When I was eighteen I longed for travelling the world, far away from all-in hotels and artificial ‘monuments’ where a horde of tourists gathered to take obligatory pictures.
Volunteering seemed the best way to begin this quest. It would let me discover untouched places while working actively with locals to really learn about their culture. For me, that was all I wanted: explore all these different customs and ideas, and come back as a more complete person.
Still, I was totally unexperienced and thought it would be a good idea to sign up with one of the major volunteering organizations, the kind you find on top of your Google results if you search for anything related to volunteering.
They helped me with everything; my flight, my visa, other documents, pick-up at the airport… a really comfortable feeling. So when I arrived in the remote village where I would teach English for two weeks, I could only look forward to it.
The first day came and everyone was friendly, the atmosphere enjoyable, the food delicious… only the work seemed a bit strange. We were expected to arrive around nine for what I suspected a full day.
Only after lunch my colleague-volunteers left and when I told the local teachers I wanted to stay until school was finished, they only laughed and said I could go home; there was no reason to stay.
Over the course of the two weeks, things stayed bizarre, although it seemed I was the only volunteer bothered by it. My colleagues took it a lot easier. They arrived at ten or eleven; sometimes they didn’t come at all.
The kids themselves were great and were always happy to play with you, but a real chance of teaching them any English occurred rarely. In the two weeks there was maybe one hour where we taught them how to count ‘til 10. The rest of the time the local teachers let them sing songs like the national anthem and made them parade like in a Beauty Pageant.
Do I regret going there? No, not at all. I loved my first experience abroad. I met a lot of people and was able to visit a lot of places in my free time. But I still think a lot about it, because although a great time for two weeks, did I really learn the culture? Did I know my students in any way? Did I teach them anything valuable?
If you have to answer all those questions negatively, there is really no point in volunteering – unless, of course, you just want the nice certificate that you can show everyone and the pictures of you and children for on social media, as if you have personally saved them from illiteracy.
Teach and learn and the same time is all what , both ways Volunteering is about.
Volunteering here goes both ways. You teach students English, but just like you they have free time and do activities. So if one your students has a reason to celebrate, you will certainly be invited as a way to thank you for your work; just like the teachers, colleagues and neighbors will do if they plan or attend a party.
Since many of the students also have jobs in and around Vang Vieng, you might run into them when you go kayaking or when you eat at a restaurant in the center of town. Stay here a certain time and you will even feel like a local celebrity when you cycle through Pakpor Village.
One of my favorite activities during my stay here as Coordinator is going hiking with the monks. Seeing that Laos is a predominantly Buddhist country, you will certainly encounter multiple monks in your class(es).
They most of all enjoy taking trips in the weekend, visiting the Blue Lagoons or exploring the many caves around Vang Vieng. Once they invite you for such a trip, you are set for an incredible time. Be amazed at how all of the monks climb the steepest peeks dressed in robes and flip-flops.
Forget all the peace and quietness when you discover the monks are big fans of Dua Lipa & Justin Bieber and blast their music going up and down the mountain. Get to know all the young Novices with their awesome names, such as Novice Sonic and Novice Ning Nong. The liters of sweat pouring out of your body after you reached the top will be totally worth it.
For me, it is the perfect example how the Both Ways Volunteering really works. While teaching them English and practicing speaking with them, they teach you a lot about their lifestyles and the Lao culture. That is what volunteering is about.
It also helps to get rid of the sometimes problematic ‘Western-savior complex’ because while, yes, you speak the language they want to learn, they in turn know many skills they can teach you if you are interested. Make your own harpoon and go fishing in the river, practice playing the very popular sport Kataw, join them in the kitchen to cook new recipes, help them repairing their motorbikes, learn how to speak Lao…
It would be unfair to claim we are the only organization who works like this; there are a great number out there where the cooperation between volunteers and locals is just the same. For them, this whole Both Ways Volunteering sounds like common sense – which it honestly also is.
They (and we), however, don’t always show up on page 1 of Google, which leads a lot of first time volunteers to places that don’t correspond with their motivations. It’s not a tragedy to do so (or at least, I don’t feel that way), because if you liked it, it’s unfair to call it a mistake.
As long as you know that if you don’t only want to teach, but also want to learn, there are sufficient options available in whatever country you want to visit, and that giving is not always altruistic, just like receiving is not always egoistic. Sometimes they switch places to make sure you don’t take them for granted.