When we asked for your voluntourism experiences reader and travel blogger Anna Etmanska sent us a note about her do-it-yourself voluntour trips. Intrigued, we asked her to tell us a bit more about breaking out of the organized tour.
I know voluntourism has recently become more trendy, but even I was surprised when a recent Travelocity poll claimed that 38% of Americans plan to get down and dirty doing good deeds on their vacations this year. The industry took notice as well, with tour operators and non-profits of all shapes and sizes jumping on the bandwagon, and now there are a variety of organizations eager to take your time and money (all for a good cause, of course).
How, doing what, and where you choose to volunteer is entirely up to you. Do you prefer a specific area of the world? Will you survive without running water and flush toilets? Can you, if not speak, then at least get by in a foreign language? And which one? What do you want to do? Teach English? Dig ditches? Restore narrow-gauge train tracks? For one week? Or one year?
Weeding through the myriad of volunteer options can be daunting. It was to me. With no money for a program fee (“And why should I pay to work for free?” I thought) and a morbid fear of a long-term Peace Corps-type commitment, my first voluntour happened accidentally. A friend of a friend’s aunt ran an orphanage in Guinea-Bissau. “Wow! Cool! Can I visit?” I asked. “Can you work?” she answered.
For six weeks that summer, I drove a beat-up Toyota truck on non-existent roads delivering food supplies in one of the poorest countries in the world. I returned home with a vicious case of malaria and a desire to do it again.
Though it takes time and effort, you can arrange to voluntour on your own. Start with doing your homework.
Read up on volunteering: Lonely Planet recently released their first volunteer guide — it should be a good starting point. Learn about the area you want to go and its needs, challenges, and politics. Can you communicate in the local lingo? What is your backup plan if things go haywire? Do you want to just show up and knock on doors offering help? If you speak the language and have a local contact — go for it.
Find People in the Know: Teachers, clergy, and foreigners already in the area can provide a wealth of information. Visit a school, a church, an orphanage, or a health clinic. Chances are someone, somewhere will put you to work. Especially, for free.
If you don’t take to clergymen, keep in mind that the funky padre with whom you shared a bush taxi just might be running a program for street kids in the slums. Ask him what he needs and chances are he’ll answer “English textbooks. And teachers.” True story. Happened to us. And the funky padre couldn’t care less about our religious affiliation, or lack thereof.
Get Organized: You can also organize your tour of duty ahead of time. Volunteer ESL positions abound; search the ESL listings online and contact a school directly to avoid paying a middleman placement fee. A legit school will provide room and board in exchange for your superior English skills. Many schools in developing countries take the safety of their children very seriously and require a criminal background check. Be glad if yours does.
Be Aware of the Legal Side: Simply put, if you enter a country on a tourist visa, or a visa waiver, you are not permitted to engage in any paid or UNPAID work, unless you happen to be an EU national volunteering in another EU country. Many organizations and individuals, myself included, conveniently ignore that small print on the entry card. We simply write “tourist” as the purpose of our visit and never mention any volunteer "work."
Ask for Help: If sorting your own voluntour sounds too complicated, plenty of organizations can help you out. Some charge exorbitant program fees, some require more modest financial contributions. In either case, your airfare, medical insurance, and personal costs will be extra. If you decide to pay for a program, know exactly where the money’s going.
Some establishments are genuine non-profits, some – no more than adventure travel specialists masquerading as charities. They all say your payment supports NGOs in the host country. But if you read the fine print carefully, you may see that: “This donation is administered at the discretion of Volunteer Trustees to the host NGO.” You may also find that the host NGOs were set up by the same person as the company who’s charging you money, so keep that in mind.
Know You Can Compromise: The middle of the road options require an application fee of a couple hundred dollars, and in certain situations — an additional couple hundred more — paid directly to the folks at your destination. SCI, Volunteers for Peace and CADIP all offer programs for every taste imaginable, from a weekly stint on an organic farm in Japan, to long term development work in South America. (While I have never worked with any of the outfits listed above, I admit to briefly crashing a CADIP work camp in Iceland — sorry guys! — I liked what I saw, and if I ever find myself with an extra 290 bucks, I promise I’ll sign up!)
Be Honest with Yourself: Regardless of how you choose to organize your volunteering adventure, be sure this is something you REALLY want to do. Don’t waste your and your host's time and efforts, because you don’t want to sleep on the floor, the food sucks, the roaches bother you, it’s been raining for the past two weeks, and you’d rather be on the beach. Because trust me, there will be times when you pick bugs out of your rice porridge and wish you were somewhere else.
Anna Etmanska is a dedicated volunteer who taught bad English in Indian slums, played with orphans in Ecuador, delivered food and school supplies in Africa, and yes, even dug ditches and built houses. She writes the travel blog, www.budgettrouble.com
Photos: Anna Etmanska