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Traveling as a Volunteer

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Traveling is one of my greatest passions, and if you are reading this, probably yours too. Traveling is when you stop thinking of how things may be, and see them as they are. There are those moments in life that are beautiful just because of their sheer intensity; traveling yields such moments, opening one’s eyes to the world, and to the mirror of self-reflection.

These moments might be obvious – the sight of a great waterfall, the pyramids, a foreign culture. And then there are moments when you question, Should I really take that bus? or Should I really eat that? Sometimes it is more profound, Why do these people choose to live here? or Can I live their lives?

These moments are usually proceeded by immense anticipation; an anticipation that heightens your senses. You are present then. You can’t capture that moment in a souvenir, but it will serve as a lesson to enrich your life. These moments make you a better engineer, a better artist, or a chef. It makes you more human.

OK, now to business (I always get dreamy-eyed when I write about traveling). Here are some of my thoughts on what makes a good traveling volunteer.

Who makes a good oversees volunteer?

A good volunteer is someone who is flexible, relaxed, innovative, culturally sensitive and committed to sharing knowledge and skills. A sense of humor and the ability to take failures positively are also two crucial traits.

When you are at your host community, listen closely and observe others to develop an understanding of communication patterns, greetings, hierarchy, and protocol. You will need to listen two to three times harder than at home just to begin to understand what is happening in a foreign environment. Ask open-ended questions and paraphrase the words of others. These techniques will help to ensure that you understand what is being conveyed and that your message is grasped by your listeners.

Interacting with Children is one of the best ways to Integrate with a Community

Interacting with Children is one of the best ways to Integrate with a Community

You should also be aware of the importance of nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication is largely unconscious, spontaneous, and culturally determined. Understanding this form of communication is critical since nonverbal clues often indicate how oral communication should be interpreted: Is the message friendly, sarcastic, or threatening? However, you will quickly discover that body language and the meanings we associate with it are not necessarily culturally transferable. What is a sign of greeting in one culture may well be an obscenity in another cultural context!

Here are some other examples of potential miscues in nonverbal communication: While direct eye contact connotes sincerity in some cultures, it may be considered rude or disrespectful in another context. Shaking hands may be a sign of professionalism and assertiveness in our culture but may be inappropriate or suggestive between members of the opposite sex in another culture. In general, westerners often need more physical space between them and their listeners than is required in other cultures. When in a foreign country, you may feel crowded in by people. This is not necessarily a sign of aggression but rather a reflection of different spatial patterns in communication.

Culture Shock

Culture shock is the more pronounced reactions to the psychological disorientation most people experience when they move into a culture markedly different from their own. Everyone, no matter how seasoned a traveler you are, gets culture shock from time-to-time. Signs include (I sound like a TV commercial here): homesickness, withdrawal, stereotyping of and hostility towards host nationals, and physical ailments. When you experience a foreign culture, there is an initial euphoria, followed by some irritation (when you start noticing the cultural differences in detail), and then gradual adjustment and adaptation.

Bring Stickers. Kids love stickers

Bring Stickers. Kids love stickers

The best way to overcome culture shock is by understanding your own culture and its peculiarities. I have found that most communities see westerners as friendly, hardworking, extravagant, confident, slightly disrespectful of authority, and always in a hurry. There are many other stereotypes, and knowing them will help you to reject stereotypes of the culture you are working in. Be aware of cultural differences and be able to work effectively in an atmosphere of differing expectations and values.

Another way to combat culture shock is to learn as much as you can about your host country. Do not be afraid to ask questions, even if they sound silly. This is the only way you can learn about a foreign culture and begin to understand how to function effectively in the environment. Indeed, although you may have gathered copious amounts of information prior to the trip, you will find that there is much more to discover once you arrive in-country.

Above all else, remember that volunteering overseas is as much a learning experience for you as for the people you are working with. Having realistic expectations of yourself and others will help you to be flexible and tolerant. Maintain your sense of humor and your sense of adventure, for no matter how well you prepare for your trip, there will inevitably be problems and challenges. Make a positive impact on the community you are working with—just remember that true change is slow and incremental.

When you are there

For many in developing countries, the concept of volunteering, in itself, seems strange. In fact, some languages (Bengali being one) do not even have a word for “volunteer.” Volunteers are sometimes thought to have ulterior motives such as practicing experimental medicine or gathering information some government. Volunteers, in turn, may be frustrated by local counterparts who arrive late to work or leave early for other jobs. You may feel that your community contacts are less concerned and committed than you are. Remember that these individuals face many daily frustrations, and often work more than one job just to provide for their families.

You must avoid the overwhelming temptation to demonstrate a method of handling a problem that cannot be done after you leave—for example, using your own laptop that you plan to take home with you. Resisting this temptation may be a challenge at times, especially when local leaders ask for help. Sometimes, offering help in such situations may be appropriate in order to cultivate the support and goodwill of the community.

Just some cute kids with puppies in Panama

Just some cute kids with puppies in Panama

Be careful not to raise hopes or to make—or even imply—promises that cannot be kept either by you or by your organization. Show that you are part of a team that will continue to work side by side with your host counterparts and not just a short-term visitor. How you are perceived by your hosts is critical to how effective you will be during your brief stay. Start your trip with a sensitivity and curiosity to learn from everything you see. Listen, look, and enjoy the differences in cultures. Don’t be afraid to ask questions rather than offer expert opinions. Take the time to learn a little bit more about yourself and your own culture through the eyes of your counterparts. Remember that the more empathy and respect you show for the culture and problems of your hosts, the more respect you will command and the more effective a development worker you will become.

Returning Home

Most travelers don’t realize this, but returning home can be a stressful experience. Culture shock experienced upon reentry often exceeds what one feels upon entering the foreign country. In a new situation, people expect things to be different; back home, they expect things to be the same as before they left. When you travel, you are often deeply changed by the overseas experience, while family, friends and colleagues at home have continued their lives as usual, unaffected by events in other places.

Readjusting to life in the US after post-earthquake Haiti, was a bit of a challenge for me.

Readjusting to life in the US after post-earthquake Haiti, was a bit of a challenge for me.

You will return home to find that Western lifestyles are wasteful and lavish compared to what you have just seen and experienced in the developing country setting. You have been exposed to poverty and have made friends in a different world where much of life is defined by privation and a constant struggle to meet daily needs. You may want to talk about what you have seen and done. However, you may find that many of your friends and colleagues will not be interested in hearing the details of your trip. When they ask about your trip, they will probably want a short answer, not a lengthy discourse on the lack of economic resources, the poor health conditions, the lack of environmental control, the problems of illiteracy and malnutrition, and other everyday conditions you saw.

There have been times when I have returned feeling lonely and depressed about not being able to share my overseas experiences. My trick is to interact with like-minded people who have an active interest in developing countries. I realize that this is my chance to educate my friends by sharing my experiences.

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