10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Volunteered

Articles from Philippines Tacloban City, Philippines | May 16, 2011

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  As a placement advisor with Kaya I am now well versed in travelling, volunteering and packing but that's only after years of practice! Here are 10 things I wish I knew before I volunteered for the first time...  

Do your research into the country that you’re travelling to...

For many this will be the first thing on your To Do list, but make sure you know the area that you are going too. It is all well and good looking at the country as a whole and the big tourist attractions or amazing places to visit while you’re there, but be realistic and know where your placement is based, the things that you will be able to do that are close by and may not require too much travelling. If you know there are a lot of places that you want to see – make the most of the flight that  you have booked half way round the world and add on some extra days either at the beginning or end of your project to tick them all off!

Be flexible and go with the flow...

This is the number one rule that you need to remember when you are away volunteering and I wish this was stressed to me more before I left! Things barely run to schedule in third world countries, times may be slightly skewed (take Filipino Time for example!), transport may not (usually does not) run to schedule and you just need to learn to do things as the locals do. Take your time, appreciate the workings of that country and go with the flow. As someone who has everything planned down to the tee, this is something that didn’t come naturally to me and I wish I had been warned beforehand so I could at least prepare my pre-planning self to learn to go with the flow.

There is no way you’ll remember everything that you experienced so bring a journal with you...

I am always under the impression that I am great with names, faces and places but I inevitably forget all of them the minute I’ve touched back down in my home town. When I first volunteered in the Philippines back in 2006, I brought along a beautiful journal that one of my best friends bought me before I left and just made some little observations every evening to help me remember all that I had seen and done during my 5 weeks! Even now, 5 years later, I re-read my anecdotes and stories and it really brings my time volunteering to life – much more than it ever would have without it!

That it is OK to have Culture Shock and you’ll get over it...

The first week of volunteering was by far the hardest for me throughout my time away. You’re in a new country, new food, people, climate and everything seems pretty alien at first. I had been told about culture shock, even read about it before I left but I never had anyone verbally prepare me for that shock. I just missed family and friends and when you’re far away from your home comforts, the smallest things can seem so huge. Mid way through my first week though I started to settle into my routine, I’d find my own familiarities and my host family really opened up to me. By the end of my 6 weeks I didn’t want to leave and was looking at every possible way to stay longer as I’d come to know and love everyone that I had been with so much. When you’re put in unusual circumstances you form strong bonds very quickly and that was what helped me through those first few weeks – my support network in country. If you do experience this while you’re away, just understand that there are so many other people who have experience it, that it’s ok to feel that way and that it will soon get better. Talk to your project coordinators, the other volunteers and your host family as they’ll all help to pull you out of it. It really is only a phase and you’ll soon start to see the incredible place that you are living and working and how important your time on the project really is.

Check out whether your phone works before you land in country...

If you want to embrace being abroad – don’t take one but if you’re set on bringing it make sure you have your phone unlocked and tri-band enabled so you can buy a local SIM card while you’re away. Also, turn off data roaming or any other device which will stream and download information as your bills will sky rocket (I know this only too well!). A great tip now is to open your own Skype account. It is free to use for computer – computer calls (and if you have a webcam you can even have a free video chat) anywhere in the world. You can also load up monetary credit onto your Skype account and call landlines and mobiles too – this is much much cheaper than using a mobile to call while you’re abroad.

Lower your personal hygiene expectations...

I like to consider myself quite a clean person and like my nice hot and very long showers in the morning. However, you need to understand that the availability of water and especially hot water may be a real luxury where you are volunteering, so even before you leave get used to the idea that you may have to have a cold shower or even a bucket shower. Find out before you leave so you know what’s coming and embrace it! A cold shower is actually pretty refreshing when it’s baking hot outside.

You’ll do things and see things you never imagined that you would so embrace them and live for the moment...

White water rafting, a bungee jump, scuba diving... These are just a few of the adventures that I had while travelling. Throughout my life I have been 100% certain that I would never, ever in my life do a bungee jump, but I got to Costa Rica and decided it would be a great idea!! One thing I have learnt from volunteering and travelling is to take the opportunities that are given to me – extra volunteer work, weekends away with other volunteers – really open yourself to the country and culture and you’re set to have a great time!

I wish I’d bought a present for my homestay (photos, leaflets, local gift from your town – food stuffs)...

When I arrived for my first volunteer placement I wasn’t sure who I would be staying with and didn’t even think to bring my homestay family a gift. After living, eating and becoming a part of my homestay family was one of my highlights of my placement and I only wish I had photos of my own family to share with them or a foodie present from my home town that they would never have seen or heard of before. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but a little unique gift can speak a thousand words and just show how grateful you are to them to becoming a part of their family.

That I may get celebrity status while away...

Depending on where you are travelling to and where you’re travelling from, you may well be a new sight to some of the locals that you meet along the way. All of our projects are used to receiving volunteers however all of the locals may not always be used to seeing foreign faces around. While this should not be too intrusive, they may be inquisitive and staring and even pointing is often common. The way I turn this around is to pretend I’m famous as that’s how it has always felt to me in the Philippines!! Remember that you are exciting and new to them and they just want to find out more about you, where you are from, why you are there so do not be put off by questions from locals, take it with a pinch of salt and embrace your short lived celebrity status.

Not to pack your suitcase full before you leave...

A mistake I make regularly I feel that I must use up ever 25 kilos I have in my baggage allowance. The comeuppance? I have to throw out the things I brought with me because inevitably a) I am a girl who likes to shop and b) I am a girl who likes to shop! Remember that there are usually shops near your placement (if you’re heading to the middle of Antelope Park this may not be the case) but for a city or village based placement you’ll be able to pick up local clothing pretty cheaply! I always come back with my bags at least 3 times as full and I never learn. So I’m passing the tips on so someone hopefully will take my advice!

Posted by Kaya Placement Advisor, Nicci Hawkins

Tags: volunteer , abroad , packing , before you leave , journals , contacting family , culture shock

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