With the school year well under way, I know that next summer will lead to another inevitable travel journey abroad. It’s hard to believe that just two months ago, I finished an epic journey traveling around the world and visiting 22 countries. Although I am no longer able to travel full-time at the present moment, my job enables me to reach new destinations or to experience something completely different each summer and during school holidays. Prior to my sabbatical year, I connected my abroad travel with volunteering. Reminiscing about my past “voluntourism” opportunities has me wondering what responsible tourism vacations I’ll do next! I’m already planning my next trips! Here are the highlights of some of my past responsible travel tours.
In July 2011, I landed in Lethem, Guyana, South America, to provide indigenous teachers training in the areas of English Language Arts and HIV/AIDS Education in a very remote region of the country bordering Brazil. Teaching in an isolated area such as this, prone to floods, power outages, a lack of running water, limited resources and food forced me to become very creative in planning my lessons which were taught in an open-air classroom—even during the middle of a severe thunder and rain storm. I never know what to expect when I arrive in a new country engulfed by a new way of living.
July 2010, led me to Oasis Hostel along the Pacific Coast in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, previously the number one rated hostel in Mexico. My students are constantly amazed when they hear that I travel abroad, backpack alone, and stay in hostels in each city along the way. Each trip has taught me something new about myself and I constantly encourage others to try new things and to be open to new experiences. Each one of my journeys begins with a detailed week by week itinerary for my exploration of the country, which is often exchanged for an experience not planned for. My week by week plans are quickly thrown out the window as I head in an entirely unexpected direction.
Puerto Vallarta remains vivid in my mind, because that particular trip’s detailed itinerary was soon exchanged for an unexpected relaxing tour through three states in Mexico, while also finding opportunities to volunteer in an orphanage and a local summer camp for underprivileged children. Upon arrival, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the hostel I was staying at encouraged involvement in the local community and offered many options for guests to get involved. I signed up to volunteer at the Children Center of Hope Orphanage and the School of Champions through Feed the Children Vallarta (Formally known as Children of the Dump). Most of my time was spent at the School of Champions volunteering at the summer camp teaching English and facilitating games and crafts to the many children who live around the dump. This particular hostel was unlike any other because it encouraged “responsible tourism” where travelers become ambassadors of their country and can impact others. I have always felt strongly about volunteering and I was happy to see that more and more people are recognizing the impact that tourism in-connection-with-volunteering can make. “Voluntourism” as they call it.
I agree with hostel owner Guillermo Vargas when he states “at the end of the day it is really about change.” If I, an ordinary person, can make a difference in the world, than anyone can. I believe that one person can make a difference. Look at historical figures such as Anne Frank, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and Erin Gruwell, for example, who have all made a difference on some level. Each time I volunteer abroad or locally, it is eye opening and another opportunity to gain a real and raw experience.
Summers previous have brought me to destinations such as Brazil, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Bahamas, Trinidad and Tobago, and throughout Canada and the United States. I’ve always been able to find opportunities to get involved in the local community—even when I am traveling. I’m always looking for new and unique volunteer options. It is fun to pair tourism with making a difference. If traveling is not always possible, why not bring traveling to you? In 2011, I hosted two eighteen year old girls through Canada World Youth (CWY). One girl was from Ontario, Canada and the other was from Ghana, Africa. It was incredible to learn more about my own home province as I traveled locally with the girls, while learning about their heritage as well. It was an amazing cultural experience. What a blessing to see the girls bond as though they were sisters, although demographically, culturally, ethnically, and religiously they were completely different. I’m happy to say that I am an ‘honorary’ mom to two young adults, both of which are now studying at university.
As this school year continues on, I am no longer a student learning from my travel experiences around the world, but I am now back in the classroom as a teacher. It’s hard to believe that not long ago I finished my Master’s in Education on an Education Leave from my district to finish the last 6 months of my Master’s full time in 2013. After completing my Master’s, I departed on a 14 month adventure of a lifetime. My sabbatical allowed me the time to travel and to do all the things I never have time for when teaching full time. After 14 months of hard work, sweat, and tears while doing my Master’s, I rewarded myself in return with 14 months of no limits. As that chapter in my life has closed, I anxiously await for my next journey to begin. Now to decide what to do and where to begin! I wonder where I can make a difference next, while having some fun of my own.
Be sure to look for opportunities to get involved in when you travel and add responsible tourism to your bucket list. What volunteer experience would you like to get involved in the next time you travel?