In May 2018, I will be headed further across the globe than ever before. For four weeks, I will be volunteering in Sri Lanka, teaching English and providing community-based mental health support. I am so incredibly excited and nervous all at once. It is about 5 months until I leave– I’ve done a lot of preparing, but I have a lot more work ahead of me. Today I want to share my experience and let you know what to expect if you’re considering planning a volunteer trip.
In planning this trip, there are so many things I have to consider. First I had to pick a cause. Then I had to find an agency to volunteer/travel with, then figure out how I’m going to fund this trip, then there are vaccines, VISAs, insurance, flights, and packing to get sorted.
The Cause: Before I came to my final decision, I considered many other options: a build trip (wells, homes, clinics, or schools), a teaching trip (ESL/EFL), a wildlife conservation trip, or a research trip. Although these are all important causes, none really inspired me, until I realized that as a social work student with an educational background in psychology, a mental health placement abroad really, really appealed to me.
The Agency: It is crucial to choose an agency that is legitimate and reliable, so be sure to do your research. I am traveling to Sri Lanka with SLV Global, based in the UK. There were five reasons I was drawn to this agency:
- I knew somebody who had a really great experience with them.
- They travel to Southeast Asia, which is where I wanted to go the most.
- They are very affordable.
- The staff are very kind and will answer any question you have, 24-hours per day.
- They provide one full week of training in your host country, so you aren’t thrown in blind.
I had to apply to be a volunteer and complete a phone interview. I was accepted about a week later. They require a $350 USD deposit within one week of accepting your placement to reserve your spot. SLV has mental health placements in Sri Lanka and Bali and an educational program in India.
SLV provides accommodation for the duration of your stay. I will stay in a local family’s home and they will provide most meals. I am really looking forward to experiencing an authentic Sri Lankan lifestyle. Weekends are free for relaxation and travel, as long as you travel in groups.
Funding: Volunteering abroad is not cheap. You have to pay your fees to the organization, which should cover accommodation, transportation, and food, then you have to book flights, purchase gear, get vaccinated, and have sufficient backup/spending money. Most people choose to fundraise. As a professional photographer, I held mini-sessions, shot weddings, and did event photography to raise my Sri Lanka funds. There are so many ways you can fundraise for your trip, a quick Google search will give you some awesome ideas.
I aim to fundraise $6000 CAD, which will cover all travel costs, allow me to purchase clothing and gear for the trip, and leave me with plenty of cash for emergencies and spending. Be sure to research the cost of living in the country you are heading to and exchange rates before you commit.
Flights: If you don’t have frequent flyer points to spend, I recommend Skyscanner to find the best price for your flights. Be sure to open the site in a private browser window in order to see the cheapest prices. When using Skyscanner, however, be aware: there are some flight options that make you switch airports in London, England. I would try to avoid this at all costs. SLV recommends not booking flights until 3 months prior to travel, but it is ultimately up to you, no matter what organization you sign up with.
Vaccinations: As soon as you have committed to volunteering abroad, book an appointment at a travel clinic or with your family doctor. I did both, just to be safe. Just FYI, these are the vaccinations I needed/were recommended to me for Sri Lanka (this is not a trustworthy or exhaustive list, so please see a doctor or check your government’s travel advisory website):
- Hepatitis A & B (Twinrix) — 3 doses @ approx. $85 per dose
- HPV (in NL, you get this in grade 9) — approx. $130
- Rabies (recommended, not required) — 3 doses @ approx. $400 per dose
- Japanese Encephalitis (strongly recommended) — 2 doses @ approx. $250 per dose
- Typhoid — 3 pills @ approx. $120
- Tetanus (in NL, you get this in grade 9) — covered by your provincial health plan
As you can see, vaccinations are SUPER pricey. I never realized how expensive they are until I visited my travel clinic, so I had to alter my fundraising goal. Be sure to consider this before you commit to travel!
Travel Insurance & VISAs: A travel agent should be able to give you all the necessary information. Personally, my family medical coverage is sufficient for this trip. SLV also provides a lot of help with VISA applications.
What to pack: I have yet to begin packing, but I have begun to form a list of what I will need and what I have to buy before I go. My list so far includes sturdy sandals and lots of bug spray. Comment if you would like to see an article about what I pack for this trip!
Certifications & Documentation: Besides a VISA, you MUST have a valid passport that does not expire within three months of your trip. Sort this out well in advance. Your organization may also require your medical information, a criminal records/vulnerable sector check, code of conduct, and/or a departure form. Since I will be teaching English while in Sri Lanka, I decided to get TEFL certified. This wasn’t required, but looks great on a resume and may create future opportunities, so why not?
Phone Packages: This is super important in case of emergency. Many organizations require that you have a basic phone plan purchased for in-country. My provider is Bell mobility, and fortunately they offer a $60 ‘Travel Pass’ in Sri Lanka that includes 75 minutes of calling, 200 outgoing text messages and unlimited incoming, and 200 mb of data that can be extended for additional cost if necessary. Call your provider for more details.
UPDATE: Thanks to my friend Sydney who also travelled to Sri Lanka with SLV, I’ve learned that another phone option is to have your phone unlocked by your provider, and then purchase a plan at the airport in the country. You can get far more options for a better price!
Did I miss anything? Do you have something important to add? Have you been to Sri Lanka? We love to hear from our readers. Please leave us a comment, reach out on social media @twowildtides, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to blogging more about this trip as it approaches. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram for updates!