Am I cut out for volunteering abroad?
January 26, 2013 6:38 AM   Subscribe

I have a golden opportunity to volunteer in rural Nepal for 3 months with an established organisation. I was excited at first as I've never been to a developing country before, but now I'm terrified that I'll die in a bus accident/food poisoning/rabies/political uprising, or just not cope with lack of technology, contact with home, electricity etc. Are such fears normal, or are these signs that I probably wouldn't enjoy this and should consider not going?

It's a good opportunity on paper - cost is minimal and all logistics are cared for; the charity has been running in Nepal for 20 years; we will be paired with a local (bilingual) volunteer and staying with a family so it'll be a fantastic cultural insight; the project content interests me (sexual health, which fits in with my long-term goals of working as a public health physician). But it's also very rural, there may not be any internet connection or mobile coverage, and most people probably won't speak English.

I'm very culturally curious and am definitely not afraid of new cultures, living alone abroad, homesickness etc (I've done months-long stints before, albeit in Europe, China etc). However, the country was allocated to me so Nepal had never been on my 'must-go' places before, and now that the opportunity is more real I feel more anxious than excited - I understand that it's unlikely that I'll be in a life-threatening situation, but I'm more worried that I'll just constantly be anxious and just not enjoy new experiences (e.g. flying in a tiny aeroplane -> worry it'll crash in the mountains; travelling on a bus -> worry I'll get horrifically travelsick; exotic food -> get an upset stomach that won't require hospitalisation but just make me miserable, etc).

In general I'm very open to new experiences, but the minute there is an inkling of risk I always start to overthink it. The point of going abroad was to try and change some of this mentality, but perhaps I'm just not cut out for this kind of thing? If you've gone abroad before and felt similar to me before going, how did you overcome it? Did anyone ever regret going? Are there any things about the programme I should check before I commit? If you also had any Nepal-specific advice that would be great. Thanks!

Possibly relevant info:
- I'm female, Oriental and early 20s with no obligations (am on a gap year with med school lined up, fairly financially secure etc).
- I'm not particularly physically strong, and tend to succumb to illnesses or things like altitude sickness more frequently than others. Probably won't be doing the Everest trek...!
- Regarding ethics of volunteering - I am under no illusion that I will be 'helping people' etc. It's primarily for my own benefit to expand my perspectives, and perhaps spur a motivation to work in development in the long-term future when I *will* be able to offer more professional help. Having said that, please do speak up if you think this would be a misdirected use of my time/money.
posted by pikeandshield to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you will regret not taking advantage of this opportunity, and that your fears are normal. I mean, I remember breaking down in a shopping mall in Los Angeles when I was out there looking for apartments because I was so freaked out about moving to a different part of my own country. Change is scary, and this will be a big change, for sure, but it is temporary and the learning experience would be (to me, anyway) invaluable and probably life-changing. You might go through an adjustment period when you first get there where you have doubts and worry that you've made a terrible mistake, so don't be too worried if that happens - it will probably fade over a few days or so and you'll start to be able to appreciate where you are and what you're experiencing.

Also, if you get there and are miserable, there isn't any reason you can't go home.
posted by something something at 6:53 AM on January 26, 2013

I worked in Japan for two years, and when I was taking the train back to the airport after accepting the job, I had that horrible sinking dread that I had made the wrong decision.

I had a great time living in Japan, but I guess there had all of the appropriate internet trappings and such.

I also spent a summer (2 months) on some small Pacific islands with horrible internet (and no connectivity at home), and that was also quite fine. It did kind of suck not having internet that was sub-dialup speed, but I adapted. I read books and relaxed when I wasn't at work.

I think for 3 months you'll probably fine, and even if you feel miserable on one day or another, you have that bright deadline to keep you grounded.

And if you're afraid of bus-sickness, take some dramamine with you!
posted by that girl at 7:01 AM on January 26, 2013

Many underestimate their ability to adapt to new environments and vast changes. The fact that you're as interested as you are in this experience hints that you'll make the most of it, learn so much, and miss it afterward.

Rather than worrying about going to Nepal, I'd be more concerned about culture shock coming back home to the extravagance of the first world.
posted by horizonseeker at 7:08 AM on January 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's OK to have some concerns and if possible it would be a good idea to meet with one of the leaders of the trip and talk to them about safety issues like the ones you describe. They will be able to tell you what things you need to be careful about, what things are just unfounded worries, and what other things you might want to know that you haven't even thought of. Hopefully this would help allay your fears some and make you feel more in control and more prepared.

That said, you ought to find a way to put aside some of your fear and turn it into just sort of a healthy awareness of things that you should be careful of. You definitely would do well to go into your trip being as informed as possible, but you should also remember that many billions of people live in the less-developed parts of the world every day (most as residents, some as one kind of visitor or another) and very few of them die on any given day. There are dangers to be aware of, but you should not be afraid.

You should definitely go! This is not a type of experience most of us over here get to have, and it is going to be a powerful one. I bet it will even help you develop a colder ane more calculating approach to risk, and help you develop some confidence in the very area that you seem to be having some trouble woth right now. Go for that reason if nothing else. You will regret it if you do not take this opportunity.

TL;DR: Don't be paranoid, be prapared.
posted by Scientist at 7:20 AM on January 26, 2013

You sound like a very independent person who just has a hangup about going somewhere less developed. Which is exactly why you should go -- the best part of travel is getting comfortable with things that scare you!

Not to minimize any risks or say you shouldn't prepare, but it sounds like you are going about this in exactly the right way.
posted by _Silky_ at 8:24 AM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Challenge yourself. You can do it. You'll only regret a missed opportunity.
You're at a prime time in your life to take a risk and do something different. Some day you might have a career you're afraid to lose or children you can't leave and you won't be able to pursue an opportunity like this.
Also, 3 months sounds like a long time but it will fly by. If you hate it, it was such a tiny portion of your life and you'll still learn something from it. If you love it, you'll cherish those memories everyday for the rest o your life and who knows where it might lead you next?
Good luck and I hope you go for it!
posted by IdRatherNotSay at 8:31 AM on January 26, 2013

Go! Go go go go go! Don't think about it too much on a scary emotional level-- make all your preparations thorough but try not to dwell on it. Then get on the plane, and THEN if you need to you can freak out... but I find that once I'm there headed for a new adventure, excitement takes over and mostly I'll just be thrilled that I'm jumping feet first into something new.

Three months is not that long. You are going to have an awesome time! And I bet you will also come back with some of those worries erased for next time. If the thread is still open then, I'd love to hear how it went.
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:06 AM on January 26, 2013

Go! You'll have fun.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 9:17 AM on January 26, 2013

I did volunteer work in Africa for 1.5 years and when I read these two points in your post, they made me think that you will be fine.

1.) The fact, that you are afraid.
2.) You know it's primarily for you and not for "helping people".

I briefly explain why I thought this. What concerns being afraid, there are real risks, and it is good to be aware of them. I don't think so much of flying in a small plane --- you know it will not crash and you will get on board and be scared anyway and it will be fine. But there are other real risks to your health and safety, and it's important to be scared, and to acknowledge that you are scared, in order to say "NO" when you want and should say no. It's easy to get confused about your own boundaries when you are challenged with a dozen new and unforeseeable situations every day. Particularly, don't try to "not offend" someone by agreeing to things that you would not agree to under normal circumstances. It also means that if your stay doesn't go well, then allow yourself to leave. It's more important that you respect your own boundaries than not to dissapoint your own or anybody elses expectations.
Which leads to the second point, from my own experiences and from observing others, the biggest problems arise when the "I go and safe the world" idealistic expectations clash with reality. Because you are a tourist, and you take advantage of the possibility to travel to a foreign culture for you own good, and most likely the organisation or your host family will have a financial benefit from it but not a benefit from "you helping them". As a three-month volunteer you most likely cause more work than you do work. Being aware of that will spare you the reality clash problem. That's not to say, that the people won't enjoy having you there, most people are really open and friendly and like meeting foreigners.
Another remark: don't forget that they have been receiving volunteers for 20 years and they have seen it all. There is probably no emotion or behaviour that you can have or show that they won't know how to respond to and help you with. And if you are not sure about something, if it's safe to drink this water, or take this public transport, then ask.
Please go, it will rock your world, and it will be painful at times, but it also has to, how else can real changes in thoughts and attitudes occur?
Here is a quote by Henry Rollins that I saw the other day and thought hits it spot on
" I beg young people to travel. If you don't have a passport, get one. Take a summer, get a backpack and go to Delhi, go to Saigon, go to Bangkok, go to Kenya. Have your mind blown. Eat interesting food. Dig some interesting people. Have an adventure. Be careful. Come back and you're going to see your country differently, you're going to see your president differently, no matter who it is. Music, culture, food, water. Your showers will become shorter. You're going to get a sense of what globalization looks like. It's not what Tom Friedman writes about; I'm sorry. You're going to see that global climate change is very real. And that for some people, their day consists of walking 12 miles for four buckets of water. And so there are lessons that you can't get out of a book that are waiting for you at the other end of that flight. A lot of people-Americans and Europeans-come back and go, Ohhhhh. And the light bulb goes on."
posted by Okapi at 9:18 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I suspect you'll regret it for the rest of your life if you don't go.
posted by zug at 9:37 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I say, "Do it!" And if you get a bit homesick, schlep into Kathmandu or Pokhara and go get some eggs bennie at Mike's Breakfast.
posted by whitewall at 9:53 AM on January 26, 2013

Yea, I'd be more worried if you weren't scared! I was so nervous about my cross continental move that I literally worried myself sick on the flight over. Granted, I moved to another "first world" country, but people here still don't quite speak my language on a daily basis and it's enough of a culture shock (though not as much as when I went to study abroad in China for 4 months), but the experience has been great so far.

Do bring stuff you most likely won't get over there. And by stuff, I mainly mean medicine and maybe a few things that'll remind you of home if you do get homesick. Peptol-Bismol, Dramamine (or gravol), and Immodium are some ones for food poisoning!

Don't over think it! Goooooo!
posted by astapasta24 at 10:04 AM on January 26, 2013

Completely, completely normal. I took on one of these "Out of comfort zone" challenges 18 months ago and was SO excited when the opportunity was offered to me. At that stage (let's call it the Golden Opportunity Stage), it was just an abstract idea in which I could mentally cast a partly fictional me, having a dreamy time and sailing through it all like a great swashbuckling adventurer.

Then a few weeks before I went, when I actually had to start thinking about how the real me would cope with specific, day-to-day events, I was utterly plagued with doubt and fear, mostly about very specific doomsday scenarios, much like you seem to be. I was nervous like that right up until it started and probably a little bit afterwards, but never thought about not going, because I knew lots of people had done the same thing as me and survived and I was human just like them.

Once it started it was OK, not without challenges (which generally weren't the ones I anticipated) and now I'm really glad I did it. The specific fears I had in advance seem daft and melodramatic in retrospect. The actual challenges I dealt with by breaking time down into tiny units to avoid feeling overwhelmed. "I just need to get through whatever happens in the next hour" is a much better way to cope in tough moments than constantly thinking "I have to be brilliant at every aspect of this for the next three months, or it's all been the wrong decision."

One other strange but wonderful thing to remember in moments that you find it hard is that you can have extraordinary experiences which you don't particularly enjoy, but which will in fact turn into wonderful, wonderful memories.

There are trips I've made in the past that I now love to look back on, and can mentally relive with enormous pleasure, even though I know at the time I was terrified.

None of this is to say that you will have a terrible time, by the way! Just that if there do turn out to be a few tough moments, you can deal with it. Try and avoid being too black and white about the experience when you're in the middle of it. None of that "I'm not cut out for this" or "I shouldn't have come, the fact I'm not enjoying it today means I'll always think this trip was a mistake". Just "This is happening. Huh."

Feel free to MeMail me if you'd like to.
posted by penguin pie at 10:07 AM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was going to say, "Eh, you'll be fine!" until I got to the part where you mentioned

altitude sickness

If you find that you're susceptible to altitude sickness, I would not choose Nepal for a three month international volunteer stint. Or, if you feel like you're really dead set on it, do some research into what altitude you'll be working in, if you'll be required to travel to other parts of Nepal that may be at high altitude, etc. I'm not sure that all of Nepal is altitude sickness territory, but I know that a lot of the Himalayas is.

On everything else other than altitude sickness:

Go! You'll be fine! This will be a great opportunity for you to expand your horizons and get over some of your fears, which are mostly nothing to worry about.

flying in a tiny aeroplane -> worry it'll crash in the mountains; travelling on a bus -> worry I'll get horrifically travelsick; exotic food -> get an upset stomach that won't require hospitalisation but just make me miserable

In terms of getting over anxieties like these, I think it's best to unpack them and think rationally about what the trip will actually involve.

Will you have to fly on a tiny plane through the mountains? I've traveled in a lot of developing countries and never had to do that. Nepal is a small country, and major airlines serve Kathmandu, the city you're most likely to fly into.

Do you normally get motion sickness traveling on buses? What have you done when you've traveled overland in the past? If this is a problem you tend to have traveling overland in mountainous areas (switchbacks and such), you might want to rethink whether Nepal is the right choice for you. Analogous to the altitude sickness thing. On the other hand, definitely evaluate how much long distance mountainous bus travel is really going to be involved.

You mention exotic food. Do you even know what the cuisine of Nepal is like? Are you sure it's going to be "exotic" to you?

When I was traveling in the Himalayas, the local cuisine seemed very similar to foods I'd eaten before in other contexts. Especially with you being ethnically Asian and having traveled in China before, I doubt this is going to be a big problem for you. The foods I remember eating are momos (a type of dumpling very similar to gyoza) and lots of noodle dishes and soups that were very reminiscent of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cuisines.

I don't recall it being terribly spicy (though the momos came with a hot dipping sauce), and there wasn't anything off the wall crazy weird*. The climate of the area means that most foods are going to be cooked and served hot, which take a big weight off your shoulders in terms of the usual food concerns of people traveling in developing countries -- the big problems come when you're in Mexico and that avocado salad looks so tempting in the heat.

*Except for the legendary "butter tea", which is an acquired taste. I enjoyed it, but most people I know who've traveled in the Himalayas dislike it. You can probably decline it politely if you find you don't enjoy it. It's not likely to make you sick unless you drink too much, as I did, and then a pepto bismol will clear that right up. (It's the same heartburn you'll get from overeating any rich fatty food.)
posted by Sara C. at 10:34 AM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Definitely go. You will not regret it. You're right to be wary of transportation risks, but those exist everywhere. The fact that you are wary will help to protect you. You may not need to take long distance bus rides. When feasible it is best to take private hired transport where you know and trust the driver. But yes, your fears are normal!

I help to run a volunteer program abroad (in a developing country, rural location similar to the one you describe with no electricity and no running water) that has hosted over 250 volunteers, so I've had ample opportunity to see how people react to this sort of experience. I would not be so arrogant as to say none of them have regretted it. Every year, several of the volunteers get into some sort of trouble - often this is with drugs, alcohol, or sex. I strongly advise not getting into any romantic relationship while on the trip. After 10 years of doing this I have never seen such a relationship work out well, although I'm sure there are exceptions... people are very vulnerable in situations like this and it spurs them to do things they may not have done otherwise. Avoid these pitfalls and you'll be likely to do well.

My number one tip to you is to push yourself to get out and interact with people. It is going to be the hardest thing because they probably won't speak much English and you probably won't speak much Nepalese. Try HARD to learn some conversational Nepalese. Start now with learning it! You will be amazed at how much can be communicate between people who are trying to interact with one another with limited language, and you will gain so much more from the trip if you really try to interact with the people around you. Ask them to show you things and teach you the names of foods and plants and other things around the house. Ask them to teach you how to cook Nepalese food, how to wash laundry by hand, whatever it is that you want to learn. You can learn many things without being fluent in another person's language, trust me. You will leave with a much richer understanding of the people and culture, of how cross-cultural communication can and should work. You can have a great experience without doing this, but if you do this, you will be much more likely to have a mind-blowing/life changing experience.

Also, just as a side note I am a physician and my experience like this completely changed my life and career and has benefited me in ways I probably still don't understand the full implications of.... I would recommend it to anyone (that is why I have been facilitating other people to do this sort of thing for so long since my first trip!).
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:02 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do you know that you have issues with altitude sickness specifically, or do you just worry you might? Because that seems like the most legitimately concern-worthy of the potential problems you raise.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:25 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

These fears are so, so normal. I think it's actually good that you are having them, as you are not romanticizing the situation you'll be in.

Lots of Nepal is not altitude-sickness territory.

I was actually a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. It was way back in the 90s, so my information on the country is far from current (among other things, they've had a Maoist revolution and the crown prince murdered most of the royal family since I was there). On the other hand, I doubt things change too much in the village, so do feel free to MeMail me if you'd like.

But seriously. Go. Some of the stuff you are worried about will be hard--you might feel isolated, get sick, etc.--but it will be so, so worth it. I can't even begin to tell you just how much.
posted by tiger tiger at 1:47 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Absolutely normal! Heck, I have them every time I travel to another country, including Japan and the U.K., and I spent part of my childhood in the back of beyond in a third-world African country.
posted by telophase at 3:13 PM on January 26, 2013

i spent 3 1/2 weeks in nepal doing volunteer work in a rural area about 20 minutes outside katmandu with a team (on a mission). i'd barely even heard of the country before then! the people were lovely, the food good, & katmandu makes new york city look slow in its own crazy way so make sure to visit it. chances are there will be more people that speak english even in the rural areas than you realize, especially at the organization you will be at.

once you are over the initial shock of not having all your gadgets you will probably love being disconnected from the internet, phone, etc. if that is the case. there might be an internet cafe somewhere though. i went before cell phones were as common as they are today and the internet was kinda new but i still remember feeling so refreshed being on a media fast.

are there any people who have gone on this trip before that you can talk to? i'd inquire about that. and yes, take lots of basic health stuff like the pink stuff, protein bars, hand wipes, neosporin etc. make sure you get all your shots and you should be fine. the developing world really isn't scary or risky when you are with an established group.

let us know if you decide to go and i really hope you do. i later went to india on another short trip and it's a part of the world that i really enjoyed.
posted by wildflower at 3:46 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much for the answers so far - I'm starting to get more courage! Please do keep them coming. I'm not sure exactly where in Nepal I'll be going to yet (they have multiple locations) but some are in the far west, quite far from Kathmandu and which I figured may involve domestic flights and/or long bus journeys.

Regarding altitude sickness - I only had it once, when I took the ropeway to the top of the Mont Blanc from the base in about 45 mins. Presumably the lack of time to gradually acclimatise was the main factor here - though nobody else in my group felt it. On a similar vein, I'm not scared of heights itself but more about my perceived danger to it (for example I hated taking this up the Great Wall of China but was completely fine with this). At this level of concern would you still say that Nepal may be inadvisable?
posted by pikeandshield at 5:50 PM on January 26, 2013

I wouldn't worry about altitude sickness based on one experience of sudden ascent, if it were me.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:56 PM on January 26, 2013

I think it's probably fine.

If you have an absolute phobia of flying or you know for sure that you get unbearably carsick on buses, maybe think seriously about the practical aspects. Same for altitude sickness -- do your research, prepare to take all the precautions, pay close attention to how you're feeling as you ascend, and know in advance what you'll do if you have to descend due to your health.

But I don't think any of those reasons are good enough to simply not go at all. You'll be fine, and your life will be richer for the experience.
posted by Sara C. at 5:58 PM on January 26, 2013

I have a phobia about heights. This is something that just...never came up when I lived in Nepal.

No one's going to be sending you up a mountain with no time to acclimatize altitude-wise, but even more likely, you are not even going to be in a place where this will be an issue.

I'm not going to lie to you, the long bus journeys suck, and flying is safer than taking a bus. (I always heard that the Royal Nepal Airline pilots were among the best in the world, although I don't know if that's true or not.) But, I mean, I didn't die and neither did anyone I know. Here, we're starting to get into the territory of "you could step out your front door at home and be run over by a bus tomorrow."

I had anxiety around all kinds of minor issues before I went. I also had a needle phobia and was terrified of all the shots I knew I'd have to get (got over that when I had to get eight million immunizations). I was freaked out by the possibility of squat toilets. I was distressed I'd have to eat rice and lentils every day. I didn't know how I'd cope with not being able to shower and bathe regularly.

It was all fine. You'll be able to laugh about some of your fears later. Some of your fellow volunteers are having the same fears, or their own irrational meltdowns.

FWIW, anytime I get on a plane and especially when I head off on a trip to a foreign country, a part of me is convinced I'm going to die. The other part of me knows this is irrational.

Nepal is a lovely country with lovely people.
posted by tiger tiger at 12:22 AM on January 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thank you so much everyone - I've decided to go. When you see me post again in about 6 months' time you'll know I survived the trip! ;-)
posted by pikeandshield at 4:44 PM on January 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Nepal is great. You will be fine, just becareful of what you eat. Follow standard travel clinic med check ups. Don't drink tap water. I was recently in Nepal and met with other travelers who were in medicine doing a ap year similar to you. Plenty of opps tere it seem. Good luck, have fun! Check out the annapurna region if you have time :)
posted by melizabeth at 8:20 PM on January 27, 2013

« Older Lifetime Learning Credit or Similar?   |   Why isn't my husband interested in what I do? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.