Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Voluntourist

After Ken Budd’s father succumbed to a fatal heart attack suffered on the golf course, Budd took a long, hard look at his own life and decided that something was missing.  His was a childless marriage, but Budd was reluctant to push his yearning for children because he knew that his wife did not want a child.  Budd did know that he wanted to live “a life that matters,” one in which his good deeds would live on long after he was gone - but he did not know where to begin.

When, just a few months later, he received an email from his employer outlining opportunities for volunteers to help New Orleans residents clean up and rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Budd decided this was just the thing to turn his life in a new, more positive direction.  His two weeks in New Orleans, as described in The Voluntourist, would lead to five more “voluntourist” trips around the world, trips during which Budd and other travelers would pay for the opportunity to perform the most basic labor for people in desperate need of relief. 

After New Orleans, Budd would spend two weeks: in a Costa Rican school; in a Chinese school for mentally handicapped children; deep in the Ecuadorian jungle working with a conservationist group; observing daily life in Palestine through the eyes of ordinary Palestinian families; and working in a Kenyan orphanage.  Along the way, Budd reminded himself to live (and to test himself) by a philosophical truth he picked up in Costa Rica from another “voluntourist” – “you only learn about yourself when you’re outside your comfort zone.”   This would certainly be the case for Ken Budd.

Ken Budd
The Voluntourist tends to drift a little, often resulting in a feeling of repetitiveness as Budd returns time and again to the same personal issues he struggled with during this period in his life.  Perhaps, this was done because Budd intends for his readers to watch his thinking evolve over time as he experiences the cultures of more countries and deals with numerous children - but it makes what is already destined to be long book (near 450 pages) longer than need be. 

That said, The Voluntourist will be of great interest to arm chair travelers because of how much time the author spends with ordinary working citizens of the places he visits.  Budd is definitely not a tourist; he literally gets his hands dirty by being very willing to take on whatever task he is asked to perform.  It takes Budd a while to figure out that he is not expected to perform miracles, or to make permanent changes in the lives of those he comes into contact with – it is more about bringing some relief to people whose lives are harsher and more physically demanding than his own.  In the process of doing this, he will achieve his heartfelt goal of living “a life that matters.”

Rated at: 3.5

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)


  1. Sounds like a good read but not sure if I would like the author repeating the lessons he learned over and over. Books like this make me think they would make for a better book if they were shorter or even turned into a nice, long newspaper or magazine article instead.

  2. It did get to be a little much, Kathleen, and eventually the book began to have the feel for an advertisement for the Voluntourist people. Still, though, a pretty decent read.