The Benefits of “Giving Back” Abroad

I suffer from a self-diagnosed problem called the “itchy-feet complex”. It’s to my understanding that the symptoms of this are quite common – you experience horrible restlessness, lucid dreams of mountains and exotic animals, and feel an unquenchable envy for all others who are travelling or having such adventures. I’ve also heard that it’s incurable. Sure seems to be that way, so far.

But how do you satiate such a problem? How do you continue to satisfy it?

I’ve found that the best experiences I’ve amassed abroad – and the ones that have left me feeling pretty great afterwards – are the ones in which I’ve given back or lived like a local. When you do that – give a little part of yourself whilst taking experiences from your travels in return – when you eventually come back home, your itchy-feet are somewhat “tickled-out” and you’re happy to rest for a little while. Coming home feels a little bit more like a holiday than the holiday itself might have started to felt.

I distinctly felt this when I came home from Thailand, as I had to give so much of myself whilst I was there. I worked Monday to Friday in a school and travelled the country on weekends, and it was definitely a multi-dimensional experience – not all sun and sand and seas, but also hard work and responsibility and understanding. I learned far more about the country and its people by being there as an active member, rather than a tourist floating around on the buoyant boat of privilege.

Doing something like that also appeals to your sense of compassion. You know, just as a human. There’s nothing nicer than having the ability to “give back” and then, effectively, doing just that. Teaching was definitely a challenge, but I’m happy knowing that I extended a hand in the direction of helpfulness, as opposed to solely the direction of several Mojito’s, one after the other (note my use of solely – remember, I have two hands *wink*).


My buddy Joel and I at the primary conference for the TET programme, working hard…


Then playing hard.


Myself and some of the other ETA’s I met on my volunteering trip – (from the left) Laura, Victoria, Emily, Joel, Lizzie, The Best Person In The World (me) and Sian

I also felt this sense of inclusion when I went to Japan, as I stayed with families and traditional places such as “onsen” inns as opposed to swanky hotels. Not that I could ever have afforded them. I still suffer from the financial blow of my trips to this day (though they are very nearly amended, and I hope to spend another wad of cash on yet another trip to Asia this September. Oops). My sister, who learned Japanese at university, also knew many people when we went, so we ended up having dinner with many of her friends and were able to view first-hand a regular, Japanese household at work.

I know that my mind has expanded and is continuing to expand because of my experiences of “giving back”, and seeing things from the perspective of what’s real, as opposed to the narrowed perspective of a tourist. I have a deeper, sociological knowledge. Not to mention a wealth (ironically… considering that wealth is exactly what I do not have, because of my “itchy-feet complex”) of excellent stories which I draw upon again and again (probably much to the annoyance of my friends, who are seemingly just “nodding along” now to shut me up as opposed to actually listening. I cannot blame them). My writing has definitely greatly benefitted from “giving back”, too – I am no longer naive to the endless expanse of cultures and their practices. Also, such stories are great ice-breakers for meeting people (my other ice-breaker which is unrelated to travel is the story of a time I rode an inflatable palm tree down the stairs at my first house party and pretty much broke everything. People seem to love that story).

I think I mentioned before in my Ode to Travel piece that I do get the idea behind just a regular, relaxing holiday – shirking off your kicks at a swanky hotel and basically falling asleep under a raging hot sun for 23 hours a day (the other hour is for gorging yourself at the all-inclusive buffet). But this article is not for you. This is for those who have the “itchy-feet complex”, specifically. Those of you with a travelling problem. Those of you who have an inexhaustible curiosity about the magic and charm of the world. By doing this, by “giving back”, you satisfy new dimensions of this curiosity – not least by the fact that you also get to stay in the country you’re exploring for ages, as opposed to just a couple of weeks, as you’re effectively living there.

It’s not difficult to get yourself onto these programmes, either. I’m not spouting about things which are impossible to achieve in the slightest – it’s just all about the timing, really. Keep your eyes open for visa releases, and for the launch of volunteering programmes. Have your finger on the pulse of the British Council. Just apply. Do it. The benefits of “giving back” abroad vastly outweigh any cons you might conjure up, in my opinion. Though if you are worried, you can explore the option of buying flexi-flight tickets, which leave your return home open-ended without accumulating massive fees. Travel without borders – you’re not hemmed in anywhere. You’re free.

Programmes to explore: 

1. TET programme

I taught English in Thailand via this programme – worth exploring if you’re a really independent character and are interested in Asia.

2. The BUNAC programme –

Another volunteering programme across Africa, Asia and the Americas!

3. Camp America –

Be an American camper for the summer with the opportunity to volunteer, found here.

4. Projects Abroad –

Supporting internships, gap years and general voluntary projects across around 30 different destinations.


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