Voluntarism - tourism with a conscience
Voluntarism - taking a vacation that includes some charity work-is a travel idea whose time has come. In its May 2008 issue, Conde Nast Traveller *held the World Savers Contest, asking readers to report on their good deeds with an essay and photo documenting a recent voluntarism trip. This following was voted as "one of our favourite contest entries" by the editors of Conde Nast Traveller.
The location was as exotic as one could imagine, deep in the interior of Sri Lanka in a shramadana camp at the village of Dambara. Let me explain: Shramadana means "sharing of labour."
The Sarvodaya Movement had invited us to work with hundreds of villagers, repairing the irrigation canals that would deliver water to their paddy fields during the off season. Similar events had taken place thousands of times in the grassroots movement's 45-year history. Sarvodaya means "the awakening of all."
Volunteers came from surrounding villages and districts throughout the island, joined by visitors from the U.S., Japan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, France and the UK. The evening began with ceremony-inspiration, pledges of harmony and a commitment to work together for the common good. That first night, we sat on the floor of the Buddhist temple with the entire population of the village.
My host family's home had just enough room for me, their three daughters, mother, and father, who toiled in the paddy field down the hill.
Each of the three days I stayed with them, we drank tea together and ate rice and curry, exchanging smiles and questions. They had much to ask, as did I.
The morning after the first night's meditation, a hundred or more of us lined up with heavy hoes and shovels, sorted ourselves into work teams, and marched down the road to the paddies.
It was hot. Hand to hand, shoulder to shoulder-heart to heart, we would say-we laughed and even sang together as the sun rose. Dripping in sweat, we built a bridge, opened new waterways, and discovered the sheer joy of doing something that very few in the village thought could be accomplished in such a short time.
Boys brought us tea at mid-morning. The women and children prepared vats of rice and dhal. I jumped out of the ankle-deep water to escape a snake and looked a five-foot lizard in the eye.
"Don't worry," laughed the barefoot boys next to me. "He is vegetarian."
The day got hotter and hotter. We removed weeds, boulders, and apprehensions about the limitations of our skills and our energy.
The second day, our numbers tripled. By the third night, the crowd was probably close to a thousand. Children danced and old men told funny stories in the light of the bonfire. Our Japanese friends performed in kimono and sang the Sri Lanka national anthem. My gift was an a cappella version of "America the Beautiful," not performed with jingoistic fervour but genuine love of place inspired by the hospitality of our host village.
Fireworks were a perfect ending to the day.
I asked the youngest of the three girls in my new home, "As you think back over the history of this village, what do you think was the most important day?"
She thought for a moment and replied, "I think today."