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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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