I was inspired to volunteer abroad for several reasons. Foremost, I am seeking a deeper, and more authentic experience and connection with my travels, as opposed to going on a cruise, or other cookie-cutter tourist packages. Second, I believe our world is limited by the languages we don't speak, and likewise made more vast and interesting when we go to the trouble to learn the language of another people and country. I started studying Spanish a year ago, and am now enrolled in Spanish level 3.
I volunteered at an orphanage for teenage boys in Mexico in order to break away from my comfort zone, to serve instead of being served, and to finally practice the Spanish I have spent a year studying. I had a general idea of what to expect, but volunteer tourism is certainly more of a venture into the unknown. What I found with IVHQ was an organization that is extremely well run, and makes sure all volunteers are set up for success. This is no easy task when operating in second and third world countries. The unexpected can and does routinely occur, however if one is willing to be open minded, and remains focused on serving others, these times can be the most rewarding. I knew this from reading the material IVHQ sent me to prepare for my journey, but it proved itself to be so true and accurate, that the idea of going on a cruise, or staying at an all-inclusive resort has been ruined for me for life. My experience was not only exactly as advertised, but it was so much more so, that I know all my future travels will be volunteer based.
Why did you choose your International Volunteer HQ program?
I chose my specific program, teaching English, primarily because working with kids is out of my comfort zone. I do not have kids, nor do I want any, however over the course of my life I have been told that I relate very well with them, and I knew there was a real need for good volunteers in this area. Also, I chose it because I knew it would be a very language intensive placement. I couldn't have chosen a better program, and if ever I regretted not adopting a kid, or kids, it is now.
What was your favorite part about Mexico?
My favorite part about my host country was the people of Mexico. Mexico has an undeserved reputation for danger and violence, but in the Yucatan, and in Merida, I always felt as safe as I ever felt in the States. Honestly the people of Mexico make a greater effort to be kind than the people I deal with daily in America.
Two things specifically I want to emphasize: firstly, the connections you will make with the people and the work they are involved with does not have to end when your time in country is over. The volunteers I worked with are in the process of setting up education funding for the boys in the shelter after they turn 18. I cannot take credit for setting this up, but I am certainly committed to sponsoring one of the children through trade school or college when they are ready. It's vastly less expensive to do this than one might think (sending a kid through college in Mexico costs about as much as having cable television in the States).
Secondly, the depth of connection to people you can establish on these trips cannot be overemphasized. I was lucky as my Spanish professor at home had a good friend in Merida I was able to connect with prior to leaving, and he took me out seven nights out of nine. We biked over 60 miles over two nights, ate at great restaurants only locals know about, and I made a lifelong friend in him. However, that aside, you will meet locals that you can form long and lasting friendships with. My problem now is that when I return to Merida, I am not sure how I will divide my time between them all.
What made your experience abroad unique?
What made my experience unique is the same thing that will make your experience unique. It is not a product, package, or service that is provided to you. It is the exquisitely unique, and never-the-same-twice combination of local placement needs at the time, the local people you work with, your fellow volunteers, and most importantly your willingness to serve others and take initiative.
The more you engage as a volunteer, the greater your personal rewards.
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
Honestly I don't recall one instance where I had to ask my local staff for anything, because every need I had was anticipated and taken care of before I needed it. There were several volunteers that had special dietary needs;,such as vegetarian and gluten free, and those volunteers were taken care of very well. All meals offered included things everyone could enjoy. Don't get me wrong, you aren't staying at a five star hotel, but the volunteer house in Merida does have a pool, accommodations are always clean, very comfortable, and staff is available at any and all times should you need something.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
The only thing I would do differently is to start volunteer tourism sooner. I'm 45 and I now feel like a lot of the traveling I have done previous to this is far more of an empty experience than I ever realized. Also, if you think you're too old to do this, you're wrong. This is probably a good place to state that it is very important to follow all the pre-travel instructions IVHQ provides. I took this to heart, I took the time to prepare well and it paid off.
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
A typical weekday volunteering for me went like this: up at about 7 a.m., breakfast, and off to the shelter at 8 a.m.. We'd hang out with the kids for half an hour or so, then we would head to the classroom for English studies. We would do various lesson plans with the kids, teaching basic English phrases and words, and break after a couple hours.
I noticed they had lots of gardening tools and unused garden plots at the shelter, and because I know quite a bit about planting vegetable gardens, I took all the kids out to teach them how to prepare the ground, plot a grid for vegetables, and plant a vegetable garden. I made sure all the kids took turns doing each task, took the time to explain everything in Spanish and English, and when we were done I feel like they learned something.
After that we would have lunch, so we would help with all the lunch preparations, say grace (as is their custom), and all enjoy lunch together. Afterward, we would participate in the clean up, and feeding of the animals they had. For the afternoon class, we would go to the computer lab, and spend time teaching the kids computer skills.
We would return to the volunteer house about 2.30 p.m. or so (always difficult to leave), and we would swim in the pool to cool off. We would then grade papers, and plan tomorrow's lessons and word games. The rest of the day was free for us to explore our host country. A typical weekend day would consist of taking the kids with the program managers to the beach, and pooling money together so they could go on a boat ride, we would swim, play soccer, etc. Other days we would take them to the movies, or bowling, which is especially rewarding because this is something these kids get to do rarely, if ever.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
I enjoyed spending my free time with the friends I made locally. I was quite a bit older than the rest of the volunteers, so my interests were a little different. My local friends took me on a 35 mile bike ride, and a 25 mile bike ride through the backcountry of Merida. Both of these were very late at night, and they were both like being in an Indiana Jones movie. We had brushes with wild animals, saw many very small rural towns where we ate and talked with locals, and explored a very old abandoned Hacienda, reputed to be one of the most haunted sites in all the Yucatan. My new friends in Merida took me to excellent restaurants that only the locals know about, to private gatherings, and to experience the pyramids. While it is true I knew someone there ahead of time, this was only through texting prior to traveling, and it is very easy to make great friends while you are there. I cannot overemphasize the kindness of the people of Mexico.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
Accommodations were ready when I arrived, clean, and very comfortable. Again, it was not a five star hotel, but someone was always available to take care of volunteers needs at any time day or night. I never once had to ask for anything, the volunteer house in Merida is extremely well run. And did I mention the pool? Always clean, and it went a long way to making my stay comfortable.
What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?
Take seriously all the pre-travel planning IVHQ provides you with. I did and it made for a flawless experience.
Now that you're home, how has volunteering abroad impacted your life?
There is no question in my mind that any future travel I do will be volunteer travel. There is no better way to connect with people in an authentic way, and to take home more of a meaningful experience.
Would you recommend IVHQ to others? Why?
Absolutely! The program in Merida is professionally administered, so that the placements and volunteers can reap the maximum mutual benefits. The only obstacles you will face in making a positive contribution are the limits of your willingness to serve, the limits of your own imagination, and the limits of your own abilities to take initiative. IVHQ as a provider is a highly professionally organization, adept at setting up would-be volunteers for success. Honestly, the worst thing that happened to me over the course of my entire trip was that I got some mosquito bites.
Robert has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and he is learning to speak Spanish fluently. He has always been interested in travel, and is looking for ways to experience travel and life in a more authentic and meaningful way. He has been to Mexico five times as a regular tourist, Peru once, as well as Belize, Guatemala, Jamaica, and Haiti.