There is nothing quite like the excitement of arriving at a brightly coloured hostel door, in some exotic city that you’ve been drooling over on instagram for the past few months. You whack out the old Lonely Planet guidebook, and set off on foot experiencing this new exciting culture for a day or two, taking in the sights, and probably going for a drink or two with your fellow hostel travelers. Then you pack up your rucksack, and its on to the next hostel and exotic place, where, sat with another bunch of people in another bar, you will no doubt utter the phrase all other travelers do; “oh yeah, I’ve done (insert exotic place here)”.
Photo credit | Frontier
I myself am guilty of this. For years I was in an endless cycle of scrimping and saving for months, before embarking on my next trip, moving from one travel spot to the next every few days, before coming back and saving for the next trip. And don’t get me wrong, it was incredible. I loved every single second and have seen some incredible sights and gained memories that will stay with me forever. And I myself would sit in a bar and say proudly “Oh yeah, I’ve done New Zealand” or “Oh yeah, I’ve done Chiang Mai”. But have we really ‘done’ a country, or even a single town, after a day or two? Can you experience what makes that place unique, it’s little local quirks, understand the local people’s way of life, by following a guide book? The answer is no, and that is why I will always pick volunteering over travelling. Here are my top 6 reasons why;
1. It’s like having your cake and eating it
Volunteering abroad is travelling, but so much more. There are many reasons why we have this sudden urge for ‘wanderlust’. To escape our normal humdrum lives, to experience other cultures, soak up some sun, see the wonders of the world, to name but a few. You still get all that with volunteering abroad, but you also get to make a difference to the place you visit, and gain all the other benefits from volunteering and settling in one place for a few weeks/months that we discuss below. And hey, if you still want the spontaneity of travel, a lot of volunteers spend an extra week or two just travelling after they finish their programmes.
2. Become part of a community, not just an observer
As a volunteer, you become a familiar face around the community, from simply living there for an extended period, to working with the local people. You get invited to dinner at a family’s home, the little girl runs up and holds your hand as you walk down the street, you are actually in the festival, you join a bashi team, you somehow get roped into a local fashion show, you taste REAL local food. These experiences simply aren’t found in a guidebook or a tour. Living in the community for an extended period of time allows you to not just be a stranger walking down the street; you become a friend. Everyone stops and says hello and welcomes you not only into their town, but their lives.
3. Contribute to the right kind of tourism
There is big money in tourism, and especially in developing countries this can mean people and companies often exploit wildlife and the environment to get a piece of the pie. Controversy around attractions such as Thailand’s ‘Tiger Kingdom’ and ‘Elephant sanctuaries’, or Florida’s ‘Sea World’ is not new, and there are countless other examples where half the time we don’t even realise the harmful ramifications. Animals are forced to perform, reefs are destroyed to make way for underwater restaurants, marine life’s natural habitat of seagrass beds are removed because they are ‘unsightly’ and baby turtles are taken from nests so that they can be released by resort guests. The main problem is that the allure of seeing these animals we love, or eating in an underwater restaurant, or having that picture perfect white sand beach is too great. Remember, if there is no demand, there is no supply. So use your purchasing power wisely and ensure your hard earned money is making the right choices. By volunteering with an approved programme, you are still able to get a taste of these incredible experiences, but know that your money and time is contributing to actually protecting the animals and the environment we love, rather than helping to continue a destructive cycle of exploitation.
Photo credit | Frontier
4. It’s not all hard play and no work
One of the reasons a lot of young people in particular love to travel is to escape the pressures of future careers. Unfortunately, eventually we have to face up to reality and join the big bad working world. There is a bit of a debate about whether companies look favorably or not on an extended period of travel, however, as well as satisfying that travel bug, volunteering actually enhances your CV. As well as gaining skills transferable for most future careers, from practical field experience, teamwork, communications, leadership, data collection, report writing and a whole host of others, many volunteering companies will happily provide references and help find networking connections.
5. Money, money, money, it’s a rich man’s world
It’s the unavoidable downside to anything. Money. Holidays, travel, and yes, even volunteering costs money. Having funded all my travels myself, I can relate to the disheartening feeling of watching your hard-earned funds slowly trickle away. The majority of volunteering programmes do charge a fee for your efforts. The initial numbers can be quite shocking, with the norm being over a thousand dollars for two weeks. “But this is unfair” I hear you cry, “I’m giving my time and effort to doing good!”. However, the cost of volunteers transport, accommodation, food, resources, and activities needs to be covered somehow. There is a silver lining. Whilst on volunteer projects, there is actually very little need to spend any additional money whilst there, as in most programmes, everything is included. Having been volunteering for nearly two months now, I estimate I’ve spent less than $20, and that is just because I needed to satisfy my chocolate fix. The up front cost is high, but in the long run, it can actually be much more budget friendly than a regular holiday.
Photo credit | Frontier
6. Make your mama proud
Volunteering genuinely does make a huge difference to the local community and the projects you work on. Most NGO’s don’t make a profit (or they shouldn’t anyway), and the good one’s want to dedicate any funds on the actual conservation and developmental projects, rather than pay expensive staff salaries. These organizations, and therefore these valuable projects, simply wouldn’t get done without the self-less work of volunteers. Rather than boasting of your beer-pong tournament title you won in a hostel bar, you can proudly show off those turtles that are now free because of you, or that new clean drinking water system, or those children who now have an education. Feel proud knowing you have made a real positive impact, and actually made the world a little bit better.