Curious about volunteering abroad alone? Learn from my successes and challenges

When it comes to volunteering abroad, it’s hard to figure out where or how to start. How long should you volunteer? Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? Should you volunteer abroad alone or with a group? We asked a member of the Idealist community to share her experiences finding, landing, and enjoying her international volunteer experience, as well as some challenges along the way.

by Nicole Ricchione

There are so many reasons you might decide to travel abroad alone. For me, it was about finding my independence. As someone who brings a friend along to everything — networking events, parties, even grocery shopping — I realized it was time for some serious self-reflection. I decided the best way to accomplish this was to do something that terrifies me: solo travel.

Beginning research

But, not only did I want to travel alone, I wanted to do something truly meaningful with my time. I decided to use my Spring Break week off from grad school to volunteer abroad.  Ironically, when I started looking at organized volunteer programs, many of these programs were too expensive and I wondered if I would be able to volunteer abroad at all.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon Eco Volunteer UP, a non-profit volunteer organization in Ecuador. The person who ran the program, Maria, paired volunteers with people living in farm villages in the mountains of the Cloud Forest outside of Quito. In addition to being more affordable than other programs — I paid a small admin fee of $200 to Eco Volunteer UP to cover its costs and a $50 fee for the week to cover the cost of home-cooked meals and stay with a host family – the program felt more grassroots.

After reading some reviews, I knew this was the perfect program for me. It would allow me to have the most possible independence without being completely on my own in a country (and continent) where I’ve never been and don’t fluently speak the national language. I also felt really good about supporting a small, woman-owned business in Quito.

Planning for my arrival

View from my window (Photo credit: author)

The days leading up to my trip, I was completely terrified and excited all at the same time. I barely knew any Spanish. What if Maria never picked me up at the airport? What if this was a complete scam? I had no backup plan and I knew that Quito wasn’t the safest city for women to be traveling in alone.

So, leading up to the trip, I did a lot of meditation to relax my mind and put myself at ease about my upcoming adventure. I also took a few Spanish lessons from my roommate, who is fluent in Spanish. She wrote down a few important phrases for me to remember like, “I’m a vegetarian”, “Does this have meat?”, and “I need directions”. I also did a lot of research about Eco Volunteer UP. And I knew my experience traveling abroad and common sense would be enough to keep me safe.

Setting all my worries aside, the day came and I landed in Quito. Maria’s boyfriend picked me up at the airport and together they drove me through the winding mountain roads just outside of Quito for what seemed like a good three hours. Then, we arrived in San José de Las Tolas, a village that probably consists of, at the most, 50 residents. Maria introduced me to Magdalena, the woman who I would be staying with and volunteering for. She spoke absolutely no English. It was quite the culture shock for my first day in a new country. Then, I was introduced to Rebecca, another volunteer staying with Magdalena. I was so relieved to have a girl around my age that knew English so that I wouldn’t be completely alone all week. As much as I wanted to do this on my own, being surrounded by only Spanish-speaking people was something I wasn’t ready to face.

Getting to work

Waking up early to help milk cows (Photo credit: author)

Language barriers aside, I was eager to help out. A typical day would consist of Rebecca and I waking up early to help Magdalena, a single woman who lived on the farm. We would milk cows, have breakfast, and then take a break to go out and explore on our own. We spent a lot of time wandering the mountain trails and hanging out with the locals. Then, in the afternoon, we’d help Magdalena with various odd jobs, like planting yuccas and tilling soil on her organic farm or helping set up for the village’s annual celebration.

The best part of my experience was getting to feel part of San José de Las Tolas. The local villagers gave Rebecca and I such a warm and friendly welcome and made us feel right at home. In total, probably only two people in the whole village knew any form of English, but I barely felt the language barrier because there are so many forms of communication that don’t require words. I also met an inspiring young man named Luis who learned English by interacting with all the volunteers who have stayed in town over the years and then practiced what he learned by emailing with them once they went back home. In fact, I kept in touch with Luis once I got back home so I could help him with his English and he could help me with my Spanish.

Are you ready to volunteer abroad?

If you want to fully experience a country and really immerse yourself in the local culture, there is no better way than volunteering through a homestay. I experienced things in Ecuador that I never would have experienced if I simply went to Quito or the Galapagos with a group and did the typical touristy things. Of course, I still have vacations where I tour and just take in the sights  — I’m going to Peru in a few weeks to hike the Inca Trail with a group and I’m very much looking forward to it — but there is a special connection that I will always have with Ecuador and the village of San José de Las Tolas.

Do you want to volunteer abroad but are nervous about taking the plunge? Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me for advice!

Nicole is an MBA student at Rutgers Business School studying social entrepreneurship, aspiring to someday start her own world-changing business. She loves traveling and writing and is currently the blog coordinator for Connect with her on twitter @nricchio or email her at nricchione [at] gmail [dot] com.


Comments (2)

  1. Lisa writes:
    August 24, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    Thanks for your blog! I just graduated from college and I want to so something that involves traveling and volunteering as well! I looked into the peace corps but two years of living in a foreign country seems like an incredibly long time and really frightens me. I would love to go somewhere for a couple months or even a week or two to get the feel of a foreign country and how it is like to volunteer. This has helped. I also do not know much Spanish or any other language for that matter.

  2. Amber writes:
    April 2, 2013 at 12:49 am

    Hi! I actually just signed up for this trip, and I am really looking forward to it, but I wanted to make sure that it is safe, to put my parents and my mind at ease. I have been unable to find any reviews besides this one online though. You felt safe with the program? The only other thing I heard about this was that apparently some girl got left on a beach somewhere. There being a lack of reviews I was worried about the validity of the program. Did you meet other people on the program/ were there any others who really liked it? Sorry for all the questions. Thanks for your time :)

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