My Foreign Volunteering Experience (well my most recent one)

After attending the TBEX conference in Jerusalem and going on a tour of Jordan, I started a week of volunteering, via an international volunteering organisation, at an animal shelter in Tel Aviv. Once I saw the ad online a few months ago – and saw that a private room (albeit at an extra cost) was available – that was it for me – I had to seize this opportunity. It was the perfect excuse to stay longer in the country, and to make a positive contribution.
I’d heard stories about the “hit and miss” nature of voluntourism, of volunteers paying through the nose to merely have a taster of a volunteering experience without actually making any real difference. I didn’t have a huge amount of money and wanted to be careful, but I also wanted to be open to experiences, as making the effort to do so had paid off before. I’d had a taste of volunteering abroad a year ago, at a vegan animal sanctuary called Pig Village, or by its other name, Jacob’s Ridge, in Spain, which was the perfect volunteering experience. I got to interact with lots of lovely rescue animals, join in with other volunteers mucking out in the sunshine, go for leisure trips in and around the area, camp out in a tent under the stars and enjoy copious amounts of vegan food every day. There was a certain amount to pay for the experience but it was more than worth it, and every penny was going towards the wellbeing and upkeep of the sanctuary. I believe in money well spent, and this was just such a case.
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This was one of my first impressions of the place and it only got better from there…

I’m not quite sure I can say the same about my most recent experience. In terms of how much I spent, and in being unsure precisely where that money ended up going – not in what type of volunteering I did, that’s for sure. I always like to interact meaningfully with animals wherever possible and I got such a chance on this occasion.
I did have one or two tiny niggling doubts in the beginning, but the prospect of caring for animals in a place I’ve always wanted to visit was enough of a lure, and being able to do it for just a week was ideal, so that I could see how I liked it before potentially extending the placement. Those niggling doubts began to increase slightly as the significant and non-refundable down payment was made, only for communication to become intermittently mixed up and confused, with different people emailing me through different threads asking for forms which I’d already said several times that I’d sent. A couple of other niggles made themselves known when the travel insurance – included in the price – turned out to basically not cover anyone taking medication. For anything. This essentially rendered the insurance useless, leaving the only outstanding cost being for the price of accommodation for a week. Then the single supplement was quoted, and shortly after, quoted as being even higher – $300 higher – than a dorm room. But this was one thing which I simply could not compromise on – I needed my own room, especially for an entire week of what would most likely be hard but enjoyable volunteering.
Because everything was non-refundable at this stage, I tried to be optimistic and give the benefit of the doubt. I thought, well for that amount of money they’ve probably got a very integrated and involving placement lined up for me. With everything paid up, and hoping for the best, I embarked upon my trip proper, first going to Europe, then to Jerusalem for my conference, then undertaking a three day tour with Abraham Hostels, where I was staying. Then came the induction day, where I’d be joining my fellow volunteers and having a fun day in the city (or one more fun day in the city, in my case) but it was at this meeting that the volunteer coordinator informed me that I was the only one on the placement. I found this very jarring, as it was entirely unexpected, but what made it even more awkward was the still-standing offer to show me round the city, and at this stage my reluctance to be entirely responsible for conversing with someone at this stage in my travels won out as I was pretty damned tired by that stage in my travelling, and  I was also reeling from the disappointment that I’d have no other volunteers with whom to share the experience, as this was a big part of the reason I’d wanted to volunteer in the first place. So I ended up having another aimless wander in the steadily growing heat of the day, first to Damascus Gate, then back for lunch at a veggie cafe, trying to figure out how to best proceed with the placement now that things were very different from what I was expecting.
They say to expect the unexpected – presumably, I’m thinking, as in, a challenge during the programme, an animal which perhaps needs more intensive care than the others, for example, a challenge which I’d try to rise to. But this here – this sudden… what could only be described as a very expensive awkward situation, was truly unexpected. The type of unexpected which I had most certainly not been expecting. However, after a day spent alone, reflecting upon the situation, I decided to take a deep breath and approach it with a good attitude. I thought, when I get to the shelter, I’ll be taken good care of, it won’t matter, surely, that I’m the only one on my placement, I’ll be absorbed into the fabric of the place regardless. I was looking forward to meeting the animals and getting to show them some much-needed care and attention.
The next day, we travelled from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to check in to my hostel, and the co-ordinator asked if I wanted to volunteer that day and to be shown around the place. This was something I was definitely up for doing, as I felt that an induction to the organisation was a good start. But it was the phrasing of it as a question – as an option – which puzzled me. The co-ordinator told me that some people choose not to volunteer on the first day and, considering I had only a week on the placement, I found this extremely odd. Why wouldn’t anyone want to go ahead with the induction and tour of the facility? I found it hard to believe that others would willingly forgo a crucial part of their training, especially when they’d paid a fair amount to be there…
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We reached the animal shelter and there, the co-ordinator introduced me to the receptionist, one other person (who I never saw again afterwards) and pointed to a guy outside saying I could ask him questions about the animals if I had any. It was at this point that I’d assumed that at least one of the staff members would chip in and start talking to me directly, building a supervisor-volunteer relationship and showing me around the place themselves. But communication would be extremely sparse for the rest of my time volunteering there. I would end up talking to almost no-one else who worked there, and I’ve no idea why, even now. I was then asked to fill in a form ticking the boxes for things I wanted to do, including dog walking, caring for the cats (and other animals), admin, etc. I wanted to appear as flexible as possible.
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One of the dog kennels at the centre

The co-ordinator showed me the main area where the animals were kept and said that I could pick a dog to walk, for twenty minutes, on the leash the entire time. Any dog. Out of like a million. All the dogs started barking manically, desperate to be taken out for a bit of fresh air and exercise. I started welling up inside as I saw and heard the dogs who wanted so little, but so badly. They all looked so imploringly at me, and most of them seemed friendly, if excitable. I could scarcely choose one. We went into the kennel to choose a dog which the co-ordinator recommended, and it was then it was pointed out to me that some of the signs on the kennels were warnings, saying not to take this or that dog out for a walk that day, that they were likely to bite, to treat with extra care or caution. The warnings were entirely in the local language. I expressed my concern that I wouldn’t be able to understand the warnings but the co-ordinator told me to ask a member of staff if I didn’t understand anything. I was worried about how unprepared I’d I’d most definitely have taken the time to learn more of the language had I known how crucial it would be.
Now to take one of the dogs out for a walk. This was the part which I did genuinely enjoy. The overwhelming excitement of the dog I chose to take out for a walk gave me a feeling of joy and satisfaction which I rarely experience, in such concentrated levels, anymore. Saying hello to the dog was fun, having them sniff me out and wonder who I was, if I was worth getting to know. We’d have twenty minutes of fun together, for which I was all game.
So I chose a nice friendly seeming dog and we went for a wander around the yard. The coordinator also chose one and wandered out of sight from me, basically leaving me to it. When encountering another dog walker and their dog, the two dogs started getting very excitable and, before long, difficult to manage. They got their leashes tangled up and I tried to call for help but it took quite a long time for any assistance to arrive. I didn’t know how to manage dogs in this situation, whether to allow them to play fight or not, as I was unable to understand the specific requirements of the dog due to those requirements being written in a different language. But I was told by the co-ordinator, regardless, when I finally got their attention, that I was “doing fine” and when I expressed concern at not knowing what to do, they simply said that I just had  “spend time” with the dogs. Well in theory, spend time with all the animals, but this was going to turn out to be a very dog-based placement for me.
This was a wonderful arrangement in theory, and something I genuinely wanted to do, but due to the circumstances- that I had flown (literally) VERY far outside my comfort zone, taken a major leap of faith and paid a lot of my savings just to come here – it seemed all so… Lacking in structure. 
At this point I’d like to give credit where it’s due. The shelter where I was placed clearly does the very best it can for its animals and is a much needed asset to the city, and indeed the country, for the work it does. It tries to rehome every animal it possibly can, cares for the animals it cannot yet rehome, and relies heavily upon volunteers to give the animals companionship. I certainly felt the sheer weight of emotional expectation, through the intense gaze of each dog in each kennel, the moment I set foot in the place. However, this ambiguity of expectation was, for me, precisely the problem. The very thing which the volunteer co-ordinator, in particular, seemed to be “selling” to me as the main advantage of the placement – its easy-going, laissez-faire, “come when you want to it doesn’t matter either way” nature – which felt entirely misplaced to me. 
Basically I felt that far too much was left entirely up to me, when my predominant expectation, gathering from what I’d learned from the volunteering material I’d been given, was to prepare for a more structured experience. I was certainly no expert in what those vulnerable animals needed (besides a bit of company every now and again) – I’ve interacted plenty with dogs in the past, but not ones with highly volatile and unpredictable natures who, for all I know, could start mauling me if I didn’t know the local lingo for “sit!”, “stay!” or “down!”, where not even Google translate could come to my aid, as there was no app, as far as I could find, which would aid phonetic pronunciation with languages which have an entirely different alphabet structure to the Roman one.
Of course, there is every possibility that this is simply the Tel Aviv attitude. It is renowned worldwide for its laid-back party atmosphere, and perhaps that extends to every facet of life here.

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In between my all too brief stints of volunteering, I made the most of exploring Tel Aviv – at least the the greatest extent as was possible while afraid of trying to navigate the local transport system and also with it starting to grow too hot to do too much walking around, as is my usual method of transportation. The problem was that, now that I had rather more spare time than I was expecting, contrary to what one might expect, I actually had far less of an idea of what to do with that time, so much of it was spent aimlessly wandering. Granted, there are far worse places to wander in.

There was definitely a particular ambience about the place, which seemed to finely stride the line between relaxed and frantic, between calm and chaos. It was a marked contrast to Jerusalem, where every second or third person on the street is dressed in traditional Jewish clothing – the young people were pretty much all in the same types of beach-ready clothing you would find in any other cosmopolitan Mediterranean city. Two primary motives were at the forefront of my mind: culture, and vegan cuisine. This search took me through the main market street, which made me realise that I’m probably no longer cut out for marketplaces (and haggling), given the sheer throngs which began to build up as the day went on.

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I went in later that day on my own and there was no-one at reception, where I was told I could leave my bag for security, as there were no lockers in the place. I then reluctantly left my bag in a cupboard by the main door (very insecure) and started walking a few of the dogs. I supposed, then, that this was basically the idea – clocking in and winging it. So I determined to make the most of the dogs’ company. One dog in particular I tried to take out walking, as s/he seemed very happy at the prospect of being let outside, but when I entered the kennel, s/he immediately changed his/her demeanour, quivering on the spot, as if terrified of me. After a minute or so of attempted coaxing, I decided the dog wasn’t ready to go out that day. So I tried another one, who seemed far more confident, and it was before long that I realised how different each dog was personality-wise, despite being confined to a shelter and having endured an unknown past. There were shy dogs and outgoing dogs and active dogs and chilled dogs who just wanted to chew acorns while I stood at their side. Every single one of the dogs simply wanted to be happy and to do what came naturally, to be themselves just for a little while. It was always difficult to choose a dog but I just tried to choose one which looked both physically manageable and the most keen to go outside.
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The entrance to the centre

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Too nervous to go out for a walk that day 😦

However, conversing with the other volunteers was an entirely different issue. The other volunteers were all entirely local, and my lack of local language skills was beginning to become painfully apparent, and embarrassing. When the dogs would inevitably start to sniff one another, occasionally escalating into play fighting (and a couple of times, real fighting), this would also, inevitably, bring their respective walkers together for that time. The few volunteers who spoke to me did so in their language, and my sense of social inadequacy was all the more heightened as I had to, repeatedly, ask if they spoke English. I feared that, in their view, I was that typical “entitled foreigner who expects everyone to speak their language without every bothering to learn the local ways of life” – which, I guess in a way I was, but certainly not intentionally. Had I been more aware of the localised, almost grassroots-feeling nature of the organisation, I’d have invested a good few weeks, at least, in a crash course in the language. I always do like to learn the language of any place I’ll be going but, as my levels of concentration are so poor these days I really need to know, in advance, whether it’ll be worth the time and effort (and most likely money) I end up putting in.
I went in the next day, and then the next day, and it was much the same – but again I got the overwhelming feeling that there was just somehow MORE I could, and should, be doing. I was still struggling to choose which dogs to walk, knowing that every single one of them deserved love and affection and companionship and, simply, a reliable friendly face. I realised that this, in itself, was the very thing which I would have appreciated more structure in place in order to cope with – the emotional aspect of the role. Especially being the sole foreign volunteer in a land where I only knew a few words of the language.

 

However, just like the previous time, the animals were what it was all about for me. The same dog who trembled at my approach the day before was confident enough to come out for a walk and, amid bouts of random howling at nothing in particular, liked to gaze out at the greenery outside…

Then there was this little fella here who just wanted to chillax…

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… and yet another dog who seemed to like nothing more than munching on one of the acorns the entire time. I wonder if the acorn tree has some magical properties or something?

 

It was then that I also wondered if maybe I was the one whose expectations were somehow different to what they were supposed to be. Whether I merely needed to check my privilege, pull it together and carry on, whether I was just inventing things to be bothered about, like I tend to do. But I felt compelled to say something, in order to take as much advantage of the opportunity I’d been given as possible.

I emailed the volunteer co-ordinator after one of those days, outlining my concerns, saying that I was becoming increasingly embarrassed that I couldn’t speak the language, that I was expecting them to be more prepared for international volunteers such as myself, that there was no-one at reception when I got there. They agreed to come in with me the next day, promising to resolve the issues, and what happened was that they approached the reception with me, and said something to the same person they’d introduced me to before. And not even in English this time. It was then that, with a sinking feeling, I realised that I was not getting across whatever it was that, deep down, I felt was out of place. And it was then, at the risk of coming across as extremely rude, that I said that I’d be fine just taking it from there on my own. This was the best I could do from then on.

In between these stints I continued to wander aimlessly around Tel Aviv, admiring the overwhelming amount of both cats and graffiti which was to be found everywhere. I even attempted to go for a swim in the sea a couple of times, both times thwarted by how shockingly cold it was, considering how hot the area around the sea was becoming, so I settled for paddling. I began to grow increasingly frustrated with both the almost-anarchic style of driving and the constant pavement cycling, having bikes veering up rapidly in front and behind you all the time. It made walking around a more “jumpy” experience than I would have liked, and somewhat detracted from the otherwise relaxed vibe. I went to the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art, the old town of Jaffa and the only vegan cafe which was open on the Sabbath (which is a big thing in Israel), and the photography opportunities were once again ripe:

Although right here I have to ask something:

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What –

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– is with all –

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– the graffiti?

Not that I’m complaining, quite the opposite. I’ve just never seen the streets used so much as a creative canvas anywhere else I’ve been. Or maybe I’ve just been to all the wrong parts of town…

I attended the centre a couple more times – missing a day (which was extremely guilt-inducing) because I felt, that day, that the stress I would experience from all the disorganisation (and the embarrassment at allowing that stress to become so visible to everyone there) would do more harm than good for the dogs, who rely so much on the company. That’s not even to address the fact that I was supposed to be doing more than walking the dogs. I was supposed to be looking after the other animals there too, but it looked like there was now zero chance of that happening. It seemed as though I was not going to have the chance to talk to anyone, or exchange more than a few words which were something other than a mumbled “I’m sorry I don’t speak the language”, as I continued the rest of the placement not knowing a single person’s name. Or rather, I was told the name of one person who I wouldn’t see again.

Perhaps selfishly, I wanted to feel slightly different than all the hundreds of times I’d signed up for a volunteering placement at home. I wanted to feel something just… more, for making the effort to do such a thing – which I could never quite articulate. In a way, the placement itself had an all too familiar feel, and perhaps I was partially projecting that feeling from those times before, when I’d ended up feeling equally disappointed in my inability to make a meaningful contribution, but either way I’ll never know for sure.
After spending a bit of extra time bidding the dogs goodbye, trying to imprint their faces and their personalities upon my mind for posterity (there was no chance of me doing so with all their names as only one of their names was ever disclosed to me), I took a few photos of the place, walked inside, retrieved my bag, signed out, and walked out of the building for the last time.

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I’ve had some time to reflect on this whole thing, and am still trying to figure out whether I was taken in by a voluntourism corporation, requesting a disproportionate fee in order to do relatively little and leave pretty much everything up to me; whether I was unlucky with the timing, and that if I’d had more of a sense of “community” with fellow volunteers, that I’d have been able to better replicate the positive experience of something like Pig Village a year ago; whether I simply had the wrong attitude, and that I didn’t know how lucky I was to be there and to play such a fleeting role in the lives of the animals, that I should have just shut up and kept my niggles to myself and proceeded with a smile.
Or whether I had, for the millionth time in my life, fallen prey to my own AS, struggling with the “unexpected unexpected”, rather than the Unexpected Which I Had Already Been Expecting, with being entirely responsible for my own schedule, with being entirely in charge of making the experience. Assuming I’d manage far more easily than I ever tend to actually do.
Whether it was a case of being the right place – but the wrong placement – for me.
In any case, it’s been another experience, another “thing I’ve done”, which I can add to my list of things I’ve tried at some point in my life. A thing which has given me pause for thought many a time since coming home, turning over and over in my mind, examining from every angle, wondering how I managed to end up feeling this way about something which was meant to be positive Yet Again.
It makes me wonder how I’d cope with future volunteering – which has become an accidental hallmark of my life, in such a way as it does when you do reliably secure regular employment for quite a long time. Volunteering, by its definition, means giving up one’s time for a good cause, and to, incidentally, gain something which does not have monetary value. But again circumstances have a far bigger role to play than one might assume. If I’d approached this placement – and indeed any of my other placements in the past – with the attitude which, in retrospect, I can now say I should’ve done, I cannot help wondering if I’d had “The Experience” which I hear and read so many travellers, on so many blogs, proclaim to be the best thing they’d ever done. To have been, for all the right reasons, unforgettable. To actually rely on being welcomed back at the place at some point in the future.
Such experiences for me are rare, to the point of being uncertain that any of them even exist, even the ones which I consider to be the most positive. Even placements which I look fondly upon now give me the vaguely uneasy feeling that there was some aspect, some detail, which I neglected to notice at the time, which was all too apparent to anyone else there.
Now I am no longer convinced of the benefits of voluntourism. Volunteers whose skills really are badly needed will usually either have their food and accommodation paid for them or even be given a living wage, and of course I was under no illusions that I was going to make such a significant difference in my short time volunteering. I most definitely wasn’t expecting to be paid for my piffling contribution, or anything. I’ve since read and watched material online of the potential harm that voluntourism can do if done wrong, that it is not uncommon for young people on their gap year (who at least, unlike me, have the excuse of being too young to know any better) to look for a “gap year with a difference”, to add a little something extra to their CV. Volunteering abroad is very “in” right now, as the guilt of complacency and affluence, which many middle class westerners have begun to feel en masse, has begun to set in. Thus the perfect marriage of the holiday, and of benevolent contribution, was born. People will pay extortionate amounts of money in order to be placed in a situation which one would normally assume would require those with some amount of expertise. People are let loose in classrooms of children, a run-down village, a parched landscape, a wildlife sanctuary, and basically left to improvise. Some of these people even recall being told that once they are gone, their work is simply undone, as if it never happened, until the next batch of people come in to do the exact same thing. The sheer weight of emotional responsibility to their charges was in direct inverse correlation to the amount of actual skills and experience required for the position.
If the potential volunteer is anything like me, the sheer investment made before even travelling to the place raises a certain amount of expectation, lending the impression that more will be expected of me than your “average” stint of volunteering. However, the odds are most likely that the potential volunteer is not like me, that they simply want to go on a holiday with a feel-good-factor thrown in. Not a bad intention, for sure, everyone wants to feel like they’re doing something good while feeling good all at once. I certainly do. I still do. Yet one has to carefully weigh up exactly what they want to do, and the consequences of that desire, in as far as they can anticipate those consequences reaching.
I want to volunteer with animals again. I want to make a much better impression the next time round than I did this time. But I will have to better manage myself, check myself, prepare myself for the unforeseen nuances of reality. For how things actually tend to be. I will have to try to expect the “unexpected unexpected” next time.

 

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