Friday, March 14, 2014

Thoughts on my Volunteering Experience!

This month in Sri Lanka has given me a lot of food for thought. Has it been a good experience? Would I do it again? The short answer is I don't know.

It brings me back to why did I decide to volunteer?  I wanted to travel, it was my first major venture travelling on my own. I thought it would give me a chance to get to know the local people by daily interaction with the staff as well as the pupils.

Did it meet those criteria? Yes, I have travelled. I came through Sharjah, managed the visa, spent 15 hours there sightseeing on my own and I arrived in Sri Lanka with no printed visa, it never arrived, and got myself to the hotel with little or no fuss. The first box ticked and confidence gained.

Getting to know local people and a little of their lives? Yes and no.  When I booked this holiday, I did so knowing I would be staying in a 5* all inclusive hotel. My friend told me that was cheating and I agreed but it suited my needs as I was newly retired and wanted a holiday as much as anything else.  I really did not have altruistic motivation.

But she was right! We were like aliens, jetting in from another world. The principal and the secretary called to the hotel one evening. They wanted a photo I had taken for a document they were producing. They were still talking about my hotel room a week later. They probably think I stay in 5* all inclusive hotels all the time. While I like my lifestyle and by their standards it is great, it is not an "ooohhh I think I will spend a month in a five star hotel" lifestyle. This was a one off for me, or I will be saving for a year or two before I could do this again.  This made getting to know people harder. Couple this with a serious language barrier with almost everyone in the school. Plus people will let you see what they wish you to see.

Did I think I could make a difference in a month? Definitely not, teaching is a long slow business. But did I foresee the level of frustration? Certainly not. I didn't think it would be a cakewalk but I imagined some sort of organisation to the day.

Was having fellow volunteers in the school with me a good thing? Again, yes and no. I like my own company and by the nature of the project we are thrown together constantly. I found it hard to always have to think of the other two and reach agreement on what we were doing. I missed my own space. I I found it hard initially to "fight my corner" when it came to deciding what to do. But I am learned!

I retired early because I didn't want the frustrations of teaching. I enjoy being and interacting with children. But now I want the fun stuff without the paperwork and accountability. In this project I was doing a lot of practical things with the children but it didn't give me much time to get to know them. My fellow volunteers though oral English was limited, got to know the children better.

I remember last year being sick and thinking, when I am retired I won't have to think about getting myself to school when I don't feel up to it. I will have permission to feel unwell and stay in bed and rest. Monday, I got a mild dose of Delhi Belly and I felt obliged to get up on Tuesday to go to school. Ten minutes in the heat and I knew I would not manage a day in school. I went back to bed, but awas feeling guilty. I didn't take early retirement for this.

I really appreciated my free time again. I looked forward to the weekends and the odd bonus day ofd we got, when I could relax and do nothing if I wish.  But is working necessary to feel this? Prior to volunteering I still looked forward to everyday. I am not bored.  I belong to a singalong group, a bookclub and a knitting circle. I love to read, to take photos and to watch tv in the evenings. Do I need the stress of a working week, even one with no responsibilty to enjoy my free time? No.

Others volunteer for different reasons, to escape the dark winters of home but in the company of others, to make a difference in peoples lives, to fulfill the need to work with children.

I am not sure I would do this again. I certainly would not do it staying in an all inclusive hotel, if I see another evening buffet I will go on a starvation diet, yet I am not sure I could homestay for a month or more. I certainly would have a lot more questions of any organisation before I joined a programme, e.g. is it an established programme, where does the money go, what is the level of english, what is the support on the ground and also for contact with past volunteers if possible to gain an insight as to the actual realities in situ.

My main motivation was to launch myself safely as a solo traveller. There are two more stages to my journey. The first is in India, where I have booked a car and a driver for the duration of my trip. The second is in Nepal, where I have booked my accommodation for most of the journey but will wing it a little more. I am looking forward to seeing how I cope  with the different types of holiday. It is a wonderful journey and I don't mean the physical one.

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