Be it volunteering at a Turtle Conservation Park in Ecuador, constructing a school in the rural suburbs of Bombay, or counseling women with AIDS in Rwanda – anyone of us can help. Instead of travelling like the average backpacker, why not do something more and improve the lives of a unique community? Like you, I wondered “how do I volunteer abroad?”.
Armed with that zest and energy, many can’t wait to throw themselves into the unknown. Wait a minute… where do I start from? How do I go about it? How can I sustain myself financially?
Fret not, with a few pointers, you’ll find yourself on the next plane to Timbuktu, ready to set off on a life-changing experience. Before you pack your bags and jet off, these are some questions you could ponder over.
1. Can you handle it?
Do you frequent hostels and campsites when you travel, or are you a swanky hotel visitor? Whatever the case, volunteering in rural communities might mean sleeping in the wild, and showering only once a week, and unpredictable loss of electricity. Are you game for it?
Volunteering has become more of a trend now amidst young travelers, thanks to the strategized marketing skills of `voluntourism’ companies. Even celebrities go into the wild as ambassadors of the UN. But are you really keen to contribute to the less fortunate, or are you just an Angelina Jolie-wannabe? Remember it’s not about you, it´s about them.
3. How and where should I volunteer?
Be it Latin America, Southeast Asia or Africa, think of what you´re good at, and start from there. Help out at a wildlife conservation centre (http://www.greatgreenmacaw.org/index.htm), work as a medical relief in Cambodia (http://angkorhospital.org) or educate people about AIDS in Tanzania (http://www.chawakua.org) – you just need to know where your specialty is needed. Work camps require all sorts of expertise – whether you are a computer engineer or an artist, there is always somewhere that needs your help.
4. How long should I stay?
A month or two is not enough to make a difference. Monetary donations might go a long way, but the whole idea of volunteering is to get your hands dirty, put in hard work and sweat in return for a better life for these communities. Save hard before the trip, US$300 per month should be more than enough to sustain yourself, depending on where you go. If you don´t have the time, quit your job! Trust me, it´s definitely worth it!
5. How much should I pay for a volunteer program?
US$2500 for a month of volunteering is a crazy amount for a program fee – it’ll probably end up in the pockets of international companies that act as middleman. Do away with the middleman and get in touch directly with the local grassroots organization. Buffalotrails Africa (http://buffalotrails.moonfruit.com/) requires no program fees; a small amount of 250euros for 1 month of accommodation and food is to be paid to your local host.
So after cracking your brains up, you´ve plunged into the unknown. You find yourself in a new environment, here with a noble cause of helping others, how do you make the most out of it?
Learn the local language
In East Africa, you might find kids calling you names along the way, ‘Mzungus’ (white people) and many a time, `give me money!’. But with a few words of wisdom, such as ‘Hujambo!’ and ‘Habari?’ (Hello! how are you?), you´ll find them speaking to you in Swahili with a new found respect, and treating you like one of them.
Live like the locals
The best way to integrate into the local community is to live like them. A homestay is usually the ideal channel of getting to know the natives well, and adapting to their way of life- eating with your hands, having a bath in the river, or sleeping in a mud house made of cow dung – it all makes your experience way more memorable!
Be opened and adventurous
Try the local deep-fried pigs’ intestines or the traditional barbequed sheep’s head- You’re in for a treat! Don’t just hang out with fellow volunteers, mingle with the locals. They’re definitely intrigued with your culture, and might just become your life-long friends!
Have initiative and never be a hassle
Volunteering involves being proactive in taking on tasks, and suggesting new ways to improve things. Sitting around and waiting for things to happen only make you more of a hassle. Get involved and start doing something already! Be contented with what you are provided with – don’t expect a maid to do your laundry!
Don’t try to change the world
All of us have had the noble resolution of changing the world- but when reality hits, it´s not going to be easy. Many of these rural tribes have lived their lives the way they do for centuries, don´t expect them to work the same way as you do. Don’t try to change the way they are, work around it and you might find a better way to improve things.
Before you know it, you have developed a special connection with these amazing natives, and learned more from them than anyone else. Volunteering can be one of the most rewarding and meaningful experiences in life. You wonder if someday you’ll come back and volunteer again… I know I will.