The frustrated volunteer

19 Jun

My experience was different in many respects to that of the average Aussie. It is hard to confess, but I find it hard to relate to the feelings of guilt or resentment that I’ve seen are common among international volunteers. I lived most of my life in Bogota (Colombia, not ‘Africa’, as my girlfriend once thought… she’s almost as bad in geography as me) and the truth is that for anyone to be able to live there, you have to get used to all the cruel realities that seem so foreign to the regular Australian. Every day, you go out, you catch an incredibly crowded bus with people coming out of the windows (similar to the Jeepney or the Indian bus), you see a few families in starving horse-and-carts carrying recycling stuff, and face two or three random beggars or quasi-beggars that open your door or give you directions to park your car (that you never need) or wash your windows (usually the day after you’ve actually washed it!). This is why when I went to Hanoi to volunteer, I didn’t feel shocked (well, just a bit with that swarm of zigzaging motorbikes). I actually felt a bit relieved… I felt like I was in a homely and warm place, after a year and a half of studying in Sydney, a city with nice and open people, but sometimes a bit cold, self-conscious and extra-polite.

And beyond the culture, what I actually struggled with was with the idea of ‘volunteering’ itself. I just never felt fully convinced of what I was doing. I could see in other people very strong emotions and commitments, stubborn attitudes that would be screaming to everyone: “I want to do something, I want to make a difference, I must fulfill the role of the volunteer… so much, that I cannot afford any time to think. Doubting the very idea of volunteering would be a sacrilege”. In this sense, I found very illuminating the post “What’s the point?“. At many times, I thought that only I was thinking about it, and I wondered if it was all to the fact that I grew up with poverty as my neighbor.

I still struggle with the idea of volunteering. So much, that I decided to write a whole thesis about it (well, it’s not just about that, but it’s where everything for me started). And at the beginning I thought my feeling was also the one of resentment. I thought for a while I was one of those blaming the West (by the way, I only fully realized until I studied in Australia that ‘South America’ — as Latin America, including Central America, is called around this side of the planet — is not really “Western”). But with time I’ve noticed that I don’t really feel resentment… how could I? I lived my own childhood with a 24/7 maid (it’s not like in Australia though, it’s a lot more affordable), I had the privilege of a good life, of a good education, a privilege that only a few get in Colombia, and just as similar to the privilege that Australians (or at least most of them) are born with. How can anyone seriously be mad at “privilege”, at what we could just simply call “luck”?

Thus, after a while I learned to recognize my true feeling: frustration. The question that subtly but constantly goes through my head, over and over, is: why things have to look like this? Why is everyone so comfortable with taking “luck” as it is? Why, if we all know it’s wrong, can’t we find a rational way to organize our societies that does not entail the cruelty of insane inequality and chronic scarcity?? “Luck” frustrates me, and it does so because it is so senseless… there is no way to explain it without realizing that there is no appropriatte answer for it, without realizing that the answer is really in our hands, is not laying around there, wandering somewhere in the world. And I knew well before going to volunteer, that I would not find the answer in Vietnam, nor elsewhere. The answer always follows me around, one step behind, slipping through my hands.

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