I’m writing this two years to the day I started my Malaysian adventure, as I now have a good time to reflect, and evaluate what volunteering/ doing an internship has really done for me. If you’re thinking of taking a gap year to figure out what you want to do, I hope I will firmly persuade you throw off your hesitations, jump out of your comfort zone into something completely different.
A short cliff notes on my start into travelling. I had just graduated University, was very “green” and excited about what I could do, but very unsure on what I actually wanted do. I spent hours searching for internships/ volunteering/ jobs all around the world. I casually wrote an enquiry to Lang Tengah Turtle Watch, and the rest is history. Before starting my internship, I had never really travelled alone, was in a happy long term relationship, living a remarkably “normal” existance. I almost didn't catch my plane, I was petrified. I looked up “single girl travelling tips” furiously in the run up to my trip and freaked myself out even more.
But once there, in the little beach camp in Malaysia, everything clicked. With each new volunteer, some of which were equally as scared as me, I opened up a little bit more. With each new way of thinking, my horizons broadened- I started eating marmite with peanut butter. I listened to completely new opinions on things. I sat on the beach in the middle of the night talking about the stars and to other peoples lives, and problems. It made me appreciate what was important to me, and what wasn’t. For some people on camp, they learnt showers were the most important thing ever, and missed it every second. I learnt I didn't really need a shower to be happy. I grew dependant on real conversation, not general chit chat and especially not chat about other people. I have been different on a deeply personal level ever since.
Professionally, volunteering is also invaluable! If you feel like you may have a passion in a certain field, get out and volunteer doing that. I wanted to test out if I enjoyed doing conservation abroad. Volunteering is a brilliant way to find out (quickly!) if you really enjoy DOING something. It’s better to find out you just don't have the passion for something, before you commit yourself to a degree, or a job. But if you do love it, throw yourself in head first. Learn as much as humanly possible whilst volunteering. Use your initiative to help out wherever you can and you might get yourself noticed and give yourself a foot in the door at the project you are in. Plus, more often than not, other volunteers who are volunteering might have connections too. You can certainly set yourself up and gain unbelievably valuable experience in the process. Learning from a book is great but my experience in the field was far more in-depth, practical and understandable. And above all of these personal goals, you will also do good for another cause. In my case, Turtle conservation. Utterly win-win.
On a less romantic note, volunteering whilst travelling is also, often cheaper than the standard hotel option anyway. You’ll get a better understanding of the country you’re in, probably explore more of the authentic bits more. One of the best things I took from travelling now though, is that you’ll meet and bond with very quickly a huge range of new people. I am still incredibly close to some of the people I met and bonded with over burnt home cooked fire dinners, a cyclone storm and a tent. They are the people that have seen you at your worst and you’ll have the deepest conversations with.
One thing that you should bear in mind, is that you volunteer with reputable organisations!