Why did you choose this program?
I knew I wanted to do a volunteer project that has to do with the environment, as I love the outdoors.
Out of the different wildlife and environment conservation programs IVHQ offers, I chose the Wild Elephant Conservation project in Sri Lanka because the country looked very beautiful and I've always had an interest in Buddhism!
What did your program provider (or university) assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?
They helped me figure out everything I needed as far as getting there, travel insurance, vaccinations, visas, and transportation from the airport.
They give you a good packing list and some essential information about the country, including some basics of the language. They can help you find plane tickets as well but I was able to find more affordable ones on my own.
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
Don't go in with too many expectations and plans! I had no idea they were going to be so flexible until I got there, but volunteers are able to change projects and try out different things that they'll learn about when they arrive!
And for any first time travelers like I was, don't make a bucket list. It's cool to have a few things in mind that you want to do or see, but don't go making an itinerary for how you can do all of it. The best adventures will be things you didn't expect.
What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?
I had signed up for the Wild Elephant Conservation project, but ended spending some time at the disabled orphanage as well.
For the special needs project, our coordinators put us on a bus and we spent the morning signing, dancing, and coloring with students in a classroom. At lunch time, we helped feed the girls and clean them up.
We typically had a two hour break to explore and shop in Kandy. We would come back and do a laundry or chores around the center and play with the girls some more before leaving around 3.
On the elephant project, every morning was very different. We did things like digging sand traps in the woods to capture leopard footprints, checking and replacing the batteries of the motion cameras set around the jungle, analyzing elephant dung to track their movements and what they've been eating along the way, meeting with villagers to assess elephant related damage, and using honey bees and citrus fruits to deter elephants away from properties.
We returned to the house for lunch and then had a few hours of downtime before we would take the safari jeep out to a clearing every evening to wait for the elephants to come out and eat! While waiting, we'd sit on blankets and play a ton of fun games. We saw lots of elephants!
Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it and/or how did your views on the issue change?
My biggest fear was getting there. I'd never traveled before, and especially not alone. And it took me three flights to get there so I was really worried about what problems I might encounter in the airports, especially the one where I wasn't sure anyone would speak English!
My flights went really smoothly and there was always someone around to ask for help. I had no problem finding the other volunteers and my ride to the volunteer house when I got there!
The journey home was a lot different. IVHQ doesn't bring you back to the airport, but will arrange a taxi for you. But after two weeks in the country, I was feeling a lot braver than on the way there. Instead of splurging on a taxi, I took a chance taking the bus, then a train, then a tuktuk to the airport! It all went well.
I feel like IVHQ was an amazing option for me as a first time traveler as I had all the help I needed on the way over and then really learned the how-to's of traveling while there so that I could be competent and independent on the way back and plan solo trips in the future!
What's the best thing you took away from this experience?
The best thing about volunteering is the community you become a part of. I gained 40 friends instantly and you wouldn't believe the deep friendships that can develop in a short amount of time when you've just plunged into a foreign city together. It's incredible.
But also, I put off traveling for the longest time because I had no one to go with and a lot of anxiety about how I'd figure it all out. But those 40 new friends are also incredible resources who can help me get to their part of the world and even give me a couch to sleep on!
When you leave from a volunteer trip, you leave with a big, global family. The world becomes a lot smaller and more accessible.