Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Jim Eagles: Lending a hand on holiday

Most travellers will tell you that their best experiences in foreign lands have come not so much from visiting tourist attractions but from interacting with locals and getting a taste of their culture and way of life.

For me, the highlight of an otherwise slightly disappointing trip to Trinidad was being invited by a tour driver to his home, where I met his family, drank a great deal of rum punch and was entertained by his very musical children.

The best part of a terrific trip to Vanuatu was getting friendly with the son of the chief of a small village, visiting his garden up in the hills and enjoying a feast with his family.

The most vivid memory from a recent visit to Singapore was being taken by a couple of locals to a basement outlet for Ya Kun Kaya Toast to enjoy a breakfast of coconut-egg jam spread between two slices of toast and eaten with a mix of two softboiled eggs, black soy sauce and a little pepper, accompanied by strong coffee with condensed milk.

And the most exciting part of a yacht trip to Fiji was getting to know the people of an island village well enough to be invited to share a real kava night, which lasted until dawn.

Such occasions can be even more rewarding if you're able to give something back to the community that has made you welcome by doing something such as - in the case of the Fijian visit - providing books for the school and clothes for the children.

Indeed, Christopher Hill, the founder of a new travel company, believes such experiences can be not just memorable but hugely significant personally.

His favourite memories from a great deal of travelling, particularly in developing countries, all involve interacting with the locals in this way.

As examples he lists "going to Guatemala for a month to learn Spanish, living with a family and helping them learn English, or going up into the north of Vietnam doing some hiking, where I ended up being invited to a wedding in one of the villages and became the official photographer.

"In South Africa I've done some housebuilding and in Thailand on the Lao border I've been involved with some English-teaching camps.

"I've got many memorable experiences from travelling but the occasions when I've been able to give something back have been the most fulfilling, even life-changing, of all."

Hill says in South Africa, especially, he found himself "challenged, personally, by working alongside people who had nothing yet seemed much happier than myself and my peers.

"I got to think that there must be something to this and made a conscious decision to live more contentedly and simply. I feel I'm a much better and more contended person because of that."

But for him the impact of those experiences has gone even further. Dissatisfied with working in the corporate finance rat race in Britain, he started looking for business opportunities which would be more fulfilling.

Chatting about all this with a friend while sitting round the campfire on a trip to Africa three-and-a-half years ago, he came up with the idea of starting a travel firm which would provide the opportunity for similar encounters to others.

"I saw there was this gap between, on the one hand, the pure volunteer organisations, and at the other end the pure sightseeing organisations, but nothing blending the two, so I decided to set up a business which aimed to fill that niche."

The result, launched a few weeks ago, is Hands Up Holidays.

It offers holiday packages which are a mix of sightseeing, meeting people and doing volunteer work in 23 countries around the world.

"What's different about these trips," he says, "is that while they're still primarily a holiday, and people will still get to see the sights, they will spend a third of the time doing community development work so they get a taste of what it is like."

Some of the holidays on offer include:

* Teaching English in Laos or Uganda.

* House-building in Guatemala or Fiji.

* Repairing buildings in Tibet or Indonesia.

* Environmental work in Turkey or China.

* Helping with IT in Ukraine or Vanuatu.

The cost of each package includes not only the travel but also providing materials for the project and - essential with unskilled volunteers - "arranging overseers who make sure the job is done properly".

The new company has a small staff who believe in its aims to the extent that for now they are working for equity in the business.

Hands Up Holidays has also developed a relationship with House of Travel, which is helping to market its packages.

The response since the launch has been encouraging, says Hill, with a few firm bookings and numerous expressions of interest and support. But he acknowledges it will be a long haul to turn his idea into a business success.

In the meantime he's getting by through "living very frugally" and "boarding with my parents who've been incredibly supportive".

But he is buoyed by the belief that his idea of holidays where you get to work alongside people much poorer than yourself and give them a helping hand is not just viable commercially but extremely worthwhile in a broader sense.

"The aim is for this sort of holiday to do for others what I believe they've done for me. Once I got a taste of what it's like interacting in a positive way with people in these countries I was committed.

"What I'm hoping is, if we give people a taste and get them hooked, when they come back they'll become advocates for volunteer work in their home towns, or perhaps on a longer term basis abroad."

So does he want these to be life-changing holidays? "Absolutely. It was for me."

* Hands Up Holidays can be contacted on or freephone 0800 426 3787.


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