This post is going to be about something that is very close to my heart, therefore I kind of don’t really know where to begin since I want to include everything that is important to me on this topic but it might end up being a little bit all over the place.
Let’s start with the back story. I always knew I was going to take a gap year to travel or live some place else again after graduating, but I wanted it to be not only about myself. I wanted to do something meaningful for others while being able to explore the world. Hearing about or seeing other people’s suffering has always affected me deeply. So actually it was a pretty obvious choice to combine my desire to travel with volunteering and that’s how it all came together.
At the beginning of my senior year, in fall 2015, I started getting some information together. Although I knew I wanted to volunteer, I found it hard to find the courage to make the decision and set it in stone, which is why it took me so long to start looking. I knew I wanted to go to Latin America, preferably Central America, to improve my Spanish and to get to know the culture and landscapes we had been learning about in class. I also knew I only wanted to work for six months and then travel for around three as I had felt the ten months I spent living in Michigan (USA) and going to high school there were a bit too long for staying in just one place doing the same thing. But usually life doesn’t go according to plan so I ended up in South America for nine months straight without extra time to travel – but it was a perfect match for me.
In this post though I don’t really want to talk about the How’s of Volunteering but more the Why’s and my experience. I found a great organization and a year later, on September 7th 2016, I was sat on a plane headed to Madrid to catch a connecting flight to Santa Cruz de la Sierra and another one to Cochabamba, Bolivia, from there.
Bolivia is a land-locked developing country and the poorest in South America. It borders with Peru, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. There are 37 official languages such as Quechua (the Inca’s language), Aymara and Guarani with the main one being Spanish though. Bolivia has so many unique places, climate and vegetation zones to offer: pink Amazon River Dolphins, the biggest salt lake in the world, one of the highest volcanoes on earth – only to name a few. Basically it’s a traveler’s paradise and getting around Bolivia is easy, cheap, and sometimes even comfortable. But experiencing poverty when visiting Bolivia is inevitable whether it be the horrendous state of many “highways” or children begging in the streets.
Volunteering is a lot about going without things that have been natural for you all your life. Going without hot water, without potable tap water, without wifi, without AC or heating, without any electricity or running water at times, without a tv, without your favorite food, without your family and friends, without privacy, without the freedom you’re used to at home, without 24/7 supermarkets, without a car, without a dishwasher, without a washing machine, and the list goes on and on. But the reward you get for giving up all these things (temporarily) makes it all worth it and what you get back from volunteering and the people you meet and work with is much more valuable than all those material goods combined.
I both worked and lived in an orphanage for girls in the outskirts of Cochabamba along with another volunteer, who is now one of my closest and dearest friends. We shared a sparsely equipped but spacious apartment with our own kitchen. The hogar is home to around 90 girls from ages 4 to 18 who live in ten different casitas (houses). Besides spending free time with the kids, our “actual” work consisted of (sometimes quite hard) manual labor (field work, taking care of the animals, etc.) and tutoring the girls and helping with their homework. These sweet, sweet girls will always have such a special place in my heart and I love them all dearly and miss them very much.
If you want to become a volunteer abroad, you’ll need to be flexible, spontaneous, open to everything and everyone new, reliable, willing to adjust to different circumstances and at times put your own needs behind those of others. Even if you feel you don’t have “what it takes” it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go out there and try anyway. There is no such thing as a perfect volunteer and most of these traits and learning experiences will come to you as you go. Don’t await your initial expectations to match reality. It might not always go how you planned it, but that doesn’t mean what you get instead is not the most beautiful thing. In the long run, you’ll feel it was so worth it and I can only recommend for everyone who wants to volunteer to just go and do it. There are so many possibilities to get involved and so many ways you can get help to finance your stay, so don’t let money be the reason to hold you back. There is always a way even if it doesn’t look like it at first.
I feel like there is so much more I could say but I’m going to end it here, for now at least. If you have any further questions or have trouble getting involved in volunteering, feel free to send over an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or just leave a comment!
No es lo mismo querer ayudar que ayudar.
If you want to gather some information on volunteering or just get inspired on what to do and where to help, here are some websites I recommend for you to check out.
- weltwärts Through the weltwärts website, I found my organization and the project I worked in.
- kulturweit During my stay in Cochabamba, I met another volunteer who had organized her stay through kulturweit and was happy with their program.
- into My high school year was organized by into. I don’t have any experiences with their volunteer programs myself as you actually have to pay for the stay but I was very content with having chosen them in order to become an exchange student.
- Der Storch bin ich – Mein Jahr in Bolivien*
- Green is the New Black This blog is run by a friend’s sister who has volunteered in Peru and is currently doing an internship in Cuba!
As I want to respect the girls’ privacy I am not including any pictures of them in this post. If you want to read up on my personal experiences in Bolivia, I have a blog where I wrote about my stay over the past year. Send me an e-mail or message me on one of my social networks if you’re interested in checking my other blog out as well.