Author: Ken Budd

Publisher: William Morrow

ISBN: 978-0-06-194646-2

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who will wear fresh laundered mystery Chinese underpants, and those who won’t.” Ken Budd definitely fits into the first category. A man with two reasons for grieving, his father’s untimely death and his wife’s refusal to give him a child, he decides the best course to take to prove his worth in the world is volunteering his service in as many countries as he can fit in before his wife Julie, his “soul mate,” resents his selfishness. It isn’t selfishness at all, most of us who read The Voluntourist would argue. Budd is not perfect, as he would be the first to admit, but he is an accomplished professional writer, with clever wit and keen observation, and, through this collection of travel essays, brings us poignant, colorful, remarkable scenes from those faraway places, filtered through profound personal reflections.

Budd got his first taste of disaster by working with Rebuilding Together in New Orleans, and his first understanding of the resilience of people who have little of the material life to lose. In Costa Rica, this time with Julie, he is transformed into a teacher at a school in a “the Bel Air of Shanty towns.” The frustration of slow progress in this “unsolvable place” is relieved briefly by a foray into a cloud forest that is so remote it takes a “two-hour earthquake on wheels” to get there. In Xi’an, China, he says, “I tower Lurch-like over the students.” Here, he and his brother-in-law are expected to care for and inspire children in a special needs school. Budd becomes attached to his small charge, but China itself nearly overwhelms him. The awkward foreigner never masters the subtle intonations of Chinese words, so fears he pronounced a teacher’s name, Huang Hua, to mean “a cattle prod or potted plant.”

Funny, bawdy, honest and touching, Budd takes us through his assignments in Ecuador (helping scientists in the field of global warming by checking on trees, counting birds, and identifying bugs); Palestine (building rock walls and clean streets); and Kenya (caring for abandoned infants). His encounters with volunteers from other cultures and subcultures illuminate his quest. The guy who once washed out of college with a “magna cum quat” becomes more content inside his skin and more directed.

Back home again, he sets up a foundation to help the institutions and people he met. Advance pay from The Voluntourist has taken care of annual school fees for nine of the kids at the children’s home in Kenya. Partnering with Global Volunteers, the organization for the China trip, Budd has provided an operating fund for the special needs school. He ends by encouraging readers to look into “voluntourism” as a travel option, and gives starting points and advice. Whether or not you are so inclined, you will enjoy this armchair travel companion, a trustworthy eyewitness who values small details we never see on nightly newscasts. I especially liked this report from the Holy Land:

"As for the main drag of Jericho, there’s not a whole lot here. Our driver hangs out by his minivan as we stroll on third-world streets past churches and mosques and packed-with-stuff stores. We wander down a dusty side street, stop for a drink at an outdoor sandwich joint, sitting next to sweet-smelling basil plants. I pop open a Coke can. Cow carcasses hang on hooks in butcher shops. Beneath a beat-up blue cart a cat watches us, protecting two squinting kittens."

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