Many of us know the importance of being a traveler vs a tourist. Tourists graze the surface, visit well known spots or ones that mimic their home environment and don’t worry about engaging with local culture as mindfully. Travelers, on the other hand try to blend in with locals – from learning new traditions and attempting to speak in local language(s) to eating the food travelers, try to leave a light footprint.
When thinking about authentic travel, what sticks out? Some of the things we mentioned above like trying local cuisines, saying hello/goodbye and attempting to speak in a local tongue, being thoughtful about attire and customs. What all of these elements have in common is trying to be changed more than you are changing. Trying to let a place soak into your bones – to have a small impact on the place you are going and to let it have a big impact on you.
Eating the food, going to locally owned shops, trying activities that residents love, making friends and getting wonderfully lost is all part of this but are there other ways to engage in local culture that is meaningful? When trying to answer that questions we came upon volunteering as one solution.
In our city, Portland, there is a lot going on! From local craft markets to micro breweries (there are about 10 within 10 minutes walk of us), food carts and donuts galore. The ability to be in wild places without having to leave the city – our plethora of parks and hiking spots that you can bus or walk to is a thing to be proud of. All of these are amazing and we feel so lucky to live in an area where travelers can have access to all that we love about this city. These things are a rich and vital part of our local culture but we think there are other meaningful facets if our city that can get lost. It just takes a little bit of digging.
Portland has a rich history of thinking green. Solar trash compactors and lots of receptacles with spots for different recyclable items to go in help us keep our streets clean. The combined with the faith that locals have in giving back means that our streets staying clean is an active process created out of loving residents and thoughtful policy and spending. Volunteering while traveling can be a way to be part of something bigger with relatively little effort on your part.
Here in Portland there are a number of short term (think an hour or so) volunteer opportunities you can take advantage of while passing through. Here in our neighborhood alone each Saturday there is a clean up. One of these events starting here at our own NW Portland International Hostel (last Saturday of the month)! SOLVE Oregon helps to coordinate and put these events on and do an amazing job of it. Snacks and coffee are provided in addition to all materials needed for the event. Friends of Forest Park do ivy pulling and trail maintenance, many of those sites are in our area. SCRAP is just right down the street and has fun items to craft and make art. With so many cool things in their space they need help sorting! Soup kitchens and other events often need volunteers and there are great opportunities in our area.
When traveling consider how you learn more about the communities you are in, how you give back to those communities and take part in them.