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Prelude to volunteering

Since the beginning of our relationship we knew that we both share the same dream - to travel the world. However first, we wanted to finish universities. While working on our degrees, we traveled to 16 countries, which is not bad, but still, it wasn’t the way we dreamed of.

After finishing our studies in 2018, Míša’s career brought us to Barcelona. Another 3 years passed by, we didn’t travel as much due to Covid, but the home office together with lockdown gave us time to plan our future.

In 2020 we launched MJ Aquaholics – project focused on litter picking and spreading the awareness about water pollution. This project served us as the base from which everything else developed.

The last year of being in touch with the eco community shaped our plans a lot and finally things are moving forward. From July 2021 we’ll quit our jobs and start volunteering and digital nomading. First on Tenerife (Canary Islands, Spain) to sort of test it out while still being close to home. And in October we hope to travel to Mexico and make our way south to Panama in the following year.

In this blog series, we’ll talk about the whole experience! Not only about the volunteering itself but how did we prepare for it, where we looked for information or what kinds of things you should think about before setting on the journey. Let’s go!

Just to summarize in the beginning, this ias roughly what we went or will go through to start the volunteering journey:

· Saving money - minimalistic lifestyle and it is always good to have some financial cushion in case of something unexpected and you can bet there are gonna be unexpected things

· Selling as much as possible – especially for long-term travel, many things ages poorly, it is better to sell it

· Researching the place you want to visit

- Visa

- Flights (they often want confirmation of return flight or confirmation you have enough money to leave the country after your visa is over)

- Vaccines - we have them all, always good to be protected in the environment unknown to your body

- Insurance - nevet travel without it

- Safety tips and infrastructure - good to get some idea about the situation in the given area

- All the equipment you bring should fit the climate --> that's where you might spend quite big sum of money because remember, you'll be carrying your whole life litterally on your back, so it is good to buy some lighter alternative of clothing and other things which can get pricy

· Bring First Aid Kit and basic medicine like paracetamol and aspirin (the rest you can get almost anywhere)

· Take into account your personal needs - medicine you need to take daily etc.

· Researching how to make money online and how to do taxes -->the most painful point probably, the world's laws are still not ready for digital nomads

· Safe money on accommodation - Couchsurfing (great to meet locals, they give best advices), Workaway (if you are interested in volunteering in exchange for housing and food and there are more options)

· Write notes of everything you research!

- Google drive, One drive or whatever is most comfortable for you --> also useful to upload photocopies of important documents - passports, ID's, vaccine records, insurance contracts etc.

First steps...

It all started with the decision to quit our jobs. We knew that this decision would come eventually, but finally marking it in our agenda was a huge decision. That was sometime during last year(2020). Since the beginning of this year (2021), we started the investigation period, baby steps – checking videos from travel youtubers and instagramers and people who volunteered as an introduction into this area, researching volunteering options and information around it, checking information about required administration things to solve. Basically, three months long prelude before finally making some real steps.

Planning is the key as it helps to have stress levels on the leash, because you can be sure that something you may thought will resolve quickly simply won’t. That is when Google Drive became our best friend – we basically write down every piece of information we find or get. We use it to make lists and tables and it helps us to keep track of our budget – important thing to know for longterm travelling too! There is really loads of things to do, so definitely write all that stuff down in some way most comfortable for you.

In the end, the videos from travel youtubers did not give us much information. Everyone has different goals when travelling and many of these youtubers travel way over our normal budget. Anyway, it still was good introduction into the topic, which showed us that it is all on us and no one else on the internet can tell us exactly what to do. Especially given the fact that these information can change rapidly. These blogs may give some idea too, but in the end it‘s all up to you.

Understanding volunteering...

First, there are millions of volunteering positions all around the world and they differ a lot. At first we thought of volunteering roughly like this: There is a project in some poorer country, you contact them, settle details, you pay for the trip there and back, you pay food, they provide accomodation and you simply help with what’s needed at the moment and in your free time you can explore. Well, surprise surprise, it does not work that way...or at least not always.

It’s logical, but it did not strike us at first, but volunteering is not exclusive to poorer countries, you can probably find volunteering positions in your town too. And we volunteer basically every weekend on our own by picking up trash on the beach. Funny how some things are rooted in your brain, another reason to be more open minded in your life.

Anyway, we started our research with the big guys like UN etc. just to see the available options and general requirements. These usually require some registration process, evaluation and even possible small fees to kind of confirm you mean it. Being UN volunteer may sound super cool, but there is also a lot of office volunteers too, just to be ready for that too. They won’t send you immediately to struggling communities in Africa unless you have some special skill and experience fit to the situation. To put it simply, they have professional approach.

Then, it brought us to websites with amazing variety of volunteering options! There were so many cool projects from planting trees in Amazon to protecting gorillas in Africa. However, these positions had one significant drawback – expensive fees.

Volunteering vs. voluntourism and white saviour concept

We could understand some fee of few euros per day like in the case of the more professional volunteering positions offered by UN - to cover some basic acommodation, but no, we are talking about hundreds or even thousands of euros per week! Quite few of these positions included rather luxurious living, so it looked more like your typical hotel resort given the fact that this one particular position was in children orphanage that looked in very poor conditions compared to the nice room covered by the fee we’d pay as volunteers. That did not seem fair, so after little digging we discovered this issue has a name voluntourism.

It gives people option to travel to distant lands and help those poorer people in the world, or at least that is the way these organizations promote it. Such organizations lack the understanding the needs of the community which may be helpful in short term but not in long term. They basically sell fake feeling that you are changing the world, you post some pictures on social media to unconsciously promote it further and everyone’s happy. This actually has a term - white saviour. It rather makes the poorer communities dependent on the help of such people who seek such vacation to make them feel better about themselves. The whole concept is just wrong.

Here is one great Tedx Talk about voluntourism and white saviour concept:

The worst part of voluntourism is that majority of the money you spend does not go to the community, but rather to the organization and these organizations have no motiviation to really improve things. If they’d solve the issue, no more volunteers would be needed....sad business model don’t you think?

It is not that all these projects are just eco scam, but always try to investigate where the money goes.

Anyway, we knew this is not the way for us, because we want to make real impact and not volunteer just to boost our egos while supporting some greedy organization. So, we started looking for some options closer to the original idea of exchanging labour for housing and food.

Volunteering as we imagined exists!

Luckily, all the TED talks and blog posts discussing voluntourism mentioned better options. There are several websites where you can get in touch with people doing all sorts of interesting projects where you can participate in exchange for housing and sometimes food too. Here is a short list of what we found:

After browsing all these websites and generally after further research we decided to go for the biggest player here –

Workaway is a platform for people all around the world to offer and seek huge variety of volunteering positions which are free of charge. It really works like we imagined it. Good thing is that you can browse the positions with necessity of registering nor paying anything, which is definitely cool. However, to having the possibility to contact the hosts, you must register and pay yearly fee of 50 euros. Seems worth it if you are serious and we definitely are. Note that Workaway itself garantees you nothing, it is "just" a platform to make contacts between people easier.

From what we browsed thus far, it seems like big portion of the available positions is around small hostels – usually simple stuff like working on reception, cleaning, plus some gardening. Gardening, working on farms, planting trees and work on permacultures seems to be number two on Workaway. Then there is a mixture of everything. Language teachers, social media managers, carpenters, electricians, filmmakers, webdegisners, artists, options are limitless. Remember, you can browse it for free.

When you find your favorites, you can make notes, add them to wish list and finally contact them. We are still newbies on Workaway, but the experience was positive thus far. We got in touch with two very interesting people with interesting personal eco projects on Canary islands, which led to two fun videocalls and we settled on Tenerife for July. It’s going to be sort of final test trying volunteering somewhere still close enough to home. Now, we are in the middle of research for volunteering in Mexico from October. There is so much to choose from, though we definitely have some favorites.

Follow us on social media and you’ll be up to date with your journey!

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