Category: Meaningful Travel

Poverty tourism and the Lebua hotel Bangkok controversy

I put this in the meaningful travel category even though the controversy stems around how much is being wasted. No doubt the extravagance of a $300,000 dinner at Lebua hotel in Bangkok would make many of us sick or jealous. The issue for many seems not to be the meal, however; it is that poverty tourism by the wealthy is immoral. It can sound pretty bad:

“You can’t see people living in misery and then go back to Bangkok to eat foie gras and truffles,” Solivérès (Taillevent in Paris) said by telephone from Paris.

So what it sounds like to me is that if the rich folks were just going to indulge in another extravagant meal no one would care. But because they are going to see poor people and then eat, the meal is somehow immoral. I don’t get it. Eating truffles when other people can’t afford bread or rice isn’t any more or less moral depending on what you do that afternoon as far as I’m concerned.

The International Herald Tribune reports that some chefs have declined because of the controversy while others have declined because they are afraid of losing a Michelin star. Does Michelin deduct stars for politically incorrect cooks?

However, and this Wall Street Journal piece argues that something good may come out of this and the Lebua hotel says it will encourage the rich folks to help build a school in Surin, Thailand. The WSJ blogger says:

Yet if the result is greater awareness – and most importantly – more philanthropic giving by the wealthy, it’s a useful expense. Sure it would be nice if the wealthy went to Surin without needing truffles as bait. But jet-setters aren’t likely to tour Surin on their own. If the dinner helps introduce them to the other half, and generates charitable results, it will all be worth it.

I agree and don’t know how we can say it’s wrong for rich people to pay for tours of impoverished areas. It may be wrong for the rich folks to do very little to help poor folks but I don’t want to think that I or anyone else deserves to be judged based on how I spend my vacation time (not that I’m in the rich folks category that these articles talk about). And seriously, would it be better to go stay in a fancy resort closed to all natives than to take a “poverty tour”? Sure, in ideal world you would go to impoverished areas on your own to volunteer but do you want people to expect that from you?

Meaningful travel on your honeymoon?

It must be a very rare and special couple who take time during their honeymoons to do some “volontourism”. In this article, the author talks about visiting a school in Cambodia. It probably took half a day and cost a few hundred dollars ($40 for school lunches and then however much extra it costs to hire the kind of tour guide who sets this up).

The rest of their time was spent seeing Angkor Watt and their hotel package sounded pretty good: “At $95, our poolside room at Bopha Angkor was spacious yet not ostentatious, and the package included daily breakfast, a traditional Khmer dinner, and a massage.”

Expensive volontourism and responsible tourism

This article has some expensive ideas for traveling and doing good at the same time. The 14-day trip to Antarctica is over $6,000 / person but you can’t go unless you donate $500 to the Climate Change Challenge (the Climate Challenge thing seems to be run by the same people charging you $6,000 for the trip). The article doesn’t think that’s a bad thing but it makes me wonder. Anyway, on the trip your job is to deliver equipment to scientists down there.

The other trips don’t seem to have specific requirements – I guess they are just environmentally friendly tours. The Galápagos Islands will run you just over $4,000 / person while we don’t get prices for a cruise in the North Sea.

Teching children in the Dominican Republic

As an educator, I probably should do some volunteer teaching somewhere. One day I will… For now I’ll settle for reading volunteer experiences like this one.

A past blog entry on learning Spanish while volunteering in Guatemala got a few comments from interested readers. I wonder if anyone from our little community actually did go to Guatemala…

Baseball road trip – Alon and Neal pull off a dream vacation & raise money for charity

Two guys named Alon Yishai Mass and Neal Ryan Koral are currently in the early stages of an awesome summer-long baseball road trip which will probably raise a good amount of money for charity. I’ve pledged $1 for every homerun they see at the games they attend. This is the “home run fund” if you’re interested in doing something for charity.

This appealed to me because I love road trips and this one is truly a dream vacation that these guys have been working on for a very long time. This blog is all about travel dreams and sometimes their realization. I also like that it dwarfs our 2006 baseball road trip, and reminds me of our road trip in Jamaica or from the movie Elizabethtown.

The two guys on this dream road trip – did I mention they are visiting all 30 MLB baseball parks in the US and Canada? – were kind enough to answer a few interview questions for us: How did you choose hotels / camp sites?

Alon: We only have 4 hotels booked so far. Yosemite Bug in Yosemite. A camp ground near Jasper, WY. A shack outside of Yellowstone w/no water or electricity. A camp ground near Kings Canyon, Ca. They were chosen based on proximity and cost. How did you choose which non-baseball attractions to visit?

Alon: I extensively looked at websites, and got advice from family [a lot from my Dad] about the national parks. They were the most obvious choices… we’re going to many of the most beautiful places in America. As well, these places are located near cities with baseball parks, or are obvious in between points.

Neal: Just to answer some of your questions, we basically wanted to go to as many places as humanly possible on this trip. If there’s a unique attraction in this country, we want to see it. Also, the national parks offer some of the most beautiful views in the world and we wanted to see those with our own eyes.

We also have looked into getting a motel/hotel/camp site near the Grand Canyon. We have not booked anything yet but the only place where we found something at a reasonable price is in Flagstaff, AZ and that’s about 60 miles away from the South rim. Do you have any advice or suggestions as to where we can stay around there? What parts of the trip are you purposely leaving unplanned?

Alon: We haven’t planned anything besides the schedule [games and national parks] and who we are staying with. Everything is left to the unknown… a lot of the motels will be just “places along the way,” as we drive a lot at night after games. Are there any more dream vacations in the works?

Alon: YES!!! I am applying to medical school this summer. I plan on taking a year off in between college and med school, and working… trying to make money, so I can travel around the world. My plan is to spend about a week in each of the following cities: Panama City, Rio, Buenos Aires, Aukland, Sydney, Thailand, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Shanghai, Kakmandu, Bombay, Cairo, Addis Ababa, Vienna, Moscow [this is absolutely not set in stone, but as you can see, I will make it happen].

Neal: I don’t know if I’ll be able to travel as extensively as Alon after this because I just graduated from Indiana University and I will begin working for Ernst & Young after the conclusion of the trip. Since they are a global company, maybe I’ll have the opportunity to live and work for them in Europe or East Asia one day.

Thank you Alon and Neal for the interview, for sharing a travel-inspiring story, and for raising money for some excellent charities. I hope that everyone who reads this blog (not to mention the guy who writes it) recognizes their passion(s) and does something memorable, like this baseball roadtrip of a lifetime.

Volunteering and studying Spanish in Guatemala

When I wrote a quick blog about learning something on vacation, Issert asked “Does anyone know volunteering abroad programs with language classes or language immersion programs within Spanish speaking countries?” in the comments section.

Joe replied that he has been going to Guatemala for 15 years to study Spanish and volunteer. He also mentioned Antigua.

I know I’ve gotten requests for more articles for single travelers – this would be perfect for single travelers. The school makes sure you meet people and homestays probably work better for singles than for families anyway.

Anyway, I contacted one school in Guatemala to get some more information for everyone. If this reads like an ad for the school, sorry but what you’re about to read was written by them – I won’t take nay credit and I don’t want any blame.

We have included information below about the school so that you may read over it and get to know us and our works. We are very open to working inside your parameters and needs. We would very much like to start this relationship and will welcome any more questions that you


Guate Spanish Language School is a young, small, self-sustainable cooperative of host families, language instructors and volunteer organizations managed by Guatemalan Maya Spanish Association, a Guatemalan NGO. Our mission is to “Give socioeconomic support to our members by offering genuine Guatemalan cultural experience to help our participants reconnect with their authentic selves.”

We would like to invite you to immerse yourself in:

* Authentic homestay

* 1-on-1 Spanish lesson

* Volunteering opportunity

* Cultural activity/excursion


Your host families are the primary and integral part of the immersion experience. They will open their homes, their hearts and their lives to you. You will see how children are raised, marriages are celebrated and slangs are used in daily life of middle class Guatemalans. Your room

will not be extravagant but will be clean and comfortable with sufficient privacy. When you are at their dining table, you will enjoy the authentic Guatemalan food which will be a learning experience in itself. And of course, your host can fix you a wonderful vegetarian meal as well. A life-long friendship will be built as you would sit after dinner and talk for hours or go out to a Sunday mass, shopping and fiesta with kids/adults your age. If you have a special diet and/or medical need, please feel free to let us know. Your host family will accommodate your needs as much as possible. It’s completely OK and we encourage you to communicate your preference on foods, time to be woken up, etc. There is no need for you to eat something you do not like. Just leave it aside and your host will understand. But if you can let them know what you like and do not like to eat beforehand, your host will appreciate that greatly. If you would like to change your host family for any reason, please feel free to let us know at anytime. We will have a new arrangement ready for you right away.

1-ON-1 SPANISH LESSON (We also teach various indigenous languages.)

Your personal Spanish / indigenous language instructors are talented men and women who possess a deep knowledge of the languages and Guatemalan culture in which they live. Our instructors have a unique understanding of foreign students and how they learn best. They teach not with prepackaged curricula, but with passion, creativity and responsiveness to student interests and needs. All of our instructors are certified with diplomas in the teaching of Spanish as a second language. In addition to theoretical training on methodologies of immersion instruction, the instructors have practical experience in teaching for between 3 and 12 years. They have worked with students of a variety of learning styles and levels of previous experience (total beginners to advanced students). The lesson can be customized to accommodate each student’s need in oral and written proficiency, special interests / needs of the student (according to his/her major, learning disability, etc). Let us know what interests you. Mayan cosmo-vision, natural medicine and nutrition, history, anthropology, law… Whatever it may be, we will work to pair you with an instructor who has similar interests. Our normal class schedule is 8am-1pm or 2pm-7pm, Mon-Fri. Each session lasts 5 days. You may start your class on any Monday of the year. If you prefer to start on another day or time, special scheduling can be arranged upon your request. Starting from no knowledge of Spanish, majority of our students reach advanced level of proficiency in 10-12 weeks of study. We encourage you to offer suggestions in terms of what materials you would like to use, grammatical topics you wish to cover, or what percentage of each class you would like to devote to conversation versus drills and exercises etc. If you have special learning needs, or a learning disability please inform us or your instructor so appropriate accommodations can be made.


It will be a truly humbling experience to witness the poverty and hardship of the students, teachers and families in Chiquilaja. The grassroots effort to support the school is led by our volunteer coordinator, Leticia Sacalxot. The school structure and curriculum are continually evolving, thanks to the support we receive from program participants. The Chiquilaj?school and the girls’ orphanage are in need of your help. School supplies that are so carelessly used (and wasted) in your home country will be great gifts for them. They are enduring familial and community poverty and face a general lack of parental support to attend the school. More than anything else, your generosity helps these children realize that someone cares.


Panajachel at the shore of lake Atitlan: 1 day trip 530-1900. We will be crossing the one of the most scenic lakes in the world to visit 2 indigenous villages. We will stop by a hotspring and natural reserves. Guides, boat, entrance fee to the natural reserve, breakfast, lunch, bus are included.

Takalik abaj: 1 day trip 800-1900 We will visit the spectacular Mayan ruin. Bus, guide, lunch and entrance fee are included. We will have fun at nearby pool too!

Irtra Xocomil: 1 day trip 800-1800 A wonderful break at the Guatemala’s largest aquatic amusement park! Bus, entrance fee and lunch are included.

Fiesta ind?ena: In Quetzaltenango, we always have various celebrations such as engagement, godfathership, marriage, “a post-hangover” party, etc. Dress up yourself in tradicional dresses and dance with the rhythm of marimba. Join us to become a part of the Mayan culture! Meals,

drinks and good time are included. These are just a few examples and if you have a specific destination of your interest, please let us know.

Well they sent me more, but that’s enough for this blog. If you’re serious about volunteering in Guatemala, Guate Spanish School provided me with the information above.

Traveling in a positive way

Here’s a good article on traveling in a positive way. It covers a few related topics such as advice on volunteering, how to help with education, how to handle beggars, and more.

Removing landmines in Cambodia

Here’s a vacation experience from Bill Morse (who has contributed a Kilimajaro & safari itinerary, his Kilimajaro experience, plus organized a Mekong River cruise).

This one involves AK47s, mines, mortar rounds, and police raids. Talk about an eventful vacation…

Are volunteer vacations going to get more popular?

This article on a survey about American’s travel wishes indicates that volunteer vacations may get more popular in the future:

VOLUNTEER VACATIONS: One-quarter (24%) of travelers said they were currently interested in taking a volunteer or service-based vacation. More than one in ten travelers (11%) said they were MORE interested now compared to five years ago in taking a volunteer or service-based vacation. Interest was strongest among baby boomers, with the largest share (47%) of those interested in taking a volunteer vacation falling into the 35 — 54 year old age range.

I wonder if people are just saying they’d like to do a volunteer vacation or if they will really start booking these vacations. I mean I’m interested, but I haven’t done one yet…

Perfect example of meaningful travel

Here’s a family that spent their vacation taking care of orphans in Romania, including one that their son helped get flown to America so that the medicine for the orphan’s brain cancer (the medicine isn’t available in Romania) could be administered.

If that’s not the perfect example of meaningful travel, traveling to make the world better, then I don’t know what is.