Arriving

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“I kind of got it wrong, I got quite a culture shock when I came (to Ecuador). I just kind of thought ‘oh they speak Spanish it will be just like Spain’ (…) I hadn’t thought about it at all and it is not like Spain obviously it is just so different, I mean it is a third world continent and things like that, so you know, it is kind of different to how I had expected”. Clare, a volunteer in Ecuador

Going to a different country is about, well, just that, a different country. Most people who volunteer overseas have as one of their principal motivations the wish to travel. People travel, as they volunteer, to have new experiences, to learn new things and to meet new people. However, there are a lot of assumptions about just what travellers learn about their hosts, and about the countries they visit – indeed, as often as not, travellers tend to experience what they expect to experience, rather than actually anything new. We will now examine why travellers do not always learn as much as they think they will about those they meet, and what you can do to get the most out of your time volunteeringoverseas.

The relationship between travel and knowledge, between seeing a place and knowing a place, is a historic one. With this relationship goes the desirability of being ‘well-travelled’; the idea that the traveller has broad horizons, has experience of the world and therefore command over it. Indeed, as the German geographer and military man Peneck stated, ‘Knowledge is power and world knowledge is world power’. It was with such sentiments that Columbus sailed from Spain to see what he could see, and how, through adding to the canon of European knowledge, he could make his own fortune. In the same tradition of travel and knowledge, British aristocrats have funded their sons to take a ‘Grand Tour’. So, too, do today’s backpackers, volunteers and travellers set off to ‘broaden their horizons’. Through travel we supposedly learn, and consequently travel gives us social status.

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