The advantages of getting away from the UK and volunteering abroad as part of a gap year are plentiful – as well as gaining a unique and enlightening experience of another country and culture, volunteers also make a real difference by offering up their time for a given cause.
The reason why I became interested in volunteering was to get a closer insight into the local culture, become more of a part of the community rather than a watcher, and really get to know a different way of life.
I also thought this would be a good experience that I could benefit from in my future career.
It turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life, but if I could do it all again, I wish that I would have read up a bit more about it before I threw myself out there in the unknown, because it’s not always as safe as your own backyard.
But you live, you volunteer, and you learn.
Here are some things I learned from my mistakes to do next time:
Prepare: Volunteering is not a vacation, it’s so much more than that, and if you want to make the most of your time and make it easy on yourself, study and read about it.
There is a time and a place for “going with the flow and see what happens”, and volunteering is not the right place to do that.
Read all the information you can lay your hands on before choosing your destination and the work you will be doing – and make sure that you’re clued up on the area before you get there.
Travel Together: When it comes to moving around within the country you’re visiting, avoid travelling at night where possible and always try to steer clear of travelling alone if you have an alternative.
Trust me, I’ve ended up in some truly sticky situations because of this in Rwanda!
Even just having one other person with you is a significant advantage, although if you can mange to move around with a bigger group then all the better. And it hurts to say it, but I noticed a big difference having a guy in the group.
Be Aware: It may sound obvious, but it’s incredibly important to be aware of your surroundings at all times – especially seeing as though you’ll be in a completely unfamiliar environment.
It’s even more important to be vigilant at all times; In the beginning of my volunteer work I was the naïve traveller who assumed that everyone who speaks to you is there to make friends – bit of a mistake, and soon I found myself duped.
In Congo I spent an hour running between bus companies trying to get a bus ticket to Rwanda, and every single person was lying about how they had a ticket for us. If I wouldn’t have been so naive I could have done things differently and been on that bus way earlier.
By the same token, though, don’t get to a stage where you assume that anybody who approaches you wants to do you harm or steal your valuables. Try to be level headed and assess each situation on its own merits and you won’t go too far wrong – human instinct is a valuable tool, so trust your feelings.
Balance all these three, and you’ll be safe volunteering anywhere!