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John Huba Ann Goldstein, one of the volunteer vacationers on a Cross Cultural Solutions trip to Dharmsala, India, working at a local school. For a growing number of travelers, volunteering in a remote corner of the world is the trip of a lifetime. Melanie Dow was always the beach and spa type. But you can really spend only so many vacations lying around, she says, as our taxi weaves up a pitted dirt road crowded with trucks, gas-powered rickshaws, and young boys with livestock in tow. She’s 32, she tells me, and until a few months ago she had a great job at Goldman Sachs in New York City.
Around the bend, the road narrows and drops away into a valley. Only a shallow river and a clutter of boulders come in anything but a shade of monsoon green. When we get to Dharmsala, a slow-paced town of 19,000 not far from Tibet, Melanie will swap her jeans and T-shirt for a traditional Indian salwar suit—loose cotton pants and a flowing, square-cut top that falls to her knees—and report for work at the local Red Cross building. I couldn’t even find time to talk to my mother,” she says, laughing, “so how could I find time to work with kids? By now, Melanie knows what to expect. She gave up her apartment and quit her job to spend the past five months on one CCS trip after another, moving from an orphanage in Brazil to a home for the mentally disabled in Thailand to here, the Indian countryside. 2,400 for each three-week trip, not counting airfare.
I would have just wasted the money going out to eat in New York. Until recently, volunteering abroad had far more to do with activism than with tourism. French pacifist Pierre Ceresole organized the first formal volunteer trips shortly after the end of World War I. His organization, Service Civil International, rallied groups of young people from France and Germany to rebuild towns wrecked by the war. An organization called Earthwatch began to change that in the seventies, though entirely by accident. Federal funding for scientific field research had ebbed, and foreign research stations were struggling to keep their projects alive.
Earthwatch emerged to try to make up the difference with tourist dollars. Travelers would pay generously, the founders believed, for the chance to watch scientists track wild animals or dig up ancient ruins. Although Earthwatch started pitching itself as a kind of scientific Peace Corps, it was, in fact, something quite new: a first stab at work-based tourism. Earthwatch trip was relatively costly, something only older professionals could afford. Saul and Ann Goldstein, two other participants in Cross Cultural Solutions’ program in Dharmsala, have watched it happen. They’re on their 15th volunteer vacation—the first 14 with Earthwatch. When we started, in 1986, nobody had heard of Earthwatch,” Ann says.