Being a ‘voluntourist’ is something that is accessible to just about anyone who is in a position to travel. The fact I blog about it quite a lot suggests as much. Therefore, it logically follows that it makes for suitable travel writing subject matter. But with it becoming an increasingly popular way of travelling, you have to do something pretty special if you’re going to turn the voluntourism experience in to a book.
Ken Budd’s approach is far from being unorthodox – as he freely admits in the ‘Take Your Own Voluntourism Adventure’ appendix at the end, he went with bigger, more-established companies who organise overseas volunteering opportunities. What makes this different to your meat-and-potatoes, isn’t-travel-amazing, ‘gap yah’-esque account is that his motivations come from a place altogether different to the norm.
His six-country, ‘voluntourism’ odyssey is effectively triggered by tragedy: the sudden and unexpected death of his beloved father. It is not so much the loss of his father as learning of the profound effect he had on so many others – be they friends, colleagues (including business partners based overseas) or other members of the family – that prompts Budd to make his decision. That, and the heart-breaking realisation that he and his wife Julie would never have children – thus depriving him of the opportunity to strive and emulate his dad’s fine example of being a great parent – makes him want to help others, rather than your usual ‘I want to see the world’ motivation.
If you think this makes for a po-faced, earnest and overly serious travelogue then think again. Budd, an editor by trade, knows how to inject wry humour, and he naturally has a journalist’s radar for observation of his surroundings. Thus, he pulls off the fine balancing act of ensuring that the book is as much about the people (be they fellow volunteers or locals), places and things he encounters along the way as it is about him. In so doing, he skilfully evokes and lays bare the life, strife and times of each of the places he goes to.
Ultimately, though, the focus is firmly rooted in what the ‘voluntourist’ experience means to Budd, and quite rightly too. And, for all his self-declared introversion, he is unflinchingly honest about how he feels about it all. Thus, we get tortured self-examination as much as the feel-good ‘isn’t making a difference to the lives of others great?’ stuff. He isn’t afraid to admit when he is missing his wife and would rather be at home, say, or to question if he is doing more harm than good by spending two weeks in each place before moving on. In short, it’s the classic, warts-and-all, more-difficult-questions-than-easy-answers volunteer experience writ large, and it all makes for a compelling read.
So what of the six separate destinations? Each of the narratives, naturally, offers something different to Budd and, by extension, the reader. But this is not just by virtue of them being different places: he does something different in each place too. Sure he works with kids in Costa Rica, China and Kenya, but his work – and experience – is different each time. The conservation-based work in Ecuador is very different but no less important than the Hurricane Katrina clean-up operation in New Orleans.
However, the account that gripped me the most was his time in Bethlehem, working with Palestinian refugees. It is here that, whilst managing to keep his wry sense of humour, you feel he is tested the most. This is partly because of the impotent helplessness he feels at the bleak and senseless situation on the ground for those he is trying to assist. But it’s also because of how he personally reacts to it; this is with regards to his father and his wife (who only accompanies him on his trips Costa Rica and Kenya), but also, perhaps unexpectedly, with one of his fellow volunteers too…
Whilst The Voluntourist does not shy away from reporting some home truths about the overseas volunteering experience, it is ultimately an inspirational and uplifting read. There’s a real sense that Budd gets a lot out of his experiences, and that he really does make a tangible difference – no matter how small – to the lives of those he is helping. In so doing he overcomes the setbacks and achieves the purpose he is seeking. Ultimately, that’s what the ‘voluntourist’ experience is all about, and, I sincerely hope, will inspire plenty of people to consider giving volunteering overseas a go.