Most people are surprised when I tell them I was a volunteer English teacher at a Buddhist monastery in Nepal. The typical reaction is what an amazing experience, I wish I could do that. When I emphatically reply you can and should I am always met with the same puzzled reaction.
Taking an extended break from the routine of daily life seems like a foreign concept to most and no more likely to happen than catching the next rocket ship to the moon. To me, extended travel should be viewed no differently than maternity/paternity leave. If it is a priority, you figure out a way to make it work.
After my divorce, I took my son Harrison to Nepal for 5 months. In many ways we both needed time to get over the breaking up of our family. We spent the majority of our time as volunteers at the Pema Ts’al Monastic Institute in Pokhara Nepal and looking back it turned out to be the best decision of my life.
When I was growing up family vacations were always planned events: Flights were booked well in advance, dinner reservations were made and my mother had daily activities scheduled and written neatly on several sheets of paper (one for each day). Fortunately, I am not like my mother and find nothing worse than a well-planned trip (my idea of hell is a cruise ship). So planning our trip to Nepal was remarkably simple, I wanted to find a place where my son could make friends and where I could learn more about Buddhism. After a few hours on Google, I found Pema Ts’al, contacted them via email and was halfway out the door. The hardest part of preparing for our trip was locating a facility where I could get the necessary immunizations (rabies vaccines are not common) and finding hiking boots that did not contain leather (I am a vegetarian and try to avoid animal products). But in general travel plans were simple and in about four weeks, I went from finding Pema Ts’al online to boarding a plane to Nepal.
The key to success as a volunteer tourist and maybe life, in general, is having an open mind and being flexible. When we arrived in Nepal, I had no idea what to expect, I had very little communication with the monastery, no formal training as a teacher, and was unsure about the most basic travel plans such as how I was getting from Kathmandu to Pokara. But instead of doubts and concerns about the unknown, I was filled with excitement and the feeling of freedom. I had no work, no plans, and no schedule. Every day was a blank slate and the uncertainty made every day more exciting.
I was also not prepared for the benefits of volunteering. I had not volunteered much in my life, and quickly found was how much I enjoyed volunteering and helping the young monks. Over time I will be sharing more details about my trip online and volunteering with the monks, but in many ways, the details are not important. What is important and is the understanding that volunteer travel is simple and rewarding. I know that this is a bit clichéd (OK it is over the top clichéd), but volunteer tourism accomplishes many things at once: it reminds us of what a tiny place we occupy in the word; it rewards us with new people, places and experiences; it changes us in ways one never could have imaged; and most importantly in some small way you make the world a better place. So my advice is to stop wishing you could do it and get started today.