Going Overseas as a Volunteer, Meeting the Culture
About the Above Photo: Two weeks before this photo was taken, I had never met anyone in else in this photo before! Yet, when people now look at it they say "Nice Family" - even though only two people in this photo (one brother and one sister) are actually related. But, that is travel done properly! - Not just a visit to the monuments, but a true full impact cultural exchange where the people and the culture become part of you. If you really want to learn a culture, try volunteering there! This is truly a worldwide group, though most of the people in the photo are from Russia. We (a group of English speakers, with me being the only one from the region west of the Mississippi River in North America) spent a week and a half in Ivanovo, Russia. The ratio was kept to approximately two Russian speakers to on English speaker, and thus we all got to know eachother very well. The fact that, despite the huge cultural barriers in Russia to opening up to people from the outside, people now think they are looking at a family photo speaks volumes on that!
If you really want to get to know a culture, participate in a missions trip. That may sound crazy, but I think that it is true. Want to know about how difficult it can be to get concrete delivered in Bolivia? Try building a church there! Want to know if the Russian people are really as unemotional as the North American stereotype says, or even as they come across when meeting them incidentally on the street or being served at a restaurant? Try living with a group of them for two weeks at a church sponsored camp where you and their friends are the only ones around to talk to! Then, go visit the historic city of Souzdal together with them. Want to learn how to use an electric shower without getting killed? Try living with a Brazilian working class family for a few weeks.
Certainly, there are foreign exchange programs that allow a person to live in the home of a person for a year or so, and of course get a good idea of the culutre from the perspective of that one family. However, actually working with the national people as a group gives a much broader impression, and in a much faster way, than operating as a single person. Also, if you are working as part of a team, then you are not as likely to get homesick, as there are others around from your own culture that you can talk to in your own language as well as sympathize with.
To date, all of my true adventurous overseas trips have been done as part of short term church-related missions projects of some sort or another. After some of the experiences I have had on these trips, and then also experiencing one or two commercial tours of these places, and also trying to visit some of them on my own, I honestly would not have it any other way.
But isn't Missionary and Volunteer Service part of your Travels?
Yes, above I state that missions groups have been part of my travels. However, from time to time that has involved combining two different trips. My church was doing missionary service in Moçambique. I was part of that team, and I decided that I wanted to see more of Africa. Thus, after the church related team completed their two week term, I struck off on my own and visited a few places. After those experiences as well as guided tours, the volunteer trips were far more pleasurable, led to visiting more interesting and off-the-beaten-path places, and led to a better understanding of the people than any other method I tried.
See my Volunteer Travel Tip for more details.