Voluntourism in Bali as a Family Vacation
My family decided to spend part of our summer holiday in Bali doing something “meaningful.” Yes we would lie in the sun, become acquainted with surfboards, tour temples and feed monkeys, but we would also explore a little known underbelly of the tropical paradise—rural mountain villages only just inching toward last century. Ideally we’d pitch in with some manual labor, spend time in the fledgling schools, do whatever needed to be done. It was difficult to plan, often enormously stressful, and not exactly what I expected.
I crouch down to examine the dense goop, trying to spy some of the reportedly blissful worms, willing my nose to ignore the overwhelming stench. Next to me, my six-year-old daughter Della is happily digging in, using a trowel and a pitchfork to mix bucketfuls of cow dung and greens, oblivious to the brown spray landing on her clothes and mine. We are working to create a stinky mush that apparently no worm can resist. Which in turn becomes the ideal fertilizer to nourish the new crops the villagers here in a remote corner of Bali are working to grow. Meanwhile, Hugo, my nine-year-old is politely refusing to participate. Usually game to try anything, to bridge the most awkward social divides, this particular bridge is entirely unanticipated, and one too far.
The intense wave of satisfaction I feel as I watch my daughter and her friend Ricky working alongside the giggling local kids, for whom the chore is routine, is not enough. Militant mom kicks in, squeezing Hugo’s arm and whispering an entirely improbable command: “Get down there an mix the poop. Now.” He does, but instead of feeling victorious, I find myself wondering, not for the first time, what we are doing. Why have we embarked on this expedition to a remote Balinese mountain village, carved into the crook of a volcano, far from sand or surf or anything resembling a typical family vacation?
This is our first attempt at kid-sized “voluntourism.” Driven by the same impulse that sends so many adults off in search of meaningful travel, and that has created a burgeoning boutique tourist industry, I am eager to make a journey that will not just give me psychic satisfaction but that might nudge my kids toward being good little people, and perhaps, in years to come, even better big ones.
So we, or rather I, decided to spend part of our exotic summer holiday doing something “meaningful.” Yes we would lie in the sun, become acquainted with surfboards, tour temples and feed monkeys, but we would also explore a little known underbelly of the tropical paradise—rural mountain villages only just inching toward last century. Ideally we’d pitch in with some manual labor, spend time in the fledgling schools, do whatever needed to be done. It was difficult to plan, often enormously stressful, and not exactly what I expected.
Day one in Bali unfolds in a typical fashion. A long stop at legendary Kuta beach, where we happily ride the waves and a torrent of vendors hawk everything from beads to massages. At a bird park the exotic residents sit on our hands, peck our cheeks, and wow us with a dramatic unfurling of crayola-hued feathers. At our villa, we watch the locals engage in their uniquely Balinese, thrice-daily ritual, placing banana-leaf bowls full of rice, cookies flower petals and incense around the grounds. It’s an intricate but peaceful tableaux, meant to offer gratitude to the Hindu gods for good fortune.
That night, as we prepare to journey up the mountain early the next morning, and try to get the children in a similar mindset. My friend Virginia and I talk with our kids (two of hers, Evie and Ricky, will join mine) about what to expect. We brainstorm with them about questions they might ask the Balinese children. “How do they like school now?” Evie wonders. “What is it like to be so poor—do your parents have enough money for food?” offers my daughter. That ignites a great debate about balancing candor with tact, which is never really resolved.
We roust them out of a jet-lagged stupor at 5:30 in the morning, for a three-hour drive into the mountains. At our picture perfect villa near the beach, the parrots and finches have long been making a racket, and the nocturnal frogs were just diving for cover. We are laden with our own basic food supplies: Despite the apparent prosperity along Bali’s tourist coast, the region we are visiting is bitterly impoverished and I have a flash of my kids pleading for Oreos or chicken nuggets at inopportune moments.
The scenes though our car windows of Balinese youngsters dodging motorbikes, navigating rice fields and skipping by temples on the way to school soon give way to more wild stretches of tropical greenery, sparkling in high definition, as we bump up into the mountains.
The air is crisp as we emerge at the outpost of the East Bali Poverty Project, a world away from the sultry wrap of the tourist mecca down below. The rest of the ride up to the tiny mountain communities, in an old truck, on non-existent roads, is back-breaking. The kids like flying around, banging into the sides for a while, and we try to make a game of who acquires the most bruises. (Notions of western safety precautions like seatbelts, or even seats, are shelved.) Two of us are carsick and the others irritable after an hour. But once out of the truck, we were all enthralled again.
You can’t really call Pengalusen a village. It’s essentially a rare bit of flat terrain, red-black dirt surrounded by ledges of palm trees and bamboo and verdant shrubbery folded into the mountainside. A neatly planted garden is visible in the distance. Thanks to the poverty project, the centerpiece is the new cement block school, which the community built three years ago. The children travel from their small bamboo shacks and the occasional brick homes dotting the mountain, some of them walking more than two hours each way. The classrooms are organized and inviting, with whitewashed walls, plenty of windows and impossibly eager students, each proudly dressed in a pastel-checked uniform (courtesy of a local clothing manufacturer.) In one room the older students are hard at work on a musical performance for the big Independence Day celebration. We are ushered into a room of younger students , who applaud our arrival.
We join them on the floor, and our children read books back and forth with the local kids. We share the books we brought—some Dr. Seuss classics, some about North American animals, some about life in Washington, D.C. The unscripted Q&A is the highlight. Are there really more than 30 bathrooms in the White House? (My son Hugo had provided that bit of trivia, which transfixes the crowd for a long time.) How long does it take you to get to school, wonder the Balinese kids, who call out their own distances, ranging from 30 minutes to more than two hours. Our kids take that in, with a bit of shock, and suddenly try to be tactful. Hugo calculates that his school, if he were to walk, would be a few hours away. He doesn’t note that he’s never tried it. My daughter Della puffs up with pride that she actually asked a few questions (Are you happy to have a school now?) and is able to read a Mo Willems's “Elephant and Piggy” book, which turns out to be a surprisingly good cultural conduit, drawing laughs all around.
Our two days there continue in the same bipolar vein. The intensity of our plunge into this entirely unfamiliar world means we are experiencing every connection and every frustration in Technicolor. After the poop stirring, we spread the mixture around one garden (with shovels), which prove much less gross and actually fun for the kids. And then they help harvest the carrots, the village kids laughing along with ours whenever they pull unripe specimens. I think our four actually felt useful.
A simple trip to the bathroom, which is a hole in the ground behind a door and a great source of pride for the community, is a challenge for my daughter, even with my help. She ends up with wet pants and tears of humiliation. I am embarrassed at what I am sure must seem a high-class concern to the villagers, and guilty as I try to stifle her crying. But we both relax into laughter when one of the teachers relates a story about a tiny local child practically falling right into that hole. After a change of clothes, we are back on track.
Like a lot of parents today, both my helicopter and tiger instincts run strong. I’m eager to give my kids opportunities, to show them the world, but am increasingly concerned they live in a cocoon of privilege.
A few years ago my solution was to forgo vacation without an educational component. But it was one drizzly evening in London—after I had dispatched my husband and son on a forced march through the Churchill war rooms, as my daughter and I rushed off for a glimpse of Westminster Abbey, following a full morning for all of us at the Tower of London, on a day that started at 8 a.m. to squeeze everything in and still make the evening performance of a West End show meant to educate as well as entertain—when I realized, as we collapsed at our friend’s flat like bedraggled refugees, barely able to sort through everything we’d seen, that there has to be a better way to find resonance in our travels, for my children and for me.
My goals were wrong, I realized. I don’t want to simply explore the exotic, or force-feed history. I want to nourish and nurture responsible people, who will grow up aware of the world’s challenges. Yes, I also value vacation time heavenly full of “nothing”—the sheer fun of play in the pool or on bikes or in a canoe. But if they are lucky enough to have the privilege of far-flung travel, I want my children to understand, first-hand, a fuller picture of human existence. And ideally, the fact of their own good fortune will simply seep in, instead of being hurled at them whenever I feel a lack of appreciation of their circumstances.
Of course volunteering close to home is an easier lift in some ways, and more natural. The same impulses led me a few years ago to setting up a regular family service appointment at a homeless shelter, and that’s been moving and educational for all of us. But my gut told me an experience away from home, from our comfort zone, for at least a few days, might make a stronger impression, and allow us to really dig into a project and the culture. To be perfectly honest, I also thought it might assuage my own guilt about my own taste for luxurious globe-trotting. (Five years living and working abroad spoiled me, and now I find I can only truly relax when I hear the hum of a different language around me, or see the angles and shapes of another culture.)
I started to research volunteer travel in earnest. While options for gown-ups and almost grown-ups were thick and intriguing, there was almost nothing I could find to accommodate, say, my saucy six-year old, who would benefit from a more realistic view of the world, but who might resist following some orders. Especially mine. And little demand either for nine-year olds, who might be recovering from post-computer-loss stress syndrome.
And then, opportunity beckoned in the form of an invitation from friends to stay with them in Bali. I initially felt, for all of the above reasons, surprisingly reluctant to head off. A tropical Shangri-la just seemed—too much, too decadent—given the swaths of the the world my children have already seen at an absurdly young age. And the confusion, I found, extended to me, as I tried to imagine what we would do there, and somehow found the images of perfection—perfectly inadequate.
But still…Bali! It was hard to spurn. I started digging, on my own, into whether the island might be able to offer us more than beaches and monkeys and the romantic third act of a best selling book. It turns out that the thriving tourist industry leaves much out of its brochures. The lush wonderland is also home to more than 200,000 Balinese living in extreme poverty, with little to no education, health care, or access to healthy food and water. Formal “voluntourism” hasn’t made its way to the island yet, but there are a few poverty relief programs, and one in particular sounded impressive. Perhaps worn down by my overtures, it was willing to accept the help of some eager adults and unwitting children.
The East Bali Poverty Project was born in 1998 when David Booth, a British expat, uncovered the land that time forgot. Desa Ban sits in the east Bali mountains, straddling two volcanoes, one of which dropped loads of ash on the villages in 1963, increasing the inhospitality to crops. Until David intervened ten years ago, there were no roads, even rudimentary, and most of its 15,000 residents had never left their villages. Eighty-five percent of the locals suffered from illiteracy, goiters, and iodine deficiency. Cretinism, a condition stunting physical and mental growth, was rampant; infant mortality was 30 percent. There was not enough water, and most of it was not safe, and up to six hours by foot from the homes. Most insidious—the villagers lived almost exclusively on cassava, a root vegetable that was one of the few to take to the tough soil. But cassava, it turns out, increases iodine deficiency, and aggravates cretinism and mental retardation. It was an Indonesian Appalachia, times ten.
Slowly, with the help of the project and David, who spends his days trolling for bags of cement, bolts of cloth, and donors with big hearts and loose change, the locals are embarking on small-step sustainable development. They’ve learned to mix cement and make rudimentary roads, build rain water collection tanks, tap into mountain springs, and nurture the soil to welcome other, healthier crops. And the centerpiece—schools. Six of them. An absolute novelty, and now the heart of every community, they are staffed with some outsiders, and many locals who have educated themselves, and then trained as teachers.
As we made the 30-some hour journey to Bali, I have to admit the idea of our upcoming time in the village did give us all a sense of purpose. We had to hand-carry the two ukuleles we had bought for the villagers the entire trip, through a multitude of security devices and airports. Hugo and Della imbued them with enormous value—they were our offerings, of a sort, visible reminders of what we hoped to do on our mission.
As it turns out, the musical slice of our venture is stirring beyond all expectations. The four kids hand over the bright blue and purple American ukuleles at the Pengalusan school to great oohs and ahhs. The village kids have all gathered to rehearse for a big Independence Day show, and they have loads of pointed questions about musical opportunities in the United States. Do our kids take lessons? Do they sing in school? Do they get to put on shows? They are thrilled to learn Hugo is part of a band. I try to impress the concept of amateur upon them, but I’m not sure it takes.
Until five years ago, the Desa Ban children have never played any instruments, or even done any singing to speak of, or had much of a chance to hear any music. Feeding of the soul had, for obvious reasons, not been a priority. Now, armed with recorders, some inexpensive microphones, visiting music teachers, and a natural craving for artistic nourishment, they are making glorious noise.
They also finally have access to modern world inspiration through a few CD players and radios. A few of the girls sing throaty, melancholy tunes, which I imagine to be traditional Balinese laments. Hugo asks what they were about. Pop songs, they say, about bad boyfriends. That creates a true bridge of understanding, if ever there was one, and the dusty cement terrace erupts in laughter. Della offers a universal nose crinkle at the notion of singing about boyfriends. But Evie, 9 going on 15, smiles. Hugo and Ricky then get pulled into a local monkey dance by a mischievous ten-year-old girl, to great hoots and howls. They pick up the exotic and slightly seductive arm movements with surprising accuracy and glee.
It is an unforgettable moment that turns out to be the highlight of our trip. The mountains and coconut palm trees are suddenly sparkling, the sea of uniforms are crisp with starched pride, and the sense of what has been accomplished in this tiny corner of the universe radiates in the astonishingly beautiful and fervent faces of the Balinese children. And truly unexpected, in midst of lives of such poverty, lives so different from ours, there is a palpable measure of hope and joy universal to all children when nurtured. At that moment my kids stop feeling like they are seeing an alien life-style, on a mission to help people truly different. They just start to have fun, and to a small extent, to bond with their kindred spirits. And I also think, at that moment, that the Balinese kids believe the world at large is not so far away or so foreign. And that they are part of it. We learn that the project is helping people connect to the outside world, too. The biggest donors, hotel managers largely, are heavily engaged—not just financially, but in watching the progress of the kids. Several recent high-school graduates have been offered low level hotel jobs already. David tells us candidly that for decades the relatively wealthy tourism industry had no interest in getting involved with local issues on the island. That’s changed, as world-wide expectations about corporate responsibility have increased. But there are limits. Ever ambitious, David asked the general manager of one swanky hotel chain, which has been a donor, if he would consider placing tasteful literature about the East Bali Poverty Project in the guest rooms. Perhaps, David reasoned, the tourists might want to contribute in some way to the island they are visiting. Absolutely not, he was told. The guests are here to relax, to escape. They would not want to think about anything uncomfortable or disturbing on their holiday.
That had certainly always been my vision of a vacation. Sheer diversion. And there were moments in planning our Bali sojourn, and in experiencing it, that I thought it seemed more work than holiday. Hard work actually. It was an exhausting and dirty few days. We were dust covered, hungry, tired, and honestly, relieved to get back to our pretty villa in the south and resume our slow, sun-filled days. We toured temples, fed monkeys, and even witnessed a cremation. Bali is nothing if not exotic. But somehow, we all knew we’d already seen the most memorable. The combination of traditional holiday and volunteer travel fit just right—we appreciated our more cushy trappings, and put them into perspective with plenty of rich discussions.
And I therefore relaxed on holiday the way I hadn’t in years. I just didn’t care about rushing around and seeing every site—I knew I’d already done what I came for. I had created a window onto the culture that I never could have achieved through traditional tourism. One night we watched a professional monkey dance—a staple for tourists. My kids pronounced they preferred the village show. “We knew the people performing, Mom,” my daughter explained.
Back home, our exotic summer holiday, as is usually the case, took up residence more permanently on iPhoto than in our minds. Still, there were unexpected indications that the journey has taken root even deeper than I imagined.
Digging rocks out of the mud in our backyard one day, my six-year-old suddenly paused, awestruck still as she contemplated what constitutes typical fun for her counterparts in the tiny Balinese hamlet of Desa Ban. “Remember, Mom, how in that poor village they don’t have any TV but they get to wrestle in the mud?”
For his fourth grade “Chinese Moon Festival,” my son dug out a small painting one of the local Balinese children had labored over, and explained to his class how the kids there celebrate a full moon. He went on to talk about how there were “no schools or art in those villages” before the East Bali Poverty Project was started.
I savored those little victories, but was realistic about what we had actually contributed to the villagers. Not much in terms of real work, certainly. My expectations on that level for my kids may have been too high. I came away understanding I have to think small, or smaller, perhaps.
And then they surprised me. Months later, our families were debating how to best keep in touch, whether we could send letters or help, when the kids proposed a lemonade stand to raise money for uniforms. They’d remembered what a point of pride the uniforms had been for the children, and that the incoming kindergarten class wouldn’t have them. Virginia and I were skeptical about who would really do the work, and what the haul would be, but we fought our urge to suggest something more “creative.” Back on their own turf, our kids were sure-footed, and clearly inspired. They copied pictures of the villagers and turned them into captivating signs detailing the cause in blunt, elementary school terms, and blanketed the neighborhood. They then added a snow cone machine, a blow-up water slide, and, with youthful chutzpa, charged people a fortune for a good cause. It helped that we were in the middle of a heat wave and rolling power outages. Counting the money that night was a gleeful affair. “It’s more than enough for the uniforms,” Ricky declared. They had raised a startling amount. Parental expressions must have looked shocked, because we’d promised, naively, to match their funds. They started giggling, and soon we were all laughing, and debating how to best get the money to a remote Balinese village that, months ago, we’d never even heard of. We’d all taken a journey so much farther than I’d ever anticipated.
More From Condé Nast Traveler: