At Travelzoo we’re often jumping a flashy new hotel deal or snapping up cheap airfare for a last-minute weekend escape. And while most of us love a leisurely beach vacation now and again, some of our most significant experiences have been travel of a different genre.
I took my first volunteer trip in February with Seattle-based organization Guatemala Village Health, which brings basic health services to rural communities. I have to admit, though I have traveled to more than 20 countries in my life, I was anxious about this. I didn’t know any of the other volunteers, and my Spanish was rusty at best (not to mention, many of the people we were serving spoke traditional Mayan dialects, not Spanish).
But that anxiety for the unknown was unjustified. As it turns out, the people who volunteer overseas are welcoming, open-minded and generous; and the people who we met were extremely grateful for the help. I had the chance to experience Guatemala in a way a tourist never could.
Fellow Travelzoo staffers who have volunteered are endlessly positive about their service trips, agreeing that they have been among the most unique and formative of their adventures:
- Megan Mitchell built a school in Tanzania with her husband: “When you volunteer abroad you become absorbed in a culture and way of life that’s based on participating rather than observing. There’s a deeper connection with fellow travelers and volunteers as everyone is on a similar mission and at their core want to help make the world a better place.”
- Jen Lee worked with children at day care in Costa Rica: I’ll never forget the friends I made and the smiling kids I spent time with. Costa Rica is a beautiful, unforgettable place, and the people are even more so. They live a humble life there and are no less happy. I’ll also never forget the communication struggles I had; the experience inspired me to get better at Spanish so I could someday come back and really connect with all these amazing people.
- Melissa Stroud lived with a local family in Antigua helping to build irrigation system: My volunteer experience definitely changed my perspective on travel & life; it made me grateful for things that I had never even thought of to be thankful for (running water, a roof, carpeted floors) as well as changed the way that I travel. Now I am sure to always explore the surrounding areas of tourist places as well as speak with the locals to get a taste of their perspective of living.
- Allison Friendly spent six weeks in Ghana helping to construct an orphanage: “I’ll never forget the moment we pulled into our village; dozens of indescribably happy children cheered and jumped joyfully as we parked. I am grateful for the realization that few things in life are more valuable than the bonds we create -- the love of friends and family, the kindness we exude to complete strangers, the understanding and appreciation of different ways of life. Travel has taught me this.”
I got involved with Guatemala Village Health through a personal connection, but there is a wide variety of organizations to suit any volunteer’s interests, such as BuildOn.org and International Volunteer HQ. It’s important to do your research when selecting a trip. Pick a group whose mission you believe in, and get ready for a new type of travel; I promise you won’t regret it.