The Voluntourist: Book Review

Finishing a good book is like walking away from a coffee date catching up with an old friend. You smile long after they’re gone, feeling like you’ve shared something special.


Maria and I, while in Ecuador on a volunteer trip in 2011.

That’s how I felt long after reading the last page of The Voluntourist, in which Ken Budd tells of his experiences on six different volunteer trips on his quest for purpose and understanding after his father’s sudden death.

He helps Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans, becomes an English teacher in Costa Rica, works with developmental kids in China, studies the Amazon in Ecuador, helps refugees in Palestine and works at an orphanage in Kenya.

Those are the heroic labels that the back of the book can tell you, painting an image of Ken as a global do-gooder. But Ken doesn’t talk like that. He talks about how he ended up there and focusses on the little things; chipping paint, the global understanding of the Hokey Pokey, nodding and smiling with language barriers, sifting through rainforest dirt.

He compares his experiences with his childhood, his father, his family, his life he leaves behind back home for two week intervals and how no one can understand unless they’re actually there experiencing it too.

It was something about the way he told his stories. Through his sarcasm and occasional  (admittedly) lame jokes or his background as a writer or his openness about the uncertainty of his life and purpose that made me really feel connected to the author.

A few years ago, I traveled to Ecuador for three weeks on a volunteer trip building a school. At sixteen years old I fully admit I went in with the mindset that I was changing the world and since then have had mixed emotions of whether my work in Ecuador had actually helped or harmed the community. What I learned from this book is that voluntourism is not a bad thing. On all six of his trips, Ken wonders this question himself but receives reassurance from his friends in the community. He says voluntourists learn, share and exchange cultures and provide (maybe minimal but) necessary labour.

As I read, his own questions trickled into my mind. How do you find purpose? Do I want to have kids? How do you prove you’re a good person? And through six winding voluntourism trips and a lifetime of travel, I think what Ken is trying to say is that we never really know.

I thought this book would be about a person traveling and learning about the world. But it’s more so about how a person travels and learns about themselves. You can’t go on a volunteer trip and think that you’re saving the world. Ken Budd defines it as attempting to save the world in an attempt to save oneself which I think is a lot more accurate.

This book is guaranteed to bite you with the travel bug. It will make you question mundane things in our culture and provide lots of “that’s so interesting” moments that make for excellent conversational facts to share at dinner parties. (Did you know guinea pig is a delicacy in Ecuador? Or that safari means journey in Swahili?)

But it will also leave you smiling long after you’re done reading, feeling like you just caught up with your old friend Ken Budd.

Hey Ken, you may never read this but the off chance you do- I would love to go out for coffee with you sometime, to share stories, as friends.

UPDATE: I did get in touch with Ken. We talked on the phone and had a great conversation about his book and the misconceptions of voluntourism. Moral of the story: If you read a really great book, let the author know. There’s a good chance they will reply and continue the conversation, making the story that much more real.

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