When Liz Sims found herself at the end of high school in 2009, she decided to take a break before college (AKA a gap year). “I wanted to do something different for a little bit,” she says, thinking back to that time. Growing up in the Boston suburbs, Sims always had an interest in international travel but hadn’t really been able to use her passport. So seeing another part of the world was a priority, but she also craved a unique experience.
“I really didn’t want to do the type of trip where you’re completely chaperoned for a month and everything is completely scheduled,” she explains. “I wanted to do something where I would have a purpose and a reason for being in the country that I was in, but where I would also have a bit of autonomy and free time and the ability to explore on my own.”
After some research, Sims found a program with Projects Abroad, a commercial organization that helps people volunteer in foreign countries, and arrived that September in Peru’s Sacred Valley to help preserve Incan ruins. “I would say [it] was life-changing and one my most influential experiences,” Sims says.
According to Thomas Pastorius, an Executive Vice President with Projects Abroad, the group places volunteers like Sims in Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific. Pastorius handles recruitment. “I’m in charge of finding people that want to do this and helping them prepare before they go,” he explains. “We send about 10,000 people a year, typically for placement of one to two months.”
Although volunteer travel (or international volunteering) goes back to when ordinary people signed up with the Red Cross to help treat the wounded in World War I, it’s become more and more popular in recent years with individual travelers who volunteer to help out abroad on their own, eschewing traditional volunteering opportunities like church groups or the Peace Corp.
The trend has even earned its own 21st century nickname: “voluntourism” — a portmanteau of “volunteer” and “tourism” that Pastorius somewhat scorns. “This is volunteer work,” he says. “The word ‘work’ is in there, so we’ve never really been comfortable with ‘voluntourism.’”
Organizations like Projects Abroad fit in with this new paradigm of independent volunteers by handling all the logistical issues for the group, including food, accommodations, insurance, and even transport to and from the airports. All the volunteers have to worry about, once they’ve signed up and paid, is getting there.
Sims spent two and half months with the Project Abroad group in Peru, living in a converted stable house with other volunteers and spending her days clearing away overgrowth from the remains of the pre-Columbian empire with a machete, assisting with archaeological digs, and doing general community outreach work like painting schools or helping tend to the farm they were living on. All while bonding with her fellow volunteers and getting to know the local community.
“I think I initially left because I was interested in archaeology and I wanted to give back and do something of value,” Sims says when talking about her motivation for the trip. “I think it became a really strong interest in kind of being rooted in this community for several months and getting to know people in the community.”
“This is volunteer work,” he says. “The word ‘work’ is in there, so we’ve never really been comfortable with ‘voluntourism.’”
Sims discovered that while she enjoyed the service work, it was the opportunity to interact with the locals that was really rewarding. “It was more just kind of seeing this very different style of life and being able to still make friendships and relate and connect with people who lived in a very different way than I did,” she explains.
But the highlight of Sims’s trip was the week she spent at Choquequirao, a remote Incan site known for its series of massive stone terraces that ascend a truncated hilltop, which were used for farming different crops at different micro-climates in the elevation. It’s one of the only Incan ruins to feature ornamental design — white depictions of llamas in the terraces’ stonework — that Sims helped clear and preserve
“It was just me and my group of three that were there and I think we only saw a couple other people the whole time we were there,” Sims says. “I don’t think I’ve been that remote before or since, honestly.”
She was deep in the Andes Mountains, with few other people around, surrounded by massive ancient ruins, and was simply awestruck.
“It was this AMAZING place,” Sims recalls. “And I just remember one morning, getting up and walking over to where we were working and it was just so beautiful. And just sort of feeling that this is incredibly amazing that I get to be here, because nobody gets to be here. When I think about Peru, it’s that moment of standing on these tiered Incan ruins about to start working as the sun is rising in the mountains and it’s just unbelievably gorgeous.”
According to Pastorius, a weeks-long volunteering trip, like the one Sims took to Peru, is the best chance for the most fulfilling experience. “It’s definitely something where the longer you go, the better,” he says, adding that the takeaways traveling volunteers love — like cultural immersion, language learning, and friendship — require long trips.“The benefits accrue exponentially over time,” he says, “as well the benefit that you can provide to local communities.”
“…this is incredibly amazing that I get to be here, because nobody gets to be here.”
So it’s no surprise that most of Project Abroad’s volunteers are college-aged travelers looking for an adventure between semesters or retirees in the mood for something unique, but Pastorius does admit that there are shorter-term programs that people with full-time jobs can fit into their vacation schedules.
“We push people to go for as long as they can,” Pastorius says. “And I always push people to go for at least two weeks.”
And a two-week program was just what Sims was looking for five years after her first trip to Peru.
In the summer of 2014, fresh out of college and with some extra time on her hands before starting her first job, she again felt the the urge to travel with a purpose. “I kind of wanted to have one last hurrah for the summer,” says Sims. “And I sort of naturally and immediately was like ‘Well, maybe I should do something else with Projects Abroad.’”
For her second international volunteer trip, Sims signed up for a marine conservation project in Cambodia. For two weeks, she stayed on an island with other volunteers as they scuba dived in the nearby waters to monitor seahorse habitats and undersea plant life — collecting data to help convince the Cambodian government to preserve local marine wildlife.
And like Peru, Sims found the benefits of an altruistic trip could still be pretty personal.
“As much it’s wonderful to be giving back and helping the community, it’s also just really fun,” she explains. “You’re getting to live a really different lifestyle, experience really different things. Everyday is kind of different.”
There’s also the fact that spending time with other volunteers enthusiastic for the work creates a lively dynamic and atmosphere. “Everybody who’s there really wants to be there and is excited about the project,” Sims says.
Also, most projects are constantly in progress with volunteers joining and leaving all the time. So newbies can take advantage of advice from those already there. “They’re immediately going to help you to kind of figure out what the locals do [and] what it’s like to live here,” says Sims.
All that can add up to a unique travel experience better than any normal trip. Sims has been on plenty trips to other destinations as a s tourist for longer than her stay in Cambodia, but it stands out more for her. “ I think I feel more than attachment and that I know Cambodia better than those other places just due to the difference in the experience,” she says.
Pastorius believes the uniqueness of the volunteer travel experience fills a need that travelers spend most of their time searching (and usually failing) to find: the authentic. “I think it fits in popular culture when people talk about a search for authenticity in experience,” he says. “You’re working and living there in a way that the people there do. There’s no extra sheen on the experience.”
“You’re getting to live a really different lifestyle, experience really different things. Everyday is kind of different.”
But before you sign up to volunteer for your next travel adventure, Pastorius advises that you take the time to figure out what you want out of the experience (if you don’t have any particular interest in learning Spanish, then you probably shouldn’t sign up for a project in Latin America), figure out your budget, and then find the program that best matches what you’re looking for. He also suggests checking out the International Volunteer Programs Association’s website for more information.
Just be warned, you may come back from your volunteer trip with a more selfless attitude.
After her return from Cambodia, Sims worked in the private business sector, but left after a couple years for the world of nonprofit. “I work in international development now,” she says. “And I think [the Project Abroad trips] really did shape that… it just opened my eyes to a wealth of possibilities career-wise and personally that I’d never really thought about.”
And if you’re still on the fence about taking a volunteer trip, Sims’ advice is just go. “I don’t really know anyone who regrets doing it,” she says.