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food bank volunteerA big blue tour bus that could probably hold some 60 people waited outside the pier for us — all five of us. We were three passengers off of a Crystal cruise ship, one crew member and one “host.” While other passengers headed off for a tour of Halifax, we were all here with a different goal in mind.

We were all volunteers for the line’s You Care, We Care voluntourism excursion to the Feed Nova Scotia food distribution center in Halifax. Feed Nova Scotia is a private charity that helps hungry people throughout the province by collecting and distributing food to more than 150 member food banks and meal programs.

Our job at the food bank was to unpack boxes full of food and household items, sorting them and repackaging them by category. Once we had a full box of a sorted item, like a box of grains or a box of condiments, we had to weigh it, label it and then put it on a pallet for shipping.

The Art of Slow Travel

Most of the boxes were heavy and dusty, and I ended up on the “wrong” side of the sorting table. My job was to lift the boxes onto the table. I was, after all, the youngest volunteer. I then unpacked the boxes, while our guide and Margie, another cruise passenger from Tennessee, sorted the items into their appropriate categories.

As we sorted, I was shocked to discover how much junk food (sorted as “snack” food) was donated. In the two hours we were there, we unpacked and repacked more soda, chocolate bars (Lindt chocolate!) and other varied snack items than any other category. I don’t think we ever filled a single canned meat box or dairy box, but the hungry people of Nova Scotia certainly won’t be wanting for Coke.

We didn’t talk too much as we worked, other than to consult on whether a six-pack of peaches was real fruit or a snack item (fruit if no added sugar; snack, otherwise), or which box olive oil should go into (baking, not condiments). But later, as we waited, hot and sweaty, for our bus to take us back to Crystal Symphony, I asked Margie and her husband Phil why they had decided to volunteer.

“We didn’t really like any of the other excursions,” Phil said. “But, back home, we believe strongly in giving back to our community.”

Volunteer Vacations

To them, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to try out one of these options. On previous Crystal cruises, they’d seen the voluntourism offerings but never tried them. (Editor’s Note: Crystal offers a free voluntourism excursion on almost every sailing.)

Would he do it again? “No promises,” Phil said. It would depend on what the other excursion offerings were.

volunteer handsAs for me, after two hours of lifting heavy boxes, standing around a sorting table and going through hundreds of food and household items, my lower back ached and my hands were filthy. I was ready to return to the ship. We were thanked enthusiastically for our time and though I was never going to get to see the end result of my work, I left feeling I had at least done a little something for someone else.

Until I did this excursion, I had never really considered volunteering some of my time while vacationing. If I’ve got five or seven days in a destination, giving up three hours really isn’t a big deal. Though I had come to the food bank through the cruise line, I am sure any tourist visiting Halifax who offered to donate some time would be welcomed warmly.

I am equally sure that every city has an abundance of nonprofit organizations that could use an extra pair of hands for a few hours. And the next time I travel somewhere for five days or longer, I’m going to look into it. That’s a promise.

–written by Dori Saltzman

suitcase world mapWe recently asked our readers on Facebook whether they’d ever lived in a country outside their own. Some responded with truly impressive expat resumes: “Mexico 7 yrs, Australia 1 yr, Kuwait 1 yr, U.A.E. 4 yrs, Qatar 8 months and counting…” wrote Elizabeth Wardle Walker.

“A year in Tanzania. Loved it,” said Kari Alyssa Prassack. “Waiting for the next opportunity to live abroad!”

And Kym Proudnikov weighed in with her own lengthy list: “Italy 3 years, Australia 3 years, Malta 4 years (twice), England 1 year (3 times), Canada 16 years…” Color us green with envy.

But what of the travelers who haven’t had that experience yet? Anne Rodziewicz England sums it up: “We will we will we will…”

If an extended stint overseas is high on your bucket list, read on for a few ideas on how to make it happen.

1. Teach English.
You don’t need to be able to speak a foreign language in order to travel overseas and teach English to non-native speakers. LanguageCorps.com is a good place to start, offering training and paid positions in Asia, Europe and Latin America.

12 Ways to Feel at Home in a Foreign Place

2. Volunteer.
The Peace Corps is the most famous program for international volunteers, but if you can’t swing the required two-year stint, there are plenty of shorter programs out there. TransitionsAbroad.com and Idealist.org can put you on the right path. To learn more about what to consider when choosing a volunteer opportunity, see Volunteer Vacations.

3. Study.
This is generally considered the domain of college students — but as the rest of us know, learning doesn’t stop after you get your diploma. Language learning schools are a great opportunity to have an immersive experience abroad; they often include homestays with local families. Check out LanguageCourse.net or the aforementioned TransitionsAbroad.com.

4. Work.
Work on an organic farm, join the seasonal staff at a ski resort or even take your current career overseas. There are a variety of opportunities to earn money while you travel, especially if you’re willing to be flexible. BUNAC.org offers work programs in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, while TransitionsAbroad.com offers a wider scope of programs as well as advice for finding a job overseas in your own field.

Living Abroad: 12 Tips from Travelers Who’ve Been There

– written by Sarah Schlichter

volunteer beach ocean clean trash bagEvery Wednesday, we’ll feature one practical travel tip here, on our blog. Get our clever weekly tips and other travel resources in your inbox by subscribing to our blog (top right) or signing up for our newsletter.

If teaching English in Peru, planting trees in Costa Rica or helping at a women’s shelter in South Africa sounds appealing, a volunteer vacation may be right for you. But for travelers who want to combine exploring a new place with giving back to the community, it’s not as easy as picking a country and just showing up. With countless volunteer vacation programs across the globe, how’s a traveler supposed to find the right one — and make sure it’s legit?

Writes IndependentTraveler.com contributor Colleen Costello, “Once you have found a company with a project that interests you, consider the caveats and other pertinent considerations. You should have access to program alumni, and you should not have to pay for program information. Do not send money until you have chosen a project and are securing your reservation. If you are browsing an organization’s Web site or program guide, you should see a detailed breakdown of how program fees are used; a reputable organization will use 90 to 100 percent of funds received towards the various costs of the program.”

One good place to start your search is VolunteerInternational.org, which lists only member organizations that meet a strict set of criteria. Among other requirements, qualifying programs must provide safe and clean volunteer housing, offer a clear breakdown of fees and expenses, and encourage local field trips beyond the volunteer’s main work responsibilities.

For more information, see our full story on Volunteer Vacations.

– written by Sarah Schlichter