A Chance to Regroup, Reimagine, and Be Re-inspired: Volunteering in Bolivia
Originally published September 15, 2016
To incite your inner adventurer, please enjoy this guest post from my friend Steph at Worldly Adventurer as she discusses the inspiration and challenges of volunteering in Bolivia. Follow along on her quest to travel adventurously and volunteer meaningfully on her blog.
Sometimes you realise that other people’s metrics of what’s “enough” in life are the very opposite of your own. You follow your daily routine, conscious of a lurking feeling of dissatisfaction in the pit of your stomach. You exist in a constant state of unease and restlessness; a persistent and enduring state despite your reminders of how fortunate you are in life. You’ve got a good job. A car. Loving friends and family. Prospects.
If rather than trying to swallow away the emptiness, you choose to confront it, you soon realise that the scariest part wasn’t the moment you boarded that plane to move half the way around the world with a vague, fluid plan of what the next few years would look like.
It was saying “thanks, but no thanks” to those prospects; turning, closing the door firmly and resolutely, before calmly walking away.
Searching for inspiration somewhere else
That’s how I arrived in Sucre, Bolivia, to a backdrop of blazing, Andean sunshine which welcomed me to my new home one spring morning in October 2014.
If I’m being completely honest, when I first arrived there to volunteer for a small NGO that helped to build libraries in rural villages, it was more thanks to a selfish need for time-out and a chance to regroup, rather than a real belief that I could change the world. Yes, I wanted to help, and yes, I was arrogant in my estimations of how useful my skillset would end up being, but mostly, I just wanted to feel alive again.
I had spent years staring at my students when I was teaching in the UK; realising how the direction that they would take with their lives was still waiting to be decided. There was so much optimism and energy in my classroom and I remember how, as time had passed, I had begun to realise that I was jealous. Jealous of the prospects that they didn’t yet know were available to them and the opportunities that lay ahead.
I loved teaching, but the thought of spending my days watching as my young students grasped life in their excited hands – as rewarding a sight as I knew it to be – but where I was bound to my desk and the same lessons and daily routine, was enough to drive me insane.
Finding my way in my new home
Instead, I wanted to be challenged and scared. I wanted to remember what it felt like to not have plans, expectations, or responsibilities. The more I experienced life in Bolivia, I also realised that what I’d been wanting when I left was to be forced to encounter what exactly my “privilege” meant and what I could do about it.
So I bought a plane ticket and set to work finding an organisation that could fulfil what I was seeking. I was also aware that by starting with volunteering, rather than leaping directly into travel, had the chance of providing a ready-made circle of new acquaintances. This group would help me to survive when the realisation that I was alone, thousands of miles from home, finally hit.
In hindsight, although travel is perfectly adept at fitting you out with a plentiful supply of like-minded friends, I still don’t regret taking the route that I did. Staying in one place to learn profoundly about my new culture and country and having the time to pick up Spanish, made the experience less frightening, and ultimately more rewarding. The local people, and the real lives and struggles that I saw each and every day as I worked in rural communities alongside Bolivian volunteers, was far more powerful than experiencing the country more fleetingly as a tourist.
"The more I experienced life in Bolivia, I also realised that what I’d been wanting when I left was to be forced to encounter what exactly my “privilege” meant and what I could do about it."
Learning the right words
Starting my new life in Bolivia was tough. I had to reacquaint myself with an understanding of how even the basics of life worked: from shopping in the local market, to social norms of friendships and relationships, and how I would be treated as a woman – whether I liked it or not. Every day was an exercise in feeling lost, confused, and regularly frustrated at how little I seemed to “get” about this country. It was also time spent experiencing anger yet powerlessness at the constant sexual harassment that I experienced as I walked to and fro between my house and the office each morning and afternoon.
It was my inability to communicate as I would in my native language that I struggled with the most. When you volunteer abroad in a developing country where there’s little history of or resources for learning English, there will always be language barriers.
They can be overcome, but only by long, exhausting days of practice and endless conversations where you feel your linguistic capacity ranks about equal with that of a three-year old. But the times when you accidentally say you need to buy new zapallos (pumpkins) rather than zapatos (shoes) will make you forget how stupid you sound and see you laughing along with everyone else, who are actually just impressed by your slow but persistent progress.
But although it took longer to get to know my colleagues than I would have liked, it became clear that people everyone would go out of their way to help me – whether they were previous or current volunteers, or even local people. I was always struck by the kindness and the warmth of everybody that I met when I travelled as part of my work with the NGO.
What I learned was that it will be lonely, it will be scary, and you’ll face multiple nights attempting to hide in a dark corner of your favourite bar, teary-eyed and with a glass of wine, or burrowed deep into your bedclothes with a bar of chocolate for company. But when you look back over the challenges you overcame, the friendships you made, the skills you acquired, and the people who were genuinely thankful for the tiny bit of assistance that you could provide, you’ll feel nothing but pride.
Volunteering abroad changed my life
Close to two years later and I’m still in South America, writing from my apartment in Santiago, Chile, which has more recently become my home for the foreseeable future. Travelling abroad to volunteer is something that few people consider, and particularly those, such as myself, with a defined career; but trust me, it will change your life.
It doesn’t have to be for six months (or even two years); a short period of escaping the status quo and having the chance to regroup, reimagine, and seek re-inspiration can be powerful in where it takes you.
For me, it’s led to a new career as a writer and international educator – alongside catching a serious, and incurable, case of restless feet. But I’ve also learned about how lucky I am even without the good job, car, or any of the other tangible things that normally constitute our lives and what makes us “successful” and “privileged” as people. I know I’m privileged to travel and be able to visit and learn from other countries, and I believe I should use my time to work with those who aren’t. I miss my students and their wide-eyed optimism and chances, but nothing beats seeing those same emotions on the faces of the students that I’ve met across this continent.
Steph Dyson is a travel writer and educational volunteer who writes about adventurous travel and meaningful volunteering and how these are life-changing but accessible ways of exploring the world. A former teacher, avid cheese eater, and famous Bolivian TV personality (well, almost), you can follow her tips, tricks, personal experiences of travelling and volunteering in South America at www.worldlyadventurer.com or join her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.