They say that as you get older the more you realize how little you actually know. I would say that’s quite true at my 26 years of age, although I’m still naïve enough to hope that I might learn a little more as the years go by. I believe that you can travel and volunteer at any age, and some of our best volunteers have been people that can share a few more stories about life. Regardless of how many experiences you have under your belt, it is important to remember that all trips are unique. Just because you volunteered with orphans in Colombia doesn’t mean it will be the same experience in Mexico, and even if you traveled solo through Europe two years ago, there may be unexpected difficulties traveling alone this time around. We’ve compiled a list of tips that apply to every age, but that are vital in your participatory experience with Casa HOY if you fall into the “when I was your age” category (all the time, or at moments. Alas, I’m currently in that category).
Do your research. There are hundreds of voluntourism opportunities around the world. Organizations offer different programs and projects that might be more suitable to your needs and interests. For example, if you sign up to teach English, you might not be working with an English speaking teacher, or with a teacher at all. You might be totally on your own. Remember, if you’re volunteering internationally for the first time, you have to get used to not only a different language and cuisine, but also all of the challenges of your volunteer project. My personal recommendation would be to choose a country first and then look for a program you’re interested in. This is voluntourism- it won’t be much fun if you’re not the least bit interested in the culture.
Get a physical. Voluntourism is considered “off the beaten path” travel. You’re not sleeping at a B&B, you’re not taking an air conditioned bus to your project and the bus driver will not wait for you to find your seat before speeding off. The sidewalk crumbles away, the sun is beating down and your project may be an hour long bus ride away. And in Cuernavaca, Mexico, you’re at an altitude of almost 5,000 ft. Many volunteers, especially those that come from the coast, experience some form of altitude sickness- shortness of breath, headaches or lightheadedness. You may also be working with children or adolescents, a boogery population in any country, so if you’re tired from travel you’re much more likely to get sick. When you’re here for just a week or two, nobody wants to be told to “take it easy,” but sometimes that’s what you have to do to make sure you stay healthy. Drink lots of water, wear sunscreen and/or a hat and relax- you’re in Mexico!
Bring your regular medications. Although you might want to pack light, if there are any medications that you prefer taking when you’re feeling under the weather, bring them. For example, I used to love Theraflu, so I would bring my own wherever I went just in case I couldn’t get it at the local pharmacy. It’s also handy to bring any meds you would use for upset stomachs, headaches or regular colds. Although you can most likely get medicines with same active ingredient as those in your home country here in Mexico, it’s helpful to pack your usual over the counter medicines so you don’t have to walk around trying to find a place to fill out your prescription when you’ve got a headache or the runs.
Recognize the average age group. Voluntourism is an awesome way to travel at any age, but be aware that the average participant age is 20. What that means for anyone over 20 is that you will be living and volunteering with people that may or may not have ever lived on their own, traveled on their own, cooked on their own, been on their own, gotten sick on their own, cleaned on their own and/or planned on their own. And you might not have done any of those things yet either, at whatever age you are. Participants not only learn about Mexico and their volunteer project, but also how to live and interact with international volunteers of many ages. You have to be prepared to have dissimilar interests, expectations, concerns, budgets and ideas. That’s part of the fun. Regardless of your age, you will be teaching and learning from everyone.
Splurge. Even though you came to change the world and change yourself, you have to be healthy enough to do it. So if taking public transportation tires you, splurge and take a taxi every once in awhile. If you need a nap, go for it. Siestas are delicious. Take a day off. Even if you’re here for a short amount of time, if you need a day to recover or take it all in our just relax, do so. It’s better to take a day off to get back to 100% than to push yourself and get worse.
Get and stay organized. There's lots of paperwork to hold on to when you travel. While Casa HOY holds on to your original passport to keep it safe, volunteers misplace tourist visa cards, luggage cards, plane ticket information and so on. Make sure you have all of your travel info in a folder in one place. If you've made reservations for further travel, consider printing out addresses and dates.
At 26, as the Casa HOY program coordinator, I most certainly fall into the “when I was your age” category in many interactions with volunteers. It’s easy to forget that when I traveled at 16 I wandered away on my own and got lost in the forest, at 18 I don’t remember how I got back from the bar most nights and at 25 I thought it would be a good idea to cross a border without a visa. We travel to learn about the world, but most of all to learn about ourselves. At every age you have to be open to personal challenges and development, and usually when you find yourself in the “when I was your age” category you have the grace and wisdom to recognize these moments of self comprehension.