Working in the Dirt
Working In The Dirt

Adventures in ‘VolunTeenTourism’ to Rural Central America

By: Claire McWilliams, PhD

Volunteer tourism is deservedly controversial. VolunTeenTourism even more so. There is no perfect way to do voluntourism, at least to the thoughtful participant, that isn’t tinged with mixed feelings related to the intertwining of tourism, service, community, culture, logistics, business models, and the often-blaring economic dissonance between those involved.

In 2011 I traveled to Central America in a partnership between a high school club and a local chapter of an international organization with a mission to build rapport globally via city-to-city partnerships. The purpose of our visit was to help build pre-fab homes after hurricane destruction and related landslides. This trip was a lesson in contrast when it comes to volunteer tourism. On one hand there were communication and logistical issues that were at times challenging to experience. On the other hand, the level of cultural embeddedness and open-hearted hospitality was astounding, beautiful, and left a lasting impression on every person who was involved.

A few of the tough lessons included the small community’s resource strain under the weight of supporting such a large group (60 people). There was underestimation about just how much food and water American high school-aged students [the boys, in particular!], especially those engaging in manual labor, could consume in a single day. Having enough tools on the worksite for the team, having a range of tasks that were commensurate with varying student abilities was also a challenge. At some points in the work students were wiggling trees out of the ground using sticks and brute strength alone! While some students coped with the climate, elevation, and workload effectively, others did not and struggled to feel well on some of the work days. Our group worked was in some ways sequestered…to build the prefab homes for local community members vs. with or alongside them. Communicating with the local workers and craftsmen giving most of the group’s limited ability to speak the language was at times problematic. All of these lessons were invaluable to learn and informed future ‘volunteer tourism’ trips in a profound way—and every time an obstacle was encountered, solutions were pulled together collaboratively.

Challenges aside, this trip contained a special kind of magic. The mayor and residents of the small town welcomed our group like long lost relatives returning home. Maximum effort was put forth to share their cultural pride, celebrations, foods, music, dances, and ways of life. Around every corner was a surprise we did not expect. For example, after a long day’s work, covered in head-to-toe dirt coatings, the mayor surprised our group by taking us to a natural spring. In their work clothes…students jumped in beneath the crystal blue, cold, falling water and delighted in the freshness of it. One day the students were called off the worksite and taken to a neighboring town, where without even knowing it, the leaders had planned a soccer tournament between the American and local young people. The entire town had gathered in anticipation of it and there was near deafening level of cheering throughout the matches—which were played on asphalt. A few students have ‘scarvenirs’ from their falls still today! One night our group was told to meet outside the town hall where our meals were normally served. It was dark and empty…until flashing colorful lights clicked on and loud music began to play…the mayor and local leaders turned the multipurpose room into a ‘discoteca!’ Playlists including both local and American favorites were woven together. Adults and young people alike danced the night away and shared favorite songs and dances–and the language barriers that were at times a struggle fell away. Our group was lead outside to a fireworks display, which was so close to the tops of our heads that ash appeared on our faces because of it. There were tears amongst locals and our team upon saying goodbye.

This trip was a challenge, but it informed all future trips and taught me a lot about how to approach these unique experiences from a more informed, partnership-based, and prepared perspective.