A Life-Changing Experience; What It Means to Volunteer Abroad

“Please raise your right hand and repeat after me,” Linda Taglialatela, US Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean said.

We raised our hands and recited the oath of becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer, thus officially swearing-in and beginning our service as full-fledged volunteers. One at a time, we made our way across the stage to receive our certificates signifying the completion of our training.

I, along with the rest of the Grenada class of EC 89 proceeded with our presentations for our audience that consisted of trainers, educators, host families, Peace Corps staff and volunteers (current and past), politicians, and news media. As a group we are not very musically-inclined nor have any outstanding talents, so together we created a skit presentation of a trip on a Grenadian bus. Then shifting toward the drums, we followed with a performance of song and dance that we learned from a group of local children.

When all was said and done, we were officially Peace Corps Volunteers.

It’s still sinking in that I am able to say that.
Becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer had been an idea in my head since high school. But at the time it was only that–an idea. During my sophomore year of college, I decided that it was time to begin seriously considering the Peace Corps as an option for me post-graduation. Consequently, I decided what better way to determine if Peace Corps was the right path for me than to volunteer abroad myself.

So two years ago, after extensive research and saving up enough money, I took what became a life-changing trip to Quito, Ecuador through International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ). The program I was involved in was the Market Children Program. In other words, the children I volunteered with had to work alongside their parents in various downtown markets across Quito for two reasons: 1) their parents could not afford to send them to school; 2) it was advantageous for children to work because people are more likely to buy from a dirty, poor child. Consequently, I spent the days in the markets playing games, teaching proper hygiene, and tutoring those that had homework to children who would otherwise spend the day working. (That being said, to this day explaining improper fractions in Spanish is single-handedly one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do).

I fell in love with the opportunity to be a volunteer by day and explore this new world as a tourist by night. But because I was volunteering during the day, I was being exposed to things in the everyday life of the locals that typical tourists won’t see; and if you ask me, that’s the best part.

I was exposed to an entirely different way of life. A way of life where you had to boil water to ensure it was safe to drink. A way of life where you had to pay for toilet paper in the public restrooms and throw that toilet paper in a trash bin since the plumbing couldn’t take it. A way of life where people get on and off public busses in order to earn a living by selling candy, fruits, or household items. Others would play guitar and sing a song on a bus or in a restaurant, and then they would go around with an outstretched hand in hope for some change. It was a place where you would be looked at funny if you paid in bills because change was preferred. The sun was up and fully shining by 6:00 in the morning and down by 6:00 at night. I was caught in the whirlwind of a new culture, language, and living conditions.

After volunteering in the markets one day, a fellow volunteer and I took a cable car to the top of Mt. Teleférico. The cable car gently swayed back and forth as we began our ascent to the top. We began talking about the places we had traveled. She had been to numerous countries around the world, but I only had endless questions. Quito unfolded before our very eyes, a sea of white buildings and structures that weaved in and around the mountains.

“Whoa,” I thought to myself. “If it’s this beautiful here; what else is out there?”

I had caught the travel bug and my life was forever changed.

I arrived back to the States with not only a fresh tan, but also a fresh outlook on life. I was able to share with family and friends back home all the things I did and saw: from straddling the equator and “swinging off the edge of the world,” to even jumping off a bridge 300 feet above a raging river. I enjoyed sharing those stories and the different cultural things I learned while abroad.

I returned to my studies and completed my junior year of undergrad. After returning home in May, it became time to look at Peace Corps applications. After extensive research, I determined a list of countries that I was interested in: Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Swaziland, Timor-Leste, Micronesia, Fiji, and the Eastern Caribbean. Each location had positions available in the Education and the Youth in Development sector, the two sectors my resume and background would be most relevant. All the locations had their applications open over the course of the summer but the Eastern Caribbean opened up first. Within a week of its opening my resume was sent in. The application process takes months and I wouldn’t hear back for some time, so I focused my attention on another endeavor.

I returned to the IVHQ website and began researching locations on where I could volunteer again. The travel bug was just an itch I couldn’t scratch. I had two general regions in mind: Southeast Asia and Africa. I found two programs that struck my interest in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam and Cape Town, South Africa. After researching costs and logistics of travel, I determined that South Africa would be my next destination. I spent the summer saving up what I could and booked my flight by the time school started.

The first week of my senior year of college, I received an invitation to interview for the Eastern Caribbean. A week later, I was invited to serve and immediately accepted. I didn’t think much of the gravity of the decision I just made at the time, as with the fall semester came a full slate of obligations. I balanced my Honors Research Project, running a marathon, school work, my internship in Career Development, tutoring, and submitting the necessary paperwork to gain legal and medical clearance to serve. Toward the end of November as Thanksgiving rolled around, my workload got heavier as I had to prepare and take my finals a week in advance.

Perks of attending a small university, I was able to arrange with my professors to take my finals a week early so I could leave on my volunteer trip the first week of December and be home by Christmas. I had to do the same thing in regards to finals the year before, but my finals this past year were particularly challenging (*cough *cough Accounting). But after completing my finals, I packed my suitcases and in a rush of goodbyes to friends and family, I was on a plane en route to London.

Upon arriving in London, I had a four-hour layover in Heathrow. I was faced with a dilemma. I originally had a six-hour layover, but my delayed flight from Chicago to London narrowed that to four. I planned to try and leave the airport and explore what I could of London before catching my flight to Cape Town because I didn’t know if I would ever have a chance to see London again. The travel bug was itching. So as I worked my way toward customs in Heathrow, I asked three individuals that worked at the airport if I had enough time to see some of London before my flight to Cape Town. Two of them said no, but the guy stamping passports at customs said yes. I went with the vote of optimism and left Heathrow.

I quickly stopped at a bank in the terminal and pulled out cash in the pounds currency. I jumped on a shuttle and then hustled between pedestrians to the public train system. Knowing the clock was ticking, I fumbled with the machine that processed tickets for the subway. I turned and asked for help from a guy standing at the adjacent machine. He showed me how to work the machine and explained he was getting on the same train. I decided I was going to put all my faith in this random guy I just met and trust I will get back in time. I got off at the stop he told me and followed the signs to the end of the station. I stepped out from the station and froze at the top of the concrete staircase. In a sea of bustling bodies, I was transfixed in a moment setting my sights on London for the first time. Snapping out of the moment, I quickly descended the stairs and hustled my way to the street corners and followed signs to the landmarks. I first arrived at the London Eye, which had my attention for a moment until a certain clock tower in the backdrop caught my attention. Right there in front of me was the famous Big Ben. Again slipping and sliding through a bustling mass of people on sidewalks and dashing across the street, I made my way to Westminister Bridge. 

As I worked my way down the bridge the sun was setting on the Thames River. I found it odd, for it was only 2:30 in the afternoon. But I continued dashing my way around London, taking pictures in front of the Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminister Abbey. I tried to take moments at each to appreciate what I was seeing, but I knew I was still on the clock. I ran back across the bridge and stopped at a cart on the corner. I purchased a postcard, pocketed it, and looking right for oncoming traffic stepped out onto the road.

*Beep *Beeeeepp

I look left to see one of those red, double-decker tourist busses barreling down at me. Jumping back on the sidewalk, I caught my breath.

“Dude, you got to be smarter than that,” I muttered to myself. “They drive on the left.”

Ensuring traffic was clear this time, I ran back to the train station. Back-tracking my steps, I made my way back to the airport. Hustling through the airport I found my gate and Cape Town, South Africa read on the screen. I plopped down in my seat and checked the time. I made it back to Heathrow with an hour to spare.

“So much for not having enough time,” I laughed to myself.

A few months later, there would be a terrorist attack on that very same Westminister Bridge, leaving 50+ injured and four dead. My heart goes out to the victims and their families. I thought about the generous man who helped me through the subway and did so out of the goodness of his heart. I have no way of knowing if he was at all affected by the attack. It certainly made the world seem smaller to me and it is a bit shocking to think it could’ve happened while I was there just three months prior. Terrorist attacks abroad may deter people from traveling, but to me, to stop traveling for those reasons would let them win. We can’t allow them to change the way we live our lives.

After a twelve-hour, overnight flight I arrived in Cape Town, South Africa. I didn’t know it at the time, but my life was about to change—again.

I lived in the small beach town of Muizenberg, in between Cape Town and the outer ring of townships. Just like the year prior, I found myself swept up in a new culture and way of life. I spent the days going to the Township of Capricorn, where the poverty was absolutely devastating. Trash riddled the streets. Homes had little to no infrastructure, some even made up of only aluminum panels. Barbed wire lined across the top of the walls. There was no plumbing or running water. Children as young as two years old wandered the streets unsupervised. The townships were places where children as young as six would sniff glue to get a high. Gangs would use boys to run a ravaging drug called ‘tik,’ because what police presence was there could not legally search anyone under the age of 12. Many fathers were not present in their children’s lives. Women would aim to have large families, as more children meant more welfare. The worst part about that though, is that the additional welfare wouldn’t necessarily be used to provide for the children as the government intends.
I spent my day volunteering at the daycare in Capricorn. Male volunteers are often seen as a jungle gym, so most of my days were spent carrying kids around on my back, neck, and feet. I would be hot, tired, and sore, craving the end of the day so I could return to my homestay and relax for a bit. As taxing as those days were though, I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

Now, I have heard arguments against the “voluntourism” industry and how it is more harmful than beneficial. Some aspects of the argument I deem relevant and don’t necessarily refute. However, the blanket statement that voluntourism as a whole is harmful to the communities it intends to serve I find outright false and misguided.

Voluntourism promotes the exchange of cultures while serving a greater purpose. I can confidently say that my time spent volunteering in the communities in Quito and Cape Town was entirely beneficial for one reason alone: the time the children spent with the volunteers was time not spent on the streets.

 At the start of each day in Capricorn, we would leave the daycare and walk around the streets gathering up the unsupervised children to take them to the center. Who knows what would happen to an unsupervised 5-year-old girl wandering the streets alone? We knew that as long as they were with us, they would be safe.

It is true that later on in their life, the children may go on to become involved in gangs, drugs, and the like. But at least for that day, for that moment in time, they can preserve the innocence of their childhood for just a day longer.

Outside of my time spent in Capricorn, I got to experience exactly what you would expect a tourist in Africa to do. I went on a safari, walked with elephants and lions and even accomplished my childhood dream of shark-cage diving with great white sharks. I woke up before the crack of dawn to surf while the sunrise came up over the mountains. That’s not even to mention conquering my fear of heights by jumping off the world’s highest bridge bungee (world’s fourth-highest overall bungee) at 700+ feet.

Before I knew it, my two weeks in Africa were up. After saying goodbye to the volunteers there, I got in the taxi to go to the airport. I’ll be entirely honest when I say that on my entire ride back to the airport, I sobbed uncontrollably.

“Would you like a tissue?” the cab driver asked with an outstretched tissue.

“Thanks,” I muttered between sobs, taking the tissue. “I’m sorry. I didn’t expect this.”

“It’s okay. It’s amazing, really,” he began to say. “Every time I pick a volunteer up from that house to go to the airport, they cry. It’s amazing you guys become so close to each other in such a short period of time.”

“Yeah,” I stammered, turning away and looking out the window at the mountains passing-by. “It really is.”

It wasn’t until I arrived back home that I began to reflect on that conversation. We, as volunteers, become so close because we undergo a life-changing experience together. I can honestly say some of my closest friends live all across the world and I had been with them for only two short weeks. But in those two weeks, the life-changing experience goes way beyond going on safaris and bungee-jumping. It comes down to what we were exposed to during our time volunteering and experiencing things a tourist wouldn’t. It was eye-opening, heartbreaking, and it brought us together.

“How was Africa??” people would ask me in anticipation of hearing the stories about lions, elephants, sharks, and bungee jumps that they saw from my postings on social media.

I would and still gladly share those stories. They were incredible experiences and fun to talk about. I hope to do all those things again if blessed with another opportunity to return to Africa.

But in spite of this, the weeks that followed my trip to Africa I found myself troubled and conflicted. I struggled, groping with the conditions of my life in the States given the life I just left in Capricorn. I wanted to share what really happened in Africa. I wanted to share the stories of the children and what they went through on a daily basis. I wanted to tell people about the drugs, the crime, the violence, and poverty; but I just didn’t know how. I wanted to share what I really experienced, but I couldn’t just bring it up at random and ruin someone’s day like that.

How do you tell someone about being flipped off by two children after explaining you didn’t have any money they expected from you as a white volunteer?

(I never took money with me to the townships for security reasons).

How do you tell someone about the time you were given a photograph of a beautiful, 5-year-old girl?

You ask the child sitting next to you if she knows the girl in the photo and she responds, “Yeah, but she died.”

You find out later that day that the pictured child was murdered by her father a few months prior in revenge of her mother for kicking him out of the house for abusing drugs. The girl attended the very daycare I was in. This means that volunteers such as me worked with her before that tragedy took her life. This means the very same thing could happen to any of these kids months or even days after I leave. That is why it is so important that volunteers are there. On top of all that, due to the faulty prison system in place the deceased girl’s father will be released after a short, mandatory five-year sentence.

How do you tell someone about being parked at a stop sign, to see a man smacking a cart with a wooden staff?

As the van begins to drive away, with a disturbing smile and knowing that you are watching, the man opens the lid to the cart. A leg immediately kicks out in defense and you realize a 12-year-old boy was trapped inside. The man slams the door back down as you continue looking backwards, not believing what you just saw and feeling helpless knowing there was nothing you could do about it.

I don’t share this with you now to scare you or make you feel bad. I share this because it is experiences like these volunteering abroad that have made my trips life-changing. It is this exposure that leaves the volunteers crying as they head back to their safe and protected home countries while the locals remain.
The poverty I experienced in Ecuador was entirely different than that of South Africa and even more different than that of the Eastern Caribbean. Yet, I have found that in such unfortunate circumstances one thing remains the same: the innocence of a child and their passion for life.

That is why I decided to join the Peace Corps in the first place. Not only will I be living in a foreign country for two years, but I will be a contributing member of society as a schoolteacher. I finally have the opportunity to positively influence the lives of children in a foreign country for a timeframe longer than just two weeks.

However, my Peace Corps service took on a whole new meaning just last week. I was eating dinner on the balcony of my homestay as my host parents watched CNN inside. I overheard on the television about what occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia. My attention taken, I stepped inside and watched silently as clips of white supremacists marching under torchlight shouting in unison, “You will not replace us,” “Jews will not replace us,” and “Blood and soil.” (The last one a rallying cry of Nazi’s during WWII).

For the first time in my life, I was embarrassed to be an American. I came to realize that if this is what people here are seeing of Americans on TV, this is a stigma that might be placed on me as an American abroad. I was baffled that such hateful rhetoric would be directed at people of color, particularly as I watch alongside my host parents, who are black, and have gone above and beyond to ensure I had a comfortable home as I acclimate myself to Caribbean society. I began to finally understand another important factor of being a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Everyone knows that the United States, as a nation, is a global leader. However, believe me when I say that the world is always watching what happens in the States. All across the world people are seeing a troubled America that appears racially-divided.

This is what the world is seeing. So we, as Peace Corps Volunteers, are out as feet on the ground to show the true nature of America. We are Americans that not only are in a foreign land, but immersing ourselves in our host country’s culture. We are eating their foods, learning their language, dancing to their music, and working in their communities. We are out here, scattered across the world, to represent America while making a lasting impact in our host communities. We want our interactions with the locals’ to be their perceptions of Americans, not some hateful people they see on TV. We are out to show the world what America truly represents, something that maintains my pride in being American.

Just recently, I had the opportunity to see the campus of St. George’s University in Grenada. Students from around the world attend SGU, including a couple hundred Americans. When I arrived with some fellow Volunteers, something happened that each one of us did not expect. We all had a sense of reverse culture-shock. We were excited and baffled to find large busses, water fountains, and even free public restrooms. Their building infrastructure was sturdy and strong. The basketball courts actually had a proper surface and weren’t just concrete. The roads were paved and free of potholes. Every single one of the buildings had air-conditioning and the library was fully-stocked with books. There was a flyer on a bulletin board that advertised language classes in Spanish, French, and English; but they didn’t advertise for a course in Grenadian English Creole, the language of Grenada that we just spent the past month learning.

For these reasons, it felt like we weren’t even on the island of Grenada anymore. At first the similarities the campus had to home was exciting for us. But it seemed the longer we stayed, the more we became almost uncomfortable. I found myself relieved to leave campus and return to Gouyave on a hot, over-packed van they call a bus that dodges every pothole and vehicle on the way home.

I didn’t expect to feel that way when I went to SGU’s campus. I had a hard time grasping the fact that the reverse-culture-shock had settled in within a matter of minutes. Also, I honestly just didn’t think I had become so accustomed to life outside the States so quickly. I didn’t think I had changed that much in a matter of three months.

I will be in Gouyave, on the Caribbean island of Grenada for the next 24 months. I will be living and working as an American in a foreign community. I will be exposing them to American culture and they will be exposing me to Grenadian culture. I will be utilizing what skills I have to aid in the nation’s mission to improve the struggling literacy rates of primary school students across the island.
If I have learned anything from my time volunteering abroad, it is this: I will not be coming back the same person.

I came back from Ecuador with my eyes opened to the exciting life outside of the States and how much of a safe, protected bubble that America is. I came back from South Africa having matured, being exposed to the devastating circumstances people live in elsewhere in the world and how ungrateful we can be for the blessings that we have. With both of those trips, however, I didn’t realize I had changed until I had already returned home.

That being said, my time on SGU’s campus has already showed me that I’m not the same. It’s intimidating, to an extent, knowing that I will not be returning to the States the same person as I left. I boarded a plane to Miami a fresh, college graduate with the world at his fingertips. I have now officially joined the Peace Corps community, a community of people I have admired for so long. In the past three months I have already experienced some of the ups and downs of being over 2,500 miles away from home. I admit, I am almost jealous of the Volunteers who are just now returning home having fulfilled their two years of service abroad.

I don’t know who I will be when I come back home. Although I acknowledge the fact that I will not be the same, I know that I will be the better for it. I look forward to becoming that person who will be returning home in 24 months’ time. I will still be me, just a better version of me. My past international experiences have already proven that.

But for now, I have work to do. Teachers’ meetings start this week and school is back in session September 1st. Stay tuned for what’s to come. It’s going to be quite the journey.

Cheers!

Members of Grenada EC 89 take the Peace Corps oath.

Myself with US Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Linda Taglialatela.

 

Myself with my host mother, Donna Frederick.
Myself with Kevin Prigge, the Volunteer I am replacing in Gouyave.

Myself with fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, Katelyn Earnest.

Myself with fellow Peace Corps Volunteer, Katie Riley.

Monte (seated far right), taught us a sequence of drumming rhythms and performed with us at our swearing-in.

Grenada’s new class of Peace Corps Volunteers with drum instructor, Monte.

We missed the solar eclipse as it occurred during our swearing-in. But as Katelyn Earnest said, “New Peace Corps Volunteers have Grenada’s future so bright, even the sun had to take a break today.”
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A photo taken at the daycare in Capricorn, South Africa.

When asked, “Como estas?” Edwin would always respond, “Super super bien!”

View from at Mt. Teleferico.

Volunteer house in Muizenberg, South Africa. “Rec House, Best House.”

Volunteers in Ecuador out to dinner in Quito. I had my first taste of guinea pig that night, as it is a delicacy in Ecuador.

Straddling the equator at Mitad del Mundo, Ecuador.

A “Swing at the Edge of the World” on an Ecuadorian mountain.

Volunteers with local children in Cape Town.

Volunteers with the Market Children in Quito.

Myself with Tandy. Tandy’s name in Afrikkans means “love.”

The time I became ‘The Lion King.’

One of my favorite moments in South Africa was “sunrise surfing.”
Jumping off the world’s highest bridge bungee at 700+ feet.

Myself in front of Big Ben.

Random, friendly guy took a photo with me on Westminster Bridge.

Arguably my favorite place I’ve ever been to, Mt. Quilotoa in Ecuador.

One thought on “A Life-Changing Experience; What It Means to Volunteer Abroad

  1. Excellent blog. We don’t grow if we don’t take advantage of opportunities .You have already learned this and whoever you meet is fortunate to know you.

    Like

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