By Lili Eros-Sarnyai
With summer well under way and temperatures continuing to climb relentlessly, leaving even the most determined fashionista looking and feeling somewhat frazzled, many New Yorkers begin to long for the well-deserved serenity that is vacation.
Ahh, vacation. Yes, there are some that feel no hesitation at rushing off to the nearest travel agency to book yet another one of those typical summer trips in which all you do is lounge, look and lavish, but if you’re one of those wanderlust souls who want a break from the norm, here are a few things you might want to consider asking yourself: do you want both a physical and mental challenge? Do you dream of having the chance to really experience another culture from an insider’s perspective (as in: you want something more than that painfully fake camel ride in the desert, lead by the uncomfortably attired “native”)? Do you want to make a difference in poorer countries? Do you want the chance to develop cultural understanding not found in a glossy tourist book?
Then here’s an idea. Why not follow the lead of 55 million other Americans and invest for once in a “volunteer vacation”? These working holidays have become enormously popular in recent years and offer a welcome relief from the everyday stresses of our modern society.
photo from ridersreliefinternational.com
If you love to travel and would love to spend week or two of your time and energy to a great cause, then volunteering overseas could be for you. Becoming a veritable, active global citizen is so much more exciting than lazing around poolside in an overpriced resort. Imagine being able to teach English to impoverished children in Africa, build hospitals in India, distribute medical supplies in Costa Rica or restore a thirteenth-century chateau in France. Not only will you be doing good to your worldly neighbors, but you’ll also emerge from the experience a stronger, better person, more aware of your position in the world and with a finer perception of the needs of those less fortunate than you. If you’d like to do a half-and-half vacation, that’s an option, too. Many organizations offer packages where volunteering and relaxing, sightseeing and experiencing the culture are given equal weighting.
All clichés aside, there can be no question that choosing to volunteer in a distant country with likeminded, culturally and charitably motivated individuals almost guarantees vivid experiences and priceless friendships. With the rise in popularity of “voluntourism,” it is now easier than ever to turn your compassionate ideals into genuine action, with myriad volunteer organizations offering tailor-made working holidays for the enthusiastic but time-poor professional. All you need to do in most cases is register with the group (usually online) and pay for your “vacation.” Regardless of your budget, timeline, country of interest or preferred type of work, you will almost certainly find at least one group that can make it all possible.
So here to help you is a brief taster of these commendable organizations; the best way to find out more, however, is to do some further research yourself. After all, a working holiday is not to be undertaken lightly, ladies!
Habitat for Humanity: Volunteers can choose from over 40 countries, with the main aim of trips being helping to bridge cultural barriers by building homes for those deemed to be “deserving”. Most overseas builds last three to four weeks and include an in-country vacation upon completion of the project. Prices start at $ 2,000 excluding airfare and living costs. www.habitat.org
Volunteers for Peace: Specifically for individuals over 30, offering more than 2,400 work camps in over 90 countries. Most camps take place in Europe but some are also offered in Third World countries. The price is very reasonable, usually no more than $200 – $400 for a two or three week camp, covering accommodation and food.
Globe Aware: A nonprofit organization offering one-week volunteer vacations in Romania, Vietnam, Laos, Jamaica, Thailand, Costa Rica as well as many others. These focus on cultural awareness and sustainability, as well as placing an emphasis on the importance of the volunteers befriending one another – all very rewarding and fun! Most programs cost around $1090 and include meals, accommodation, on-site travel and insurance. www.globeaware.org
Relief Riders International: Offers a 15-day horseback riding voyage through the scenic Rajasthan province of India, distributing medical supplies, goats and educational material to villages along the way, as well as setting up medical and pediatric clinics. Combines simplicity in work with luxury in relaxation, offering you the opportunity to spend the nights in ancient forts and lavish, beyond comfortable tents. www.reliefridersinternational.com
Ambassadors for Children: Volunteers help children worldwide whilst enjoying the comforts of staying in 3- and 4-star beachside resorts or city hotels. Every trip combines work with optional, cultural activities as well as plenty of free time, and costs anywhere from $700 to $ 1,200 (including airfare for closer destinations), running for between 3 and 15 days. www.ambassadorsforchildren.org