Reviewed by Poppy Johnson

If you are looking for an exciting travel diary type of book, please don’t choose The Voluntourist, or risk severe disappointment. Ken Budd uses this book to chronicle his (and often his wife’s and his friend’s) adventures in five countries as a person intent on making a difference in the world. The only problem is that he gives such a subjective look at basically everything that the reader will feel exhausted – instead of uplifted – at the end of the journey.

When his father dies suddenly, Budd understands that his life has to change and that he needs to leave home to explore the world and to fulfill his destiny. First, he signed up to work with Hurricane Katrina victims in New Orleans. He describes his daily cleanup activities and how he kept connected with his family and wife Julie back home. He does make it clear that his marriage could use some working out, and his thoughts often go to self-reflection. In the end, he believes he is a better person for having left home and helped others to have a better life (despite all of the complaining he did along the way).

Next, Budd discusses his trip to Costa Rica where he taught English at a rural elementary school. He taught with his wife (she suddenly appeared in the book that I assumed would be dedicated only to Budd’s  travels?) at a place where no one spoke English, and they slowly succeeded in helping people of the region develop English language literacy.

Next, he went to China to volunteer in Xi’an with his friend Tom (instead of his wife). Once again, he taught English, this time at a school with many special needs students. For some reason, he considered teaching Chinese teachers English profanity to be his “legacy”. This was silly and insignificant in the larger scheme of developing the maturity and focus necessary to teach English to others in a foreign country. But it seemed like to the author it was all a joke and he did not take any of it seriously.

During his visit to Palestine, Budd worked on several volunteer projects in Bethlehem and at the Beit Jirin Cultural Center, a refugee camp. He was introduced to the oppression that people of that region have to endure on a daily basis and did show some sympathy for the locals – if only for the frustrations over not having modern conveniences.

Budd’s travels are interesting, but I found his self-deprecating humor and sarcasm distracting. I understand that he was profoundly affected by his father’s untimely death, and most chapters are an homage to his father or the life lessons Budd learned from him. The stories are entertaining but take on the nature of bawdry humor more often than not, and may offend some readers.

I found the silly antics – such as teaching Chinese teaches profanity – to be sophomoric and trivial. How did these antics contribute to Budd’s goal of being a better man? At times, I felt like I was reading about a college boy on a trip around the world to “do some good” and have some fun. There are some readers who will enjoy the most subjective views of these countries. I would have much rather had the facts and an author who offered an objective view of the world. I would have then been able to make my own decisions about the places highlighted in The Voluntourist, instead of being told how terrible they were from all angles.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ 

After a decade of working in several NYC law departments and teaching, Poppy decided she enjoyed writing full-time. She currently works as a freelance writing consultant, and lives with her husband and sons on the East Coast.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by William Morrow Paperbacks. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.