One day in a desperate need of escape, I pushed open my laptop screen and emailed my request for a month long sabbatical to my boss. The following morning to my surprise it was reluctantly granted. The only thing left now was to make that big decision. Will it be 30 days of a luxury vacation, a last minute backpacking trip abroad or something more local with a purpose?
The basic idea was to run away to travel and still make it worthwhile. This is how I was first introduced to the concept of travel volunteering. And since then my view of the world significantly changed, and StreetTrotter as a personal blog was born. Here’s the story.
Like any other workaholic professional working through the hectic schedules of Delhi, I never thought of or even paid attention to the idea of ‘volunteering’ while traveling. Like most others, the concept was as foreign to me… the beauty of which I only came to realize when I actually ended up doing it. A one month sabbatical, a place of interest to have a vacation in, and then finding a purpose or something to do while I was at it – was the very initial idea of what I proudly call today as a ‘lifetime experience’ and also the very trigger of this post.
I still remember, when I first announced my decision of volunteering at the LHA charitable organization for a month in Mcloedganj, everyone including my friends and family, concluded that I was mad. Even though I was equally scared to go to an unknown place, manage a solo trip for that long with no one known, and live within a mysterious community of Tibetans in exile, deep within, the idea of imparting education and teaching English to these immensely compassionate people, inspired me to consider the risk as worthy enough.
Following an overnight bus journey, there I was at 6 o clock in the morning waiting for Rabsel, the man who is the family of volunteers away from home at LHA, to receive me and get me settled. A warm hello, a quick introduction, and while we walked to find a place to stay, there came out the words, I didn’t expect to hear…
“Welcome to LHA. I was not expecting you. We get about 20 to 25 volunteer applications every month from Indians, But you are the first one who ever turned up. You helped us change perceptions. And I guess its a lucky month, because we might have more Indians coming!”
I knew this very moment – “I was opening myself to a different world, and what was bound to happen in the next one month, will be the best experience of my entire life. A Learning, unparalleled.”
A very cultured concept aboard, to my surprise, the fellow volunteers I met on my first day at LHA, were representing different parts of the world, around an average age of 19 and plus. During conversations, I figured, that ‘volunteering while traveling’, is the basic idea of most travelers, and also a part of the foreign education systems. Most youngsters choose the place and the organizations they wish to work with much in advance, for a simple credit in their high school, a practice I found missing in our Indian CBSE and ICSE boards.
I wonder how aware Indian youth would have been, if our schools cultivated the same idea in our systems, while we were still molding our personalities. Not to miss are also passionate travelers, who prefer volunteering on vacations, for simple pleasure, wisdom and inner growth.
A little research overtime, following my personal experience, volunteering is a much talked about practice that has been on for years and years. Mostly you would find volunteering organizations in remote areas, undeveloped cities and countries, and unprivileged communities / tribes which seek to take help from passing by travelers. India, Combodia, Brazil, Africa, are just to name a few places where volunteering roots.
So, if you are ready to let go of a luxury stay and time while you travel, a few hours teaching a second language to children or adults and helping out in schools, gives you the unique advantage of interacting with the locals, get to know their cultures, and meet fellow volunteers from myriad parts of the globe.
To state some facts, most of the lodging while volunteering is on your own personal expense, and also costs really cheap as the locals offer you to be a part of their households. Also, the experience of a solo travel is enriched a thousand times more if you work and discover while you stay put in a new place. In my advice, a week to a month is an ideal time to volunteer, as a week doesn’t leave you with too less a time to absorb, and a month helps you to live the learning to the fullest.
While a series of my following articles will tell you more about where to volunteer, and how to go about it, along with the logistics of it, to start with, not to sound biased based on my own knowledge, I asked a few fellow volunteers (who are now friends) the golden question, you all might have popping in your own mind while you read – “Why do you prefer volunteering over having just a luxury or a relaxing holiday?”
Often people travel out of sheer wanderlust, and some travel finding a purpose!
“Although I would never deny the opportunity to take a leisure holiday given the opportunity, I am also a big advocate and partaker of volunteering while traveling. Why is that? In my view, taking the time to volunteer is extremely worthwhile and can make more of a difference than you may think, even for just one individual. It is also a great opportunity to meet new people, locals and volunteers alike, which is one of the things I love the most about it. I in no way want to encourage an idealistic view of volunteering while traveling or to romanticize it; there are well-known negatives that can result from ‘voluntourism’, and I’m sorry but you’re not going to ‘save the world’ if that’s what you had in mind.
This is why that at the same time that I strongly believe in the importance and the potential of volunteering and the non-profits that rely on it, it is also just as important to ensure that you’re not just doing it for the perceived ‘right’ reasons but that you do the research to find an organization that you trust, value and respect.”
“I prefer volunteering over a leisure – like holiday because it gives me purpose. It allows me to have fun while helping others. Actually, volunteering allows me to have more fun than a traditional vacation because volunteering provides the space to meet new people. For example, during my travels to Dharamsala, I volunteered for Lha Charitable Trust, teaching English to Tibetan refugees.
I was able to hear their stories as we enjoyed each others’ company. I also met fellow volunteers from around the world, giving me a great foundation of friends in a foreign country. By sharing my skills, I am able to receive so much more back in return.”
Catherine Leipold & Olivia Nicolas
“Though I do enjoy a holiday for leisure every once in a while to unwind, I find that volunteering while traveling makes the experience so much more rewarding. I like volunteer work that is sustainable, i.e. passing on skills that may be foreign to a community, but that can be used in the long run even when the volunteers are no longer present.
Volunteering with LHA Charitable Trust in McLeod Ganj allowed me to do exactly this. I used my English and French speaking and writing skills to help students practice their language skills in order to pursue their career goals. Once they have learned English/French, they can teach others, creating a never-ending cycle of learning and improvement.” – Catherina
“I prefer to volunteer over a holiday because it allows complete commitment. You don’t have the worries of papers, tests, and homework as a distraction. I benefit from volunteering as much as I help others. Being exposed to other types of people, learning through making mistakes, and being thoughtful about what I am doing makes me grow as a person.” – Olivia
“I prefer volunteering where I can make a substantial, measurable positive change. Often times, volunteering over short periods of time doesn’t allow you to see that change so I’d say no, I don’t like to volunteer during a leisure like holiday. IMHO, it’s better to have a 3-month or 6-month plan and to take a sabbatical from work or take time off to work which you can dedicate solely to a social cause.
The most important thing about volunteering is relieving those less fortunate of some of life’s burden by creating opportunities for them that the average person would have. My experience with volunteering Dharmasala, India was simply perfect. I was able to teach/work directly with the students to see the immediate impact I was making through the work that I planned.”