The Voluntourist

The Voluntourist:  A Six-Country Tale of Love, Loss, Fatherhood, Fate, and Singing Bon Jovi in Bethlehem by Ken Budd

Published:  2012 by William Morrow

Source:  Received ARC from publisher for review

Barely a year into his retirement, Ken Budd’s father collapsed on the golf course and died before Ken and his wife could say their final goodbyes.  Budd Senior worked long hours and travelled for extended periods of time throughout the course of his career, and his death coming so soon after he had the opportunity to relax and enjoy life was a shock to everyone, especially to his family.  While mourning, Ken was approached by many of his father’s friends, colleagues, and even strangers who wanted to let him know how his father had touched their lives.

It was a revelation to Ken – not that he didn’t think his father was that type of man, but that he wasn’t sure he was:

It’s not even dying that bothers me.  It’s dying without making a difference in the world.  Without doing a damn thing that matters

Add to this the reluctant realization that he and his wife wouldn’t have their own children (by choice) and Ken had an early (age 39) mid-life crisis moment – the desire to go out in the world and do good.

Where most people would start locally and, say, volunteer at a soup kitchen or at a neighborhood cleanup, Ken flew down to post-Katrina New Orleans (from his home in suburban Washington D.C.) and assisted with building new homes for displaced residents.  This began an eventual international quest to prove to himself that he is leaving a legacy in his own way.

After New Orleans, Budd’s memoir takes us to five other volunteer projects – in Costa Rica, China, Ecuador, Palestine and Kenya.  With the exception of Ecuador, which involved helping scientists collect research data, Budd’s other voluntourist trips involved helping local citizens – be it teaching in a school, aiding a special needs student, or simply doing tasks overworked staff weren’t able to complete.

Budd’s accounts of his work in these far-reaching places is inspiring and thoughtful.  His work is by no means glamorous, but it is meaningful to those he is helping, and to him.  He travels mostly on his own (his wife Julie is with him in Costa Rica and Kenya; his brother-in-law in China) and that seems to lend more seriousness to his journeys, at least to me, especially since the conditions of the places he stays are not 5-star (nor does he want them to be).  While he is away he misses the comforts of home and those he left behind, but in his heart he is doing what he ultimately thinks is the right thing.  I think that Ken learned as much about himself as he did about others – to enjoy what life has given him and to give back where and when he can.

Though out of reach for many of us, everyone can learn something from this fascinating story – that any help, whether near or far, is accepted and welcomed; and that you learn more when travelling by speaking with “real” people than by following tourist routes.

Highly recommended.

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1 Response to The Voluntourist

  1. zibilee says:

    I can see why this book was such a good read for you. I love the idea of doing something good and leaving a lasting legacy behind, so this is a book that I would probably love as well. It sounds so uplifting and inspiring. Wonderful review today!

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