Today, somewhere between one in two and one in four Americans volunteer, and according to Independent Sector, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that tracks volunteering, most of the growth lately has been in "episodic" service—short-term commitments including volunteer vacations. An IS survey has found that 70 percent of volunteers do it for the same reason many people travel: to gain a new perspective on things.

Much of the recent growth in volunteer travel has come from trips that emphasize social work, many run by relatively young organizations like Cross Cultural Solutions. Founded in 1995, CCS has tripled the number of volunteers it sends abroad since 2000. "This year we're going to send maybe fifteen hundred," says executive director Steve Rosenthal. CCS plans to double the number of programs it offers within the next five years, to more than 20. "Can we send fifteen thousand volunteers?" Rosenthal asks. "Easily. There's massive potential here."

Volunteer travel is still too new to the mainstream for reliable statistics to exist, but according to Kristalina Georgieva, a director at the World Bank, ecotourism and cultural tourism, both closely related to volunteer trips, are the fastest-growing segments of the global travel industry. Every volunteer outfitter I talked to, from CCS to older companies such as Global Volunteers, has drawn travelers in record numbers the past few years, with only a brief lapse in interest following 9/11. "Initially, we figured this would be a novelty," says David Minich, director of Habitat for Humanity's Global Village arm, which runs trips to build houses in poor communities. "Someone would do this in place of a fishing vacation, or a trip to Cancún, but wouldn't necessarily come back. What we find is people return a third time, a fourth time, a fifteenth time. They realize this kind of travel is how you really get to see the world and experience more of the food, the culture, the camaraderie."

Even traditional travel providers such as Hilton Hotels are beginning to respond to consumer demand. Three years ago, Hilton's Caribbean group launched an effort to raise money for poor island communities and encourage its staff to volunteer—the hotels never intended to involve guests. But in Nassau, when a group of guests spotted hotel employees filling backpacks with school supplies for kids, they asked if they could help; Hilton staffers across the region began to report similar requests. "We weren't prepared for it," admits Danny Hughes, the company's Caribbean vice president of operations. "You're going into some unpleasant areas. What if a guest is attacked? What about liability insurance? That's when we said, We've got to get serious about this."

Now Hughes is preparing to introduce formal volunteer opportunities for guests; he hopes an airline partnership might provide discount fares to travelers willing to set aside part of their stay for public service. "In Kingston, we're helping to renovate an orphanage. We're thinking: What if we create an option for guests to come and help?" he says. "In Puerto Rico, we visit sick children in hospitals and bring them books. We've done some reading classes. That could be a great thing for guests if they wanted to come along."

Hughes is frank about his doubts. The for-profit tourism industry, he says, sells escapism. A company like Hilton has little incentive to advertise that just down the postcard-perfect beach, there are some desperately poor communities. Nevertheless, most travelers are better educated these days about economic underdevelopment wherever they go, and most of them know perfectly well what lies at the end of the beach. A little volunteer work can help many feel better about their luxury island vacation, in part by assuaging pangs of liberal guilt. Of course, it's a complex balance. But complexity seems to define this kind of travel for everyone involved.

The Red Cross building in Dharmsala rises high above a quiet, crumbling street. It is dark inside. Two "inmates," as the rehab clinic calls them, look up listlessly from a row of hospital beds as we pass. Ann fusses with the purple scarf that accompanies her cream-colored salwar with flowers embroidered around the neckline. She didn't want to wear it, but CCS encourages volunteers to adopt as many local customs as they can. Melanie walks along quietly in a pink salwar, her hair pulled back into a ponytail.

The local Red Cross director, Harsh Vardhar, and his deputy, Sandeep Parmar, debrief us in a small office. The inmates, Karsh explains, have a full day, beginning with a yoga class (led by a pair of college-age CCS volunteers), followed by doctors' appointments, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and individual counseling sessions. Melanie, he says, will loosen them up in the morning with games and activities, helping them to feel comfortable talking to strangers and to one another. Ann, meanwhile, will work downstairs, at a tutoring facility for mentally disabled children. (Saul, a retired periodontist, is across town, working in the local hospital's dentistry ward.)

That is as far as the guidance goes. To prepare, Melanie studies a schedule and diary left by her predecessor, a CCS volunteer who has just returned home. It is a chronicle of earnest guesswork. "Music was played and the men were encouraged to dance," one entry reads. "Even those who we thought would not dance were dancing." Another session, involving animal masks, seemed to fail badly. "The men put the masks on and were asked to walk around like the animal...they didn't understand how it applied to their life in any way, and they didn't like it."

Melanie is tough-minded and versatile, and she adapts quickly to her assignment. Trying an icebreaker she learned during a Goldman Sachs retreat, she passes a box of toothpicks to the 15 inmates who file in and gather in a circle before her. "Take as many as you think you will need for the game," she explains through a CCS translator. When everyone has a small clutch of toothpicks, she continues. "For each toothpick, you have to tell the group one thing about yourself." The men talk about family, work, and the neighborhoods where they grew up. Later, she puts on a New Agey CD and asks everyone to write or draw in a journal for 10 minutes without stopping. A few minutes in, two burly, middle-aged men put down their pens and begin to chat. "You're supposed to be writing," she scolds. They smile sheepishly and return to their journals.

Downstairs, Ann is having a more difficult time. Two teachers sit at a table with a tiny girl in a green sari. One teacher says in English that the girl, Pooja, is 17, though we assume she means seven until a translator corrects us. Pooja is severely disabled. For more than a week, she has been tracing the numbers one and two on sheets of paper.

The teachers turn to Ann and, through the translator, ask how she plans to work with Pooja. Ann, taken aback, produces a stack of exercises she brought from home (CCS staff had let her know she would be working with children in a pre-departure phone call they schedule with every volunteer). She spreads out pages with blank faces for coloring, worksheets on feelings, and a few issues of the kids' magazine Highlights. Then she settles on the idea of making puppets. But when the teachers balk at the supplies she expects, Ann grows impatient. "You need tinfoil, feathers, glitter! I would have brought this stuff from home. They told me, 'Don't bring!'" she huffs. "I have everything, and I could have brought it!" The teachers try to change the subject, but Ann talks over them. "At home, I have a room full of puppets. I have finger puppets, I have hand puppets, I have big puppets. I have so much stuff. They said, 'Nooooo, it won't fit in with the culture.' " CCS discourages vacationers from bringing anything more than books for the communities they work in, urging them instead to buy supplies at local markets.

"I've seen this a lot with some of the older volunteers," Melanie confesses when I join her in a foyer outside the classroom. Ann's voice rises again, loud and bossy, and Melanie cringes. "They've traveled all over the world, but they're also very set in their ways."

It seems as if it should be easy to do good when you travel, if that's what you set out to do. Cross Cultural Solutions' Rosenthal knows better. "It's really hard," he says.

Travelers and community organizations can have incompatible ideas about volunteer work, so tour organizers must watch the relationship carefully. "Our misconception on this side is that volunteers are needed to dig ditches and paint fences," Rosenthal says. That was what he had in mind when he first started CCS, until he met with community leaders in New Delhi. "They said, 'You're kidding, right? First of all, there's no shortage of manual labor. And second of all, we don't think your people are going to work as well.'"

"On their side," he says, "the misconception is that Americans can come in and sort things out that they can't." Rosenthal founded CCS on the principle that community organizations know best what their communities need, but locals still tend to treat volunteers like experts. In fact, most volunteers bring little expertise to their work. CCS asks travelers to send a résumé and fill out a four-page questionnaire, ranking both their work experience and their interest in everything from arts and crafts and sports to counseling, medicine, and computers. Many do have useful professional experience, and some of them, like Saul Goldstein, are eager to share it. But at least as often, travelers prefer to do something besides what they do for a living, and CCS respects that—after all, they aren't hiring aid workers, they're sending people on a vacation. "Some teachers will tell us, 'I don't care what I do, just don't put me in front of a room full of kids,'" Rosenthal says.

Then there are the logistics. When you run an organization like CCS, Rosenthal explains, "you're also running a hotel, a restaurant, and a taxi service. And you're dealing with human beings who are going through a potentially life-changing experience." Sometimes, travelers don't respond well to the frustrations of working in a developing country. Rosenthal, a bit perversely, thinks that's a valuable part of any volunteer vacation. "The role of international volunteering is to build bridges of understanding and to provide cultural immersion through service. It's not providing service—it's cultural immersion through service," Rosenthal says. "And cultural immersion doesn't mean walking through the street in a dreamlike state. It means being frustrated when things aren't working the way you expect them to."

Still, he knows that an international incident can be just one outburst away. Shortly before I traveled to India, a CCS volunteer lost patience with the conditions of the health clinic where he worked and lashed out at the directors; after he left, the clinic refused to accept any more volunteers.

Sometimes, worthy work can be tedious. On an Earthwatch trip to Bali, Saul and Ann spent two weeks recording the number of times male macaques thrust when they get amorous with a lady macaque ("Bang, bang, bang—it's over," Saul recalls.) And sometimes, it can be dangerous. A young volunteer who left Dharmsala just before I arrived was badly bitten by one of the ragged dogs that run through the streets in packs after dark. On an Earthwatch program in the Congo, Saul had an unnerving exchange with drunken rebels.

Faced with a world of complexities, even highly regarded tour companies like CCS and Global Volunteers disagree on some fundamental elements of a good program. CCS, for instance, encourages travelers to work half-day shifts and then sightsee in the afternoons or arrange informal visits with locals. CCS held a picnic for us one afternoon outside the Masroor Rock Temple, a short drive from Dharmsala. They also brought us to the Norublingka Institute, an art and theology school for the region's large Tibetan community (the Dalai Lama lives a couple of miles up the road). Global Volunteers, on the other hand, urges participants to work a 40-hour week.

In addition to insisting that volunteers shop at local markets, CCS contributes to community economies by hiring locals as staff—more than a half-dozen in Dharmsala, including cooks, drivers, translators, and organizers. But it won't give money to organizations that accept CCS volunteers. "There's a whole set of people out there who look at volunteers as a moneymaking opportunity," Rosenthal says. "It's just rotten to the core." Global Volunteers and Habitat for Humanity, however, make donations of cash or materials a priority. "In India, where we care for children, they really have no money," Global Volunteers president Bud Philbrook says. "For four hundred dollars a year, we can provide a kid's food, lodging, medicine, tuition, clothing, and athletic equipment. And we do." He argues that anything less would be irresponsible. "There's no debate among development experts that there should be capital infusion," he says.

Michael Edwards, a development scholar with the Ford Foundation and a veteran of Britain's answer to the Peace Corps, Voluntary Service Overseas, thinks either approach can work. What's most important, he says, is being honest about the kind of difference volunteer vacations can make: "It's extremely unlikely that the major benefit of these trips will be developmental or technical." Meaningful cultural exchange, he stresses, is benefit enough. "It's absolutely essential that people from different parts of the world have face time together if we're going to forge international relationships—which we have to do if we're going to survive."

"I'm frustrated," Ann says. She is sitting on the front porch of the CCS apartment, the bottom floor of a sunny yellow house perched on the edge of a steep hillside. From our white plastic lawn chairs, we can see dozens of blue-gray Himalayan peaks fading out to the horizon.

"I get disappointed, too," Melanie says. "But you have to lower your expectations."

"You're here only a few weeks," Ann agrees, sighing heavily. "And you can't just walk over them."

"You have Pooja," Melanie answers. "You can make a difference in her life." 

Anil Bhatnagar, the site manager in Dharmsala, brings over Saul and a handful of college-age women, who round out this month's batch of volunteers. He gathers the group together at the end of each week, to check in on the projects and to give everyone a chance to vent.

"I love the challenge we're facing at work, but it kept me up last night," Melanie says, reflecting on her time at the rehab center. "They put a lot of responsibility on the volunteers. I'm up for the challenge..." She pauses. "But I just feel like the staff expects us to be cure-alls."

Anil nods knowingly. "That's the way it is. They look up to America."

"I think someone needs to tell them that Americans don't know everything," Melanie says.

"You have to be really clear—"

"But I sense disappointment, which, to a perfectionist, is hard," Melanie says.

Maybe. But when I return to the Red Cross building alone, to see what the counselors have to say about Melanie's efforts, they heap praise on all of the volunteers. In a small office where he spends his day leading one-on-one rehab sessions, R. K. Tripathi explains that the biggest challenge is getting inmates to buy into the treatment. They may ignore a counselor, but they are curious about foreign visitors. "If the inmates are interested in the volunteers," he says, "they will be more motivated in our program." The dentists at the hospital are just as effusive. They value Saul's expertise, but even more, they appreciate the novelty of talking shop with an American colleague.

Ann gets a more immediate sense of the impact of her work a few days later, when she helps out at a rural day-care center outside Dharmsala (volunteers can opt to balance two work placements, instead of spending all their time at one). We walk single-file along a narrow dirt trail between two rice paddies dense with spry green shoots, until the path reaches a simple, mud-packed house with rows of stars carved into turquoise wood trim. Ann steps over nine pairs of tiny flip-flops and into a small, windowless room covered in old educational posters: numbers, letters, fruits and vegetables, animals. Behind a desk, the teacher beams. She leaves her class, nine kids between two and four years old, with Ann and a CCS translator, who teach them how to blow bubbles with soap Ann brought from the States; they play games with a pack of balloons from the market. While the children recite from the animal chart in English—"Yak! Mongoose! Jackal! Monkey!"—the teacher takes advantage of the break to fill out a stack of paperwork for the government. Visitors interrupt her every few minutes. In addition to teaching and feeding lunch to the community's children, her $12-a-month job puts her in charge of all pre- and post-natal care, health checks for girls, and distributing wheat subsidies.

When it is time for Ann to leave, the harried teacher looks at her, pausing a moment before saying anything. "Do you like it here?" she asks, finally. "Yes!" Ann says; she will be back tomorrow. The teacher sighs in relief and smiles.

"Sometimes we don't know what effect our work has, or if we're doing anything at all," says Bela Singh, country director for India and a co-founder of CCS. For many volunteer travelers, that will be a trip's greatest hardship. But Singh recalls the year CCS launched a program in Rajgarh, an isolated spot about eight hours southeast of Dharmsala. "Electricity had just come to the town," she recalls. One of the volunteers that season was a naval engineer. "She was a very bright girl; she stood out in the group." One afternoon, she talked to children at a local school about her job. Three years later, Singh was visiting volunteers in

Rajgarh when a schoolgirl raced up to her. "She said, 'Guess what? I've just been admitted to engineering college. I'm going to build ships, too.'"

Melanie wonders what will become of the people she helped, and whether future volunteers will continue her work. But she knows she found the change she was looking for. She wants to do more volunteering when she returns to New York, something CCS encourages throughout its trips. The brevity of a volunteer vacation is one of its chief drawbacks—one that is mitigated, however, if CCS inspires travelers to continue giving back when they return home, either by finding ways to help the countries or organizations they visited or by simply bringing the culture of volunteerism back to their own communities. "I've already started looking for places where I can volunteer when I get back," Melanie says. "I just want to contribute."