Let’s face it; volunteering our time and effort to a worthy cause is a nice, feel-good thing to do. For many of us, however, the idea of doing work when we could otherwise be relaxing on a beach or exploring the jungle just sounds … crazy. We’re traveling to enjoy life, not to waste our precious time milking cows or digging ditches. Well, I’d like to help you see the light: not only can volunteering let you to contribute directly to a cause you’re passionate about, it can also be a great addition to your travels, providing unique and rewarding experiences as well as a means of stretching your travel budget. Remember, too, that volunteering is an exchange, meaning that not only is your host benefitting from your hard work, enthusiasm and great ideas; you’re also honing a new set of skills while gaining a different perspective on life.
If simply helping to make the world a better place isn’t reason enough, here are five completely selfish reasons to give volunteering a try.
To Save Money
Volunteering can be a great way to save some money and let you extend your travels. In exchange for just a few hours’ work a day, you can score delicious home-cooked meals and a comfortable bed, letting you hang out and explore a new place for weeks without spending a dime. This can be an awesome deal, especially when you’re working with a fun group of people on something you enjoy. Unfortunately, depending on where you are in the world and what kind of volunteering gig you’re looking for, this isn’t always the way it will work. In some situations, the value of your work (despite the fact that you’re giving it your all) just can’t cover the full cost of keeping you around. Because of this, many volunteer hosts will ask you to contribute a small fee during your stay. This may sound unreasonable at first, but if you consider the host’s point of view you may understand.
We spent a few weeks volunteering at a family-run organic farm in Costa Rica, working our butts off for five hours a day AND paying $12 U.S. per day for the right to do it. It took a while for us to swallow this, but once we’d learned more about the local situation (and found the awesome experience made it worthwhile) we quickly came to terms with it. Part of the issue is the fact that a local could be hired to do the work for the equivalent of two U.S. dollars per hour, and could do it a heck of a lot faster, at that (no matter how hard-working and well-intentioned you are, after an hour of cutting grass with a machete, you’re soaked in sweat with a sprained back and wrist while the local worker has cleared three times the area and hasn’t slowed down a bit). The other problem is the relatively high cost of living in Costa Rica; we would’ve spent a small fortune to stay in a hostel or eco-lodge in a similar area. On the bright side, the fee you pay can go straight to work helping out the local economy, providing your host with the means to employ a local worker (hopefully saving you from machete-mowing duty in the first place).
Don’t be afraid to pay a small amount, as long as it seems reasonable – if they’re asking for way more than it could possibly cost to host you, however, either ask them to explain where the money goes or simply steer clear. If completely free is a requirement, though, be persistent and you’ll find something. Countries with a lower cost of living will offer more affordable options, as will volunteer gigs with more profitable ventures (hotels or restaurants generally make more money than independently-owned organic farms). Also keep in mind that many hosts will be willing to work out a special deal if you prove especially useful or are able to stick around for longer. Bonus points if you’ve got some relevant skills from your past life – even if it’s just rewiring a couple light switches in your friend’s apartment back at home, you may find you’re the most experienced electrician in town. On a related note, try not to touch the exposed wires on your electrically heated showerhead…
To learn something new
Volunteering is a great opportunity to try something completely different. Unlike applying for a real job, when it comes to volunteering there’s no need to stick to work you’re actually qualified for – in many cases your host won’t expect you to have any relevant experience and will be happy to give you on-the-job training. Always wanted to work face-to-face with jungle cats but don’t want to spend years in vet-school? Volunteer at a wildlife reserve in Bolivia, and after just a few days training you can spend your days walking a wild ocelot. Always wanted to try your hand at bartending but didn’t want to invest a whole weekend of intense training? Volunteer at the pub below your hostel and mix drinks while hanging out with your new travel buddies. There’s an incredible variety of options out there, each offering a new opportunity to learn and be inspired.
Even if you’d prefer to volunteer within an area of expertise, you’ll be working in a new environment which brings with it unique challenges. Okay, you can frame a house using two-by-fours, a circular saw, and a cordless screwdriver – can you build a shelter using bamboo, some twine and a machete? One of the surprise benefits of volunteering in a less-developed or remote location is learning from the locals’ innovation and resourcefulness. Not only will this give you a new appreciation for everything you’ve got at your fingertips back at home, you’ll also pick up a few new MacGyver tricks that will impress your friends back at home.
Remember, too, that your collection of new skills isn’t just limited to the jobs you get thrown at – learning opportunities will pop up left, right and center. After a few hours of harvesting bananas in the jungle you may find yourself lending a hand in the kitchen, learning straight from the experts how to make cheese empanadas from scratch. And what better environment is there to master a foreign language than actually working with native-speaking locals? In no time, you’ll have picked up a whole new arsenal of expletives to work with. Your new line of work will also expose you to a whole new set of vocabulary, including things like caca de vaca and pala (Spanish for cow poop and shovel).
To have an incredibly unique and rewarding experience
Volunteering can have you going places and doing things you’d never even consider as part of a more conventional backpacking adventure. Our very first destination in our yearlong trip through Central- and South-America was a volunteering gig in a tiny farming village in Costa Rica called Villa Mastatal. Consisting of about 150 people, a few family-owned farms, a bar and a library, it made for a calm and safe environment for us to start learning Spanish while getting used to our new lives as backpackers. The village was also surrounded by incredibly lush and untouched rainforest, meaning that our free time was spent hiking to secluded waterfalls, taking in the colourful and abundant wildlife, and relaxing in hammocks while listening to the natural jungle symphony. If we’d stuck to the beaten trail, there’s no way we would have found ourselves in such an untouched and truly authentic environment.
As we continue to travel, whenever we feel the need for a few weeks of volunteering, we just browse the options and let them choose the way. We knew after our week of hanging out in León, Nicaragua, that we wanted to eventually make our way North into Honduras, but had no real plan of what to check out on the way. A couple hours of browsing helpex later, we set off for a forest-preservation project in a town called Jinotega (which hadn’t even been on our map until that point) to spend what turned out to be a couple of enlightening weeks discussing the meaning of life, building a mobile chicken-coop, and baking German strudel in a hand-built cob oven. Volunteering is like a box of chocolates…
To accomplish something
After spending a few weeks roaming from place to place, taking in sights, feasting on local dishes and guzzling the local beverage of choice, a volunteering gig can be a nice change of pace. There’s nothing like waking up with the sun and putting in a solid four hours of good old-fashioned hard work to snap you out of your backpackers’ stupor. You’ll be amazed by the fact that it’s barely noon and you’ve already accomplished something (when was the last time you could say that?), and will have a new appreciation for the free time you’ve got. You might even put a dent in those backpacker pounds you’ve been packing on since you left home.
To become a local
Even when visiting the friendliest of places, it’s hard to shake the idea that we’re just tourists passing through. Locals may smile and greet you, but almost always in just a superficial, “single-serving” way. You’d be amazed, though, at how quickly people can open up after they’ve witnessed you covered in dirt and soaked with sweat while helping to clear the trail up to the local swimming-hole. Before long, you’ll stop being just another tourist and will become a familiar face, opening the door to things like meaningful conversations, invitations to the Sunday football (err… soccer) game, and friendly greetings instead of indifferent stares when you slide up to the local bar after a hard day’s work.
A couple weeks working and living amongst the local people will give you a far better understanding of just who they really are – what their lives are like, what issues they have to contend with and what makes them tick. Stick around a little longer and you may even catch yourself feeling like a local, arguing passionately about the ongoing struggle to slow the clear-cutting of the nearby rainforest, cheering madly over a goal scored by your football team, or pointing and laughing at the oddly-dressed tourists passing by. Keep in mind, though, that once your status as a local is official you may find it’s just too hard to leave your new family and friends behind. Consider yourself warned!
Throwing in a few weeks of volunteering work is an excellent way to spice up your travels, opening a whole new world of destinations and experiences while providing a healthy dose of satisfaction and accomplishment. Once you’re ready, take a deep breath and then check out a website like helpex.net or workaway.info and see what amazing opportunities await!