My Kaya Volunteer Experience in the Philippines

November 11, 2011

From the cold winter days of England, to the tropics of South East Asia, my last year has been packed with adventures, funny anecdotes and above all, incredible memories. Travelling abroad has always appealed to me, but I have never wanted to travel as a backpacker, without a home for months on end. From summer vacations through Central America spent chasing volcanoes to Cuba, where I tried to find at least one edible meal, the uniqueness of travel for me, has been about getting to know a local culture, understanding the country (as much as possible) and seeing a side of it away from the known tourist sites. I have always wanted more than just a ‘been there, done that’ t-shirt, so when I was offered the chance to spend a year living and working on a relatively unknown island in the Philippines, I jumped at the chance!

November 2010 was when my adventure started, and here I am, almost 12 months later at the end of my Filipino journey. While I was lucky enough to have my boyfriend of 7 years move out here with me, this year has been incredibly challenging – and in some ways, as a female – more so than for him. While he suffered a huge bout of culture shock, I’ve had to live with being a very western, tall and fair skinned foreigner which brings about a lot of attention on a day to day basis. From ‘Hey Joe!’ to ‘Where are you going?’ and from ‘Hey, best friend!’ toI love you!’ every day my 7 minute walk to work included heckles of the gentlest variety.

I’ve had to get used to nosy locals wanting to know when I’m getting married, how many children I have, when I will have children, what religion I am and how old I am. These questions usually come in the local grocery store (before even a hello has been uttered), on a Jeepney, across the street – pretty much anywhere where a comment can be heard! It’s a new experience to have everyone wanting to know the ins and outs of your life when in England we’re conditioned to believe strangers are just that – not meant for sharing eye-contact with, let alone speaking to. This part has been tough, and I’ve had days when I’ve longed for London’s anonymity but you deal with it, you smile and some days, you even laugh about it, about how in the space of a month, you’ve suddenly become so special, so important and so revered.

The Philippines has opened me up to so much, not just with the locals’ caring and warm nature, but also with the need for patience, which in developing countries is something of a god-send. As a fairly high-strung Londoner, I’ve managed to kick back my pace of life, to learn that all so clichéd saying to ‘just go with the flow,’ because that’s really what you have to do. Buses rarely go at the time they say they will, flights often get delayed or cancelled; in general, transportation is rarely a smooth ride, but really, what can you do? You just have to employ a little patience, and at some point, some day, you’ll get to where you need to be going.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel across to India and Borneo by myself in order to check out some new volunteer projects for Kaya. I’ve travelled across the Philippines and had weekends in Hong Kong and Bangkok. I’ve had some of the best times of my life on some of the most beautiful islands here but I’ve also been confronted with immense poverty, have been sick beyond belief and have had to confront the real slaughtering of animals to find out first-hand how they land on your plate. When I think back, moving abroad wasn’t a difficult choice or transition. I was ready to leave London and ready to embrace change. While I don’t miss home or have a hunger to go back to the UK, I do realize the things that are important in my life are friends and family. I’ve been unfortunate to not have made many close friends while here in the Philippines, but the ones I have made I have been incredibly grateful for.

I think I could live anywhere in the world now, as long as I have a friendship network around me – someone to tell your funny stories to, to laugh with and to understand the complexities of living abroad. That’s my real key to surviving a move abroad I think, aside from the obvious – embracing the culture, cherishing your surroundings (how many more years am I going to be surrounded by palm trees every single day), keeping your eyes open (absorb everything, every day), learning local nuances (there’s this pouted lip gesture here if you want to signal someone or something you push your lips out and point in the general direction of what you want – its silly, but great!) and picking up a little of the language – the more effort you put in, the more you get back from the locals.

Of course, I will never be a local here despite my best efforts to look like one (the best tan I can muster, and dying my hair dark brown to try and blend in a little more) and there are still things that puzzle me about the Philippines – that suncream is hard to come by unless it’s officially summer (June – August) despite the tropical heat year round, that they refer to me as an alien in immigration, that they will never get the hang of a British neat and orderly queuing system, that they walk under umbrellas to as not to get a sun tan and that they eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner (and laugh at me for having a rice ban in my flat)! But that’s the beauty of travel – it is how memories are made and how smiles are formed. It is everything that’s great and not so great about the country and it is how I’ll look back on my life-changing year abroad.
About the author:

Over the last 10 years, travel has become an increasingly important aspect of my life. In 2010 I was lucky enough to land a job with Kaya Responsible Travel, a volunteering abroad organization which allowed me to up sticks and move from cold and wet London to the tropical Philippines for a year. My journey is now taking me to Thailand, where I am excited to be joining an incredible NGO based in Chiang Mai that works to help stop human trafficking amongst the northern Hilltribes. I also keep a blog about my travels in the Philippines and beyond called Living Without Heels:


About Kaya Responsible Travel:

Kaya is a responsible travel organization with a focus on genuine and meaningful volunteer projects in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Kaya works with communities in the developing world and areas of environmental concern to identify projects that are making a real impact and need the help of volunteers to continue in their success. Check out their website here:

About Nicci Hawkins

Nicci Hawkins was the placement advisor for Kaya Responsible Travel. Follow her travels here: Living Without Heels.

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