Monday, February 15, 2010
Volunteering to Promote "Voluntourism"
Somebody finally wants us! Mariana and I had been looking for volunteering opportunities as we traveled, but our search only turned into an act of persistent futility. One of the unfortunate truths in today's World is that a genuine act of kindness from a stranger who desires nothing in return, is usually viewed with jaded skepticism. This truth is not without precedent, as many people offer help with the intent to scam innocent and trusting bystanders. That was the sad truth we were faced with until we met the owner of Tiger Trails in Laos and offered our "free" time to help his company.
Tiger Trails is a tour company that promotes social and environmental awareness for each of its customers. The owner is a young man from Germany who has worked very hard over the past decade to help build a preserve for abused elephants. Laos is a largely rural country that still uses the slash and burn method of farming to grow a variety of crops. This form of agriculture is extremely harmful to the environment due to the deforestation and air pollution it causes, but it has also been especially hard on the elephants who are used for manual labor. Laos was once known as the land of a million elephants, but today's populations number somewhere in the low thousands (wild and tame). Many elephants are born in captivity and immediately placed in to the service of farmers and loggers. Sadly, even some of the tourist agencies still send unknowing patrons to areas where elephants are treated poorly and forced to perform in ridiculous shows under the guise that they are visiting an elephant "preserve".
Travellers in Asia, and every part of the World for that matter, must learn to research any kind of animal attraction thoroughly before choosing to support it with their hard-earned money. For instance, young children will try to sell you small birds held in cramped cages at popular Buddhist temples so you can free them and perform a worthy "act of kindness". This poses two significant problems for any warm-blooded tourist with a heart: 1.) the children are typically VERY poor and VERY cute and 2.) the birds are in dire need of freedom. As hard as it was for Mariana and I to refuse their offer of engaging ourselves in an enlightening act of mercy, we knew that our financial contribution would only promote the continued act of abusing unsuspecting animals. Besides, I found it ironic that a Buddhist temple would ever allow such a predatory act of capitalism to occur within its walls at the expense of another living creature. Ohh...the beautiful love story of religion and money, but I digress.
Back to Volunteering to promote Voluntourism. Tiger Trails informed us that they would like to start giving back to the villages of ethnic minorities (Hmong and Khmu) who have allowed foreigners to sneak a peek at their daily life and traditions. Most of the villages do not have schools, so the owner of Tiger Trails decided that he was going to set up a program where tourists could sacrifice their money and their time to come to Laos and help construct “creative centers” for village children. Their money would go to pay for transportation, accommodation within the villages, and construction supplies. Their time would be spent working side-by-side with the villagers and cultivating an invaluable cultural exchange. Money spent + Time spent = Voluntourism. Mariana and I fit into the equation, because Tiger Trails needed a native English speaker to create the brochure for their new excursion and to edit various older tour brochures that needed some brushing up. As a result, I have been writing brochures instead of blogs and Mariana has been editing her heart out. We did receive a free trip to the villages and the Kuang Si Waterfall for our work, but I will save that story for another blog.