Why Just Travel?
10 Reasons to Volunteer in South America during your Time Abroad
Choosing what to do with your gap year or summer break is always going to be a challenge. With so many countries to see and so little time, how do you go about deciding where to go and what to do? Faced with this decision, most people opt to spend a couple of days in a long list of locations, dragging their rucksacks around and never settling in one place long enough to really understand the local people or culture.
The sheer fact that you’re faced with this, let’s be honest, rather middle class ‘dilemma’ suggests you’re among some of the most privileged people in the world. So why not use this opportunity to do something worthwhile?
I’m currently volunteering for the organization ETIV do Brasil, which is (funnily enough) in Brazil, located in the beautiful surf town of Itacaré on the Cacao Coast of Bahia. No two days are ever the same and I spend my time teaching English and also helping out with Marketing and Recruitment in the office. Coming here was without a doubt the best thing I’ve ever done. This is the happiest I have been in ages, and makes a very welcome change from being stuck in my hometown, post university, living in my Dad’s house!
If you’re still undecided, here’s ten reasons why choosing to volunteer rather than just travel may just be the best decision you’ll ever make!
1. You still get to party!
One of the main attractions of hostel hopping is of course the fact you get to ‘cut loose’ from your mundane life and party till sunrise on a beach. Funnily enough, by choosing to volunteer you still get to enjoy the party lifestyle! The only difference is you’ll get to know the people behind the bar, meaning you can definitely wangle a few cheeky discounts! And if you’re in Latin America you’ll also have plenty of time to pick up the some of the national styles of dancing (which here in Brazil are Forró and Samba) – the locals are always happy to teach you a few steps on a night out!
2. There’s more to volunteering than just teaching English
Some of the best people I know recoil at the sheer thought of standing in front of a room full of children. I personally love it and there’s nothing I would rather be doing, the thing that makes it most enjoyable is that the children truly engage with and choose to come to my classes. But if you’re not the teaching type, that certainly doesn’t mean there isn’t a volunteer position that’s perfect for you! Here at ETIV, for example, we offer roles in Fundraising, Marketing, Environmental Conservation, Youth Development (that can include, music, arts, dance, sports and more) as well as Construction and even Website Development. There’s so much you have the potential to bring to any organization with the skill set you already possess, so why not put it to good use and do something significant?
3. You’ll get to meet people from all over the world!
This is of course true when you’re traveling, but the main difference here is that you’ll get to have more meaningful conversations than just where you’ve been/ where you’re planning to go next (which let’s face it, gets pretty damn tedious after a while)! In my time here I’ve made some incredible friends from all around the world, there’s so much to gain from connections with people that come from a completely different culture to you. Meanwhile, there is something even deeper connecting you with other volunteers that share some of the same values and who also want to help make a difference in the world.
4. The kids are amazing!
Not only are they incredibly cute, but you’ll find that kids in developing countries are really grateful for the time you spend with them! They’re definitely a lot wilder and often harder to control than your average European/ American child, but their excitement is infectious and you’ll definitely have a lot fun with them! Especially when you know the work you’re doing is giving them more opportunities to become future leaders in their community! Instilling self confidence in kids that are normally underestimated due to their circumstances makes such a huge difference and could even change the trajectory of their lives (and yours too)!
5. You can become a part of the local community
Rather than just being another tourist. Never underestimate the feeling you get from passing through the streets and being recognised and greeted by the locals! It’s also great because you’re less likely to get ripped off when buying groceries if people know you’re not just another gormless gringo passing through. One of my favourite things about being here is seeing my amazing English students in the street and being greeted with an enthusiastic ‘hello!’ as I cycle past. Another perk is just how incredibly beautiful it is here, living on the cacau coast of Bahia Brazil. It really is a tropical paradise!
6. Spend your weekends traveling
Just because you’re volunteering doesn’t mean you’re confined to one place. At most organizations you’ll have the weekends off, while many give volunteers a couple weeks and even a full month off for those who volunteer longer term. This offers a brilliant opportunity to travel and explore for those with itchy feet. Another benefit is that you can leave your massive rucksack at home and just pack the few things you’ll need for the week or the weekend. By living in the community you’ll also get to hear about all the nearby places worth seeing that are off the beaten track.
7. Think of all the money you’ll save!
Rather than hopping from hostel to hostel, you’ll get to stay in one place and live more like a local, especially if you choose to live with a host family! This means spending so much less money than if you’re constantly traveling around, eating out and blowing money left right and centre!
8. It’s good for your CV
Ok, so not the most exciting advantage, but certainly an important one! By volunteering you’ll be getting involved with so much more than the project you sign up for, and by doing so, you’ll be gaining so many transferable skills that’ll help you get a job when you do decide to return home! Just living in another country and experiencing a different culture gives you a serious edge on the already saturated market of fresh faced graduates. Without even trying you’ll naturally become much more resilient and adaptable, which we all know are two ‘buzz words’ potential employers love to see!
9. It’s the best way to learn a language!
When I arrived in Brazil I literally knew a handful of words and had absolutely no clue what anyone was saying to me. Just three weeks later I was having full-on (if a little basic) conversations with locals. By being immersed in a whole new language and culture, you’ll be so surprised by how quickly you can pick up a few words here and there! Now, two months into my stay I feel really confident (probably over-confident to be honest) in speaking Portuguese and absolutely love how this shatters the cultural barrier. People love it when you actually make an effort to speak to them in their own language! It certainly makes a welcome change to the usual tourist’s attempt of communication, i.e. repeating the word for the thing you want in a loud voice in English whilst attempting to mime the desired object, (this is particularly useful when you want to buy things like tampons from the pharmacy!)
10. You’ll be making a difference
Apologies to end on a cliché, but let’s face it, by volunteering you will be having a positive impact on the community you live in! The fact alone that you’re reading this article means that there is a part of you wanting to do something meaningful with your time spent abroad. If you’re on the fence, all I can say is do it! You will not regret the experience you will have. My time in Brazil has completely changed my life and my perception of what’s important. Now it’s your turn to have your own life changing experience, so enjoy!