With my graduation from a B.A. looming and an uncertain future ahead, I decided around the middle of 2013 that I would join the fold of countless other enlightened young Australians with sharp social consciences, and go and do some volunteering during the summer holidays. ‘Doing some volunteering’ was a sentence often bandied about by people like me, second or third year arts students whose idle time spent (or, rather, not spent) earning a degree had sufficiently motivated us to contribute to the broader global community as a way to defibrillate us back to reality. ‘To volunteer’ as a verb captures the many embedded truths that contradict the normal ‘work’ as a way to earn money; volunteers work for free, and therefore automatic respect is given from the community. Furthermore, ‘the volunteer’ demands many character traits that may not necessarily be true: social awareness, humility, conscience, with a Guevaran commitment to trembling with indignation at every injustice (or something).
Of course I was no different to anyone wanting to volunteer; I wanted the experience of being placed in a community where I could willfully effect some degree of change for the better, and hope that the state of affairs in this particular community would be better after I had left than when I had arrived. A mouthful by any stretch, and also a very optimistic goal as I soon discovered. So there I was, on a plane to Guatemala, a country wedged between Mexico and El Salvador, which forms the first link in the chain of countries connecting North and South America. For one month over December and January, I lived in the Guatemalan town of Antigua, shacking up in volunteer house called Shekina. This house catered for between 10 and 20 other volunteers depending on the week, feeding us three meals a day whilst we worked on projects. These projects were varied: some worked in dog shelters, others taught English to primary school children, and some on coffee plantations. My days were spent commuting to my project, a primary school 30 minutes away, attending Spanish classes in the afternoon, exploring the colonial beauty of the town on the weekend, and making some great friends from all over the globe. I am not deluded about the benefits of the trip: I thoroughly enjoyed being in Guatemala. It’s a great country, and I was in a great town with equivocal people. That experience is itself enough for me to recommend volunteering if the opportunity arises. But my motivation for volunteering — that I did not want to die wondering what all the fuss was about — was sufficient for me to understand and recognize its numerous shortcomings.
Full disclosure, I found the trip educational on a personal level. But this is unfulfilling, as the whole point of volunteering is not really to develop the individual but to contribute to a less-fortunate community. People travel to volunteering hubs to do good deeds; I was never in doubt over the motivations for people going, and the enthusiasm I saw was relentless, if not infectious. The problem, rather, was that the organisation that facilitated our volunteering, a measurably for-profit American start-up, overcharged for our involvement and under-utilised our enthusiasm. They made no attempt to offset the volunteer’s good deeds, and rather churned through this free labor with indifference. As trite as it sounds, the organisation’s primary concern was not necessarily to improve the quality of life of Guatemalans, but rather to meet its own quotas and targets. Try as I may, I could not for the life of me understand why the company charged me the large sum of money it did to stay in a town where a bottle of water cost 50 cents and a hearty meal from a street vendor $2.00. Most significantly, I found that the difference we made to our project was negligible; these kids’ lives were not qualitatively enriched by our presence, and as the days wore on I realized that our primary role was to be a figure of entertainment (and, as I later realised, a source of money) and not my idealised vision to be a beacon of education and ‘social change’ (whatever that is). Of our objective to teach English, we could only manage a few lessons due to the disparity of ages and therefore ability of the children, something that was not addressed in our orientation, which illustrated to me that the organisation had simply found something to occupy us during our time there, and had put effort little into putting our enthusiasm to good use. Further to this, there were many unforeseen costs, such as when we were required to pay for lunch for the entire day-care each Friday that amounted to over $30 USD per week compounded over a month’s work. The cost was, of course, negligible to us, but it reflects an attitude towards Western volunteers — namely, they are treated as a source of money. The glass-shattering moment for my Canadian friend and me was when the leader of our project, a Guatemalan lady, became very insistent upon our buying homemade souvenirs from her when we were about to leave. It’s quite disheartening that we were there, trying our modest best to make a difference to the lives of Guatemalans, and we were being asked to contribute even more charity on top of our time already spent. It made our stay look considerably cheap, and it left an indelible mark on my experience as a whole.
Such moments confirmed for me that we were not volunteers; we were merely another income stream, another western stereotype akin to tourists who came in for a snapshot of rural Guatemalan life. I found this organisation to be more interested in their own success and indifferent to the effect that their foreign clients have — we the ‘Western’ volunteers, who were willing and able to do good work but were decidedly disappointed by the lack of outlet to do so. Hidden costs, overpriced accommodation, absence of a discernible positive change. These were all features of the growing trend of ‘voluntourism’ of which I unfortunately found myself a representative. And yet, I only mean to verbalise the thoughts I and many other volunteers had throughout our stay: that it was a far cry from the way it had been painted to us by numerous people. There was still a lot to be gained from the trip, but sadly it did not come in the form that I was hoping for. My advice (if I can give it) is this: do volunteering. Spend the time, spend the money, have the experience, make the friends, make the memories. Just don’t forget the pinch of salt.