Single and love to travel? Volunteer tourism combines your love for adventure with an opportunity to make a positive impact on another country and its culture.
Why travel at all? To find adventure, see the spectacular, experience new food, language, culture. Why volunteer on your travels? To do all that plus engage with a family, work side-by-side with locals in a community project and find yourself immersed in a food, language, culture. If you’re single it’s even better: instant community, total immersion, safety, authenticity and fun.
I’ve done a lot of traveling, sometimes with friends, sometimes on my own, sometimes with family. The highs were astronomical, if fleeting and sometimes a bit crazy. The time three of us rode on a motorcycle through the jungle in Nicaragua, wind blowing through our (very) un-helmeted hair; driving on a long sandy road toward a beachside hostel in Morocco with wild dogs running alongside and lunging at the tires; eating goat-head, homemade buttermilk, cow stomach, and who knows what in roadside joints.
The lows were just as profound: some guys following me on an island in Panama because I had a bottle full of fermented fruit; kids on a moped in Palermo robbing us; spending days laid up in a grubby hotel room in Mexico, sweating, crawling to the bathroom, aching with loneliness.
I wouldn’t trade these moments — they are part of what makes life an adventure — well lived and swooping from highs to lows. But they’re just that — moments. When I look back at the scattered remains of a traveling life, the experiences that glitter the most are the weeks and months I spent working in communities and living with families: volunteering, immersing and bonding with people in their homes, their workplace, their bars and cars and schools.
As a caretaker in an orphanage in Morocco, I had instant connections to the other women working there, to the babies, to the lady who brought lunch, to the other volunteers. When tiny arms reach out, you are present in a simple and complete way, your arms and chest suddenly present and physical. When you spoon watery gruel into hungry mouths, you are aware of hunger, of the next harvest and the availability of kitchens.
As a technical writer at a makeshift software company in Nicaragua, integrated into the rhythms of office life, having newspaper serve as toilet paper; meetings about creaky old computers; the lady with the tray of dried fruit snacks on her head selling treats for an afternoon break and the miserable watery coffee. We’d sit and chat for hours, hold birthday parties and fan ourselves with old dusty books.
Even as a clerk in a grocery store in Brighton, England, I loved the lunch break, the pears with the price stickers still on, the gloppy puddings, the incessant gossip and good will of the ladies.
These experiences bring instant community — along with safety, humor, busy evenings, confusing conversations, lumpy beds, instant language classes, more likely than not, some stomach discomfort, often a new hairdo — and more. It all adds up to a great time, and usually great friends and many laughs. As a bonus, you get to know you did some good work, too — but that’s the icing on the cake.
So how to get started? How do you get integrated into a project with a home stay, and find yourself safe and useful? Many organizations and companies arrange “Volunteer Vacations” – I’m happy to work for one, a non-profit organization called United Planet. We believe that the total immersion experience is the best way to become part of the community and to get the most out of your time and effort.
That said, here are some questions to consider when you’re ready to take on the joys, opportunities and challenges of spending your vacation living with real folks and helping out in a real community project.
- What type of work would you like to do? There are many choices. You can work in a sanctuary for endangered and abused animals; teach English in almost any country all over the world; care for orphans or street children; work on environmental conservation projects; help with women’s empowerment and more.
- Where would you like to stay? While home stays offer total immersion — the food, the language, the culture, and the family — they also present challenges. If you’re ready to plunge into a home stay, the rewards are enormous; if you want to proceed more cautiously, you can likely arrange for a hotel or hostel.
- Which country? You can choose from the exotic (Far East, sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East) to the familiar (Latin America) to the downright homey (Europe).
- What types of excursions and activities are included? A good volunteer vacation will cover more than your work and stay; it will offer dance classes, cooking lessons, trips to great sites (such as Machu Picchu, Petra, and Dracula’s Castle).
- How long can you spend? You can volunteer for as little as a week and add on additional travel at the beginning or end; but it will pay-off more if you can spend longer in the community. You’ll get to know people better and feel more integrated into the project.
- How to pick a reputable organization to plan your volunteer vacation? Some things to consider: how long have they been around; do they have reviews or testimonials on their site; will they give you references to check; what is their social media presence like?
When I lived in a rural village in Panama, I was one of the girls in a gritty, packed-earth string of houses along the highway. One of the women I met was a professional seamstress at a factory in town. I picked the fabric and paid her for two dresses. Each was beautifully sewn, impeccably fitted and were a delight to everyone, including me. I have them still, wildly colorful, swirly and covered with flowers, hanging in my closet as a reminder of just how immersed I was in that town at that moment. I love those dresses and I loved the women I met there.
I became a part of something that was so much bigger than my own life and grew so much in the process. Volunteer travel is a challenge, but the experience will stay with you forever.
Copyright © Mary Babic/2014 Singular Communications, LLC