Services projects are on the rise, and more and more tourists are looking to travel in meaningful ways. The increase of “voluntourism” programs are capitalizing on foreigners’ desire to connect with locals and give back to communities through unique experiences.
Unfortunately, not every volunteer-travel operator provides the training or skills necessary for these projects. While volunteering in Western Nepal, I saw volunteers arrive uninformed and unprepared, asking for guidance. Travelers from all parts of the world (with varying levels of English) would stay anywhere from one week to several months. Some had international experience; others had never been out of their home country.
Tourists who rely on paid services to provide them with adequate information must take personal responsibility when entering a community to serve. Ignorance can have embarrassing, even offensive, repercussions for both foreigners and locals.
I compiled a few tips from my own experiences to help travelers volunteering abroad:
1. Humbly assist.
2. Be flexible.
I had to drastically adjust my expectations as a volunteer. American levels of production do not transfer to a Tibetan Monastery. In Nepal, strikes happen, power outages occur frequently, national holidays close stores for days at a time. Sit back and relax. It is part of the experience.
3. Have an open mind.
4. Show respect.
You are entering a country with deep cultural roots and rich heritage. Many religions and ethnic groups exist in harmony. Show courtesy and respect for all beliefs and traditions, even if you do not understand.
In the case of monasteries, men (and women) have dedicated their lives to religious study and practice. It is also their home. When visiting these religious institutions, there are main practices to observe:
-Wear modest clothing. Avoid shorts and strappy shirts.
-Remove your shoes and sit quietly if you decide to enter.
–Pujas are complex rituals performed for funerals, weddings, and other important occasions. As an outsider, it is difficult to determine the exact nature of these ceremonies. Play it safe by honoring all involved.
5. Ask questions.
If you don’t know, don’t hesitate to ask. Find someone who can help – a teacher, a senior monk, a community member.
If you’re looking to make long term changes, it is important to ask the right questions and understand all of the factors contributing to the problems you are trying to solve.
6. Want to give money?
7. Record your thoughts.
Days will pass more quickly than you could possibly imagine. Write down observations and stories from your daily life in Nepal. You’ll get a kick out of reading things you’ve forgotten about once you’ve returned home. Reading early entries from my journal makes me realize how much I learned while I was in Nepal. Incredible!
Tip: If you’re volunteering at a place that hosts regular volunteers, ask if they have a Record Book. If one has not yet been started, offer to create a log for future volunteers to read and communicate. It’s a great place to share notes and connect with people from around the world who are also interested in meaningful work.
8. Taking photos?
When visiting a new area, ask before taking pictures. I’ve found the best photos happen after a relationship has been developed. If you can, leave your camera at home for the first few days you arrive at your project. Focus on getting to know the people, the work, the routine. You can take pictures later.
And when you do… folks love photos. I must have printed out dozens of photos to give to my students and families I wanted to thank for their kindness. An 8×10 framed photo makes an excellent farewell gift.
Nepal is a beautiful, beautiful country filled with beautiful people. Never in my life have I experienced such rich traditions and cultures. Family commitment is evident throughout the land, and people work hard to provide better lives for their children. The Nepalis will share their smile and laugh with you. You’ll leave a better person than when you came. I did.