Volunteering – Voluntourism

“You are so brave”, “I couldn’t do what you have done/are doing”, “But aren’t you scared?”.  Just a few of comments that I have heard in this vein over the past 5 years.  And it is almost 5 years to the day since I embarked on my first volunteer placement with GVI.

Here I was, at the ripe age of 55, off to travel solo for the first time, to the other side of the world, to a different culture, different language and the anticipation of communal living. (Maybe I was at an advantage here after having survived bringing up 5 children, which in itself is a bit like communal living). Brave – yes, stupid – maybe, spontaneous – yes, getting out of my comfort zone – a big YES.  In the brief from GVI they advise to be flexible when it comes to the living conditions, which they warn in advance will not be to the standard accustomed to in western culture.  I was going with an open mind and advice from a young friend “Cath, just say yes (or “si”) to everything.”  The best advice I have had!

Step so far outside your comfort zone, you forget how to go back.

My first foray into the world of volunteering was to Costa Rica and arriving was exciting, liberating, and a little scary. The back up and support from GVI was excellent and I have subsequently volunteered with them again, twice in Laos and just back from Nepal.  The experience in each of these hubs has each been so different but all life changing and unforgettable.

In Quepos. Costa Rica, with tourism being one of their biggest cash earners, the need for supported English lessons is one area where GVI are able to help, especially in the poorer communities.  Here I got to work in the local communities, to see and experience how Costa Ricans live their daily lives, how they survive and always with a smile on their faces.  On arrival on the capital San Jose, the sign as you enter the arrival hall is “Welcome to the happiest country on earth” and they really live up to this.


Luang Prabang in Laos, stole my heart. I had the privilege to meet and teach the young novice Buddhist monks, whose humility and thirst for knowledge knew no bounds. This experience has had a huge impact on my life as was being involved in the women’s empowerment project.


My latest experience in Pokhara, Nepal where I was involved in the childcare programme, has to have been my most challenging to date, and at the same time extremely rewarding.  Seeing the little differences in the attitudes and behaviours of the little ones over the duration, you can only know that you have had a positive impact in their little lives.



There is a lot of debate about the impact of volunteering and as some say voluntourism.  As with anything in life, what you put in is what you get out.  I have gone to each project with an open, flexible mind and willing to do what ever is asked and the rewards both personally and to the communities I have worked in, I feel are split both ways.  I have grown as a person, pushed my boundaries and made that difference to others.  Yes, I have white water rafted, paraglided, visited far flung temples, jumped off waterfalls and swum in oceans I never would have had a chance to do, so yes I have done all the touristy things, but at the same time, because I lived with the communities, never once did I feel like a tourist, and can say that as discussed with many of the other volunteers, we tended to get annoyed with the average “tourist” who appeared to disregard the cultural differences of the country, which as a volunteer you come to respect.

With all this in mind, you do not need to be brave to volunteer or travel solo, but need to have an open, spontaneous heart and mind and be willing to endure a few discomforts and learn some amazing valuable life lessons whilst having the time of your life.  There are a few disreputable volunteer organisations out there, so do your homework before embarking on an adventure that will change you for ever.  I personally highly recommend Global Vision International (GVI) who offer projects focused on marine and wildlife conservation, child care, animal care, health care and teaching.  Here you will make friends for life, of all ages and nationalities  – all you have to do is say yes.

My virgin trail run – at night!

The muted sound of early evening Johannesburg traffic in the background is the only sound, apart from my own heavy breathing and the footfall of my feet as they make their way around the dusty paths of Emmarentia Dam.  It is dark in the park and somehow even with the street and car lights passing by behind the palisade fence, there is a surreal rather magical atmosphere.  Up ahead the faster runners are making their way through the tree lined ridge and their individual headlamps blinking through the foliage bring back memories of fireflies on a summers evening.  Following behind them, dipping down to the dam water’s edge, where somehow your senses are more alert in the darkness, you can smell the freshness of damp undergrowth and the temperature drops significantly. It is almost impossible to imagine that you are in the middle of one of the biggest, busiest cities in South Africa.

After being a road runner for the best part of 30 years, this is my first foray into trail running and what a wonderful experience it turned out to be.  To take the road less travelled, and instead of having to dodge cars, taxis and trucks, you become one with nature. There are other hazards and you need to be quite sure footed, especially at night when your slowly dimming headlamp fails to pick out a hidden gnarly tree root. I found my running style change to fit in with the hazards and often uneven gradient and was very grateful for my newly purchased trail running shoes.

Trail running has to be one of the fastest growing sports, with more and more people looking for new challenges.  Dave Funnell, a passionate and seasoned trail runner, felt he needed to give back a little something to a sport that had given him so much, and has invited people to join him in the sport he loves every Tuesday evening at 17:45, for an informal run with nature.  Two distances are on offer +- 5km and 8km, with a team leader for both groups.  The runners stay together in groups which cater for all levels of runners. There is no cost involved but a request for a R 10 donation towards the refreshments provided at the finish, which is at The Craft Beer Library in Roosevelt Park, where an ice cold beer and delicious meals are on offer.

This week I will be buying new batteries for my headlamp (a must have to avoid those pesky tree roots) and will be lining up once again on a Tuesday evening for my next trail run – I am hooked.


Photo courtesy – http://www.runcoedybrenin.com