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11 things I learnt as an overseas volunteer:

20 Jun
  1. Stopping a meeting midway to go eat ice cream is perfectly normal.
  2. So is stopping to go and sing karaoke.
  3. The definition of being ‘professional’ is highly subjective.
  4. Work plan? What work plan?
  5. Many of my workmates were more technologically-literate than I was.
  6. It’s all about relationships and how you connect with others. Using a distant, formal, business-like manner won’t get you anywhere. Whereas, being warm and familiar will.
  7. Rubber-band or elastic-band time is the time that everyone abides by. Thus, a 9am start can mean 11am.
  8. Also, a 7.30am start is normal. Get used to it.
  9. You feel like a hypocrite compared to the local volunteers, who give up so much more than you do.
  10. You don’t make as big a difference as you thought you would initially. The complexities and dynamics of the world of aid and the development industry can quickly overcome any individual efforts.
  11. Letting loose at karaoke with a good bunch of friends is a great way to get over the fact that you’re not making that much of a difference.

The status of a volunteer: The Mesiah, the bringer of treasures, teacher of knowledge, who looks more like Shakira than any other person in the village. A reflection on the inflated ego of a volunteer.

13 May

I turned up at Sidhbari Hostel with only a bag of things. I knew I was going to live with the people, connect with the third world, and prove we don’t need the material goods in the western world we so aspire not only to own, but to be known we own. I wanted to live amongst the locals. With modest intentions did not take my fancy things (no laptop, not high heels, no jewellery). Despite this I was welcomed with great vigour, not only as a volunteer teacher, but also as an English speaking white girl with an Ipod.

My ipod soon became a star attraction. The children came from an isolated area in North Western India, that can be accessed only by yak during the snowy winter months, through which there is no phone line or electricity. But they knew how to work an ipod. 

A boy asked if he could borrow my headphones for the day. I assumed he’d borrowed a music player from someone. Later in the day walking through the village I saw him wearing them. I asked what he was listening to, the end of the cord in his pocket. He pulled the end of the cord out with a grin, nothing attached.

The first two weeks I was in Sidhbari people would run from their homes with children wanting me to hold them for photos and for the kids to show off their English language. They wanted me to tell them their children are smart, healthy and fat.

I was invited to every event. Never before (or since) have I made a room silent on entering. It was assumed I could dance like “Shakira”, (I got some funny looks when I did bust my moves at the many weddings I attended, I proved the theory wrong; not all white girls can dance like Shakira). I had become a celebrity based on the colour of my skin, and all that was associated with it, and I didn’t mind.

Some Indian men took the friendliness too far. I’d sit on an empty bus and the first three men to get on sardined up beside me to look directly at my chest. The first Hindi words I learned were to tell them what I’d rather they do (Ill write about Hindi/English swear words another time).

Despite this, the friendliness I received from people made my time in India easier and more warm than I’d have ever got without the beautiful people. By the time I was leaving I knew which families to stop by and say hello if I was hungry (the food at the hostel was meagre), who made the best chai, who had cute kids to play with while I had time during the day, who would help me tanslate Hindi and more so, I made close friends, who I’ll never forget.There were days I wanted to walk home without holding babies or discuss children’s progress through their English text book, but this wasn’t often, usually when I had another dose of Delhi Belly. 

But now I’m back in Sydney I miss the attention, I’m only another white girl in the village. I walk home from the bus, saying the usual civilities to neighbours, no toothless Indian women with a body shape like the samosas she is thrusting at me. I am again back to being only another white Anglo girl, in a white neighbourhood. My ipod impresses no one at all. 

Oh Little Decisions

12 May

Response to Carlos’ question:
Was your volunteer placement a hard decision to make or was it rather easy, a no-brainer? And why?

My heart longs to travel and to see the world and explore unfamiliar places. At the same time, it also loves to help people and experience new things. My decision to volunteer was a no brainer. I knew that I wanted to go somewhere. Actually I would take whatever possibility affordably presented itself. I was scheduled to go to Ghana for 3 months. I had paid the fee to go and was just waiting for uni to finish. In fact, I picked my uni subjects around my trip so I would be able to leave as soon as possible. I was too keen to go.

But when I saw the PACE Peru program, I knew that was where I needed to go. I could not explain the sudden shift but it seemed so right. I inquired about the details about Peru and learned of its application process. Without having been accepted yet, I canceled my scheduled Ghanaian trip with painful financial penalties and applied for Peru. After a long process, I got in! Best decision ever.

In all honesty, my decision to volunteer was not altruistically motivated. To put it bluntly, it was to better my career prospectives since cross cultural experiences seem to be the biggest rage. But since I have returned from volunteering, being the experienced employee does not even matter to me. Upon arrival, the smiles of the kids broke me and I realised that my time there was for them. Building a website, the walls and the school was to better their futures. In development and volunteering, I have to be fine with fading into the background. I can see why it’s easy to fall into the trap that volunteers are the answer to the world’s crises because they are loved by the villages that they are visiting. They are a sign of hope from the rich, rich west. They are different and exotic. But we are just in much need of help as the people we set out to help. At the end of the day, it was a reciprocal benefit and that was nice and necessary.

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu

Opportunism versus altruism

10 May

Sometimes I think my decisions to volunteer are opportunistic and almost without any altruistic motives.  I go because the opportunity comes up, because I have time, because I want to travel.

I went to Yuendumu because for years I had been saying “I would love to work in an Indigenous community!”  And then I got back from overseas and had 5 months till uni started again, and I saw the Youth Challenge Australia link on a website.

I went to Christmas Island because I was returning to uni after working for a few years and had excess time over January and February and a lack of money.  A few people in my immediate circle had applied with ALIV to volunteer on Christmas and in other detention centres, and it was one of the few completely supported volunteer positions available.

Only later, after the decision has been made, and people start responding do the altruistic motives seem to come in.  They say, “wow, what made you do that?  What a great thing to do!”  And even though I try and make my opportunistic and selfish motives plain they only seem to hear and recognise altruistic motives.

This is a wallwisher.

By clicking on it you can go to a collaborative sticky-note wall and answer the  question

Why did you decide to go?

Double click on the wall to add your own sticky note.

Live the high life! Be a volunteer!

1 May

On the volunteer program I joined up to, the program’s organisers said quite frankly that the professional experience gained by us will be greater than what we contribute to the organisations we work with overseas. Of course we have valuable skills, a unique perspective and the desire to do good. However, it takes more than that to make a lasting difference.

So the organisers said that for us, the experience will be fantastic and invaluable. Try your best in the circumstances you’re in, and be happy with that. Some of us were on 6 month, 9 month and 12 month assignments. These were considered short-term assignments, as some people work in the development industry for over 10 years.

Two articles were provided as links in one of the recent posts, no brainer, all gut-ter. I agree with most of the points made in both articles. We don’t lose too much by volunteering. It’s fantastic for our careers, sense of self, understanding of others and how the world works, and contributes a lot to the development of us being individual thinkers. Many people go through university being taught how to think inside prescribed frameworks. With overseas volunteering, we can take a step back and think about things through different angles.

It was also definitely a no brainer for me too. I knew I wanted to take this opportunity to work on climate change education with young adults, in an emerging space globally and in the developing world. I was curious as to the young ‘green movements’ that were forming in Vietnam, and I wanted to get in on the action! It was hard convincing my parents that it was a good career move, but in the end, I made my decision regardless and jetted off over the horizon!


Youth setting up their exhibit at the "Hanoi & The Environment" exhibition

no brainer, all gut-ter

1 May

I wanted to write “all hearter”, but it was all gut. And man, what a gut of time I had (that’s another post, the never ending adventures of my gut in India, intense and hilarious stuff, soon to come kids)

This is in response to “was the volunteer placement a hard decision?” In as few words as possible:

1. I knew I wanted to volunteer somewhere

2. I saw there was a Philippines program around the same time I learnt of the existence of my half brother. Yes, that’s another chapter in itself.

3. Being an envio student and uncomfortable with how “bad” air travel is, I thought: why not combine the two, meet the little fella and do some giving good?

4. Last minute curveball: “Hi Pace people, I am open to India as well as Phil.” And a week later: “Hi Prue, we would like to offer you the choice of India or Phil” – and for some unknown gut driven reason, India it was.

Which was pretty random, because I had never wanted to go to India, which is exactly why I knew I should.

So then it gets me thinking – how much of volunteerism is selfish?

How much of it is selfless?

I don’t think it can be purely selfless, there has to be some self based motivation in the first place, right?

Reasons Why

26 Apr

I kind of realized that I might gave this series of blogs a wrong start. If you are reflecting on a volunteer experience why not start in the beginning: Why did you go in the first place? Some of you already wrote about this, but here is what I think are my reasons:

Before I left to Guatemala I dropped out of university. I hated what I studied, didn’t know what to do and it didn’t took long before I gave up my (boring) job at an event management company to leave Europe to do some voluntary work.

If I’m really honest, I think I went to Guatemala to leave all the problems at home behind for a while. I didn’t go to help people, I went to help myself. It was sort of an attempt to sort my life out, to place myself out of the context of normal life in order to try to find a new direction. It worked: I think I did got a better understanding of the world, a better understanding of myself, and I’m back in university, so a new direction in the end.

Satisfying a selfish need by an unselfish act. Is there anything wrong with mutual benefit? I think there are always more reasons why you do things. If I would not have enjoyed teaching english then I would have quit. The reason why I left Holland was not the same as the reason why I went to my little english school everyday. While being abroad I didn’t thought about my life back home at all, it fell into place only when I returned.

And now I’m back and I wonder what happened to the kids I taught? I look back on it as a fantastic experience, but I can only hope that I really taught this kids something that will help them create a better future.

PS: When writing, I realized that I didn’t only taught the kids english, but I also implicitly taught them something about social hierarchies. Just by being there, I taught them (and learned myself) about an unfair world in which there are young people from far away who have the money to do nothing for a while and come over to teach them. I don’t know if I like that, but yeah they were bound to find out anyways.

The picture below shows one of the kids I taught. They were all very fond of our mobile phones, willing to pictures all the time. Never thought about it that way, but in some way I was an ambassador of the capitalist dream 🙂

The difference between them and me

12 Apr

Generous hearts

Camera happy kids

I love these girls

I want to be more generous. Over the past couple of months, I have seen people with close to nothing pour out their hearts and kindness to me. The concept of generosity is not limited to monetary benevolence but extends far greater like time, energy and attitude. Giving my time to people is often contested within the gregarious part of me and the comfort of my introversion. Naturally, I am a sanguine character that enjoys my friends, coffee and quality conversation yet on the other hand, I am perfectly content to rush through crowds of people, head bowed, sunnies on and evasive to people’s invitations to find an empty room where I can read alone for hours. In that state of mind, I do not give people the time of day that they deserve. Countless times my attitude to others is appalling and selfish.

A simple smile of acknowledgment goes along way and it costs us nothing. I believe these little acts of generosity can make the world a better place. One moment that seems so fleeting can mean the world to someone. I want to start treating people better.

When I was in Quilla Huata, the villagers were amongst the most generous people that I have ever encountered. They not only sacrificed their time for me but their money and their trust. Me, a girl they hardly know, yet majority of the village showed up on our farewell day and celebrated us. They bestowed us with bouquets of beautiful flowers, hand made personalized cards, spent the entire day cheering us on and giving us words of encouragement. They made the girls necklaces and the boys woven bracelets. These are people living in utmost simplicity, yet they never complained.

We students were treated like royalty. We spent five weeks in a rural town giving our time and efforts but when the time elapsed, we went back to luxury and comfort in developed Sydney. It’s not fair sometimes but we have to make do with what we have. Without words, their lives encourage me to live more generously and humbly. Since I am a poor uni student, I guess I must start with what I do have, a smile and time. Generosity is not about what you wish you had to give but what you do have to give.

Always smiling

Generous mother

self -ish?

9 Apr

I want to start from a beginning – from why I decided to go. People responded in so many different ways, but a common theme was that they “couldn’t do it” – do what? I thought, when this whole thing, essentially, honestly, first and foremost, was for me.

As much as I liked to think it was a selfless act, commendable, worthy… the motivation to do it came from somewhere inside, somewhere that was fuelled by personal reasons, something I must have needed to fulfil within myself and as long as I acknowledge that and don’t pretend otherwise then I think that is okay.

take off

who else

Maybe one day I will be able to do an act like this with true selflessness – but for the moment, most of it was about me.

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