An Inside Look at Living and Volunteering in Another Country
Most of us have daydreamed about the idea of living in another country at some point in our lives. Particularly with the rise of the digital nomad, it is perhaps more accessible than ever to live, work or volunteer overseas. Lara Abraham lived in Cambodia for 16 months, volunteering at New Hope for Cambodian Children, a school and orphanage for children with HIV. She shares with us an inside look at what life was like living in another country.
What did living in another country, particularly one so different to Australia teach you?
Living in Cambodia gave me a sense of gratitude for many everyday things we take for granted living in Australia, particularly our healthcare and welfare system. I won’t be able to forget the poverty I saw in Cambodia and the impact it has on people’s everyday lives. I saw this in some kids that I taught, the boys who often had to skip school to help their parents work, seeing how some kids do not have the luxury to simply be kids. I also really admired how important respect is in Khmer culture, especially how both spoken and body language plays a big part in showing respect to others.
Living in Cambodia taught me how you can find a home in unexpected places, and how much you can fall in love with people as easily as you can fall in love with a place. Living overseas showed me how much you grow as a person when pushed out of your comfort zone, and how these experiences shape you and your life. Seeing how others live allows us to open our eyes to the ways of others, and to appreciate not only the differences, but the similarities to our own lives.
What were the best things about living in another country?
I loved that I ended up in a place so completely different from my home. Going from a highly developed, beautiful and busy beach town, to beautiful green countryside, with rice fields and sugar palm trees right after the rainy season was such a contrast I couldn’t help but love it immediately. It was so interesting to see the change in landscapes throughout the seasons, from lush and green to brown and dry. I loved being able to experience a different way of life firsthand. Waking up to blue skies everyday, with my view of the rice fields, with people outside working the fields, often kids helping their parents before, or instead of going to school. I really fell in love with the Khmer people, who made me feel so welcome during my time there. The best part about living in Cambodia was the gratitude it gave me. For firstly being able to experience living there, but also how lucky I was to be born in and going home to Australia, somewhere so beautiful with so many opportunities.
What about the worst things about living in another country?
One of the hardest things for me, was feeling in a way that half my heart was in Cambodia while the other half was back in Australia. While I was enjoying my day to day life in Cambodia, it was hard feeling like I was missing things happening back home with my friends and family in Australia.
The heat at times was almost unbearable. It can be hard to imagine, but during the hot season I can remember the brain fog, struggling to think and be able to teach, how irritable you can get, the difficulty in even walking, always feeling lethargic and just constantly dripping in sweat.
The amount of rubbish and the ways it was disposed of, always frustrated me and broke my heart. I lived off a major highway so would always see people on motorbikes, or out car windows throwing out rubbish, especially drinks which would be in a plastic cup, with a plastic straw usually in a small plastic bag. These, and other rubbish would be thrown on the side of the road, or you would find significant amounts of rubbish in most creeks. These creeks are where you would find cows drinking, kids washing themselves and women washing their family’s clothes among the rubbish. At first I was frustrated with the lack of education around rubbish, but soon realised it was also lack of government providing means of disposal or removal of rubbish, especially out in the country.
What are the logistical things people need to think about if they're considering living overseas?
The country you are planning on visiting and the length of time you are planning on volunteering will affect your visa situation. When I first arrived in Cambodia I had not planned on staying as long as I did and had entered on a tourist visa, which allows you to stay for 30 days and can be extended once for a further 30 days. Upon returning to Cambodia I had a 12-month business visa. Depending on if you are entering a country overland, or via air you may require a return ticket before being granted a visa, and you will need an address of where you will be staying once in the country.
While volunteering, I made a donation that covered the cost of my food, clean drinking water, transport etc. This is a cost that many people seem uncomfortable with, if I am volunteering why should I have to pay? Honestly this did not bother me, the way that I looked at it was that why should it cost the NGO to have me there, especially since I was not a ‘skilled’ volunteer, and that I could see where the money was going firsthand.
Depending on where you will be volunteering you should also budget for spending money. I usually liked to go into Phnom Penh or on little weekend trips every second or third weekend, which allowed me to splurge on some of the things I missed, Western food, beer, swimming and often a massage. On a weekend away I would spend roughly $100 US which is the currency predominately used in Cambodia.
What did your day to day life look like in Cambodia?
Because of the heat we started the day early, with classes beginning at 7am. Classes usually ran until 10:30am with a recess period in the middle for the kids to play and have a snack. We had lunch at 11am which was usually pork or chicken, vegetables and rice with fruit for dessert. I really miss the fruit; lots of mango, dragon fruit, jackfruit, bananas and watermelon. Most of the kids had a nap after lunch, before a bucket shower and back to class at 1pm. Classes usually ran until 3:30pm and subjects taught for the younger grades were English, Maths, Khmer, Art and P.E.
After classes finished I usually tried to go for a walk outside the village through the countryside, where I could see the other local villages, temples and creeks, before being back for dinner at 5pm. After dinner there was playtime, interrupted briefly at 6pm when the kids had to take their medication, which involved playground, basketball, football or just hanging out with the kids. This was my favourite time of the day, especially as the sun set and we sat under the stars. Every night walking back to my room under the stars I was reminded how lucky I was to be there.