Photo above by Dave Bezaire & Susi Havens-Bezaire
[Editor’s Note: This is the second in an ongoing series by regular contributor Hal Amen, who is volunteering in South America in 2009. Read the first article in the series here.]
As the bus from La Paz crested the pass and began its harrowing descent into the Cochabamba Valley, my stomach sank. Though I’d later learn that this was the result of the street food purchased the night before (and the start of a two-day bout of traveler’s diarrhea), at the time I chalked it up to nerves.
For someone who puts the furniture in storage and beelines it to the opposite side of the globe every couple years, I don’t handle life changes very well. Leaping headlong into South America to begin a year of volunteering certainly falls in this category.
Over time though, I’ve learned a few tips for helping survive the transition:
Tip 1.Define your personal goals before you arrive.
Are you planning to take language lessons in addition to volunteering? Do you hope to travel frequently in the region? What do you want your life to look like during the next days/weeks/months?
My grasp of Bolivian culture was non-existent, my Spanish decidedly subpar. Sustainable Bolivia, my placement organization, seemed reputable but had been founded only recently, so there was no way of knowing exactly what lay in store.
Primarily, though, the apprehension I felt stemmed from my volunteer placement. Energética was a development agency that engineered and installed green energy systems, a technical field I had no experience in.
Assurances were given that my lack of expertise was not an issue, but was this true?
2. If there’s something that doesn’t work for you, whether in your living situation or your volunteer position, speak up as soon as possible.
There’s no point in wasting time following a dead-end road.
3. Ask as many questions as you can think of, establishing that everything on the ground matches up to what was advertised.
Sustainable Bolivia was indeed a young organization, just a year and a half old. I wasn’t the only new face around, either. Several staff members had begun their tenures just two weeks before, along with a handful of volunteers.
4. Don’t be intimidated by your fellow volunteers, even if this is your first stint and their seventh.
You’re all there for the same reason, and no one’s going to question your credentials or sincerity. The agency’s youth was not a shortcoming as I had feared; rather, it was exciting to feel that I was getting in on the ground floor.
Moreover, the volunteer housing was nice, the promised wireless Internet connection functioned, and everyone seemed intent on ensuring my individual needs were provided for.
5. Don’t be afraid to make a request.
Do you need a desk for your room, or help acquiring a cell phone on the local network? The organization wants you to want to stay, so assistance should be offered generously and cheerfully.
In fact, the hardest part about settling into my new home proved to be remembering how to live with roommates again. Not since college had I been forced to share my kitchen and bathroom space. But in time, the communal nature of the volunteer house would serve to enrich my experience.
6. Set your standard-of-living expectations low.
You’re not schmoozing about on a luxury tourism junket; you’re giving your time to the less fortunate. Besides, preparing for the worst will almost certainly leave you pleasantly surprised on arrival.
After a quick interim spent touring Cochabamba and recovering from the untimely TD, it was time to begin what I’d come here to do.
Getting Down to Business
7. Approach your volunteer assignment with the proper mindset.
This isn’t a simple summer vacation alternative or an excuse to travel to an exotic locale. It’s work. You signed up for it, and you should put as much effort into it as if you were getting paid.
A team from Sustainable Bolivia accompanied me to the offices of Energética. My anxiety had hit a peak. Energética is a Bolivian organization, plain and simple. Its entire staff is local, with Spanish clearly the operational language. As stated, my Spanish barely operates.
8. If the company handling your placement is separate from your actual volunteer organization, find out who’s responsible for what.
Who do you contact if you need to call in sick? To whom do you pay your fees, and who oversees your work?
I’ll admit I was literally shaking at the knees as we visited the desks of 30+ Energética employees, exchanging cursory Spanish salutations and cheek kisses (per Bolivian fashion). It wasn’t until the next day, when I had the opportunity to meet with the director, that my fears were finally put to rest.
9. Above all else, make sure you understand what your position entails.
Everyone loses if you’re wandering around lost, uncertain about exactly what it is you’re doing. The director had obviously been briefed on my background, work experience, and interests, and had several project ideas lined up for someone with no engineering or technical experience.
Translating the website? Check. Photographing system installations? Check. Interviewing project beneficiaries and putting together a publication? Check, check.
Enveloped in the humid perfume of the Cochabamba Valley, and charged with a specific purpose, at last I felt I’d arrived.
10. Wear a smile.
No matter how twisted your insides or how fast your mind is racing, convey to those around you that you’re happy to be there and ready to help. After all, you have a lot to be thankful for.
Read more about Sustainable Bolivia here. To learn more about Bolivian politics, check out Hal’s dispatch about the recent constitutional referendum.