Tuesday, July 03, 2012
So you want to be an international volunteer...
Not surprisingly, the number of acquaintances commenting to me that they, too, have been thinking of international volunteering has been rising with each grey, cold summer day everybody seems to be experiencing back in B.C. right now.
I highly recommend it, and not just because I'm sitting here right now with the warm Honduran breeze blowing in on me from the wide open door and my memories of being cold and bummed out by the Victoria weather fading fast. If you like to shake things up in your life, experience a whole new way of doing things and put your skills to work in places where they’re really, really needed, this is the ticket.
But before you send your application off to Cuso International or whatever organization has caught your eye, I’d recommend an honest self-assessment to make sure you really do have that “flexibility and adaptability” that any international volunteer agency worth its salt is looking for in its long-term volunteers. Be sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, too - I’ve been struck by how many volunteers and ex-pats (women especially) I’ve met here in Honduras who came here on the run from some disappointing aspect of their life back home only to discover that a challenging new culture and language only deepens feelings of uncertainty and insecurity.
So my first tip: Think about international volunteering at a point in your life when you’re happy and fulfilled, not when you’re looking to fill a hole in your life. Life as an outsider can get pretty lonely, and that’s from the perspective of someone who’s a loner by nature and has her spouse along with her. If you’re unhappy at home, I suspect you’ll be even unhappier living in a challenging new culture where few people speak your language and the lifestyle bears little resemblance to the comfy, secure and dependable life of a middle-class Canadian.
Cuso really pressed the point about flexibility and adaptability in the various interviews and training we went through before coming here, and now that I’m here I think they probably could have pressed it even more. I mean, we’re talking flexible like a yoga master. We’re talking adaptable like those tough little creatures that first emerged from the muck and grew legs and lungs.
You want to be one of those people who can flow under, over and around barriers. And if you don’t already know how to shrug your shoulders helplessly and let things go, you’ll want to learn. Once you're in your placement, you're going to want someone from your homeland you can have a good rant with as needed and will want to master this chant, spoken 10 times in a slow and steady voice: “Water off a duck’s back.” Relish the opportunity to solve your own problems, because you’re going to be doing a lot of that.
Can you live simply? Cuso pays a generous stipend by the standards of the countries where you’ll be working; here, it’s roughly equivalent to that of a mid-level manager at a Honduran non-profit. But that still means that a $20 dinner out is pretty splurgy and best viewed as a rare treat. And you’re definitely not going to be indulging in shopping therapy. I’d recommend you have at least $2,000 in savings earmarked for settling-in costs, and ideally a couple thousand more if you want to do some travelling while you’re away.
Presumably you’re the kind of person who enjoys travel if you’re even contemplating being an international volunteer, but it’s actually nothing like travelling. Living and working in one place is very, very different from skimming over the surface of a country in a holiday mood. No tourist hotels. No cheery bilingual clerk who helps you find a place to rent or make the bad bank give you your money back. No hopping on the bus for a new town if it turns out you don’t much like the one you’re in.
In fairness to everyone, it’s best you think hard about things like that before you make a commitment. And it is a commitment. Yes, a good placement will have an escape clause, but Cuso spent a lot of money on Paul and me before sending us here, and the organization I’m working with in Honduras is counting on me to complete my project. I like this gig, but even if I didn’t I’d stick it out.
If you hate being sweaty, are fussy about what you eat, like a quiet neighbourhood and get squeamish at the thought of bugs wandering freely around your house, perhaps volunteering closer to home is a better option. If you’re opposed to vaccinations and aren’t willing to swallow two bitter anti-malaria pills every week, at least make such decisions fully understanding the risks of refusing.
One last tip: While your accomplishments in Canada will stand you in good stead in terms of preparing you for whatever work you’ll be doing, they won’t mean much to the people in your new community. Trot out your carefully translated resume if you like, but what you consider major achievements may mean nothing to your new workmates. (In Honduras, ambición is a bad word.) In a new land, people will know you only for who they perceive you to be in the moment they meet you – exciting for those of us who like the challenge of starting from scratch, soul-destroying for those who need more assurance of status.
But if you’re someone who embraces change, wants to draw on skills you don’t even know you have, fancies new experiences, is not prone to saying things like “Back home, we do it this way...”and bends like Gumby – well, pack up the house and prepare for the adventure of a lifetime. You’re going to love life outside the comfort zone.