Engaging with Locals on your Placement
Volunteering abroad can be one of the most rewarding, memorable experiences of your life. As well as helping a community, assisting on a project and learning new skills, you’re also meeting new people and striking up new friendships, some short-term and others which may last a lifetime.
Often, that can all too easily mean hanging out with other volunteers, perhaps from the same country as you and speaking the same language. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in that and clearly, you may well have a great deal in common, coming from the same place and wanting to pursue similar aims. However, if you want to get to know local people, you may need to try alternative activities.
A good port of call are the local people on the project. They could be the people you’re helping but in many cases, that may not be practical. However, often local people who run the project or work on it can turn into friends. Through them, you may meet their friends and even family. Food is usually a very easy way to connect with people, so inviting someone to join you for a local dinner or asking about local dishes or how to cook them is usually a good bet, even if there are any language barriers. You may even find yourself at a family dinner...
Looking up local events is another way to engage. Not only does it get you out of the routine of drinks with your fellow volunteers, you’ll be experiencing a local festival or sporting event as a normal experience. Depending on where your placement is, you can also look up the many MeetUp groups (meetup.com/find) to find one for your interests. That could be a walking group, a volleyball team, a bookclub, a language exchange or even a course like learning how to set up a blog or how to paint - but the main thing is you’ll be meeting a variety of people by doing so.
Take advantage of the sightseeing and attractions near you too otherwise the days fly by. Plus, getting to know guides or asking a local person you’ve met, perhaps on the project, to show you around gives you invaluable insight into a place and its customs - plus it doubles up as a way to practise your language skills. An interesting website is Vayable (vayable.com) where locals take you on tours around a place. Some locals may be ex-pats themselves who now live there so you can always browse to find a tour led by a local person.
Taking a language class will also make things easier. The more confident you are speaking, the easier it will be to start up conversations and talk beyond the usual subjects. Of course, many locals will speak English and any other languages, but it’s always a bonus if you speak theirs so look up local courses nearby.
In the end, volunteering is about helping on a project and making a difference so whether you come away with friends from your own country or a new adopted family in a far-flung destination, it’s the whole experience which counts so just get out there and start chatting.