THE BLOG

Packing Heart on Your Next Vacation

03/11/2013 03:52 pm 15:52:23 | Updated May 11, 2013

Let's face it, some of the most fascinating places in the world are located in some of the most impoverished places in the world. You can't visit the Pyramids of Giza without driving through the slums of Cairo. The Taj Mahal, arguably the most beautiful building ever built, sits amid some of the worst poverty anywhere. Even vacationing on a beautiful Caribbean island, your luxury resort is an anomaly; the ugly truth is all around you.

I've been traveling most of my life and, in fact, I lived in Tehran, Iran as a young woman back in the mid -1970s. Poverty was all around me there. had a beggar friend that I passed every day on the street. We were warned not to give money to beggars because if you did, they wouldn't leave you alone and you might draw an unwanted crowd. So I didn't give him anything, and for his part, he never asked. We just had a friendly salaam and a smile for each other each day. But I always felt bad about it. The often-used rationalization about the poor not knowing any better never held any truth for me. It's more "there but for the grace of God go I" that sums up my feelings more accurately. I don't know how you can witness other human beings struggling for their everyday existence and not be changed by it.

As much as I love to travel to exciting and exotic spots around the world, I have always had a lot of trouble justifying my own good fortune being able to enjoy the best of what a country has to offer while the people there, many of them poor, are waiting on me and treating me like a king. I understand and agree with the logic that, by going, I am helping to create jobs and am contributing to the economy. But it just doesn't seem like enough.

A few years ago I read about a couple who, on their own, raised money, medical supplies and clothing at their workplace and church which they personally delivered to an orphanage in Nairobi. So when my husband and I decided to go to Kenya we thought we would try the same thing. We raised several thousand dollars, lots of clothing, and had a local pharmaceutical company donate medical supplies which we then took with us to the New Life Children's Home in Nairobi. We packed everything in old suitcases that we just left there. It wasn't a difficult thing to do; it just took a little thought and planning. And we received way more than we gave when we had the opportunity to visit with those beautiful children and see the good work the orphanage was doing in a country devastated by AIDS and other diseases.

More recently when we visited Cambodia we noticed wells that had signs on them. We asked our guide about it and learned that the wells had been donated by tourists who wanted to help when they saw the poverty that the people of Cambodia were living in. We decided to donate a well ourselves so our guide took us to an area near Siem Reap where the government had given little plots of land to the poor and disabled. Many of these people had nothing but a shack to live in and no water nearby. Drinking dirty polluted water was a common occurrence and people often became ill and even died because of it. So, we donated enough money to have a well built in an area where several families lived. Believe it or not, the well only cost us $200. For the cost of a utility bill here at home, several families would have fresh, clean water to drink. It was an easy thing to do. We didn't even lift a finger.

There are a lot of nonprofit organizations that offer what are called "voluntourism" trips in which the traveler gets involved in charitable work while they are visiting a poor country. And that is a great way to help. ut if you are the kind of traveler who wants to go on your own but you'd like to do something to help while you are visiting, you can, if you seek it out. It doesn't have to be Cambodia or Kenya; it can be closer to home like in the Caribbean. Just do a little research ahead of time to find an organization that is legitimate, contact them to see what they might need and start a fundraiser of your own at your church before you go. Tour guides are often a great source too. You have the added bonus of seeing for yourself that your donation is going to a good cause. I guarantee you that you will enjoy your trip a lot more if you leave something meaningful behind rather than taking lots of things home with you.