How to Give Back When You Travel

Travelers, part of traveling responsibly (open hearts, open minds!) is giving back to the places you visit that give you so much.  There are ways to travel to places and take, sometimes simply to get that amazing Insta-photo... and there are ways to travel that give.

We want to be on the right side of this equation, do we not?  (We do!)  Pop down for some shameful stories of times when yours truly was not the most ethical traveler, and learn from my mistakes, okay?

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Whisked Away Surprise Travel:  How to Give Back When You Travel

Money Money Mon-AY!  Mon-AY!

The easiest, and perhaps most obvious way to share the love whilst abroad is to share your dolla dolla billz in an ethical way.  

If that small co-op shop in Guatemala is teaching women how to use their sewing skills to provide for their families, it stands to reason that the amazing purple huipil purse you are eyeing might cost a bit more than you the ones you saw on the street.  BUY IT.  

Not only are you supporting that incredible organization, but you are voting with your purchases and making it known that visitors prefer spending ethically.  This will, in turn, convince others to start similar co-ops, thereby helping more women and girls, thereby helping the world... ahhh!  

Not a bad price to pay for making the world a better place, right?  Plus, now you have an adorable keepsake from an amazing trip that you can feel hella good about.  Way to go, you.

Confessions, aka: The Time I Volunteered in an Orphanage in Africa

Ohhhhh-kay.  Here goes.  I have to confess something, friends.  I was THAT white girl.  

In 2007 I won a scholarship through Travelocity called Travel for Good.  In the application, I chose Ghana as the place I'd most like to go and spend three weeks volunteering.  

The on-the-ground organization that I volunteered through is an international one that is very well-known and which I will not name here for reasons that I will explain shortly.  They put the 30-ish of us volunteers up in a nice (for the area) home in our little town in Ghana, and we were split up to perform different volunteer duties around town.

Mine?  Volunteering in an orphanage.  

Now.  I must state very clearly here that I'm sure there are some wonderful organizations that do amazing work with orphanages around the world.  I'm sure these children are getting helped, getting adopted, getting real food.

However.  If we consider the amount of money that each volunteer (apart from me who won the trip) paid to be there, and then we consider the absolute and horrific squalor that these children were living in, we might conclude that the money that volunteers paid to be there could be enough to put in a second toilet for these children, or buy them some decent clothes, or perhaps a proper floor for their orphanage.

Did I think about any of these things while I was there playing with the kids?  I did not.  Am I ashamed?  I am.  Am I writing about it here because hopefully if you are considering voluntourism you will look verrrrry carefully at who you volunteer with?  Yes.  

One last thing here:  if you are really thinking about volunteering while traveling, please ask yourself who the experience is really for.  That simple question may lead you somewhere helpful.

***Stepping down from soapbox atop high horse***

Confessions Vol. 2 aka The Time Dolphins Pushed Me Across Water

In college, my family and I trekked down to the islands to do some sight-seeing.  As part of our trip, mom and dad (Hi mom and dad!) booked a dolphin experience for my brother and I.  

If you are on social media at all, you know what these dolphin excursions are.  You pop on a life jacket, do some tricks with the dolphins, get your picture taken giving kisses, cutie cute cute.

The following story remains a family fave:

On our excursion, two dolphins would also come up behind you and push you across the water at high speeds, using their bottle noses on your flexed feet.  I was wearing a bikini this day, and though the instructor told me to hold on to my bikini bottoms so they would not fly off, I decided that continuing to breathe (instead of getting pushed under the ocean while flying across it) was more important.

Thus, there is video somewhere of my bare butt sailing across the Caribbean.  

Naked butts zooming across your screen aside, we must ask ourselves:  are dolphins meant to be pushing people across the water at high speeds?  They are not.  

Are elephants meant to carry you around Thailand and then hang out in chains afterwards?  They are not.

Were we as a family thinking about such things in 2001?  We weren't, you guys, and I'm sorry about that.  But we can now.

If you are considering animal tourism, do it!  Animals are amazing creatures and it is totally cool to stand in awe of what they can do... but only when they are doing WHAT THEY ARE MEANT TO BE DOING.  Birds gotta fly, but not in cages.  Monkeys gotta swing in trees... real ones.  In a jungle.  Whales gotta have a bazillion miles of plastic-free ocean to explore, not a teensy tank somewhere in Florida.

Do your research, find out if the place where you are about to vote with your money and time is treating animals with respect... and if it isn't?  Don't go.

Try Wwoofing!

Wwoofing is so great and I'll never shut up about its greatness!  

Wwoofing is:

  • a cheap/free way to travel 
  • a great way to get off the tourist trail
  • the perfect vehicle for getting into learner mode (aka the whole point of traveling)
  • how I stayed for free in Argentina for two weeks and drank lots of great wine

If you aren't familiar, Wwoofing is an online platform divided by country.  Let's say you wanted to visit Ecuador for an extended period and stay for free.  Wwoofing will pair you with a farm, vineyard, ecolodge, whatever- you trade your volunteer hours for room and board.

This is the kind of volunteering we can (and should) all get behind.  You are living with a family or group, they let you know what they need done and what they will give you in return for doing it.

In my case, in return for 6 hours of manual labor per day clearing a ditch of weeds and bottling wine, I got to stay in a hut made of wine bottles and mud for free and I got all of the fresh garden veggies, baked goods and Malbec I could handle.  I also got an impromptu birthday party complete with lemon meringue pie and a dinner made entirely of local produce!

(Also: tech-free quiet nights by the fire, sheep grazing outside of my window and complete solitude, but those were just extras.)

With Wwoofing, you are put into learner mode.  How are things done here?  How would you like them done?  How have they been done historically?  This is awesome because it puts the people you are visiting in the driver's seat, and you gain some amazing travel knowledge.  Here's to that.

What are your favorite ways to give back when you travel?  How do you travel responsibly?