Responsible Travelling – Part 2

Volunteering

Many travellers who are spending some time away from home end up volunteering their services at a project that claims to be a Good Cause, or offering to help to sponsor it. And many are, although a goodly number turn out to be money-making scams, some set up very elaborately indeed.

I have seen many sides of charity work – I have worked as a volunteer in UK and in India, worked as a paid employee of a charity and I have been both a trustee and a committee member of charities. I have also watched one go to bad, with various warning signs unheeded and a number of heads buried in the sand.

dawn panorama

So how do you tell a good project from a bad one? There are no hard and fast rules, mainly because projects differ so much. Some are huge, multi-million dollar constructs involving hundreds of volunteers and paid staff whilst others run on a shoestring with one or two staff. Some are run entirely by local people, others may be foreign led or almost entirely staffed by foreigners. They set up and run schools, leprosy or aids centres, save donkeys, teach alternative ways to cook and heat to reduce deforestation, rescue fallen women and street children, restore old temples, and so on and so on. And it is often very difficult to tell a scam from a genuine project.

Firstly, please do not just leap in and offer money. There are several good ways to get a feel for the project. Local knowledge is often a good start – talk to people. If you are spending a while in a place, you will get to know people and you can chat about your chosen project to them. If it is dodgy, someone is very likely to warn you. Or spend a while there as a volunteer before offering any money. Watching how it is run at first hand should give you a feel for it. Other than that, look at its website, if it has one. The project should have a board of trustees, or a committee, to oversee it. Contact them. Ask to see how the money is used and accounted for. This should all be open and in the public domain. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If the people concerned are reluctant to give answers, or resent your asking, be suspicious. Look for obvious signs and use common sense. A large, flashy building with a few children inside and a big new landcruiser parked out in front, in the midst of a squalid village is going to be locally devisive and should also set your alarm bells ringing. If the trustees and committee all live in Europe or US, then it may be very difficult for them to carry out their duties effectively and again you should be wary.

Naturally, all this is unnecessary if you volunteer through a well-known and reputable agency such as Oxfam or VSO – you can be sure that all has been checked out thoroughly. If you can arrange a placement before you travel, using a reputable charity, you are unlikely to encounter problems. Do a little research.

Photography

Just a bit of common sense here, really. Be aware that in some societies taking photos, especially of people or religious objects and buildings, may not be accepted as easily as it is in the west. Often it is best to ask first. Be aware of people’s sensitivities. Years ago as I waited at Dubai airport, an elderly local gentleman in local costume sat drinking coffee in a cafe. He was approached by a western couple; he taking a number of photos of said local gentleman from intrusively close range, whilst she posed beside him. After a while she virtually sat on his knee as her partner continued to snap. The local gentleman sat impassive and stony faced through this whilst I (and I am sure almost everyone else in the room) cringed and wanted to creep away (or hit them!). I hope that just the thought of it makes you cringe, too! I have virtually stopped taking candid shots in places like markets, largely because I feel quite uncomfortable doing so. I feel as though I am both being intrusive, and treating people insensitively. I have found, though, that I have been rewarded with a lot of great photographs by simply asking people if they minded me photographing them. Very few refuse, and quite a few will pose proudly.

twenty one

Should you take photos of people and offer to send them copies, please make sure that you honour this. Many people that you meet will want their photo taken – in India I have been frequently approached when taking photos by people who wanted me to photograph them. In more remote areas, you may come across people who have never seen their photograph before.

You should also be aware that in many countries airports, bridges, hydro-electric power stations and many other buildings are regarded as military installations and the authorities take a dim view of attempts to photograph them. It is possible to end up facing years in prison for taking that innocent photograph of a nice-looking bridge! Find out before you travel whether this applies to the country you are visiting.

To go or not to go –

The ethics of visiting an oppressed country.

For visiting – to see it as it really is (you probably won’t. The Army/State/Police will ensure that you don’t get to particularly sensitive areas.), to support the local people (you may or may not be. You can choose to spend your money in little stalls or shops but you may have little choice when it comes to hotels. You may be forced to stay in State-run set-ups. You certainly won’t be allowed to show any political support.).

Against visiting – You would be tacitly supporting the State. You would invariably be financially supporting the state. If the State encourages foreign tourism, it is because it wants the tourists’ dollars. Again, this is another dilemma that you will have to solve for yourself. There are several things that you can do, however, if you want to support the people of an oppressed country.

Campaigning – groups such as Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org.uk) or Avaaz (www.avaaz.org) campaign actively in support of prisoners of conscience or oppressed groups or minorities. Join them, sign their petitions, give money, write letters to governments. Add your voice to those demanding change.

Boycotts – Boycotting the goods of an oppressive regime denies them foreign cash.

There and back again

You might want to think about offsetting your carbon emissions when you travel to and from your holiday (and do not forget about any internal flights that you might take). There are a few companies that use carbon offset payments to either plant trees, or work in the area of low carbon technology with the aim of reducing the effects of global warmingย – for example developing cheap and easy to produce but highly efficient cooking stoves for use in areas such as Nepal where erosion has become a huge problem due to deforestation for cooking fires.

Climate Care are the company I have contributed to, who do a lot of work in this field. Obviously it is better if you take alternative public transport, but not always possible or convenient. There is a limit to how many 30 hour bus rides in ramshackle vehicles it is possible to put up with! It is not possible to be precise, but usually trains are the least polluting option. When island hopping, ferries rather than planes.

It is far more interesting to travel slowly and be part of the environment than to get into a hermetically sealed container and just emerge at the other end. Surely, that is what travel is all about.

 

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31 thoughts on “Responsible Travelling – Part 2

  1. Wonderfully written, Mick. I particularly liked the photography part. And I would like to add that in Pushkar cattle fair, many world photographers arrive to get some authentic shots. To make easy they often pay locals to pose for them. It has become so that these local beggars, babas will start demanding money if they know you have framed them even if from a distance. Their psychology has changed.

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    1. That sounds quite familiar, Arv. In some places, such as Morocco, some locals will seize on obvious tourists and offer to act as guides. Even if the tourist refuses, they tag along and point out things of interest and then demand money, with ‘witnesses’ agreeing that the tourist looked where the ‘guide’ pointed!

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      1. Well, across the world there are tourists scams. And sometimes, it’s just not possible for tourist to escape. I would like to re-blog this post it on another blog of mine, if you permit. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. like you I cringe at people who don’t show common courtesy of asking about pictures. I was walking the North Yorkshire Moor Way once and approached the one pub, famous for its huge fire etc. I was drenched.As I reached the door a party of tourists form a large country to the west began to decant form their coach and hasten inside. One woman pulled out her camera and began to photograph the pub. I, dripping and miserable, bent to my shoes, determined to take them off and put them by the fire when she said ‘I can’t see your face’. It took me a moment to realise she meant me. I remember staring at her with incredulity. Even that didt stop her pointing her camera at me before going into the warm.

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    1. It really beggars belief, Geoff. I’m sure it’s a form of arrogance, rather than simple, unthinking discourtesy (although it’s that, too!), an expectation that they have the right, for some reason, to point their camera at anything they choose to.

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  3. I know I don’t travel nearly as widely as you and a number of your other readers, Mick. I can wholeheartedly agree that some people are incredibly discourteous when taking photographs, though. I see it fairly often in my own neighborhood, never mind in other countries.

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  4. for example developing cheap and easy to produce but highly efficient cooking stoves

    One of the most clever and useful inventions I have seen is the Gravity Light. It works on the same principles that powers a grandfather clock. A weight is lifted and gravity powers an LED light to provide illumination for up to a half hour. It is a fabulous means for supplying light for doing homework.

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    1. I have a feeling I may have seen that. As you say, both clever and useful. Also a slightly simpler mechanism, I believe, than the wind-up light. Anything along those lines, though, is vastly superior to the versions that rely on kerosene.

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          1. The best use of a bicycle generator is to power a television in Europe or North America. The kids get exercise and learn to budget their watching – but it also exposes why bicycle generators are not popular. It is a lot of work – and who does the work is always a conflict. ๐Ÿ™‚

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            1. Very true, although the dynamics of that would probably play out a little differently in Africa or Asia, especially if coupled with a capacitor capable of powering lights for several hours (I’m not very good with electrics, I need to point out here. This might not be practical).

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  5. I agree with your comments on photography. In Nepal I have always asked and the majority of people have agreed to have their photography taken. I have not taken photographs for many years now but when I was last in Nepal I suggested to the ones who were that they asked permission and showed the photograph to the people who they were photographing.
    Regarding ethics of visiting a place it is a dilemma. When I went to Tibet I thought about it as I knew the history of the country but decided to go to see for myself although, as you say, you probably do not ‘see’ as you are not allowed to although you do get glimpses (a fully armed squad of Chinese riot police with batons, guns, and shields, marching through the streets of Lhasa; a couple of Chinese police ‘questioning’ a trader in the market place, temples and monasteries damaged, etc).

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    1. It is very difficult. I would love to visit Tibet – at least a part of me does, the other part knows it will have been altered so much by the Chinese that I will be disappointed – but I have decided that I shall not go unless the situation there improves and the Tibetans are granted some meaningful form of autonomy (the Chinese will not leave).

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      1. There’s a saying that I used to have taped to the counter in the retail store where I worked – “Thanks for the lessons you have to teach me.” That is, by encountering “prickly” people, we learn a little something about ourselves, or about how we might want to better behave. We all slip, or get close to slipping. These folks slipped over the line and illustrate to us how not to behave.

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  6. All good points to remember when traveling, Mick, thank you. I’m like many of the others who have commented in that the rudeness of taking photos without asking permission has struck me the most. Last year, we were at a farmer’s market in Sanibel Island and one of the stalls was selling their own guacamole, which they were making, batch by batch, in their stall. Most of us simply stood and watched, waiting for it to be finished so we could buy some, but one young woman ahead of me pulled out her phone, stepped right in front of the man stirring the guacamole and started recording him from about two feet away. Apparently, it didn’t occur to her to ask permission, but I was appalled.

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