The travelling solo vs travelling with one or more others (be they spouses, family, friends or even acquaintances and near-strangers) is an age old debate that promises never to go away, with firm advocates of each travelling style on both sides of the fence.
Ultimately, there are pros and cons to both, and it comes down to individual preferences and personality which route you go down. It’s the same with international volunteering, and as such this post certainly will not be telling you which one you should do. Instead, I’m going to outline reasons why you should/shouldn’t do both, and let you decide what is best for you.
As someone who has been on multiple solo trips, one big plus to travelling solo is that you get to do what you want, when you want, and not worry about having to compromise and cater to the needs of others. Obviously it’s not quite the same with a voluntary placement – you’re there to do a job that’s needed of you, with working hours dictated by the organisation in question – but you get to choose a placement that suits you, in terms of the work, the time and the place. That, and when it comes to ‘extracurricular’ activities, it’s you and you alone who decides what you do.
Volunteering overseas is in itself an activity pushing you out of your comfort zone. If you’re doing it alone, then the long-term benefits in terms of your own personal growth and development are arguably even greater. Whether you survive or thrive in an alien environment where things like a language barrier, strange working practices and other challenges are there to make your experience anything but easy depends on how willing you are to immerse yourself in the culture. Volunteering solo is arguably the best and most direct way to do this.
Of course, without the safety net of a travel companion or several to turn to you’re automatically obliged to engage with people more, unless you want to live like an isolated hermit. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on how comfortable you are at the prospect of befriending both the locals and your fellow volunteers. Meeting new people and learning about another culture is supposed to be part of the experience, suggesting that, unless you’re introverted and perhaps inexperienced, volunteering solo is the ideal route toward both.
Volunteering with a partner/friends/family
Unless you’re extremely fortunate, there will be difficult times on your voluntary placements. If you’re with someone you know you can trust, confide in and be yourself around, it can certainly be of great benefit during those difficult times. This is probably especially true if you are particularly close to the person you’re there with, as they will know what makes you tick and how to pick you up during the bad times, and vice versa. This can be particularly important if you’re doing it for the first time, or are otherwise generally inexperienced at travelling.
It’s worth noting that volunteering overseas is as much about both the build-up beforehand and what you can reflect upon afterwards as it is about the actual time you’re ‘in the field’. One thing I noticed when I came back from a solo volunteering stint was that it was difficult to talk about my experiences with my friends and family back home, because they couldn’t really empathise. If you have someone you can meaningfully reflect on your experience with and share the ‘reverse culture shock’ phase with, this problem is negated.
Having said that, when ‘in the field’, it can happen that you – intentionally or not – end up spending all your time with your companions and isolate yourself from the rest of the group. It should be noted that this can also happen with new people you’ve met out there, with little cliques forming along various lines, such as age groups, interests, your placement etc. This is something that can be exacerbated if you’re on the same placement with the person you’re going with. You know how they advise not working in close proximity to the person you’re married to? Same goes with volunteering.
Whatever’s right for you…do volunteer!
I can’t pretend to know which one out of going solo or going with others will definitively suit you better, but whichever you choose do remember: international volunteering is, for the majority of people (as I’ve covered before, it’s not for everyone), a wonderful, fulfilling and life-changing experience. So weigh up what’s right for you and go for it!