I have a good idea of what it might feel like to be royalty. Upon arrival in the village of Chiti in the remote western stretches of Nepal where we would be living and serving for the next week, we received a king’s welcome. From the moment we stepped off the mountain bus we were welcomed by dozens of eager, smiling villagers ready to greet us with vibrant flower leis, smearing our foreheads with bright red tikkas accompanied by loud, celebratory music. Before we knew it we were carried down into the village centre in a sea of jubilance, quite literally on parade. We were then given seats as honoured guests at the head of the village square as if at a special assembly. It was an amazing spectacle, and a moment we’ll not soon forget.
Why did we come here? Why did we come to this tiny village, not in any travel guidebook?
We have traveled extensively as a family, all over the world. But mostly as tourists. From the time the kids were little we have been exploring together. I have never felt traveling with kids was any sort of an impediment or hardship. It just made it more interesting and rewarding, and I have always been up for the challenge. Exploring the world with my family is one of my life’s greatest joys. As a young couple starting our family, we found ourselves on many road trips throughout the United States. We took our first foreign trip together as a young family when our oldest was two and we have been filling the pages of our passports in earnest ever since. We have loved it all. But experiencing travel merely as tourists there is always a wall between you and the authenticity of the culture, and we wanted more.
The more we travel the less interested we become in the tourist hotspots in the places we visit. Sure we want to take a cable car up Table Mountain in Capetown, see the sunrise over the Taj Mahal in India and go to the top of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. But that can’t be all there is to travel, and for us, it’s never been enough. I have always naturally been more drawn to the raw, less shiny parts of the places we visit. To really see the place and the people for what it is behind the glossy postcard veneer. Several years ago when visiting Cairo I had a friend take me to a place called Garbage City, a slum in the outskirts, to meet a subset of the impoverished Egyptian population and witness a community that almost no tourist experiences. That marked a real shift in travel priorities for me, and how I wanted to show the world to my family. From that point on when researching destinations or even booking guides, I was always looking for this more organic, uncut angle. Then I discovered something important. The only way to really penetrate that tourist wall was through service.
When we were introduced to CHOICE Humanitarian I was really concerned about finding a humanitarian family travel experience that was completely genuine, one where the directive of services offered to those in need came from the locals themselves, and not from a bunch of upper middle-class do-gooders sitting in an office thousands of miles away. The CHOICE model fit this perfectly, and before we knew it we were off to Chiti, Nepal. There we would find not only the grand hospitality on the day of our arrival, but a week that would confirm to us that the only real way to travel was to travel as servants. It was a remarkable experience on all levels. As humans we had the kind of interaction with locals, far from the tourist fray, that only comes through a mutual exchange of love that is only achieved through getting your hands dirty and serving complete strangers. Through digging, painting, lifting, playing games, staying in sleeping bags on dirt floors of the village schoolhouse, and sharing music and song shoulder to shoulder with our newly-found brothers and sisters, we were temporary residents of the humble yet beautiful village of Chiti. Nepal. In this setting it doesn’t take long for the kind gestures of interaction that bring total strangers, who don’t speak each other’s language who come from opposite corners of the globe, together in many moments of warm friendship bridging the cultural gaps.
And one afternoon while we labour outside a Chiti villager’s home building her a biogas digester that will greatly improve the quality of her family’s life I am invited inside. She and her son show me, with great care and pride the most intimate spaces in their home. To this day that encounter remains one of the most beautiful travel experiences of all. One of many that could never have happened without the pure and simple acts of service that humanitarian travel provides. This is one of many special moments we shared that week high up in the small village of Chiti, Nepal.
We continue looking for more such experiences. On a recent trip to Cambodia we arranged to meet landmine victims in Siem Reap and to work with one to build a wheelchair for another. We are also planning another expedition with CHOICE to South America next year. We are Iooking for more opportunities like this to continue traveling in a way that allows us to give as we go, and as a result have a more meaningful experience with the people and the place we are visiting. The difference that this kind of travel brings our kids is significant, and why we choose to do this as a family. It stretches them out of their comfort zones, fostering an attitude of outward-reaching instead of inward-serving as they put away their phones and grab shovels and paintbrushes. As we work together it also increases their gratitude for all that they have all while learning to respect the differences and similarities among cultures. The end result is a character building experience that includes an expanded world view in turn developing a real sense of global citizenship. I want my kids to explore the world in this way, not as mere tourists, but as humanitarians. Travel does not need to be a spectator sport. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoy visiting beautiful places and relaxing on a nice beach holiday as much as anyone, but there is much more to travel than five-star resorts.