Google “volunteer vacations” and you’ll find lots of information and many opportunities. It’s probably one of the most up-and-coming vacation options out there today.
Well, look at all those people in the photo above. They’re mostly working professional women (sorry, Anthony and Vireak) or newly retired, over 50, looking for something different to do. They are people who want to travel to exotic places they’ve never been to before, but maybe not all by themselves. Add in animal lovers who’ve been around the world. Add in people who’ve grown tired of the beach and cruise vacations. Add in people who want to do some good, who want to feel the pulse of the countries they visit and get to know the people.
And that’s why I’m on my tiptoes in the back row at the far left. I had just met these people, and we were visiting the temples of Bangkok when this photo was taken.
I’ve already talked about the trip in other blog posts (this one and this one), so this one offers 10 tips for those who think they’d like to try a volunteer vacation. Again, these are based solely on my experience, or, more honestly, what I’d do if I were to sign up for another. 🙂
- Carefully research the places and experiences you want to have. You can find volunteer experiences on every continent. Where do you want to go and what do you want to do? I chose Thailand and Cambodia because I knew I’d never go there on my own. I also wanted to learn more about elephants, and I wanted to meet people and do something that made a difference. Did I do research? Honestly, no. But then I also had no idea that volunteer vacations were such a thing. I was targeted by Facebook advertising, I checked out Bamboo, and fell in love with their programs and their friendly and casual brand voice (sorry, only someone who’s written copy for a brand even knows what that means). Happily, Bamboo lived up to the image they create in their marketing materials.
- Admit it — compare the cost of a volunteer vacation to a typical tourism vacation. I never could have afforded a trip to Thailand and Cambodia as a regular tourist in high-end hotels for two weeks. But there was more to it. Maybe the lure of the volunteer vacation was a reaction to my trip to Jamaica the year before. I sat on a beach in a couples-only resort and drank a different colored rum drink (make that plural) every day. I dressed up and went to dinner every night in a different restaurant. Honestly, I loved riding the bus through the crowded Jamaican towns more than the mindless hours I spent on the beach. And so it goes.
- When you’re ready to sign up, think carefully about what else is on your calendar. In other words, don’t do what I did. I retired from work on December 8, moved out of my condo in Rhode Island and into my condo in Connecticut one week later (while windows were replaced and carpet was laid, and I started painting the rooms). I enjoyed Christmas with my daughters and their families, and then stayed at one daughter’s house to babysit my sick grandson for a week. Of course, I, too, got sick with a cold (or was it the flu?), and then returned to my place to pack and get ready for my trip to Thailand (still hacking away with the worst cold I’d had in years). In my defense, I had chosen the date for the trip because I wanted to mark my retirement with a big exclamation mark. Little did I know that pushing it back another month would have been just as memorable. That leads me to the next tip.
- Make sure you are 100% healthy when you take off. During the week before I left, I slept as much as I could, went to CVS several times to get meds, and finally went to the clinic to get antibiotics (which probably didn’t do a thing). I kept thinking that I was getting better and that a cold couldn’t last this long. But it did. I was still coughing when I left for Logan Airport in Boston. Over the course of the two weeks, I felt much better, although tired. By the end of the trip, I’d hit a wall because I’d chosen to work on the building project instead of teaching. I enjoyed the physical work, but by the fourth day I was flat on my back, coughing again. I was disappointed in myself, but I knew I had nothing left to give. In fact, when I got home, it would be another two weeks before I was myself again. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do, but just know there’s not a lot of down time.
- Check off ALL the requirements before you go. You’ll be expected to get the required shots for the countries you’re visiting. You’ll also be expected to get airline ticket travel insurance, a background check and have an up-to-date passport and any required visas. With that said, my team was from all over — Canada, the States (as they called it), England and Australia — and everyone had different lists of shots. My doctor didn’t provide some of the more obscure shots, so I had to go to a travel clinic. And, again, I offer words of caution. I didn’t ask the ALL-IMPORTANT question in advance: Does my medical insurance cover these shots? I found out as the nice nurse pushed the $$$ syringe into my arm that she had no idea — and really didn’t care. It wasn’t her job to know. In other words, it wasn’t covered. Now, I don’t know if these shots would have been covered if I had checked with my medical insurance in advance and gone somewhere else. Why? Because after paying the money and the claim was denied (out-of-network and the cost only went toward my deductible), it really didn’t make a difference. But I WILL check first the next time.
- You’ll room with one or more roommates, unless you choose to pay extra for single accommodations. Everyone on my trip was 50 and over, which meant the probability of snoring was high. I live by myself now, and I have no idea how loud my own snoring might be, or if I even snore at all. (Well, I think I’ve woken myself up from snoring, so the likelihood is a tad bit high.) And for the first two nights, our hotel rooms were right over a busy Bangkok road that never slept (just like Las Vegas). At 3, 4, yes, 5 a.m., you could hear people whooping it up and partying on the street below. And for another part of our trip, we lived in a Thai elephant village for several days, and the local roosters got their kicks out of announcing the ungodly hour of 3 a.m. Needless to say, earplugs are a necessity for all these reasons. Make sure you have a pair (and extras) that mold to your ears and really work. (I’ve tried many.) You will be forever thankful.
- You will work … hard. For some reason I thought we’d get off easy because our group was comprised of mostly women age 50 and over. Not so. We chopped bamboo to feed the elephants (not in the cool of the morning, but in the hottest part of the afternoon). We ripped out broken concrete from a waterway and helped to build an outdoor bathroom at a school in Thailand. And, as I’ve already noted, we dug the foundation, carried bricks, mixed cement, hammered rebar, and laid the first bricks for the walls of another multi-roomed school building in Cambodia. All in all, this is where we worked the hardest and were most proud of our service. Two months later, Bamboo volunteers have completed that school — and it feels amazing to know that we, or at least I, left sweat in the ground.
- You will visit amazing places and meet amazing people. The temples of Bangkok, the endless markets (the fresh vegetables, the cooking smells, the colorful fabrics) the boat ride along the canals and the floating market, Angkor Wat (the most extensive and intricate remains of an ancient culture you will ever encounter), the tuk tuk rides, the silk village, the elephant graveyard, the Bamboo guides (their passion, their knowledge, their humanity, their kindness), the villagers, your host family, the children, the teachers, the everyday flow of humans through the streets who smile shyly and wave. I was overwhelmed by it all and my senses were overloaded. I’m sure my energy was low from the cold, but I found that I needed some quiet time and went to bed early a few nights in the Thai elephant village. Do what you need to do — no one will judge you.
- Go with the flow. That’s why you’re here, right? You chose this experience, so don’t expect it to be even remotely similar to your life in the States (or wherever you’re from). You’ll enjoy nights by the pool with a martini and other nights under mosquito nets on a wooden platform; hot showers and not-so-hot showers … and, maybe, no showers. And toilets — that’s another story. But you’ll do fine. The food was not an issue for me. But I’m not picky. And I love Thai food. I didn’t munch on fried cockroaches, but others did. The beer was cheap and the wine was from Australia. And my travel clinic had loaded me up (yeah, more $$$) with every kind of diarrhea medication under the sun. 🙂 I only took it once.
- Be ready to be amazed by your team. Over the course of two weeks, the people you’re with will share their stories. You will learn that these people are professionals in a variety of areas — but mostly they are helpers, people who care for others. And they are world travelers who don’t fear taking off by themselves and exploring all the corners of the world. People who’ve lost significant others and people who’ve battled illness. You will think you came on this trip to give, but you will realize that you’ve gained much more than you gave. You will learn your limits and you will laugh and you will realize that people are the same the world over. You will let children put flowers in your hair, and you will wonder why fear controls so many and why walls exist. You will find hope again. So much hope.