The Voluntourist

Deplaning in Kenya, the first thing to hit you is the unmistakable stench. It isn’t unlike having your head jammed up an elephant’s ass. But this is what I’ve signed up for. There are few things that give me greater joy than helping poor people. That glow, that deep satisfaction of knowing that Little Old Me is out here making a real difference in the world, it makes all of my sacrifices totally worth it.

It all began during my senior year of college. That’s when I caught the volunteering bug. It was a few years after Hurricane Katrina had destroyed much of New Orleans. That year, instead of hitting Cancun for spring break, I enrolled in a program that flew me to New Orleans and put me up in a place to stay in exchange for a few hours of manual labor each day. The work consisted primarily of tearing down a flood-damaged house to its frame so that contractors could rehab it. 

By night, I partied in the French Quarter, dancing, listening to live jazz, and eating jambalaya with my future wife. When I got back home, the collective pat on the back from family and friends was like a double-decker validation sandwich with extra relish. Chasing that feeling, I joined my new fiancé’s family and their church-sponsored volunteer missions to Rome and Scotland where we tried to convert Catholics to Christians. The fact that all Catholics are already Christian was irrelevant. What was important was the selfless work.

The second thing that hits you about Kenya is the oppressive heat. I’ve been in boiler rooms cooler than an afternoon here. Feels like I’m being broiled. No wonder Africans are so black—not in a racist way, you know? I’m in a fantasy football league with two black guys. And I once had an affair with a Mexican woman. Or was she Peruvian? Close enough. Point is, this heat is making me wish we’d chosen Siberia instead.

While most other lifestyle bloggers are busy finding themselves on the beaches of Bali, my wife and I pay thousands of dollars to volunteer abroad. Instead of pushing meaningless pictures of magnificent sunsets to my Instagram followers for mass consumption, I’m in third-world countries taking group selfies with little black and brown and yellow kids who would otherwise have no voice on social media, you know? And in those moments of Namaste, the kids and I, we sorta become family and all. And once I bathe our pics in the Valencia filter, the world comes into focus.

In Puerto Rico, my wife taught a little boy named Alejandro to speak English in a week.

After the earthquake in Haiti, we doled out water and food.

We’ve visited Cambodia twice, volunteering at an orphanage each time.

Built a community center in India with our bare hands. The fact that the roof later collapsed on a group of locals is unfortunate.

The third thing that hits you is the abject poverty. Everywhere you look, there’s a reminder of how good you have it back home. A tinge of guilt over the amount of cash you dropped on your last watch or SUV or boob job. How can you long for Ecuadorian slow-drip coffee when everywhere you turn there’s a starving kid? Droves of them.

Distended stomachs on skinny frames look like skewered olives. 

Kids with intestinal parasites and ass cancer or whatever the hell it’s called. 

Polio survivors with malformed limbs hobbling around the orphanage in tattered clothing.

Seriously, how can you concern yourself with Lakers season tickets when not ten feet from you stands a little girl with a blank stare, half bald, oblivious to the horsefly sitting on her eyelid?

The easy thing to do would be to donate money, right? But where’s the worthwhile experience in that? Besides, you can’t exactly trust foreigners with your hard-earned cash. Sure, they may be better-skilled carpenters and masons and roofers, and, sure, the donated money may help to keep them working, which, in turn, would keep food on their tables, but what the wife and I provide is two-fold in that we donate money and time.

Plus, my wife swinging a hammer makes for hella decent Instagram photos.