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Volunteer travel, is it for our own benefit or do we actually contribute ?

Volunteer travel, one of the most growing sectors in the tourism industry. As a student, honestly I was debating for a long time on whether it’s worth to put my hard earned saving into doing it. Gathering friends over for discussion, two comments stick­ into my mind: is it altruism or the expected post-volunteer fell-good-feeling that motivate people doing volunteer travel? Do we really make a difference over such a short period of time? At that time it was hard to argue because none of us had done it before. Hence, after much dilemma, I decided to go for it and try to find the answers to those questions.

Joining NGO Que Rico in Cambodia, a bunch of us volunteers were grouped together and briefed. The building project at the time when I was joining was well underway; the traditional Khmer house already had all its structural components built. We started our first day by building the wall using bamboo and banana leaves. The two local builders advised us on how to do about everything hands-on. There is no what’s so called rules and regulation. The only safety gear is common sense.

After an hour of drilling and nailing, neighbouring children started coming to see us work. They range from about 2 to 7 years old, boys and girls mostly bare footed and little ones without pants; as pamper is a luxury where basic commodity like clean water is scarce. They looked at you with puppy eyes and observe the work. The occasional ‘hello’ is enough to make them happy, that on the second day I decided to break the ice and learn some Khmer language from them. They not only were ecstatic to teach us basic Khmer, but over the next few days, we were happily playing and working together. They are helping with the nails and on one occasion there was a fight for the position to help me out making a balustrade. It was both touching and sad at the same time.

On my last day volunteering, I had definitely felt fulfilled and blessed to have come, and already dreaming up my next visit. But on the next second, I felt guilty to leave behind unfinished work and those children, also the fact that I gained so much happiness from this. I shared this sentiment with fellow volunteer and was surprised by the wisdom of what she said. She said that at least we have become a part of those who fight for them, someone else will continue our unfinished work and maybe in the future we will be continuing yet another’s unfinished project. The cycle will continue and we can only encourage more and more people to make this a continuous lending of hand to those in need.

At the end, I came to the conclusion that it is true that I feel good and accomplished looking at the near-finished house that we have laboured together, yet it is precisely this good feeling that somehow make altruism blossom. But then again without altruism in the heart, volunteer travel won’t be happening in the first place. So I guess it is similar to egg vs chicken debate. However, I am sure now that every little help counts in putting roof over those who need it most. Hence, I am encouraging to those who are interested in volunteer travel, to just go ahead and have the most wonderful and fulfilling holiday you will ever have.

Pic 1. The house in progress

Pic 2. with the family, builders and little helpers

Lidya Sugianto
Thesis semester, Melbourne University
involved in Cambodia Volunteer Travel from 27th June 2011

#For more information on the project, please go to , it's build no 7.


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