May 15th, 2017, 11:27 PM

Confessions of a Voluntourist

By Caroline Thee
Image Credit: Instagram/thee_caroline
You'll never forget it.

I am a huge fan of the voluntourism trend, having personally volunteered in Morocco, Laos, Sri Lanka, India, and South Africa on various programs with International Volunteers HQ (IVHQ). My projects ranged from environmental projects to working at a blind and deaf school, and everything in between. I loved living in many different countries and working with the local community on sustainable projects and my closest friends are now scattered all over the world. The tourism aspect also led me to do things I could have never imagined: going backpacking in Vietnam, walking to the Pakistan border, hiking Table Mountain in South Africa, and tubing through the Laotian mountains.

Check me out in the IVHQ video for Laos! Video Credit: Youtube/International Volunteers HQ

Despite all the great benefits I find in voluntourism, it has recently gained a bad reputation. Even I have to admit, there are both goods and bads to the industry. Some believe voluntourists are selfish, harmful to communities and only volunteer to boost their Instagram accounts and resumes. Yes, I have met plenty of volunteers with bad intentions who do become harmful to the programs, but the majority are globally aware and trying to create sustainable projects to aid communities abroad.

Of course there are voluntourism programs with projects more sustainable than others, however, the majority of the programs I have completed were completely sustainable and caused more good than harm to the local communities. The astounding success of the projects I helped make happen while voluntouring is what encourages me to advocate for others to do the same. So, here's my confessions from my voluntourism experiences - the good, the bad, and the sometimes ugly.

Sometimes it can be beautiful. 

Image Credit: Instagram/thee_caroline

Perhaps my favorite moment from teaching novice monks in a village outside of Vientiane, Laos involved John Lennon's voice fuzzily creeping out from a smartphone, "imagine all the people, sharing all the world..."

I watched Jerome, a volunteer from France, teach English to novice monks in the most innovate way that day. I sat back as the monks stared at the handwritten fill-in-the-blank activity sheet of lyrics to John Lennon's, Imagine

Then, Jerome pushed play. Then, pause. Then play, then pause, until the two monks had filled in every blank line of lyric.

The two monks loved it, and so did I. The lyrics were fulfilled by the environment. I had the honor of silently observing a temple full of novice monks on their journey to lead peaceful lives with a state of mind where money has no value. The monks interacted with volunteers who came from all over the world to learn more about them and their culture, and vice-versa. It was perfect.

By the end of the lesson, all eyes were on us, and I was in shock. Fun fact: monks aren't allowed to listen to music. 

Sometimes you don't want to do it.

Image Credit: Instagram/thee_caroline 

During my time in India, I got food poisoning for a week, which I extended for a few days because I felt my students and I needed more time apart. I'm sure all TEFL teachers can relate to how I felt.

Don't get me wrong, I loved walking into my tiny classroom filled to the brim with 24 little smiling faces every day, but a small part of my soul also hated teaching them.* The kids I taught were cute, funny, and affectionate little monsters who stole my heart. However, the environment they were put in was by no means adequate for them to successfully learn English. Some kids were almost fluent in English, while others barely knew the ABC's. 

When only a fourth of the class could understand what I was trying to teach, the others naturally began to babble among friends. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I recommend you to buy a soccer ball and use it for fun learning activities. This will keep the kids active, both mentally and physically, for hours on end. 

Oh, and possibly a nightly round of Vodka for you and your fellow TEFL teachers... sorry, mom. 

*I really, truly do love and miss them. 

Sometimes you'll fall into the 'voluntourist' trap.

Image Credit: Instagram/thee_caroline

As soon as I arrived in Muizenberg, South Africa, I was chosen by a child who immediately asked, "Teacher, what will you buy me? Where will you take me?" Many kids have become accustomed to a certain relationship with volunteers; one that involves frivolous gifts and excursions. I was against this type of behavior because I didn't think it was acceptable for these kids to become dependent on the donations of outsiders. I wanted them to learn from the education the volunteer program provided, go to college and become an inspiration to future generations.

I was against it until the end of my time in South Africa. It wasn't until the end of my stay when I realized that an excursion with volunteers is the only time the kids get to stray from the path they walk to school. So, a group of us chose our closest four students and took them to a mall where we saw a 3D movie and had dinner at a diner. Our field trip was fun, but we had a time constraint. We had to have the kids home before dark because gang wars had erupted in the township the past few days. 

Our Uber pulled back into the township right at sunset. We parked at the library at the entrance of the township and we waited impatiently for a teacher to come walk the kids home. The driver was looking out the windows and in the mirrors frantically. Finally, he said, "I will wait ten more minutes and then we are leaving." 

You'll want to do it again. 

Image Credit: Instagram/thee_caroline

I can say from experience that even through the guaranteed ups and downs of voluntourism, it's an addicting way to travel. If you're interested in volunteering on your next travel adventure, I suggest comparing the different companies to find one that best suits you and the locals of the country.

Some things to consider:

  • What is the cost per week and what is included (food, housing, etc.)?
  • How sustainable is the project? 
  • How transparent is the company?
  • What other nearby locations could you travel to on the weekends?

My final tip: Search for people on Instagram who have already completed the project you're interested in. You can do this by searching hashtags, such as #IVHQLAOS. Look through their photos and send them a message with some questions!