There are endless ways to travel, to discover, to get to know some exotic, effortlessly beautiful place in this world. Some of us like to explore with cameras at the ready, some with journals of overflowing description, and others with eyes and a mind wide open. As I like to say, to each their own.
Normally, I travel with my family, and I don’t mind the drama that is my brother, the adventurer that is my mother, or the gastronomy enthusiast that is my father. As a matter of fact, I love the chaos of the four of us bursting at once with the spirit of adventure. We always manage to have fun.
In July of 2017, however, I tried something different: I traveled with a priority and objective in mind that wasn’t travel. Instead, I flew to Wroclaw, Poland to volunteer in The World Games. For those of you unfamiliar with The World Games, it’s an international multi-sport event that mostly features non-Olympic sports and gymnastics (an Olympic sport) seeking qualification in the next Olympics. I won’t go into detail, though. That’s a post for another day.
The point of this one? Taking part in The World Games allowed me to explore Wroclaw differently than I would’ve if I’d gone solely for the travel. Instead, I’d made friends first, and they were the ones to show me around the city. Since many of them were local high school and university students, they knew the city like the back of their hand, and I got to experience the beauty of traveling with them as a volunteer first and a tourist second.
Without further ado, I present to you my top 4 reasons to travel as a volunteer:
1. You get to interact with locals, and locals don’t sightsee the way that tourists do.
Of course, my friends showed me many of the sights to see around town during the first few days so that I could be a tourist for a little while, but it all played out naturally and effortlessly. They’d point to a building or a cathedral or a statue as we strolled down Rynek, tell a fascinating story, show me the best places to take pictures around Market Square, and then take photos of me making silly faces at the camera. They’d show me the most popular places to eat, the best convenience stores in town to run to in case of an emergency, the donut shop or ice cream parlor most frequented by locals, and even the cutest bookstores! Every once in a while, I’d get treated to a little history lesson or fun fact, and sometimes they’d add in a little myth or local legend for good measure.
I remember it was late in the afternoon when my friend and I walked into a protesting crowd one night, and she immediately filled me in on the conflict between the people and the Polish government. As we smoothly navigated through the large crowd, she translated what the protesters were chanting so that I could better understand the situation. There was no need for alarm, and I even got a glimpse of Poland’s political climate at the time.
2. The experience is refreshing and stress free.
If you’ve ever been on a walking tour or guided tour in a foreign city, you might agree that they’re very structured and fast paced because they run on tight schedules and have their own agendas. The tour guides will try to give you the History.com version of whatever you’re looking at in under five minutes, and sometimes they walk so fast that if you spend just a second too long gazing at the scenery, you might get lost.
But that was not the case in Wroclaw; it was actually the opposite:
My friends and I had eight hour shifts at the gymnastics venue where we were assigned, but when we weren’t busy assisting gymnasts, coaches, and judges, we’d take the tram to the city center and just enjoy ourselves. We’d walk a little, talk a little, and even shop a little at a grocery store or shopping mall that we’d stumble across. We’d spot the dwarves that were scattered throughout the city—a trademark of Wroclaw—and bask in the warm weather while eating ice cream and drinking soda.
When we’d had enough of sitting around, we’d get up, stroll through the city park, and even visit some of my friends’ old school campuses because they just so happened to be nearby. The topic of school would then come up, and we’d compare our lives as students while watching cars and trams criss cross each other on the highway from our safe little spot on the sidewalk. We were never in a hurry to see everything and not miss anything, and I loved that I could take all the time that I wanted to revel in the moment. Better yet, I never had to worry about finding directions, about not getting lost, about making it onto the bus in time for the next stop.
I got to experience a day in the life of a Wroclaw resident, and I didn’t mind so much that I didn’t get to visit the city’s famous zoo or Sky Tower because it wasn’t about seeing or doing EVERYTHING. It was about doing whatever it was that I was doing to the fullest, and I did just that.
3. You get to meet people from all over the world.
Traveling can sometimes be isolating and exclusive, but when I traveled alone as a volunteer, the only people that I talked to were strangers (until they became acquaintances and even friends, of course), and I LOVED IT. I met people of all ages and nationalities, and even though I was in Wroclaw, I felt like I was socializing with half of the world. The athletes, judges, and volunteers in The World Games were diverse, interesting, cultured, and friendly. Not only that, they were as curious about me as I was about them, and every occasion was the perfect one to get acquainted.
I remember running into Colombian athletes on the tram and striking up a conversation with them in Spanish, chatting with the manager of the Chinese artistic gymnastics team at a local grocery store in Chinese, and having local people shake my hand, stop to chat, and even ask for selfies around the city center. I got to work with a Brazilian student studying abroad in Poland, a German university student, a Russian photographer, a cheerful Lithuanian girl, a Belarusian student, and a Japanese girl who spent years teaching gymnastics in South America. There was also one guy that came from Mexico, another that came from Africa, and of course, many sociable Polish volunteers.
During my time as a volunteer, I've spoken with my hands to communicate with Korean athletes, helped Australians navigate a Polish coffee machine (with my handy Google translator), chatted with a Belgian judge who was about twice as tall as I was, and greeted this one Portuguese gymnastics coach with a kiss to each cheek every single time we met each other.
And that’s not even the half of it!
Honestly, it’s amazing what a VOLUNTEER t-shirt can do. It’s like a “welcome” sign that attracts friendly people like a moth to a flame, and in those moments, even though I’m a foreigner in a foreign city, I feel like I’m a part of something special and familiar. Being in Poland like that, as a volunteer surrounded by friendly faces, I realized that I can never truly discover a place without getting to know its people because travel is SO MUCH more than discovering beautiful places to look at. It’s about learning a new culture, a new way of life, a new perspective. The best way to do that is through the people.
4. Free transportation and accommodation.
Transportation and accommodation were a true blessing to have because I couldn’t have imagined getting around and finding a place to stay on my own at 16 years old. I might’ve been in Europe, but the “I’ll be 17 in two months” conversation probably wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere. The motto was “18 or nothing,” and there were no exceptions. Volunteering at The World Games, however, was not only a dream and a memorable experience but an alternative to dragging my poor mom along with me just so that she could babysit our hotel room while I spent the day volunteering. Not only was my stay covered, I also got a complimentary breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. All I had to do was buy a plane ticket, and since I would’ve had to do that (and more) to visit Poland anyways, I had no qualms about it.
Throughout my stay, I felt safe and taken care of. I had a room at a university dormitory that the organization had occupied, and I had an accreditation pass that granted me free transportation on the tram. If I’d had the time, I could’ve probably explored the entire city without having to worry about bus fare or about paying for a taxi. It was very stress free, and since I made friends within two hours of being in Wroclaw, I was rarely alone or lonely.
More than that, I discovered that there were easier ways to interact with the community that I was traveling to and better ways to do so than to stay in some hotel in Old Town for three short, hurried days before moving onto the next destination. 11 days was the perfect amount of time for me to sightsee, make friends, and still want to return to Wroclaw someday soon.