This Sunday, I set out for my seventh trip to India, each of which has included a week’s stay at a children’s home in the northeastern state of Odisha. In fact, volunteering at this home where more than 100 parentless children live is the reason I went to India in the first place, back in 2005.
As a travel experience and a general life experience as well, the moments with those children have been among the best of my life. I have also undertaken a number of other volunteer projects when I’ve traveled, some for a few days and others for just an afternoon or a matter of hours, and they have all greatly enriched my travel experience. With my next volunteer trip just a few days away, I thought I would share my top reasons to volunteer when you travel.
1. You get to know people in a more intimate way that’s difficult to accomplish otherwise in short periods of time.
I have made some close, life-long friendships through volunteering—both the people in the country and organization where I volunteered, as well as fellow volunteer travelers. In fact, among my ten closest friends, I have become friends with more than half of them because of volunteering. And I stay close and in contact with many people all over the world whom I have met and formed relationships with that I highly value. All of these people have truly enriched my life in ways it is hard to express.
2. You are invited to truly learn about the culture, customs, and traditions.
Likewise, with getting to know local people, they are typically eager to welcome you into their country and their lives. In my volunteer work and friendships around the world, I have attended festivals with locals that have given me access and an inner view I never would have had on my own; I have been invited to homes and family dinners; I have been shown amazing world heritage sites such as Angkor Wat by a Khmer Rouge survivor; I have been given insider glimpses into places such as massive slums in Africa and India, being able to see the lives lived there in a way that would have been impossible otherwise. I have truly been able to feel that I am somewhat of a part of the places I am visiting, rather than seeing them with only an outsider’s view.
3. Other people also get to know about your life and culture, in a true exchange of humanity.
The more I travel around the world and really get to know people, the more I’m impressed with one thing: under the surface of the differences in beliefs, traditions, religions, and history, it’s amazing how alike we all are down deep. Most everyone wants to be loved and cared for, take care of their families, make a better life, laugh and sing, and find joy. And people elsewhere are usually as curious about us as we are about them. If you open up and invite it, you will find that the people you meet on volunteer projects around the world will want to know all about you.
4. You have fun.
Much of the time I’ve spent volunteering has been playing with kids, singing and drawing; walking dogs, or interacting with wildlife. One of the best pieces of advice I have for choosing a volunteer travel project is to think about what kinds of things you want to do and what types of issues you care about. It might be environmental, children, wildlife, health, and medical, whatever. But just about every volunteer traveler I have ever met (and I’ve known hundreds) had a blast at what they did, even when it was hard work.
5. You get to give something back to the community where you are fortunate enough to be able to travel.
And that’s really, in the end, the reason why we do it.