"My decision to volunteer overseas was 100% about me. Then something shifted."

In 2011, I volunteered as a Spanish language teacher in Ecuador for two months.

Fresh out of high school with a suitcase packed with Spanish for Dummies and highly inappropriate footwear, I set off on my first solo overseas trip to live with a host family in the indigenous town of Otovalo, Ecuador.

A then-18-year-old me entered the experience with enthusiasm, excitement… and precisely zero concerns regarding the fact I couldn’t speak the language I’d signed up to teach in.

In hindsight, and in the eyes of my family and friends, this was naive of me.

I learnt the hard way that volunteering in a developing area of a foreign country was not the ‘Instagram holiday’ I thought it was going to be, as I stood crying on the doorstep of my temporary home, unable to muster a simple ‘hola’ to my host mum.

Rather than packing waterproof jackets, Gastro Stop, just anything that would be even remotely useful, I took khaki chinos and white linen shirts, because that’s what people wear when they’re going on an exotic adventure, yeah?

But if I’m honest, the one thing I forgot to pack was a genuine desire to help others. Yep, it’s not the most comfortable of revaluations, but it’s true.

As much as I’d like to think my intentions were selflessly motivated, deep down I know it had a lot more to do with helping myself.

These were the money shots, and in no way an accurate representation of my trip. (Images: Supplied)

I wanted to do something none of my friends had done before, and post photos about it on Facebook.

I felt like I should be doing something 'meaningful' with my gap year, broadening my horizons and all that.


Most of all, I wanted to have the 'epiphany' that comes with travelling outside of your comfort zone and suddenly leaves people with a shifted perspective.

And yes, things did shift for me during those two months of volunteering, just not in the way I thought they would. I can't pinpoint the exact moment I stopped taking of photos of everything and began living the experience, but somewhere along the line, I stopped caring about how my trip looked from the outside.

Listen: Mamamia Out Loud dicuss the need for realistic images on social media (post continues after audio...)

I put effort into learning the language, with countless disjointed conversation over the dinner table, dictionary in hand. My thoughts revolved around creative ways to teach my class of four year twos colours, shapes and the days of the week.

I bought a pair of proper hiking shoes and packed away my hairdryer. And I bawled my eyes out at the thought of leaving when my time with the kids was up.

Back in my comfortable bed and access to health care, I definitely live a self-involved lifestyle. I still care about my tagged photos, and I photograph my brunch more often than not.

But I know I'm not the centre of the universe, and how fortunate I am to live in my shoebox of a bedroom in a share house in Sydney, let alone any house that's not held together by mud and animal faeces.

Things did shift for me during those two months of volunteering, just not in the way I thought they would. (Image: Supplied)

I understand those kids are human beings, not our play things to entertain ourselves with then put down when we're done.

I realise I'm capable of doing more, and doing better. And of feeling compassion and empathy for people I know nothing about and have nothing in common with.

Yes, I went into my trip with selfish intentions and questions of what volunteering could do for me. But I left wanting to do more, reflecting on what my actions, in some small part, did for others.

What made you decide to volunteer overseas? What were your motivations?