Holidays are bloody awesome! Beach time, bar time, bed time… just thinking about it makes me feel relaxed. So why on earth would you want to swap some of your precious, well-earned break for, well, another job? I’m glad you asked. Here are my top five reasons for volunteering overseas on your next holiday:
1. You get properly submersed in the culture.
Project sites are usually off the beaten track. Instead of seeing the sites customised for tourists, you get to see behind the scenes so to speak. You get to see how the locals really live – what they eat, their standard of living and what they do to pass the time. No doubt you will also make friends with at least one local person while you are there and they can teach you all about what it is really like in their culture.
2. You learn about serious issues facing the world, and how you can actually help.
Whether it be sanitisation, food scarcity, animal cruelty, people trafficking or child labour, when you work on one of these projects, you are exposed head on. That can be pretty eye opening for any human being. The plus side is that you also learn what can be done to better the problems in some way. And that there really are good people in the world who just want to help those in need in some way – the people you work with (just like you).
3. You learn new skills.
It could be cooking, building, cleaning, farming, planting trees, administering medicine etc. Volunteer projects always have a lot of different things that need to be done and often with few resources, so be prepared to try new things.
4. You make good friends.
Not the ones you connect with on Facebook and then never speak to again. The friends you make on these types of projects are ones that you have gotten to know well - working alongside them 24hrs a day for a few weeks at minimum. You have got to share a unique, challenging and rewarding experience with them, and that’s the stuff that makes strong friendships.
5. You’re doing something good for those in need.
That will make you feel all fuzzy inside. When was the last time you had that feeling?
I volunteered at a wildlife refuge in Thailand for a few months a little while ago. As an animal lover, it was brilliant. I got to help raise baby gibbons (including midnight feeds and nappy changes), learn about conservation issues and even pick up some of the Thai language. (Don't test me know though. All I can remember these days is 'please' and 'good day'.)
Here’s a key thing I learnt while I was there: however adorable and cute baby apes are, when they grow up, they can, and will, RIP YOUR FUCKING FACE OFF! That’s not an exaggeration.
If you are interested in volunteering overseas, my advice would be to check out possible projects and locations through the websites of companies who organise such trips for westerners. Then contact the places directly to ask how much it would be. This will make it cheaper for you and you can see where the money is going to. I was pretty disgusted to find out that only 30% of what I paid to the volunteer agency in Australia actually made it to the wildlife refuge in Thailand.
By finding projects through the agency websites, you will also find projects that probably going to be safe and used to having foreigners.
I know some people have an aversion to volunteering overseas when there is so much need for volunteers at home. However, I like to really get my hands dirty and learn as much as I can when I volunteer. In Australia, there is so much regulation which prevents volunteers from doing much at all.
I’ve volunteered at a few places here (and I’m sure there will be more), but I have always felt useless because I can’t go into certain areas, touch certain things, or conduct certain activities. It’s very hard to learn (and stay interested) in that situation, so it’s no surprise that there is a high turnover of volunteers in most places.
If I was to volunteer somewhere tomorrow, it would be on a conservation project in the Galapagos Islands. Goddamn, I love that place!
Have you volunteered overseas? Do you have any tips for people looking to do the same?