Four days in Puerto Rico. Wow - This was a good trip. The trip Started on Tuesday when we landed at the San Juan airport and picked up our rental car. We spent virtually no time in San Juan, which is/was one of my biggest regrets of the trip. But there was so much to choose from and decisions had to be made… So after picking up our rental car, we headed straight to Luquillo where we would spend our first two nights.
Luquillo is a surfing town about 45 minutes East of San Juan. Easily available by car. Which leads me to my Tip #1: Unless you are planning on staying in San Juan for the entirety of your trip, rent a car, more specifically, a Jeep (Jeep thing explained below). We decided to stay in Luquillo because of its proximity to El Yunque National Forest - one of the most popular destinations (if not the most) and the thing we were most excited to see. Getting to our Air BnB in Luquillo was the most stressful part of the trip. Typical of much of the Latin World, Google Maps is not very accurate in Puerto Rico, which always leads to a lot of frustration. So, Tip #2: Make sure to get thorough directions from your hotel or hotel before hitting the road.
After finally finding our guest house, we hit the town for a light dinner and walk along the beach. Truth be told, I was not very impressed by Luquillo. The food options are limited, especially for a vegetarian, and the beaches are not the white sand/ turquoise water wonders that can be found elsewhere on the island.
We dedicated Wednesday to El Yunque, which, in my opinion, can easily be seen in a day. At the entrance of the forest, we stumbled upon a charming little town called Palmer. The main street of Palmer is lined with cafes and shops that more than made up for the lack of offerings in Luquillo. Our favorite place ended up being Degree 18 Juice Bar, an outdoor shack with all the juices, smoothies and wraps my veggie heart could ever want. Tip #3: Skip Luquillo, go to Palmer.
After our juice fix, we started our El Yunque adventure. El Yunque is the only rainforest included in the National Parks System and boasts tremendous waterfalls accessible by well maintained trails. We saw 20+ waterfalls of all shapes and sizes. One my favorite things about the park is the fact that you are allowed to swim pretty much everywhere, so Tip #4: Bring a swimsuit and towel on your hike. I saw so may people hiking around in dripping wet clothes, which did not look fun. Also, when you go to the park, Tip #5: Skip the tour bus and explore at your own pace. I’m not against group tours or excursions in general, especially if it saves you the hassle of renting a car, but El Yunque is best enjoyed at one’s own pace.
On Thursday, we left Luquillo and traveled to the island of Vieques. Vieques can only be accessed by local plane or ferry. There is a ferry service via Fajardo, but we opted to fly from the Cieba airport, and it was very well worth it. Tip #6: Fly to Vieques. The airports are a breeze, the flights are cheap and the views are once in a lifetime. So after a delightful ten minute flight, we landed in Vieques. And let me tell you something… I LOVE VIEQUES. Seriously. This is probably one the top 5 places I have ever visited. Maybe top 3.
Vieques is magical. Relaxed. Pristine. Perfect. The reason I love this place, much is because it is absolutely gorgeous and incredibly unique, but still feels relatively untouched. The population on the island is spilt between the northern town of Isabel and the Southern town of Esperanza. We stayed in Esperanza, but you can’t go wrong either way. You won’t find any massive hotels or resorts (or any kind of chain at all) on the island, which is one of the reasons why it is so special. We stayed at a quaint Boutique Hotel called the Malecon House, would I would definitely recommend to anyone planing a trip to Vieques.
After checking into our hotel, we made our way to the biggest and most popular beach called Sun Bay. One our way to the beach, we stopped to photograph a pair of wild horses. These little horses are all over the island and coexist peacefully with the human population, often roaming the main streets and interacting with people. After the beach, we ate dinner at restaurant called Trade Winds, which I also recommend and got ready for our bioluminescent bay kayak tour. Tip #7: GO TO A BIO-BAY! Mosquito Bay, in Vieques, has such a high concentration of bioluminescent organisms, that the water actually GLOWS. Yes. The water glows in the dark. There are several of these bio-bays in Puerto Rico, but Mosquito Bay is known as the best. We booked a tour with Abe’s Tours and it ended up being the top highlight of the trip. Unfortunately, the organisms that make the water glow move too quickly to be captured on most cameras, so I don’t have any have any photo evidence of this excursion.
Friday morning, we set out to explore a new beach and after walking a mile west of the main strip, we ended up a Playa Negra. Playa Negra, with it’s rock shoreline and signature black sand, was quite different from the previous day’s Sun Bay. Aside from getting stung by a bee at the beach, it was another perfect day. After the beach, we packed up our bags and flew bag to the mainland, marking the beginning of the end of our trip.
All and all, Puerto Rico was much more amazing than I ever anticipated and Vieques was a once in a lifetime discovery. I’ll definitely be heading back. Hopefully soon.
More photos on "Photos" tab or Kierahall.com/photos.
Not every exotic destination requires a passport! As part of my resolution to explore more backyard natural wonders, I recently took a trip to Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida. Weeki Wachee is a Florida State Park situated on Crystal River about an hour and fifteen minutes north of Tampa or two hours west of Orlando - a bit of a hike, but completely worth it. The park is famous for it’s natural swimming pool and “mermaid shows”, however I opted to skip this part of the park and go straight to the river.
Crystal river is best known for two things: A gloriously refreshing fresh water swimming hole as well a natural habitat for manatees. That's right - MANATEES. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see any manatees on my trip. The regulars told me this was rare, especially for this time of the year and assured that if I came back, I would definitely see some action. Even without the excitement of a manatee sighting, SUPing across the perfectly still turquoise waters was enough to make this little day trip well worth it. I'll definitely return -- and hopefully so will the manatees :)
As of November 29th, 2016, I'll be off on my next adventure! This time, I'm off to Frankfurt, Seoul, Phuket and Singapore. How did I decide on this seemingly random cluster of destinations? That will be the topic of another blog post.
For now, I need YOUR help. If you can offer any advice, tips, tricks etc for any of these places, please drop a note in the comment section below. Thanks!
A is for Alfajore: Traditional dessert made of wafer cookies and a rich chocolate or dulce de leche filling. Alfajores are of Spanish origin and are quite popular across the Latin world, but Argentina holds the title for highest consumption of alfajores per capita (yes, that's a real statistic). They can be purchased individually or by the case. My favorite brand of alfajore is Cachafaz, because of their fluffy fudgy filling.
B is for Buenos Aires: Translated literally, Buenos Aires means “good air.” The city was named after Our Lady Saint Mary of the Fair Winds at the time of its founding in 1536.
C is for Café Tortoni: Travel back in time with a visit to this charming European style café. It’s the perfect place to enjoy traditional afternoon snack of coffee and mini croissants, or say they call them in Argentina, medialunas (half moons).
D is for Dulce de Leche: Also called “manjar”, this sweet spread is a staple in Argentinian culture. Enjoy with apple slices for breakfast, or sweet biscuits for dessert – Dulce de Leche can be enjoyed at any hour.
E is for Eating: You’re going to do a lot of it. Embrace it.
F is for Football: Brazil may have the rowdiest fanaticos, but you won’t find anyone more deeply passionate about football than Argentinians.
G is for Gelato: The perfect treat to enjoy while strolling down BA’s cobblestone streets on a hot summer’s day.
H is for Hostel: Don’t waste your money on pricey hotel rooms. Chances are you’ll be out until the wee hours of the morning anyway. In Buenos Aires, Hostels are the way to go. I recommend the Mill House (Hippo). This famous party hostel is the perfect setting to make memories that will last a lifetime.
I is for Italy: Argentina’s Italian community, which grew out of an immigration boom during the 19th Century, is alive and thriving. Subsequently, Argentina boasts some of the best pasta below the equator.
J is for Juniors: The Boca Juniors are the most infamous soccer team in Argentina. CABJ fans are known for being exceptionally rowdy. Attending a Boca Junior game at the home stadium in the La Boca neighborhood is a once in a lifetime experience, but scoring tickets can prove quite challenging.
K is for Kilometers: Buenos Aires is 203 square kilometers which is comparable to the size of New York City.
L is for La Boca: This waterfront neighborhood is full of colorful buildings and street attractions. It’s the perfect spot for finding unique souvenirs and snapping festive pictures.
M is for MALBA: Bernis, Boteros and Kahlos, oh my! The Latin American Art Museum of Buenos Aires boasts a stunning collection of art from across the Latin world. This one is a MUST SEE.
N is for Nightlife: Buenos Aires is home to the best nightlife south of the equator. The good parties don’t start until 2AM and some don’t stop until sunrise.
O is for Obelisco (Obelisk): Buenos Aires’ famous structure stands tall in the middle of El Avenida de Julio and serves as the symbolic center of the city.
P is for Polo: Hold your horses! Did you know that Argentina is a major player in the international polo scene? Saddle-up for a posh afternoon at one of Argentina’s many polo farms.
Q is for Queen Evita: Move over Queen B, in Buenos Aires, it’s all about Queen E! Although Argentina is a democracy, Eva Peron (First Lady of Argentina from 1932 to 1955) is basically royalty.
R is for Recoleta: This beautiful urban cemetery houses the bodies of some of Argentina’s most prized citizens, including Eva Peron.
S is for San Telmo: The oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires is filled with classic Argentinian charm. Explore during the day for the shops and cafes and return at night for dining and nightlife.
T is for Tango: In Argentina, tango isn’t merely a form of music or dance, but a way of life. The spirit of tango is felt throughout the city. Visit La Catedral de Tango on Saturday at midnight to see the pros strut their stuff in the most authentic setting imaginable.
U is for Uruguay: Itching to add more stamps to your passport? Take a two-hour ferry ride across the bay to Uruguay. Quaint towns and tranquil beaches make it perfect for a weekend getaway.
V is for Vos: You know that weird formal form of second person we all learned in Spanish class, but actually use? Argentina is one of the few places where vos is the norm.
W is for Wine: Argentina and Chile may fight over which one is the wine capital South America, but when it comes to Malbecs, Argentina wines hands down. Plan an overnight getaway to Mendoza to visit some of the world’s most famous vineyards, or stay in Buenos Aires, where the vino runs like water.
X is for X-change rate: The exchange rate in Argentina is set by the government and may not accurately reflect the true value of the currency. Make sure you do your research to make sure you get the most bang for your buck before exchanging your money.
Y is for Yerba Mate: The official beverage of Argentina. Mate is an herbal loose-leaf tea is steeped in a wood-lined cup and sipped through a middle straw. Los Argentinos drink mate all day, everyday.
Z is for Zoo: Get up close and personal with animals from around the world as well as unique creatures you can only find in South America like the Patagonian Mara (pictured below).
DO: Go to Dubai
Dubai is an amazing, first class city like no other and definitely worth a visit.
DO: Take taxis
Dubai is not a pedestrian friendly city, and that’s how they like it. Emiratis much prefer driving to walking. Points of interests are far away from each other. The metro can be great, but there might not be a stop close to you. Unless you have access to your own car, chances are you will have no other option but to take taxis. Luckily, the taxis in Dubai are safe, clean and relatively cheap. Plus, most taxi drivers speak english and are very friendly!
DO: Ride the Dubai metro
It’s the most luxurious system of public transportation you will ever experience. You need to see it to believe it.
DO: Go to the top of the Burj Khalifa
The Burj Khalifa is tallest building in the world! For $30 you can go to the top via the world’s fastest elevator which ascends 163 stories in 60 seconds. At the top awaits an amazing aerial view of Dubai. While you’re on the observation deck, I recommend taking a moment to look around and see if you can find where shiny New Dubai ends and dusty Old Dubai begins.
DO: Visit the Gold Souk in Old Dubai
If you're looking for an authentic Middle Eastern experience, you can take a 30 minute metro trip to Old Dubai. Going to Old Dubai is like being transported through time. You can see what Dubai was like before it fast tracked its why to being the first class city it is today. Visit the Gold Souk and browse the many jewelry shops and window displays. If you’re in the market for quality gold jewelry, you will definitely find something that suites your fancy at the Gold Souk. Don’t forget to bargain for the best possible price!
DO: Go on a desert safari
Who wouldn’t want to ride a camel, hold a falcon and ride a 4X4 vehicle down sand dunes in the middle of the Arabian Desert?! $70 can get you all this and more. You can book through your hotel or travel agent.
DO: Go to the Dubai Mall
Dubai Mall is the largest mall in the world with 1,200 shops spanning an area the size of 50 football fields. The mall offers the best of everything in the world. The shops are clustered together by category to create malls within malls. On my third day in the mall, I found the greatest mini mall of them all: Shoe Land (cue the hymns of the angel chorus). The Dubai Mall has multiple food courts to please every taste. You can get exactly what you are craving. There’s also a free aquarium!
DON’T: Spend your entire day (or week) in the Dubai Mall
DO NOT let the Dubai Mall win. Accept that you will only be able to see a mall portion of its offerings, and get out before it’s too late.
DON’T: Go to Ski Dubai
Ski Dubai offers indoor skiing in the middle of the Arabian Desert. It is part of the Mall of the Emirates complex. If you have skied prior to visiting Ski Dubai, you will be severely unimpressed. I went into the experience with low expectations and was still disappointed. There is only one real slope which is covered in icy, artificial snow. When we bought our tickets, an employee told us the Ski Dubai Ski Patrol might ask us to leave, if we looked too shaky. The course is so small that inexperienced skiers pose a serious danger to others! In lieu of skiing, we paid $100 to inner tube and roll down an icy hill in something called “giant ball” (It’s exactly what it sounds like). The only highlight of the experience was the Peng-Friend Encounter. We were able to get up close and personal with some poor penguins who live in the middle of the desert so that tourists can pay lots of money to pet them and take pictures.
DON’T: Assume locals speak Arabic
Expats account for 90% of people living in Dubai. That’s huge! The city is a mixed salad of languages, cultures and ethnicities. “As-salam alaykom” (hello) and “shukran” (thank you) are commonly used and universally understood, but that’s about all the Arabic you will need.
DON’T: Break the law
In Sex and The City 2, Samantha runs into trouble at the airport when she tries to bring hormones and vitamins into the UAE. She later lands herself in jail for engaging in public displays of affective with a man to whom she is not married. While these situations provide comic relief in the movie, the real life scenarios are much more terrifying.
The UAE operates under a system of Sharia law. There is no separation of religion and state. Things that are perfectly acceptable in most western countries, like public displays of affection for example or hormone supplements, can put you in the slammer. It is also illegal for one to share a hotel room with someone of the opposite sex to whom you are not married. Make sure you know the laws before you go.
DON’T: Worry about your safety
Dubai is a very safe city. Violent and non-violent crime rates remain extremely low. This is partially due to the severe penalties deterring crime. Additionally, there is hardly any tourist-targeted crime. So you can leave your weird money belt at home and enjoy the city at ease.
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My backpack and I have covered some serious ground this year. There are so many things I wish I had known before I left for my adventures! Here are my Dos and Don'ts for first-time solo backpackers.
DO: Remember the essentials
I am always surprised by how many essential items people don’t bring on trips. Here are some commonly forgotten things you need to make sure you have.
DO: Bring U.S. dollars
Trust me, people love ‘em. They can get you farther than you think. Having American money has gotten me out of many a pickle. Most recently, Mr. Andrew Jackson saved us when we needed to negotiate a 108 kilometer tuk tuk ride through rural Sri Lanka from Pinnawala to Adams Peak.
DO: Virtual, cultural immersion
Pick up a newspaper or download some music from the place you are visiting. It will really put you in the mood for your trip and give you some great talking points!
DO: Find the “party hostel”
Party hostels are not as ridiculous as they sound. They are usually very large, centrally located, and well organized. They also tend to offer many group outings and activities. Some hostels even have their own travel agents! They’re a great option for the traveler who wants to make the most out of his or her trip.
DO: Participate in hostel organized activities
They’re like school field trips: a little dorky, but in the end pretty fun. One of my favorites was a tango night I did through the Milhouse in Buenos, Aires. It was so fun I did it twice!
DO: Cherish your time alone
No matter how many traveler buds you make, you’re going to spend a lot of time by yourself. And that’s great!. Enjoy the freedom of being able to do whatever you want, and use the time to build a better relationship with yourself.
DO: Be smart
Learn phrases like “please go away” and “no thank you” in the native language. You might also want to brush up on some basic self defense skills. Know your surroundings, trust your instincts and get out of a situation is something doesn't feel right. The most important thing is to stay alert and confident.
DO: Leave your valuables at home
Stuff happens. A couple weeks ago in India, a taxi driver, who was trying to be helpful, dropped my backpack with my laptop inside. I could hear the aluminum body crack as it hit the ground. I’ve also been pick-pocketed and had sunglasses swiped right off my face!
DON'T: Be nervous
As a friend reminded me recently, people are people no matter where you go. Although language and customs vary, there is always acceptance of a friendly smile! That man staring at you as you walk down the street? Chances are he’s just curious, because you look different and “exotic.” (Or he could be a raging ax murder. Who knows? )
DON'T: Rely on technology
Print all your essential documents before you leave home, and carry them with you. I found out the hard way that you can’t get into the Chennai, IN airport without a printed ticket in hand. It was a major hassle. I will never travel paperless again.
DON'T: Over plan your trip ahead of time
There are certain countries like those in South America and Southeast Asia, that offer options not available when searching ahead. One of my biggest regrets from my South America trip was buying all my plane tickets ahead of time. If you cannot find a bus from point x to point y online, that does not mean there isn't one. Wait until you get to your destination and find a local travel agent. They will show you a plethora of travel options you didn't know existed and will save you a good chunk of money.
In Tamil, my name roughly translates to kīrai, which means “good greens” or “spinach." Since Tamilians have a difficult time pronouncing my real name, I have starting introducing myself as Kīrai. The villagers giggle and discuss among themselves whether or not someone could actually be named Spinach. I usually stare back blankly at them as if to say “yes it is my real name, and no, it’s not funny." This puts some humor in my day (It’s the little things when you live in a village…). Out of respect, people add the suffix “ka” which means sister. So my name ends up being Kīrai Ka, or Sister Spinach.
It is no secret that this place has tested Sister Spinach. The sweat, the crowds, the polychronic approach to time, a broken laptop, THE HEAT, ETC, have all put me, my idiosyncrasies and patience to the test. At times, I considered running off to a more glamorous location. But then I take a minute to breathe and realize how blessed I am. Not just in comparison to the billions of Indians who live in extreme poverty, but in relation to everyone who will never have a chance to travel the world like I do. In the end, I am so grateful for my six weeks here. Learning to let go and open my heart up to India, the people and their culture has truly changed my life.
Today, in the spirit of letting go, I accepted an invitation for lunch with a family in a village we were visiting. We get invited to people’s homes on a daily basis during our field work. Usually, we graciously decline. There are obvious safety concerns to take into account, and we simply don’t have time to visit each home individually. But today, I decided to go for it. I was by myself and could not communicate with the family. Nevertheless, we ate curry and idly (soft little rice cakes). The yellowish curry was spicy and delicious. After lunch, I posed for pictures with every member of the family.
In the evening we spontaneously ended up at a village celebration that included people dancing on hot coals and a precession of men who were supposedly possessed by demons. The streets were crowded and it was hard to see all the action. Then I looked up and saw a group of people gathered on a rooftop. They were looking back at me. I somehow communicated that I wanted to join them and they pointed to the back of the house. I walked to the back and found a staircase. When I got to the roof, there were about fifteen people waiting for me. I recognized two of the girls from Young Girls Day because they were wearing the Little Mermaid hair clips we gave out as prizes. I introduced myself as Kīrai. From the roof, I had an amazing view of the festivities below. I danced and took pictures with my new friends before rejoining my old friend down below.
I can't believe my time here is coming to a close. While India has provided its fair share of challenges, I have enjoyed embracing the beauty that lies around every corner. The beauty in the eyes of a village child who still enjoys the simple things in life, the beauty of people from opposite ends of the world dancing together on a rooftop, and the beauty of getting to be called Sister Spinach. Hari Om, India. It’s been a wild ride.
In the movie Inception (see video below), Leo DeCaprio’s character realizes he can dramatically alter a person’s life by simply implanting the seed of an idea deep within his or her subconscious. "An idea is like a virus” he says. “Resilient, highly contagious. The smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define, or destroy you.”
It is true. All is takes is a tiny inkling of a thought to start something big. It is crucial to begin spreading ideas of empowerment early on, especially in rural areas where opportunities are lacking. On Sunday we welcomed over one hundred rural, unmarried girls between the ages of twelve and twenty-two to the ashram for a day of education, empowerment and fun. We discussed marriage and domestic life. Many of the girls believed twenty to twenty-two to be the ideal age to get married. The consensus was that getting married before twenty means you do not care about your education, but an unmarried twenty-three-year-old is an embarrassment to herself and her family. Of course, we are not in the business of forcing western ideas and customs, but we shared our personal beliefs on the issue and reminded the girls that their value is not determined by their bride price. We also shared dreams and visions for our future. Many girls wanted to be engineers and bankers, but didn't think a college education was financially feasible. In India, college costs about $1,500 a year. We encouraged them to nurture their intellect and not get discouraged. We also talked about the female body and menstruation, eliminating confusion and shame. We told them that they are not dirty or cursed when they get their period (a belief held by many rural women and passed through the generations).
The second half of the day was spent playing games and celebrating each other as women. We invited girls to come onto the stage and share their talents with us. Two girls danced and several girls sang. Our group of Americans did a rendition to of “I Am Woman." The song set an appropriate tone for the day. We also played games where the girls had to work in teams. In between the games, everyone got on stage and danced to indian music. It was a blast!
Young Girls Day may not change the world, but it is a good place to start. We need to open minds and get young women thinking about who they are, what they want and what they deserve. If I accomplish one thing during my time here, I hope to sow seeds of ideas and possibilities for these young girls. From there, the possibilities are limitless.
The month of June has been split between Thamaraipakkam, Tamil Nadu, India and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. I could not have picked two places which provide a better contrast to one another. Dubai is the land of oil, gold and opulence. As a society, Dubai has set a goal to have the biggest and best of everything in the world. On the surface it seems they have achieved their goal. Dubai is home to the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building as well as the Burj al Arab, the world’s most luxurious hotel hosting a seven star rating. To be in Dubai is to be in the future. The city looks as though it was modeled after a sci-fi novel. While Dubai has achieved urban planning and architectural feats most could never imagine, it is extremely lacking in the area of sustainability. The city of Dubai is a supposed emblem of man’s achievement over nature. They have turned an almost inhabitable area into a cosmopolitan megaplex. Similar to Las Vegas, NV, Dubai was built on a desert. There are no fresh water sources. The city relies on desalination plants to filter out salt from ocean water to make it drinkable. Desalination uses a significant amount more energy than fresh water filtration systems. The world’s largest desalination plant, the Jebel, is located in Dubai. Dubai has also found a solution to the exasperating heat which often climbs above one hundred degrees by eliminating any need to be outdoors and turning the air conditioning on full blast. The malls of Dubai (The Dubai Mall is the largest mall in the world) are not just malls. They serve as Dubai’s main streets. Instead of walking around town, residents of Dubai and visitors alike spend time strolling around the corridors of the malls. And why wouldn't they? The malls in Dubai have almost everything anyone could ever want. Emirates Mall even has an indoor ski resort! To further eliminate any reason to be exposed to the heat, Dubai has many roads and highways made for cars only. The city is essentially a super highway with islands of buildings in the middle. It is the least pedestrian-friendly city I have ever seen. Unsustainable city planning is just the beginning of the many eco-unfriendly aspects of golden city. Fast cars, wasteful spending and wasteful food consumption are also staples of the city.
After 10 days in Dubai, I am back in Thamaraipakkam. Saying life here is different is the understatement of the century. Rural India and Dubai sit at opposite ends of the GDP per capita scale (Dubai at $65,600 and India $4,060, Forbes), they share environmental sustainability problems of equal magnitude. From my own observations, the greatest environmental problems in India are pollution related. Noise, pollution, light pollution, air pollution, land pollution… if it’s all here. In the village where I live, the ground is covered in trash. Everywhere I look, I see trash, trash and more trash. As it turns out, public waste management systems are severely lacking in India. The government does not provide bins or collection services for proper waste disposal. Here, dumping or burning trash is a way of life. People do not know anything different. This is just one of many ways the system has failed these people. The government leaves them no option other than living, working and playing in garbage and toxic fumes. Pesticides are also a major problem in India. Farmers rely on them to grow everything. The land is so saturated that it would take three years of inactivity for land to return to a state suitable for organic farming. This is where the problems lies. Farmers cannot afford to take three days off let alone three years—they are trapped in a cycle of toxicity. In addition to environmental consequences, pesticides create many health risks. For example, women who pick jasmine buds for garlands are at increased risk for skin cancer on their hands.
Unlike Dubai, India’s environmental problems stem from poverty and lack of resources. What is consistent in both places is a complete lack of government intervention on any level and an apathy among the people towards the problems. Education might be the most powerful tool in combating these environmental crises. People need to know the consequences of these practices in order to have any incentive to change. The question then becomes: who will provide the education and how? In any case, I am thankful environmental awareness is growing in the United States. We might not be where we need to be, but at least we’re off to a decent start.
I have traveled. I have volunteered. Yet until recently, I had never had the experience of traveling for the sake of service work. Volunteer tourism, or voluntourism, although not a new concept, is a growing trend among millennials, especially those attending university. It seems everyone I know has gone a service trip or alternative break at some point during their adolescent or post adolescent years. Participating in one of these trips usually involves paying thousands of dollars to travel with a group to a foreign country to work on a particular service project for one or two weeks. Often the money needed for the trip is raised through crowd funding sites like Go Fund Me. The problem with these trips is that little if any of the money spent on the trip ever goes towards tangible aid. Many would argue that $2,000 could be much better spent if given directly to the organization. It can also be said that one or two weeks is not enough time to make a real, lasting change. The time and money voluntourists spend on their trips just doesn’t add up.
This summer, I decided to participate in a service trip to India with the Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development. For six weeks, we are living in the village of Thamaraipakkam, Tamil Nadu, learning about and assisting with different projects that aim to strengthen communities through the empowerment of women and children. Our trip is different from most voluntourism adventures, because we are here for an extended stay of a month and a half. Still, this experience has given me a new appreciation and understanding of all kinds of service trips no matter the size or cost. Although these trips may not be an extremely effective way of addressing a global problem, they are an exceptional way of raising awareness. Through participating in service trips, young adults become personally connected with the people and problems they see. This connection is something that participants will take with them when they leave and carry for the rest of their lives. This personal connection is invaluable. People are much more likely to contribute to a cause, if they can understand it first hand. As for the money spent on voluntarism, is still true that $2,000 would be better spent if given directly to an organization, but the truth is that many would not raise or donate if a trip were not involved. And if it is between spending money on a service trip or service-less vacation, a service trip is a good why to go. Finally, we never know what effect even the smallest of our actions will have. If I can make any impact at all, it is time well spent. So travel on, fellow voluntourists! Together, we will change the world.