1. Do Your Homework
First, you'll want to know about the practical stuff, like the new Bolivian visa and throwing your toilet paper in the wastebasket and not in the toilet. In addition, as a socially conscious gringo, you don't want to come off as a cultural imperialist.
As part of the privileged minority who can actually afford to travel to distant places, it's sometimes difficult to see the assumptions we carry around with us. These assumptions cause us to unwittingly make mistakes, like talking to a person who can't afford to leave their home town about all the places we've traveled, expecting Latin America to run on “gringo time,” expecting others to speak English, or becoming unduly upset at the “double pricing” system for foreigners and locals.
The more you can learn about the practical and cultural aspects of Latin America before you go, the better.
2. Learn the Language
Learning Spanish will make a world of difference in your experience of Latin America as well as Latin Americans' experience of you. If you are planning on studying Spanish in Latin America, try to find a school that pays its teachers a fair wage. Some, unfortunately, do not—your dollars go into the pockets of owners and administrators.
Your chances of finding work in Latin America are enhanced if you are bilingual and skilled in business, technology, international relations, development, tourism, or media. ESL teachers are also in high demand. Although there are people in both hemispheres who believe teaching English in Latin America encourages cultural imperialism, many Latin Americans feel learning English is a practical way to develop new cultural and economic options.
There are two ways to volunteer in Latin America. One is to sign up with a volunteer organization, which will often charge you a placement fee. The second way is to go directly to an organization that interests you and volunteer your skills. Skills most in demand are ESL teachers, doctors, nurses and other healing professionals, as well as outreach people who can help small businesses and organizations obtain funding or contacts in the United States. Other skills that have been put to good use are environmental and agricultural expertise, technical skills, and video and arts teaching.
5. Stay in Someone's Home
Whether you are just passing through, volunteering for a few weeks, or living abroad for work, there is no better way to really experience and understand a foreign country than to stay in someone's home. You—and your host—learn about each other's daily customs and have more informal time to exchange thoughts and ideas. You also bring your dollars directly to the community.
Lisa Gale Garrigues is a contributing editor for YES! She has lived and traveled extensively in Latin America and occasionally writes about her travels at lisagarrigues.blogspot.com.
Need help with your travel homework? Looking for work, study, or volunteer opportunities in Latin America? Want to try a homestay? We have answers.