1. You are, and always will be, an outsider
No matter how long you spend in a community or how well you think you have integrated, you will always be an “outsider”. It is simply not possible to truly understand all the intricate details of another culture, the hows, the whats, the whys. But the inescapable “us and them” dynamic is part of what makes the experience so powerful. A little like astronauts visiting the moon and looking back at the earth, being immersed in a community so vastly different to your own provides the unique opportunity to see yourself and your own culture from a surprising new perspective.
2. You will not do the work you signed up for
The work that is actually done on the ground will undoubtedly be vastly different to the neat little position description you read all those months ago. Perhaps you will do the job you expected along with many, many more unforeseeable challenges and responsibilities piled on top. Or maybe you will find that the job you were initially assigned for is completely redundant, unachievable or unwanted. Usually you will find that order, logic and structure must be cast aside if you want to make a genuine difference to a real need.
3. You will be lonely
Loneliness, for some unknown reason, is a little like a contagious disease – no one talks about it and no one wants to admit when they have it. But it is almost inevitable when you walk away from everyone that you love and are loved by and into a place where nobody knows your name. You cannot rely on family and friends like you did before, to offer hugs, advice, ice cream, or whatever it was that once gave you comfort and contentment. Although you will make new friends, you cannot instantly re-create the deep, trusting relationships you have with people back home. But you will learn to sit with the loneliness, to realise you don’t have to run from it, hide from it or suppress it. And there is immense power in that realisation.
4. You will experience first-world guilt
Even though you are volunteering, earning little to no money and living in the same basic conditions as the locals, you will be perceived by most as an incredibly wealthy person. And comparatively, you are. You will most likely be disturbed by some of the day-to-day sights, sounds, smells of poverty. You will also find yourself lost in a murky moral grey area, constantly faced with dilemmas about obligations, expectations, privileges and generosity. There are no easy answers to any of it, but one thing you will know for sure is how lucky you are to have been born in a part of the world with opportunities and resources and safety and clean drinkable water straight out of the tap. And the dark sense of guilt is necessary in order to feel the lightness of overwhelming gratitude that follows it.