Imagine ending each day knowing you helped make a difference in someone’s life.

IN 2002, AFTER a dozen years of office work, I took off around the world. I had a good job, with a good firm and I wasn’t happy. Changing jobs wasn’t enough.

So I traveled. First through South East Asia and then Central America. I visited a dozen countries in all and had the time of my life.

Coincidentally, my trip turned into something of a “Victims of US Foreign Policy World Tour.” Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama – I asked the same questions about their history and got roughly the same damning answers.

By the time I returned to the UK the next victim was being lined up. The Iraq war was inevitable. My marching, letter writing and blogging didn’t seem enough.

In the ‘70s our rock stars and businessmen joined the “brain drain” and left highly taxed Britain for the States. In 2004 I joined the “Shamed Drain” and followed the huge number of Americans, Brits and Australians who are not in love with their respective countries because of these events.

What did we do about it? We volunteered.

So without further ado, here are 10 Reasons Why Volunteering Is Better Than Traveling.

1. Eating banana pancakes and lying in a hammock is a great way to live. I won’t deny it. But through volunteer work you can be proud of what you did today, rather than revelling in doing nothing.

2. Spend a while somewhere and you find all the coolest places. By the time the Lonely Planet catches up – the party is already over.

3. You learn the language. That includes the swear words.

4. You learn that local people are not always trying to rip you off. More often than not, that REALLY is the price.

5. Because staying in one place means less plane travel. Travel is good. Planes are not good. It’s tricky but a longer time in fewer places is a step in the right direction.

6. You get to know the neighbourhood. In Vietnam I’d say: “HALLO!” 30 times before I reached the end of my street. Even my grumpiest moods were transformed.

7. You enjoy all the seasons. Hot, cold, rain. After I couldn’t get any wetter, walking to work up to my waist in water was actually one of the funniest, silliest, most joyous things I have ever done.

8. You learn not to wear stupid clothes. I’m sorry but backpackers walking around winter in Hanoi dressed in tiny shorts, singlets and flip flops look ridiculous. Where’s the beach? Not here dude.

9. If you choose the right volunteer organization, they will support you. I recommend VSO as it’s better to scrimp on their stipend wages than have to budget your own meagre savings or, worse still, shamefully ask mum and dad for more cash.

10. Because your efforts will never be forgotten by those that most needed your help. Sorry, but no one remembers a traveler passing through.

The world continues to be messed up without us. And maybe it’s selfish but at least our conscience is clear.

I can also tell you, as wonderful as traveling is – volunteering is on a different planet altogether. I never knew before how lucky I am and how happy I could be.

Update:

Just stumbled across this website that lists a stack of free volunteer position.

Steve Jackson has worked as a fundraiser at KOTO in Hanoi and has just started a new post at CafeChavalos in Granada, Nicaragua. Read about his adventures in Vietnam at Our Man In Hanoi and in Nicaragua at Our Man In Granada.