So, you’ve signed up for a volunteer initiative abroad, or you just bought your ticket for an adventure overseas. No matter what reason you say you are going abroad, business or pleasure, education or vacation, a cultural exchange happens regardless. The thing about an exchange, is, it’s a two way street. That is why it is important to not only pack your bags but to ‘unpack’ our Canadian privileged mindset and make room for new ideas and ways of life, however different they may be.
Over the reading break in February 2015, twelve RTA students and our professor, Lori Beckstead, stayed at a farm in Telanga, Honduras. We raised funds for El Hogar, an agricultural school, and were tasked to film two documentaries for our course RTA 960 (RTA Humanitarian Aids in Media).
When I first told my family and friends about my plans to volunteer in Honduras, their reactions were somewhere along the lines of: “To where? Is that in Mexico or Africa?” and “Please be safe and come back alive.”
Here is what a simple search on Honduras can lead you to on Google:
Keeping that in mind, let me further elaborate on my friends’ and family’s concerns for my safety. Honduras has quite the reputation for the highest rates of crime and poverty in Central America and has been on the global red zone list for travelers on various sources. So, imagine my surprise: here I am, dreaming of seeing a new country, spending my TTC commutes on Duolingo to learn Spanish, looking forward to meeting amazing people who could probably teach me a thing or two, and here are the people I’m closest to, telling me to “come back alive” or to “think again.”
Living in Canada, some people forget that the majority of our generations have come from across the world to access opportunities not available in our home countries. Whether we immigrated for education, due to political unrest, or for economic reasons, we are still proud of our roots, as we should be. We have all in some way experienced stepping on uncertain, foreign land before. But, basing our assumptions about other nations on a Google search only recreates a single narrative. Why then, should we assume that Honduras is filled only with violence?
When Ryerson travel representatives came to the RTA group, they gave the generic “I’ll scare you with all this crime information so you’ll stay alert and safe” snippet. However, we also talked about not perpetuating “the White Man’s burden” and embracing the local, Honduran way of life. We decided as a team to embed this ideal into our goals while we were there, through the following:
- Fundraising money for El Hogar.
- Trying our best to learn Spanish, the local language in Honduras, so we could interact with the community to our fullest.
- Ensuring our documentary media project did not reproduce “poverty porn” as is so common the case.
- Using our check-in baggage to take already packed donation items.
- Helping with whatever farm tasks were given to us during the week there.
Ryerson has sent students on several volunteering trips, including in Honduras, but our group of RTA students were the first representatives of our university in El Hogar. Sure, you can do these trips alone, but going with Ryerson meant that people, like me, were there through every stage of what I was going through.
As a group, we had an extremely positive experience at El Hogar, but I think everyone, at some point, faced an inner struggle sometime in that week; I know I did, and I hit the ground hard. It is these experiences upon which I hope to reflect upon and unpack the common narratives surrounding voluntourism. Stay tuned!