A current meme in the travel blog world is to reveal three “travel secrets” and then tag other bloggers to do the same. The concept originated with Katie at Tripbase and I was tagged by Dan at Eight Hour Layover. Now that I finally have internet access at home, I figured I should post mine.
After contemplating a variety of specific places to write about, I decided instead to divulge secrets about volunteering abroad – a great way to meet new people and learn more about the local culture. (You could also work abroad, but that generally requires a longer-term commitment and probably some sort of visa or working permit.) Conveniently, voluntourism is a growing industry and there are many organizations that will help you fulfill your life-long dream of de-worming orphans in Somalia. However, they generally all require you to lay down some cash, which can be as much as several thousand dollars for a couple weeks. While the more legitimate organizations work to keep overhead costs low and put the majority of these fees back into the project/local community, paying to volunteer isn’t an option for the budget traveler/broke student and also seems oxymoronic. So here are three ways to volunteer abroad for free. I have focused on programs that only require a one-two week commitment so that they can be incorporated into a more extensive travel plan.
I did this program in 2006 after a semester of studying in Denmark and before a summer of teaching English in Poland. The basic premise is that Spanish companies pay to send their employees to a week of English immersion and the English immersion is provided by volunteers. You are not “teaching” English per se, you just have to speak it. In my experience, every one was near fluent in English.
Each morning is spent in one-on-one pairs that switch every hour. There were 36 people in my program, so you were paired with each of the Spaniards multiple times over the course of the week, but you weren’t repetitively with the same people. It was a nice mix and it helped to get to know everyone. You are free to discuss whatever you like – families, jobs, hobbies, etc. After a 3-course lunch with wine and the requisite siesta, there are group activities, followed by a 3-course dinner with wine.
I was at Valdelavilla, which I believe is the most rural of the four Spanish locations. We were literally in the middle of a beautiful nowhere – there was nothing except the villas where we were staying, so the focus was truly on the program and each other. (There is also a site in Italy, but it is by invitation only to veteran volunteers.)
For my program, I was the youngest person in the group by at least a decade. (Most participants were middle-aged; the oldest was in her eighties.) I didn’t mind and neither did anyone else, but I note it because this wouldn’t be the most appropriate option for younger travelers who want to be surrounded by their peers.
The accommodation, food (and wine), and people were all amazing. Pueblo Ingles also provides transportation to and from Madrid, so all you have to do is find your way to Madrid!
I spent two weeks at the Monkey Sanctuary this past September. The Sanctuary is on the grounds of a sprawling Victorian mansion facing the ocean in Cornwall, and is about 5 hours from London by train. The trip from Looe to the Sanctuary is a 15-minute (£10) cab ride or an hour-long walk (uphill both ways). Looe is an adorable (albeit small) town to explore and there are plenty of places to enjoy Cornish pasties and cream tea (tea with scones, Cornish cream, and jam). On your days off, it’s easy to catch a train to explore another part of Cornwall.
Volunteer duties include food prep (baking a cake for the monkeys, chopping vegetables, collective leaves), working in the kids’ activity room or the café (usually comes with delicious cake), and yes, cleaning up monkey poo. The latter really isn’t that bad, especially if you have pets and are used to cleaning up after them. You even get to pretend you’re a hazmat officer, since you wear a jumpsuit, rubber gloves, and wellington boots while cleaning.
Volunteers aren’t actually allowed to touch the monkeys, but there are usually a few dogs around the house if you’re yearning for a furry friend. There are plenty of human friends – there were six other volunteers at the Sanctuary when I was there, along with twenty keepers, at least half of whom also live on the premises.
The accommodation is rustic and carnivores beware – the Sanctuary maintains a vegetarian kitchen. You are free to use whatever’s in the kitchen to make your own breakfasts and lunches. (The pantry was well-stocked and there was always a variety of vegetables.) Dinner duty rotates among the keepers, with the volunteers responsible for making dinner one night per week. Consequently, life at the Sanctuary is like a reality show combining elements of the Animal Planet, the Real World, and Iron Chef.
The minimum volunteer commitment is two weeks. Looking over my information, I think they do ask for a small donation (£35 or so per week), but no one ever collected this from me. (While I enjoyed my experience, the Sanctuary can be a little disorganized at times; another example is that despite being told I would be picked up at the train station, I had to take a taxi.)
I admittedly have never done any of the programs on this website, but I have spent time looking through it. It lists a wide variety of free and low-cost volunteer programs spread throughout South and Central America that focus on a number of different causes, from kids to the environment. Some have minimum commitments of only a week or two, while others require a longer stay.
If you have questions about Pueblo Ingles or the Monkey Sanctuary and my experiences, leave a comment or email me,and I’ll be happy to tell you more.