Voluntourism: See the World. Meet inspiring people. Do good.

Being Welcomed into a Masai village in Tanzania

Being welcomed into a Maasai village in Tanzania.

I’ve been looking into doing another volunteer vacation recently and it inspired this post. What’s a volunteer vacation? It involves volunteering abroad with an organization (typically an NGO) to give your time, skills and energy to various initiatives in other countries or even in another part of your own country. In your off-time you can do the “tourist” part of your vacation – enjoying and exploring all that country has to offer. A volunteer vacation (or voluntouring) is a unique way to get inspired, hit the reset button, see the world and get immersed in a culture (while earning a few karma points). It’s a unique travel experience within time constraints and structure – because let’s face it – not everyone is cut out to sell all their worldly possessions, live out of one bag, and move from hostel to hostel for months at at time.

View from my room window and home-away-from-home in Puriscal, Costa Rica

A view of the mountains from my room window and home-away-from-home in Puriscal, Costa Rica.

Speaking from my own experiences only, here are some things to consider if you’re looking into whether a volunteer vacation is right for you:

1) YOU pay to volunteer which means YOU pay to work. Each international volunteer organization is different but generally, your fees cover accommodation, food, transportation to and from your volunteer site, extra curricular cultural activities, and administration costs. Consider it like paying for an all-inclusive vacation without the all you can eat buffet, crowds of people and unlimited drinks but with incredibly unique life experiences available to you – which I’ll get into next… These programs also provide employment for locals and help bring exposure to areas of the world that are a bit off the beaten path.

Science lesson for a bunch of four year olds

My science lesson in English/Swahili for a bunch of four year olds. It was highly interactive 🙂

2) You can choose the type of volunteer vacation that is of interest to you.  There are different types of volunteer work. With the number of organizations offering this form of sustainable tourism, you really have your pick of the type of volunteer efforts you are interested in. In most cases, you can choose the type of activity you want to do and with the age range of people you want to work with.  For example, some organizations focus on humanitarian efforts, putting you in the community to work side-by-side with locals. You may help by teaching English to enthusiastic primary students in Ghana, work with women’s groups in Africa to teach them how to create self-sustaining businesses, or as an extra pair of hands constructing a home in the Andes mountains of Ecuador. Other organizations may place you with leading experts as part of research expeditions. Imagine working with scientists to save leatherback turtles in Costa Rica or excavating and documenting cultural treasures in Italy.

My last day teaching at Jiendeleze nursery in Moshi Tanzania

My last day teaching at Jiendeleze nursery in Moshi Tanzania.

I’m interested in incorporating diving into my next volunteer vacation and there are a number of reputable organizations that will take you on to help in their efforts to protect reefs in Belize, or Thailand or even help figure out sustainable ways to control lionfish populations. That’s the beauty of it!! You can really decide what gets you juiced and find an organization that needs your help.

3) You are on a set work schedule. You’ll get up during the week just like you’re going to work. You have to be at placement by a certain time and it’s not like getting up early to save a spot by the hotel pool. Your schedule is set because the placements where you volunteer need you as a real and dependable resource. My placements usually had me at the schools by 7:30am and my days ended at about 1:00. I worked with young adults at a college level as well as children as young as three years of age at a nursery school. I worked with a teacher at each placement and put lessons together based on what their needs were and supplemented that with my own experiences and knowledge.

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With my nursery school students in Moshi, Tanzania, we sang songs in Swahili, learned English words for common Swahili words, did simple math, drew African animals step by step in art class and even told stories that I acted out in English while Lucy (their regular teacher) translated into Swahili. Those were some of my favourite days watching an audience of 50 school kids listen attentively while I made up and mixed up every fairy tale I could remember…

The students I worked with in Puriscal, Costa Rica were older and quite savvy with their English already, so, given my background in marketing and advertising, I put together a presentation about how to look critically at advertisements. It was a fun session and I hope they gained a more critical eye at the influence of advertisements and popular culture in general.

The students I was placed with in Puriscal, Costa Rica were older and quite savvy with their English already, so, given my background in marketing and advertising, I put together a presentation about how to look critically at advertisements. It was a fun session and I hope they gained a more critical eye at the influence of advertisements and popular culture in general. I learned more Spanish phrases and they practiced their English with me. It was a win-win situation!

4) Field conditions vary. Some organizations like Earthwatch Institute will actually rank the level of fitness required for their expeditions so that you can really choose one that’s right for you. It can involve camping in tents to staying in hotels or doing deep water dives to keeping notes from a jeep.  The nursery school I taught at in Moshi, Tanzania was located in a poor neighbourhood and the locals came to the school for clean, running water. The outhouse was across the street and I would be covered in dust by the end of class because the roads in the neighbourhood weren’t paved. It will challenge you certainly, but stepping outside of your comfort zone is all part of the experience.

The colourful but humble nursery school (Jiendeleze) in Moshi, Tanzania where I did my second volunteer placement.

The colourful and small nursery school (Jiendeleze) in Moshi, Tanzania where I did my second volunteer placement through Cross Cultural Solutions.

5) You will be exposed to a variety of cultural immersion activities. Depending on the organization you choose, part of the program will include activities aimed at giving you a true taste of what the locals enjoy or what makes that culture really unique.

Asteria our Swahili teacher

Asteria our Swahili teacher.

My extra-curricular activities included latin dance lessons (because the merengue and samba are part and parcel of being a true Tico of Costa Rica), enjoying a hike through a jungle to be rewarded with a beautiful soak in a waterfall, a night out with dancers performing traditional African dances, Swahili lessons (because communication is key and the locals love it when you try to speak the language – even if you do butcher it), batik painting lessons, behind the scenes tour of a cigar factory, picnicking alongside a river – a popular activity for families complete with a traditional Costa Rican meal, touring banana beer plantations, a horse breeding farm, a sugar cane farm, crawling through a small underground cave system of tunnels of the Chagga tribe, listening to stories being told in a smokey Maasai dung hut by one of the elders in the middle of the African steppe and even architectural tours of the local buildings.

Climbing out of the complex network of underground caves built by the Chagga tribe.

Climbing out of the complex network of underground caves built by the Chagga tribe.

As part of our cultural immersion activities we learned the art of batik painting. Here's my attempt!

As part of our cultural immersion activities we learned the art of batik painting. Here’s my attempt!

Watching up close and personal how cigars are made at the cigar factory in Puriscal.

Watching up close and personal how cigars are made at the cigar factory in Puriscal.

6) Your time off is your own and you are free to explore as you please. In my time off – typically from Friday afternoon until Sunday night, I managed to enjoy the sights and sounds of African animals in the wild while on safari, climbed to the Maundi Crater rim of Mount Kilimanjaro 2,700 meters up, hiked through the Costa Rican jungle and across dodgy rope bridges, ziplined above the jungle canopy, went diving in Zanzibar, enjoyed a day of swimming off the coast at Manuel Antonio beach, watched a hedge hog waddle past as we sat around a campfire, danced to Bob Marley tunes under the stars, bartered for wool blankets in the middle of a dust tornado, sat in on the sobering Rwanda genocide trials, rode a camel and more…

Ziplining above the jungle canopy.

Ziplining above the jungle canopy.

Scubadiving in Zanzibar.

Getting ready to go diving in Zanzibar.

Experiencing the sight of hundreds of wildebeasts while on safari.

Experiencing the sight of hundreds of wildebeasts while on safari.

Hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro

Hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro

7) You will live as a local – Again, different organizations will offer different types of accommodations depending on what you’re looking for but I was looking for something authentic. I stayed in local neighbourhoods in local homes that were set up to be a hostel of sorts for the volunteers. I was fed local cuisine, made by a local with food that was often brought fresh that day. The accommodations are not necessarily ‘first world’. Though I was comfortable, I didn’t expect to be pampered as if I was staying at the Ritz. This is stating the obvious but you’d be surprised how some volunteers are troubled when they arrive to find a completely different set of standards for everything.

Typical Tico cuisine for our picnic by the river - a favourite activity for the locals.

Typical Tico cuisine for our picnic by the river – a favourite activity for the locals.

The organization I volunteered with – Cross Cultural Solutions believes in sustainability and in integration – so, we were housed in typical residential neighbourhoods not hotels. However, if that’s more your style, do you due diligence and find an organization that will cater to your specific needs.

Accommodation is humble but very comfortable.

Accommodation is humble but very comfortable.

8) You’ll meet people and interact with them in ways you might not otherwise be able to if travelling with a tour group or booking through a travel agent. You’ll meet volunteers from different parts of the world and locals who can give you insights into their culture. While volunteering in Costa Rica, I’ve been lucky enough to be invited by a student to see his family’s butterfly farm (imagine being surrounded by hundreds of beautiful butterflies in flight or watching the birth of a butterfly), sat and ate ice cream with other students in the town square while we watched the world go by, and even enjoyed an afternoon with them at a local public pool that overlooked a banana plantation.  While in Tanzania, I’ve sat under the stars and had drinks with a Maasai warrior by the light of a kerosene lamp, been invited to dinner by our safari guide and sat around a fire under the big stars of African sky. You just never know where you’ll find yourself if you open yourself up.

At a student's butterfly farm in Puriscal. It's an amazing sight to see dozens and dozens of butterlies flying around you.

At a student’s butterfly farm in Puriscal. It’s an amazing sight to see dozens and dozens of butterlies flying around you.

With Leonard, a Maasai from Ngorongoro finding work in Zanzibar.

With Leonard, a Maasai from Ngorongoro finding work in Zanzibar.

9) Your length of stay can vary depending on how much time you can give. Some stints are as brief as one week while others can last months. Whether you’re working full-time (and can only spare a couple of weeks) or whether you’re a student/retiree and can spend an entire summer abroad, you can stay as long as you can manage.

Watching the locals load a boat with goods in Zanzibar.

Watching the locals unload a boat of goods in Zanzibar.

10) You’ll learn new skills. Most organizations will also train you while you’re on site. It will either be something related to your volunteer work – such as construction techniques in Ecuador or something related to the culture itself – such as batik painting in Tanzania. Cross Cultural Solutions offers cultural activities as part of the program including language lessons, dance lessons and even art classes. You may even learn the language – at least more than the average tourist. Knowing the language helps so much with your volunteer placement – such as not confusing the Swahili words to drink (“kunywa”)  with to poo (“kunya”).

Getting my groove on with Samba lessons!

Getting my groove on with Samba lessons!

At our batik class.

At our batik class.

11) You will come home a different person. Nothing beats travelling to another part of the world to be integrated into the day to day life of a country. You will experience the culture in a very special way and if you’re lucky, you’ll take home some amazing stories and memories to share with the folks back home. It’s hard not to be inspired after seeing the often unseen parts of the world and meeting real people. If you’re going to give it a try, be open – all the variety in the world is there for you to benefit from. Be flexible – you’ll learn things about yourself when things don’t quite meet your expectations. Come out of your comfort zone – what you’re truly capable of will surprise you.

A simple smile will be one of the most rewarding things you receive while volunteering abroad.

One of the most amazing things for me with the kids was when one little girl named Rachel asked me what tribe I belonged to (everyone in Africa is born into a tribe). Maybe it was reading too much into an innocent question – but I felt like she had stopped looking at me like a mzungu (foreigner) and more as one of them 🙂

Volunteer placements differ based on your interest. Regardless of what it is, it will teach you to be flexible, creative, open-minded and to get over yourself. Most, if not all the volunteer programs are geared towards sustainable development. You’re actually building something. Not to sound sappy, but your placement will also teach you how incredibly fortunate we are to live in a first world nation. So. Very. Fortunate. You will ask yourself a lot of questions. You will learn what you’re made of. I volunteered in Costa Rica and in Tanzania through Cross Cultural Solutions. They are not affiliated with any religion and they are advisors to the U.N. They also integrate a lot of cultural immersion into the program itself (consisting of lectures by local experts and many field trips).  Try it out. You never know what adventures may come your way 🙂