Anna-Maia tells us about her experience volunteering and working in Cape Town, South Africa – make sure you see her amazing videos over at Barefoot Traveller. 

Tell us about your experience working abroad?

I worked abroad for two summers in a row in Cape Town, South Africa, where I volunteered with children in a township called Capricorn with an organization called Dreams to Reality (through International Volunteer HQ).

To this day, my almost four months total spent in South Africa remain the most incredible and most memorable months of my life. I fell in love with the beauty of this country, with its people, and with travel. To date, South Africa remains the one country that will always be the dearest time, and my biggest love in terms of travel. I urge everyone to explore South Africa, to go in a way they can truly immerse themselves and live as a local.

South Africa opened a door for me, a door of travel, of working abroad and of passion. I hope that in this interview I can give you a little glimpse of life as a volunteer in South Africa, and that it will ignite in you a bug to go and explore the world.

What type of volunteer work were you doing in South Africa?

2014 was the first year I went to South Africa. I spent five weeks there in the Summer, where I worked at a childcare centre in a township called Capricorn, in Muizenberg. Each of us volunteers was assigned to a classroom, where we would help out the teacher. Some of the work I did included reading to the children; helping them out during class activities, such as crafts; setting up lunch hour; playing with them during playtime outside; and tidying up the classroom.

When I went back to South Africa the following summer, while I went with the same organization, I decided to do a different program — teaching. In this program, the volunteers are placed in different primary schools that children from Capricorn attend. While the program is called ‘teaching’, we were not expected to teach classes; after all, we are not certified in education. Rather, we led the tutoring sessions with the different subjects that the students needed help with: from Mathematics, to English, and Computing.

We also helped with physical education classes, which was a lot of fun, as the children absolutely loved being outside playing sports. During recess, we would hang out outside with the children, talking, playing and having fun with them. Because the kids were older than in the childcare program, you got to have meaningful conversations with them and get to know each of them, which was really nice and important to me.

How did you apply and interview for this type of role?

I applied through the International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) website. IVHQ is a company based in New Zealand that offers different programs through local organizations in over 35 countries around the world.

It is quite simple to apply. All you need to do is to pick the country you would like to volunteer in and then fill out a questionnaire that asks to present yourself, your interest in the program and country, etc., basically a cover letter for IVHQ to get to know you better. You also need to pay a registration fee, as well as provide a criminal background check once you arrive in the country. You should get an answer if you got accepted within a couple business days.

Was the program expensive?

Compared to other volunteer programs, it wasn’t at all! The first time I went, I spent four weeks there which equaled $675 USD + registration fees, and the second time I went I spent eight weeks there is equaled $1,175 USD + registration fees. The costs cover accommodation, as well as two meals a day (lunch and breakfast), pick-up from the airport and a certain amount of groceries every week.

What did a typical day in South Africa look like?

From Monday – Friday we had volunteering in the morning. The hours are different depending on the program: childcare starts at around 7:30 – 8:00 and finished at around 11:30 – 12:00, teaching starts around 8:30 – 9:00 and finishes at 1:30 – 2:00, and the other program that I didn’t try out was ‘surf outreach’, which starts at around 10:00, then you have a couple hours break and then you go back after the children are let out of school for another couple of hours.

Once you are done with your volunteering hours, the day is all yours!

In the Cape Town location, there are six volunteer houses, and while you get to know the volunteers from all the houses, people tend to stick with their houses during the afternoons. Activities that were common included going to the beach, surfing, going to coffee shops to grab a bite and get some WiFi, taking the train to a nearby town or into Cape Town, going into Simon’s Town by train to go see the penguins on the beach (yes, there are penguins in South Arica and you can get pretty close to them!) and so on.

Wednesday night and Friday nights were everyone’s favourite! Every Wednesday the volunteers head to Brass Bell, a karaoke bar where we all sing our heads off and have an amazing night! Fridays, right in Muizenberg is held Friday Market, a market with a wide range of delicious foods sold by small vendors. It is such an amazing event where the volunteers from all the houses can come together, talk, laugh and fill their bellies with amazing food!

On weekends however, people usually had bigger activities planned. The most popular things that volunteers did were going on safaris, going on wine tours in Stellenbosch, going shark-cage diving, hiking Table Mountain or Lion’s Head, visiting Robben Island (Nelson Mandela’s former prison), visiting Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, going to one of the dozens of markets around Cape Town, paragliding, abseiling, and so many more activities.

What were the highlights of volunteering there?

There are so many highlights, but I’m going to try to narrow them down to a couple.

First and foremost, it was for me, the first time I lived abroad and travelled by myself to another country. During my time in South Africa the first time, I came to discover this huge passion of mine: travelling. I knew I liked travelling before, but I never saw it as something more than a two weeks vacation. However, that changed in South Africa, and I started seeing travel as something more, as something that I wanted to do for extended periods of times.

South Africa ignited the travel bug within me, it opened a whole new world for me, which I am so grateful for three years later. My time spent there shaped these past three years: the way I went through university, my plans for the future, my aspirations and my goals. South Africa changed me for the better, and that will always remain most important thing that happened while there.

Secondly, volunteering in South Africa has allowed me to experience a different side of the country that I wouldn’t have, had I only been visiting. In total, I got to spend almost four months living in a South African city. I got to experience life as a local: waking up and going to a township, chilling on the beach with South African surfers, going to coffee shops, experiencing markets, etc., basically things that locals do. Not only did I experience life as a South African, but I also got to see the side of South Africa that not many tourists see: townships.

Most people who visit South Africa do the typical tourist things (which are awesome too), but never immerse themselves deeper. If they do visit a township it is through a tour. I got to go as a volunteer for months, I got to listen to my kids talk to me about their lives in the townships, and I got to go to two events I was invited to in the Capricorn townships. The first was a church event, and the second a birthday party. These things, you can only experience by getting to know the people and by immersing yourself within a culture, amongst the people. By volunteering I got to do both things, and I am immensely grateful for the people that I met.

What was the hardest part about working abroad?

I am 100% honest when I state that I am very adaptable. I adapt to practically anything, and when I travel I never really get homesick. I personally did not experience any real hardships that I could talk about here. However, I can talk about something hard that happened when I went back the second time.

Let me explain.

The first time I went, as I said earlier, was life changing: living abroad was something I’d never done before, I got to live with people my age in the same house who I deeply bonded with, I got to get out of my comfort zone… basically I had the time of my life. Because of how much I’d loved South Africa, I decided to go back the following summer. For the first couple of weeks I did what you should never do: I compared everything to the previous summer. I kept thinking, “this isn’t the same without so and so,” “last summer was more fun,” “last summer the people were better,” etc. So that was really hard at first: having the trip not meet my expectations. However, as soon as I let go of the comparisons and the expectations, everything turned around: I got to know the people better, I started truly enjoying every day.

So I think one of the hardest things about working abroad and travel in general, is having things not meet our expectations. The hardest part is to let go of those expectations. If you decide to work abroad I would advice to go with the least amount of expectations, and don’t ever compare your experiences. Every experience is a time to grow, a new journey, and an important moment of your life. Take it as it is, and let go of everything else.

What are the 3 best things about South Africa?

The first thing that comes to mind is the people. I have met so many amazing people during my 3+ months living there that I miss dearly. From the townships, to Cape Town, to the southern coast of Cape Town and to the small town of Muizenberg, I have met some of the greatest people I have met to date.

Everyone I met was so friendly and nice; they would come up to you and want to know what you were doing in South Africa, how long you were staying. You could spark conversations at any corner of the street with a stranger.

The second thing for me is how scenic and beautiful the country is. Wherever you are in the greater Cape Town region, you can see Table Mountain standing tall at the horizon. You can see its apostles kilometers upon kilometers. I discovered my love for mountains in South Africa. Everywhere you look in South Africa there is something beautiful to see: beaches, mountains, scenic roads, beautiful colourful houses, kilometers of wineries, the list goes on. The beauty this country has to offer is outstanding.

The third best thing is all the adventures and adrenaline-rushing activities available. You can skydive, bungee jump, go on safaris, paraglide, abseil, surf, etc. It is truly the place to be for people who love getting out of their comfort zones and experience the high of adrenaline.

What advise would you give to those visiting South Africa?

Take every opportunity, do everything and never hesitate.

Let me tell you a little story. The first time I went to South Africa I went on a safari tour (which includes multiple activities including a real safari), and one of the big activities was bungee jumping. I, however, being scared of roller coasters and the like, refused to do it. I never even hesitate, my answer was a “no.” I couldn’t imagine myself jumping off a bridge only attached by the feet. However, once back in Canada I slowly started regretting my choice. I kept seeing pictures and videos online of the people I was with who had bungee jumped.

The regret grew until I told myself I would do it once I was back the following summer. Fast forward to that summer, I went on a safari again and this time I jumped! I was more scared than I’d ever been before in my life, I was shaking and I even cried before! I couldn’t believe that I’d be jumping off the highest man-made bungee bridge in the world. But once I jumped, it was the most amazing thing I had done in my entire life. It felt so freeing and exhilarating to jump and fall through the air. When I got up on the bridge again I couldn’t stop smiling from the adrenaline and kept saying I wanted to go again.

This moment in my life made me realize the truth behind the quote, “fear is temporary, regret is forever.” The fear I had before bungee jumping only lasted minutes, but the regret I felt after not bungee jumping lasted a whole year, and would’ve continued had I not ended up bungee jumping. I believe that it is so important to get out of your comfort zone, do those things that scare you: you will only grow after facing your fears, and you will feel so proud of yourself. So my one advice is that, to face your fears and experience everything.

What advise would you give to those wanting to work or volunteer in South Africa?

My only advice is to go for as long as possible. Don’t think “oh maybe I’ll want to come back earlier,” because in 98% of the time that won’t be the case; instead, you will wish you could stay longer. I only met two people out of the hundreds of volunteers that I met in my almost four months there that went home early.

Everyone else either extended their trip (like me), or was balling their eyes out when leaving (also like me). You will not want to leave. You will grow attached to the country, to the volunteers, to the kids, to the locals. Leaving South Africa will be hard, so go for as long as you can.

Tell us about your plans for the future?

I just graduated university, and now I am getting ready to travel full time. In September, I am leaving for Hawaii for six months. I will be volunteering (through workaway.org) at a yoga & meditation retreat on The Big Island. Afterwards, I am going onward to Australia, where I will do the working holiday visa for two years.

From there I hope to continue travelling while building my online presence as a content creator on my Youtube channel Barefoot Traveller. I am also planning on starting a blog before leaving in September where I will be able to put into words my experience travelling. I want to work for myself while travelling full time.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

In five years time I see myself still travelling. I see myself being financially stable to be able to sustain a lifestyle on the road. Maybe I will have a home base somewhere in the world (maybe South Africa?). I see myself influencing people to travel and believe in their dreams through my online platform. I also see myself starting to work on my plan of opening a small, completely vegan, café/restaurant in a tropical place with my friend (shout out to my soul sista Saania!).

I want to combine my passions for travel, ethical living, veganism, and environmentally conscious living. In five years time, I want to be able to say that I have accomplished these things, that I am living my dreams and that I am proud of where I am.

I have always wanted to visit South Africa – this sounds like such an amazing experience! 

Any questions, experiences and comments – leave them below! 🙂

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  • […] There are lots of different ways you can volunteer abroad.You aren’t earning money most of the time but you are given free accommodation and food in return for your time. Read about how Natalie volunteered in Fiji,  Ashley volunteered in Ecuador and Anna-Maia volunteered in Cape Town. […]

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