Mistakes I Have Made Have Helped Me Grow

By Kolena Allen

Growing up I never had a big interest in traveling, but as I got older something told me there was a larger world out there, something amazing beyond the confines of my comfortable bubble. So I decided to set out on my first international trip to Kenya in my early twenties. My husband and I hadn’t really traveled much and didn’t know what to expect from this trip. We went with an open mind and little care for specifics. From their I was hooked on traveling and could not wait to plan my next trip.

Besides the amazing experiences we had, the beautiful people we met, and the lifelong friends we made, I began to see a larger picture of not only the world, but of travel and human connection. I believe traveling is one of the biggest factor in helping our world become a better place and fight some of the negative aspects of human nature. I saw this in that first trip. I felt this in myself upon return. I began to think about travel more broadly and what impact it has on not just me, but on the whole world.

At this point in my life I believe travel and tourism to be one of the most powerful tools in creating a more just world that we have at our disposal. Through experience, time, and by making every mistake in the book I have honed and shaped my outlook on tourism and in turn have formulated ideals and values that I believe to be true. That is why I have chosen to start Travel Life Adventures; with hope that it can be a positive impact on travelers and the locals that we work with. I believe in responsible travel as a tool for good. I hold this belief in large part because of the mistakes I have made over the years. In an effort to maybe open up your mind to another way of traveling and to maybe prevent others from making the same mistakes, I would like to share some of my experiences here and why I believe these practices are detrimental to responsible travel.

  1. Voluntourism: On that first trip to Kenya I knew we would be engaging in some service projects, which I was excited about. I didn’t know the term “voluntourism” then, but in hindsight this is what I was doing. Young, naive and armed with a need to feed my own ego I went confidently off to a country I knew nothing about. The only “knowledge” I had about Africa in general was the commercials I had seen on TV growing up. You know the ones with flies landing on children’s faces, big, swollen bellies and children crying into a camera maned by some person who believes they are doing good. While I was there I visited slums like it was some type of attraction, helped build houses that frankly the locals did not ask for or need, and generally did everything that at this point I have learned not to do. I was one step away from preaching what religion you should believe in. This trip, and “voluntourism” trips the world over, center the need for the “western savior” to feel important and validated over the actual needs of people. Two-week service trips with big groups of tourists pretending to aid the “noble savage” who can’t help themselves perpetuates an inferior-superior dynamic that exists in the world. I took away the chance for those people I was “helping” to empower themselves and reshape their own lives. I wanted to feel important. I wanted to feel needed. Instead of seeking to create deeper connections and understand how I might support people and come alongside them, I just wanted a quick feeling of importance under the guise of service. If we are ever to marry travel and tourism with meaningful service work, we must first center the needs and desires of the people we aim to serve. We must spend time, talk to, and connect with them on a human level. We must set aside the notion that somehow, by virtue of being lucky to be born in a developed country, that we know better what people will need. Travel and service can go together if done in partnership with local leaders and with travelers who check their ego at the door. There is no two-week solution, it takes a lifetime to make real change.
  2. Orphanages: In some contexts, orphanages are needed institution to provide shelter and care for children who have lost their families. In other contexts, they are breeding grounds for exploitation and facades for making money. I have visited a few orphanages throughout my travels. In Kenya, Nepal, Chile, and other countries I have been to places called “boarding schools” and “secondary educational institutions” and “children’s homes.” They were all orphanages. It was only with the best intentions, like most travelers, that I wanted to help in some way. I wanted to give a crying child the human touch and gentle love that all babies need and that so many go without. I wanted to support the workers whose jobs are impossible and whose lives are difficult themselves. But, what I was really doing was participating in what can be a very damaging model. Research by UNICEFsays that up to 75% of children kept in orphanages in Cambodia and Nepal are not even orphans. Many come from poor, rural families and are trafficked into orphanages because their parents feel this will give them the best chance at life. Other times they might be hired for the day to create the appearance of poverty, and so doing fuel the volunteerism industry and generate donations from charitable, well-meaning travelers. I’m not saying we should not help, and of course not all orphanages work this way, but the more we visit them the more likely situations like this will keep happening. If our true desire was to see orphaned children succeed, we would start by seeking a model where orphanages did not exist. Children thrive more when they are in their home communities, with familiar family and friends, and able to grow roots in culture, family, and tradition that is their own. There are many amazing local, grassroots organizations in every country dedicated to this model but whose voices are often drowned out over the screaming behemoth of NGO’s fueled by donor dollars. It is our responsibility as travelers to ensure our dollars and our hearts go toward supporting more sustainable and empowering models of caring for orphaned children. Ask yourself a simple question: here, at home, if your brother or sister died would you send their child to an orphanage? Or would you come together with your family and community and provide for that child?
  3. Impact on Animal Abuse: I have traveled to Thailand a couple times now and love the place, the people, and the food. The first time I visited I decided to do what most travelers do and take a ride on an elephant through the local jungle without thinking twice the impact this has on the elephant or the rain forest that these beautiful creatures live in. I enjoyed the experience and left there feeling grateful for the experience. My second time around I decided to visit Elephant Nature Park on the recommendation of a friend (who turned out to be more enlightened than I was) and boy did I feel foolish. This place rescued abused elephants from tourist operations where they are used like tools and treated like garbage. Here I learned about the impact that this particular tourist industry has on these magnificent creatures. The abuse the elephants endure as part of them being props and tools to make money from tourists is unthinkable. Babies being taken from their mothers, poaching for ivory, and the impact on the rainforest of increased traffic and decreased natural elephant populations. Visiting the Elephant Nature Park was one of the best things I have experienced on my travels. Not only was I educated on the bad system and how we are tourists could help prevent these abuses, we were able to spend time with the elephants that have been rescued. It was an eye opening experience for me and now I will not partake in anything like this wherever I travel.
  4. Handing out Money: When I travel the world, especially coming from a place of privilege like I do, I am often face to face with poverty and conditions that are shocking, unfamiliar, and heart-wrenching. Because of the way I choose to travel and the places I go, that is my experience at least. It is only human to see people living with so little, and through my western point of view in such horrible conditions, and want to help in some way. Maybe it means giving some rupees to a woman on the street or buying milk for a crying mother who says she needs to feed her baby. When I see this my instinct is to do something. What harm can it do? I would like to share a story that might illustrate why, over time, I have developed the practices of not handing out money or goods to people when I travel. My husband and I were riding bikes on a long dirt road in a tiny village outside the town of Pokhara in Nepal. We were enjoying our day when some local kids starting running with us. We played with them, talked with them, and just enjoyed their company. Soon, another boy came up to us with a folded piece of paper. He handed it to my husband who opened it and read it. The just of the note was that he and his friends were part of a “boys club” there in town where they would go for activities, community, and after-school help. The note said they were in dire need of supplies, food, and toys to stock the club so they could keep going. Obviously we thought it a noble cause and gave the boy whatever rupees we had in our pocket. Just as we did this an older man was passing by. He came over, began speaking to the boy in Nepali, and soon his tone turned stern. The boy spoke quietly and looked down. The man turned to us and in English told us that there was no “boys club,” no need for food or toys, that the boy and his friends had learned over time that if they approached tourists this way they could get money. He said the boys used the money to buy cigarettes and alcohol. Needless to say we were embarrassed and ashamed, but properly educated. The man made the boy give us our money back and sent him away. This is one of hundreds of stories just like this I could share that illustrate the point that handouts are never what we expect them to be. Yes, many people live in perpetual need, in perpetual poverty, and truly require assistance. I have come to the hard conclusion that the risk of perpetuating systems like this is too high for me to put my ego and emotions before the long-term well-being of a place I love. Instead I have made it a practice to connect with local individuals or organizations doing work to help the poor and support them in any way I can. This is a difficult, heart-wrenching thing to adhere to sometimes and one that I still fail on miserably. But in my heart I know that “quick-fixes” and the dynamics that I perpetuate by doing the wrong thing are not what is needed.

These are just a couple of the mistakes that I have made over the years. In the end travel is supposed to be positive, an experience of growth for the traveler and shared exchange of knowledge and space for all involved. With just a little effort, a little education, and a lot of humility we can all ensure that travel and tourism are a positive force in the world. Adventure and experience are truly the most amazing things we can do in life so my hope is that we can engage in that while at the same time ensuring we are doing it in a positive way. So, get out there and see the world!

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