I’m now sitting on my almost near beach front bungalow in beautiful Koh Lanta (Thailand) thinking on my month+ spent in Malaysia combining mostly volunteering work and some peaceful days breathing clean air in the gorgeous Cameron Highlands and I feel it would be good to share my personal experience here with you all but to also fill my sentences with some honest thoughts about the insights of volunteering, “Workawaying” or “Help-Xing” in foreign countries.
Some important facts before you continue reading:
Until now I had no previous experience volunteering in Asia or using one of these ultra-popular websites to do so.
b) I choose Malaysia because it has, for no particular reason, being one of my least favourite South Asian countries due to a lack of spark for whichever reason and I thought that if I had to cross it I may as well used it to volunteer more than sightseeing as I had not an overwhelming desire to do so and had already visit it previously.
And it was with those thoughts that from Indonesia I started exchanging emails with hosts using the website “Help-X” (very similar to Workaway but slightly less popular, same rules generally apply) which I previously registered back in the UK, creating an attractive and quite frankly, also honest profile about myself and my expectations about volunteering abroad while or in between travels.
I never had in mind staying long periods of time volunteering anywhere given my anxious nature to be on the move often but I came across a project in the Ampang district (outside Kuala Lumpur) that needed volunteers requiring to assist with charity programs involving refugee women and children to help them learn English.
I found this possibility highly interesting and enriching and I thought I could do it as much as it would challenge me and also and most important, to give something back to society.
I contacted the lady who posted the ad; we Skype and she asked me if I could be a long-time volunteer (meaning a period in between 1-3 months). I was really unsure if I could compromise myself for so long with her cause and initially I said yes to her but we made a point to also see how it went once I was there.
Looking back now to our Skype conversation, I realised that I listened to her talking more that I asked questions; it was a big mistake. If this advice if anything to go by, please do take it from me and if you have to Skype with the host/hostess (highly recommended to get a feeling of the person who will be your potential “boss”) do not feel bad neither be ashamed to ask anything that may be relevant for you. There are not such as too many questions or stupid questions when you are compromising to live and work (and live) for someone who is a complete stranger and far away from home.
Yes, they will provide you with food and accommodation and you must be grateful for it, at the same time remember that this a winning situation for both parties and everyone benefits from these arrangements.
Let’s be honest here; they are saving whole salaries as in many cases they use volunteers to run their businesses almost completely. At the same time, for a long time traveller, the idea to put the wallet to rest for a period of time is very attractive and resting your head on a place for more than a few days, too. Travelling can be exhausting.
If I could go back in time to my Skype chat with this lady and her volunteering project, I would have asked from what time to what time I would work each day. Why? Because I personally (again, this is just me and we are all different) love to know when my day is over so I can plan and organize my time. I want to be able to leave the place or house where I’m working and living without giving any explanations about my whereabouts until my next working day.
This is really important to me. If you are thinking to do it, then also think what things are relevant to you and THOSE must be the questions to ask the host/hostess (ex. Can you drink, get back late, smoke, bring friends over, days off etc…)
You want to get there with all your doubts solved beforehand.
From compromising myself to 1-3 months I ended up staying only two weeks and only because on the same day I arrived, a lovely couple arrived, too for a period of two weeks and we clicked immensely, becoming really good friends to this day. We helped each other through the experience as none of us were happy with the lady and her antics.
My first impression when I got there it was that the place was rather dirty, with very chilled volunteers and in all honesty, the lady seemed lovely if I little disorganized. As the days passed, this feeling became real and I realised that there was a massive gap between what she was visualizing in her mind and the reality of it all.
I’m not sure if this is common, but while I went to a place to improved people’s lives, I ended up improving her house cleanliness, working with cement to make her garden stones, washing her dogs and doing her laundry. Not what I had in mind.
I did it happily because I had a few people I could rely on and shared our frustrations about our job responsibilities. May I have been or felt alone, my two weeks would have become possibly one.
After talking with other travellers who have been working actively during their travels through the websites mentioned earlier, I have come to notice that it seems that many offers/post in such websites are not consistently updated with the obvious consequence that in occasions you find yourself asked to do a job that has little to do with what you’ve read, hence why Skype and pre arrival Q&A’s are always a good idea.
Also, funnily enough when I got talking to some people, we agreed that in all volunteering experiences some common characters are found and here are some examples based on my two recent experiences in Malaysia;
a) The Friendly Lazy; this character will normally get up much later than you but that won’t necessarily mean that this person will work harder because will work half of the hours you worked or none at all.
Not only that but this Friendly Lazy colleague will spend a good part of another hour having breakfast while you appear to suffocate under the sun making cement from scratch (from 9am) when you should be teaching English to local children.
By the time the Friendly Lazy has finished breakfast, washed his/her face and shared some jokes with the boss (who happens to love this person for some mysterious reasons), is lunch time and you find yourself cooking for this person and some others while the friendly lazy disappears yet again for a smoke….
Apparent sense of guilt from the friendly lazy: 0
b) Then we have the Hippie Peace & Love; Friendly enough, always happy and with a permanent air of mystery, the Hippie Peace & Love wakes up later than you but earlier that the Friendly Lazy and seems to share endless cigarettes in some hidden corner with the friendly lazy. Again, as you struggle with the cleaning or the cement, you wonder why you are there and where are the others?!
The Hippie Peace & Love seems to have an urgent need often of disappearing into the dorm to practice her daily yoga poses that require time and concentration; disturbing her is out of the question but you wonder why this practice takes places during working hours? A mystery
The Hippie Peace & Love disappears into the computer room where she is creating a website for this fake charity thingy, but given the amount of hours that she disappears into that room you would think that she is instead investigating a new medication to cure cancer (but hey, no suspicions here even though there is a confession from the hippie peace & love that she is addicted to a well-known social media website). Best thing to do is go back to the garden at 3pm and continue doing cement, each to their …
Sense of guilt from the Hippie Peace & Love: 0
These jobs are not real only in the sense that there is no money transaction involved and the hours are reduced (you suppose to work around 5hrs per day with one day off) but other than that, I guarantee you that you will find similar characters and the lazy ones will, surprisingly, get away with it which gets really frustrating if you, like me, take these jobs seriously because at the end of the day, this is work AWAY and some people easily tend to forget that and take it as a holiday.
Either way, follow this advice may you find yourself in a similar situation; If it does not feel right, then it probably isn’t. Do not feel bad or scare to be honest with your host/hostess and tell them that the job is not what you were expecting and if you feel you want to go because you are not happy, then go but do it always in good terms as much as possible.
It may not be anyone’s fault but just that you don’t have the right profile for the job or their needs.
And because the experience of volunteering while travelling can be highly rewarding, I would also like to mention that after this first experience and following a few days of relaxation and “me” time in the Cameron Highlands, I ended up volunteering for seventeen days (recommended by the couple I became friends with at the volunteering place in Ampang) in a beautiful resort in the middle of the jungle in Langkawi, where I worked around 4 hours per day, had unlimited use of the hotel pool and met beautiful people that I was deeply sad to leave (I even found new Lazy Friendlies J) so there you are, not all is bad as I personally went from an average experience to a great one.
Here are some pics that can hopefully show you that trying volunteering while travelling can be hardy rewarding, too and if anything, it will surely provide you with some good friendships and endless fun moments. In summary, is it volunteering abroad for you? Well, the only way to find your answer is to try it.
Life is not perfect and equally as life, there are no perfect volunteering jobs out there. There will be challenges, disappointments or failed expectations. Unless you are blind, you know that these all are part of life.
One thing I learned is that anything and everything you do extra travelling will enrich your experience. It could be talking to a stranger, smiling a local, eating an exotic meal or volunteering. There are not bad experiences but lessons to be learnt.
I know I’m not a good candidate to be the perfect workawayer but not so much because I did not enjoy it but more because I feel that unless I’m on the move often, I’m not living my adventure.
Will I do it again? I’m sure I will! If anything, I know as it just happened, volunteering will bring beautiful people to my life and long life memories. In regards everything else, I will take one day at a time.
This post if full of pictures that I hope can reflect what of a wonderful time I had while volunteering. Not all was work as you can see but a lot of cleaning was involved!! J