For anyone looking for a holiday plus something more, here is a great option – a volunteer vacation. From the Travel section of the Saturday, February 2, 2008, Toronto Star, front page and pages T8-T9, is this article about the rewards of a vacation based on volunteerism:
Volunteer Vacation – Cook Islands
LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCE
Painting, helping kids to read is life-changing for hard-working volunteers
Rarotonga, Cook Islands – The commute to work is a 20-minute bike ride along a narrow seaside road, the white beach and the turquoise Pacific on one side, and palm trees, small houses and green mountains on the other.
The workday’s start is announced by the hollow beats of a log drum, and we slip out of our shoes, tuck a flower behind an ear and greet the supervisor with a traditional kiss on the cheek and the words Kia orana, which means “may you live on.”
We are nine women in paradise, aged 30 to 70+ – widows, single, married, from Canada and across the U.S. – who have come to this perfect South Pacific island some 4,500 kilometres south of Hawaii for what would be a life-changing experience for many of us.
Some of us are based in local schools, helping the kids with reading. Others paint walls. Several volunteers help create a school library in a classroom at Takitumu School – to the delight of the principal who had been waiting fror three years for the donated books and was unable to find the time to make the sign-out slips and envelopes and do all the cataloguing.
We all had different reasons for wanting to experience this idyllic spot so far from home, from a notion inspired in childhood, to a fascination with the South Pacific, show tune “Bali Hai.”
But a common goal had brought us here: to have a meaningful holiday, blending tourism with volunteering.
Global Volunteers’ motto is simply to wage peace through service. Like the others in my group who had flipped through the group’s magazine or visited the website, the Cook Islands provided an irrestible draw.
It’s not cheap – the service program fee, which includes simple, shared accommodation, meals, airport transfers and the daily help and guidance of an in-country manager, was $2,395 (U.S.) for three weeks and $2,195 for two, plus airfare. In our case, that meant a flight to New Zealand, connecting to Rarotonga – for me, a 40-hour journey with layovers.
U.S. residents can write off a portion of the program fee and airfare on their income taxes. And while Canadians can’t, Global Volunteers expects to establish an office here within six months, meaning Canadians could soon enjoy the same kind of charitable donation tax break.
Canadian Elaine Bryck, 51, a retired brewery employee who splits her time between Fort Erie, Ont., and winters in Tucson, Ariz., left Bob, her husband of 31 years, at home and went off after adventure in the South Seas.
“I searched the web for an organization that focused on the ‘mature’ participant’,” she says. “When I stumbled upon Global Volunteers and saw they had a program in the South Pacific, I knew that was the one for me. I’ve been fascinated with the South Pacific ever since I was a kid enjoying Tahiti Treat pop at my grandmother’s in Northern Ontario.”
Some of Global Volunteers’ programs have been running for years.
“I often hear people say, ‘I got back a lot more than I gave,'” says volunteer manager Kristina Hill, who is just backfrom a three-week stint in Tanzania. “They learn so much, they grew so much. I really think it’s a great way to travel. You get to a part of the country tourists don’t get to visit.”
“I really didn’t know what to expect,” says Denise Costa, 30, a U.S. defence department employee from Baltimore, who worked at St. Joseph’s School in Rarotonga’s main town, Avarua, teaching young children computer skills.
“But it’s been awesome. It’s been life-changing, that’s for sure. For Americans, when you travel to a typical all-inclusive resort, the only time you leave is on organized tours. You don’t experience the people.”
It’s a vastly different life for city-dwellers – there’s a single, two-lane, 32-km-long ring road that circles the island, and no traffic lights. The entire place closes on Sunday for the Sabbath and you’re not considered dressed unless you wear a flower behind your ear, men as well as women.
Country managers act as guide, team leader and facilitator, combining just the right amount of handholding with room to let us feel we were experiencing the island and integrating on our own. And while we were there to volunteer, there was enough downtime built in to truly make it feel like a holiday.
Our country manager, Taiana Kingston, 47, has spent a year working for Global Volunteers. She did everything from picking us up at the airport (and draping fragrant flower eis – what Rarotongans calls leis – around our necks), to helping us learn snippets of the Maori language, explaining customs and easing us into island life and work with grace and good humour. She also helped us set goals as a team.
After a day of orientation, Kingston took us on a tour of the various work sites to help us choose where we wanted to volunteer. Several schools, the Red Cross, the library and the island’s conservation area were all looking for help. It was so different from home – chickens wandering in the yard at the Red Cross, schools with no interior hallways and barefoot pupils, and the brilliant turquoise ocean forming the backdrop at the playground.
We ate breakfast – fruit, pancakes or omelettes, toast and coffee – and dinner together in a common room at the hotel, and then packed our own lunches before setting off to work. Dinners – delicious, plentiful meals of local fresh fish, chicken or lamb with side dishes and desserts – were sometimes catered by a local resident. Or we went out as a group to eat and listen to music or watch a dance performance at a restaurant.
Lilia Javier, an energetic 70-something retired phys-ed teacher from New York City, was delighted to teach dances from her native Philippines to pupils from St. Joseph’s school. On previous Global Volunteer trips, Javier has been to Turkey, Poland, China and Ecuador.
“I was bored,” she recalls of what prompted her to sign up in 1999.”I have to be with people. My philosophy of life is joie de vivre.”
Javier, who was my roommate, could often be heard humming “Bali Hai” as she puttered around our kitchen. The island custom of not being really dressed without a flower in your hair delighted her and she often had an exotic bloom tucked behind her ear.
“I came here to know the culture, to be with the locals, to be with the students,” she says.
There was plenty of opportunity for all of that. One night we joined locals from toddlers to seniors at the auditorium for the weekly uru (hula) dance practice. There’s a reason they’re known as the best dancers in the Pacific and we gamely tried to match their movements as a group of drummers and musicians played from the front row of the bleachers.
Soon there was a rhythm to our days. Breakfast and a journal reading from the daily diary we took turns keeping (a wonderful remembrance of the trip), work until about 2 p.m., and afternoons free to explore on our rental bikes, take the bus into town, snorkel or swim. Dinner was a time to gather and talk about the day. And with a 6:50 a.m. call for breakfast, we were in bed early. Weekends were free time.
The opening of the new library made the local news and was celebrated with a huge party where the Global Volunteers were honoured with mounds of fragrant eis piled around their necks.
“This trip was very different from any previous trips I have taken,” Bryck says. “Being involved with the community and immersed in another culture was very rewarding.
“I think of our team goals and how we accomplish them all: to learn from others, develop friendships, support the community, experience personal growth and to have fun.”
Linda Barnard is movies editor in the Star‘s entertainment department.