Volunteering Abroad As A Woman
by Shannon Bardolo
I graduated with a degree in English but like so many graduates, I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do with it. Choices can be limiting, so I decided to do some online research to see what kind of possibilities were out there. Then, I found an opportunity to teach English to students in Lima, Peru for two weeks.
Even though I was out of college, my parents were not very supportive of me going to a foreign country alone. They warned me that it’s dangerous for a woman to travel by herself and I’d heard my share of horror stories from friends who had embarked on different ventures across the globe. But I did my research and I felt safer knowing that I was meeting with a volunteer group once I arrived.
I chose an organization called Cross Cultural Solutions because their program offered both volunteer work as well as free time to explore my surroundings. In total it cost $3000 and that covered everything I would need once I stepped off the plane in Lima. Food, shelter, transportation, everything was taken care of for me. Plus, this organization has locals staying with you so that you are a little more protected.
I chose Peru because I was already familiar with the language and had taken some Spanish classes in school. Even though there are many variations of the language, I knew I’d have a basic understanding of what was going on, something I find crucial when you’re traveling alone. It’s important to take the time and learn key phrases and words before going abroad.
Teaching & Learning
My job was to work in a school and teach four and five year olds some basic English skills. It was in a little village outside of Lima called Villa El Salvador. The kids got dropped off in the mornings by their parents and I remember the first day I met them, there was a huge culture shock when they first saw the way I was dressed. I was wearing khaki pants and a dress shirt but I was told by the end of my first day that the clothes came off as a bit too pretentious and that I should try and adapt my style to suit the customs of the region.
At the end of the day, when all of the instructors made it back to our home base, a little cottage in suburban Lima, I went up to my room and looked in the mirror. I didn’t think I looked fancy but I needed to do something. My suitcases were all packed with the same kinds of clothes, so I went downstairs and talked to the staff cook. She told me where to get some new clothes, so I went to a little open air market a few blocks down and picked up some plain cotton tops and some “better” pants.
Turns out, that was all I needed to do to fit right in and many of the parents gave me the nod of approval. By the fourth night, I had been invited to have dinner at one of the children’s houses. One of the other volunteers told me I shouldn’t go but one of the local volunteers said that it was completely safe. I got the address of the house just in case. I spoke my broken Spanish and they spoke their broken English and dinner was fabulous. The father dropped me off in town after dinner and thanked me for teaching his daughter English and giving her the opportunity to make something of herself.
For the next week and a half, we were driven from our home base to the school in the village. While there was no air conditioning inside the school, we often took walks outside to get some much needed breeze. The children responded really well to the curriculum we had planned and I enjoyed every minute of it.
The program allowed for free time, too. Every evening, and one day each week, we had time to do whatever we wanted. Most of the time, we went in small groups into the city center for dinner and get a taste of the local markets. We were always told to keep our money in our pocket and not carry a purse. Bags were always carried in front of us, but otherwise we never had problems.
Traveling abroad, alone, as a woman helped me to feel more independent. My foremost words of advice are to have an adequate handle on the language, and to always be aware of your surroundings.
Shannon Bardolo of Canada and her husband have made trip planning (www.readersdigest.ca/travel/travel-tips) one of their main projects before settling down and having kids. After traveling the Caribbean and through the United States, they made it on to the British Isles. Right after visiting Italy, they realized they’d have to take 9 months off of traveling. Shannon is now a proud mother of one.