What to Ask Yourself Before You Go on a Service Trip

Service trips, aka voluntourism, have become a multibillion-dollar industry. However, some service trips can hurt more than they help. Here's how to know if volunteering abroad is right for you.

Doing good while also seeing the world may sound like an ideal way to spend your vacation time or year off. In recent years, this phenomenon—known as "voluntourism"—has become a multibillion-dollar industry. From building houses in Nicaragua to volunteering at a daycare in Bali, these programs offer tantalizing opportunities for the do-gooder with a bit of wanderlust.

However, it's important to think carefully about why you want to go on these service trips and what you want to accomplish with them. After all, many service trips can do more harm than good, playing into old "white savior" tropes or damaging the infrastructure of already vulnerable places. Here are 11 things to consider before you book that flight across the world.

Service Trip

1. What are your motives for going?

Before embarking on a service trip, you should do a little soul-searching and ask yourself why you want to participate in this kind of work. It's admirable to want to help others, but do you really want to help, or do you just want to travel while also feeling good about yourself?

If you realize that what you really want is luxury travel, not to get your hands dirty and actively help a cause, then it's best to reconsider going on these trips. Similarly, if what you're looking for is intrepid adventure and life-changing drama you can brag about to people at home, you may end up being unhelpful or even a burden to the organization and people you're trying to help.

Remember, other people's suffering is not an opportunity for you to embark on your own journey of healing or self-actualization. It's especially not an opportunity for you to post cute pictures with groups of barefoot little kids.

2. Are you expecting a vacation?

Just as you wouldn't volunteer with a surgeon if you don't like blood, don't go on a service trip if you aren't cool with getting your hands dirty, working hard, and possibly seeing disturbing things. It's not a service organization's job to make sure you have a perfectly safe, smooth time while traveling: It's their job to help people who need it. If you're going to freak out about a spider in the bathroom, if you can't stand some inconveniences and bureaucratic troubles, or if you'll have a breakdown the first time you experience indigestion, you might want to pick a trip to a cosmopolitan area or wait until you develop a thicker skin. Remember, service travel is not supposed to be all about you and your experience.

This also goes for travel in general: There are always mishaps, missed buses, and dirty hostels, and if you're expecting perfection then you'll probably wind up missing out on the journey.

3. Do you understand that you're in part going to serve yourself?

Even if you're sure that you genuinely want to help people, it's important to realize that if you're embarking on a trip that combines travel and service, you're almost certainly going because in some way, you think it's serving you. Admitting this will help you check your ego at the door, as you'll know that you have to make the choice to be humble and flexible and to put others above yourself.

With this in mind, it's okay to realize that part of the reason you're going is a little selfish,and that shouldn't stop you from going. Travel can certainly be a process of cultural exchange and a study in deepening your appreciation for the earth, and volunteering can be very personally gratifying. Helping others does feel good, and it can be eye-opening and life-changing. It's also okay to go to a place in order to appreciate its beauty in addition to working to help its inhabitants; and it's okay to pursue things that widen your perspective and deepen your understanding of the world.

However, these things should never replace your commitment to helping, and no matter what, just make sure you won't be doing more harm than good.

spinoff Spinoff

4. Do you have tangible skills to offer?

If you decide that you really do want to embark on a service trip, it's important to find one where you can genuinely be useful. You should always look for programs that match up with your individual skill set.

Many aid organizations are seeking doctors, administrators, and people who speak a variety of languages, and most will list the skills they're looking for on their websites. More often than not, unskilled volunteers are more of a burden then a help.

Also, make sure that you don't volunteer for positions that you are unqualified for. Service trips are not unpaid internships where the goal is learning, so don't apply for an NGO's social media manager position unless you actually have experience with social media. Of course, sometimes aid organizations are stretched so thin that you might be useful even if you have no experience in the field; but it's important to be explicit about this when you reach out or apply for positions. It's better to be honest and say you don't have much experience but are happy to help than to stretch the truth like you might in a job interview, because that gives the organization the opportunity to either pick a better candidate or let you know they do need all the help they can get.

When picking a service trip, examine your skill set and choose accordingly. For example, if you have legal experience or are bilingual, migration organizations across the US are always looking for attorneys and translators. If you have experience with outdoor work, then a rebuilding initiative might be good for you—but if you're just going to spend half the day in the shade, then you may want to reconsider. Remember, unless you're paying to be there, these service organizations are sacrificing their valuable money for you; and regardless, they're sacrificing their time and energy to host and train you, and you're occupying space in someone else's home.

If you realize that your skill set doesn't match up with an organization's goals, then it's usually better to just donate or otherwise support the cause from home.

5. Are there any opportunities closer to home?

Before you fly halfway across the world and burn gallons of carbon dioxide to spend three days picking up trash on an island, you may want to check for opportunities closer to home.

Many NGOs and volunteers end up doing more harm than good because they don't work closely with the cultures they're in, and instead attempt to impose their own cultural beliefs on other countries, thus rehashing the old "white savior" complex that led to the colonization (and subsequent devastation) of so many places.

For example, many NGOs and missions have run "brothel raids," breaking apart sex work institutions in third world countries—but this act often costs workers their jobs, leaving them unable to feed their families and sometimes forcing them to participate in even more illicit acts. This is why, in terms of voluntourism, it's sometimes better to stick to what you know instead of bumbling around with no understanding in an unfamiliar place.

If you're determined to support a cause in another part of the world, sometimes fundraising and political activism can be the best way to go. Instead of running down to the U.S.-Mexico border to loiter in a car by a chain-link fence for a few days, heading to Washington to lobby or just calling your representatives and making your voice heard can make more of an impact.

Service Trip Yes, you can volunteer in New York City.Image via CNN

6. Are you going to respect the customs of the place you're going?

This should go without saying, but you need to change your behavior to accommodate the culture where you're going, not the other way around. If you're asked to cover your head, don't embark on a rant about why head-coverings aren't okay. If someone came to volunteer in your town not wearing clothes, would you be comfortable with them walking around naked all the time?

Always follow the golden rule—do unto others what you would have done to you. Imagine if you were in a refugee camp because your homeland was devastated by a natural disaster, and then imagine how you would feel if a wealthy volunteer suddenly flew in. Maybe you'd be grateful for the support, but you wouldn't want them to snap photos of you without your permission.

As a volunteer, you need to listen to others more than you speak, interact with people, and make them feel supported. Hear their stories and prioritize their voices and wishes above your own. Don't offer pity, because too often volunteers infantilize the operations they're trying to help: offer your solidarity and support, and just treat everyone like a human being.

This is why it's a huge plus if you speak at least some of the native language of the place you're going. Especially if you're working directly with people, you should be friendly, relaxed, conversational, and not bogged down by your own emotional baggage or inability to take care of yourself. You can process your emotions on your own, but they should not be a priority when you're actively working with vulnerable populations.

It's also important to make sure that the people you're working with actively want help. Have the people put out requests for aid, and is the organization working directly with the community—or are they hand-in-hand with a corrupt government or trying to profit by funneling rich Americans into an impoverished area?

7. Are you being mindful of the environment?

Unfortunately, flying has a hugely negative impact on the environment. To mitigate this, you can choose to pay a voluntary carbon fee to offset your emissions, or find alternative methods of travel. Once you arrive, try to take public transportation as much as you can, and leave as little behind as possible. Sometimes, tourists can destroy the natural landscape where they're staying without even meaning to, so it's beneficial to find an organization that's conscious of its ecological impact.

Even if you're just going on a vacation, it's not a bad idea to spend a little time cleaning up the land you're staying on. For more information on eco-friendly travel, check out ecotourism.org. You can also choose to participate in an environment-focused volunteer trip. In general, be mindful about what organizations and businesses you choose to support, and buy locally as much as possible.

Sustainable travel is the way to go.Image via Medium

8. Can you stay for an extended period of time?

If you're committed to traveling far away, using your skills, and working with the local community, then it's best if you can carve out some time to stay for a long period. It always takes a few days to get settled in and to get over jet lag, so weeklong vacations really don't allow enough time for you to have any significant impact. If you can stay for months or a year, you can really begin to understand how the organization you're working with runs, and you'll develop knowledge of local customs and circumstances that you can use to benefit the work you're doing. You'll also be able to connect with the local community, making it clear that you actually care and are there to help.

At the very least, you should stay for a couple of weeks; if not, you may want to reconsider whether you'll be more of a help or a hindrance to the organization and the people you're working with. After all, they may have to pick you up from the airport and drop you off, or at least they'll have to spend time helping you get adjusted, which takes away time they could've used to do the work.

9. Is the initiative you'll be working with going to have a long-lasting impact?

When picking a program to volunteer with, make sure that the organization is working to involve the local community and is building a foundation for long-term improvement. Another option is to dedicate your skills to a local organization or business that's already tied to the community. You can learn a lot by talking to people and asking how you can best be of assistance.

Most humanitarian crises are caused by deep-rooted structural issues, so putting in a few days of manual work is like putting a band-aid over an open wound. You should work to understand the economic, political, and sociocultural factors that created the circumstances you'll be witnessing, and be critical of any organization that promises superficial-seeming aid. Be wary also of work that, the moment you leave, will be undone by the same factors that created the problem in the first place.

If you have the ability, try to ensure that your (positive) impact will remain intact after you leave. For example, if you start a music lessons program for a shelter, find other teachers who can continue after you're gone, or work with programs that create jobs for locals.

10. Are you prepared for what you might experience?

If you're going to a dangerous place, make sure you'll be safe and understand what you're getting yourself into. In addition, make sure you've prepared yourself for any violence or suffering you might see. Don't glamorize others' pain or search for "authentic," dangerous situations. Regardless of where you go, make sure you take care of yourself and balance work with rest and self-care.

But also prepare yourself for witnessing incredible resilience and forming deep, profound bonds with others. Service trips can be intense experiences in many ways, so be open to anything and prepared for everything you can think of.

11. Are you participating in orphanage tourism or other damaging initiatives?

In general, volunteering with kids is not always the best way to go. Sure, you might've read some stories about other travel-volunteers having adorable bonding experiences with cute little children in faraway places, but remember, it can be difficult and upsetting for children when people keep coming, giving them little gifts, and then leaving. This can be especially traumatic for orphans, who already have lost so much; if you go to spend a day with one and then they never hear from you again, this will just cause more pain.

There are a lot of other potential issues with voluntourism. For example, the presence of volunteers can put too much weight on infrastructure or already scarce resources. Voluntourism can also reinforce paternalism, pressuring locals to feel grateful and indebted while making them feel victimized or infantilized.

In 2012, the novelist Teju Cole developed the term "white savior industrial complex" to describe the kind of voluntourism that makes volunteers feel good about themselves by simplifying problems that are really far more complicated than they seem. "How, for example, could a well-meaning American 'help' a place like Uganda today?" Cole writes. "It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I've seen many) about how 'we have to save them because they can't save themselves' can't change that fact." He also encourages big-hearted Americans to look closer to home, stating, "Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy."




12. Have you done your research?

Research is the number one most important thing that you need to do before you embark on a service travel trip. You need to learn as much as you can about the organization you're going to be working with. Do they work with the communities instead of dropping in and attempting to redesign them on a foreign power's terms? Do they treat people with humanity? What were other volunteers' experiences? What is their leadership like?

You should also do your research about the place you're going. Most social issues cannot be divided into a good-bad binary, and many conflicts have deep, tangled roots. If you're going to a politically charged area, you need to be aware of the circumstances that resulted in the current environment. You should also research the culture, learn at least some of the language, and research where you'll be staying so you can bring everything you'll need.

Image via Projects Abroad

If after reading all this, you still feel like a service trip is the right choice for you, then absolutely go for it. In a world where so many people are hurting, solidarity is vital, and the impulse to help others is always an admirable characteristic. When volunteers work alongside affected populations to consciously rebuild and support a better world, mutually beneficial bonds can form and lasting change can occur.

For more information on the problems with voluntourism, check out the book When Helping Hurts. Other thoughtful voluntourism initiatives include The Wandering Scholar, Atlantic Impact, and World Learning.

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Travel Tips

Best Jobs for People Who Love To Travel

If you want to travel but have a job that is currently holding you back, here are a few of our suggestions for the best jobs for people who love to travel.

For many people, traveling is an amazing experience, but traveling is not always feasible because of responsibilities to work.

One way to get around this roadblock is to get a job that will let you travel and see the world. Here are some of the best jobs for people who love to travel.

Hostelworld HostelworldHostelworld.com

Translator

A translator is a wonderful job for those who want to travel. It will bring you to many places as you work, so long as those places speak the language you can translate. The great thing about translating is the variety of work you can get by translating for specific clients or just translating for tourists in the area. You can choose what type of scene you wish to work in very easily.

Pilot

A pilot fits the definition of a job that gets to travel perfectly. Now, whether you are a private pilot or a commercial pilot, you will still get to fly all over the planet. The only major problem with this job is the requirement of flight classes. But once you get your license, you can fly freely around the world while making yourself money to fund your trips.

Travel blogger

Being a travel blogger is a temperamental job but, if done correctly, it will allow you to visit anywhere you want. Writing to fans as you travel the world can be a fun and exciting way to engage with the planet. This job can be difficult to do, though, as you must be able to write consistently and capture your audience with each post.

English teacher

This may not sound like a job that allows you to travel, but schools all around the world are always looking for more people to teach English.

In this career, you would move near the school that you would teach at and live there over the course of your time there. The interesting thing about this job is that it does not necessarily require a teaching degree, depending on the school and country in question. You also get to live in a new country for an extended period.

When it comes to the best jobs for people who love to travel, these are just a few of our suggestions. There are plenty of jobs where you can travel around the world, but these ones are far-reaching and cover a lot of different lifestyles. They might seem like pipe dreams, but hey, you never know!

Seattle, Washington is a rainy, coffee-fueled, coastal town often referred to as the "Emerald City."

Located against the ecological wonderland of Puget Sound, this cosmopolitan, seaside city is a mishmash of arts, culture, history, nature, and, of course, cloudy weather. Thanks to its proximity to nature, its greenery, and its culturally rich, big-city atmosphere, the city is becoming increasingly popular, both for tourists and those looking for a change of scenery.

The Big Stops: Tourist Seattle

If you only have a few days to visit Seattle, you'll probably want to check out the area's most famous attractions.

For nature lovers and summit-chasers, there's the imposing, wildflower-shrouded Mt. Rainier.

Mt. Rainierthebesttravelplaces.com

Mt. Rainier

For foodies, there's the popular Pike Place Market, a giant patchwork of food-sellers and friendly chaos where you can purchase everything from giant crabs' legs to bottomless amounts of coffee (more on that later).

Pike Place Marketseattle.eater.com

And finally, there's the iconic Space Needle and the Sky View Observatory, which will give you extraordinary views of the city.

Space Needlegetyourguide.com

Seattle Arts and Museums

For arts and culture lovers, Seattle has plenty to cut your teeth on. Don't miss the Chihuly Garden and Glass, a collection of extraordinary blown-glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly.

Chihuly Gardensfodors.com

Chihuly Gardens

For art, there's the giant Seattle Art Museum Downtown. Seattle also offers the Museum of Pop Culture, a nonprofit that features all your favorite icons from history, and plenty of other options.

Museum of Pop Culturesmithsonianmag.org

For some history, there's the Klondike Gold Rush Museum, which commemorates Seattle's history as a gold rush hub.

There are plenty of quirky attractions—like the giant Fremont Troll, the 18-foot sculpture in the Fremont neighborhood that cuts an imposing figure.

Fremont Trollsillyamerica.com

You could also take in the city from a boat—marine enthusiasts might enjoy visiting to the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks to explore the history of this port city.

Seattle, of course, also has a gritty underground side—you may know the city from its time at the heart of the '90s grunge movement.

It also has a long, storied history that has left more than a few scars. You can literally see its underground through one of its underground tours, which will take you on a walk through the "buried city," the remnants left over from before the Great Fire of 1889.

Seattle Undergroundpinterest

Natural Wonders

Seattle is notorious for its natural wonders. For a close-up view, there's the Seattle Aquarium, a marine experience that showcases the best of what Puget Sound has to offer.

For more exposure to the beauty of Seattle's nature, try the Washington Park Arboretum, a 230-acre showcase of Seattle's wetlands and natural wonders.

Washington Park Arboretumtriposo.com

You might also pay a visit to the Alki Beach for some time with the ocean waves.

Alki BeachMetropolitangardens.blogspot.com

Or consider taking a more exhaustive adventure to Discovery Park, a giant and labyrinthine natural park at the edge of Puget Sound.

Discovery Parktrip savvy.com

Food and Drink

Food tours are also popular options for those who want to get more intimate with the city's cuisine, and Seattle is often ranked as one of the best cities for foodies.

It's also a great place for coffee-heads. You might also pay a visit to the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, AKA Ultimate Starbucks, a tasting room that features a coffee library amongst other treats for coffee addicts.

Sarbucks Reserve Roasterydesigner.com

Moving to Seattle

If you're planning on moving to Seattle, locals say there's a few things you should know. First off, it is most definitely overcast the majority of the time, though the rain is rather like a mist. That makes the rare sunny day shine even more, though, locals say, in addition to fostering natural abundance.

The city is generally very congested with traffic, which can be noisy, though it offers great public transportation options, from buses to rail—regardless, you'll want to get an Orca Card for that.

Like every city, Seattle has a number of diverse and charismatic neighborhoods. For example, there's the beachy, more laid-back West Seattle.

West SeattleWest Seattle

There's the vibrant Capitol Hill, a hub of arts, culture, tech bros, and nightlife (during non-COVID times).

There's the historic and artsy Pioneer Square, featuring plenty of museums, shops, galleries, and pubs.

Pioneer Square SeattleExpedia

Fremont is a more bohemian area. Belltown is a trendy waterfront neighborhood that's close to everything.

In general, Seattle residents love the city for its proximity to nature, from beaches to glaciers, and its abundance of arts and cultural attractions. As Kimberly Kinrade said, "Seattle is for people who love culture, but refuse to sacrifice their wild nature to attain it." Residents dislike the steep cost of housing and all things that come from rising prices, including the city's large homeless population.

In general, the city is known as environmentally conscious, liberal, and dog-loving. The people are often referred to as nice but possibly a bit standoffish and cold (the "Seattle Freeze" is when you make plans to hang out and then bail, which is apparently very common). The rain can certainly get depressing, but the proximity to nature helps.

Remember, if you do happen to move: umbrellas are dead giveaways for tourists.


What's your favorite part about Seattle? What did we leave out? Let us know at @thejourniest on Twitter!

Travel

Weed World Candies Exist to Prey on Gullible Tourists

Weed is still illegal in New York, but scamming tourists is not.

You wouldn't know it walking around midtown Manhattan, but marijuana is still illegal in New York.

It does seem strange to think that perhaps the most metropolitan city in the US would be lagging behind so many other parts of the country that have legalized possession, production, and sale of cannabis and THC products, but it's true.

New York's decriminalization of marijuana has led many smokers to be more brazen with their public consumption in recent years, and Governor Cuomo recently announced plans for limited legalization for recreational use at the state level. But for the time being the sale of products containing THC is still very much illegal.

buy happiness You sure about that?

Adding to the confusion is a company that has sprung up to prey on tourist's uncertainty. Weed World trucks have multiplied at a staggering rate since they first started appearing in Midtown and the Village a few years ago. Easily a dozen RVs and vans now line the tourist-dense streets of Manhattan, advertising Girl Scout Cookies and Gorilla Glue, clad in marijuana-leaf decals and occupied by employees who are paid either to be stoned out of their minds, or just to pretend they are.

With eyes nearly in slits and an air of relaxation that suggests that customers are temporary interludes from a permanent nap, they will promise you as much as they can get away with while letting their branding do most of the work. They will sell you four lollipops for $20, which would seem like a great deal if not for the fact that they will not deliver on the strong implication that they'll get you high.

They have a Twitter account where they celebrate the supposed availability of weed and claim to "have New York locked down." They'll even sell you vape cartridges that advise you to "get medicated," and which are packed with potent doses of… flavor?

weed world truck

An employee once assured me that their candies do contain THC—maybe they wouldn't be so brazenly dishonest today—and in a drunken state I coughed up $5 to test that claim. There is a faint weedy taste to their candies, and you may find trace amounts of CBD inside, but that's it. It's a scam. There is no THC. Nothing that will give their customers the experience they're selling.

Worse than the trucks is the Weed World Candies storefront that opened in midtown in 2019. Just walking past you would swear that people were passing a massive blunt inside.

The smell is unmistakable and overpowering, except that it's fake. Whatever chemical fragrance they pumped onto the street, it was not connected to anyone smoking weed. Inside, the psychedelic wall art complemented shelves lined with suggestive candies and boxes emblazoned with pot leaf insignia.

Whatever the venue, they are all too happy to sell you overpriced hemp products and CBD creams and chocolates made to look like nugs. And if you're a tourist, or a moron like me, you might believe the scam long enough to give them money, but nothing they sell will get you high.

weed world store Hiroki Kittaka

The owners of Weed World, Judah Izrael and Bilal Muhammad—who prefers to go by "Dro Man" or "Doctor Dro"—will defend their products by claiming that they serve to promote legalization and decriminalization efforts by normalizing the idea of public sale of marijuana. But at no point in the purchasing process is the illusion that their candies will get you high broken. At no point are their customers offered literature explaining the mission of Weed World.

On their website's FAQs page, there is no mention of THC or its absence from their products, but the first question, "How much should I eat?" is answered, "It's all based on your tolerance but there's no limit." Tolerance for what? Sugar? The company—which originated in Alabama and has spread to cities around the country—mostly seems like a very profitable way to sell candy to gullible adults.

weed world wall art Nicole Mallete

The best thing I can say in their defense is that one of their trucks was recently busted by police in Saraland, Alabama, with products that "tested positive for marijuana." Assuming this isn't a screw up or deliberate frame-job by the police, it's possible that some of the Weed World trucks are using their faux activism as a front for selling actual drugs. If so, that would be the most honest thing about this company. Until that's confirmed, ignore these trucks and maybe just ask a friend for a hookup.