Volunteering has been one of the highlights of my Latin America journey and I wish to push through up until Mexico (if I can). This is where I learned most of my Spanish and in 10 months, I saved a lot of money when supposedly, I couldn’t have. “How do you do it?” they asked. When people see at my posts on Facebook, the first impression they have is that I’m on a luxury travel not unless they read my blog posts. Many think I’m splurging the money I don’t have or I’m some kind of an heir. Let me tell you that my way of travelling is much more different than the others. I’m done with the obligatory landmark circuit and I promised myself that this Latin America trip will be an exploration — food, culture, language and their way of life.
What is a Voluntour?
The word ‘voluntouring’ cannot be located in the dictionary even if you turn it upside down because it’s a word travellers made up. Basically, it’s for long-term travellers (6mos to 1yr) where they experience the richness of the culture by working for free. Not exactly for free but in exchange, voluntours receive free housing and food hence, saving money. They work four hours a day (6hrs max) and the rest of the day is for exploring, doing what they like or living like a local. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they live there or they’re expats. It only means they have the chance to live in another world where everything is not a rush and pure fun.
Assistant cook in Cusco, Peru
I received several e-mails inquiring how I obtained my volunteer jobs. Is it easy? Do you think I can do it too? Depending on the person, I guess my replies are different. With my sister, I tried to be honest. We are two different people and I know by heart that she can’t bear the hardships of this lifestyle. However, she’s good at things I am not good at.
Today, I am going to be honest with you too. I know I’m supposed to lift your spirits up (as always) but I need you to understand that it’s not going to be easy. A lot of sacrifices goes with living the life you imagined. Now, I want to tell you that…
You can’t be a voluntour if…
1. You don’t know the difference between a dollar and two.
I’ve gone from eating good food to nothing on the duration of this trip. During the first leg(s), for example, in Brasil, I didn’t care what I was buying. As long as I want it, I will buy it and I’ll never dare check my finances. In Colombia, it was different. I had to skip some activities that I really wanted to go to and probably wouldn’t have the chance if I didn’t at that moment. From then on, I understood the difference between a noodle for a dollar and a pizza for two. Today, here in Cusco, I just passed on buying a 40 soles alpaca because I know I can get that for 10 soles somewhere else.
2. You’re not fit for any living conditions.
“Shared bathroom?!” my sister said. “Your room looks like an evacuation area,” my mom followed through. I’ve been to luxurious beds, to awful bunk beds to sleeping-while-hearing-your-roomates-doing-it, to sleeping in tents etc. Every volunteering opportunity offers a different kind of setting. For example, when I was staying with a family in Colombia, I had my own room, a private bathroom and a closet. The majority of my volunteering life is spent sleeping in dorms together with 8 people (min) and a filthy toilet because you are joined by men (thank you very much).
3. You don’t put efforts in learning the language.
Alright, some of you have volunteered speaking only English but like what I always say, learning a language is a form of respect. Well, hello! Do you remember why you’re volunteering? You want to be a part of a different culture, right? If you’re a bartender, how will you serve a drink if you don’t understand what the customer wants? How will you fix a guest’s complaint if you’re a receptionist? Should you always pass the duty to your co-volunteer who can speak the language? Think about it.
4. You cannot adjust to working hours.
I always hated night shifts because it means I had to sleep all day and be up all night. It will ruin my early yoga sesh, my healthy breakfast habit and my midday meditation. I really wanted to complain but I can’t. When the volunteer head puts you in these hours, you should comply because all your co-volunteers are doing the same. If you work mornings, it means you can’t party all night (though you can try); if you work nights, that means you have the morning free to be a tourist. However, things can always change. My night shifts as a bartender in Paracas were the best nights of my life and I wouldn’t trade my schedule to any of my co-volunteers!
5. You’re picky with friends.
For a month or two, you will be in one room with different kinds of people. Ever since I started volunteering, I’ve been moving from one job to another which means I am also living with numerous people. From French to German to Brasilian to Irish to Kiwi to English, I’ve seen them all. As for me, being a people person, I never had difficulties making friends. I believe that if you were to work with this people for a long time, you should know their backgrounds, where they come from and the like. I believe our travel experiences are different and in the end, I would pick up a thing or two from them. There are a few people that you can’t live with though but it’s only a few. The majority always rock the staff dorm.
6. You think you can only do one job.
When I started searching for a volunteering job, I asked myself: “What is one thing I can do and never get tired of it?” I’m a fashion major and there’s no way a volunteering job in this field will be available. So I thought of “teaching English.” Guess what? I only taught English once and it’s on the side. My main volunteering job(s) consist of hostel receptionist, bartender and cook. I grabbed whatever opportunity was available and never did I regret anything. Amazing opportunities! Imagine, I get to move to a city every month and do different things! This is why my life right now is not boring!
TIP: Do not limit yourself. I never imagined myself cooking in a kitchen but here I am! You’ll be surprised with what you can do.
7. You’re in a rush.
Unfortunately, volunteering is for long-term travellers. One of my friends wanted to travel and volunteer for two months and I told her, “make it one year.” What do you expect to gain in two months? If you wish to travel South America within two months, that means you have to move every week and that does not guarantee you will have a rich cultural experience. Sure, you’ll see the popular places and landmarks and with that, you’re not a voluntour but a tourist. I plan to do this for one more year because I quit my job to fulfill my dreams of travelling the world. And you? I suggest you do the same if you really really want to see the world.
Receptionist in Quito, Ecuador
I am currently volunteering at a vegetarian restaurant in Cusco, Peru and I’m loving it! In a week, I will do my Machu Picchu trek and in two weeks, I will be a receptionist (again) in Sucre, Bolivia! After that, I will be crossing the border to Brasil and I don’t have a volunteering offer in Rio de Janeiro (where I intend to spend the dream event of my life: WORLD CUP!) yet. 🙁
Now, what do you think?
Are you fit to be a voluntour? We all are! You just have to be the opposite of the items written above. If not, maybe you can find another way on how to see the world without spending so much but I assure you, as of now, voluntouring is the way to be.
We’re talking about PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION today (Fri, 09/05) on #JAchat! Come join us over Twitter (hashtag JACHAT) at 13:00 ET! See you! And hey, don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter and receive unpublished posts from me. I promise, my road stories are always F-U-N.
Impressive! Specially point 6 since I'm in the time of thinking: "what is the thing I can do without getting tired of doing". Perhaps I should broaden my horizons ;) Can't wait to start my trip and this tips will be useful! Thanks!
Monday 12th of May 2014
So true! I learned most of my Spanish and Portuguese in volunteering. Safe travels, Alison!
Saturday 10th of May 2014
I voluntoured for a month in Sucre Bolivia in an Orphanage and 2 weeks at the beach bar in Canoa and one month in a Secret Garden hostel in Quito in Ecuador. It was mostly for free food and accomodation or sometimes just pure satisfaction (like in the orphanage) but I loved ever single one. Now I work at a hostel reception in Berlin, Germand and soon I am going for a year to New Zealand on a work and travel program. I can't wait. Great post, I know how it feels to be a voluntour! ;)
Alison @ AK Wanderlusts
Friday 9th of May 2014
Seems like a great way to pick up the language. We will definitely consider this when traveling through LA. Thanks!