I daydream often about where my next travel adventure will be. I read travel blogs, talk to coworkers about their vacations, and browse longingly through friends’ and family’s photos of their journeys around the world. Just a year ago I was living abroad in Mexico on a Fulbright grant, and still I find myself constantly plotting new ways to travel after only a year back in the U.S. While I love my life and work at home in my own country, a part of me is always keeping an eye out for another opportunity to visit someplace new. I’m sure this wanderlust is familiar to many of us.
My wanderlust, though, doesn’t quite fit the mold. It’s not just that I want to see and experience new places. I don’t want to be principally a tourist or a consumer of foreign countries. I want to dive deeply into these new places, into their communities and challenges and culture. This kind of travel isn’t solely about pleasure and adventure; or rather, the pleasure and adventure of travel have become, in my mind, inextricably tied to something new: the desire to do volunteer service abroad. To give back to the foreign communities that host me.
On my Fulbright program in 2014-2015 I taught English at a rural technical college in Mexico that served all low-income first-generation college students. This experience gave me a thirst not only for international travel but also for helping out in the places I traveled to. The idea of journeying as a tourist to a beach resort or a swanky cosmopolitan hotel slowly lost its luster over my stay in Mexico and was replaced by a desire to participate more meaningfully in the communities I visited.
It can be difficult to find the right combination of travel and service. When the travel bug hit me again this spring, I looked at a few different organizations that led volunteer service trips abroad. Some were very expensive, and others didn’t seem to have a clear mission. I didn’t know anyone who had done these trips and I felt unsure of how to gauge the quality of the many groups that advertised.
Luckily, a friend from the Fulbright Association approached me with a great opportunity. EnvisionFulbright– a partnership between the Fulbright Association and the non-profit RestoringVision to provide reading glasses to underdeveloped communities abroad– offers one-week medical service trips around the world for select Fulbright alumni who demonstrate a passion for travel and service. I decided to apply for an EnvisionFulbright trip to the Dominican Republic led by Timmy Global Health, a non-profit that expands access to healthcare internationally.
Once I was accepted to the program, both EnvisionFulbright and Timmy Global Health were extremely helpful in getting me ready for my trip to the Dominican Republic. While I was poised to be the only non-medical professional on my medical brigade in the DR (I work in education), I felt included in the group and was assigned a vital role on the trip: given my fluency in Spanish, my job was to be a Spanish translator in a mobile clinic. I would be joined by a group of about 25 medical professionals who I would travel and live with for 8 days, all of us united in a dream to explore a new country and do good while we were there.
Our Timmy Global Health medical brigade consisted of 15 medical school students, 5 doctors, a nurse, a pharmacist, and a public health coordinator who worked together to bring a mobile health clinic to different impoverished communities on the island. Each morning we woke up to a home-cooked Dominican breakfast, packed up our mobile clinic, and drove out into remote areas of the island where communities are in great need of free healthcare. Because Timmy Global Health has so many community partners on the island and has built a strong local presence it is able to offer these clinics every month, giving patients continual access to medical care in a place where they would ordinarily have extremely limited healthcare or none at all. Over the course of the trip we saw over 500 patients in our clinic, distributed suitcases full of vital medicine and medical supplies, and got to know many different communities and each other intimately.
I felt honored and excited every day of my trip to be working to improve the quality of life in some of the DR’s most disadvantaged communities, and in turn the communities I visited gave me the gift of understanding the real people and culture of the Dominican Republic. I became friends with local Haitian doctors and volunteers who taught me how to speak Creole and introduced me to local music and dance. I ate traditional Dominican cuisine and swam in the warm, clear ocean. I lived in a palm-frond thatched cabin among lizards and giant beetles. I learned about the rich and troubled history of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, and thought deeply about the future of that beautiful island as well as my own country’s future. These experiences were the kind we can only achieve through purposeful, service-oriented travel that connects us deeply to the people and places we visit as foreigners.
I would recommend Timmy Global Health and EnvisionFulbright trips to any and all who are seeking a meaningful adventure abroad. A special thanks to EnvisionFulbright for selecting me for this opportunity, Timmy Global Health for funding and facilitating my trip, and 7elements for housing me at their eco lodge on the island.
Guest post by Meg Ramey