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Volunteering Abroad: Expectations vs. Reality

Irina posing as a farmer

Spoiler alert: There was a big gap between the two. 

For those of us who dream of travel but can't afford it, volunteering is a sure path to the discovery and exploration we so long for. But before you take a plunge into the rocky waters of the Internet to find your lucky ticket to adventure, give yourself a reality check. 

This winter, my family, some friends and I went to volunteer at a nature retreat and learning centre tucked into a remote corner of the Big Island, Hawai’i.

When we were planning the trip, we were excited about giving free healing arts workshops to the local community and learning about permaculture, making new friends and exploring life on the island, while following the ways of the locals. I had this romantic idea about myself—who had never as much as planted a flower— turning into a farmer girl in cool overalls and a wide-brim hat, shovelling away under the sun and tasting the fruits of my labour at the end of the day. 

I imagined that volunteering would be so much cheaper than regular travel. After all, our modest cabin was nowhere near the price of the local rentals, and we lived in a food forest. I imagined that we’d eat off the land, take the bus to places and hitch rides with locals when necessary, keeping our expenses low. 

Well, most of my expectations were far from reality.

A big factor here is that when you go to volunteer in a remote location, all your research, all the communication from the other end, and the reviews and opinions of those who have been to the place doesn't give you the full picture. You have to experience the place for yourself and, trust me, however thorough you are in your research, you will find yourself in unexpected situations and feel underprepared one way or another. But that is all part of the adventure, n’est-ce pas?

First of all, as they say, beggars are not choosers.

When you are a volunteer who is staying somewhere for free or is paying very little, your living conditions will likely be basic. Before you commit, ask yourself: How basic can you go? We all have different standards, and one woman’s rugged hut can be another man’s luxurious palace.

It is important to be honest and realistic about what you can handle and find out as much as possible in advance so that your whole adventure is not overshadowed by such things as your bed being too hard or too soft, the humidity dampening your sheets or oversized insects insisting on sharing your living quarters with you. 

My family and I are nomads and are no strangers to adjusting to unexpected inconveniences.  We are also well-adjusted to off-the-grid tiny living. That said, we appreciated the full-size kitchen and shower in our cabin. Having to encounter a roach or two during your shower was outweighed by the lush jungle peeking through the plexiglass walls of the bathroom and the great water pressure. Our son was staying in a separate little nook overlooking the ocean. Unusually high winds and rains, however, blew the roof off his habitation. Luckily, our generous hosts found him another spot and he was comfortable the rest of the stay. 

In the end, the lessons we learned were not the ones we had expected.



The weather was doing its thing the first few weeks, and we found ourselves in long stretches of rain that kept our clothes perpetually damp, even when we were inside. All the work at the retreat stalled and our dreams of becoming permaculture farmers withered. The workshops we had planned and were so looking forward to didn’t garner much attention (the retreat was in its beginnings and wasn’t very popular in the area yet). Thus, all the items on our “dream volunteering” list were slowly getting crossed off.

When the sun came out and the work resumed, we gradually realized that what the retreat needed from its volunteers was much more mundane than what we had imagined. As I said, it was in its beginnings and needed its basics covered first. The old structures on the property were falling apart and needed repair and maintenance, sheds needed organization, walls wanted new paint and windows had to be cleaned. In the end, our work was far less glorious than we had hoped for, and the lessons we learned were not the ones we had expected.

The financial reality of volunteering can also come as a surprise.

Even though our expenses were much lower than they would have been had we gone as tourists, island living was not cheap. Our fantasies of hitching rides and taking buses places were quickly replaced with the reality of being stuck in the rain for days. In the end, we rented a car from some very kind locals, but even with friendly prices, our dreams of keeping our expenses low were put to rest.

Another large expense for us was food. Living in a food forest wasn’t quite like picking your food straight off the tree for breakfast, lunch and dinner. What was in abundance at the time of our stay were lemons and spinach. They were delicious, but hardly would have made up a varied meal plan for two families with kids. It turned out that groceries on the island were extremely expensive, with even the common fruits and veggies that grew there costing a few bucks a pop ($2 a banana seemed like a good deal, and this is not a joke). That said, it was not impossible to eat on a budget, but food habits die hard (as I mentioned in one of my previous blogs) and it took some time for us to adjust to the local ways.

By this time, you might be thinking, “Is she trying to talk us out of volunteering abroad?!”

Absolutely not! Volunteering abroad is an enriching, adventurous, once-in-a-lifetime experience. We met some amazing people and were lucky to have wonderful hosts who did their best to teach us the local ways and show us the ins and outs of island life.

My bottom line is: go with an open heart and mind, drop your expectations, and have some savings to cover your expenses in case you find yourself in any kind of pickle. 

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Irina Abraham

Irina Abraham is an actress turned writer. Originally from Belarus, she spent most of her adult life in New York City. She writes about her travels on a short school bus and is currently volunteering with her family on Big Island, Hawaii. @kit_the_bus

Website: https://www.irinaweavesmagic.com/

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