How Volunteering Abroad Changed Me
Following the advice of a careers advisor to gain some life experience before progressing on to the next stage of his career, Craig Puttnam made the decision to backpack and volunteer abroad for 9 months. Follow Craig’s journey, as he shares some valuable advice for aspiring international volunteers…
My journey started just as a phase of Military Officer selection had finished. After a few hard days of being tested, it was finally time to get our results and go home. For me, I was advised that I take a year out to further develop myself as a person, gain life experience and mature before continuing to the next stages. At first the news hit me pretty hard, I was determined to get into the military as quickly as possible and now that plan had been changed, I wasn’t sure where or what I wanted to do with the choices before me. After talking to family, friends and my army career advisor, I decided that I would take the selection officer’s advice and travel. It was advised that during my travels my time should be used constructively as opposed to just drinking and partying everywhere I went. This made clear sense to me as I had a goal that I was aiming for and just partying my way around the world wouldn’t really help me achieve it.
Eventually, we decided that volunteering on different programs along the way would be a great way to travel, it meant that I would be truly immersed with the local culture and gain some knowledge about the country before I set off on my own to explore it. After some time looking at different volunteering sites, IVHQ was recommended, so we had a look and liked what we saw. The idea that I could enter a country, be met at the airport by friendly staff and then receive an orientation plus exposure to the local culture, all with other people in the same boat as me, was great and I wanted to be a part of it. But those were my selfish reasons for wanting to volunteer before I had any idea how rewarding it could be. The feeling you get after a day of teaching or helping the local community in some way is just amazing, it’s truly hard to match. I’d not done anything like this before in my life and I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but once my feet were on the ground I just loved the whole experience.
So the system that had been worked out for me during these travels, was that I would spend my first three weeks in the country volunteering, getting to know the country, its culture and meeting new people who I could maybe spend some time with after my program had finished. After my three weeks I would usually have 2 to 3 weeks before my next programme in my next location started, so I would just put my backpack on and explore I’d just go wherever I felt like going and seeing whatever I wanted to see.
I understand that travelling can be very expensive and this seems to be the thing that kills most people’s travelling ambitions. When doing the research, we found that IVHQ was definitely one of the more affordable volunteering organisations when you take into consideration all that they have to offer. On top of that, a discount on my flights was the icing on the cake. I was very lucky being able to travel for the amount of time that I did, if it wasn’t for the financial backing of my people at home, my lifesavings just wouldn’t have made the cut for the trip that was planned. I’m eternally grateful to them for all their help. Despite this, I soon found my own savings being transformed into things like bungee jumping, quad biking, treks and beer. I’m only human after all.
So my trip started in Vietnam, then I proceeded to Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, India, South Africa, Brazil and finished in Peru. This meant that I often had to adapt to completely new cultures which is just something that I loved. There were many comical moments where I would find myself strutting around the airport of my new location, still using the words I’d learnt from my last location and wondering why I was getting so many confused looks. The volunteer projects were great ways to gain a basic understanding of the local language and culture. The orientations also were pretty good at breaking the ice amongst the volunteers, getting you all talking and getting to know each other from the start.
I get asked a lot where was my favourite place to volunteer, it’s a hard one to answer as I had some really great times on my volunteer programmes. I’ve gained so many good memories both from the time spent working and the free time spent with my fellow volunteers, it would be impossible for me to pick which programme was my favourite. I could sit here and write about all of my good memories but by the time you had read your way through them, you could’ve gone and experienced your own.
If you’re reading this and your considering doing a similar trip, my first piece of advice is don’t be scared, I’m lucky in the way that I’m usually calm about things, it didn’t seem that it was actually happening to me until I left the airport in Ho Chi Minh City. I remember looking around and thinking to myself ‘Ah, this is real now’ I genuinely had no idea how I should feel, I had completely mixed emotions about it. That didn’t last long, a couple of days in and I was loving it. So again, don’t let anxiety or doubt get control of you, just go and find out for yourself.
Some more advice is when you’re packing, don’t get carried away, many times I saw other people with these giant bags trying to awkwardly manoeuvre their way through a packed bus and you could see they weren’t enjoying themselves. Pack light, just bring the essentials, I found that most of the things I’d packed at the beginning of the trip, didn’t make it home with me, they’d been ruined or replaced by things I’d picked up along the way, so don’t take anything that holds too much sentimental value if you’re going to be out there for a long time. Oh and always have a pen, one mistake I constantly made was being stuck at a boarder control checkpoint with a form being thrust into my face and no means of actually filling it in. I’d have to hound other people for their pens and it felt awkward holding up the line, still baffles me to this day how I always managed to have a pen except for when I actually needed one.
My final piece of advice is, be prepared to change. Spending a long time away from home naturally changes people, it might be the way you think, the way you act or feel about certain things. Just understand when you return home, it can be a strange thing trying to adjust back into home life, for a while all you’ll think about is your next trip and it’s great when you see how much there is to see and do out there. I’ve already got plans for more travels lined up the moment I get the time and money.
Another question I always get asked is ‘Would you do it again?’ When I get asked this, I find myself taking into account all of my experiences, stories and lessons that I’ve learnt and my answer is always the same. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, both the volunteering and the backpacking. It’s a perfect way to travel and just an experience unlike any other, it’ll likely stay with you for the rest of your life.
All I can say to any reader thinking about travelling and volunteering is crack on, get out there.