Next up on our series on travel with a purpose is my friend Avanthi, who put her freshly minted engineering skills to use working with World Vision in Lusaka, Zambia in 2008. Creating proposals for well projects, her research led her to learn about the demographics of the country, and had her travel to remote areas to better understand the rural lifestyle and the kind of jobs that people could create for themselves using available resources.
It was an eye-opening experience for her: “It’s a completely different world over there and it made me appreciate what I have even more – healthcare systems, access to education, almost endless possibilities. I also started to question the need for all these ‘things’ we spend our money on in North America, and question whether they really enrich our lives.”
Working in a country is different from a pleasure vacation, she explains: “While I did get to do some fun safari-type trips with my dad, it wasn’t a trip where I was constantly eating out or paryting with friends. It was more about living like a local, learning about a different culture, and seeing the realities of how a large part of the world lives, well outside of our comfortable Canadian bubble.”
While the experience was memorable, Avanthi is well aware of the dangers of voluntourism: “Make sure that the work you do develops the skills necessary to sustain the project, so that the local population is not relying on outside support indefinitely. I’m pretty cynical when it comes to charities and voluntourism – it was an amazing trip for me, but I did notice that some people I met were in it for the right reasons, while others weren’t. Continuous foreign aid can sometimes create more of a dependency, so it’s important to look into the NGO, and make sure that they money raised is going to the right places.” She recommends lending your skills as a valuable eye-opening experience, but strongly suggests you do your research first. She points out that some types of international volunteer work might make more sense than others, citing projects like Habitat for Humanity and Doctors without Borders, which are well suited to short-term interventions.
Avanthi plans to discover more of her roots by travelling to Sri Lanka, visiting the northern areas that were erstwhile inaccessible during the Sri Lankan Civil War. Her advice for making travel more meaningful: “Spend time with locals as much as possible, learn about the history of the country, and venture off the beaten path.”