The Morning After Cambodia

What happens the morning after? Will we get closer? Or will I just feel like I just made a big mistake? The “morning after” usually refers to what happens after two people have sex. And it usually depends on what happens the night before. In my case, the morning after refers to Cambodia, and to what happened a few months ago. I do not mean that I had sex with the country (of course not), but I do refer to the manner in which I was emotionally overwhelmed, because it was at least as ‘deep’. 😉

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In love with Cambodia @ Koh Rong Samloem

I mean, if you are in love with a country and you have thought about the decision to volunteer, your entire experience can be something turning out dramatically different than your initial expectations if the country – or other (f)actors – do not seem to be on the same line as you are. Volunteering won’t automatically bring you closer, you might probably feel better by doing it initially but if you and the country do not seem to find a solution for the projects you’re working on, you might be asking yourself questions:

  • Why do I (still) want to volunteer?
  • What does voluntourism mean to me?
  • Does voluntourism fit with my values?
  • Is this a short-term thing or do I see this having a long-term benefit?
  • And if we have a relationship, what does connect us?

I never expected myself to raise these questions in my mind, but after working in the volunteer industry in Cambodia, I did ask myself many deep questions about volunteering and tourism (so called ‘voluntourism’).

  • What kinds of projects work?
  • Who will benefit from our projects: the locals, the industry or the volunteer?
  • What will we do if it fails?

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What if voluntourism was like a fake ‘snake’ / sneaky friend?

“Don’t fear the enemy that attacks you but the fake friend that hugs you.”

When I was working in Cambodia this summer, the first weeks I was doing my job great and I traveled around with the volunteers. Only by the time we were finishing our volunteer projects, I started to raise these questions. Some things just weren’t right. Maybe that’s the reason why I stopped blogging? Because I was confused?

I mean… If you are building toilets without offering maintenance or technical support, what does the family then do when the toilet is broken?

I mean… If you are building water pumping wells and you don’t supply the water filters, how can those people then give water to their children?

I mean… If you are teaching English to a class of children, but you only stay for two weeks, how can you get to teach them something worthy?

I mean… If you are going to play with orphans in a so-called orphanage, does it really make these children better if you leave again after two weeks? 

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Volunteering in Sihanoukville (Cambodia), Summer 2014

These are only a couple of questions that raised in my mind, after working as a volunteer group leader in Cambodia… And of course, I have seen many beautiful things too and the volunteering did contribute to many factors too. I am only disappointed that I feel like voluntourism does seem to have more positive impacts on the personal development of the lives of my volunteers, than it does on the country. That is why I talk about a “morning after” effect.

In the mean time, months have passed by that I am back from Cambodia, but I can’t get this questions out of my mind. And as I started my Masters in Anthropology in September, I found that this issue is the appropriate topic for me to write my thesis about. Therefor, I am now researching a lot about Voluntourism and its impacts. And I have found surprisingly much information and articles about it. So much that I am even stuck in finding my own research question to solve in my thesis. 🙂 So if you can help me, comment bellow and help me finding my thesis topic!

No, the real reason why I want to share my feelings about voluntourism in this blogpost, is not about willing to stop the explosion of voluntourism. I still do have a lot of respect for all the volunteers in the world that want to spend time hoping to help a country and its people forward. I believe that they all have the right intentions, but that the problem of voluntourism is somewhere in a layer underneath: somewhere between the intermediaries and the local businesses… And I am afraid I am not powerful (and even not brave) enough to fix that fundamental issue.

to hell with good intentions

What I do hope to send out as a message via this blog post is to be aware that you might be going to hell with good intentions. One of the problems is that “There has always been a nagging inadequacy around the assertion that one cannot sell poverty, but one can sell paradise. Today the tourism industry does sell poverty.” (quote from my Professor Noel Salazar from Tourist Behaviour: A Psychological Perspective)

I am afraid that I cannot give you that much answers yet, but what I can advise you is to be careful when you decide to go abroad volunteering. You can find tips and tricks on http://learningservice.info/ , created by the ‘rethinkers of volunteer travel’. Because I am convinced that we all want to make the most out of volunteering and travels, but we have to do it the right way. And if we – volunteers – are aware of the critical issues in voluntourism, we are one step closer to rethinking and re-creating what used to be a noble random act of kindness.

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And don’t worry, I don’t have the intentions to stop volunteering. I won’t stop before I have the feeling that something has changed, partially through my efforts. Because you have never really lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you. ❤ Share the message if you agree that volunteer travel needs to change. Awareness is the greatest agent for change! ❤

Lots of love

x Julie x