As we drove down a rutted road into a village lodged against northern Armenia's rugged mountains, a chilly September breeze hinted at the coming of winter, magnifying my fears about the task ahead. Our group from Habitat for Humanity International was about to meet a family of 10 living in the poorly insulated basement of their small unfinished house. Our goal was to help them complete the construction.
As a volunteer builder on this trip, I had already met people who had lived for years in the dirt-floored basements of stone houses they couldn't afford to finish. I had seen cramped Soviet-bloc-style apartments with crumbling exteriors and had walked around neighborhoods filled entirely with temporary homes that looked like old cargo containers. Nearly two decades after the Armenian earth had split open, the devastation of the 1988 earthquake that left some 25,000 dead and 500,000 homeless was still apparent.
This task, though, seemed especially daunting. As we approached the house, my stomach clenched with dread at the prospect of seeing eight children living in a miserable situation.
But I was in for a surprise. Indeed, the family was living in stark circumstances, but joy, affection, and an enviable sense of interconnectedness were all palpable. After our crew spent a few hours mixing and pouring concrete for a floor, the family set a table for us with cheeses, breads, and tomatoes. The children gave us bouquets of red and purple dahlias picked from the yard. When the kids saw my tape recorder, they gathered together and sang a song they had learned in school. A translator told me the lyrics were about enjoying the day because that's all we have. It was a reminder of a notion I try to be mindful of during my practice, but here my apprehension had at first kept me from seeing the beauty of simply connecting with others, of just being.
In the end, that connection with the villagers made my volunteer vacation most worthwhile. Yes, I saw awe-inspiring thousand-year-old monasteries dotting the countryside; I hiked in lush green mountains and spent a morning rummaging through the stalls of a city market that sold beautiful handwoven kilim bags. But I took back with me an understanding of Armenian culture that could have come only from working and eating side by side with Armenians themselves.
A service-oriented vacation "takes you out of the realm of just being a tourist," says Cindy Krulitz, an art teacher and a yoga practitioner in Indiana who has volunteered on several trips with the organization Ambassadors for Children. "It gives the trip a whole other dimension. You see things in a different way, and you can actually do something to make a change. It ties in well with the concept of karma yoga and service."
These days, travel organizations say they are seeing an increase in the number of people who want to pair volunteer work with their vacations. "Rather than skiing in the Alps or lying on the beach in Cancún, people are out actually giving back to the world," says David Minich, director of Habitat for Humanity International's Global Village work teams program, which sponsors building projects in nearly 50 countries, including the United States. "They get to interact with people they might otherwise never meet."
Like Habitat for Humanity International, Cross-Cultural Solutions tries to balance the service work of volunteer assignments with cultural enrichment. "In Guatemala, we usually take the groups to see a Mayan wedding. In Brazil, they might hit Carnival," says Marge Rubin, a CCS program enrollment manager. Some volunteers might work in a soup kitchen; others choose a women's prison. "We've had a number of people who have taught yoga to children or the elderly, especially in India and Thailand," Rubin says.
Combining yoga and service work in India is also possible through Ambassadors for Children, a nonprofit agency that offers short-term volunteer vacation opportunities around the world to help kids. Every year, Sally Brown, the president of AFC, takes travelers to Rishikesh, India. There, volunteers live for two weeks in an ashram at the foot of the Himalayas and help with activities such as soccer or arts and crafts in a boys' orphanage. They also attend the world-renowned International Yoga Festival.
Karla Becker, a yoga teacher from Indianapolis, traveled to Rishikesh in 2005 for the yoga festival with a group from Los Angeles-based Golden Bridge Yoga. But when she saw how many children were living on the streets, she decided to take action. Becker had met AFC's Sally Brown several years earlier while teaching at Brown's Peace Through Yoga center. This year, she's coleading the India trip for AFC and is
working with that organization and others to build an orphanage for girls.
"So much in yoga is introspective," says Becker. "But when people put what they've learned from their practice into the world, they practice karma yoga, the feeling that what they're doing with their yoga practice is really making a difference."
Volunteer vacations aren't for everyone, says Brown, who did her doctoral dissertation on the subject. But, she says, they are for people who don't want just the tourist version of a country and want "to experience the destination in the now, as it truly is."
Experiencing the now was the lesson I learned in the Armenian mountains, especially when I looked into the steely blue eyes of 73-year-old Arpik Ghazumyan, who lived in the dreary basement of her son's unfinished house in the village of Desgh. As she boiled water over an outdoor fire to cook meat and potatoes for the volunteer builders, she told me that the clatter of shovels mixing concrete was a sound she hadn't heard in a long time. The last construction on the house took place in 1992. Then the family
ran out of money, and her son had two heart attacks.
"We passed very unhappy times in this basement," said Ghazumyan, who lost her own one-room home in the '88 earthquake. She held my hand and told me kindly, "This house will help us feel like human beings again."
Freelance writer Alice Daniel teaches journalism at California State University, Fresno.
Habitat for Humanity International's Global Village (800) 422-4828 or (229) 924-6935, ext.2549