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'Voluntourists' pay their own way to otherworldly rewards

During Crisis Open Christmas, ''homeless guests'' are assisted in empty office buildings by the London organization Crisis. During Crisis Open Christmas, ''homeless guests'' are assisted in empty office buildings by the London organization Crisis. (CRISIS PHOTO)
By Lisa Lubin
Globe Correspondent / August 17, 2008
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Tired of lying on the beach with nothing to do but get the sand out of your shorts? Sick of traipsing around a new city with a tattered map and waiting in line at museums full of other sweaty tourists? Now more than ever travelers are looking for a new kind of vacation. A journey with a purpose and volunteering during time off are becoming increasingly popular.

With "voluntourism," you can travel to beautiful regions of the world, meet and work with locals, and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow volunteers. And with today's economy forcing many to cut back on their vacations, these types of trips are typically a lot more affordable than your routine all-inclusive holiday at the "all-you-can-eat" resorts of the Caribbean.

There are many options out there for the traveler who may shy away from some hard-core volunteer experiences like working with the Peace Corps, pounding nails with Habitat for Humanity, or the ubiquitous English language teaching gigs. Here are some unique experiences that can save you money and give you an amazing adventure, while providing valuable manpower to local communities around the globe.

Crisis UK, London (www.crisis.org.uk)

To give is better than to receive, so why not truly give this holiday season? Travel to London for Crisis Open Christmas. During the weeks around Christmas and New Year's, more than 1,500 "homeless guests" are welcomed at eight empty office buildings around London. The guests are not only provided with warmth, companionship, food, and a safe place to sleep, but also services such as checkups from doctors on site, professional advice, and treats like an arts and crafts center, a computer lab, karaoke, live musical entertainment, and even a mini beauty salon for some pampering. Volunteering here for a few days allows you to get to know some of the guests by name and give them the gift of friendship and human interaction, things they often do without.

Pueblo Inglés, Spain (puebloingles.com)

The most rewarding travel experiences always seem to involve interacting with locals and traveling on a more down-to-earth level. Imagine a week in sunny Spain meeting local professionals with all your lodging and meals free. There is one catch: You must speak English. Pueblo Inglés offers Americans a "different kind of vacation" by bringing native English speakers from all over the world together with Spanish business people at a rural four-star resort in a beautiful countryside setting for an intense week of speaking English and all around good times. It is basically a "camp for English," but there is no teaching just talking, and lots of it. This is a unique opportunity, not only for Spaniards to be immersed in the English language, but also for English-speaking travelers to be immersed in the rich culture of Spanish life.

Sar-El, Israel (sar-el.org)

Put on your combat boots and volunteer for the Israeli Army. Meals and lodging are paid for during the week and you are free on the weekends to explore this history-rich country. The majority of volunteers are assigned to work on army bases with tasks ranging from kitchen duties to simple mechanical repairs. Volunteers will work alongside or under the direction of soldiers and perform duties such as packing food rations or medical kits, changing spare parts, gardening, painting, or cleaning.

Earthwatch Institute (earthwatch.org)

Observe fur seals and contribute to the conservation of the Bering Sea. Help the world's fastest mammal in a race against extinction in Namibia's ranching heartland. These are just two of the amazing volunteer opportunities available at the Earthwatch Institute. This international nonprofit organization brings science to life for people concerned about the planet's future. Founded in 1971, Earthwatch supports scientific field research by offering volunteers the opportunity to join research teams around the world. Earthwatch recruits close to 4,000 volunteers every year to collect field data in the areas of rainforest ecology, wildlife conservation, marine science, archeology, and more. Through this process, they educate, inspire, and involve a diverse array of people, who actively contribute to conserving the earth.

Lisa Lubin can be reached at LLworldtour.com.

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