A Volunteer Vacation Can Trump the Eat, Pray, Love Adventure

By Sheryl Kane

Eat, Pray, Love. Each of the title words of both the book and the movie represents a stage in author Elizabeth Gilbert’s year-long journey, one for each of Gilbert’s three destinations—pasta in Italy, prayer in India and love in Bali. With the success of Eat, Pray, Love, people are lining up to purchase products and tours to help them duplicate Gilbert’s search for joy, religion and self-actualization.

Gilbert’s personal crisis—finding herself in a life that didn’t fit with a husband she had grown beyond— rings true as a universal experience. I can identify with having to deal with a broken heart, the disappointment of a failed marriage and the need to search for one’s true self. I understand the temptation to follow the blueprint of Gilbert’s journey, hoping to be healed along the way. It promises an easy fix for people experiencing spiritual, emotional and personal crises, but many travelers are finding disillusion rather than illumination.

The key to self-fulfillment is planning and embarking on your own journey. Each of us has her own path to enlightenment. I’ve found a better way to rediscover purpose and joy: volunteer vacations that provide the opportunity to coordinate personal goals, needs and passions with seeing new places, connecting with people and giving back. There are a lot of volunteer travel programs and helping others automatically improves how I feel and provides a better perspective on my own life.

As a volunteer vacationer I can decide where I want to contribute my time and talent and whether I want to work with people, communities, wildlife, or the environment. I can choose to learn new skills, participate in the traditions and rituals of my host community and make new friends who share my interests.

That’s another great advantage to volunteer travel—you don’t need someone else who shares your vision. Most trips are group offerings and singles can join like-minded people. Volunteering can be a great way to try something new, fulfill a dream, or experiment living in a different place and most volunteer vacations are tax deductible or fee free, particularly in the United States, where the only cost is transportation to and from a destination.

My lifelong dream had been to drive solo from my home in Connecticut to Denali National Park, Alaska and volunteer as a park ranger. My goal was to fill a needed position at the park and interact with visitors from around the world. I applied online with the national park service and made my plans.

I was not selected as a park ranger; however, a local hotel wanted me to entertain guests with vignettes on women of the Gold Rush and the history of conservation, and as a nature trail guide. I fulfilled my dream of making the challenging and rewarding trip and found my true purpose and joy in meeting people from around the world. I interacted with locals and volunteered my time cleaning trails and reading to children at the library: I became part of the community.

I wish I could spend all my time traveling; it would be nice to pick up and fly to Bali, but there are unusual and little-known volunteer opportunities nearby as well as across the globe that are more easily attainable. I’d love to care for elephants in Chiang Mai, Thailand, but it’s also possible to volunteer at the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. The first time I saw pink dolphins swimming in the wild, I became committed to biodiversity in the Peruvian Amazon; however, I’m also dedicated to protecting natural habitats in the Everglades, Florida.

I believe that the true way to find ourselves is by putting our selves aside and making all of our travels meaningful and memorable. It’s not where you go or what you do; its being there that makes the difference. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of life that no person can sincerely try to help another without helping herself. ”

Sheryl Kayne is a writer, adventurer, performer, educator, and public speaker. She is the author of Volunteer Vacations Across America and Immersion Travel USA: The Best and Most Meaningful Volunteering, Living, and Learning Excursions (Countryman Press, a division of W. W. Norton and Company). Sheryl would love to hear from you at ImmersionTravel@aol.com.

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