As I sit to write this blog about volunteering, my head is awash with ideas and thoughts. I want to share some of my experiences of volunteering abroad, the challenges and the joys.
When I started out on my travel journey, I had the simple idea that I wanted to volunteer along the way. This wasn’t a particularly noble idea; to be honest it was really quite a selfish one. Partially it was to wash away some of the guilt for not being a person who volunteers in my own community, and also because I wanted to see how it affected me. Combining travel and volunteering was something that has always intrigued me.
Volunteering abroad really hits home just how many people in the world don’t have easy access to water, food, electricity, education and basic healthcare. Or maybe not even easy access. Maybe any access. It’s a concept that I am currently seeing first hand, and I still can’t wrap my head around it. Thirty minutes by motorcycle from where I am writing this, are villages that people have to walk 2 miles ONE WAY to get water. There is no electricity in their homes. For the women in the center I am working with, there are NO SCHOOLS, none, government or private, that are close enough for their kids to walk to on a daily basis. And even if there were, they would cost too much because the women don’t even have enough money for food. They get paid $8 a MONTH to cut sugar cane. Is this everyone? No, but it shouldn’t be anyone.
Many of us like to travel ‘locally,’ and eat like locals do, but truly nothing compares to staying with a family from another culture. All of the families and people I have met volunteering have opened their homes and hearts. It is incredibly humbling and bonding and quickly makes you realize how similar we all are as humans, regardless of language, religion or culture. And in the midst of feeling distraught at terrorism, divisiveness and hate, it is incredibly comforting to know there are way more people in the world full of love and peace.
In almost every country except our own, food consists of local staples. Every day. Every meal. In Nepal it is dal bhat (rice and lentil soup) and in Uganda it is mytoke (unripened, steamed bananas) with a sauce or side. This ‘foodie’ experience is not about diversity, but rather about fresh, local, simple and sustaining. And admittedly sometimes very bland.
To learn that less can equal more. Toys are loved all the way to their demise, and beyond. Fewer toys has not meant less laughter.
Yet to learn those lessons, I also have taken weeks of cold showers with no pressure, pooped with spiders, eaten whatever is served, slept under mosquito nets, deferred my opinions and preferences, felt the pressure of being asked for money, felt the guilt of saying no, and of saying yes, and the conflict of being able to do more, and not having done enough. I am often outside my comfort zone and sometimes just want to go home.
Redefining rich and poor.
As a white person traveling in these developing countries, everyone assumes you are rich (I call out that I am white because mzungu, “white person,” is the ubiquitous greeting in East Africa for white people). And in some ways, we absolutely are. There is no denying that I can spend more on a dinner at Sushi Den than some people can earn over the course of several months. That what I have in my backpack may be worth more than all of their belongings combined. But they are rich too. I am not leaving India or Uganda or Bhutan or Nepal thinking these people are poor. True they live in poverty and have less availability to basic things humans need and deserve, that their corrupt governments collect taxes and then embezzle the money, that the challenges they face seem insurmountable, but they are rich in family, community, culture and heart. We are more privileged, but that does not make our culture better. When I went to the market today, the girl who works in the house where I am staying, who makes $30 a month, bought me a bracelet. They may have so little, yet they give what they have.
And let me be clear that not everyone in these countries is living in poverty. It is just that those are not the ones you are likely going to be volunteering with.
I do not yet even know all the lessons these weeks have taught me. I know it will be months after having returned to Denver that the impact will be fully felt. Some of takeaways I hope have a lasting impact are less consumption, supporting socially conscious companies and causes, giving more than receiving.
And on the vein of gratitude, as we are in the season of giving, I am looking to raise $1000 for the NGOs that I am working with here in Uganda: The Real Uganda, Hopeline Organization and Free the Girls Uganda. I have launched a Go Fund Me page in the hopes of raising money by the time I leave on December 13th , 2015. Thank you in advance for anything your can contribute. Even $20 makes a difference.