While travel for most folks might mean some sightseeing, gorging on exotic food, experiencing foreign cultures, shopping and clicking pictures, there’s also a small, growing band of hardcore travellers, or more specifically backpackers who add a purpose to their trips, like travel writer and author of Almost Intrepid Anjaly Thomas. When City Express caught up with her, she was just back from a satisfying “relief” travel trip to Kenya. Over to Anjaly for her inspiring travel tales.
Going on relief-travel
Travel usually means unwinding and having fun, but relief-travel is mixing the pleasures of travel with a social cause. It is about how you can support a community in the country you are travelling in, especially in a developing one. In this context, relief isn’t about pledging your yearly salary or endless time, it means doing whatever little you can wholeheartedly. It means donating essential items, medicines or even giving away whatever little you can afford to spare to the people in your destination country. My trip to Kenya was one such trip - driven by the sole purpose to be, even in a small way, a part of the helping community that cares for the unfortunate among the local population.
Every developing country has problems - be it related to health, safety or poverty. If you put in a little thought into your travel plans, there are many ways you can help out. I started small. As a backpacker, my personal items never exceed ten kilograms, so I use my baggage allowance to carry over-the-counter drugs, soaps, dried food, bandages, stationery and even clothes - anything that could come of use to anyone in the destination country. It’s not a lot, but every small thing counts. Often, I involve friends and colleagues as well. Let us say that it is not possible for one individual to put aside a large sum of money, but when a large number of people put aside small amounts for essential goods, that’s a lot of stuff. Using airline baggage space may not be the only way to go - you could also buy locally produced things to distribute. You don’t have to “donate” to any specific organisation; just about anyone will be glad for your help. When I am pressed for space, I usually buy local stuff and personally deliver it to orphanages or special needs’ homes or just sit at a village corner and hand things out to anyone who comes by. Curiosity will drive them to you and they will be more than happy to take whatever you give them.
Years ago, when travelling through Tanzania to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, my vehicle broke down near a remote village. While waiting for it to be fixed, children from the village swarmed the car, shouting ‘Muzungu,’ smiling and dancing around me. I had a few left over soup packets from my climb and because I had nothing else, I gave those away without explaining how to use them. The kids ripped the packets open and ate the soup mix! That incident made me realise that what they really needed were not fancy luxury items but things they were used to - like beans, maize flour, rice etc. It also taught me that often it is not what you want to give that is important, giving what they need is far more important.
Now I make sure that I buy local things to distribute. It doesn’t take a lot of my time either - but knowing that you have been a small part of their lives is satisfying.
To trust or not
You don’t always need to “donate” to an organisation. Although it would help to research on the organisations you are donating to, if that is what you want to do. I usually never send money directly to any organisation - my purpose is to be very item specific and hands-on. As I travel, I like to be involved with the people I meet. Also, it doesn’t matter if no one gives you a certificate or a donor-book to sign in, a random stranger on the street would be just as happy to receive a week’s supply of rice or beans. What matters is giving a little of what you can. I usually help small communities that I come across as I pass through.
It seems mind-boggling at first, but the larger picture is very rewarding. When you sit down on the airplane for your dream vacation and anticipate the new experiences and new perspectives you are about to face or a smile you are about to bring on someone’s face unexpectedly, it is a reward in itself.
Relief vs volunteer travel
In a lot of ways, they are quite similar, because your actions are voluntary. But relief travel is an independent action and it is not dependent on any outside source, driven and motivated only by your conscience. Here, you are giving back in kind, and are not bound by time or money. Volunteering usually has a specified time slot or a specific task and not all of us as travellers may have that time to spare. Independent volunteering (at any organisation) is usually good for long-term travellers with flexible time and budget and usually requires a lot of advance planning of travel, accommodation and food and directly works with the project/organisation on a very hands-on level.
Relief-travel works on a simpler principle. You give what you can, give whom you want to and how much you want to.
You don’t really need to spend months or weeks and spend all your money. It is easy to mix a bit of relief work with your travel. Don’t be afraid to give - in fact, you will enjoy your vacation even more - everyone will benefit from it and tourism dollars will greatly assist the destination economy (and its residents). Remember if you are in a certain country on holiday, you are one of the fortunate few with spare cash, and sharing a bit of that isn’t going to break your budget.
Any developing country is a good place to start. It holds good for domestic travellers in India as well - depending on where you are going. With a little advance planning and research about the place you are going to, it will be rather easy to pick a place and the kind of help you could give. The whole idea here is do whatever you can - little or big - it's adding thought to your travel that counts.
Women travelling alone
As a solo traveller, the challenges I face are pretty standard and applicable to all solo travellers. In every place you travel to, including your home country, there are bound to be the usual issues on safety, perhaps language, food etc., but when has that ever stopped a traveller? It is important to show the people in your destination country that you trust them, that you mean no harm and that your help is not selfish. One thing travel has taught me is that every person in the world has the same reason to live, has the same motive and need for existence and if you respect that, everything is easy.