Volunteering: has the once unthinkable become almost normal?

‘Volunteering’, I used to think it had just one clear meaning. And originally I’d started this trip with a rule, not to pay for work, my moral compass was set. It seemed fair not to pay, especially when compared with my parent’s generation who often referred to my numerous volunteering spurts as acts of slavery. Turns out volunteering has many diverse and complex definitions and I soon came to realize that when living from a house made of straps and zips and with no constant income these rules become ever more slightly jaded and, confusing.

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Loja bus station, Ecuador

We’d breezed through Argentina and Bolivia picking up volunteering as we went, it was easy. We could stay as long as we wanted in inspirational and educational places and not spend a penny. Then we arrived in Peru and how unstable the pins in my moral compass became, things didn’t quite have the same fluidity. The rules expanded and twisted and turned around each other in their growth. Like the vines of a tree trying to find their sunny endpoint, I’ve been trying to find where my moral compass will point. In which circumstances is paying for volunteering ok?

When in Peru, passed the Inka enriched area of Lake Titicaca and into the Colca canyon of Arequipa, I could only find volunteering tagged with a minimum $5 a day price tag without food or $10 a day with, and others reaching up to $200+ a week. Relatively $5-$10 per day is not much money but morally I had already decided and I found myself stunted. So I turned to my fellow travelers, surely with that collective knowledge I would get somewhere. Some, had a strong opinion that they would never ‘pay to work´. Others thought that $10 a day was great. It was described as “an exchange, you offer your help and gain an experience in return”. And one replied with this, “I have never volunteered Hannah. Ever. I met a young woman in Tibet once, English, got an MBE at 35 for setting up an NGO to help underprivileged kids outside Lhasa. I asked her about volunteers and paying and how it seemed all wrong to me. ´But they are a pain in the arse, Ian,´ she said. ‘You spend half your time training them to do something and then they do it badly. Frankly I would prefer never to have volunteers.´ My compass pins were no less unpredictable and it seemed everyone had different thresholds and understandings of what volunteering means.

I noticed a demographic emerging, changing with the price tag. Which made me ask, are the people that can afford to pay the only ones that can help? And then are only certain people exposed to nature, conservation and the wild, and the rest exempt from places and experiences enriched in practical learning and teaching. In an ideal world the funding would come from elsewhere, a wealthy anonymous donor perhaps, giving access to all no matter what your economic status. One Portuguese man we worked with in the refuge zoo, Bolivia, felt the $300 a month puma rescue park we were considering going to was strictly reserved for a certain type of traveler with a certain amount of money. On the permaculture farm the owners had never hosted Bolivians, only travelers. And on my most recent and most expensive volunteering experience at a cost of $10 a day, in the jungle town Tena of Ecuador, there was certainly more English spoken than Spanish and more European roots spreading through the jungle undergrowth.

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Volunteering in Tena, Ecuador. ‘Wisdom Forest’

Then a fellow traveler sent me an article on highflying internships, at a cost of $10,000 you can find yourself a summer placement “including housing, resume polishing and excursions, but not airfare or visas”. In the hope that securing a job post graduation will be a little less painstaking, it seems a grand price to pay. And as one expert agrees “it seems these internships are yet another way that the internship economy reinforces privilege, making the once unthinkable seem almost normal – people paying thousands of dollars to work”. Now, this put my situation into perspective. Compared to paying thousands of dollars to a private company that could afford to pay me I got thinking about where my money would be going in South America. Ecuador has one of the highest hourly minimum wages in the continent at US$2.48 while in Peru it is US$1.32 and Colombia US$1.63, for a Peruvian or Colombian family providing volunteers with food and a rentable room might actually prove more expensive than employing labour. When at home and volunteering you are lucky to receive one hot meal and maybe a cup of tea, let alone a room to sleep in and three meals a day. Volunteering here and volunteering at home seem to take on two different meanings, here it seems to merge into a hybrid of relaxed working.

Vounteering in South America whilst travelling is in one light a way to save money, but the unique eclectic experiences that accumulate along the way hold much more weight than anything material. José Cajas and his native family whom I worked with building cabañas from natural material in Otavalo, Ecuador, say on their volunteer page “We do need help with the construction, but more than this, we want to talk to you and learn from you, we really want to share recipes. Everything will be free because your support is enough. You just need to provide your own food.” When an experience is of mutual benefit, both culturally and financially, for the traveller and the host a steady frame is set for a fruitful venture. If however it seems a profit or an exploitation is being made from either party it will make for a wobbly exchange. It is down to the individual to find where that point of exploitation is for them. My pins seem to have settled. For $5 a day and a few hours of work in exchange for a room, three meals and a perspective changing experience I am content. However when you find a good place you’ll know, and when you do I think its good to stay, because you never quite know what you might encounter at the next place along the way.

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Volunteering in Otavalo, Ecuador, building Cabañas with the Cajas family