Confessions of a Former Volunteer : What I Wish I Knew Before My Plane Touched Down In Tanzania, and What I Have Learned Since
Swiping left and right on bumble, I am instantly intrigued by an attractive man holding two smiling babies. They aren’t his nieces, nephews or cousins. It looks like he is somewhere in Africa. The picture feels familiar and within seconds I am swept up with nostalgia. It suddenly dawns on me, I have the same picture. As I scroll through my Facebook albums, my mind wanders back to when I was volunteering in Tanzania
. I remember being nineteen and the rush I felt booking my ticket. I remember being in search of a higher purpose and a strong desire to see the world. I remember taking that picture. The one thing I don’t remember is what I did to prepare for takeoff. Now more than ever it is critical to do research in preparation for any volunteer mission abroad.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER, it can also enhance the experience and expand your impact.
If you are thinking about volunteering abroad, here are some key topics I wish I knew about before I took off on the adventure of a lifetime.
GOOGLE IS YOUR FRIEND and not just Google images
Deciding on where to volunteer and who to volunteer with is a big decision. There is no such thing as too much research when making such a crucial decision. Take the time to find the right fit, because you are going to be spending a considerable amount of time and money there. A few questions to consider:
- What is the native language?
- What is the weather like?
- What will the weather be like when I am there?
- What is the current political climate?
- Can I speak my native language there?
- What is considered appropriate attire?
- Will I be able to travel during my time there?
- Are there any security concerns?
- WHAT IS THE CLOSEST AIRPORT TO FLY INTO?
- Where will I physically be staying?
- Will there be internet access?
- How will I contact friends and family at home?
RESEARCH AND REFLECT on both the volunteer company and where you will be working
Are you going to be teaching? Working at a hospital? Working on a construction project? Maybe a conservation project? It is crucial to research not only the company you will be volunteering with, but what specific job you will be tasked with. My advice is to start by researching the overhead company by checking out their website and other online reviews. After you find a great company to work with, the next step is to assess how to best utilize your skill set. When selecting your volunteer position, you might want to consider your skills and experience in order to determine where you will be most effective. If you are teaching, think about how you can contribute to the classroom and engage your students. Assess how you plan to teach or use your medical training to help others and maximize your impact. Understanding the position, expectations and the work environment will not only better prepare you, but also expand your reach as a volunteer.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO REACH OUT TO OTHER VOLUNTEERS
The best way to get the inside scoop on the country, company, volunteer program and living situation is to reach out to former volunteers on social media. Personally, I think this is a key component to identifying if you and the volunteer program will be compatible. Don’t feel like a stranger! As a former volunteer, I am always eager to share my experiences with others. Scrolling through Facebook discussion groups and investigating online only goes so far. The real juicy information comes from current and former volunteers. Reach out to volunteers who have worked with the company you are considering or have worked in that particular region. Current and former volunteers can answer specific questions and paint a realistic picture of day to day life on the ground. Don’t forget to see if there are any fellow volunteers on your flight! Everyone is nervous before embarking on a new adventure abroad, having someone to fly with and a familiar face on the ground can be extremely comforting. If you are flying solo, take comfort in the fact that everyone is nervous and eager to settle in.
ASK YOURSELF WHAT YOU WANT TO GET OUT OF THIS EXPERIENCE, don’t worry, you can make plans and still be spontaneous
Setting realistic expectations and understanding your limitations is crucial to productive volunteering and a positive experience. If you are going to Tanzania to volunteer AND go on a safari AND lay on the beach in Zanzibar, it’s a good idea to do some research before you take off so that you plan your time and money accordingly. If you are looking to connect with the community, develop relationships, feel a sense of accomplishment and travel for a week or two, you might want to budget in more than a week or create a strategically accommodating itinerary. However, most people do not get endless vacation days at work. In that case, organizing a realistic outline of what you wish to accomplish during your visit can be a real time saver. If you are short on time, having a tentative schedule as a starting point is likely to relieve stress and boost productivity.
JET LAG REALLY IS THAT BAD: If possible, try to book a flight that lands the day before your orientation
Getting settled in an unfamiliar place after a long, lets face it, cramped flight, on no sleep is super annoying. Now imagine that alarm clock going off at 8am. It’s now time to make a good impression on complete strangers while unpacking and finding the bathroom. The good news is, now that you have read this article, you can bypass some of that and cope with jet lag before your orientation! Getting a good nights sleep on your first night and being able to sleep in the next morning really does make a difference. If it is feasible, try to book a flight at least one to two full days before your orientation. Yes, you might be charged an extra 30 bucks, but trust me that time is invaluable. I arrived 2 days before my orientation in Tanzania and it allowed me to comfortably settle in at my own pace, get to know volunteers from previous orientation groups, shower and most important, get a good nights sleep. When the other new volunteers rolled in I didn’t feel rushed to unpack or caught off guard in anyway. Having a whole day to settle in and stay behind while everyone was out or at their placement allowed the house to quickly feel like home.
DON’T FORGET YOUR LITTLE BACKPACK!
If you are going over seas to volunteer, chances are you will want to build in some travel time. Regardless of if you packed the smallest suitcase or large backpack, bring a small one for day trips, hikes, over nights and other trips you might decide to take. Throwing a toothbrush, water bottle and an outfit or two into a light weight backpack makes traveling so much easier.
TRY NOT TO BOOK TRIPS IN ADVANCE UNLESS YOU HAVE TO
For one thing, booking in country is often cheaper, but that isn’t the main reasoning behind this. You never know who you will meet or what trips you will ultimately end up wanting to take until you are on the ground. One of my friends booked an entire trip to Zanzibar prior to arriving, locking her into so specific dates. Luckily a few of us were able to make it to the same island on the same date. Had I pre booked my trip on a different Island on a different date, I likely would have missed out on an amazing trip with my roommates. Researching prior to leaving is always good, but if you can help it, wait to book anything permanent until you have a chance to meet some great travel companions. Waiting also allows you to get advice from other volunteers on where to go and what company use. So many of my excursions and over night trips were made successful due to the wonderful company I had.
AND LAST BUT NOT LEAST
IT’S A CLICHE FOR A REASON: Pack half of what you think you’ll need …and then take out another half just to be on the safe side
Trust me, if you really pack half of what you think you’ll need, your arms, back, roommates and sanity will thank you. When you see extra space in your suitcase, embrace it, don’t fill it. At the very least, leave a little room to pack souvenirs! When you are packing up to go home, you are definitely going to be happy when you see the leftover space. Yes, the weather can be fickle and you might fall victim to the rainy season, but that’s what layering is for! I made the mistake of bringing a medium size suitcase that required me to sit on it when zipping. I was nineteen and had no idea what to expect, so I packed everything I could fit in my medium black suitcase. Honestly, except for it being a more confined space, I felt pretty at home sifting through my clothes everyday to find things. The resentment and desire for a time machine came when I had to wheel my fifty pound suitcase all around town, through airports and attempt to cram all of my souvenirs and gifts into the front pocket.
IF YOU ARE GOING TO PACK TOO MUCH, PACK CLOTHES TO LEAVE
I one hundred percent over packed on my first volunteer trip abroad. As a result, I had to leave some things behind to make room for the clothes and souvenirs I bought. You would be surprised at how many things you end up buying and magically accumulating over time. I wasn’t heartbroken by anything I left behind, honestly the only specific things I even distinctly remember leaving are a shirt and a flannel. Not because I loved either, but because of the friends I gave them to. In that respect, I like to think they will always have a piece of me, but sometimes I do miss that shirt. The moral of the story is, if you are going to over pack, try to pack a couple items you don’t mind leaving without.
Above all, have an amazing journey and remember, you have to start somewhere! No matter if you are a first time volunteer or travel veteran, every experience is a new adventure and chance to create new memories, foster new friendships and do some good!
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