When my friends Matt and Caro, from Passport and a Toothbrush set off for their around-the-world journey, they knew it could quite possibly be a life-changing experience. Their epic adventure has taken them from Western to Eastern Europe and across some of the most developing communities in Asia. Along the way, they learned they could leave a lasting impact with just a few small acts of kindness in each of the places they visit.
Fresh from their travels, and in their first interview since their return home to Canada, Matt and Caro share their experience and tell us why you don’t need to save the whole world to make a big difference.
You’ve been on an amazing RTW adventure together for nearly a year! What kind of volunteer experiences did you decide to include in your itinerary?
We knew we wanted to challenge ourselves on the trip so we started out with a 2-week workstay at an eco hostel in Portugal. This quenched our thirst for more, leading to a few weeks farming in rural Turkey and later, two months in the Khao Sok region of Thailand where we filmed a feature on the community and occasionally taught English at the local school.
Why did you choose these types of volunteer work?
As much as we love to travel, tourism can have a very negative impact on communities. People often pay to travel to exotic locales and yet there is no genuine exchange between the traveler and the hosts. We wanted to make sure, when possible, to meet locals and get a radical experience abroad. We weren’t out to save the world – we simply wanted to build relationships with communities abroad which is a very enriching experience for both the traveler and locals.
What personal challenges did you face, and which others may encounter too?
While in Thailand, we were the only westerners living in the village. No one spoke English, except for a few words, and at first were seen as novelty. To be constantly stared at and for people to assume we were just tourists passing by (or lost!) was frustrating. But with time, people started realizing we were sticking around for a while! It let people rid themselves of Western stereotypes and let us in on local life.
What did you learn about the people you met and the communities you immersed yourself in?
Not the whole world needs to be saved and that’s okay. For example, there is nothing that makes us cringe more than people who travel and assume that every local child is poor and in need of a saviour. The lifestyle may be different (read: simpler) abroad but this doesn’t mean local people are unhappy and leading a very hard life. Open your mind to the thought that others are leading lovely lives without so many worldly possessions; we could learn a lot from them!
Do you have a favourite experience?
I (Caro) absolutely loved learning to cook Turkish food at the farm. It wasn’t easy to be allowed into the kitchen with all of the Turkish women cooking. Western volunteers were usually working on field work. However, on our last day one of our hosts invited me to learn how to cook a burek and it was a blast. I felt officially accepted!
What has been the most rewarding moment?
Simply being in Thailand was rewarding. It’s a country so saturated with backpackers heading to island parties, so foreigners often get a bad rep. As the first volunteers EVER in the village, we were able to lead by example showing that it is possible to build strong friendships with visitors.
Do you have any advice to others thinking of volunteering on their travels?
Each region of the world seems to have their own way of working with volunteers. If you want to volunteer in Asia, simply show up. NGOs will often ignore e-mail requests as they’re often from young people who later flake out. If you show up, it shows you’re committed. As for volunteering in Europe in hostels or farms, we loved using work-stay websites like Workaway that let us create a profile and contact people soliciting for help.
You don’t need to save the world
Oddly enough, think small. You don’t need to be on a “feed all the children of the world” mission. Instead, look at how you can make smaller, direct acts of goodness. I’ll leave you with a quote from Mother Teresa: “We can do no great things – only small things with great love.”
Matt and Caro are a Canadian couple who set out on a ’round-the-world adventure in 2012. They blog about their journey at Passport and a Toothbrush, showing you it is possible to travel on a budget. You can also follow them on Twitter or Facebook.