Jet to an exotic country. Get immersed in local customs. Help build a house or dig a well. Make buddies with fascinating people you'd never meet otherwise. A "voluntourism" trip seems like a great way to give back or improve the world in a small way. It can be, but you should ask a lot of questions before signing up and plunking down cash.

Over the last several years, this well-meaning market has grown quickly, with studies estimating 1.6 million volunteer tourists per year and growing. About 33 percent of volunteer travelers are between the ages of 20 and 40. Another 34 percent are slightly older, between 41 and 60. Overall, the travelers are more likely to be female. However, the impact of these trips is hard to quantify. A large majority of the tourists take them because they want to help alleviate poverty and find joy in the camaraderie.

Voluntourism: Helpful or Hurtful?

In a piece for the Guardian called "Beware the 'Voluntourists' Doing Good," Ossob Mohamud writes that there are more effective ways to help the needy than take a trip. His concern is that very often the helpers come off as patronizing and condescending, with little understanding of the local culture and the people's actual needs.

Other critics complain that high-paying volunteers take jobs away from local laborers. The engagement between volunteers and Cambodian orphans may seem endearing  until you discover some of these children have families, and are just being hired out to entertain big-hearted tourists with sob stories. In other reported cases, an orphanage may keep the conditions of an institution squalid to ply more money from tourists primed to donate. Even if the orphans do connect with the volunteers, they're once again faced with feelings of abandonment when the tour is over.

Not all NGOs think voluntourism is bad. Chris Johnson, director of communications for the Fuller Center of Housing, is less concerned about a volunteer's impetus for choosing to build homes for families in the mountains of Peru or Nepal "as long as the work gets done." In a New York Times article, he explained that the families who benefit from the new residence probably don't care if the builders are doing it for selfish reasons.

How Do You Know If Your Program Is Effective?

So, how do you know if the program you're paying for is actually helping people? There are several important details to consider that will help uncover the impact of the tour, outlined by the editors of the site Ethical Volunteering.

1. Bigger Isn't Always Better

While you might think the more you pay for a tour, the more impact it will have, a more expensive tour may have less impact because it has fewer connections to local organizations.

2. Watch out for Grand Promises

As much as you want to think you're "changing the world," the reality is you're giving a small boost to an organization that needs a hand. Be mindful of marketing that promises more.

3. Don't be swayed by pictures of children

It's great to help children, but if you're looking at a brochure that tugs at your heartstrings rather than demonstrates what impact you're making, be wary.

4. Check if the organization screens volunteers

Is this organization of change hoping to capitalize on your skills, or does it just need your money? Take heed if it doesn't care about what capabilities you have.

According to a study by the Adventure Travel Trade Organization, the most popular volunteer programs offer the opportunity to work with children, support education, protect the environment, create local jobs, and assist clean water projects.

While the popular voluntourism destinations are in Asia, Africa and Latin America, it's also possible to assist NGOs in cities such as New Orleans and Orlando. Some hotels in Denver, like the Four Seasons Hotel Denver, have been known to offer a discount to guests willing to spend half a day working with charity.

Find a project that makes for a great experience while also positively impacting the world.

  This article was posted by The Hipmunk on Hipmunk's Tailwind blog on August 28th.

Published in Miscellany Articles

I have never understood how anyone can like January. The sad, sinking feeling caused by limp, leftover tinsel hanging in shops, braving the dreary weather without any promise of a mulled wine stop, realising that everyone you know has vowed to lose weight, save money or quit drinking- it is a real slog of a 31 day month.  For me, the January Blues are hitting particularly hard this year (can you tell?) Having spent Christmas on holiday in India, flying back to reality on New Years Day has left me longing for backpacking adventures again. So, before I get a grip, look forward and make plans for 2014, here are my top 10 beautiful places in Asia, home to my happiest past travel memories.

10.   Tiger Leaping Gorge, China

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By far and away the best thing I did whilst traveling around China, The Tiger Leaping Gorge hike in northern Yunnan is, in my opinion, still massively underrated. The Hutiao Xia gorge, at 16km long and 3900m from the Jinsha River to the snow capped Haba Shan, is simply breathtaking.  During summer the hills are absolutely teeming with plant and flower life and an even pace allows you to unwind in the picturesque villages along the way. The trail stretches between sleepy Qiaotou and even sleepier Walnut Garden and runs high along the northern side of the impressive gorge, passing through some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes in the country.

Jane’s Guesthouse in Qiaotou is the perfect place to prepare or recover from the trek. The food is homemade and hearty, the coffee is strong and the rooms are cosy with clear views of the snow-capped peaks. At the other end, Sean’s Spring Guesthouse is worth every footstep of the extra walk into Walnut Garden. Keep following the painted yellow arrows- you will not regret it! We finished our trek with warm Tibetan bread, celebratory beers and an open fire in Sean’s homey lounge.

The hike can be completed in a day or two, but it is equally tempting to linger and enjoy countryside life for longer. After all, how often do you get to watch the sun set over Jade Dragon Snow Mountain while supping Chinese tea and resting your tired feet?

9.    Gili Islands, Indonesia

gili

 

There is a lot to be said for an island with no motorized traffic. Being able to stroll around the parameters, barefoot and still sandy from the beach, having left your friends snoozing on one of the shoreline sofa beds, is reason enough to make the trip across the water from Padang bai. Though they are certainly not undiscovered, the three irresistible Gili islands offer a quiet and serenity that the rest of Bali simply does not.

Made up of beachfront bungalows, white sands and warm waters, Gili Trawangan is the isle with the most going on. Like many of the Indonesian hotspots, it ticks all the boxes for a desert island cliché and also boasts an exciting nightlife for those living-the-dream on the South east Asia trail. Designated party venues mean you can choose between a night at one of the low-key raves or whiling away the hours at a beachfront restaurant. Highlights for me were the Nutella milkshakes, having our very own DVD night in a private beach hut, dancing under the stars at Rudy’s Bar and night swimming with phosphorescence- luminous plankton.

You can reach the tiny tropical islands by fast boat from Bali and mainland Lombok or (painfully) slow ferry from Padang bai and Senggigi.  Prepare to wade ashore.

 8.     Malapascua Island, The Philippines

Malapascua Island

 

This little island off the northern tip of Cebu is sun-bleached and fabulous. Simple villages, bustling basketball courts and local fiestas play a huge part in making this tiny speck of The Philippines a traveler’s paradise. Though it is slowly becoming more and more popular, Malapascua remains off the beaten track and humble in its approach to tourism. Home to welcoming locals and some dive school expatriates, the island community is peaceful and charming with a real sense of having left the western world behind.

The diving here is also world class. With three wreck dives, a sea-snake breeding centre and daily thresher shark sightings, Malapascua is one of the best places in The Philippines for big fish encounters. Night diving is popular, with mandarin fish, seahorses, bobtail squid and blue ring octopus making regular appearances. And if marine life isn’t your thing, the delicious local food, mesmerizing sunsets and picture-perfect Bounty beach make for a blissful dry land experience.

Sunsplash Restaurant operates a beach bar during high season and is the perfect place to wait for the sunset. For the very best views and an extra slice of quietude, stay at Logon or Tepanee.

7.     Mui Ne, Vietnam

mui ne

 

For someone with a notoriously terrible sense of direction, the surf capital of southern Vietnam offers a welcome sense of order. With everything spread out along one 10km stretch of highway, it is impossible to get lost and easy to find friends. In fact, with guesthouses lined up on one side of the road and restaurants and shops flanking the other it couldn’t be any easier to negotiate your way around the coastal town.

Once an isolated stretch of sand, Mui Ne is now famous for its unrivalled surfing opportunities and laid back vibes. For windsurfers, the gales blow best from late October to April while surf’s up from August to December. Luckily for me, lounging around on the beach is possible all year through. For the very best Kodak moments, the red and white sand dunes provide endless hours of sledding fun and jump-as-high-as-you-can competitions with the local children. A beautiful walk along the Fairy Spring will also take you past some stunning rock formations. While it feels as though you should be wading upstream barefoot, be sure to take shoes if you are going during the midday sun.

When night falls, resident DJs, beach bonfires and live bands draw the surfer crowds to DJ StationWax and Joe’s 24 hour Café, where happy hour can and usually does last til sunrise.

6.    Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

unawatuna

 

Unawatuna Beach in Sri Lanka is what I hope heaven looks like. Deliciously lazy, exceedingly tropical and just so very, very beautiful, this sandy gem is the kind of place everyone dreams about. Life moves slowly here. Sleeping under a swaying coconut palm is about the only thing on the itinerary for most.

Following the devastating effects of the tsunami in 2004, locals of Unawatuna set about re-building their businesses right on the sand. While this does mean that the beach is much smaller than it used to be, honey-mooners and hippies alike flock to this boomerang shaped bend to soak up the Sri Lankan sunshine. And it really doesn’t get much better than this. The sea is gentle, turquoise and perfect for swimming and banana lassis are brought to your very sunbed. Colourful tropical fish swim in the live patch of coral in front of Submarine Diving School and you can rent snorkel masks from any of the places on the beach. I discovered a whole new meaning of lazy in Unawatuna but, if you want to leave utter beach paradise, it is a great base from which to explore the surrounding areas.

(This one does come with a warning. A cockroach warning. It is not enough to get Unawatuna booted off the list, but please note that multiple hard-shelled creepies do feature in my memories of this otherwise utterly perfect corner of the resplendent isle. Having said that, I did choose to stay somewhat off the beaten track at Mr.Rickshaw’s brother’s cousin’s place. It is very likely that the crayon-box cute guesthouses on the beach are roach free.)

5.    Yangshuo, China

yangshuo

 

For the perfect blend of bustling Chinese culture, enchanted landscapes and sleepy relaxation, look no further than this sedate and peaceful ancient city. Worlds apart from the mayhem of congested Guilin, Yangshuo lies in the mist of karst limestone peaks and the gentle Li-river. Cycling through the villages will take you past duckmen, fishermen, water buffalo and clementine farms, as well as over silky brooks, ancient caves and sights like Moon Hill and the Big Banyan Tree. And when you’re done with the countryside, get lost amongst the painted fans and embroidered costumes of Yangshuo Town and its cheery market place.

I stayed at beautiful Dutch guesthouse, The Giggling Tree in Aishanmen Village. Bamboo rafting was on our doorstep and they arranged transport to the Lakeside lightshow, ‘Impression Sanjie Liu’. Cycling into town for street side specialties, souvenir shopping and live folk music was easy enough, although the starlit ride back after a few Tsing Tao’s was a little shaky!

4.     Luang Prabang, Laos

laos3

 

You can’t help but smile when you are in Laos. The people here are possibly the most laid back people on earth. Even after two long, long days of doing nothing on the slow ferry, arriving into the languid mountain kingdom of Luang Prabang makes you want to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n. Tourists meander down the French colonial streets to the flow of the Mekong River and saffron robed monks seem to almost glide up and down the shaded sideways on their way to prayer.

Voted one of the best places in the world for ‘slow travel’ by Lonely Planet, this hushed and heady city offers everything from red roofed temples to quaint provincial coffee houses, the moonstone blue Kuang Sii waterfalls and exquisite night markets. You can watch the sun setting over the river, hear the monks chanting their oms in the distance and enjoy delicious local dishes with a cold Beer Lao. With a curfew bidding this heritage listed town goodnight at 11.30pm, catching up on your sleep has never been so enjoyable, especially if you are recovering from tubing in Vang Vieng. (For a much less sleepy evening, ask a tuk-tuk driver to take you to the local bowling alley. Trust me on this one.)

3.    Mira Beach, Perhentian Pulau Kecil, Malaysia

mira beach

 

When I discovered that Beach Tomato had included Mira Beach as one of its ‘world’s most beautiful beaches’ I physically stood up and clapped. I almost don’t want to say it aloud for fear of contributing to this unspoilt patch of paradise becoming, well, spoiled, but I couldn’t agree more. Set back on the western side of tiny Kecil island, Mira Beach is its very own secluded cove. Surrounded by forest-green jungle, lapped by bathtub warm sea and drenched in Malaysian sunshine, the white bay can be reached by taxi-boat or Tarzan inspired trek only. Steer clear if you’re looking for plush resort or summer luxury though, the stilted chalets are as basic as they come. Managed by a local Malay family, the collection of rustic huts are kept clean and framed by frangipanis for ultimate postcard perfection. We left by water-taxi, tanned and having swum with turtles. Heaven.

2.      Pokhara Valley, Nepal

pokhara

 

Whether you are in Nepal for trekking the Himalayas, volunteering with an NGO or spotting the rhinos and elephants, a visit is not complete without catching a glimpse of (or a good long gaze at) Lake Phewa in Pokhara. Popular for being the gateway to the AnnaPurna trekking circuit, the valley has been blessed with panoramic views of this breathtaking region. Waking up to crystal clear views of snowy Mt. Fishtail, boating on Phewa’s placid waters and hiking to the sunkissed World Peace Pagoda could not have made me any happier. Throw in the cups of masala chai at Asian Teahouse, the surrounding Tibetan villages and the unimaginable hospitality of the local people and I was about ready to miss my return flight home.

Guesthouses are homely, food is hearty and the scenery really is spectacular. Pokhara is so much more than just a place to rest your feet after a hike. A month here saw us paragliding from Sarangkot, exploring the Old Bazaar, playing guitar in an underground Blues bar and falling in love with the children of the Himalayan Children’s Care Home. Don’t miss out on the Nepali specials at Asian TeaHouse and Pandey Restaurant. For me, the smaller the café, the better the food. Venture away from those Lakeside favourites!

((Drum Roll please...))

1.     Varkala, India

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If Varkala were a fairytale, it would be the one that made you believe in love, trust in the happy ending and doodle hearts and flowers in your notebook.

Nestled in the evergreen state of beautiful Kerala, this seaside town offers sunlit red ochre cliffs, coconut palm fringed beaches and peacock blue waves. The liquid lulls of local Malayalam, coconut spiced South Indian curries and breathtaking views of the ocean make it the perfect haven from the hustle and bustle of India’s cities. After ten days here, I wondered how I’d ever been happy anywhere else in the world.

From the singing mango-seller on the sand ‘yum, yum, yum, yum, eating eating’, to the cheeky waiters at the cafes, the locals on the cliff have got it exactly right. You could while away days, weeks and months watching the lives and loves of fishermen, frisbee-playing locals, moonlit yoga classes, Hindu temple men and strolling backpackers. Guesthouses are secret gardens and bamboo huts, restaurants are candle lit and family run and the Tibetan market wafts incense until after dark. Yet, far from being just a serene stopover, Varkala boats a ‘Shanti Shanti’ soul and cheeky community spirit that binds even the quietest visitor under its spell. By night, lanterns twinkle, candles flicker and stars burn bright over the backpacker favourites. I never knew beer could taste as good as it does here; poured from a discrete tea-pot, served with a glinting smile and supped to the blissful sounds of ocean, music and laughter.

If you tire of strolling, swimming, sunbathing or smoothie-drinking easily, the charming Varkala Town is just a 5 minute scooter ride or leisurely walk away. Surfing lessons, yoga classes and cooking workshops are all available atop the rosy cliff too. For dolphin watching, walk past the quieter Black Beach to the hamlet of Edava and watch from the cliff curve.

My heartfelt recommendations for Varkala are breakfast at The Juice Shack, hammock swinging at Secret Garden Homestay and Restaurant and cold Kingfishers at Backside Café. If you’re lucky enough to be there when the Alleppy Boys are playing, get down to Chill Out Lounge for a jamming session with the gorgeous and very talented local band.

There are daily trains and buses to Trivandrum, and a backwater boat to Alleppy leaves from neighboring Kollam.

Hammocks at Secret Garden Homestayhammocks at Secret Garden Homestay
Varkala CliffVarkala Cliff
Indiasea view from Juice Shack balcony
New Year's Eve at Secret GardenNew Year's Eve at Secret Garden

Happy Traveling in 2014!

Published in Miscellany Articles

I left my heart in Costa Rica. It's true. I can not tell a lie. As the Summer fades away I can't help but be saddened by how much I miss Costa Rica.

It's been a few months now since I've been home and back to the daily grind but almost everyday I think about Costa Rica and the children whose faces I miss (even when I didn't think I would).

So while I've been having nostalgia for this awesome country I thought I might share with you the things I miss about Costa Rica and the things I don't (I mean really don't).

Bad news first:

I hate to break it to you Costa Rica but I DO NOT MISS all the hills. If you've ever ventured to the city of San Pedro you know what I'm talking about. The hills are just EVERYWHERE.

I also DO NOT MISS no sidewalks. Its like your just walking in the middle of the street. And those streets that do have sidewalks are usually covered in construction.

Here's the big one: I DO NOT MISS not being able to flush toilet paper! This was probably the biggest adjustment I had to make while I was there. Pretty much only the airport allows for toilet paper to be flushed. I know what your all thinking, what about when you have to go "number 2"? Well it gets a tad awkward.

I DO NOT MISS having to check the numbers on the side of the cab to make sure it is a legit cab. True story, you have to make sure that your getting into a "real cab". They feed on tourists.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system, lets talk about all the things I MISS about Costa Rica.

I MISS...

...My host family

...The children of the Abraham Project

...Teaching ESL

...Speaking "Spanglish"

...All of my new found friends in the Teaching English program

...Homemade Empanada's

...Teaching my host family words in English (such as yummy)

...Drinking large glasses of orange flavored beer

...$1 Tequilla shots

...My amazing tan

...Finding Tom's brand shoes for $10 

...Movie nights

...Chasing the dog Bianca around the house

...Having the dog Bianca sneeze in my crotch

...Fresh squeezed juice

...Taking the time to appreciate life

So as you can see my list of things that I miss out weighs the things that I don't miss. Its easy to see why, visiting Costa Rica was hands down the best experience of my life thus far. Venturing out on my own took great guts and I have so much to show for it now.

So while I may have left my heart in Costa Rica, I know that there is always a part of my heart there, how many people can say that?

Published in Costa Rica

Experiential travel is one of the biggest buzzwords in today's rapidly changing travel industry, but there's more than one way to get under the skin of a country.

For ultimate cultural immersion, a voluntour provides you with the perfect mix, and there's a deeper sense of commitment when the holiday is focused on the objectives of one organisation or community. In Africa, you might be involved in one-to-one teaching or working as part of a wildlife conservation team, but either way, it's the reason behind the holiday not an add on excursion on a longer tour.

Photography transcends all boundaries in the Townships of South Africa

On the other side of the coin, what can you really achieve in one day, or one single afternoon for that matter? The answer is simple, and it really boils down to how you view tourism, and yourself as a tourist.

For me, the word tourist conjures up images of my parents heading back to the Spanish coastal town of Lloret De Mar. This being their honeymoon destination, I'm sure for them it had that added tinge of nostalgia. And, while there was probably more on offer than the wall-to-wall trinkets, complete with endless rows of donkeys and boxed dolls dressed in national costume, I guess the wheels of ethical travel hadn't quite kicked in. Move on three decades and even your luxury dining establishment in Cape Town will have a more of responsible flair.

Table Mountain in South Africa, one of the new seven wonders

One of the new seven wonders of the world, Table Mountain is perhaps one of South Africa's best known natural ambassadors, and the mother city hosts any number of events from the Red Bull Big Wave surf contest to Pride and beyond. But sampling award winning wines, gourmet delicacies and tripping the light fantastic in the city's lively bars could well feel you leaving like you've missed a trick.

Enter, the Townships, and Langa, the largest settlement lying 15-kms from the centre of South Africa's provincial capital. For some, the location might mean going outside of their comfort zone, but in real terms it all depends on your exposure to the globe. Experential tourism isn't a fad, it's a wave of enlightenment, and most of us are now craving the reality of a destination even if it's far removed from our own.

Langa Township, South Africa

We stop being tourists when communities invite us in, and Township tours are undertaken by real locals. It's no longer traveller-centric as it’s the community that is choosing to share their story. Some might see it as voyuerism, but in essence it’s a chance to discuss the history of apartheid and in that sense a very informative experience. The afternoon excursion also creates opportunities for those who want to offer educational resources via their local guide (hence the recent launch of Acacia Africa's travelling eco-book depository). Toni White, Editor of Reclaiming My Future, posited this as an encouraging initiative, one that provides a sense of direction as there's still that age old question of “what to bring?”

For others it also serves as a basis to go further. On a return visit that person might be compelled to play a more active role, take on a voluntour in Africa or even do more in their own home town/city.

Acacia Nursery at Langa Township
Acacia Nursery at Langa Township

In terms of cultural immersion, a Township tour may not provide the same depth as a lengthier voluntour, but there is a sense of engagement in the history of the community and the here and now. In addition, there's also an overwhelming sense of acceptance, whether you're entering a family home or visiting a Shabeen (local bar). But, more importantly it's about mindset. While some travellers might see poverty, paradoxically the locals are often thinking about change, improvement and moving forwards. At that point, your status as a tourist is never clearly defined, and real change, no matter how short lived, comes from sharing and connecting with communities.

Voluntourism does everyone good
Voluntourism does EVERYONE good

  Acacia Africa offers Township tours on many of its overland expeditions along with add on city stays in Cape Town. Acacia Africa: 020 7706 4700; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; see their official site for more information.

Published in South Africa

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