Once you choose a program that fits you and your expectations, you then get to choose where you want to go with them. With some organizations the options are few and easier to choose from. On the other hand, some organizations have literally hundreds of volunteer destinations. There are many things to consider, including culture, climate, and activities available outside of volunteering.
The most important aspect to consider is culture. Are you comfortable running headlong and leaping off of a giant cliff between your home country culture and your new destination? Or would you be more comfortable taking more of a step or a hop to a destinations closer to home? While any international travel can be a culture shock, some are vastly different than others. Do a little research into cultural differences in dress, behavior, and beliefs, even foods to understand if you would be a fit there. If you’re gluten free you would certainly have a hard time in a culture who’s diet is based off of noodles and carbs. If you’re a vegetarian you might come into misunderstandings when refusing meats in cultures where offering meat to a guest is considered an honor. Maybe religious differences may be an issue for you. While the idea of international volunteering is to broaden your world view, make sure it is within the constraints of what you’re willing to try to immerse yourself in and understand.
Climate is also important. Understand what makes you happy and what makes you miserable. Is it extreme heat or cold? How about humidity, rain, altitude, or being closer to a city or a more rural area? Weather, temperature, and surroundings have a huge impact on one’s mood and psychological state, and with the wrong attitude no volunteer trip can be successful for the volunteer or the project. Therefore understand what will set you up for the most positive experience, one where you enjoy your location and what you’re doing.
There can also be things you want to do besides volunteer that are specific to certain regions. Want to ride an elephant? Don’t go to urban San Jose, Costa Rica to volunteer. Doing things in the country you are traveling to is important for cross-cultural exchange and learning.
Matt Long, award-winning blogger of LandLopers says, “Experiential travel has become the norm instead of a novelty, and I love it. Instead of holing themselves in resorts away from local communities, tourists around the world are seeking to become more involved with them. From food walks to bike tours and even voluntourism, today’s traveler understands the importance of inter-cultural exchange.”
Maybe your future career will have an impact on what destinations you want to be familiar with. If you want to eventually work in the booming electronics industry in Asia or the Environmental Sustainability Industry in Scandinavia. Having experience working in a region or industry you want to eventually go into looks much better than an arbitrary trip to an island because you’ll get a better tan there. Be intentional with your choice, consider your long-term goals.
What’s important, he says, is to actually get to know a place by experiencing it, therefore it’s important that you have real reasons for choosing that place besides just wanting to put a new, cool pin on the map. So choose your destination wisely, and when you find a method that works, do it again and again. Look at you, you’re becoming a traveler!