About ten years ago I looked around and decided I needed to get out more. Really get out. I had already left Texas for school in Chicago and school in Chicago for work in New York. It was a good ride, full of small apartments, happy hours, new friends, rehearsals, and learning the subway. But it wasn’t enough.
I began an aggressive campaign to see more: hutongs in Beijing, country villas in Sicily, trains in Spain, and fincas in Uruguay. The thirst will not be quenched. Aggie, a beloved family friend, made it her life’s work to travel to 100 countries. She wanted those stamps in her passport and, bless her, at the age of 80 was making visa arrangements for Guatemala to check it off the list.
Aggie, I will smoke you.
As I have broadened the scope of my adventures, I have been exposed to more of the grittier realities of life in third world countries. That stark contrast between those who have so much and those who have nothing is never more apparent than when you open your purse to buy water and realize your purse — your beautiful, stupid purse — cost more than the person selling you the water will see in a year. It’s one of the most disorienting, disappointing, and heartbreaking aspects of travel.
It is extremely easy to avoid all such unpleasantness. You can a. never leave the United States or b. swaddle your travel in first class arrangements, taking great care avoid seeing the “bad stuff.” At least those are the most popular options.
There is, however, a third path, a middle way, that allows the eager visitor the opportunity to celebrate and contribute. I call it the Humanity Tithe.
Here’s a good example. My husband and I went to Cambodia last year for Christmas. We traveled to Angkor Wat and spent a magical day on the back of an elephant, tromping around the ruins. A glorious tuk tuk ride through the jungle, a dip in the jade green pool at La Résidence d’ Angkor, and two bottles of rosé later, we determined it to be the perfect day.
Cambodia, in addition to being home to magnificent architectural ruins and lush jungle, is also a place of extreme poverty. It is not easily overlooked; particularly when your tuk tuk ride takes you right past a dengue fever with 200 very frail people hovering in front. Now, by paying for hotels, flights, meals, guides, and local handicrafts, we had already pumped some money into the system. But that wasn’t a gift; it was an exchange of services and goods and I benefited from it supremely. (You should see my gorgeous gold hoops.) A sign in our hotel room explained that the hotel sponsored a local orphanage, and if we were interested we could make a donation. We asked our guide, Dara, whether or not it seemed legit, and he confirmed that the hotel put the funds to good use. So we added up the cost of our hotel bill and made a donation to the orphanage for ten percent of that sum. The Humanity Tithe.
We try to do something like that everywhere we go. Your contribution does not have to be money. You can bring a printer or a fax machine to a local school, for instance. Or donate air miles. I have been lucky enough to work with several excellent non-profit and non-governmental organizations (see list at the end of this article). They are my go-tos for how to find out who needs what. But if you are starting from zero, here are a few pointers: Ask your local school or church if they support a sister operation in another country. Find out if a co-worker has connections/family/interests in programs in the area you are traveling to. Your Facebook wall can be a great place to start. You never know what your network knows. Yes, it’s easier to give to an organization like Red Cross, but I like to keep it as local as possible. While the accountability isn’t vetted to the same degree, the bureaucracy is much less entrenched.
At some point, you just have to go with your gut and take a chance. The world is smaller than it used to be and the internet has made giving easier than ever before. It’s a global community and there is a lot of chatter. Someone you know knows someone who helps. Just start poking around.
It’s not a major commitment. It’s not like voluntourism (which I’ve also done) or starting a foundation or curing cancer. But if you make those your only options for giving, you’ll never be in a place to give anything. You can take precious time off, see a remarkable country, and enjoy a truly fun vacation with cocktails and nice sheets, and still contribute in some way to the human experience. A little real help, donated locally and used immediately, is a great way to express your gratitude. After all, you, the traveler, have been so thoroughly enriched by your host country. Good manners dictate a thank you.
HOW TO GIVE →
These are my favorite organizations. Full disclosure: I am on the board of two of them. If you want to learn more about programs in areas you are traveling to, explore the websites and see if you can help. In so many cases, nothing is as helpful as money. Do not be discouraged if you think your contribution doesn’t cont. It does. It all does.
World of Children gives $10,000 grants to people working to save children around the globe. They thoroughly vet recipients and provide information on the programs they support.
OneKid OneWorld targets existing schools in Kenya and El Salvador and rebuilds and refubishes them. OKOW believes in promoting equality and justice through education.
Safe Horizon is an NYC-based operation that is becoming the nation’s leading provider of care for victims of human trafficking.