Have you ever come across an oyster clinging to a sea cliff and tried to prise it open? When I had a go on an island off the coast of Queensland once, I broke the blade of my (imitation) Swiss army knife. So why are we always being told that the world is our oyster? Sometimes when we travel, the places we visit can seem more like a tightly shut clam denying access to what really makes them tick.
Those who are edging towards a decision to opt out of their routines for some extended time overseas may wonder how they can ever be more than just tourists, skating over the surface of foreign cultures. The way to avoid this is to involve yourself in a community or a worthwhile project somewhere else in the world over a period of time. What might seem like a closed book (or shell) when you arrive, will gradually open a crack and then a little more to reveal something of the hidden interior. If you are receptive (and lucky), you might even glimpse a pearl.
But how can you make this happen? Charities, agencies and travel companies galore can arrange short or longer-term volunteer stays, whether ten weeks of working on primate conservation and humanitarian projects at grassroots level in Madagascar, exchanging a few hours of work a day to subsidize your stay on a New Zealand farm or Costa Rican eco-lodge, or teaching in a Himalayan school. Arranging a placement like this sometimes requires not much more than contacting a mediating agency, filling out a form and paying a fee. Ay, there's the rub. Pre-arranged placements are seldom self-financing, with some organizations charging upfront fees of $5000+.
Deciding to volunteer on your gap year presents you with a potential minefield of choices: what to do, where to go and for how long. Homing in on a reputable and worthwhile project can be a long and tricky process, so start well in advance. Short-term volunteer work is a booming sector of the travel industry, and every click of the mouse will take you to yet another website offering a 'once-in-a-lifetime opportunity' at wildly varying prices. Going with the backing and support—moral, medical, logistical and linguistic - of a western organization is certainly reassuring. Relying on footwork and local enquiries to arrange a placement privately can be a different (and cheaper) means to the same end. Pricey as they might seem, the placements co-ordinated by responsible agencies are likely to be more geared up to getting the most from an international volunteer. Ideally, these projects will have been selected for their reliability at incorporating volunteers from other countries, though there are many cases of eager volunteers paying out large sums to an agency, only to find themselves with virtually nothing to do, leaving them severely out-of-pocket and feeling that they have made little or no contribution.
Homing in on a reputable and worthwhile project can be a long process, so start well in advance.
It is wise to be a little skeptical when poring over the promotional literature of the competing companies. For example, all companies will offer 24-hour emergency support. But how useful will it be to ring a company representative somewhere far away? In a crisis, you will probably have to turn to the people immediately on hand. And besides, you should have a watertight insurance policy.
Here are some points to bear in mind when you come to weigh up the differences between agencies and projects:
• Is the company willing to provide contact details of returned volunteers?
• Is the sending organization a non-profit or a commercial company? Is it happy to supply specific cost breakdown information? How does it justify its price?
• Does the agency donate any of your fee to the NGO or community in which you will be placed?
• Does the company literature emphasize fun and socializing or the worthwhile contribution volunteers make? Having fun and working hard are not mutually exclusive, but it's sensible to know how serious a commitment is expected.
• How long an attachment will you choose? Three months away from home comforts may seem like an age, but you may find your placement drawing to a close just as you settle in and begin to form real bonds with the local people involved in your project. So be wary of trying to squeeze too many different activities into your gap year - it can be harder to extricate yourself than you expect.
• How beneficial for the people (and satisfying for you) are very short-term projects? The new trend towards 'voluntourism' does not enjoy universal approval. For volunteering to be sustainable, and not encourage a cycle of dependency in the host community, the volunteer should be bringing a skill that can't be found locally (hence the popularity of teaching English).
• Are you prepared to be the only foreign volunteer (which often leads to a more authentic experience) or would you prefer to live and work alongside others like you (which usually results in lifelong friendships)?
Susan Griffith is the author of Gap Years for Grown-Ups published by Vacation-Work Publications/Crimson Publishing in the UK (www.crimsonpublishing.co.uk); CDN$27.95.
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