People who travel abroad tend to have big ideas and visions for themselves, the world, and the future. That is an incredibly important trait in cultivating peace in the world, but it can be a double-edged sword.
It is important to manage expectations and set goals based on the skills, experience, and resources you have. On top of whatever goals you wish to accomplish, you will be faced with language barriers and cultural challenges. Something as small as changes in your daily routine or travel delays can greatly affect how and when you accomplish your goals.
I joined my first international volunteer project when I was 14. My team was tasked with aiding in the early planning stages of a sports facility in Senegal. At the time, I dreamed of a beautiful basketball court and kids hugging and thanking me for my contribution, but with so little experience or understanding of the region, I was limited in what I could do. My most important task during my month in Senegal was passing out water balloons at a local celebration. Instead of getting frustrated with my lack of “important” responsibilities, I tasked myself with learning as much as I could in order to help -- I spent many hot days reading about global poverty, conflict, and Senegalese traditions. I also learned some of the local language. Looking back, these are the foundations upon which I learned how to contribute more effectively in my future travels.
Like many long-term travelers, I had hoped to visit a country and make drastic sweeping changes as soon as we arrive or within only one month. It is admirable to want to help so much, but it’s important to remember everything you do is within a community of people who already have their own proven system for getting things done. You must respect that and operate within their frameworks. After you have spent some time getting to know the language and cultural norms, ask the locals how you can be of service to them. This way, you can set up realistic expectations about your work and what you can get done. Everything else you do in your time abroad is simply icing on the cake!