An Honest Reflection: 7 things they don’t tell you about Volunteering Abroad

Volunteering in India, what springs to mind? With those I trained alongside (who went on to volunteer in Tanzania), we conjured up images of morning yoga at sunrise, bright intricate temples with gold statues and burning incense, eclectic Indian dress, soft silks, rich spices, mouthwatering exotic, hot Indian cuisine, henna body-art, bustling streets, and of course exposure to a whole plethora of faiths, belief systems, customs and traditions.

Much of the above stayed true to our imagination. I have never seen more breathtaking clothing; married women wore sari’s made of beautiful precious silks, others wore delicately stitched salwars with graceful scarves. Coupled with nose rings and bindi’s, every girl and woman looked like a goddess.

The roads were crazy; imagine five or six heaving lanes of traffic and each vehicle simultaneously moving in anything but a coherent line, tangled like spaghetti, weaving in and out of one another, some cars, some motorbikes, a majority tuk-tuks. Of course, the priority was not to avoid crashing into one another, but to dodge crashing into the sacred cows lying in the middle of the road or the heard of goats trotting at the edge alongside the frenzy going on millimetres from their hoofs.

Naturally, locals wanted to cross those roads too which added yet a further layer of mayhem, and don’t get me started on the Indian equivalent of motorways where vehicles drove towards you in high speed traffic – it was something out of Grand Theft Auto (minus the guns and gangsters). The only single word that truly describes it, is chaos. However, this total chaos made perfect sense, for it quickly became the norm, it was their way of life.

And visiting a local temple was like nothing I have ever experienced. I was nervous. The walls stood tall, magnificent, guarded by incredible sculpted statues. Lines of people stood waiting their turn to enter with an offering, as the outpouring of incense from within stepped up the humidity and left a mist in its wake. It was intimidating. It was exciting.

However with all the beauty and wonder that India has to offer, I was not there as a tourist. As a volunteer I had a job; to help communities that needed sustainable change. We were tasked with implementing projects that, in theory, had the ability to create momentum to develop communities and change locals’ lives from the very grass roots up. Our work, socially and physically allowed for volunteers and communities alike to consider ideas they had not thought about before, question their perception of normal and reconsider habits and their way of life; from washing hands with soap before eating a meal with their hands, to creating small kitchen gardens, to giving volunteers a platform to express real feelings and locals the opportunity to openly condemn violence against women. Through building relationships, nationals began to entertain the incomprehensible thought that on different land in another country a long way away, girls marry for love. And that one day, their daughters or daughters children, could marry for love too.

For all the research and reading I did in preparation, all the emergency supplies I took, and for all the positives that came from volunteering, there were some aspects of this experience that took me by surprise.

1. No matter how much you prepare, your experience will be emotionally, physically and mentally overwhelming.

It is possible to prepare for a different living situation and different culture if you are expecting it. Before I left, I felt I had armed myself for the most extreme scenario; I expected no toilet (I practised squats for months), expected no shower (I had packed approx. 8 bottles of dry shampoo to last me 3 months!), I expected to eat food I wasn’t used to eating, and work with people I didn’t know very well. I was prepared mentally for sleeping on the floor or on metal, bugs/ants/cockroaches/geckos/spiders, the heat, working with a small team for a long period, being a girl (or guy, in fact being western) and being unable to go out in public alone. I was fully aware of curfews of 8pm because it could be legitimately dangerous. I felt I was ready, some of these things perhaps more difficult to comprehend than others, but possible to get my head around. I felt I could handle whatever situation I found myself in because I wanted to volunteer abroad and such ways of life come with the territory.

What is not possible to prepare for however, is how each of these individual factors will affect you. Consider each of those and stop for a moment. Eating the same meal, three times a day, day in day out, for 90 days precisely (3 months), that’s 270 meals  – that has emotional and physical implications whatever your best intentions (and without thinking about food allergies etc). Then add any of the above on top. When they all impact at once, it hits hard that this is reality. This combination of factors, circumstances – this, constantly, is how life is now for the next three months. I will not lie, I found it quite tough.

The aspect I found most difficult and had not fully prepared for mentally, (and it is difficult to do so because you cannot imagine it), was having such little freedom; in how I dressed, what I ate, when I ate, where I went (or wasn’t allowed to go). If I wanted peace and quiet, I was living on top of eight others. If I didn’t fancy another curry, it was irrelevant and I had to go to breakfast unless I was ill, because it would offend my hosts if I did not. If I had a falling out with a fellow volunteer, there was no where to go. We  lived and worked in the same space; we had to put differences aside and make it work. The work I did there was more important than any personal disagreement. When I was sweltering hot in the 35+ degrees, I could not take any layers off or change into shorts, I had to continue wearing full length clothing and leggings under my salwar. If I ever needed time to myself, it was difficult because I was not allowed out in the open alone, and I shared my room, my personal space, with other volunteers. When I wasn’t well and needed a fresh shower, I had to retrieve the buckets of water first (showering was a practical act, not relaxing or refreshing). I could not get up early and go for a run as I usually would in London; you do not do that because wild dogs will chase and it is completely inappropriate for a western girl to go out alone at any point in the day. It was never a matter of having the confidence to be different (in my mind before I left, I figured ‘so what? Let them see a taste of what life is like in the UK’). Quickly you learn that is ignorant, frankly stuck-up and stupid. It was not about me having confidence, it was not about personal needs; it was about what was respectful and appropriate in the societal framework I lived within. I found this aspect particularly difficult because like a majority other women in the west I am defiant, strong-willed and independent. Speaking my mind and acting as I wish is as second nature to me as breathing. So the level of total gender inequality shocked me. I had definitely expected it to be that way, but never stopped to consider that I would fall into the same category and be confined to such an extent too. Living as a woman was incredibly infuriating, suffocating, and at moments unbearably hard. But I had to take a deep breath, and respect the country, customs, and circumstances I was in and remind myself constantly why I was there.

2. You will be more culture shocked as you return home after being away.

Besides the oddness of reintroducing yourself to ‘normal’ organised traffic, sitting in a comfortable car with warmed reclining leather seats, coming home and there being a carpet underfoot, paint or wallpaper hung on walls, a sofa, your own bed! Something will have fundamentally changed inside you. New thoughts that enter your head and how you now lead your life will shock you.

All of a sudden, you realise your sense of normal has shifted. When you are getting ready for work and rummage through twenty or thirty tops and push aside dress after skirt after trouser, there is no sense of ‘I have nothing to wear’. Immediately the reaction instead is, ‘what have I been doing all my life. Who can I give this to that needs it more than I?’

When the shower runs cold, you don’t get angry with your parent/partner/the water company; you are grateful you are standing under fresh clean water that automatically runs out, not a rationed bucket of water you had to walk to collect or wait to fill up.

When the train is running two or three minutes late, or a train is cancelled, you are no longer furious with the train company; you know another train will eventually come, you know you can get the next underground tube in four or six minutes. Before your time away that was a long time to wait, now you know it is no big deal because another train will come that will get you across the city in less than fifteen minutes. Also, you can afford that rail fare, you do not need to walk for hours.

Where I volunteered, trains were not even an option, buses or walking were one’s means of transport. And on busses, particularly when girls go home alone after work in the evening, they are at risk of being gang raped. Thank goodness for TFL and the safety of my bus or train that may be late, but will eventually show. And I will get home just fine.

3. Building strong relationships with your fellow volunteers is as important as the volunteering itself

This is crucial because the bond between volunteers will directly impact the success of the projects you are implementing. Difficulties lie in the constant close proximity you will work and live in, so naturally there will be disagreements. If there are problems within teams, it is important to shake those and deal with them immediately so the projects and your purpose for being in that scenario is not affected. Another difficulty lies in the fact you may meet your team in a social scenario, bond on the plane etc. so you engage as friends first, then colleagues second. My advice would be to try and get to know the volunteers before you go on the trip, have conversations about volunteering, find out how engaged with international development they are. In the back of your mind, consider whether you could engage with these individuals in a work capacity. Perhaps when it comes to volunteering, choose a company that has a long interviewing process – in many ways you are guaranteed to get great individuals that want to be there for the right reasons. Also, consider maybe choosing a volunteering programme where you have to pay; this might sound crazy when there are free options out there, but those that really want it and care will pay the money. Like any job, it is often the people that make it a success. And you want to be in a team of enthusiastic people that care for the projects, that are passionate about the role, that want to engage, work hard, make change.

4. Expect downtime 

In my opinion, to some extent volunteering abroad is sold as an action packed and challenging time. Which it 100% definitely is. However what is not mentioned is how much time you will have to yourself; to think, to read, to dwell and reflect. There is a lot of time to sit and find calm, and delve into your own head. Often you can find thoughts there you didn’t know existed until you found yourself in calm, away from your normal reality. When you consider volunteering, double check and be honest with yourself, are you okay being on your own?

5. Unapologetically be yourself

Do not be influenced by those around you, be inspired by, but not influenced. Your particular skill set; the way you speak, your outlook on different issues, your creative, vocal, practical abilities, your problem-solving and practical logical thinking, your enthusiasm, even your experiences and knowledge about whatever it is you are into – hold on to what you know is you, you were chosen to be a part of that volunteering team for a reason. So be uncompromising in who you are, be yourself, you are the best person in the world at being you. And you will be surprised by your ability to positively influence those around you by maintaining integrity and standing by your morals and ideals.

6. You will have people on your Facebook that are snotty about what you are doing and assume you are going on a holiday. Ignore it, prove them wrong

To avoid this criticism, (because with every single charity/voluntary situation I have been involved with, it is inevitable), I suggest two things:

1. Research very carefully what you will actually be doing day to day. For example, if you are a music graduate or maths genius, do you think you are capable of building a school? Are you strong, do you know how, do you have the skill set? If you are to teach, are you interested in topics that will actually be covered? Do you like children or the age group you will be teaching too? Do you think you are able to learn the content, do you have a basic grasp on the topics before you ever begin training?

It is easy to get swept up in the idea of living in a country that is different to what you are used too. My advice would be this; if you wouldn’t do it at home, don’t do it abroad.

2. Let’s face it, we haven’t put ourselves forward to volunteer in the UK, we are choosing to go abroad. But let’s not consider this experience a holiday. It will be the furthest thing from! Naturally in going away, sure the plane part is identical to a holiday, but make sure your social media content is not. Write about reflections, post about memories, moments, the work you are doing, changes in perspective, successes, even failures, write about the individuals you meet, the girls’ circumstances that are changing your life. If you don’t want a backlash from social media, be incredibly careful what you put on there and how you think people will perceive your time spent in this different place. We’ve all seen the volunteerism articles that circulated a while back and they aren’t wrong. Taking a picture of a group of small children from above makes the photographer seem (unintentionally) superior. Instead take a picture on their level with them, naturally eradicates any sense of west vs. east or rich and poor. Even better, have pictures taken when you are engaging with locals and with children. Again, this comes down to research on what you will be doing, but understand the bigger picture of what you are doing. If you are stopping by for a few days in one school, honestly ask yourself, are you there for your needs? Perhaps. Find projects where you can fully immerse for a long period of time, find opportunities where there is some level of constant, because that is the only way sustainable change will come.

7. You will find yourself pleasantly surprised by how attached you become to your counterpart and host families.

I am not one for hugs, I am not one for open affection. So I personally found it incredibly difficult to warm to the families, counterpart volunteers and even fellow national volunteers I did not know. It is hard to admit, but hey, a lesson learnt, that it took me time (longer than most), to adjust and feel comfortable in the host families homes. However, by the time we left, it was incredibly difficult to say goodbye.

The more I learnt, the more conversations that were had and the more I witnessed their way of life, the more I realised how strong, resilient and brilliant the women there are. The longer I was there and the more I have reflected since, the harder it is to express the total respect and awe I feel for women and girls living in circumstances and under constraints we in the west would be suffocated by.

Those women and their families became surrogate families away from home. They cared, they treated each of us with complete kindness. The realisation that you may not see their bright, playful children again is difficult to comprehend when you are used to seeing them at least three times a day. It is difficult to comprehend the realities that the national volunteers will face once you leave and their voluntary place on the programme ends. It is incredibly difficult going home, going back to ‘reality’ starting a job, going back to hugging/kissing your boyfriend in public, because you know the world is literally your oyster, but you have come to know your national volunteers so well, and see so much potential, but have no idea if their society will ever allow for them to reach it.

You will miss their simplistic uncomplicated lives, their homes, their company, their food, their chatter, their quirks. Just sitting cross-legged on the floor in a circle eating with our host families and volunteers, chattering in broken English and Tamil, giggling as rice fell from our inadequate hands/mouths, are some of my fondest memories of my time in south India.

Any experience is what you make it, but be honest with yourself about whether it is right for you and whether you truly believe you will be a hinderance or a help.

1 Comment

  1. Well written, life-changing adventure. I personally don’t think I could do what you described. Too many changes at once. I travel a lot in the US and am comfortable wherever I go. I am a guy, but…don’t know how to finish that. Anyway, great account of your trip and what you learned from it. (:


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