In a world where the career of “travel blogger” reigns high in the court of cool, there’s some inherent irony in the fact that the best-selling travel book of all time is nearly 150 years old.
Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, which humorously chronicles Twain’s experience traveling with a group of American tourists through Europe on a the steamship Quaker City, was first published in 1869. It was the best-selling of Twain’s works during his lifetime, and it remains the inspiration for wanderlust of epic proportions to this day.
Beyond inspiring generations of his literary fans with his signature humor, the book supports the idea that one should consider traveling to expand their own horizons.
One of the most quoted sections of the book reads as follows:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s life.”
Essentially, Mark Twain—the father of American literature and arguably the greatest humorist of his age– believed that travel opens people up to world views that are nearly impossible to comprehend without first-hand experience. Scientists have even tried, through recent research, to prove this statement true.
At Discover Corps, we’d have to agree. It’s our opinion that meaningful travel experiences change lives for the better. We believe that volunteer travel is particularly fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Here’s how…
Volunteer Travel Gets You Off the Beaten Path
One of the most unique aspects of volunteer travel is that these experiences often take travelers off the beaten path. While there are usually dozens of tour companies operating in major cities, volunteering immerses participants in parts of the world often overlooked by tourists. Volunteer travelers spend time in smaller, more rural communities, where daily life looks much different.
In my experience, it’s been exciting to see travelers fall head over heels in love with new places that, prior to their volunteer vacation, they never even knew existed.
And, while they spend time tucked away in these magical little communities, they are simultaneously expanding their hearts and minds to acknowledge the different ways that people on our planet live. The fact that we are able to share space and experiences with people that lead such vastly different lives from we do back home is a raw and humbling aspect of traveling off the beaten path.
Of course, all travel can expand our horizons and understanding. But this impact is amplified when you’re able to spend time in places that we may never have known about, understood, or valued.
Volunteer Travelers Learn More
If you are an avid traveler, you hopefully soak up new and interesting information everywhere you go. Volunteer travel, however, takes experiential learning to the next level.
In most cases, volunteer travel programs allow adults and families with vastly different backgrounds and life experiences to contribute to an important project in a developing community.
This might be helping with infrastructure or building projects, assisting a local NGO with distribution or collection of materials, or contributing to projects that support environmental initiatives. The possibilities are endless. But the best part about these opportunities is that the participants get to experience working in a totally new field, learning tons of new tricks of the trade along the way.
As an adult, there are seemingly few chances to push yourself out of your comfort zone, learn a new skill, or try your hand at something totally foreign to you. Voluntourism opportunities provide a catalyst for that growth, while supporting travelers to both learn and contribute during their vacations.
In terms of Mark Twain’s quote, there’s not much that could expand a person’s respect for (and wholesome view of) a new place, culture or people more than those very people teaching them something new about the world… or themselves.
Volunteer Travel Provides Shared Experiences
Volunteer travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness because it promotes the notion that people from diverse backgrounds should connect with one another around a common goal.
When travelers from around the world join forces with a community they’re visiting as guests, the number of experiences they share with locals increases tenfold. And because everyone is working, eating, sight-seeing, and hanging out together, real friendships are formed. These friendships are based on mutual respect and understanding of one another’s similarities and differences.
This is the type “broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things” that Mark Twain was referring to when he recommended that everyone should travel. And it’s not hard to understand why a person’s views could be altered so dramatically by a shared experience with someone different from themselves.
Every time you meet someone new and really get to know them, you eventually come to the realization that they have had pivotal life experiences that differ from your own. These recognitions can be even more powerful when you’re a traveler in a new place, because we often incorrectly assume that the people we meet while traveling are more different than similar to us.
By sharing experiences, engaging in real and honest conversations, and working together toward a common goal with local people, volunteer travelers are able to move far beyond making assumptions about their new surroundings and those they share them with.
Instead, they’re able to shed their prejudices and recognize the connection that we share with each person on earth, if we simply allow ourselves to. And that is a beautiful thing! –Sara McDaniel
BIO: Sara McDaniel is a San Diego-based educator who uses her summers to explore the world, often alongside her students! In addition to writing for The Volunteer Traveler, she has directed international programming for various travel organizations. When she’s not writing or researching, she can often be found swimming in the ocean, eating all of the delicious foods she can find, and teaching in San Diego State University’s College of Education.