I was surprised at how many “adults” asked me this question on a recent alternative break trip. Only students and staff at schools that have these trips seem to know what they are; the outside world is clueless. And they have every right to be. With so many terms floating around to describe travel now – ecotourism, voluntourism, mission trips, shoestring travel – it’s hard to know what you or your friend or child are even signing up for.
The term alternative break trip, or AB trip as I will call it from now on, technically only pertains to students since most adults are not as lucky to have the same vacation time as those in academia. At school, time off may include summer break, fall break (which is usually in October), Thanksgiving break, Christmas or winter vacation, a January term (the whole month of January off to travel or take a certain class), and finally the infamous spring break. AB trips fall under the umbrella of voluntourism, a movement that combines volunteering and travel.
The beauty of an alternative break is that you can do ANYTHING and go ANYWHERE, as long as you’re giving of your time, talents and energy. It’s not a trip where your main highlight is getting served margaritas on a sandy beach (although that is a pretty awesome vacation too). On an AB trip you are immersed in a new community, maybe even a new culture and language, with the focus of fostering positive development in underprivileged communities and personal growth in yourself. AB trips are the perfect combination of volunteering and sight-seeing, meeting and connecting with local people and organizations, activists, artists, students and community workers.
Casa HOY polled several of our past participants on how AB trips have affected them personally. These are just a few of the many cool things that can happen to you on an AB trip:
Connect with a population you wouldn’t normally get to know. Whether they are children, migrants, women’s groups, activists, elderly, farm workers, indigenous people or artists, on AB trips you will meet people that you wouldn’t normally run into on your own. Casa HOY uses the Spanish word “convivir” to explain this interaction- you spend quality time with these people. On recent AB trips Casa HOY groups shared meals with a Guatemalan family in southwest Florida and listened to stories of border crossings from Hispanics in California.
Travel cheaply. Most schools do fundraisers, offer scholarships or otherwise subsidize the cost of an AB trip for students. The average week-long AB trip in the US costs between $250-300 and includes meals, housing and local transportation. Trips outside the US usually cost between $350-400. If you do your research, you’ll know that that’s some of the cheapest travel you’ll ever do. Casa HOY uses local services, and many students report going home and trying out local restaurants, different types of transportation and going to farmers’ markets.
Get to know your fellow classmates. Usually every grade can go on AB trips, and schools try to include a few people from each year. This is a chance to get to know someone you normally never would have crossed paths with. You may meet a future roommate, someone in your major, someone that inspires you to change your major or someone that invites you to participate in a different club or group on campus. One Casa HOY participant said that after a week she felt like the whole group was as close as a family.
Learn new skillz. Make a new meal, practice some words in a different language, learn how to beat box. AB trips usually have a theme, but there any many ways to explore a topic. In California students monitored sand crabs on the beach, in Mexico they taught basic English to local tour guides, in NYC they will volunteer in community gardens. Besides learning those sick skills, you will hone regular human ones, such as learning how to work with a group, how to talk in public, how to survive without your cell phone and GPS, how to interact with children, how to offer and be of service.
Get experience outside the classroom. As author Paulo Coelho said, “People never learn anything by being told, they have to find out for themselves.” What better way to complement your class on indigenous people by going to Mexico and sitting in a classroom where they speak Nahuatl? Maybe you know you want to be a biology major, but sloshing around the wetlands can give you the connection between your lab class and what you want to do when you graduate. Or as a speech pathology major you can observe the difference between bilingual and monolingual classrooms. You’ll have a lot more to share in your class on human rights after you march with farm workers fighting for fair food.
Become more flexible and spontaneous. You may think you already have those skills; or on the contrary, you may think them unnecessary. But as Americans, we are notoriously rigid control freaks. On AB trips you learn to give up the schedule to someone else, to accept invitations on the spot, to lend a hand without thinking twice and to go with the flow. You learn to value what happens during an hour instead of counting the minutes. It’s raining and you can’t go to the park? So what? We’ll go back to the house and learn how to make salsa. One of my favorite volunteer moments was when on a walk through a tiny town in Mexico, a volunteer poked his head in someone’s door. It turns out they were having a party, and a woman invited us in to have lunch and celebrate with them. You don’t get those kinds of experiences unless you’re spontaneous.
Go off the grid. Turn off your cell phone, or better yet, don’t even bring your cell phone. Put away your I-Pod, take off the headphones. Call Mom and Dad to tell them that you made it, and then let go. Without those distractions, you’ll be inspired to initiate conversations with fellow participants, to listen to the sounds of the surrounding community, to sing or play a song or even just revel in the silence of it all. You will be more aware of the world around you.
Learn about yourself. Travel forces you to recognize your strengths, weaknesses, manias and little tics. You might not be able to change those things, but you will know how to manage them better. For example, I have learned that I’m very shy when it comes to meeting new people at a hostel or housing site. I challenge myself on every trip to just sit down and say hi to someone when I get to a new place. For other people it’s the shock of eating new foods. On an AB trip you are surrounded by people going through the same thing, so it easier to step out of your comfort zone or to talk through a new experience.
Be more environmentally aware. On AB trips you can expect to take short showers, maybe even cold showers. You might not have electricity on your trip. You might take public transportation and not have a microwave. You’ll see how other people live, and survive, and be inspired to cut back on your daily habits. Many Casa HOY volunteers report using less water and electricity when they get back to their homes. They are also inspired to eat locally, maybe even to eat organic, and to cut down on consumption in general.
Find meaning in your time. As I said, margaritas poolside is indisputably a great way to unwind. However, a recent Casa HOY participant, Chris, said that participating in an AB trip is “much more enriching and whole” than other vacations. You’ll get back to school with a whole new group of friends, inspired, motivated and seeing the world through different eyes. AB trips combine volunteering and sightseeing, so you will still have time to relax and unwind.
One of the best compliments I got on my last AB trip was “thank you for pushing me/forcing me out of my comfort zone.” Yeah, maybe that sounds a tad bit aggressive on our part, but that’s our job as Casa HOY guides. We know what it’s like to travel to a new place with a different culture and language. We know what it’s like to be afraid, shy and nervous. And we know that once you get over it, an AB trip can be a positive, life-changing, life-inspiring experience.