How To Find Meaningful Travel: Volunteering In Asia
December 13, 2009 § 3 Comments
ESL teaching in Hanoi: Language learning can be all fun and games
The practice of soulful travel is to discover the overlapping point between history and everyday life, the way to find the essence of every place, every day: in the markets, small chapels, out-of-the-way parks, craft shops. Curiosity about the extraordinary in the ordinary moves the heart of the traveler intent on seeing behind the veil of tourism.
-Phil Cousineu, The Art Of Pilgrimage
Why volunteer in Asia?
At the recent BarCamp Singapore 4, I held a discussion and talked about how I benefited as a volunteer in Vietnam. Some have asked about the resources I have used to identify opportunities for meaningful travel. After all, the most obvious “volunteer” opportunities here in Singapore offered through schools and organizations pack 30+ people in a bus, bring them to workcamp sites, and two weeks later, they’re back home. Not that I have anything against large groups of volunteers working for two-weeks, but I believe a personal volunteering journey has the potential be much more meaningful.
As Asians coming from a developed country, having the ability to speak at least two different languages fluently, our potential to contribute to others is limitless. We don’t realize this because we’re living in a country where talent and skill seems saturated. My time overseas made me so much more thankful of the education (even with its flaws) I received in Singapore.
Moreover, volunteering in Asia helps us strengthen that Asian connection. We revisit the Southeast Asia that Singapore seems to have moved on in favor of development and modernization. When you walk on the lanes and streets of Hanoi or Luang Prabang, sitting on a streetside wooden bench having a warm bowl of Pho Ga, it simply feels familiar, even though such experiences no longer exist in Singapore. When I saw men of all ages playing dominoes and Chinese chess in Lenin Park, I wasn’t there to wonder why or what they were doing, but to just feel that sense of familiarity. We often read blogs and articles of our European or American friends experiencing an entirely different culture while they’re in Southeast Asia. I think as Singaporeans, we need to revisit these lost cultures and experiences too, for they must certainly feel foreign to us too.
Please take note that I have not tried every organization mentioned below, some were recommended to me while others have received very positive reviews from users. As always, do your due diligence:
– Reading reviews and comments about the organization
– Do a web search for the institution/organization you are interested to work with
– Email and call up organizations to speak to someone
– Check if these institutions are registered with the local government
Firstly, it would help to know what you’re good at, and what you’re interested in so that you won’t get lost in all that information available. If you have a skills to contribute to organizations overseas, thats great! But if you don’t, worry not! Your interests will probably point you in the right direction.
Here are some of the resources I used for my volunteering overseas. Hopefully these will save you lots of time and effort.
By far one of the most trusted volunteer portals available, this website is clean and simple, and is a good starting point to look at what options are available to you as an aspiring world-volunteer.
International Volunteers’ HQ is based in New Zealand, and provides excellent support (phone and email) for volunteers and the local organizations. It is one of the most affordable too. This was where I picked Vietnam out of the many choices available.
If you’re looking for even more options, meaningful work, internships, and the occasional free volunteering experience, you can check out the available opportunities here. Most of the free or paid stints are for long term volunteers though, so be prepared to work for half a year to one year in environments vastly different from what you might be comfortable with. However, these are usually the most rewarding and satisfying experiences available.
Location Specific Opportunities:
Very affordable volunteer opportunities in a country of visually stunning landscapes.
The organization that I went with, and that started it all for me. VPV has volunteer locations throughout Vietnam, while based in Hanoi. Opportunities include teaching English, working with NGOs, and working at orphanages.
I’m biased towards lovely Vietnam, so here’s another organization for volunteering in Vietnam.
In Search Of Sanuk was started by Dwight Turner, who coined the term “Funlanthropy”. Who says you can’t have fun while contributing to a good cause? It’s easy to see why Dwight and In Search Of Sanuk has been so successful so far. As a person, Dwight’s energy and enthusiasm is infectious. Talk to him about volunteering and partying to understand why.
Other helpful volunteer-related info:
Saving money and budgeting during your travels.
Some volunteer Inspiration:
Harper’s work as a volunteer in Congo sets the tone for what volunteers should aspire to contribute and receive out of a volunteering experience. Her work is truly inspiring.
Award winning travel author Rolf Potts maintains a blog about the how-tos, and philosophies of world travel. Very relevant to aspiring travel volunteers.
Solo volunteering trips in Asia are deeply meaningful. I prefer to help out in areas that truly require assistance, and volunteering in Asia seems to me an obvious choice. You learn independence and initiative, while still have the opportunity to work in a team with volunteers from all over the world. The problem I see with workcamps or groups of volunteers (>5) going together, is the “herd mentality” creeping in, and the tendency to only communicate within the group. Venturing out yourself forces you to learn to communicate and work with different cultures. This is a very important life skill to learn and have.
Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.
-John Muir, 1888 letter to his wife