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The Voluntourism Experience

Tips for Turning the Idealistic into the Ideal

Voluntourists in Costa Rica on a scenic path.
Voluntourists in Costa Rica on a scenic path.

Greeted by “Jane Doe”, a round, middle-aged woman with a cigarette permanently entrenched in her lips and a spouting an off-putting attitude, I knew my luck with international volunteer projects had just run out. “Wildlife Sun Sanctuary” (editor’s note: the name of program and the director’s name has been changed to preserve their privacy)—where I had arranged to volunteer for two weeks—was unsanitary and inhumane, and volunteers were assigned menial tasks and treated like slave laborers. I had not done my due diligence and now I was in Costa Rica as a solo traveler in a place I could not stand.

To top it off, there was no phone and the closest Internet café was a 40-minute walk away. It rained relentlessly every day. With the exception of four daily buses to the nearest town, I was more or less stranded in what felt like the opposite of paradise.

After having volunteered in France, Hawaii, and Australia—where each experience rivaled for the title of the highlight of my life—I had no qualms about blindly heading to Central America for this 2-week stint. At their core, all the programs seemed similar; volunteers pay airfare and a small fee to stay on location, and a group of volunteers from all over the world work and play together. But being at Wildlife Sun Sanctuary made me realize that the idealistic notion of voluntourism was not always to satisfying. Seeing these four projects in hindsight, I suggest anyone looking to volunteer abroad consider the following tips before committing to a project:

  1. Refer to the host’s website, but recognize that it may not represent the whole picture or the whole truth. A website is a sales tool, so it is going to make everything sound perfect. Use it to get a sense of the project and the surroundings, and then take the initiative to delve deeper. The website for the wellness retreat center in Hawaii where I researched volunteering sounded too good to be true. After speaking with the volunteer coordinator on the phone I found out it was even better than I could have hoped for. Wildlife Sun Sanctuary, however, was anything but the natural paradise and “sanctuary” described on the website. 
  2. Ask about a typical day in the life. Many times the host will try to sell you on the fun activities available when you are not working, but make sure you are happy with the work itself. At Wildlife Sun Sanctuary, my tasks included washing muddy pots, unloading groceries, and scrubbing out the refrigerator. This was not exactly the wildlife immersion project I imagined.
  3. Find out if the project is team-oriented or individually focused. One of my favorite parts of the volunteer project in France was the group unity which was felt when working together to resurrect a stone wall and create an alluring landscape for tourists. We started bonding on day one and there was a real sense of team pride in our final project.
  4. Try to understand any cultural nuances before you head out. Research not only the country, but of the place where you will actually be working. Nudity was quite common in the program I attended in Hawaii. In France, everyone was expected to contribute to cooking group meals and be a part of the group at all times.
  5. Get a detailed explanation of the accommodations and its amenities. In Australia, where I was picking coffee beans for a family business, I lived in a trailer with one other person, cooked my own meals on a propane stove, and bathed in the creek–basically a step above camping. In Costa Rica, six of us slept on foam pads in one room, there were bugs all over the kitchen, and there was no privacy whatsoever. It felt more like living in the developing world than the “simple living” described on their website.
  6. If possible, speak with the person running the program on the phone. Personalities as they come out over email do not necessarily mirror the experience face-to-face. Joe Doe’s exclamation-peppered emails were cheery and inviting–nothing like her abrasive and negative nature in reality.
  7. If you are joining an ongoing project, ask the host if you can get in touch with a previous volunteer. Once I admitted to myself and other volunteers how much I hated Wildlife Sun Sanctuary, the feelings of others started to come out as well. On the other hand, when I meet people who volunteered at the same place in Hawaii, everyone universally raves about their experience.The best place I have found for online reviews regarding voluntourism is Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree. If you cannot find a review there, revert to the ‘90s and email or call a past volunteer(s) to get an honest opinion. 
  8. Find out the benefit of your hard work; who is it helping and how? My first three projects had clear direction and an obvious goal. But after completing my four days at Wildlife Sun Sanctuary, I am still not sure who benefited from those wild animals living in small cages, and the locals I spoke with did not seem to know either. The locals actually tried to have Jane Doe exiled because she caused so much trouble for their small town.
  9. Ask what is in it for you. This is your free time, and may be your vacation. Find out about things to do when you’re not working and how accessible those things are. What is your reward? Is it the good feeling of a job well done or is there a tangible benefit as well? In Australia they had activities to keep us entertained, and as a thank you for staying two weeks, the volunteers were treated to a 2-night camping excursion on a remote island.
  10. Make note of an exit strategy. If you do not like the program, what happens if you leave? For some projects you must pay up front and you will lose it all of it if you decide to bail out. Luckily it was just a few US dollars per night to stay at Wildlife Sun Sanctuary and I paid day-by-day, so I lost nothing by leaving. Finding out how to leave is also a good idea too, and if Internet and phone are not accessible, make sure you understand how to get around and get to a new destination. My Costa Rica guidebook was my ticket out, and I actually ended up having a fantastic backpacking adventure instead.

Not all of these tips will be applicable to every volunteer project, but using a combination will help ensure the project you choose is meaningful and satisfies your expectations. You may still wish to jump in blindly. Isn’t half the fun of travel being surprised?

For More Information on Volunteer Programs Abroad

Volunteers For Peace
www.vfp.org
A database of international volunteer projects ranging from 10 days to one year which take place all over the world with very modest fees.

Kalani Honua
www.kalani.com
A Hawaiian wellness retreat center where volunteers pay $500 per month to work in the kitchen, housekeeping, maintenance, or landscaping in exchange for living in paradise. 

World Wide Organization of Organic Farmers (WWOOF)
www.wwoof.org
For a small fee you can download a directory of organic farms for your country of choice and contact the farmers who take part in this program.

Transitions Abroad
An online portal and resource website for volunteering, working, studying, and traveling abroad—where you may find many first-hand accounts as well as advice from experts.

ThornTree Travel Forum
A social networking site created by Lonely Planet where you will find reviews from budget travelers, including stories, advice, and tips on voluntourism.