Sensible traveler

'Working vacations' can change lives

Email|Print| Text size + By Bruce Mohl
Globe Staff / April 18, 2004

Cara Christopher of West Yarmouth wanted to travel to Brazil. She also wanted to see a side of it few tourists see, so she booked a volunteer vacation there.

Volunteer vacations are definitely not for everyone, but they are popular among a segment of younger and older travelers who are looking to combine some fun with some work helping local people improve their lives.

''This is not a luxurious way to travel by any means," Christopher, 25, said in a telephone interview from her hotel room in Recife, where she was working in an after-school program for children. ''You're paying a lot to do volunteer work, but it's totally worthwhile. It has pushed me personally. I've learned a lot about myself."

Indeed, her trip to Brazil convinced her that teaching is a profession she would like to pursue. ''This trip has changed my life," she said.

Christopher purchased her trip through a Denver-based company called i-to-i, but there are a number of companies providing volunteer opportunities abroad and some here in the United States. They include Global Volunteers of Minneapolis and Cross-Cultural Solutions of New Rochelle, N.Y.

Volunteers build schools in El Salvador, help run zoos in Brazil and Bolivia, do conservation work involving turtles in Costa Rica, promote reforestation in Kenya, and help maintain game reserves in South Africa. There are also countless programs caring for children, the elderly, and those with illnesses in countries ranging from India to Russia to China to Thailand to Tanzania.

Prices vary considerably from trip to trip and company to company, but typically go for about $800 for a week to $2,200 for two. The prices typically include accommodations (often with a host family or a shared apartment), meals, health insurance (including emergency evacuations in certain situations), transfers to and from the airport, and very brief language and skills training if necessary. Air fare to the volunteer destination and the cost of any touring in the country are the responsibility of the traveler.

Trip prices are tax-deductible with Global Volunteers and Cross-Cultural Solutions. The i-to-i trips, which are also marketed through the student travel agency STA Travel, are not tax-deductible.

Trips to a single destination can be arranged for a week or two or three, and even for much longer periods, or a series of different volunteer vacations in various countries can be strung together.

''People do it because they want to make a difference," said Steve Snyder, marketing director for i-to-i. ''It's part adventure, part cultural, part language skills. It could be lots of things."

All of the volunteer vacation companies try to match their trips with the skills of their volunteers and provide some spare time for touring, but it appears the volunteers have to learn to think like a volunteer and not some tourist with a week to not only see everything but also change the world.

Christopher, for example, said the volunteer work she originally signed up for wasn't available when she arrived so she made the shift to an after-school program for children. Her work time was also interrupted by a carnival celebration, but she made the best of it, buying crayons, markers, and pencils for children who were not accustomed to such luxuries. She said many of the children didn't have shoes.

She said her minimal knowledge of Portuguese didn't hold her back that much. ''It's difficult, but that's part of why you come," she said. ''Just to make a phone call here is a process. Ninety percent of the people don't speak English."

While her volunteer experience wasn't quite what she expected, Christopher said her interaction with other volunteer vacationers was fantastic. She said there were 23 other volunteers in the hotel where she was staying. They were teaching English, working at a zoo, and doing tourism, community development, conservation, and music work. Their ages ranged from 18 to 63, and they came from Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Ireland, and Mexico.

Christopher's roommate was from the United Kingdom, and came to Brazil from Guatemala where she had been on a volunteer vacation staying with a family. Christopher said her roommate ate chicken and rice every day in Guatemala and didn't shower for three weeks.

Christopher said it's very easy to play tourist with the other volunteers when the work is done. She said many hook up for extended travel in the country after their work stint is completed.

''It's a good way to travel by yourself because you're guaranteed to meet people," Christopher said.

Bruce Mohl can be reached by e-mail at

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