So the debate around ‘Voluntourism’, the process of volunteering whilst travelling, has been raging on for quite some time now. Both sides present valid arguments, like volunteering during your vacations gifts you with greater insight into a foreign city or organisations that offer voluntourism are just in it for the money and not the greater good, yada yada yada. I’m not here to contribute to that argument, mainly because I truly can’t be arsed and don’t really have any meaningful, intellectual contributions to put forth.
No, I’m only here to share my personal experience. To date, I’m not even sure if what I did can be considered Voluntourism. It’s only that I added an extra couple of days to my trip that I am using this term.
Three years ago, my university offered an incentive to students to partake in an overseas volunteer program in Peru. The program was labour intensive, meaning at times, it was physically challenging. We spent 5 days a week at the site of a school in a remote village in Cusco building classrooms. During those days, university students studying education taught in the classrooms, with the ages of the kids going from about 5 to 12, but there were some much younger than that too.The program ran for almost 5 weeks and close to 18 students including our mentor/leader shared a volunteer house.
Of all the places I have been and all the holidays I have taken, nothing has left me with the same feeling that this whole experience did, so much so that I have been searching for it ever since. My friends said that coming off the plane, I had never looked more radiant or peaceful in all the years they had known me.
So here’s some reasons why Voluntourism should be on your travel bucket list.
You experience the culture 1000 x more
When I went to San Francisco, we accidentally booked our Airbnb in what I presume was the worst part of town. In what felt like four days spent in an American movie about disadvantage and drug abuse, we truly copped the worst of what the city had to offer. During the days, we visited the lovely areas of San Fran, like the bay area and beyond but I was always left with a sickly feeling in my stomach. I felt like as a tourist, if me and my dumb fuck friends hadn’t booked in the Mission, we would have never caught sight of the real dark sides of the city. That’s not all true, because there’s homeless people everywhere in San Fran, but it wouldn’t have been as bad as seeing two feet hanging out of the bottom of a wheelchair with a sheet thrown over it in the corner of an alley.
In the same way but also totally different, when you’re working with locals and living in their homes and not a hotel, you see their struggles, you learn their hopes and learn where they came from. You have no choice but to try and understand them in order to co-exist. You don’t just see the Plaza De Armas and the lovely bustling city centre. You see poverty crippling a people, you learn their national dishes, you can even eat a home cooked guinea pig!
You become a part of change
We looked through photos of the progress of the school and with each group of volunteers, you saw a huge difference. We were shown a before and after of a completed school and it’s a great way to put into perspective the amount of work it takes to see volunteer work through to the end. The founders of the program spend every cent they get on their work and they are so loved and adored by everyone in these communities, it’s truly inspiring. The little money they earn they spend simply to survive. We felt honoured to even be a part of something that was just so much bigger than all of us and all our tribulations.
You re-evaluate your own condition
The founders of the program told us all that most their volunteers (apart from university students) would often come to take part in the program because they wanted to give back but why would they do it, thousands of kilometres away from their lives back home? Why not just donate? More often than not, people were looking for a means to also separate themselves from something that had them down in the dumps, maybe a divorce, a break-up, a bad job or just general feelings of lacklustre. Like most acts, volunteering isn’t always 100% selfless, unless you’re a patron saint in which case I applaud you, you incredibly amazing nerd. The process of volunteering abroad allows us to reconsider our own situations and it really does trivialise a lot of the things that get us down in our day to day. I think coming back, I had not a worry in the world, which lasted all but 2 months and then I was sucked back into the vortex that is existence.
In the same sense, you are faced with actual devastation. We visited huts that were homes for many and most the volunteers broke down into tears and became inconsolable. It really puts shit into perspective.
You learn the language
To this day, I can speak the conversational Spanish I learnt while I was over there. I can tell you that I remember most the phrases, greetings and questions I used on a day to day at the school with the kids or with the other teachers and parents. We were forced to learn the basics of the language because the people we were working with could not speak English, and using our hands to communicate proved both caveman-ish and ineffective, especially with shit like “where’s the bathroom?” and “where can I buy cigarettes?”
You make lifelong friends
You live with people you have never met for 5 weeks and you don’t just go along without making friends for life. You grow with these people, you struggle with these people, you watch these people have explosive diarrhea from the inevitable salmonella you have contracted from drinking Pisco Sours. In short, you have accelerated relationships with strangers who turn out to be some of the best drinking buddies you might have ever had.
You might come back a different person
I just couldn’t complain as much. It was physically hard to find things to complain about. I felt peaceful and relaxed, even though I had spent 5 weeks not holidaying but working. Something in me was dead and gone and to this day, I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was. All I know is, it made me a more sensitive person to the struggles of the world and it awakened in me a greater love for humanity.
Trust me when I say this, you haven’t travelled until you volunteer and travel at the same time. Has anyone had the same kind of experience? Let me know.