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Comment: Magaluf to Tanzania does not a pioneering traveller make

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Hello, what’s this? A student goes on a pre-organised gap year ‘adventure’ with a UK-based volunteering organisation and returns brimming with self-righteous confidence and extolling the virtues of ‘lone travelling’.

My gripes begin in the fourth paragraph of the article From Magaluf to Tanzania which reads, ‘Completely alone with a group of thirty two strangers’. I’m sorry, let’s read that again. Completely ALONE with THIRTY TWO other people. Pardon?

So, from then on I am forced to dismiss the independent, lone traveller image that the article attempts to conjure.

I’m also presuming, from having been on similar trips myself, that ‘lone travel’ is hardly the most accurate turn of phrase. With the amount of cash you pay to these companies, and the fact that they largely cater to middle-class students who can afford to take the entire summer off to ‘satisfy their travelling needs’, I think that there might be a certain amount of protection involved.

Case in point my trip to Namibia at the age of 18. Yes, we had responsibility. We had to budget, for example. We had to phone up campsites whilst driving through African plains at sunset, in order to confirm that we would have somewhere to pitch our Vangos that night. We had to shop for our own food in a supermarket where no one spoke anything but Afrikaans!

The essential things, of course – our transport, where we would be staying in the first place, our flights and connections – were largely sorted out for us. Yes, we might have had to physically go into the office and book a coach to take us from Windhoek to Swakopmund, but it was made easier by the fact that costs and timetables were set out in a helpful little package provided by what will now be known as the Unnamed Volunteering Organisation.  

The positives of such tours are that you get to see often beautiful and culturally fascinating parts of the world without ever really having to risk your own safety. I am definitely not criticising this. Often, especially for those on gap years or who are new to travelling, the security offered is invaluable.

In September 2011 I travelled to India on a cultural exchange. We stayed on a university campus, were driven everywhere and were always aware that we had a safe, comfortable place to come back to. When we were teaching in a slum school or wandering between shacks or hurtling through the Delhi streets on a rickshaw, it was with the added security that an air-conditioned yellow school bus would be waiting to pick us up sooner rather than later.

I can’t say whether my trip to India was more or less sheltered than my trip to Namibia, where we slept outside and had our camp invaded by baboons. But one thing is clear: you’re not a pioneer when you book excursions such as mine to Africa. You’re not really venturing off the beaten track. You are, by no stretch of the imagination, a ‘nomad’.

You can’t be ‘nomadic’ when you’ve paid £2,000 to go on a trip organised by a UK company, with 30 other people and a flight home booked for three months time. Being ‘nomadic’ isn’t the point of such trips.

Another issue is the cost involved. Don’t deny that trips of this nature cost a full whack. After being assured that the Namibia trip was ‘open to anyone’, we set about raising the £2,300 needed to fund it, as well as extra cash to plough into our orphanage project. And then, being naive students, we were assaulted with a whole load of expenses that Unnamed Volunteering Organisation had declined to mention.

Vaccinations – fair enough; I didn’t particularly fancy battling off rabies.  Expensive camping equipment that, apparently, was mandatory – other brands wouldn’t do. Travel to Derbyshire for a ‘training weekend’. And so the list goes on; cue many extra shifts at the cafe where I spent my weekends dutifully chopping lettuce in order to pay for my ‘adventures’. The mildly superior tone taken in this article, along with the suggestion that those who choose to stick with their family holidays need to broaden their horizons, seems a bit thoughtless to me.

Of course, clever marketing might make you feel as if you really are an intrepid, wandering pioneer, venturing into unknown places on the other side of the world. In reality, you’re on a beach in Koh Phangan, probably with 1,000 other westerners, doing what 90% of other British travellers in Thailand have done before you.

I’m not criticising this. But I’d hardly call it intrepid. If continent-hopping is what you’re looking for, you might be better sorting it out yourself.

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