It was five years ago this past June that I set off for a volunteer trip to Fiji. I often get asked why I’ve chosen to do volunteer trips, how do they work, and are they free. In an attempt to answer some of those questions, I wanted to focus on my experience with GVI on my trip to Fiji in 2011. Stay tuned for later blogs on my other volunteer adventures in Argentina, Honduras, Romania, and Malawi.
So how did I choose to do a volunteer vacation? I guess I should first say there’s little vacation in volunteer work. I travel a lot and it consists of sitting on beaches, walking miles and miles around a country, or something in between. When you’re on the road regularly, it’s nice to mix it up and do something a little different. I should start by saying I love doing volunteer work. Really, I love working – building things, creating things, any and every task. I’m a work horse, so getting to do something for someone else is pretty awesome. Which led me to looking at volunteer travel. After my first one, I’ve tried to mix one in every few years.
So how did I choose GVI and their Fiji program? Well as with everything I do, it’s looking at the options in the world against the various criteria in my head to come up with the optimal combination for the perfect experience. Traveling abroad I prefer to choose a company I’m familiar with or someone I know has used or they come with killer reviews. GVI was a friend recommendation (and I can vouch my program with them was incredible). Within their program options I knew I wanted to do something with kids, in a country I’d never been to, with a 2-week duration, that looked like I’d get a good cultural experience. That’s how I chose Fiji.
So aren’t volunteer programs free because you’re like slave labor? Um, no. I’m not sure how this is such a big myth or misconception, but no, volunteering typically costs more (at least for me because I travel cheap, if you didn’t travel cheap it might cost you less). The typical program is around $2-3K for a 1-2 week program plus flights (which international can be around $1-2K). The program covers your food and housing. Food is basic and housing is hostel-style (bunk beds, shared rooms). It also pays into the costs to keep the program active – the staff, the office, city/local fees, etc. Though if your goal is to do good, paying into a program to sustain the good work is totally reasonable and no-biggie. Many people fund raise, though you can also cover the costs on your own. Most of the costs are tax deductible too.
So what is it like once you get there? Well the Fiji program I chose was to help teach at a local elementary school on a remote island. Yes, Fiji is remote, but within Fiji there are 200+ islands and we were stationed a 4 hour boat ride from the mainland. We stayed in a rustic large single room with no doors, no windows, and sand floors, filled with bunk beds for the whole crew. The ocean breeze coming through and the island feel everywhere. We took a small motor boat to and from the school, which was on a neighbor island. The kids spoke English as well as Fijian. They were adorable and friendly and excited to meet us. We were paired with a class, I got 5th grade, and the teachers acclimated us to their processes and curricula. Then we helped co-teach, sometimes being the primary teacher so the main teacher could grade homework or prepare the next day’s lesson. The kids were awesome, easy to quickly fall in love with. Teaching Fijian history was really cool as I was learning along with them. I adore math so was excited that the teacher wanted me to spend extra time on math as it was an area they were trying to improve upon. Being at the school, with the kids, and the teachers, allowed us to be apart of a community, to really be ingrained in the daily life of the village. Something we would never have experienced before.
Usually volunteer programs have lots of rules, so don’t expect to just show up and do whatever you want. They need to keep consistency to whoever is receiving the help as well as maintain the image of their organization so they can keep bringing volunteers. The more flexible and adaptable you are, the more you’ll enjoy the experience. There’s always surprises and things that are more rustic. I personally love that stuff. I like the challenge of seeing how primitive I can handle survival so it’s easy for me to roll with no shower, no running water, no electricity, etc. I live for that stuff. Though some programs are very posh with private rooms in nice hotels, so it all just depends on your budget and program you choose.
I’ve found it’s a special breed of people that spend their time and money this way, so everyone I’ve met on these types of trips have been amazing. There are still five years later people I keep in contact with from the Fiji trip. It’s an absolute blessing to be invited into the families lives at a level you’d never see as a tourist and I feel so honored to have had the experience. I will say when the tourist ship came to port and my little 5th graders had to leave class to go dress up like “locals” and do special dances for the tourists it made me sick. Here were these kids I’d fallen in love with being treated like objects dancing for tourists, it was disgusting. I know the tourists didn’t realize what they were doing, just thought it was cute, and hopefully it brought some revenue, but it was heart crushing. Since then, I will never and have never endorsed these types of things, I’d rather bring money into the community in a way that doesn’t objectify children or take them away from their school work. Sorry that was a digression…
All in all, volunteer travel is incredible. It’s challenging and fulfilling and unlike anything you’d experience on the normal tourist travel. There’s tons of organizations out there to choose from!