How To Prepare To Volunteer Abroad

Volunteering abroad is a worthwhile experience that allows you to help a community while really getting to know a culture. While rewarding, there is a lot of preparation, both physical and mental, that is necessary to get you ready for a volunteer vacation. To help you prepare, use the tips below.

Do Your Homework

Not all volunteer agencies are created equal. While some are scams, others are legitimate but charge astronomical fees. You’ll also want to look at what’s included in the price, and what type of accommodation you’ll be set up in. For example, when I volunteer I don’t like being put in a hotel. Instead, I prefer doing a homestay to get closer to the local culture. The volunteer placement board SE7EN does not use a middleman, so you’ll usually get to volunteer for free or very cheap, and stay with a family. Likewise, International Volunteer Headquarters, the company I always go through, offers affordable programs that include homestays and local activities. If you’d like to talk to someone knowledgeable in person before embarking on the trip, go with a global organization that has local chapters, like Habitat for Humanity.Connect With Past Volunteers

To get an idea of what to expect, it’s a good idea to connect with past volunteers. Ask them their opinion of the organization, what went well, what went wrong, what to expect and what to pack. For example, when I volunteered to teach English in Thailand, I had no idea what to bring, or how the project would be run. I used the organization’s Facebook page to find past volunteers, and learned about how lesson planning worked, what supplies to bring and that packing a roll of toilet paper was a must.

Apply For A Program That Fits Your Skills

To really make a difference, try to find a project where you can really utilize your skills. If you’ve studied medicine, help take care of sick children or do hospital work. If you’re good with kids or enjoy teaching, sign up for an orphanage project or teach English. And if you’re not sure where you’d be best placed, ask the organization you’re going through where the most help is needed.

Learn The Customs Of The Country

This is an important step that many travelers often overlook. You should never just show up in a country without researching the local customs. This is especially true when you’re representing a volunteer organization or staying with a family, because you don’t want to offend anyone. For instance, in Thailand it’s considered offensive to enter a room with shoes on, touch another person’s head or point your feet at someone. These are all things I do at home, so it was good to know beforehand. Likewise, punishments for certain offenses vary depending on where you are. For instance, while chewing gum is fine in Western countries, you can incur a hefty fine for doing this in Singapore.

Become Familiar With The Work You’ll Be Doing

Know beforehand what exactly you’ll be doing so you can efficiently prepare. If you know you’ll be working in an orphanage, bring some small toys to give to the children. Teaching English? Print out some worksheets and pack extra school supplies.

Find Out What The Dress Code Is

I made this mistake when teaching in Thailand. Although I knew I would be working in a rural village, I packed slacks and dress shirts, because I wanted to look professional. When I arrived, however, everyone was in baggy capris and T-shirts. If only I’d have found out beforehand, I could have saved myself the trouble of having to ship clothing home and buy new outfits.


Whether you put the money towards your program costs or donate it straight to the organization you’re helping, fundraising is worthwhile. If you have the time, try planning a benefit dinner, concert or sporting event. Moreover, you could try to piggyback on an event that’s already going on, and ask for a cut of the profits. Selling food, leaving a donation can at your local pizza place, having a social media contest or holding a meetup are other effective ways to fundraise.

Get In The Right Mindset

One thing to remember is that there will be culture shock. You’ll not only be experiencing a new culture, but also seeing things that aren’t easy to look at, like hungry children or wounded animals. Additionally, you’re probably not going to be able to change everything while you’re there. Mentally prepare yourself beforehand, and remind yourself that every little bit of aid helps to move things in the right direction.

[images via Svadilfari, Intropin, Jessie on a Journey, J.J.]

British Protesters Campaign For A Rain-Free Olympics

And I thought the weather was controlled by nature. Recently, a group of bikini-clad female protesters in London headed to Parliament Square to demand sunnier weather and a rain-free Olympics. While this may sound outlandish, the comical campaign is actually part of a bigger project to help a community.

In the hopes that the government complies with the protesters – or that Mother Nature simply supplies some sunshine – brothers Rob and Paul Forkan of Gandys Flip Flops are getting their product ready, and will be putting partial earnings towards the building of an orphanage in Goa, India. The pair, who were orphaned after the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, are doing the project as a tribute to their parents.

“The poor weather and the current economic climate haven’t exactly put people in the mood for the beach,” Rob Forkan told the Daily Mail. “We thought it would be interesting to combine the two issues with a protest in jest. Hopefully we will cheer even Parliament up!”

[photo via Gandy’s Flip Flops]

ProjectExplorer’s Thailand Launch Party raises $8,500 for global education

ProjectExplorer held their Thailand Launch Party on October 17, 2011, at the Tribeca Grand Hotel in New York. The event featured an auction, cocktail hour and after party, hors d’oeuvres, and the premier of the company’s new Thailand video series, “Sawasdee, Thailand!”.

The Thailand series has 50 videos total which are all free for students, as the mission of the organization is to “foster the next generation of global citizens by encouraging awareness of the world beyond a student’s own community through the creation and distribution of engaging and free multimedia educational materials”.

Andrew McCarthy, actor, director, and travel writer, spoke at the VIP screening of the event, which was followed by mingling, drinking, and eating. Tote bags filled with magazines (which included many destination travel articles) and a baked good were given to attendees.

With 200 in attendance at the event, ProjectExplorer was able to raise $8,500 toward their next educational series.

Check out the launch video for yourself:

Introduction to’s Sawasdee, Thailand! series from Jenny M. Buccos on Vimeo.

Top ten simple ways to lower your travel carbon footprint in 2011

It’s almost a new decade, and the earth ain’t getting any younger, cooler, or less crowded. As travel enthusiasts (even if it’s via an armchair), there are plenty of small changes we can make that cumulatively have a significant positive impact upon the planet. When you consider the amount of fossil fuels required to fly or even take a weekend roadtrip, it makes even more sense to try and offset that footprint by traveling (and living) mindfully. Notice I don’t suggest actually giving up travel: I’m eco-conscious, not delusional.

Fortunately, the eco-travel industry is exploding (be sure to do your research, to make sure companies aren’t just using the term as a buzzword). If you’re a business traveler who doesn’t have a choice on where you go or stay, there are still a number of things you can do to minimize your footprint. And FYI, there’s a growing choice of eco-gear and luggage available for all types of travelers these days.

While it’s simply not realistic to devote every waking moment to living a greener, cleaner life (I confess I love my car, and I certainly can’t afford to buy green or organic products all of the time), doing the best you can does make a difference.

Below, my suggestions for painlessly lowering a travel carbon footprint, no treehugging required.

1. BYO water bottle
It takes over a million of barrels of oil to fulfill our lust for bottled water in the U.S. alone, and those empty bottles have to go somewhere (hint: a landfill). Buying bottled is also just a waste of money, unless there’s a legitimate reason to drink purified water. Get a BPA-free bottle, and carry it to work, on the road, and in the air. You can even go one further and bring your own filter or iodine tablets, so you don’t need to purchase water at all in areas where the supply is untreated.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Brave Heart]

2. Bring a reusable shopping sack/use Ziplocs
These amazingly convenient little guys convert into stuff sacks and are the size of a deck of cards. Many have clips so you can hook them on your belt loop or day pack. Try ChicoBags or Foldable Bags for fun, practical, affordable options.

Ziplocs have dozens of uses, but one of their big bonuses (especially if you buy the heavy-duty freezer ones; if you can find industrial-strength bio-bags, even better) is that you can repeatedly use them to store snacks and leftovers; just wash, turn inside out, and dry. Now you have a place to put those juicy blackberries you found while hiking, or stash that crottin from the farmers market.

3. Use refillable bottles for toiletries
Who doesn’t love saving money? Whole Foods and other stores of that ilk have bulk body wash, shampoo, conditioner, and soap (often biodegradable/paraben-free) so not only can you top off for under a dollar, but get an earth-friendly product, to boot.

4. Conserve electricity
This is as simple as turning off the light, heat, A/C, or ceiling fan when you leave (you’ll survive the slight increase or decrease in temperature upon your return, I promise). If you’re staying somewhere long-term, unplug devices or appliances when not in use, since they continue to draw energy.

5. Walk, rent or borrow a bike, or take the bus
Think of it as getting some exercise so you can eat more of the local food. It’s also an eye-opening, and often enlightening experience to travel with locals, or explore a place by foot.

6. Pack collapsible flatware and utensils
I realize not everyone travels with a bowl and spoon when they’re not camping, but travel writers don’t earn the big bucks. I usually end up buying a bag of granola and picking up yogurt or individual cartons of soy milk (which don’t require refrigeration if unopened), so I can cut down on food costs when I’m traveling. I even reuse and carry compostable utensils I acquire from dining out, and stash them in my car and backpack. There are all different makes and materials for collapsible dinnerware; REI has a great selection. As long as I don’t turn into my mother and start slipping half-gnawed dinner rolls into my purse, I think my little habit is harmless.

7. Shorten your showers/turn off taps while brushing teeth and shaving
Water shortage is a life-and-death issue in much of the developing world. At home, practicing water conservation is also important, even if you don’t live in a drought-stricken region. But when you’re traveling? It’s not just courteous, but critical.

8. Pick it up!
Your trash, as well as trash you find during hikes or other outings. At the beach (or lake or river), collect discarded bottles, plastic bags, and other flotsam that can kill or injure aquatic life or pollute delicate marine ecosystems (which ultimately affects human health). I always make a point of doing a beach clean-up during my sunset stroll when I’m on a coastal trip. I keep a couple of trash bags stashed in my car and backpack. If you can afford it, get
compostable bags, which can now be found at just about any decent-size grocery store, but be aware most are pretty flimsy.

This beach clean-up behavior has garnered me baffled looks and even finger-pointing and snickers in Southeast Asia and Latin America, and of course these items aren’t going to get recycled. But if getting them off the ground and out of sight can temporarily tidy up and preserve the natural beauty of a place, I feel like I’ve done something positive for the planet and the local people.

9. Learn what not to purchase
Ivory, sea turtle products, rhinoceros horn, tiger penis, endangered animal pelts or pets, certain species of plants: just say no. The same goes for shady tour operators. Do a bit of research and talk to fellow travelers to get feedback on what trips or companies to avoid.

I’ve been seduced by slick promotional materials and operators in the past. This would explain how I’ve variously ended up at a squalid Burmese refugee camp (not a “Thai Hilltribe village”) full of downtrodden people who most definitely did not want a bunch of gawking backpackers in their faces; ridden some horses that were little more than walking skeletons; floated on a raft made from endangered wood; seen my tripmates buy drugs off of our guide, and literally had to make a run for it after a clueless guide had us set up camp in a flash flood zone. I realize I’m deviating a bit from the eco-theme here, but my point is, be careful.

For more information on what animal and plant products to avoid overseas, click here.

10. Give back
If I’m headed to a developing nation, especially if I’m doing a trek or other outdoor trip with guides, I pack old clothes and shoes, and donate them when it’s over. Sometimes operators will ask clients for donations if they have anything they’d like to part with. This isn’t greedy, tacky, or sketchy; when you consider what the average Quechua porter on the Inca Trail makes in a year, you can see why your gift of a pair of child’s mittens is important. Bonus: Packing light and donating articles reduces the weight of your luggage, which burns less fossil fuels on the drive or flight home.

I do still feel uncomfortable making unsolicited donations, but one of my favorite travel memories is from a culinary tour I took in Morocco a few years ago. On our final morning, a couple of us collected a bag of clothes, shoes, and toiletries to donate to the poverty-stricken community we’d passed each day on the way back to our accommodation. After seeking out an old woman who was clearly the village matriarch, we used sign language to explain our motive. With a huge, toothless grin, she began passing out items to the crowd that had suddenly gathered around her. They thanked us profusely, and we went on our way.

That afternoon, on our way to the airport, I spied an ancient, wizened Berber man scuffing down the dusty road. He was clad in skull cap and jellaba, and a pair of size 11 running shoes that had belonged to a 5’11 woman in our group. He kept pausing to hold up one foot, then the other, staring at them with wonderment. I have very mixed feelings about spreading Western culture when I travel to developing nations, but if those Air Nikes found a second life and enabled an old man to walk more comfortably, then so be it. And you know, he looked pretty damn fly.

[Photo credits: bags, Flickr user; bike, Flickr user Pörrö; sign, Flickr user Beau B]