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How Volunteering Can Lead to Extraordinary Travel Experiences

Gawad Kalinga Houses
Tita Silver's New Village

What is the definition of volunteering?

To help build a house for a few months, slaving away, grumbling through the work, but doing it for a good cause?

Could it be staying at an orphanage for a while, taking care of kids with no families, and being a friend?

Does it mean sacrificing a few of those “must-do” attractions while you travel?

While in Manila, Philippines, I got in touch with a group called Gawad Kalinga through a Couchsurfing host and friend.

They aim to build homes for the poor in the Philippines, creating a safe environment and teaching about sustainable lifestyles.

Payatas, Manila, Philippines
Tita Silver's Old Village

I decided to get involved for a few weeks, not fully knowing what to expect but aiming to learn about the reality of life in Manila and hoping to learn just a bit about Filipino culture.

I headed to the Payatas area of Manila and was welcomed into the house of Tita Silver, an owner of a home previously built with the help of Gawad Kalinga.

Her family lived in an area that was shunned, frowned upon by people's subconscious reactions.

I helped a few Filipino men mix concrete, carry sand, and helped the carpenter with tasks during the daytime.

In this Payatas area of Manila that is so neglected, people were smiling at me, acknowledging the fact that I was out there with real people, not locked away in a hotel room.

I received comments like “I never seen a foreigner here before,” and “Thank you for visiting the Philippines!”

Tita Silver had kids who were thrilled that I was staying with them and being a guest in their home.

The daughters enjoyed the fact that I was so passionate about all forms of food, gigantically smiling when I expressed my love of their cooking.

The sons showed me around, took me to a few nooks and crannies of Manila that I would never have seen if I was by myself (or probably couldn't have gone by myself).

Within a few days of being in Payatas, I could walk down the muddy street, and people would raise their hand to wave or even say, “hello, how are you?

Butchering a Pig in Payatas
The neighborhood of Payatas, Manila, Philippines

Did I miss the tourist attractions by enjoying a flavor of the authentic Filipino culture in Manila?

For me, not at all. Quite the opposite. After a few days of helping out with Tita Silver, I received an experience that would last forever.

Here are just a few ways (among many) volunteering can lead to extraordinary travel experiences:

  • First-hand experience of the culture of the country
  • A chance to observe the real side of the destination
  • Discover local traditions and customs
  • Sample typical day to day food
  • Be able to ask locals questions about their lifestyles
  • A chance to help others
  • Sometimes an opportunity to live for free
Orphanage, Bali, Indonesia
Orphanage in Indonesia

Sure, as travelers, we could aim to visit all the touristic sites, pushing our way from place to place with haste.

How about the people that live in a country? Are they not the foundation behind the attractions?

Volunteering is one of the best ways to experience another country, a way to gain a perspective outside of regular tourist routines.

How Can You Get Started Volunteering?

Do an online search for “volunteering,” and you will receive a mixed bag of options, many volunteer placement programs that are priced way above a long-term travelers budget.

So how can you avoid the high prices of fee-based official volunteer programs?

While traveling around the world, there are countless free opportunities to make a difference in the lives of others – without a high fee.

Every time I have volunteered, I have shown up somewhere, asked around for opportunities, and gone from there. I have never been part of a fee-based volunteer program.

I usually have either just paid for my expenses or have been taken care of altogether by the hospitality of someone like Tita Silver. 

The results have been several unparalleled insights into a culture, lots of exciting and educating conversations, some great local meals, and hopefully a few lasting memories in the lives of others.

Football in Indonesia
Playing Football in Indonesia

When I was in Bali, a friend and I were walking on the side of a road, heading towards a beach, when we noticed a sign for an orphanage.

With no set plans, we entered the gate. The kids were doing chores, and when they saw us, their eyes lit up gleefully.

I played football with the boys, watched the girls practice traditional Balinese dance, and went into the kitchen to help with food preparation.

At night we sang songs, read some stories, and hung out. Eleven hours later, we left the orphanage, an experience that was a bit more valuable to me than another sunny beach day in Bali.

There's no single way to get started as a volunteer, nor is there a particular contract dictating the amount of time one must volunteer.

If you are concerned with the high fee-based volunteer programs while you travel, keep your eyes peeled for the many free opportunities out there!

There are many, and you don't need to sign up to participate.

Suppose you are interested in more information on volunteering and the difference between fee-based and non-fee-based volunteer options. In that case, you might want to check out the Underground Guide to International Volunteering.

Planning a trip? Go Backpacking recommends:

Rolf Schoeneborn

Monday 10th of June 2013

I'm looking forward to news on archeological digs around the world, Running regards, Rolf


Friday 27th of May 2011

Mark, a great post.  I second everything you wrote.  I was privy to many moments in India that I would have never had on the backpacker trail.  And you are right.  It's easy to land somewhere and ask about volunteer opportunities.  You are in the environment already and can make connections easier.

I felt lucky to be invited to 1 year olds birthday parties, engagements and Hindu weddings.  Even simple exposure to what they cook everyday (as you wrote) is worth the experience. :)

Thursday 19th of May 2011

Very cool! We've been wanting to incorporate volunteering in our travels but as you mentioned, most volunteer placement programs' fees are way too high. Love the tips you provided. We will try to get some no-fee volunteering to happen in our future travels!

Mark Wiens

Sunday 22nd of May 2011

Great Idelish! Wish you the best in doing some volunteering! 

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