Top Ten Things You Need to Know Before Volunteering Abroad
If you would love to spend some time volunteering abroad in your university holidays but have no idea where to start, then don't worry: you're not the only one. It's always a good idea to get advice from someone who's been through it all before. Dunya has spent more than a year travelling and volunteering in Serbia and Thailand, and here she shares the top ten things she's glad she found out before she decided to volunteer abroad...
1. Read, re-read, and read again your online briefing
Not every volunteer program works for everyone. Do you enjoy hot showers and television access? Do not join a project with accommodation described as “rustic”. If you are opposed to cold, rainy weather, wintertime in Northern Europe is not for you.
2. Learn some of the host language, and pack a book
Volunteering in a country where you know little to nothing of the local language is a huge handicap. Being unable to communicate with even the most basic of daily commands can be extremely isolating and stressful. Prevent this and spend time learning some of the language before you go. Pack a small, two-way dictionary, or if you have a smartphone or similar device, there are apps you can download for verbal translations. There is even Word Lens; an app that, when the camera hovers over a word or phrase, changes foreign written text into one’s home language text. That one was extraordinarily helpful with my food shopping.
3. Pack light
Save money on baggage by packing light on the way there and filling up your bag, instead of buying an additional bag for souvenirs on the way back. Pack the basics like socks and underwear, but plan to supplement your wardrobe with your new country’s store-bought clothes found at the same prices, perhaps even more inexpensive, as clothes you could buy at home. Admit it, you were likely to be a tourist shopper either way.
4. Know the basics of the local medical system
This is a big one, especially for women. You do not want to find yourself in a medical emergency with no idea how to contact, make an appointment, or pay for a gynecologist or other medical professional. Even learning how to find prescriptions and buy basic medicines for common diseases and damage control is a huge comfort.
5. Not everyone is your friend
As a young, foreign volunteer there will be locals who will conspire to rip you off. In fact, some people make their living romancing and deceiving travellers. Keep your guard up, whether its people you meet in the street or even the casual acquaintance of friends. Although you're not likely to encounter this problem in rural areas, large cities where there are many tourists can be quite dangerous.
6. But don’t be afraid to talk to people
That said, while every place has its conniving residents, every place is also filled with amazing locals who would love to chat about the best local brewery and their hometown’s most underrated historical site. People naturally want to share what they are passionate about, and when you're in an unfamiliar place, you will naturally want people to chat and visit with. Learn the local language and emotionally prepare yourself to be more outgoing and inquisitive.
7. Nothing substitutes a good camera
On my trip I brought a poor quality camera that broke down within a week. Do not repeat my mistake. There will be many places and people you will want to capture in order to accurately remember this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Buy a high-quality camera and practice taking expert shots with it before you go.
8. Buy good shoes
No matter where you go in the world, you will be walking a lot. Buy the most comfortable, highest quality walking or hiking shoes and break them in before you travel. Your feet can send me a thank you card.
9. Bring more money than you think you’ll need
You never know what kind of emergencies might come up. Perhaps you need medical help, or maybe you'll miss your flight home and need to pay a massive airline fee. Before you leave, plan for and set aside an emergency fund in an accessible account. Even if you end up not needing it overseas, it will be a comfort to have it when you come home and re-assimilate your life.
10. Research organisations and follow the money trail
Today, the number of organisations offering to connect potential volunteers, teachers, and workers to overseas and foreign placements is absolutely overwhelming. For those searching for volunteer opportunities because of a humanitarian calling partnered with a desire to travel, be sure to thoroughly research who your partner-organisation is, what their mission is, where the money goes, and what you get out of paying to volunteer.
Some organisations will charge an exorbitant profit-motive fee and leave you to figure out food and space rentals. For others, payments are split to provide for your living needs, structural costs, and administrative fees. Other programs have no upfront fees; you just need to get to them. I volunteered through two different programs, so I can personally recommend the European Voluntary Service (EVS) for Europeans interested in volunteering in or outside Europe, and Edventure International for Australian and US citizens interested in volunteering in Thailand, Costa Rica, Cambodia, or Australia.
This post was written by Dunya Carter, a passionate traveller and volunteer from Brisbane, Australia.