Ever Projecting

Monday, January 31, 2005

Alternative Tourism with a Purpose

From the February 2005 issue of Kansai Time Out:

Global Village: Alternative tourism with a purpose
By Kerry C.

The authentic travel experience is fiercely chased but less caught, and the local consequences of this manic tourism are rarely considered. Foreigners living in Japan, who have the opportunity to explore Asia as many Asians never will, can have a major stake in this imbalance.

The Global Village Program aids in redressing the problem, operating through Habitat for Humanity-- an American ecumenical organization committed to providing decent housing to those in need and the empowerment and independence of its homeowners. Habitat houses are built with voluntary labor, and Global Village began in 1989 in response to requests for short-term work projects internationally. Habitat Affiliates now exist worldwide, including 26 countries in Asia/Pacific. In November, a group of 24 took part in a building project in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand.

It's remarkably easy for a tourist to pass time in Chiang Mai. Street markets, massage chairs and trekking expeditions beckon. English is widely spoken. Prices are cheap. The hedonistic potential of Chiang Mai- albeit enchanting- underlines how travel can become such a shallow enterprise. But Global Village gives a vested interest in the community and a reason to be there. The above pleasures become fringe benefits, after days spent digging septic tanks, laying concrete floors and building brick walls.

Volunteers provide the drudge work, under the supervision of local skilled workers. The home's owner also participates in the build; this principle known as "sweat equity". (Habitat houses are not given to the homeowner, but rather purchased by them with an interest-free mortgage, which is then used to build other houses locally. The homeowner must commit to help build their own and future houses.) It's quickly apparent to all involved that shared language is overrated. Gestures, facial expressions and that useful English question "okay?" suffice for communication. They have to, because after all, there are only ten days to build that house together. Miniature language exchanges are ongoing, jokes are exchanged and real relationships are forged between homeowners and volunteers.

Global Village trips vary considerably in terms of type of location, accommodation, transportation and the work required. Volunteers need to have flexible personalities. They are asked to do only the work they are physically able. Some groups have a religious focus, but this also varies and is up to the discretion of individual Global Village team leaders. The organization strongly stresses a focus of "faith in action", and not religious conversion. Volunteers come from all over the world and for a fascinating array of reasons. Personal backgrounds vary widely. On the Chiang Mai build, the group ranged between ages 19 and 76. Learning to work together and the friendships that follow are one of the best parts of this experience.

The Chiang Mai team built three houses in villages close to the city. The homeowners were women-- two widowed and all with children. Volunteers stayed in basic accommodation in the city and were delivered to the work site crowded into the back of two small pick-up trucks. Lunch was Thai fare, catered by a Habitat homeowner who, since receiving her house, has opened her own restaurant.

On days off and in the evenings, volunteers soaked up the festive spirit of Chiang Mai's Full Moon Festival, Loy Krathong. The group visited the village school, released hot-air balloons with the children and decorated small floats made from banana plants with flowers, incense and candles. The floats were released in a ceremony at a nearby pond. Volunteers also had the opportunity to take Thai cooking and language classes, and partook in a three-day R&R activity at the end of the build- in this case, an elephant training course at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in nearby Lampang Province.

The final night of the Global Village build is emotional for everyone. The houses are dedicated in a ceremony and the homeowners receive their keys. Each family gains the stability and security of a roof of one's own. Volunteers come away with new skills and rare cultural insight. It's difficult to think of a travel experience more worthwhile.

Global Village trips in Asia cost between 1200 and 1500 US dollars, plus airfare. Room, board, in-country transportation, cultural activities and a donation to the local affiliate are included in the cost.

Contact www.habitat.org for details of upcoming Global Village trips and to apply online. A telephone interview takes place with the team leader before applicants are approved.


  • At 10:34 PM, Blogger christy said…

    such a good and interesting read. it sounds like a wicked opportunity and i cannot wait to see the pictures.

    p.s. u must send a copy of this magazine home!
    love u lots!

  • At 1:06 AM, Blogger Lady CC said…

    i've fallen for the star you are....kerry clare you and your words are destined for greatness. now excuse me while i go look up ecumenical.

    x c.

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