Volunteering abroad? How to make the most of your experience
The Traveler’s Guide
So you’ve decided to travel with a purpose and volunteer abroad? Welcome to the community! Volunteering abroad in exchange for food and accommodation is a wonderful way to save money, learn new skills, help others and experience the local lifestyle. While these are all great ways to enrich your life, there are a few things you’ll need to watch out for. For example, some people use these programs as an opportunity to exploit for cheap labor. It happens to a lot of young travelers, and it happened to me last summer. I was volunteering in a little b&b farm, and it was clear my host was milking every drop of sweat from us volunteers. This was certainly not the friendly work-exchange environment I was used to. Ultimately, he decided to kick me out because I wouldn’t put up with his strict commands.
I tell you this not to scare you, but to let you know that although I am a seasoned traveler, I am no stranger to bad experiences. So here’s my step by step guide to avoid a bad experience like the one I had.
1. Know your host
When you’re browsing hosts, look through their reviews! If there aren’t any, Google the people or the business/organization where you’re considering volunteering.
Read between the lines:
As soon as you find information from previous volunteers or customers, read it carefully. If they sound dull or too general be suspicious. A lot of people think it’s rude to leave bad feedback, so they’ll often be vague and say things like, “Nice guy, nice place, thank you so much.” But keep in mind that just because a review isn’t negative, doesn’t mean it’s positive. If you decide to go anyway, expect surprises.
2. Know your location
Find the potential hosting site on a map or check it out on Google street view (in this instance, we encourage cyber stalking)! Does it look like the pictures they published? How far is the closest town, exactly? Is there public transportation available?
I suggest you download a map on your smartphone you can use offline. I use maps.me because it allows you to mark locations and it shows the distance between two points by car, bike or walking, giving you the km/miles and the time distance. I also carry an energy bank to make sure my phone won’t die. If you find yourself in a tight spot you want to know exactly where you are!
Check the local news
Learn about the sociopolitical situation of the country you want to visit. It helps to know the political atmosphere as to avoid saying or mentioning certain sensitive topics. If there’s a tense atmosphere I would suggest to travel in a group. You can find travel mates on couchsurfing.com, Facebook, or by Google “find travel mate”. The traveler’s network is here for you and bountiful with smart solutions.
During your research, don’t forget to get lots of information about the local culture, and look into what is perceived impolite in the country you’re visiting. Mind also the differences within the country, each region has its peculiarities.
Ask yourself what locals would notice about you.
How would people of that culture describe you? Are you a single woman? A gay couple? Are you covered in tattoos? How will they perceive these qualities? Try to figure out if you could represent a danger for yourself due to cultural barriers.
If you don’t speak the language bring a dictionary with you and/or learn a few key phrases. When you’re in a case of need, it’s important to be understood. Know the emergency phone number of the country you’re visiting, and the location of your embassy there.
Now that you’ve gathered all these information, it’s time to take action: get in contact with your host.
3. Schedule a call with the potential host
And record it if you can. This might sound like a disrespectful invasion of one’s privacy, but as a volunteer you’re most likely not getting any contract, and this means no guarantees whatsoever. It is risky already. There are free apps to record your calls directly on your smartphone, such as Call Recorder and often free tools already installed on your smart device. The recording can be handy when you’re lost with no cell service, need to remember phone numbers, or any information gap of the like. If the call is months before volunteering, it’s likely you could forget some details.
During the call ask about any and all of your lingering questions, and also the things you do know already. Confirm claims and don’t spare on questions.
The conditions must be clear for both parties.
The conditions between host and volunteer need to be crystal clear. If you have special requirements, such as a food intolerance or asthma, make sure your host knows this information. Speak about the work schedule, the amount of hours expected, accommodation, facilities. Ask how you’re going to get fed. Are you cooking for yourself? Are you eating together? Are they paying for all of the food? Is it three full meals a day? These are things you’ll definitely want to know.
Here’s a list of the possible facilities:
- Kitchen: Gas Stove? Fridge? Oven? Microwave? Coffee machine? Or just a fire stove for everything?
- Bathroom: Toilet? Shower? Bathtub? Or outhouse and wipes? Ask about the water system. Sometimes hosts have solar showers, sometimes you’ll heat your water on a fire pit. If there’s a well it can get dry or frozen depending on the season. Don’t take anything for granted.
- Heating system, in case it’s winter time
- Wifi and phone signal
- Room: Private? Double? Dorm? With whom? Blankets and pillow?
- Laundry room: Washing machine? Drier or line in the backyard?
- Moving around: Some hosts provide a pass for the public transport, some provide a bike, some provide nothing. Ask.
To avoid misunderstandings you can listen again to the phone call you have recorded and, if something is confusing, ask the host for clarifications.
Enquire now for more info:
AUSTRALIA 1300 295 579
NEW ZEALAND 09 973 5913