Mike On Purpose

Finding purpose in the twenty-first century

Voluntourism and Guidebooks

Posted by mikeonpurpose on July 10, 2010


Since the itineraries, lodging, and meals of many types of short term voluntourism trips are pre-defined, the usefulness of guidebooks is an interesting question.  If you decide to extend your stay before or after the voluntourism period, of course, then guidebooks can fulfill the need for information about hotels, restaurants, and travel options.  But what if that isn’t going to be the case?  Suppose you are met at the airport, taken to pre-arranged lodging, and have no real decisions to make about travel plans within the country?  What is the point of shelling out money for information that you aren’t going to be using?

I have, in fact, been going on a guidebook buying spree for two Central American countries I will be doing voluntourism trips to in the future.  One explanation is simply that guidebooks are in this case largely about getting background information and about a country’s geography, history, and culture.  I suspect that for me there is more to it than that, though; I think reading these books are a way of dealing with the anticipation.  I would like to go to these countries sooner than later, but that is not how the schedule has turned out; so, in the meantime, as I wait at home for the months to pass so I can do my next voluntourism trips, at the very least I can imagine what it is like to be in that other place right now by reading a book that takes my imagination there.  Guidebooks are my means of voluntourism fantasy.  I can look at pictures, and I can read about the towns and the history and the fauna and flora of the country, and I can study the maps.

It isn’t even so much about learning about the specific destinations I will be going to within those countries.  I happen to know the names of the towns that I will be traveling to in both of my upcoming trips.  They are small, off the beaten path; and the guidebooks I have bought do not provide much information about either town.  I might see a paragraph or two in a given book, if I am lucky.

It also isn’t entirely about learning about the histories of these countries.  In fact, when you get to what can be rather contentious recent historical events you sometimes have to take what you read in those books with a grain of salt.  Every author has an opinion, of course, but I ran into one example that illustrates the problem to an annoying degree.  The Hunter Travel Guide for  Nicaragua makes some categorically untrue claims about the Sandinista government of the 1980s.  (The book asserted that they established a one party state, when in fact they created a multi-party democracy with free elections and they faced opposition parties in parliament.)  Running into something like this serves as a reminder of why it is useful to consult multiple sources.  Perhaps that is why I have already bought several guidebooks, but I have also been doing a fair amount of internet research about the countries I will be visiting.

Of course, as I mentioned, these books are as much about being taken away in my imagination as they are about learning facts about where I will be going.  Voluntourism is both deeply fulfilling and adventurous, and both of these aspects of voluntourism can make for quite a contrast to the often mundane nature of ordinary life as a working citizen of the United States.  There are several ways of biding time until I get my next voluntourism fix.  One way is to do volunteer work where I live–it may not be adventurous, but at least it is fulfilling.  Another way, for me anyway, is to blog about the subject of voluntourism.  Given all of that, reading guidebooks is just one more way of getting me through my everyday and sometimes humdrum existence until the next voluntourism trip begins.

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