There’s nothing more eye-opening than experiencing another culture. Flaubert believed it to be humbling and essential, and Mark Twain said that travel is “fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” Well-stated reasons that only scratch the surface for why we love stepping onto the tarmac in an unfamiliar land. If cultural immersion is what drives you, consider a volunteering vacation, which can layer your trip with meaning and memories. This has become such a popular option for travelers who want to meet more locals, fully experience a locale, and support their favorite causes, that there’s even a name for it now: voluntourism.
Voluntourism is an excellent way to explore an unseen corner of a country that interests you. Many service opportunities exist in unique destinations that would otherwise be inaccessible or unknown to tourists. And playing such an active role in a community makes learning about a culture first-hand more realistic and attainable. Volunteering vacations are not only more memorable and satisfying than traditional travel abroad, but they place people who might otherwise be too shy or time-constrained to make friends and properly experience a destination into forced stasis. When we’re literally prevented from giving in to our urge to visit too many cities in too few days, we can discover a culture more deeply.
While most organizations ask for a week-long commitment, it’s possible to volunteer for a shorter stint. Give a Day Global offers daylong options, giving you plenty of time to city-hop if you find you just can’t confine yourself to one spot.
When considering your ideal location, determine your climate preference (Arctic, Sahara or something in-between?), as well as whether you’re looking to contribute indoors, in an air-conditioned office, or outside in the elements. It also helps to choose a cause you’re passionate about. This makes minor inconveniences like a disorganized staff or barebones accommodations worth the trouble. International voluntourism is available for just about any cause imaginable, so whether you want to help sea turtles in Costa Rica or teach English in Cambodia, you’re covered. Also, think through your ideal accommodations. Staying with a host family further exposes you to local customs and daily rituals. Meanwhile, staying in group dorm rooms will likely give you a break from your cultural immersion during off-hours, but will make it much easier to meet a group of international travelers like yourself who hold the same cause dear.
If you’re unsure where to start, check out some of my favorite international charities. If those don’t excite you or offer opportunities for travelers, some respected organizations that help organize international volunteerism include Volunteers for Peace, GivingWay and International Volunteer HQ. So next time you renew your passport and start checking flights, consider adding a volunteering element to the mix! There’s nothing more satisfying than taking care of yourself and someone else at the same time.