4 volunteering projects, 3 countries, 2 continents and only 1 provider. Choosing to spend more than half of our career break in the hands of Plan My Gap Year (PMGY) was a long and difficult decision, as was narrowing down the multitude of countries spread over several continents and the individual projects each contained. Half-way through our first project in our first country on our first continent of the year, we reflect on whether we made the right decision.
1. Choosing PMGY
It was a day like any other in the office where we were working on a TEFL placement in China with i-to-i TEFL. We had finished our work for the day and still had a couple of hours to kill before we could leave. This was not unusual for us as working together and our extensive experience as teachers back in the UK meant we often finished tasks ahead of schedule. Today, however, we needed to start making a decision about which provider we would volunteer with. After weeks of looking we were ready to make the next step. We’d had several emails back from the providers we were considering highlighting issues in what we wanted to do: namely to be housed together. Many of the really large providers operated their gap years on strict single-sex policy when it came to accommodation meaning that Anthony and I would be roomed and sometimes housed completely separately. This is not what we wanted. Homestays were a possibility but not if it meant being placed so far away that we wouldn’t benefit from the shared experience of living and socialising with other volunteers. One provider didn’t seem to see this being an issue and that provider was PMGY.
After a long and positive Skype chat, that saw us staying well beyond our working day we were happy we had found a provider for us. PMGY was small enough that it could be flexible with us being a couple and still had a real connection with the projects. However, the infrastructure was still there that you’d expect if you are paying a registration fee on top of your volunteering fees. We knew we could just turn up in a country and look for volunteering once we arrived but we wanted to maximise the time we had in each country on a project we knew was legitimate and would benefit from the skills, time and experience we had to offer.
2. Where? Continent selection
When I began travelling back in 2012 Asia was not even on my radar. I didn’t know anyone who had ever been there (other than a very rich Great Aunt but then she’d been everywhere). I was new to travelling and although it was something I really wanted to do, it had taken awhile for me to get the courage to go alone. As a consequence I had begun with North America and Europe – countries where I felt more comfortable either due to the lack of language barrier or proximity to home. In 2013 I randomly booked a trip to China with Exodus Travels. I’m still to this day not 100% sure why but I didn’t want to just keep returning to the same places – I wanted to widen my travel horizons. Since that trip to China I, and then after meeting Anthony, we have returned to this continent taking in Malaysia, Borneo, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, China (again to work), Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong. Maybe we have fallen in love with Asia, there has to be some reason that we keep going back – though I expect the low cost of living and amazing food are high up there on the list. We decided that Asia (as it was such a vast place that we still had much more to see) would feature on the gap year plans.
Once again though, I wanted to broaden those travel horizons. I looked to Africa and I was deeply unsure. The rumours (mostly exaggerated or just blatantly false) of it being a dangerous place had been a reason I had avoided here before. Speaking to a number of fellow interns in China from South Africa, I began to look into this as a possible option. The more I looked, the more I wanted to go and experience it for myself. I knew little of the history that had occurred here but suddenly I wanted to know more. I knew even less of the current situation but was beginning to realise there was still much to be done and a place that may value what I had to give. And so, Africa was the second continent to make the list.
After organising the volunteering part of the gap year, we also added the continent of Oceania on to the list as Australia is somewhere Anthony has always wanted to travel to – so why not?
3. Where? Country selection
Africa was sorted as I would begin delving into this continent from South Africa though as I began to look at African volunteering opportunities, I knew that if it was a positive experience that I would be back. There seemed to be so many opportunities for those with skills, experience, time and a positive outlook across many/if not all of the countries that made up Africa.
Asia was a little more difficult. On the one hand we considered returning to a country we had visited in a non-volunteering capacity. We had seen poverty in several countries and knew there was much we could help with. We knew teachers, English especially, were wanted over most of Asia as it was important for them to develop this global language. However, a part of us wanted to go somewhere new too. Added to which there was a BBC documentary I had watched about India, niggling away in the back of my mind. Ask me five years ago and I would have told you that India would never appeal to me. I was weighed down with misconceptions based on the opinions of others who had never been there. Having grown up in a community with a large India population, I was more and more intrigued. It wasn’t long before it made the list.
The final country, Sri Lanka, was a late entry. It was the destination most popular with those booking with PMGY and when speaking with them they highly recommended it. It’s proximity to India meant it wouldn’t prove too costly to make a detour from India on the way to South Africa. Also, by this time we were looking at what each country had to offer in terms of the volunteer projects. Anthony’s eyes had lit up when he noticed they had an affordable sea turtle conservation project. As a lover of animals (him, not I), he really wanted the opportunity to work with them to feature on his gap year. Sri Lanka was suddenly country number three.
We ended up slotting in Nepal before volunteering with PMGY to support a UK charity called Voluntary Projects Overseas (VPO). Also, as we completed the planning for the volunteering part of the gap year both Australia and Thailand were added to the end of the trip.
4. Project selection
Well Sri Lanka was sorted as we would do the sea turtle conservation project. However, I was happy to hear that there would be flexibility in Sri Lanka and that I may have the chance to get into the classroom and teach some conservation too – as a science teacher this would be a great opportunity. With regards to India and South Africa, we felt it important to take the skills and experience we already had as UK teachers with a recent qualification (and experience) in TEFL in China. We therefore opted for the slum schools project in India knowing that it would be a tough project that would draw us out of our comfort zones, yet would really develop our ability to teach in a creative and innovative way. Once again, we were happy to hear there was flexibility out there as we had toyed with the Orphanage project but were assured we could visit the orphanage regularly too. In South Africa there was also a teaching project, enabling some of the poorest children (who most likely would live in the townships) to access education. It was an easy decision to make and we hoped that along with developing English that we might have the chance to deliver other subjects such as Science and Maths.
An even later entry as only last week we were given the opportunity to head across to the newest PMGY project in South Africa: the Big 5 wildlife conservation experience. Once again, Anthony was super excited by this and we managed with the support of PMGY to get this to fit perfectly into our schedule.
We ended up working on a range of projects with VPO in Nepal and Northern India prior to the start of our travels with PMGY and these involved working in an orphanage, homework support in an educational resource centre and teaching a range of subjects in an English Medium School.
Are you thinking of taking a gap year, sabbatical or career break? You don’t have to be of university age to do this! Are you looking for a company to do some volunteering with? You can go for as little as two weeks. Are you thinking of travelling around India, Sri Lanka, South Africa (or even Nepal, Australia and Thailand)? If you’ve answered YES to any of the above then get in touch, sign up for email updates or just check back in with us from time to time to see how we are getting along.
If you want specific detailed information on any of the projects that PMGY provides then please contact them directly by going to www.planmygapyear.co.uk