Making a positive difference while traveling

Living and traveling can be two entirely different things, even in an adopted country you call home. Learning about the history, culture and social challenges of a country you’ll be visiting is key to a fully enriching travel experience. Soaking it all in while actually on your journey can be straight-forward, but learning about the region prior to travel also makes a huge difference to the value you’ll draw during the vacation itself. You may well discover things you didn’t know existed and be able to add them to your itinerary, become more aware of the people and their lives, adding greater depth to the things you see and experience (courtesy of Smiling Albino).

Building a school in rural Nepal.

Another aspect is learning about developmental challenges in the areas you’ll be visiting and helping to make a positive impact and contribution. To some this entails taking back what they’ve seen/learned and telling others at home, helping to raise awareness. Some travelers actually want to spend time ‘getting dirty’ while on trip, perhaps assisting with needed construction over multiple days, playing with orphans, or trying their hand at teaching in a school. And yet another aspect is making a donation to help provide a much-needed service or facility that will have a lasting impact well past your trip.

While travelers’ intentions are generally good, not all assistance is always positive and in many instances can actually be disruptive to the people and organizations you’re hoping to help. If you really want to assist it’s important to keep a few things in mind prior to and during your trip:

 

Tip #1
Asians by nature are very kind-hearted, love to smile and hate to disappoint. It’s often very difficult and against local culture to say “no”. It’s best to inquire about a possible visit to a community project prior to your trip, when it’s easier for your travel partner to give you an honest response and make proper pre-trip preparations. If you do ask your guide during trip to facilitate such an experience, be sure to try and read their body language. If they seem unsure or hesitant, back off, as they’re likely not sure how to be honest without possibly disappointing you.

 

Leading a crafts day at a home for autistic kids in Chiang Rai.

Tip #2
Think about why you really want to see and experience a community or social project? While most travelers are genuinely interested in the areas they visit and want to make a positive contribution, it’s very common and natural (whether we recognize it or not) to want to feel good about ourselves and what we’re doing. Yes, much of Asia is not as developed as our home countries, but that doesn’t mean dropping-in to play with a child for an hour or two will really have a positive, long lasting impact on their lives. The photos you take home are indeed cute and heartwarming, but again, be sure to assess if this is really good for the people you’re trying to help.

Tip #3
“Is this something that would be reasonable to do at home?” This may seem at first like an odd question, but is an important one to ask yourself. More often than not an outsider dropping by a hospital, orphanage or school in the west simply wouldn’t be appropriate or allowed without prior contact and approval well before doing so. There’s no reason to think this isn’t the case in the developing world but over the years it’s been inferred to be okay and wanted, via poorly-run aid organizations in search of cash, misguided travel blogs and local guides who try their best to satisfy all the wishes of their guests (read Tip #1).

Tip #4

Building a gibbon ape enclosure in Tak province.

As this is the developing world, aid organizations are generally underfunded, overwhelmed and most importantly understaffed. The hard working people that make things happen day-in-and-day-out are in most cases already overloaded and don’t have time to meet a casual visitor and integrate them into what’s going on. Taking someone away from their work to host you often means they’re abandoning an important task or child, the exact opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish. Most aid organizations and their dependents thrive on routine. Breaking it can be hugely detrimental to their greater good.

The above said, travel is the perfect time, opportunity and medium to learn about the areas you’re visiting and help, but it needs to be done with a good deal of thought and care to truly have constructive benefits for everyone. Here are some things you can do to ensure you make a beneficial and non-disruptive contribution:

 

Prior to travel
• Ask your travel provider about the Community Programs they’re involved with. This will give you an idea of what some of the issues are in the country you’ll be visiting and potential ways you can get involved. It can also strengthen your relationship with your travel partner and possibly lead to some insightful extras tailored to you being included in your itinerary.
• If there’s a particular social organization you’re interested in, see if there’s a way you can assist or visit during your trip, prior to travel. While this won’t always be possible, it will greatly increase the chance of it happening as many of such items require prior appointments and groundwork to ensure they can happen. As you can imagine the time not only making introductions but building relationships is considerable.
• Read-up on the economy of the country/region you’ll be visiting and learn about the developmental challenges there. When you’re on-the-ground you’ll have a heightened awareness of the people, buildings, infrastructures and other issues, adding great depth to your experience.

During your trip

Teaching kids about environmental responsibility in Eastern Bangkok.

• Chat with your guide/host about their lives and what they see as the greatest challenges facing their country. They may well have a cause they’re passionate about or involved with that they can share with you.
• If you’re really interested in a hospital or school for instance, but don’t have an appointment, get a cool beverage and sit with your guide nearby at a time when there’s lots of people coming and going. Watching this flow of people can be quite insightful and enjoyable.
• Make a donation to a program or cause you’ve learned about. Be sure to get a proper receipt or feel confident that the person you’re giving funds to is well established and in the proper position of power to be receiving donations. Many travel companies already have well established Community Programs that you can be a part of.

There’s no doubt we all have good intentions when traveling, want to learn more about the area than just its key sites, but doing so can be tricky. If you’d like to enjoy a world-class holiday, while peeling back many layers at the same time consider a trip with Smiling Albino (www.smilingalbino.com).  Send Smling Albino an email and they’ll make it happen: [email protected].