A Travellerspoint blog

What is an alternative break trip?

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.


Posted by UnMejorHOY 11:40 Archived in Mexico Tagged travel volunteering volunteer voluntourism casa_hoy alternative_travel cell_phones travel_in_cuernavaca alternate_travel volunteering_with_children voluneering_in_mexico active_volunteering Comments (0)

Treehouse Wisdom at Comunidad de los Niños

There’s something magical about sitting in a tree house exchanging secrets. It’s a safe place, a creative place, where you’re allowed to dream dreams and tell stories. There, you can escape from chores, avoid homework and be in charge of things. Being welcomed into that special world as a kid is a privilege, but being an adult and getting an invitation is a rare allowance.


Although I frequently indulge my “child at heart” and behave childishly enough to drive some adults nuts, I don’t have that unforced, easy going ability of immediately connecting with children that others possess. Given that I speak fluent Spanish, sometimes I feel a duty to step in and be another “adult” hand or voice. Many times when I volunteer with children I end up trying to keep order, the peace or whatever else needs to be ruled.

I was never free of that self-imposed responsibility until I started volunteering at Comunidad de los Niños, one of Casa HOY’s more recent childcare projects for elementary aged boys from low-income single parent families. There are two things that make Comunidad a unique place to volunteer: number one, the staff is beyond fabulous. Although they have 10 kids at once vying for their attention, they always find time to say hi to volunteers, to sit down and help a child with homework, or to answer a question or give a hug. Volunteers that work at Comunidad know that mayhem will reign several times a day, but the staff will take care of it. Number two, they’re boys. I grew up with two sisters, so people might argue otherwise, but in my limited experience dealing with boys is so straight forward. There are still tears and fights and friendships broken and fixed. But drama is short-lived, contained and usually settled right there on the playground.

Or in the tree house.

Today I was given a special chance to hang out in that tree house world for most of the day. I played chess with a four-year-old who unabashedly took out my queen with his pawns that jumped all over the board. I challenged a six year old to a matching game that he had done so many times everyone thought he was cheating. Lost that game, too. I spent half an hour at the lunch table with two boys talking about who could eat the most. I held hands and walked an eight-year-old to class, learning the strategies to Gears of War and other video games that I will never, ever play. And at the end of the day, I went back and hung out in that tree house just a little longer, hearing ghost stories about the old woman that lives in the ravine next to the house.

Those that often volunteer with children will know that those tree house moments aren’t everyday occurrences. And if you’re a new volunteer, you might have to work to find the child in you, to remember seeing animals in the clouds and giving your siblings wet willies and playing with the same ball for hours on end. Casa HOY has several childcare projects, and they all offer fun and challenging experiences. What is so refreshing and stimulating about Comunidad de los Niños is how easy the friendship of a child is to come by. You might finally stop saying “kids these days” and actually join them in being one.


Posted by UnMejorHOY 10:08 Archived in Mexico Tagged children cuernavaca casa_hoy childcare working_with_children volunteering_with_children voluneering_in_mexico family_volunteering active_volunteering Comments (0)

Voluntourism for "When I Was your Age" People

They say that as you get older the more you realize how little you actually know. I would say that’s quite true at my 26 years of age, although I’m still naïve enough to hope that I might learn a little more as the years go by. I believe that you can travel and volunteer at any age, and some of our best volunteers have been people that can share a few more stories about life. Regardless of how many experiences you have under your belt, it is important to remember that all trips are unique. Just because you volunteered with orphans in Colombia doesn’t mean it will be the same experience in Mexico, and even if you traveled solo through Europe two years ago, there may be unexpected difficulties traveling alone this time around. We’ve compiled a list of tips that apply to every age, but that are vital in your participatory experience with Casa HOY if you fall into the “when I was your age” category (all the time, or at moments. Alas, I’m currently in that category).

Do your research. There are hundreds of voluntourism opportunities around the world. Organizations offer different programs and projects that might be more suitable to your needs and interests. For example, if you sign up to teach English, you might not be working with an English speaking teacher, or with a teacher at all. You might be totally on your own. Remember, if you’re volunteering internationally for the first time, you have to get used to not only a different language and cuisine, but also all of the challenges of your volunteer project. My personal recommendation would be to choose a country first and then look for a program you’re interested in. This is voluntourism- it won’t be much fun if you’re not the least bit interested in the culture.

Get a physical. Voluntourism is considered “off the beaten path” travel. You’re not sleeping at a B&B, you’re not taking an air conditioned bus to your project and the bus driver will not wait for you to find your seat before speeding off. The sidewalk crumbles away, the sun is beating down and your project may be an hour long bus ride away. And in Cuernavaca, Mexico, you’re at an altitude of almost 5,000 ft. Many volunteers, especially those that come from the coast, experience some form of altitude sickness- shortness of breath, headaches or lightheadedness. You may also be working with children or adolescents, a boogery population in any country, so if you’re tired from travel you’re much more likely to get sick. When you’re here for just a week or two, nobody wants to be told to “take it easy,” but sometimes that’s what you have to do to make sure you stay healthy. Drink lots of water, wear sunscreen and/or a hat and relax- you’re in Mexico!


Bring your regular medications. Although you might want to pack light, if there are any medications that you prefer taking when you’re feeling under the weather, bring them. For example, I used to love Theraflu, so I would bring my own wherever I went just in case I couldn’t get it at the local pharmacy. It’s also handy to bring any meds you would use for upset stomachs, headaches or regular colds. Although you can most likely get medicines with same active ingredient as those in your home country here in Mexico, it’s helpful to pack your usual over the counter medicines so you don’t have to walk around trying to find a place to fill out your prescription when you’ve got a headache or the runs.

Recognize the average age group. Voluntourism is an awesome way to travel at any age, but be aware that the average participant age is 20. What that means for anyone over 20 is that you will be living and volunteering with people that may or may not have ever lived on their own, traveled on their own, cooked on their own, been on their own, gotten sick on their own, cleaned on their own and/or planned on their own. And you might not have done any of those things yet either, at whatever age you are. Participants not only learn about Mexico and their volunteer project, but also how to live and interact with international volunteers of many ages. You have to be prepared to have dissimilar interests, expectations, concerns, budgets and ideas. That’s part of the fun. Regardless of your age, you will be teaching and learning from everyone.

Splurge. Even though you came to change the world and change yourself, you have to be healthy enough to do it. So if taking public transportation tires you, splurge and take a taxi every once in awhile. If you need a nap, go for it. Siestas are delicious. Take a day off. Even if you’re here for a short amount of time, if you need a day to recover or take it all in our just relax, do so. It’s better to take a day off to get back to 100% than to push yourself and get worse.

Get and stay organized. There's lots of paperwork to hold on to when you travel. While Casa HOY holds on to your original passport to keep it safe, volunteers misplace tourist visa cards, luggage cards, plane ticket information and so on. Make sure you have all of your travel info in a folder in one place. If you've made reservations for further travel, consider printing out addresses and dates.

At 26, as the Casa HOY program coordinator, I most certainly fall into the “when I was your age” category in many interactions with volunteers. It’s easy to forget that when I traveled at 16 I wandered away on my own and got lost in the forest, at 18 I don’t remember how I got back from the bar most nights and at 25 I thought it would be a good idea to cross a border without a visa. We travel to learn about the world, but most of all to learn about ourselves. At every age you have to be open to personal challenges and development, and usually when you find yourself in the “when I was your age” category you have the grace and wisdom to recognize these moments of self comprehension.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 22:12 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico volunteering international cultural volunteer voluntourism cuernavaca participatory intercambio alternative_travel participatory_travel english_teaching Comments (0)

Tour bus travel vs Voluntourism

Have I been doing it wrong all these years?

I don’t exactly know where my inspiration came from to volunteer. I’ve always been the type of person to watch documentaries on starving children in Africa, feel absolutely heartbroken and vow to make a donation in the next ad break. But I don’t. I continue sitting on my couch, crying into my ice cream and feeling sad. The documentary finishes, ‘The Amazing Race’ comes on and I forget all about those starving children in Africa.

A year or so ago, in typical Hayley style, I started developing that familiar itch to travel again. I’ve been an obsessive traveller since I was 21 and have travelled to over 25 countries. Now, at 29 years old, something had changed in the way I wanted to travel. I didn’t just want to watch a country go by as I looked out the window of a comfortable air-conditioned tour bus, hopping off intermittently to snap the obligatory photo of some pretty mountain. I wanted to get amongst it all. I wanted to help people. And I wanted to stop saying “one day I will” and just do it.

When planning my trip I stumbled across IVHQ, a New Zealand based organisation with volunteering projects all around the world. I was instantly hooked and applied for projects in Kenya and Mexico, two of the countries I planned to visit on my yearlong overseas holiday. I was accepted into both. Was I terrified I’d bitten off more than I could chew? YES… but I went anyway.

First stop.. Kenya. After orientation and a few days to catch my breath I was catapulted into what felt like an alternate universe. My job for the next month was to consult with pregnant mothers, assist in births, help sick babies and provide first aid and family planning classes to those who couldn’t afford to seek help elsewhere. It seemed like every patient I saw was suffering from extreme poverty and starvation, and most of the women were HIV positive. On my second day at the clinic I sat in a room with a pregnant mother of three while she waited for the results of the HIV test we’d just given her. It was an intense five minutes and something I will remember for the rest of my life. You don’t get that experience sitting on an air-conditioned tour bus.

Fast forward three months to Cuernavaca, Mexico. It was to be my home for the next two months while I volunteered with Casa Hoy, a local organisation passionate about helping the community. They offer a variety of projects including teaching English, child care, environmental, animal welfare and computer assistance. I learned that I would be volunteering in a foster home for children whose parents were in prison or too unfit to look after them. There were 29 children at the home, aged between 1 and 5 years old. And boy did I fall in love with each and every one of them.

There were many defining moments during those two months at the home. Those secret ‘high five’ moments that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. But my most memorable was Clara*. Clara is 2 years old and lives at the home. She never smiled or laughed, never played with the other children and seemed to be in her own little world most of the time. I often wondered what kind of life she had led to make her like this. So, every day I would pay special attention to Clara - lots of playing, giving her cuddles, helping her with her lunch and just generally making her feel loved. The defining moment came about a month into my project when Clara finally smiled at me. Next came the laughter, interaction with the other kids and she even started sitting on my lap without being prompted. Success. To be honest, sometimes I questioned myself about why I was here spending my free time with these children when I could be at home playing with my three beautiful nieces. This was why. These defining moments. I will never forget Clara or my time spent at the foster home.

By the time I turn 30 (in 5 months eeek!) I will have travelled to 33 different countries. Did I love visiting those countries and seeing them through the window of my tour bus? Yes I did. But my time spent in Kenya and Mexico created a whole new depth of appreciation and love for the country and its people. Feeling that sense of family and belonging. Exchanging daily “hola’s” with the laundry lady and the man at the corner store. Getting involved in the community and helping people, even if it’s just by making them smile.

Volunteering changed the way I want to travel. It took me 9 years and 33 countries but I got there in the end. I got off the couch.


Posted by UnMejorHOY 18:38 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico volunteering international cultural volunteer voluntourism cuernavaca participatory intercambio alternative_travel participatory_travel english_teaching Comments (2)

Wal-mart-style Voluntourism

When I was 10 years old all I wanted was an American Girl Doll. In my infinite pre-teen wisdom, I wrote the American Girl Doll company, suggesting that lowering the price of the doll would actually allow more girls or boys to purchase one. They kindly wrote back, including a finance plan on how to fundraise or save to buy my own doll. So much for my plea against violating my piggy bank. I’m no financial expert (my last checkbook is from 1998, when I opened my first bank account); the AGD company already knew what I now understand: selling more at a lower price, while great for consumers, is rarely ideal for producers. Wal-mart style consumerism, previously only for material goods, has now made its way into the service sector, and into my realm- the world of voluntourism.

Voluntourism hasn’t been around that long; therefore prices for a week or month long stay aren’t quite standardized. For all other forms of travel you know what the price range is and what to expect. You know that if you stay in a very cheap hostel that you’re most likely going to get barebones accommodations and bugs in your bed. If you pay for the more expensive bus ride maybe you’ll actually get a bathroom or a TV. All of those travel aspects are common knowledge for the average globe-trotter. If you’re looking to volunteer, however, prices can range from a mere $200 a week to more than $1000 a week. If you go through a trip provider it's hard to know exactly where your money goes.


A common misconception on many volunteers’ part is that if the company doesn’t charge a lot to volunteer, then they must be in it for the right reasons. But the correlation between price and being in it for the right reasons cannot be justified unless you actually research and get to know the company. Some organizations you volunteer with will cover all of your expenses when you’re with them. For others, your fee only covers administrative costs. As an independent organization, Casa HOY gave part of volunteers’ fees to support the projects where participants volunteered. Under the Wal-mart model, zero percent goes to the volunteer projects. And just because the price is cheaper doesn’t mean that volunteers donate that extra money to their projects, either. On the contrary; in general participants that pay less money overall per week expect more perks.

Another aspect of the Wal-mart business model is more for less. Same with commercialized voluntourism: The longer a volunteer stays, the cheaper it is. But it’s just like that giant jar of mayonnaise on the Wal-mart shelf. Why would you buy 2 gallons unless you own a hotdog stand or have eight children? The lady in her pajamas buying it (that's been me before, although not with mayonnaise) will tell you it’s because it’s cheaper. The same situation can happen with volunteering. Unfortunately many volunteers stay a few extra weeks (or months) because the longer you stay, the cheaper a week is. Even if they have no plans to travel around the country or dedicate extra hours to their volunteer project, volunteers stay longer because they get more bang for their buck.

The moral of the story is that if you have to work to get a product (money or research-wise), you will value and cherish it more. You will also know exactly what you are paying for and be better prepared. The AGD company has the right business model. Once I finally saved up for and bought that American Girl doll, I didn’t let go of her. Voluntourism is a new product, and should therefore be researched with care. And while any type of traveler can backpack it or study abroad or take a tour, volunteering in another country is a participatory form of travel that should be done with serious dedication and interest, not just because it’s in your budget.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 10:30 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico volunteering international cultural volunteer acapulco voluntourism cuernavaca participatory intercambio alternative_travel participatory_travel english_teaching Comments (0)

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