Does Travel Lead to Service?

Nick Kristof released the winners of the “Half the Sky” competition last Friday, selected from over 700 submissions of positive work going on around the world, right now. He writes,

“…one of the things that struck me was how often the intercultural engagement involved Westerners who were as much beneficiaries of the process as the local people.”

In other words, Travelers! I know you want to gain Experiences, but seriously, you can give without being miserable!

It’s a backhanded challenge to Westerners whose travels add little to the local quality of life. (Straight cash infusion doesn’t count.) We receive so much from the people whose countries we visit, and so seldom return the favor.

It’s not a condemnation, but a reminder. This adventuresome breed of travel which we spend so much time blogging about, sharing stories of, preparing and sacrificing and saving for, anticipating and attempting to explain to our friends–it’s just a stepping stone: Deeper connection, growth, and understanding is possible when we expand beyond getting and start giving back.

The give and take of travel is a delicate question. Nobody wants to be made to feel like they’re in debt. But still, after reading about those projects, I felt that a solid 80% of my travels have engaged the world as a personal playground. That is, a place to slide, swing, and hit the monkey bars, all while developing fundamental skills I can later use to compete.

Others might relate–much of the online discussion is focused on making the most of our (own) travel experiences–what someone with a passion for syllables might call phenomenological enrichment. Our travel gains fall on a spectrum from Mai Tais and hammocks to life skills and perspective we can bring home (or onward to our next independent location).

Why did I end up giving 20% of my time to (arguably) benefit my hosts? A tendency to hit walls. For any given place, once a certain volume of stories has been deposited in the notebook–whether acquired through hedonism, personal growth, or something in between–I become convinced that further fulfillment is only obtainable through some sort of service. (The dual benefit that Kristof mentions.)

We can’t each be expected to give on the same level at the same time. Somebody’s first big trip might be for service, though the urge might hit another after 19 years and 93 countries. Some might need to make a lifetime out of it, others an afternoon.

What’s certain is that wayfaring, open-to-experience travel has been known to lead to the desire and commitment to make an impact somewhere. Such travel is both a shakedown and an education. It helps us decide where and how we want to contribute. Maybe even why.

If you have to wander right now, wander. Just don’t be surprised if sooner or later you end up grinding out peanut butter to save babies in Nepal.

Photo by Dey

Thanks for reading. Now please check this out. I have faith in your attention span:

Nepal Health Project (Half the Sky contest winner)

Nepal is one of the most rugged countries in the world, and one of the poorest. Female life expectancy there is actually shorter than for males. In 1996, I formed the Nepal Health Project to combat the health crisis in rural Nepal.

Our street theatre performance and school workshop program focus on issues of personal health and hygiene, girl’s education, and maternal mortality. Five Nepali troupe members (and I, when I can) take a bus or a truck to a road’s end, hire a local porter to carry props and the CPR manikin, and, with packs on our backs, head off into the foothills of Nepal.

For three weeks out of every dry month, the actor/activists trek educational and entertaining theatre to remote places where roads are few, electricity scarce, the level of literacy is low, and poverty rampant. In school yards and village crossroads we perform our group-developed play Hamro Swasta Hamro Hatma Cha (Our Health is in Our Hands). Chock full of information, witty dialogue, and slapstick, the play keeps audiences laughing while learning about washing hands, building latrines away from water sources, hydrating babies with diarrhea, and taking children for inoculations before they contract preventable diseases.

One scene demonstrates the value of sending girls to school. In it, a young student comes home from school where she has learned the importance of washing hands and various first aid tools, such as how to stop strong bleeding, and how to take down a fever without medicine. The acting and dialogue highlight these valuable skills with which she can help both her birth family and the family into which she marries, thus encouraging parents to send their daughters to school. This scene is a bit subversive because boys outnumber girls two-to-one in rural elementary schools, and by high school the ratio can reach seven boys to every girl.

The final scene shows a young woman who dies in childbirth because, after caring for the house and animals, gathering wood and water, and cooking for and serving her in-laws, if there is just a handful of rice left, that’s all she gets. Malnourished, she dies giving birth. The actors implore audience members to make sure pregnant women get enough to eat so that they can live through childbirth, deliver a health baby who can better survive childhood diseases, and who will grow up to take care of you in your old age. The audience isn’t laughing at this point. In fact, I remember a hillside of red saris, and tears being wiped away at this moment in the rough magic of our theatre. At one performance a friend in the audience heard a woman say, “This is our story.”

Half a million rural villagers have seen our play. We are a 501(c)(3) in the USA and a registered NGO in Nepal, although I haven’t managed to make a website yet, and my teaching salary is the sole support of this work. I can be contacted at carol [at]

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