How can we help?

On a volunteer trip, good intentions can misfire when cultures clash

When Washington Post Travel section reporter Nancy Trejos's volunteer trip to Mexico goes awry, it takes a "good sense of humor and open mind" to find ways of helping others.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

I'd been in Mexico for just a day and a half when our team leader announced that he had to leave.

"Who's going to be our leader, then?" asked Elena Ribezzo, one of two Italian sociologists who, like me, had signed up for a volunteer trip to La Piedad, a village a few hours from Guadalajara in the state of Michoacan.

Rodrigo pointed to me. "You are," he said.

That's when I knew we were in trouble.

Four days later we were at a one-room rural schoolhouse, painting an exterior wall, when the teacher came up with the idea of having his nine students decorate it with their handprints. He brought us a can of blue paint, and the children spent the next half-hour happily pressing their palms all over the wall. Then we went to wash our hands -- and the paint wouldn't come off. The teacher had given us a can of oil-based paint, not easily washable latex. It took more than an hour to scrub the paint off the children's hands and our own.

"Somos Pitufos [we're Smurfs]," I told the kids, smiling to break the tension, although they were much calmer than I was.

This just isn't working out, I thought as I scrubbed. Nothing was what I'd expected. Not only had our team leader deserted us, but our housing situation was not as advertised, our schedule was flimsy, and now we'd slathered these children with paint we couldn't get off. We'd come to Mexico to help, but were we doing more harm than good? I just hoped the kids wouldn't get sick.

Like Elena and the other Italian, Azzurra Paguni, I had traveled to La Piedad with visions of renovating schools and monuments, reforesting parks and helping disabled children. I'd expected our Mexican hosts to put us to work right away, and every day (I'd been told to bring work gloves and shoes, after all). Instead, from the moment we arrived, they seemed confused by our eager offers of assistance. Why didn't they realize that they could use our help?

This was my introduction to voluntourism, a highly popular trend mixing travel with volunteer work in the United States and abroad that attracts many people like me and my Italian companions, people who want to make a difference in communities less well-off than our own.

The number of U.S. voluntourists who served more than 120 miles from home but within the United States exceeded 3.4 million last year. More than 1 million volunteered overseas, according to a report called "Volunteering in America," released by the Corporation for National and Community Service.

And the economic crisis hasn't dampened people's desire for volunteer travel. "In hard times, people want to do something; they want to help," said David Krantz, a manager for the Center for Responsible Travel, a nonprofit research group that opposes tourism practices that damage the environment, the economy or the culture of the destination.

But that desire to help can go to waste -- or misfire -- if culture clashes arise. Many volunteers travel from developed countries to Third World nations, hoping to make a difference in a short period. Yet sometimes their hosts don't know what to do with these outsiders.

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