If like me, you too thought that sight seeing and volunteering in foreign lands were exclusive activities, then, read on. Some travel companies have brought the two together and a travel trend of volunteering or interning abroad is gaining steam amongst the travelers from US and Europe.
More and more tourists keen on volunteering while traveling are venturing on vacation packages that give them the flexibility to experience a new country, community and culture while working in orphanages, old age homes, schools, health clinics and other places that might suit their skill set and interest.
Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS), one such New York based organization with origins in India, has grown to offer international volunteer programs in Peru, Russia, Tanzania, and Thailand besides India. The non-profit established its first volunteer program in New Delhi in 1995 and has setup a center in Dharamshala too.
Another UK headquartered company called i-to-i with offices in US, Ireland and Australia arranges meaningful travel experiences and sends around 5,000 people a year to over 500 projects in 22 countries worldwide and trains around 15,000 to teach English overseas.
India is the company's fifth most popular destination where volunteers work in Bangalore, Calcutta, Delhi, Jaipur, Shantineketan and Darjeeling. Besides community development work and teaching assignments, the company offers volunteers opportunities in natural and animal conservation projects and internship in the film industry and media houses. A four-week stint sans ticket ranges between $1600 to $2400 depending on the selected activity and destination. "We send approximately 500 people to volunteer in India each year. Bangalore is the most popular destination and community development is the most popular project for our volunteers in India." Says Amy Kaplan, the spokesperson for i to i.
"The volunteers can connect with local people in an education or social services placement, experience the culture and Hindi language through activities and excursions, and explore the beautiful landscape and historic sites," says Steve Rosenthal, Executive Director, Cross-Cultural Solutions.
The organization's Volunteer Abroad program is its flagship and most popular program offering flexibility of locations and start dates. The other Intern Abroad program is for students seeking academic credit, international work experience or field research. The program fee sans air travel ranges from $2489 for two weeks for the volunteer abroad program and $2689 for the internship program. The fee includes volunteer placement, cultural and learning activities, lodging at a CCS Home-Base, meals, in-country transportation, expert staff, a 24-hour emergency hotline, travel medical insurance.
Some of the volunteer activities include care for residents at Mother Teresa's Home for the Destitute and Dying or Home for Disabled Children, work at VIDYA (Vidya Integrated Development for Youth and Adults), education and health care education at a Mobile daycare center and work with adults recovering from drug/alcohol addiction at the Red Cross De-Toxification Center.
In parallel to volunteering, the tourists can immerse themselves in the culture and community through varied activities including Hindi language instruction, cooking, yoga, traditional dance classes, visits to botanical gardens, historic forts; tour of old Delhi; and lectures on Indian politics and history. At Dharamshala, the participants can participate in day hikes, picnics, cricket games, lectures on local history and politics, a visit to a local Tibetan handicraft center and a trip to McLeod Ganj (home of the Dalai Lama).
Companies arranging the volunteer cum tourism trips are conscious of the travel aspect of the trips. They provide ample time to the participants amidst the volunteer activities to sight see and travel to different destinations. Many also include detailed itineraries to places of tourist interest in the trip.
The previous volunteers on their trips to India have raved about the local populace's hospitality, openness and warmth. Some tourists in their reports have lucidly mentioned the trip's impact on their personal and spiritual growth. The friendship and fraternity of the local people despite the lack of material resources and comforts, that many a times are unconceivable to the western mindset, is an experience in itself.
Besides individuals and families, some corporate houses have also signed up with these companies for team building via sabbatical for employees, an incentive trip or a corporate team building. "We have had mainly European companies take part in our corporate volunteer programs and we expect more US companies on board in the near future as Americans become more aware of volunteer travel."