Volunteering and travelling: just how easy is it?

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Travelling the world has always been romanticised and idealised by many students, especially those looking to go on gap years or spend long Easter and summer breaks abroad. But with the current economic crisis, can we – as students – really afford to city hop? What about some other options? Staying with a ‘host’ family – which is my next adventure – or Couchsurfing can give you a great taste of a traveller’s life at a cheap cost. Something which is more towards the deep end would be volunteering for a charity abroad, which would also be a relatively cost-effective experience, if you plan ahead. So what would be best for you?

A relative of mine went for the latter option: the extreme. Snehalaya – which means “Home with Love” in Hindi – is a care home in Gwalior, a small rural village in India run by Gwalior Children’s Charity. ‘I stayed in the orphanage for 4 months and worked every day with children who have been sexually, emotionally and physically abused and many of whom are disabled’, says Keval. The charity aims to provide help, care and support for these people, and they rely heavily on volunteers from the western world who can provide a higher quality of care than staff from the local area. This is where my cousin chose to go. Adjusting to the food, culture and poverty wasn’t easy – how could it be? – but it provided him with one of the best experiences of his life. ‘It was the most physically and emotionally challenging 4 months of my life but the children’s positivity pulls me back to volunteer there every year.’ It may be somewhat of a cliché, but he really found himself during those four months.

But if you don’t think you’re cut out for something so extreme, a ‘host’ experience may be better. A host is someone who is willing to share their expertise, knowledge, culture and home with you, and there are a huge number of them on Workaway. Workaway is an organisation which allows travellers to volunteer abroad with contact hosts; whether helping out in a hostel, working as an au pair, or volunteering on eco-projects. With a reasonable start-up fee, the website helps you – the Workawayer – to find a host in a country of your choice.

Having recently signed up with Workaway, I can definitely say that there are an abundance of opportunities that you can go for. Realising this, I narrowed my search options down to a few countries I’d like to visit – Spain and Spanish-speaking Latin American countries – and what sort of job I’d be interested in. Wanting to improve my Spanish – as I’m trying to prepare myself for my year abroad during my degree – I decided I wanted to either work in a hostel, or stay with a family who needed someone to look after their children, or teach them English.

My first shot at this didn’t go to plan. I messaged a few hosts – in Spanish and in English – but to my disappointment, didn’t receive as many replies as I was hoping for. However, one of the hosts did get back to me; a hostel in the middle of Granada, Spain. After settling a few queries both parties had, it looked as though it was confirmed. Maybe it was just a bad, unlucky experience, but I’d messaged them to make sure I was all set to go, and did not get a reply. No confirmation. Nada. This was a year ago.

Now that I’ve started university and have met so many confident and experienced language students, I knew that I’d have to compensate for not choosing to go on a gap year like the majority of my peers did. So, I gave Workaway another shot. After only a few emails in the space of two days, I’d managed to get a reply from a woman in Mallorca who was looking for a Workawayer to look after her three-year old daughter while she was at work. After a few emails back and forth, we’d secured the deal, clarified all details and sorted out flight times. One whole month in Mallorca during the summer holidays. Perfecto.

Another option which I stumbled across a little while ago – which may be better for those who want a shorter stay – is ‘Couchsurfing’. Founded in 2004, it provides a platform for travellers to ‘surf’ on the couch as a guest at a host’s home. Whether it’s just for a few days, or longer, it gives the Couchsurfer a place to stay, usually free of charge, while they travel. All you do on the website is input where you want to go, what you plan to do, complete your profile with more information about yourself, and look for a host. It’s a pretty great concept, especially for students who don’t have the money to stay in hotels, or even hostels. You may meet some great people, but you may not. It’s all about chance and luck. Like any host experience, you may be disappointed, but you may be pleasantly surprised.

So, whether you want to go for an extreme voluntary experience, like my cousin did, or try out a host experience, you will encounter some great people, learn about the world, and learn about yourself. Some people aren’t cut out for the Gwalior-style experience, but how will you know if you don’t try? It may be daunting and completely out of your comfort zone, but it may do you good.

Photo Credit: Jhong Dizon | Photography via Compfight cc

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English and Spanish undergrad, recent Year Abroader and aspiring vegan.

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