Imagine yourself in a schoolroom in one of the most remote regions of one of the most hard-to-reach countries on Earth: Nepal. The Upper Mustang region, to be exact. To reach it from New York requires a 14-hour flight to Doha, Qatar, then four hours by air to Kathmandu. Transfer at what must be one the world’s most dangerous airports to a 90-minute flight to Pokhara, Nepal, followed by a jarring eight-hour Jeep ride over a vertiginous dirt road—one side of which is a mountain wall, the other a 200-foot cliff.
Finally, you arrive at the school in the Nepali village of Kagbeni, but it’s not just any schoolroom: it has been converted into an operating room so that doctors from New York Eye & Ear Infirmary can provide the gift of sight to 24 Nepalis who were blind due to advanced cataracts.
I witnessed this firsthand. I was there as a traveler, but also as a volunteer—a voluntourist.
A longtime traveler, I long wondered how I could explore the world and help the less fortunate even though I don’t possess specialized skills. I’m not a medical doctor. I don’t climb, I can’t paddle the Amazon, and don’t expect me to mush a team of dogs. But I do know my way around a camera, and some people think I can write.
What I realized is that I am a lousy tourist: I get bored sitting on a beach or touring umpteen churches on cruise ship excursions. I want a more meaningful role when I travel.
In 2013, I leveraged my storytelling skills to join an expedition to Nepal featuring a superstar team of ophthalmologists. These doctors knew that thousands of Nepalis with mature cataracts in both eyes were needlessly blind due to a lack of access to medical facilities and the approximately $25 per eye necessary to cover the procedure. Embedded on a Dooley Intermed medical mission, I blogged and photographed the work of these doctors in a remote region of Nepal.
I returned in 2017 to an even harder-hit area of the country—the epicenter of the 2015 earthquakes that killed over 9,000 Nepalis. Soon after the medical team arrived, patients who had been blind for years received what we called the “gift of sight.”
This life-changing experience led to a quest to better understand the voluntourism field. According to NPR, in 2014 there were 1.6 million active voluntourists in the U.S., and according to a 2015 Wilson Quarterly article, they spend $2 billion annually. Somewhere, I knew, there was a book in all this.
I realized that voluntourism doesn’t have to be a heavy lift. Travelers can volunteer for an hour, an afternoon, or a full week at their destination. Or they can simply pack extra medical or school supplies in their baggage for distribution upon arrival. To research the book, I volunteered in Antarctica as a high school chaperone, worked at a Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and bagged apples and onions at a Las Vegas food bank. I also pursued the Swedish art of plogging—picking up trash while enjoying the outdoors.
Can it be hard work building wells and schoolhouses or teaching ESL? You bet. Are there unethical orphanages in developing nations? Sadly, yes. Are there any personal safety issues? Certainly—especially if you pet wild monkeys or dogs, eat fruit salad from shady roadside stands, or fail to remember to brush your teeth with bottled water.
My experience as a voluntourist taught me that voluntourism doesn’t require any particular outdoor skill—just plenty of sweat and the desire to see the world and leave it a better place.
Jeff Blumenfeld lives in Boulder, Colo., and is a fellow of both the Explorers Club and the Royal Geographical Society. His latest book is Travel with Purpose: A Field Guide to Voluntourism (Rowman & Littlefield).