I don’t want to frame this post as a post about how volunteering while traveling makes it cheaper, because that isn’t necessarily always the case; nor should you become a volunteer traveler for the sole purpose of saving money. That being said, at times, it can make the logistics of travel a bit easier on you (ie. accommodations, meals, etc.) as well as (depending on your area of expertise or what type of volunteer work you end up doing) help to offset costs in some cases.
When I graduated college in May 2013, I began to wrack my brain for ways I could make travel my life. I had it in my head that to travel the world for a living or long term, you either had to be wealthy or have extremely generous parents. Then I thought of the Peace Corps – if I could just join the Peace Corps, then I could travel the world long term and help others at the same time! It had seemed like the perfect solution at the time…
About a year before that I had participated in what Michigan State calls Alternative Spartan Break, a program in which a group of college kids jets off to some faraway place for a week and trades their drunken party of a Spring Break for a week helping out a local community in some way. To this day, I can honestly say that this trip was my favorite of any vacation or far off place I’ve ever been to. And it was so unexpected! I thought I’d be off somewhere for a week hammering at a fence or building things for 24 hours a day—sweaty, tired, and unable to get out and see things in the area. Then I went to Bocas del Toro, Panama.
Boy, was I wrong! Not only did I get to mingle with the locals more than I ever would have been able to do had I simply vacationed in Panama for leisure, but I got to teach a science lesson to a room full of curious 1st graders and paint a mural of the ABC’s on a schoolroom wall that is still there to this day. My artwork is on the library tables and garden signposts halfway around the world and it is being used every day by people that need it and appreciate it!
These experiences made my trip so much more meaningful and unique. Instead of looking for things to do–spending money on attractions, overpriced food, tourist traps, and in shops, I was busy providing something special for the indigenous community there, so in that sense, it did save me money. What’s more is that I enjoyed myself much more than I think I ever would have enjoyed laying on the beach or running around visiting different museums or monuments anywhere else.
So after spending nearly 9 months undergoing the application and interview process of the Peace Corps that year after graduation, I had finally come to a position where it was time to either accept an offer for a placement or to choose a different route in life (and that is what the Peace Corps is, it’s a life-changing decision). In that moment when my recruiter e-mailed me with a possible opening in Mozambique, Africa to teach English in a local school, I thought about all of the people I had met back in Panama the year before—drifters who were just stopping along the way in that rainforest paradise, volunteers who stayed at that little school for weeks on end, and nomads who left their marks in that community just like I had with my paintings. They weren’t there for 2-4 years (the typical term for a Peace Corps volunteer). They were simply just passing through. Maybe a week or maybe a couple of months, but soon they’d be off to their next destination and maybe they’d find a good cause in another place that they could give to. You don’t have to dedicate your entire life to do good. There are so many opportunities out there—maybe not as well-known as the Peace Corps, but they’re there nonetheless.
I think that’s when I realized I was grasping at straws. I hate to admit this but I wasn’t passionate about volunteering. I was passionate about travelling. Being in the Peace Corps wasn’t traveling, it was living. The Peace Corps is a way of life, an ideology, something that if it’s going to be taken on, whoever does so better be damn well passionate about it. I wanted to see many different places around the world, not just one place for 2-4 years. The Peace Corps is a fantastic and very fulfilling life choice for many people and they do so, so much good—but it just wasn’t the right choice for me.
But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t volunteer travel. So many people think that when you travel and volunteer it has to be a long term thing. I do think my week in Panama did some good for the Ngobe community of Bocas del Toro, but even if it didn’t, at the very least it did some good for me. I got to experience a culture like it could never be experienced on a typical “vacation”. You can’t put a price tag on something like that.
So don’t think that you’re going to go to a poverty-stricken region and get an all-expenses paid trip because you’re going to plant some gardens or help out on a farm while you’re there; but do know that those local people would probably be happy to take you into their home, help you with meals, and give you recommendations for things you could do in your off-hours in exchange for your efforts. And let me guarantee you that that makes for a trip you will never forget.
CAITLYN WITHOUT A COMPASS
PS-Check out this video I made about my experience volunteering in Bocas del Toro, Panama!