A Different Kind of Tourism- LinguoTourism and Voluntourism and THE Playground

I lived and worked as a volunteer in East Africa in an area of abject poverty with absurdly high rates of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and a plethora of other diseases. Curiously, this was geographically close to the famed Serengeti, but in all other aspects a world away. The Serengeti is a fabulously attractive tourist area, where “first worlders” can pay large sums of money to stay in luxurious camps, go on magnificent wild animal safaris, and interact with a handful of African uniformed guides and restaurant staff.  When they return home they can impress their friends with their adventures in Africa, though in many, if not most, respects they didn’t see Africa at all. There is nothing wrong with this type of resort vacation, but one can largely accomplish the same thing by staying home and watching TV, or visiting a resort theme park. A person seeking an adventurous vacation might, however, consider something truly different, a vacation that involves immersion in the peoples, customs, and language of an entirely different culture.  This experience isn't always fun or frivolous, but it can open your eyes to aspects of the world and people you might never have known before, and sometimes it even helps you grow a little.  Perhaps along the way you might even help some kids.  We have come up with a word to describe to concept of using a vacation experience to share a little bit of yourself with those less fortunate- "Voluntourism."  This goes well with another concept associated with meaningful and adventurous travel- "Linguotourism."

One of the best ways to experience another culture and all it entails is to become a "Linguo-Tourist."  There are commonly two aspects to this- attending Spanish language school and living with a host family.  In terms of the school portion, classes are typically four hours a day with a 1:1 teacher student ratio, and generally no English is spoken (often the teacher does not speak English at all!).  It doesn't matter your age, whether you took Spanish for a year in high school 30 years ago, or aren't even sure what "gracias" means.  Immersion language schools are for all levels, and quite often someone who considered themselves fluent quickly learn they are not!  Many language schools offer extracurricular activities or will help arrange them.

A second part of "linguo-tourism" involves living with a host family (commonly called a "homestay"), where no English is spoken almost without exception.  Typically the families are relatively middle-class and provide a comfortable, friendly place to hang out as well as three meals a day, opportunity (actually a necessity) to interact in Spanish, a comfortable enough room, and a bathroom (heated water optional!).  Overall "linguo-tourism" is a very inexpensive way to travel, with lodging and meals as low as $10-$20 per day.

Las Sonrisas de los Niños advocates "linguo-tourism" because it is a good source of volunteers and, for linguo-tourists who have already shown they a looking for more than another week in some resort, volunteering is an excellent way to further experience the culture and practice their language skills.   Las Sonrisas de los Niños has established a relationship with one of the language schools in La Ceiba, the Central American Spanish School and its Director Rafael Linares, who has become one of the most important supporters of our project.  Both Patricia and I have attended the school and can sincerely recommend it, and in fact we sorely need to take more classes!  The  Central American Spanish School can be found on the web at www.ca-spanish.com. Note that the CASS  is now located in the neighborhood (colonia) where most homestays are found, which is more convenient. Below:  The old Central American Spanish School in downtown La Ceiba before it was relocated to residential neighborhood; a typical homestay house.


The Playground

One such linguo-voluntourist and all around adventurer was Rikki from Denmark, who we briefly met during a homestay in La Ceiba in 2005.  In February of 2008 she came by the project for a visit and though it took a while to figure out how we knew each other we finally succeeded.  At this time she was well beyond simple linguo-tourism and was in Honduras long-term attending university in La Ceiba.  She mentioned she had collected money in Denmark to donate to a worthy cause and we were extremely pleased that she considered Las Sonrisas de los Niños such a cause, and her contribution allowed us to fund our long-planned playground.  We built The Playground over a couple of months in stages with the help of several volunteers along the way (Lindsay, Claudia, John, and Chauntel to name a few) and it was actually completed in May 2008, the day before I (Reid) returned to the US following our second session.  Another generous and unexpected contribution from volunteers Chauntel and Ali helped us finish up the project, which also includes benches scattered throughout the property.  Below are photos of the evolution and use of The Playground (we were very pleasantly surprised when Rikki, out of the blue, showed up in August 2009 and volunteered with us for a week!):

Below: Rikki with friend from Denmark; the foundation; the basic frame; the platform immediately became THE place to take one's meals; kids like to play above and below and even babies like the slide; the see-saw is often full; volunteers spends lots of time pushing the kids; for better or worse, it's located in a low part of the land, but the rainy season makes it even more fun for some of the kids