My name is Jingying Chan, and I recently volunteered abroad with Maximo Nivel in Peru. In the past, I volunteered in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Zimbabwe and recently Ecuador, in many different capacities. Programs ranged from microfinance, wildlife conservation, animal welfare, and NGO support.
I started volunteering about 7 years ago. Through my experiences, I’ve been able to meet people from different cultures and listen to their stories. Volunteering abroad provides the opportunity to fully immerse myself in their daily lives, allows me to understand the issues they face, helps improve my cross-cultural sensitivity; it’s a great exercise in empathy, which is such a crucial, underrated skill. More importantly, I get a chance to apply my skills to address local organizations’ self-identified skills gaps and assist in capacity-building.
My Volunteer Projects
I decided on Peru because Machu Picchu has been on my bucket list for so long! But I’m glad I enrolled in the animal care and conservation projects that I did because I learned so much. The animal care project was important to me because I know the stray dog population in South America is a huge issue. At the dog shelter, I assisted Maria, a lovely lady who cares for all the dogs, with daily tasks like feeding, brushing, and general cleaning. I also assisted with their transition to a new and bigger space.
The Amazon conservation project was something so new for me. I knew it would be a lot more challenging, but I was mentally prepared to get way outside of my comfort zone and leave all the conveniences of modern civilization behind. The team planned different activities every day, from reforestation, planting seedlings in the nursery, fruit collection, clearing/clean-up of hiking trails, and basic construction work to restore the areas flooded during the rainy season. Hard labor aside, we also did fun stuff like birdwatching, night walks and building a DIY-oven from scratch, by digging clay from the riverbank, to make pizza.
Jungle conservation is one of the best projects I’ve ever done. For anyone looking to bathe in nature (literally), unplug, learn from the best and most passionate conservationists, marvel at Mother Earth, be reminded of how insignificant we are, yet recognize how our actions critically affect wildlife species and learn to be more environmentally-conscious, a jungle conservation project is for you.
My Experience with Maximo Nivel
Before I chose to volunteer with Maximo Nivel, I made sure to do my research. I connected with Facebook groups, reviewed their programs online, and even read reviews of past volunteers. It gave me confidence that Maximo Nivel was an established organization in volunteer and educational travel programs.
They sent a driver to pick me up from the airport and took me directly to the campus. That same day, I was given all the necessary information about my host family, the city, contact numbers, and recommendations, which was really helpful as it can be stressful coming to a new place. Unfortunately, there was an administrative mix-up, so I and other volunteers were given incorrect information about the orientation time. Still, when I needed to contact any of the staff for anything at all, they were easy to get in touch with.
After meeting the staff at the campus, I was taken to my host family; they were fantastic, kind and extremely welcoming. My host dad (who is basically fluent in English) helped me to improve my Spanish through game nights and fun interactions. The family always included the volunteers in their activities – like when their sons had school performances in Cusco’s month-long festivities, we went to show our support. On Fathers’ Day, they invited us to their relatives’ house for breakfast and we met all the “tios”, “tias” and “abuelos”! I always felt at home.
Staying with a host family was the best cultural immersion experience. You don’t have to be shy asking questions if you’re curious about something culturally. In fact, it is highly encouraged since this is your best chance to learn.
Even though I didn’t take any Spanish classes, constant exposure to Spanish definitely helped me learn more than just the basic phrases. At the end of 6 weeks, I was able to give directions and recommendations to native Spanish-speaking tourists when they approached me on the street. It was a nice confidence boost!
The Impact of a Volunteer
Though I’m mindful that short-term volunteering makes long-term impact difficult, a volunteer’s experiences and first-hand account helps to educate people back home and promote responsible volunteerism. From the lessons we learn and share in our network, hopefully, future volunteers are more informed, mindful and effective in their community work. I try to stay in touch with NGOs I volunteer with, to support them whenever they need it.
Volunteering, if done effectively, supports the self-sufficiency of local communities, via capacity-building and knowledge transfer. We do see partnerships develop and communities transformed with better access to resources. From a volunteer’s perspective, it definitely helps to broaden and shape your worldview, which is constantly evolving, and to learn to address issues in a more thoughtful manner.
However, before choosing a project, volunteers should reflect on their motivations, review their own expertise, and assess their potential effectiveness in the project they undertake. Often, volunteers go in with certain expectations or a fixed mindset looking for problems to “fix” or people to “save.” This may end up causing more harm than good, which goes against the ethos of volunteering.
It is important to see volunteering as a learning moment and avoid slipping into the “savior” mentality. Therefore empathy has to be emphasized – understanding the reality and circumstances will help a volunteer really think about what role they will be playing in these peoples’ lives.
Travel Opportunities While Volunteering Abroad
As I mentioned earlier, one of the top reasons I chose Peru was because I needed to visit my bucket list destination – Machu Picchu. It was even more stunning in person than it is in photos and it’s incredible to think such large citadels were constructed without the use of heavy machinery and equipment. However, there are many other sites to see other than the World Wonder.
I booked a lot of my excursions through Maximo’s travel partner, American Inca Trail. I found them to be well-organized and their tours were affordable. In addition to Machu Picchu, I spent my weekends visiting the Sacred Valley, Moray/Salt Mines, Sacsayhuaman & Cristo Blanco. But my absolute favorites were Laguna Humantay & Rainbow Mountain. I was just as blown away – the views are so worth the challenging hikes!
Last Notes & Recommendations
Most people know that one of the official languages in Peru is Spanish. Google Translate can be a resource for the most basic speaker, but the best way to advance your language skills is by interacting with the locals. You may be intimidated to do so at first, but you quickly realize that most locals are friendly and happy to hear a foreigner trying to learn their language.
When it comes to your personal dietary and health restrictions, you shouldn’t worry about a lack of options. Protein and dairy substitutes are usually available if you ask, and you won’t break the bank for it, either. I was able to find delicious food for 8-10 soles ($2-$3). Lunch menus can be found all around the plaza; I had ceviche and quinoa soup almost every day – great vegetarian options. I also really liked “lomo saltado”, guacamole, and “picarones”. Make sure to enjoy a cup of coca or canela tea, and don’t miss the “chicha morada”.
Volunteering abroad doesn’t come without its challenges. Nothing is perfect, but remember you are always in control of your emotions and reactions. Approach and address issues without judgment or arrogance. Be sincere, ready and excited to experience a whole new environment. And most importantly, go in with a full heart!
If you were inspired by Jingying’s experience, make sure to check out all our volunteer programs in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Peru. Our Program Advisors are waiting to answer all of your questions, and can even put you in contact with a former volunteer to get a personal account of their experience. So, take a chance and do something different this time around. Don’t just go on vacation, travel and make a difference.