…you are reading this article. Just kidding! Let’s get this out of the way first: you absolutely should volunteer in South America, because 1. Volunteering is awesome, and 2. Latin America is even more awesome. However, volunteers often have with a fixed idea in their heads of exactly what they’re going to do and how they’re going to save the world – except, when they arrive, they find that the reality doesn’t allow them to accomplish that. This can lead to frustration and even feeling that the whole thing is a waste of time, which (spoiler!) it’s probably not.
Still, it’s important to have realistic expectations about some challenges you may encounter, so that you’re prepared to deal with them and work within the system you encounter without letting it ruin your life. This is especially true when it comes to cultural challenges, which are often the ones we’re least prepared for. So, if you're really unfriendly and standoffish, here’s why you should perhaps avoid volunteering in South America.
...If you’re on a diet. Or don’t eat carbs.
I religiously follow the belief that Travel Time = Eat Everything in Sight Time. Granted, I’m lucky enough not to have any allergies or other complications that prevent me from eating anything, but even putting aside things like lactose intolerance or inability to eat gluten, traveling is not for counting calories – and even less so in South America, which seems custom-designed to torpedo even the most well-planned diets.Photo Credit: Greenheart Travel
First of all, most large meals across South America are based on the holy trinity of meat, rice and some other heaping serving of starch. Some countries, like Argentina, vary from this formula, but they more than make up for it with their massive slabs of beef.
As if overwhelming lunches weren’t enough, there’s the street food: empanadas, arepas, grilled corn, popsicles, sliced mango, roasted peanuts, and so on. You can hardly walk a block without encountering the siren song of some delicious snack or another.
And that’s not even mentioning dessert: sweet ice cream in Argentina, sugary Mexican churros, dark Peruvian chocolate. Sure, the fruit here is so good that you could get by just eating that – but why ever would you want to? If you really expect to make it back from your volunteer time without the addition of an extra pound or two, you’d better start looking for a program that involves running up and down mountains, because you’re going to need the exercise.
...If you don't like making friends
This is not a region for antisocial people. I’m pretty sure they kick out all of the unfriendly people at birth, exile them to Tierra del Fuego or somewhere equally far away, or at least do an excellent job of hiding them. Most of the time, you won’t have a choice about talking to strangers, because they’ll start talking to you first. This is somewhat more true in smaller towns and varies from one country to another (everyone has opinions about which countries are the most and least friendly), but is almost universally more true than it is in the U.S.
New Yorkers may actually have extreme culture shock just from the friendliness. While this can be frustrating when you’ve had a long day and you just want to put in your headphones and spend an hour on the bus in peace, it’s a great way to make friends, get more involved in activities and practice your language skills. If you want to improve your Spanish while you’re here, what better way to do so than by speaking to people all the time? You have to be somewhat willing to make a fool of yourself and to answer the same questions about life in your home country approximately 9,000 times, but chances are you’ll end up meeting some really interesting people and maybe even making some great friends, just by standing behind them in line at the grocery store.
If you really expect to make it back from your volunteer time without the addition of an extra pound or two, you’d better start looking for a program that involves running up and down mountains, because you’re going to need the exercise.
...If you expect anything to be on time
You’re in the wrong place. There is pretty much nothing more to say about this, except that nothing will ever be on time, ever. Okay, international flights, maybe, but nothing else. Buses will be late. Meetings will be late. Friends will always be late. Checks at restaurants will take forever to arrive. Paperwork will get processed a week after it was due. This goes for paychecks, too, but fortunately as a volunteer, that isn’t something you need to worry about! Silver linings and so on.
Photo Credit: Greenheart Travel
While it might drive you crazy for a while, you will eventually have to face that you can’t fight this system. There are so many factors that contribute to it (weather, traffic, public transportation systems, culture, last-minute changes of plans) that even if you manage to solve one issue, another one will surely come up. And the worst part is, even if you’re a punctual person, you will start arriving late. You’ll probably blame the traffic, or the rain, and everyone will understand. You should still try to get places on time, though, especially as a volunteer. Though lateness here tends to be seen more as a product of the environment and less as the very American interpretation of a lack of respect, it still looks better when you show up on time for your commitments. Save the lateness for meeting friends at the movies.
...If you enjoy personal space
Everyone who has ever traveled pretty much anywhere that isn’t Germany should understand this one. Sometimes you just have to get somewhere, and so do the 100 other people on the bus that’s built for 40 people, and that’s the way it is. I have had more intense physical contact with strangers on public transportation than I have with most of my friends and even a few people I’ve dated. Obviously there’s a line between your average pushing and shoving in a crowded space and actual invasion of your personal space and rights, but for the most part, it’s just that there tend to be a lot of people in a not-very-large area.
Most other people in the world don’t share our Anglo squeamishness about maintaining personal bubbles at all times and are less conscious about bumping into you, standing right next to you or putting their hand atop yours on the subway (this can be particularly alarming when you’re not paying attention). This is often true in personal relationships, too – both families and friends tend to be more physically affectionate with one another than English speakers. You might see family members or close female friends holding hands walking down the street. Your friend might lean over to fix your hair, or your students might hug you at the beginning and end of every day (this is also a fun one, especially when the students are high-schoolers). Above all, it’s important to maintain your comfort level, and to immediately remove yourself from any situation where you feel like your physical safety is threatened at all, but keep in mind that there’s a reason people think we non-hugging gringos are so emotionally cold.
...If you’re easily bothered by personal questions
In my time living in Colombia, I have been asked my age, my marital status, whether I have children, if I have a boyfriend, where I’m from, where I live, where I work, how much money I make, if I’m pregnant, if I’m planning on getting pregnant, if I’ve had plastic surgery, if I’m rich, if I’ve lost weight, if I’ve gained weight, if this is my natural hair color, if I’m Catholic, and so on – mostly by people I’ve just met.Photo Credit: Greenheart Travel
While most people from English-speaking countries tend to grow up learning that these kinds of questions are better left unasked unless you know the other person really well (and even then, some of them are still off-limits), that filter largely does not exist here in Latin America. If people want to know something about you, they will ask you. This extends to the traditional great taboos of politics, religion and money, too.
Though you may initially be shocked to be asked something that you’ve learned is not up for discussion, it’s important to recognize that people are almost never trying to offend you – though the pregnant one is a bit hard to let slide. Still, just because we learn that some things are off-limits doesn’t mean it’s true everywhere, and what you might see as nosy questions are probably just coming from a place of genuine curiosity and a desire to get to know you. If it drives you that crazy, you can always make index cards with the answers on them.
It’s important to have realistic expectations about some challenges you may encounter, so that you’re prepared to deal with them and work within the system you encounter without letting it ruin your life. This is especially true when it comes to cultural challenges, which are often the ones we’re least prepared for.
The truth is, volunteering in any Latin American country will be a fabulous experience. Whether you prefer the sights and sounds of Mexico, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Peru, Chile, Argentina, or Brazil, there's an awesome volunteer experience out there with your name on it. Be picky when choosing your volunteer program, and support a cause that you truly believe in.
While many of these characteristics are undoubtedly not specific to South America, it’s almost certain that you’ll encounter some of this during your time volunteering abroad here. Part of the joy and growth that comes from spending time abroad is that it does challenge you and force you to deal with situations that may not always be completely comfortable for you. So even if you’re positive that every single one of these things will drive you absolutely bonkers, despite what the title says, you should still volunteer in Central or South America. Maybe you’ll find that stopping at a café helps you deal with people being late, or that you like the newfound social acceptability of grilling people about their personal lives. Plus, there’s so much that’s wonderful about this region that you can’t let a few intrusions of your personal bubble ruin it for you!