Worthwhile Travel

This past summer I spent five weeks building houses in south-central Vietnam. Luckily, I had sixteen other American students and two experienced leaders as companions throughout the trip. If I’d been on my own, English or French wouldn’t have gotten me very far. In case you ever consider it, I recommend having a Vietnamese speaker with you to help distinguish between the language’s six tones. My trip would not have been rewarding for me, as an American student, had it not been for Putney Student Travel. Putney, a student travel group that operates in countries such as Tanzania, Nicaragua, Ghana, India and more, creates programs that are extremely beneficial and worthwhile for the both the participants and countries in which they operate. Why am I talking about the summer travel organization I went with this summer? Well, there is a certain stigma against groups like Putney that I feel is unwarranted. The dismissal of such community service programs as being frivolous summer jaunts for rich kids is based, in my experience, on the trips’ relatively high cost and the supposition that the trip is overrun by the college-obsessed. As a veteran of Putney Vietnam ’09, I feel obliged to take up its defense. These programs cost several thousand dollars for a reason. My $5,000 tuition was spent on 33 days worth of meals, a bicycle, wages for my group’s two leaders, living space, travel costs, wages for local construction workers and enough sand, dirt, tools, bricks, cement powder, floor tiles and roof tiles to build three two story houses. When all of these costs are tallied up, a total amounting to at least a few thousand dollars ought not be surprising. I maintain that that these costs are entirely worthwhile. If a Putneylike program were to cost less than $2,000, I would wonder whether the program was worth doing. Why travel across the globe if not to work on a project that is well-planned, has high quality building materials, adequate living quarters and creative, resourceful leaders who have a genuine interest in the happiness and serviceoriented mission of the group? Putney carefully cultivates relationships with the host country at every level. The program I participated in is only able to occur because Putney maintains good relations with the Quang Ngai People’s Committee and the local government of the village where I was staying, Tinh Hoa. A Putney community service trip is meticulously worked out in order to benefit the locals as much as possible; it is not a half-baked vacation for those who can’t be bothered to do anything else. As I mentioned above, there are some who believe that most of the people who go on these Putney community service trips are only doing it for their resumes. On the contrary, the people who applied and decide to go on my community service trip rather than vacation somewhere—knowing that the work we would do on those houses wouldn’t be cushy—are really invested in the work This summer I built a house for family of five that had been living under a blue tarp held up by bamboo poles. I spent my days at the worksite laying bricks, mixing cement, building scaffolding, plastering, tiling, joking with the amiable, chain-smoking, Vietnamese workers and more. After work, I would head over to the local school to teach English almost ever day. To break the routine one afternoon, I biked to My Lai. This village was the site of a terrible massacre of Vietnamese civilians by American forces during the war. There I met an elderly woman who survived the annihilation of her community and who now tends the gardens at the memorial. I don’t think I will be able to forget her powerful presence nor the hard, unrelenting grip of her mist grey eyes. Putney Community Service is worth doing because it is well run, your tuition is put to good use, you meet good people and do, as well as learn, great things. Don’t let anyone dissuade you from an amazing experience. Charlie Cockburn is a three-year Upper and Commentary Associate from Washington DC.