I had an interesting conversation the other day with a woman who went to Pakistan in the mid-2000s to do research for a novel she was writing. Her advice to me was, “Don’t go. It’s too dangerous.” When she was there, I think the extremists of various stripes were a bit more subdued; now they are all over the country, bombing schools, and so on. (Since Barack Obama became president, the United States has conducted thousands of drone strikes in Pakistan, so I suspect at least a few of the recent attacks by militants are meant to be revenge.) People are kidnapped (and sometimes disappeared), though it’s difficult for me to get a clear sense of how often that happens.

She met some friends in Islamabad and spent all of her time with them, mostly in the house or traveling in a family vehicle. She wanted to take a train along the Indus River, but they advised against it. One day she was so weary of being in the house that she convinced one of the men to go on a walk with her. She spent a week in Lahore with another family and also visited Peshawar (where the Taliban got started in the refugee camps), Karachi, and interior Sindh. Her novel is My Sisters Made of Light

At one point, she asked me why I was interested in going to Pakistan, and I didn’t have a strong answer for her, which brings me to the point of this post: What are my reasons for traveling? Why do I want to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan? Why am I so interested in doing volunteer work for a day or a week in Asia? Why don’t I just have a six-month vacation?

The last two questions were prompted by reading The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook by Shannon O’Donnell. Early in the book, she asks readers to analyze why they want to volunteer by asking questions like this: “What assumptions and expectations about volunteering do I hold right now?”

I assume volunteering will be comfortable because I have been living in the Denver area since 1987 and I know the context in which I volunteer, whether in an office, on public lands that have been loved too much, or on urban farms.

But when I’m in another country, I won’t know the context, no matter how much research I do. Understanding context requires living in a place, and the longest I’ll stay in any one place on this trip will be two weeks.

Maybe I’m analyzing too much here. I plan to do the same kind of volunteering in Australia, New Zealand, and Asia that I do in Denver: environmental restoration. I’ll do what I’m told, unless it’s too physically difficult, and I hope to be thanked. But is that enough? How much should I consider what other people will get out of my efforts?


I’ll be in a new place. And that, really, is why I travel.

But there’s no point in going to a new place that is entirely comfortable. There’s the contradiction in my thinking: I want to travel to see new things and be made a little uncomfortable, but I expect certain things from volunteering because I’m doing it for free and I think I ought to at least be comfortable.

On top of all that, I dream about going to conflict zones. Why? Because I’ve read about them and I want to see if they bear any resemblance to the conglomeration of things I’ve read. Take Afghanistan: once ruled by the Taliban and home to the Bamiyan hollows where Buddha statues once stood, also home to a national women’s cycling team and a school for the deaf and several nonprofits I’ve researched. That sounds superficial, and it is. I want to go because I want to connect some of those dots.

Another reason: I used to dream of being an international correspondent.

Any sensible person would realize that my desire to travel to Pakistan or Afghanistan has little to do with the countries themselves and more to do with my unfulfilled dreams. And maybe I won’t go. But I will still keep dreaming of those journeys, and keep preparing for them, just in case an opportunity comes my way. Because people who go to these places must be courageous and skilled, and I want to be both of those things.


The map is courtesy of World of Maps. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution—Share Alike 3.0 license.


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