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The Hindu: Holidays with a heart

The Hindu: Holidays with a heart

“Meet a new breed of tourists. Their volunteering holidays are about having a whale of a time while giving back to society.

Sayoji Goli, 28, still smiles thinking of his recent holiday. The former finance professional decided to take a break before travelling abroad for an MBA.

Sayoji and his wife Medha zeroed in on Madagascar, full of beaches, seascapes and stunning sunsets, but their trip was not just about that.

Theirs was a holiday with a heart. The couple had signed up with Blue Ventures, a volunteering tourism agency. During their three weeks in Madagascar in January and February 2014, they took in the magnificent sights, but also gave back to the locals. They learnt scuba diving and helped survey the marine eco systems there and taught English to the local population.

“I wanted to do something meaningful, adventurous and related to conservation. This holiday suited my requirements,” says Sayoji. The couple spent about Rs. 5 lakh on the entire trip, including airfare.

Volunteering tourism is the new buzz word among travellers with a conscience. It works because it allows them to lead a ‘regular’ life through the year doing what they have to do, taking a month off to do things they want to do. It can be anything from helping build classrooms and studying the local ecology in Africa to working on organic farms and assisting orphaned children in India.

The range of activities is limitless and allows people to choose a holiday that syncs with their character. For instance, WWOOF India provides room and boarding in exchange for volunteer work in organic farms. This, says Harish Tiwari, company coordinator, allows people to learn local organic farming procedures and issues while helping with farm-related duties. This year, they received more than 600 volunteers from across the globe. “Our volunteers are mainly youths who are interested in green living and sustainable agriculture practices,” he says.

Blue Ventures’ ( volunteers range in age from 17 to 80 and come from all countries and backgrounds. The company was created in 2003 after a series of university expeditions to Madagascar successfully begun monitoring coral reefs off the remote fishing village of Andavadoaka, says Richard Nimmo, managing director. Some student participants decided to set up a volunteer programme to provide sustainable long-term financing for coral reef research in Madagascar.

Harish says he started the India chapter to give volunteers first hand experience of organic or other ecologically-sound growing methods, and life in the countryside. These tourists also help the organic movement, which is labour intensive, and get a chance to meet, talk, learn and exchange views with like-minded people. All this is, of course, accompanied by the joys of working in a farm and being in the midst of Nature. The farm gates, he says, are open to anyone who wishes to learn the green living philosophy.

Darshak Gala, 25, a wholesaler in paper trading, was one of those who opted for three weeks of farm living. He lived in Santosh Nimbalkar’s farm in Narayangaon, about 160 km from Mumbai, in August 2013. He helped prepare the seven-acre farm for the next sowing and also planted some saplings. “I was yet to begin work then and my friend told me about WWOOF. It was completely different from what I’ve ever done. I stayed with Mr. Santosh’s family, had food with them, worked on his farm. It was intense manual labour, a huge change from life in the city,” he recalls. Nature and the warmth of the villagers turned healers and helped him cope. “It was joyous working on a farm, but it also meant the severe sting of red ants,” he laughs.

Sayoji says he scoured the Net for various volunteering tours before choosing Madagascar. Once there, Medha and he learnt to identify marine organisms, gave an online test and then started their survey. “It was a holiday that packed in fun, education and service,” he says.

With one location off their bucket list, Sayoji says he’s game to try another volunteer tour. “The same group has another project in Belize. Given the time and chance, I might just go again,” he says.

Darshak is also planning to go back to check on the fruit saplings and ornamental shrubs he planted. “The stay inspired me a lot. Probably, someday, I’d start my own organic farm,” he says.”

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