Here's a link to a provocative article on Matador.
My take on it: I agree that volunteering is better than traveling, for the most part. Volunteering is such a personal, spiritual, and culturally immersing activity that I will never regret the time that I spent rooted to one spot and grounded in a community, rather than traveling to as many places in as short a time as possible.
Yet I don't think that people should necessarily feel bad about their voyages (OK - most people don't. I refer to those who might feel bad about their travels after reading this article and this blog post). I think that people should instead examine their motives for traveling deeply, and ask themselves what they are after. Healing, inspiration, love, status, world domination, or just a break in the everyday routine - ask questions that only yourself can answer. I feel that interacting on a daily basis with members from a different community and attempting to understand their lives and problems deeply, aided by the passage of time, can not only fulfill many of those desires (save world domination and status but let's assume that these are goals that you good readers of this blog are not after) but in addition might truly help another person. At the very least, somebody will remember the time that you have gifted them, the curiosity and respect that you have shown for the world.
Let's not forget that the volunteering is tied to travel but traveling does not always involve volunteering. For example, whether I am in central Quito, South Los Angeles or the HousingWorks (an American nonprofit that fights for those who are homeless and who have AIDS) Bookstore Cafe in NYC, volunteering shows me and involves me in a different world. Poverty is a different culture and all that one knew for sure slowly crumbles away.
Of course, I will now throw you all a twist after having mostly espoused volunteering over traveling - I am considering a multi-country trip in 2011. Not once in my life have I done the multi-country trip; I've always stayed in the same country for a month or longer. Yet I feel that now is the time, while I am young, when I have taken a long break from school, to see as much of the world as I can. I'm doing it on my own terms, and with my own principles. My goal is still cultural immersion. My interest is still social justice. I see myself as a kind of cultural journalist - I have a gift for integrating myself into the heart of a different culture, and then being able to translate that experience in my writing. So whether I journey through South America or Asia, whether I volunteer the entire time or not, I know what I am after. I hold myself accountable to my goals. I'm not doing this to inspire envy amongst my friends or to check off countries on a list. I just hope that I will be able to learn more about the world in this relatively free time that I have, and in that way learn more about myself - it may not come now or in the near future, but I often wonder... what is my true métier? How will I engage in the world in the future and attempt to solve social problems? This is my goal not only when I volunteer, but also when I travel.
Comments, questions, feedback, criticism - all welcome below!