Wide-Open World: How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed One Family's Lives Forever

This memoir (352 pages) was published in February of 2015 by Ballantine Books. The book takes you to a monkey sanctuary in Costa Rica. David read Wide-Open World and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.

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Wide-Open World

How Volunteering Around the Globe Changed One Family's Lives Forever

John Marshall

If you’ve ever daydreamed about ditching the everyday to travel around the world — and wondered how you could afford it — this book offers very compelling ideas which potential payoffs beyond your wildest dreams. But the course of action is not what you’d expect.

Author John Marshall and his wife had been married for 20 years — with a teenage son and daughter and all the other responsibilities that come free-with-purchase when you’re an adult. They’d always had a dream to travel the world as a family, and the time to make that happen was ticking out.

While discussing ways they might be able to afford flights, hotels, and meals for four during a global adventure, they had a brainstorm: Why not volunteer in exchange for room, board, and transport?

A simple online search proved it was possible; there were hundreds of opportunities to trade their time and eight hands for adventures in far-flung destinations. Eventually, with their house rented, jobs abandoned, school put on hold, and personal effects in storage, the Marshall family was on the move with backpacks and good intentions.

This honestly written, funny, and moving memoir tells the story of their six months exploring the world and their family dynamics.

Their first stop is a wildlife center in Costa Rica amidst 700 acres of rainforest. It’s reachable only by boat, and there are no roads, hotels, or restaurants. But there are plenty of free-range spider monkeys, and for a month, the family act as monkey nannies to the furry orphans.

In New Zealand, they work the land on organic farms, and in India, they care for children at an orphanage. (When they ask what they’re meant to do with their time, their contacts says, ‘Just love the kids.’) Their final stop before heading home is a school in the Himalayas (where they meet the Dalai Lama).

As you probably expect, there are plenty of problems along the way: monkey bites, internet withdrawal, humidity, bug bites, seemingly endless, bumpy bus rides, and hundreds of other indignities, small and large. And the story doesn’t end as well as you might hope.

But there’s beauty and insight and connections with people from different cultures. There’s coffee on the beach at sunrise and learning what the family, individually and collectively, is made of.

This book also demonstrates that volunteer tourism is possible and is a valuable way to see and support parts of the world that are very different from our own homes. A helpful appendix includes the logistics of how the family sold their stuff, arranged for the kids to miss school, and found the right volunteer opportunities for them.

Insightful, inspiring, tear-inducing, and ‘let me read you this bit’ funny, this is the story of an extraordinary family vacation that just might inspire you to run away and see the world.

We wouldn’t just be sightseeing. We’d be helping. Instead of impersonal hotels and budget restaurants, we’d be in communities where we were needed, making connections to local people, eating with them, living with them. Some people report having their lives forever altered by a single week of overseas service. So what could a whole year do? — John Marshall

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