Category: Meaningful Travel

Book Review – Gold Rush in the Jungle: The Race to Discover and Defend the Rarest Animals of Vietnam’s “Lost World” by Dan Drollette Jr.

Dan Drollette Jr, award-winning Science and Environmental journalist, writes of a different Vietnam, where conservation, preservation, and protection of wildlife and their environment take precedence over the ugliness of war. This is the “Lost World” of Vietnam, the area bordering on Laos and Cambodia where rare animals such as the muntjac (deer that barks), the langur (leaf-eating monkey), the kouprey (forest ox), and the unique saola (antelope/unicorn) can be found. The valleys, karsts, and caves of the Annamese Cordillera offer safe refuge for these animals away from people and outside influences. They escaped the devastation of the Vietnam War and the effects of Agent Orange and Agent Blue to survive in their natural habitats free of toxic dioxins and herbicides.

Drollette has written a fascinating book detailing the past, the present, and the future of wildlife rescue with emphasis on the importance of saving their environment. He provides excellent descriptions of the rare animals in the “Lost World,” and relates his personal experiences while traveling through Vietnam on the back of a motorcycle, the familiar “bike’s hug” local transportation. We learn about biodiversity and conservation of ecosystems in Vietnam, as well as the projects for captive breeding of rare and endangered species in his visits to Tilo Nadler’s EPRC (Endangered Primate Rescue Center) and Cuc Phuong National Park. The author tells us the history of the turtle reserve at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi and the future of the turtle as the venerable protector and one of four sacred animals of Vietnam.

The rush for gold, a race for money, is a worldwide phenomenon and one that seems to have no end. It is an ongoing contest between the lucrative, but illegal black market trade and the diligence of the conservationists. Vietnam constantly works to improve their economy, but economic development must be regulated to maintain a balance between the rush for money and the preservation of the natural beauty of the land. Rare animals, whether in cages, parks, or on nature reserves, are big tourist attractions which boost the economy, but often leave negative effects on the environment. People rush to see and purchase all types of things taken from these rare animals who live in distant, mysterious worlds. Some buy in huge quantities to sell or trade and before long the supply is depleted. Unless these rare animals are saved, the various species will soon become extinct (rhino horns are a good example). Others buy these animals for trophies or status symbols to bring home from their journey, much like those captured on an African safari. Many visit Vietnam to purchase rare items such as bear bile for medicinal uses, claiming they perform miracles.

Although a little difficult to begin because of the rather lengthy prologue, I read further and found the book contains a wealth of information based on extensive research, facts, and historical background. Drollette has presented this information in an interesting narrative fashion, with a few pictures adding to the content (more would be beneficial, but photography may have been limited.) I had a tendency to skim through the chapters on Linnaeus and the Hawaii conservation efforts used for comparison, which seemed to digress from the focus on Vietnam. In contrast, however, the innovative plan of Costa Rica’s government to pay landowners to maintain the forest rather than cut it down definitely caught my attention.

I thoroughly enjoyed Drollette’s story of personal experiences on his journey of adventure and discovery in which he emphasizes the importance of educating the people and requiring stricter enforcement of regulations by the government to promote wildlife rescue and environmental protection. Drollette believes that Vietnam has been given a “second chance” to survive and preserve its natural resources. He reminds us that new species often disappear before they are even discovered. Readers who were probably unfamiliar with the “Lost World,” as I was, will be intrigued by its history, its future, and its significance for Vietnam and the rest of the world.

It will definitely appeal to every scientist, environmentalist, educator, and journalist, as well as to people who are always curious about new discoveries of rare and unusual animals. The reader may be encouraged enough by the book to follow and perhaps participate in conservation efforts and wildlife rescues in their own part of the world. I think most of us will agree with Drollette’s quote from the renowned biologist George Schaller who said “Everything we want, need, and use is dependent on nature.”

Crown Publishers – Division of Random House
April 16, 2013
U.S. $25.00
Amazon – $17.23 Hard Cover, $12.99 Kindle

Sharon L Slayton

Logos Hope – charitable ship / bookstore

I think this is pretty interesting. An article about the Logos Hope, a ship that’s a floating bookstore with over half a million books. Their mission seems to be to bring affordable books to various places in Southeast Asia. There confirmed ports of call for the near future are:

Kuching, Malaysia October 27th, 2011 – November 15th, 2011

Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia November 17th, 2011 – December 13th, 2011

Singapore, Singapore December 16th, 2011 – December 28th, 2011

Cebu, Philippines January 13th, 2012 – February 14th, 2012

Manila, Philippines February 16th, 2012 – March 14th, 2012

If you want to travel and experience culture shock, you might consider volunteering to work on the Logos Hope. The first article I linked to mentions a few volunteers’ stories and this article offers a few more. If you can afford not to get paid for a while, it sure does sound like a meaningful travel adventure.

Volunteering becomes a life changing / defining experience for one author

Here’s an interesting hook by Conor Grennan, Author of Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal. I have my copy of the book and will be reviewing it when I have the chance.

I never really wanted to volunteer. Not that I told anyone that, of course. What I actually wanted was to be able to say I volunteered — to be the kind of person who volunteered. I wanted, in short, to impress people. I figured if I volunteered just once, I could re-tell that story over and over, preferably to women in bars.

That’s how I ended up in a small village south of Kathmandu, on the other side of the blue metal gate that opened to the Little Princes Children’s Home. I had just begun a year-long round-the-world trip, and I had decided to spend the first three months of it volunteering in Nepal.

I had never worked with children before, but I imagined that the 18 children inside would be sitting quietly on the floor, feeling sad because they were orphans. Instead, I opened the gate and I was immediately tackled by a gang of excited children.

I could not have known it then, but that was the beginning of a new life for me. I would end up not just caring for those 18 children, but rescuing more, searching for them when they were stolen by child traffickers, and trekking through the mountains to find their families after we discovered the truth: they weren’t orphans after all, but trafficked children.

My friends were perhaps more shocked than me to discover my transformation. “When did that happen?” they would ask me.

I realized that the transformation actually began, not in Nepal, but when I first bought my plane ticket to Kathmandu. At that moment, something in my life had to change. I was on my way to a place that I’d only seen on T.V., to live with a house full of orphans in one of the poorest countries in the world in the middle of a civil war. You cannot live like that for any length of time and come out the same person.

On one inauspicious day at the Little Princes Home, I bought the children toy cars, only to have them break almost immediately; then I watched as the children happily returned to making their own toys out of trash, out of sticks and bottles and old rubber bands. If they tore a plastic grocery bag, they carefully repaired it with tape and continued to reuse the bag. They neatly folded their single set of clothing and washed it by hand in the stream each week.

I didn’t have to study the culture — I learned about it through sheer immersion.

And that, to me, is the joy of volunteering. It requires so little in the way of prerequisite. It doesn’t require a particular passion, or a special skill. I had neither of those. It requires only that we make the decision to show up, that we open our minds and hearts to the people we are trying to help, and that we do as we are asked once we arrive.

Volunteering is the single best way to see how the rest of the world lives. It isn’t a question of how the other half lives — that’s a misnomer; it’s more like how the other 90 percent of the population lives. We need to see that up close to understand our world, to inform us, to make us better leaders and better colleagues and better neighbors.

This doesn’t mean you have to devote your life to that cause. You don’t. Experiencing it is the important thing.

But be warned: it might be the first step on what becomes a long path. It might take you in directions you never thought you would ever go. It did for me, with those kids in Nepal. And now — six years after my trip to Nepal on a lark, six years after my friends proclaimed me to be the most reluctant volunteer to ever put on a backpack — I can’t imagine how I ever lived without those kids.

My book, Little Princes, is more than just an adventure story, more than just the story of these amazing children who endured so much to get home. It’s the story of how that transformation took place in me, from that reluctant volunteer to dedicating my life to rescuing trafficked children. I wanted to share it because I suspect there are a lot of folks out there just like me. And there are even more children out there in need — children who are desperate for us to take that first step.

Copyright © 2011 Conor Grennan, author of Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

Author Bio

Conor Grennan, author of Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal, volunteered in Nepal at the Little Princes Children’s Home in the village of Godwari in 2004. He would eventually return to Nepal to launch Next Generation Nepal (NGN), a nonprofit organization dedicated to reconnecting trafficked children with their families in postwar Nepal.

My student’s Nepal meaningful travel experience: 3 days of volunteer work

So one of my students recently went to Nepal to do some volunteer work. I think this experience and what she got out of it is a perfect example of what meaningful travel should be. I don’t know that I could have gotten as much from the experience as my student did – maybe it will come across in her story but just in case it does not, I will tell you that she is a remarkable young woman. For example, I know that she volunteered a couple of years ago to visit a rural town in Korea and help out the old farmers. This involved working on the farm, giving the old people back rubs, outhouses for bathrooms, 5 minutes shower time per day, etc. I respect people who do that kind of volunteer work because I never have.

Here’s her meaningful travel in Nepal experience (first a summary from me and then her own words):

She was looking for something out of the ordinary and to learn something outside of school. She went to some website where Korean college students go to learn about activities for university students and saw an opportunity to go to Nepal doing volunteer work. All expenses would be paid by a corporate sponsor.

Seeing this as her only opportunity to go abroad (she’s a poor college student after all) she applied. I understand that they took 20 people, 1 out of every 80 who applied. She got in and after some hesitation decided to go even though she’d be missing the first 2 weeks of the semester.

The trip to Nepal was 3 days – I believe the rest of the time was training for the mission. They stayed in Kathmandu and worked at a school for the deaf named Bahira Barak. In Korean culture it’s not uncommon to play with, touch, hug other people’s children in public and my student played with the younger kids at the school (ages ranged from 8-20). She was warned no to touch their heads with her left hand.

Her team’s job was to clean and paint four classrooms and paint a corridor. I’ll have to ask her if she knows why they needed Korean volunteers for that. Surely they have untrained painters in Nepal…

Anyway, the condition of the classrooms was heartbreaking: spider webs, broken chairs, dust, etc. After 10 of them spent 5 hours cleaning the painting started. The smell made them nauseous so they started working in shifts.

During one of her breaks my student met a girl named Sushma. She spoke Nepali sign language while my student speaks English and Korean. They communicated through drawing and isolated English words. My student learned how to sign “Sushma,” her new friend’s name.

Three days later they showed the results of their work and everyone loved it. They performed a flag dance, a traditional Korean dance, and some tae kwon do. And then they left. Now my summary ends and I leave you with my student’s own words:

We promised not to cry in front of our Nepali friends. I avoided eye contact with my Nepali friends so that I could control my feelings. But when I saw my friend Sushma I could not stop crying. We hugged each other. I got in the bus and saw Sushma standing outside. She had tears in her eyes but she tried to smile at me.

We only had three days to get to know our Nepali friends. These three days gave me so many things that I might not have known if I had stayed in Korea. How could our Nepali friends be so open to us and give us unconditional love without getting anything in return? After I visited Bahira Barak School, I learned that sign language is the most powerful and beautiful language; it can move people’s hearts. My friend changed her facial expression with every sign. You could see what she was saying by looking in her eyes. The love I learned from my friends will become a seed that will help me grow and mature. The smiles my Nepali friends gave me will be treasures that will cheer me up when I am having a hard time.

Since I currently have only intermittent internet access, this guest post from Jill came at an excellent time. Plus it sounds like a great way to have a memorable vacation and some good stories to tell about meaningful travel.

From Jill:

I just wanted to tell you about an opportunity for a volunteer vacation opportunity in Belize. I thought you might be interested in putting it on your travel blog. A friend had told me about this amazing woman, Madi Collins, who runs a cat and dog rescue organization in Caye Caulker, which is a barrier island off the coast of Belize City.

When we cruised last week, Sophia and I took advantage of our port stop in Belize City to go over and see her. She is singlehandedly caring for 67 cats and 4 dogs. She spends hours each day, feeding, caring for and cleaning up after the animals, and funds most of the operation from her life savings. She rattles off the names of each and every cat, and can tell you their history, likes and dislikes as easily as most people do their children. I couldn’t do that with 67 cats! She is a native of Caye Caulker and returned there after retiring.

On the island, residents don’t really care about cats as we do, and believe it is acceptable to control the cat population by taking kittens out to sea or to the end of the pier, putting them in a bag and throwing them in the water. Most residents believe that cats are dirty and malicious, and on several occasions have broken into her compound and released their dogs to kill the cats. The health dept also controls the dog and cat population by periodically putting out arsenic-laced meat. That’s a horrible, horrible way for any creature to die. Last year, a young child was accidentally poisoned and had to be airlifted to the mainland for treatment.

Madi is not just focused on caring for individual animals, she is vigorously campaigning to change attitudes and policies. She brings in teams of vets to conduct trap-neuter-return operations on the island. She offers a monthly clinic with FREE spaying/neutering, deworming, heartworm treatments and other vet services. Most residents oppose spaying and neutering pets, especially males. Madi is trying to educate the island residents about responsible pet ownership and trying to change attitudes about cats. She repeatedly offers to the local officials to conduct humane euthanasia in their annual roundups instead of poisoning animals. What impressed me so much was her focus on education and effective, humane animal population controls. Without those, her efforts and money would be just a finger in the dam about to burst.

Anyway, I said this would be about a vacation opportunity. She has a first-floor little studio apartment that she will rent to volunteers VERY cheaply. All she asks is one hour of volunteer time daily while you stay. She also has a little camping bungalow (no electricity or running water, I believe, but you have access to toilets and showers in the main building) that she will let volunteers stay in for free. A lot of students come for a week and stay in the bungalow. The apartment used to be her personal home, so while it is small it has all the comforts you would expect.

Belize is well known for its beautiful snorkeling and diving. I believe Caye Caulker has been featured on the Travel Channel too. It’s a beautiful, rustic little island that is about 8 blocks wide and a couple of miles long. If anyone is interested in a volunteer vacation in beautiful Caye Caulker, they can visit her website at

Travel Trends for 2009

This article gives a good summary of what some travelers predict for 2009. So-called green travel is going to be more important and popular in 2009, apparently…more Americans say that they will be environmentally conscious and will try to stay in eco-friendly hotels. This organization has a wide selection of trips on which you can make a difference.

Surely one of the most eco-friendly hotels must be one that is made entirely from ice, and that doesn’t damage the environment in any way. There seem to be several ice hotels in various cold places, but this one in Sweden sounds like an interesting place to stay. I’m not sure how far it is from the home of Santa Claus, in Finland’s Lapland region.

That same site also gives a list of the top ten up and coming world and US travel destinations for 2009; some of which I have never heard of — Goslar, Germany; Budoni, Sardinia; Englewood, Florida and New Buffalo, Michigan. (Where?) Actually, New Buffalo sounds quite nice, according to the official website.

Lonely Planet thinks these countries will be popular in 2009: Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Algeria, Georgia, Oman and Kyrgyzstan. And Canada as well, for us cautious types.

Personally, if the economy gets any worse, I predict I will be staying at home!

I wish I could say I had been avidly watching the Travel Channel, but unfortunately their programming is not much better than when this blog started discussing the Travel Channel.

Samantha Brown has recently had a couple of good series in the form of “Great Weekends” and “Passport to South America” but they have now all been shown several times. And please, somebody from the TC, if you could make it your New Year’s resolution to get rid of “World Poker Tournament”! (One resolution that should definitely be kept!)

Guest entry by Mancunian

VolunTourism in Hawaii

Well Hawaii is high on my list of places to go so I’ve talked about possible travel plans, accommodations, websites, Kauai, etc.

This article on Hawaii caught my eye because of the nice contrast it provides with my recent rant on companies that make money asking for volunteers.

So from 7:00 AM (ouch that’s early for vacation) to 1:00 PM they worked on a Habitat for Humanity project. In return they got to feel good, learn how to make cabinets, and pay only $239/night for their hotel. I’m no expert, but considering these Kuhio Shores condos cost about $195/night (the range for ones that sleep 2-4 is $195-$225), that doesn’t seem like a great bargain to me.

Then again, you’re not supposed to volunteer only to get a discount on the hotel:

“For many people who are coming to Hawaii, vacationing is not just about lying on the beach and having a mai tai anymore,” Clemmons said. “They appreciate that there is a stronger opportunity for volunteer conservation projects in Hawaii than in most parts of the (U.S. mainland).”

“I interviewed a couple of young women who had done a documentary on their VolunTourism trip to Hawaii,” he said. “They said VolunTourism lets you bring your aloha. These tourists are bringing their aloha. They aren’t just taking it.”

The upcoming Voluntourism opportunities in Hawaii sound much better than building houses (at least to me). There’s a whale count on Oahu, for example.

Peru community-based tourism

This article reads a little bit like an advertisement, but supposedly it’s for a non-profit travel agency so I guess that’s OK. They offer trips to Peru, and they call it community-based tourism. It’s not cheap and it doesn’t sound easy:

Kiss the fluffy white towels goodbye and stay with a family in the village of Vicos to best understand a new culture by exchanging customs, cultures, food and even daily chores.

I bet that after a homestay in a small Peruvian farming village, you’ll have had a pretty unique travel experience with some good stories to tell your friends.

As for me, I fly from New York to Seoul tonight on Asiana. I’ll be blogging again when I recover from the trip – give me a day or two!

Carbon offsets

This article talks about how relatively few Australians buy carbon credits to offset pollution from flying. I know I consider myself environmentally conscious, but I’ve never bought a carbon credit. Have you?

Did you travel in high school?

This article talks about how high school students traveling abroad can broaden their horizons but I am a bit skeptical. I didn’t travel abroad when I was a high school student, but if I had I doubt that I would have really taken advantage of the opportunity the way I could now.

The article implies that travel experience will help the students get jobs:

“A recent survey of employers published by LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) indicates that prospective employers want college graduates to possess strong intercultural competence and the ability to appreciate global perspectives,” Dr. Laney said. “Global travel programs open the door to cultural exploration, intercultural competence and appreciation for diversity.”

I suppose that a college student who did a semester or two abroad might have some intercultural competence but keep in mind that competence goes way beyond cultural knowledge or awareness and involves using these things to work effectively in different cultural contexts. You might get some of that from a semester or two abroad but I don’t think a few weeks with the French club in high school will do much for most high schoolers.

I’m not saying high school students shouldn’t travel – I think they should. And I think trips like the one described here are excellent learning opportunities. Interestingly, my sister went to Europe with her French club in high school. They saw some cool stuff but let’s face it – with constant chaperoning and guided tours how much can you really learn from the locals?

So let’s not pretend that a typical high school tour will turn kids into sophisticated global citizens. Let’s set more realistic goals like getting a little cultural knowledge and maybe beginning to develop some cultural awareness. If all students get is a little curiosity or a little desire to see more of the world, isn’t that enough?