Hey Wild Flower! regarding my travels currently I am doing something sorta similar to what you described in terms of volunteering. For the past 4 years, I have been volunteering as a human rights monitor, reporter and accompanier in Honduras. Basically I accompany organizations and communities that are part of the social and grassroots movement here and have been targeted by the corrupt right wing government. There has been a lot of repression against the peasant farmers, indigenous communities, women, the LGBTQ community, and political candidates and organizers who are in resistance with the ruling elite run government. For 3 years I lived with a family in a peasant farming community as I was helping on a campaign to free one of their family members who was a political prisoner charged with murder despite there having been absolutely no evidence against him. His being framed for murder was part of the struggle for land between the rich landowners and the peasant farmers. He was successfully freed and exonerated this past November.
It has been an enriching, exhilarating, often frustrating and sometimes boring experience. I have learned a lot about my own inner demons and biases while struggling with culture shock, language barriers (although my Spanish has greatly improved, I am still often left not understanding what someone is talking about even though I understood every word they said) as well as how much my home country, the US, has done to destroy people’s lives by propping up and funding repressive regimes and undercutting grassroots attempts to exercise democracy. I knew this before coming here, but to see it, live it and be faced with it on a daily basis has been a life altering experience.
Anyway, that’s a little bit about my experience with working outside my own culture/comfort zone. How it has helped my writing is immeasurable. The greatest thing that it has done is to open up my empathy for the struggles of others in ways that can’t be done just by hearing about or reading about them while sitting enclosed in my own culture. I believe that I was empathic before this, but now it is beyond the vicarious experience of understanding someone else’s feelings. This is what writing should be and good writing is, understanding and sharing feelings that express the universality of our struggles.