Global Good: Volunteering Your Way Around the World

Volunteering your way around the world.
Volunteering your way around the world.

By Randal Thatcher
Reprinted by permission from Global Volunteers

On the very day my wife and I resolved to quit our jobs and spend a year wandering the planet, we bought a huge fold-out map of the world, took it home, and spread it out on the floor. Hunching together over this map — with all those myriad shapes and colors representing all those many, many countries, big and small, that make up our world — we were both immediately overwhelmed with the enormity of what we’d just resolved to do.

Where would we go? And what would we do when we got there? We’d already submitted our letters of resignation. No sense backing out now. Besides, we’d just spent $500 apiece on travel backpacks and miscellaneous gear.

We were finally on the precipice of the adventure we’d always dreamed of, and this was but a mere detail. We could even hang our world map on the wall, tie on the blindfolds, and throw darts at it to decide our destinations.

Volunteering in India

We eventually opted for a slightly more scientific approach; consulting travel books and the Internet, gathering information separately to make our individual “wish lists,” and then comparing our lists, hoping there would be at least a few “matches” between us … there weren’t.

Yes, the world was indeed our oyster, but we’d never before realized just how enormous an oyster it actually is! So much for that Disney ditty about it being a small world… it’s not.

What to do? Which of us would compromise our list? Or would we just travel separately? And even if we could agree on a list of countries, we were still not at all certain what it was we were going to do when we arrived there. An entire year is a long time to wander, and we wanted to avoid an aimless, purposeless drift through the entire sojourn. And planning time was running out fast.

At the height of our dilemma, we discovered a promising ray of hope–a volunteer organization described as a “mini Peace Corps,” where volunteers could share their time, talents and energies working side by side local residents of towns and villages in developing countries around the globe.

This was it! We could solve the Where? and the What? dilemmas both with one phone call. “Hello?” “Global Volunteers?”

We applied and were accepted as volunteers on project teams to Xi’an, China, (teaching English at a local college); My Tho, Vietnam (building a kindergarten classroom); and Cilacap, Indonesia (teaching English to elementary students). Each project would last three weeks, and we’d spaced them throughout our year to serve as milestone markers. They would be the skeleton of our itinerary. (And not to be too altruistic, we also added a fourth milestone marker in the form of a three-week sailing excursion along the coast of Turkey.)

We could now easily “flesh out” the rest of the trip with visits to neighboring and surrounding countries along the way. We’d managed to imbue our trip with both a sense of purpose and direction with this one bold move. Our year on the road would take us through China, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, Singapore, India, Turkey, Germany, Italy and Austria. Now all we needed were airline tickets, a dozen inoculations, and a lift to the airport.

  • September: Xi’an, China

How to describe the day I went out on my lunch hour in Xi’an, to buy new nets for the basketball hoops in the yard of the college where we taught English. The excited students could barely wait for classes to end, so we could all play some round-ball… with nets!!

While in Xi’an, I decided to travel the Chinese way and rented a bicycle for my daily rounds from hotel to my assignment at a local school. Although the traffic in Xi’an was death-defying, the real excitement occurred in the classroom. The Chinese students have an incredible love for learning.

  • November: Vietnam

Our team worked with the local residents to complete construction on a kindergarten classroom in the Mekong Delta community of My Tho and we also found time to teach English to local youngsters. In the process, we grew to admire the Vietnamese — their buoyant spirits and gentle ways. What could compare with the sparkling eyes of the Vietnamese kindergarten children as they sang songs of thanks to us inside their newly constructed classroom, and their appreciation as we volunteers responded with an attempt at singing one of their folk songs in Vietnamese?

From the fellow who drove us around town in the van to our translator, to the teachers at our high school, I made friendships that I’ll cherish always. Vietnam no longer represents a war to me, but a wondrous country filled with truly wonderful, charming people. I’m grateful for this metamorphosis.

  • February: Cilacap, Indonesia

Here, our assignment was teaching English to middle- and high-school students and we also found time to paint desks and fences at a local elementary school.

I’ll be the first to admit that teaching is a challenge for me. But I discovered that a little ingenuity can transcend the language and cultural barriers. Can I ever forget those sweet schoolchildren and their squeals of delight as I’d play back for them their own English conversations and songs on my hand-held tape-recorder?

All too soon, it was time to say goodbye. From our team journal:

“It’s hard for me to write about this without suffering severe pangs of emotion as it was just yesterday that I bade them all a sad goodbye and left their charming village of Cilacap. I had borrowed a bicycle from our local team leader and as I rode through the streets of the town, I would hear shouts of greeting from young students whom I’d met or taught at the school… “Hello, Randy!” Within the next five years, I vow to get back to this place.”

A year later, as we both hunch over that same huge, fold-out map of the world, we gaze with particular fondness at those thirteen countries visited.

Nothing I own could possibly mean more to me now than my thick, black journal, full of musings from the road, and the blue shoebox full of snapshots. We’ve seen and experienced so much in the past year that neither of us can ever be quite the same again. And that’s okay. I suspect that the change is for the better. It’s impossible to travel in this manner, so close to the local people, oftentimes even dependent on them, and not be changed in a rather profound way.

As my wife Shari said, “All three volunteer assignments we’ve participated on during this trip have reinforced the fact that, although we may be oceans apart and have very different cultures, we all have the same emotional needs: for love, friendship and acceptance.”

Perhaps it is a small world after all.

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