There are as many different ways of seeing the world as there are people keen to pack a bag and head off to explore distant shores.
However, how many of these ways end in a lasting benefit to both the traveller and the place they spend time in? Wouldn’t it be great if we could enjoy travelling the planet while leaving learning something valuable as well? I discovered that this is possible when I went to do voluntary work in the rainforest in Ecuador.
I had no idea what was waiting for me when I left home on a flight to Quito and I’m the first to admit that I didn’t save the planet while I was there. Sure, I planted a few trees and built a path or two but, for me, the real, lasting benefits to my voluntary work lie in other areas.
A Greater Understanding of the Planet
I had grown up hearing about shrinking rainforests and carbon dioxide and blah, blah, blah. After a while this sort of stuff just becomes background noise in your life until you come face to face with it. One day, in Ecuador, I came face to face with it. Actually, I came face to face with a sloth but the result was the same. Our guide was amazed when a couple of us stumbled upon a sloth making his weekly trip to the toilet and he told us how the area used to be filled with them until fairly recently but that this might now be the last one left. That night I lay in my hammock and thought about the missing sloths and about how there are similar stories all over the world about animals and plants that are dying out because of us. Now that I am back home I don’t chain myself to trees that are about to get cut down or block motorway construction work but I feel that I understand the planet a little bit more and I feel that I am more an active part of it than I ever was before. When I read or hear a story about environmental concerns I can picture the sad face of that sloth and grasp the story in a way I simply couldn’t do before.
A Chance to Meet the People
The locals had always been a kind of colourful backdrop to my trips in the past. I loved seeing different types of clothing and overhearing exotic conversations on the bus but my relationship with the locals ended there. This all changed when I went to Ecuador. First of all, the lodge I stayed in had as many Ecuadorians as it had foreign voluntary workers. If I close my eyes I can still hear the sound of the guys who live there playing their guitars and singing while we all played cards next to them. There is something very special about doing a good thing like voluntary work which automatically brings you closer to the people who are around you and which brings down the cultural barriers. However, those impromptu guitar sessions aren’t my favourite lasting memories of my time in the rainforest. There was a tiny local school and one of the volunteers taught English there a couple of hours a week. For reasons which escape me now I tagged along one day. As we were walking back to the lodge a woman came up to us shyly, handed us some pieces of fruit and smiled before slinking away. It was only then that I realised how highly the local community valued our help at the school. There is no way that I can imagine what it feels like to live your whole life in a tiny village in the rainforest in Ecuador but that gesture from a local mother made me feel that our voluntary work efforts had helped build some sort of bridge between people who would otherwise never even know that the other existed.
A Way of Viewing Travelling Differently
There are probably people out there who carry out voluntary projects on a regular basis. It must be a rewarding way of living but doing it once was enough for me. However, I learned more from that one trip than in all of my previous journeys put together. In fact, this experience changed my way of travelling from then on. Now, I no longer travel on a superficial basis, looking to mark the big sights off my list of things to see before I die. Nowadays, I see travelling as being the best possible way of making a link with the local community and understanding the world on a different level. I might not plant trees in clearings or teach the alphabet to 5 year olds but I try to speak to the local people more and understand the place I am in. I like nothing better than to sit in a café or on a park bench and try to imagine what it would be like to live there. What challenges are there in their daily lives and how do they see someone like me who is only just passing through?
A Greater Thirst for Travelling
Strangely, all of this gave me a greater thirst for travelling than before. Perhaps I was getting jaded of the traditional approach of running around big cities trying to see everything which was noted in my guide book. Whatever it is that happened, I discovered that I now wanted to see more of the world and understand it more than before. That’s the thing with a truly great trip like that one; it makes you realise how much more there is to the world that you don’t know or understand. This is why I would suggest doing some voluntary work to anyone who wants to travel in a different kind of way, or simply put a bit of extra spice in their life for a while.