From an early age I knew I had to one day visit Iceland. Ever since flying over part of the lower half of the country during a layover in Keflavik en route to America, looking down from the airplane window to see a glimpse of a landscape that looked positively unreal – volcanoes, rugged terrain, colours of water one would think completely unknown to nature – I knew I had to go. Or return. Depending on whether you’d count a layover as *technically* going to a place. I guess it also didn’t help that Bjork was playing during said plane journey en route to Iceland – in the late 90s, at the height of her commercial international fame – so their national airline is pretty good, let’s just say, at setting the scene.
Fast forward to nearly two decades later – after spending a period of time this year, ever since my trip to the TBEX conference, being mostly laid low for reasons I won’t go into right now, I gradually improved and decided that I needed to try one of my “attempts at travelling” again, in order to shift my perspective on life back onto a wider plane than it had already started to shrink to. This timing, incidentally, was right smack bang in the middle of what I’ve heard referred to as the “shoulder season” – that time when the summer crowds have largely gone, winter has not yet come laying chaos and destruction, and crucially, when prices have normally gone down.
Because I don’t drive (can’t or won’t I’m still not entirely sure) and my first choice would’ve been to rent a car either myself or with a buddy and see the entire country at my/our own pace, my second choice, in this case, was to base myself in Reykjavik for a few days and get the main touristy tours in, then embark upon an organised tour of the north of the country for a few days, returning to the capital for a couple of nights before flying back home. Sounds relatively simple. OK it turned out to be a lot more expensive than the renting a car/hostelling/camping/hitchhiking thing which many younger and more outgoing people opt to do but this was the way in which I knew I would best be able to appreciate the country the way circumstances (namely not being able to drive and probably being too much of a Goose to drive in a place such as Iceland in any case) currently were.
After a relatively painless journey to Iceland (thanks largely to the high quality headphones I invested in not long before) I arrived at my hostel – and its rather unusual sleeping quarters. While a long time ago I swore off staying in a dorm room ever again (unless I was with friends for whatever reason) I made an exception in this case because of the special “pod” style beds this hostel had, specially imported from Hong Kong and basically like a really tiny little room in and of itself. Which happened to still be located in a dorm room but this was about as affordable a “single” room was going to get in this country so I conceded, and had a rather fun time on the first night pretending I was on some kind of futuristic space mission…
After falling asleep basically the second I got into that pod-type thing I started early the next day with a tour of the Reykjanes Peninsula, an area of the country which is seemingly often neglected due to its deemed purpose of being just the location of the airport and the Blue Lagoon. It is actually meant to be one of the most geologically active areas of the country (and certainly smelled that way) and hosts the most visible part of the continental divide between Europe and America. That is, where the tectonic plates physically meet, rather than bureaucratically speaking. There were no border checks or anything there.
Setting out early, on a very chilly and overcast (and often drizzly) Halloween morning, our first stops were actually at a gas station, then at some “fish farm” where the catches of the day left a very pungent scent in the air, which would then follow us onto the bus for the rest of the day, in addition to a rather disturbing sight of the disembodied heads of thousands of fish in rows and rows being hung out to dry. Disturbing for a vegan like me anyway – a number of those on the tour were happy to sample the local “delicacy”, which I imagine many people are, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. I guess it comes under “adventurous eating” or something. We left mercifully quickly (although unfortunately I was unable to open a window) then stopped again, shortly after, to capture this view of a rare break in the weather allowing for this scene:
This is the sort of scene which I’d imagined long before coming here, and one which really sparks the imagination. It’s easy to imagine the “hidden people” from Icelandic folklore scurrying around the place, presumably being so skilled at building houses that they don’t mind living out somewhere the cold air can actually bite. So despite nearly losing the use of my hands from the low external temperature, I set about capturing as much of it as possible, both here and on the few stops along the way. There was a stop at a rather foreboding looking lake (because of the weather conditions mostly), some curious rock formations, hardly little Icelandic ponies bravely braving the awful weather like the little bosses they were, a random heart-shaped formation on one of the hills we passed, and of course, this all provided ample opportunity (for the few moments I could stand to be outside) to try out the macro photography settings on my camera again.
We moved onto one of the many actively geothermal areas that Iceland has to offer, and it’s one thing to know that such areas exist but quite another to actually see boiling mud and water coming out of the ground, knowing that it is *entirely* the work of nature.
Next we moved onto possibly my favourite part of the tour; the raised tectonic ridge which forms the divide between the continents of Eurasia and North America. Not only was there an abundance of that hardcore-looking black rock and sand which is unique to the country, but the idea of literally standing on the border – the true one – between two massive landmasses, and standing directly on the single longest “line” on the entire planet, was a thought worth reflecting on for a while.
(Brief digression: I got to put the panorama and macro settings on my humble yet dependable little Samsung compact digital camera to full use here. During this trip I would come to learn the limits of this camera (well actually I did on a previous trip but sometimes it takes a while for a lesson to sink in) – as reliable as it is for taking generally high quality photos for the most part, it fails quite spectacularly when it comes to low-light settings, for example. For some time before leaving I painstakingly deliberated over whether or not to invest (splurge) on a more professional camera, such as a Nikon or a Canon, especially with the possibility of seeing the northern lights so tantalisingly close. After a lot of back-and-forth-ing, mainly because I’d already parted with an eye-watering amount of money booking the trip in the first place, in the end I decided to stick with and make the most with what I already had – as it turns out, several cameras between all my devices – and to simply try to improve. In any case I much prefer to travel light wherever possible rather than drag around hulking equipment, especially when there’s no guarantee they’ll actually be put to use. I may however have to reconsider this attitude. End of digression.)
On the tectonic ridge is where I also saw a peculiarly colourful type of plant-life which simply invited a few photos at close range. It made me wonder what it was about the plant which made it hang on in this type of setting, being so seemingly inconducive to thriving life.
Stopping at another geysir (there were honestly so many of these that I won’t bombard the page with photos of every single one we saw – same with waterfalls, as spectacular and awe-inspiring as they are, posting photos of every single one of them might be a bit excessive) and at – *drum roll* – a lobster restaurant in a fishing village (where I only had a coffee and some snacks I had the foresight to take with me), we arrived at the symbolic continental divide, a place where they built a bridge between the tectonic plates so that one could actually know they were crossing from Eurasia to North America, and vice versa. I took a few selfies here but they look dumb enough for me to be too embarrassed to post them here. So instead make do with a photo of the symbolic bridge.
Finally, the tour ended with me, and a few other people, being dropped off at the Blue Lagoon. I don’t normally “do” lagoons, or otherwise any other communal swimming area, but it was one of those cases where it would be so definitive of the experience of visiting the place that it had to be done at least once. However, a mishap with the workings of the lockers, and no-one readily available to offer assistance – along with the unsettling possibility of having all my stuff stuck in a locker and being left all alone in nothing but my swimming costume – meant that I had to, very reluctantly, abandon the Blue Lagoon, merely settling for taking some photos of the surrounding area.
The next day there was another early rise for a tour of the classic Golden Circle and also, for shits and giggles, a snorkelling session at the Silfra fissure in Lake Thingvallavatn. In a literally freezing lake.
I surprise myself sometimes. I really do.
There was the standard coffee/photo-taking stop en route to the first official stop of the day, where I saw this oddly endearing “earthquake demo” at one particular gas station, a stark reminder of just how likely such a thing would be to happen at any time:
The first official stop was at Gulfoss waterfall, and on this day we were rather lucky with the weather. Despite being bitterly cold it was clear and sunny, allowing for good photos to be taken with far more ease than the day before. The waterfall was unspeakably massive, and not a little bit intimidating, as was the geysir at… Geysir. The sheer force with which natural elements move is alarming. You quickly learn to respect nature – and the many warning signs and barriers – in this place.
The favourable weather conditions allowed a glimpse of a rainbow. A great photo opportunity here.
Along the way we stopped at a farm with Icelandic horses, who were willing to come and say hello to visitors in exchange for a few treats. I did not have anything on me to give so I felt like a bit of a tease when they came sniffing up to me…
I felt a bit sorry for them, with what seemed like an endless procession of phones and cameras being pointed at them, but they were lovely to interact with however briefly. I don’t feel as though I encountered nearly as many animals as I wanted to during this trip – very surprising for a country so steeped in its own nature – so perhaps that’s one incentive to go a bit further off the beaten track next time.
Our penultimate stop was Thingvellir National Park, where the snorkelling session was to take place. I was already beginning to regret signing up, as I’d battled the soul-chilling cold all day, to the point where it was difficult even to continue to use the camera outside, but it was, by then, One Of Those Things I Had To Try While I Was Here. After what seemed like several hours of suiting up in completely waterproof clothing (I was prepared to take as long as possible to make sure ZERO of that near-freezing water got in), we started swimming…
I actually tried to signal that I wanted to stop snorkelling pretty much immediately, as the cold was so painful on the few areas of skin that were exposed to the water, but I decided to endure it and soon it was fine. This sight – photos here courtesy of one of the instructors – was the reward for doing so. I did take my own photos beneath the surface but feel that the professionals are best suited to portraying the sheer awesomeness of the lake on this occasion. Funnily enough there is also no animal/marine life in Thingvallavatn apart from algae, which made it all the more surreal in my view.
Our last stop was the original site of the Althingi, the first ever known parliament in the world, and it also turned out to be the site of a simultaneous sunset and moonrise, which I didn’t manage to capture properly due to leaving my camera in the van, because I thought it was getting too dark to be able to properly photograph anything by then. I did however manage to capture the sunset earlier, after finishing the snorkelling:
It was at the end of this long day that I was informed by email that the tour I was meant to embark upon – to Akureyri in the north of Iceland, and the surrounding area – was cancelled due to lack of participants, and then I had to basically scramble to make an alternative plan. It was during this scramble that I began to whole-heartedly lament my decision to take a chance on a third party, and my never learning to drive up until then. Had I been able to hire a car it would have been a lot easier to be flexible with travel from place to place, and probably a lot cheaper too. However I decided to simply try to recreate the original plan as closely as possible, booking flights and a hotel in Akureyri, and an alternative tour of the area. Then to let off some steam I went for a wander in the neighbourhood at nighttime, trying out the night-time settings on my camera.
In order to see as much diversity of landscape as possible while in Iceland, I opted to try to stay at least part of the time in another corner of the country. That’s why I opted for Akureyri, in the absence of the opportunity to travel round the entire Ring Road. So I flew up and walked the hour-long journey into town. It looked like a certain quiet mountain town in Colorado I have to say, upon first impression…
The plan was to spend the following day undertaking a tour with a Game of Thrones theme – to see some of the settings of the show, along with Lake Myvatn and some more iconic scenery along the way. More photo opportunities, more opportunities to fire the old imagination back up again… until the following morning, when the tour van didn’t show. Or answer their phone. Or answer their email until nearly a week later. Ok then. No biggie.
The only thing left to do, with no other form of transportation and a flight not leaving till the following day, was to wander around the town. This proved to be quite a logistical challenge as it had been snowing heavily overnight and I couldn’t even see where the roads and pavements began, but it was either that or stay in the hostel the entire time. I was beginning to become increasingly reminded of Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There, in which the author travels up to a remote Norwegian town in the arctic circle, where it is very picturesque but where one runs out of things to do very soon, which leads to a rather humourous recollection. With no chance to appreciate the surrounding natural landscape, and not even very many shops open, some of the few options off-season were, seemingly, to find the nearest bar or cafe and sit nursing a drink for a while. And take some photos of what could be seen through the snow. And have the single most expensive salad of my entire life.
Akureyri was only ever meant to be, for me, a “base” town from which to venture into the surrounding countryside. Indeed I get the sense that had it been during the summer, there would’ve been a chance to go hiking in the area, however on this occasion it was not meant to be. I was beginning to look forward to going back to Reykjavik – if only so I could have a proper meal again.
Reykjavik is a very pleasant and accepting town (technically a city but it really doesn’t feel much like one) and incidentally, there was a music festival – Airwaves ’17 – while I was there. But being woefully out of touch with the contemporary music scene, let alone the Icelandic one, I didn’t feel justified in buying an entire season ticket. However there were plenty of off-venue gigs which were playing around the town which I got to listen in on, while sampling the local craft beers, some of which I rather liked, some of which I’d gladly never go near again. An acquired taste indeed. It was a pretty interesting time to be in town.
One thing which is starting to increase in popularity, in Iceland, and Reykjavik in particular, is veganism. As a country which is widely known as being one of the worst places in the world to try to find vegan food – where locally grown fruits and vegetables are extremely scarce and imports extremely expensive – I was not expecting to eat abundantly while here. I was fully prepared to survive on snacks purchased from supermarkets the entire time, with the very occasional meal out if there was a rare vegan option somewhere. After all, it was not the local cuisine I came here for, but rather the unique geographical setting. The sheer novelty of the place. Yet options there were, in the most unexpected of places, namely an American diner-type venue where an old-fashioned (veggie) burger, fries and guacamole ended up being one of the best things I’d tasted in what seemed like ages; perhaps that it was eaten during a raging storm taking place outside added to the enjoyment a little. This, and the only vegan bar/cafe in the entire country, was found thanks to the Happy Cow app, which sorts me out pretty much anywhere I go. Also articles like these are a big help, serving as not only a food guide but as evidence that I wasn’t such a strange creature for wanting to continue being vegan even in the kind of place which seems otherwise antithetical to that kind of lifestyle.
Another reason to go to Iceland? The literature.
Iceland is a country obsessed with reading, having the highest number of published authors per capita (and general appreciation of reading, from casual observance) in the entire world, showing itself most notably in a very charming Christmas tradition of distributing a catalogue called “book tidings”, or “Bókatíðindin“, in order to provide ideas for books to give to people over the festive season. Oh and it’s also a UNESCO City of Literature, keeping company with other cities with a rich literary heritage such as Edinburgh. In short it is a place where it’s deeply cool to be into reading and writing, a perfect place for someone like me and my near-obsession with the subject area.
The literary tradition is, basically, as old as the country itself. The early settlers transcribed their thoughts and ideas into runic form almost literally (ha!) as soon as they made their home here and it would not be long before Norse mythology would manifest in the Icelandic sagas, producing early figures such as Snorri Sturlson – the composer of the Edda – which/who would gain prominence and notoriety over time. In addition, literacy has been a crucial skill ever since the very origins of the nation, even for the layperson, it was compulsory to be able to read scripture when Christianity took a stronghold on the elite and the common people alike. In any case, according to Alda Sigmundsdottir’s fascinating (if oftentimes surprisingly depressing) The Little Book of the Hidden People, life was often so harsh and grim for the Icelandic people that communal reading and storytelling was one of the few ways they could escape their circumstances for a short while. Read the fantastical tales themselves in order to see how far removed from reality they can be (one in particular is almost certainly the result of the inadvertent ingestion of an hallucinogenic substance) and you’ll get the idea.
As someone who was reading long before they could actually speak, whose favourite thing to do while growing up was to hide out with a pile of books somewhere, and who (eventually) got a degree in literature – harbouring a special focus/interest in mythology and folklore from the beginning of the course – and who, um, once tried to self-publish a “short story” collection on Kindle… I guess it’s kind of inevitable that I would end up coming here, and that I felt like I might fit right in. Even though lately I’ve been in a bit of a slump reading-wise, I always welcome the opportunity to dive right back in, and an entire society geared towards fuelling the habit of reading seems like the ideal environment, and one great example of this, found entirely by chance, is in the park benches in the city which allow you to listen to a sample of Icelandic literature by simply scanning a barcode, as shown in the photo above. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
Of course, I would need to bring at least one book back home with me. A real book, not a Kindle one. I ended up choosing the Elder Edda by (allegedly) Snorri Sturluson, and to be honest I was so overwhelmed by the choice of more modern literature (I’ve just never been into crime as a genre) that I decided to pass – at least for now – and rather admire the sheer legendary might of the literary canon:
So I ended up downloading a short story collection. Also, picking up some token souvenirs from the local grocery store in order to bring a literal flavour of Iceland back home with me. I still don’t know what to do with any of these. Ok maybe except for the herbal tea.
Today it came right home to me just how peculiarly I tend to occupy my own segment of public space.
I went to see a local exhibition a few days ago, and ended up only being able to stay for all of a minute. While I enjoy the activity of going to see a show or an exhibition, in and of itself – seeing what new and potentially inspiring works of art or other type of creativity has just been borne into being – I struggle with the inevitably social side of doing so. Even in a relatively quiet setting, if someone – even one other person – comes in, it changes the entire ambience for me. Indeed it’s even worse for me if it’s only one other person, because then it becomes a Potential Social Situation. You know, where it feels dangerously close to being a thing which feels like a thing you’re Doing Together, rather than simply Doing In The Same Place At The Same Time…
Albeit one that’s not immediately apparent but still, essentially, one.
In quite a few posts on this site I’ve made reference to the notion of missing out on something which I can never quite pin down. It just hovers over me, tormenting me in the form of the elusive Idea That Everyone Else Is Doing Some Amazing To Some Extent And Which You’re Kind Of A Big Loser And A Bit Of An Idiot For Not Doing Or Even Knowing About In the First Place.
In a bid to quell this feeling as much as possible (ignoring the infinite regret of having missed out on lots of these things much earlier on in life) I’ve been making more of an effort to do cultural things and expand my mental landscape in the process. When you are only sporadically employed at most, and find that you have an ongoing obstruction to creativity, a chronic inability to prompt yourself into action AND a tendency to magnify niggling worries until they end up being far bigger and more intrusive than they originally were, you start to realise the importance of keeping yourself occupied in a somewhat healthy way. Some of the time, reading a good book can divert and alleviate these encroaching thoughts/feelings but it has to be a really good one. (Few books really draw me in enough to make me forget myself completely but it’s well worth continuing the search for that odd one.)
I try to venture outside what I know every so often, and also to stay in touch with “what’s happening”, which is all too easy to do. Luckily, between Glasgow and Edinburgh there are frequent cultural events which can be attended without too much practical difficulty, many of them showcasing upcoming art and literature. From poets with a profane edge, to niche photography exhibitions, to open questions concerning the meaning of “fake” (very popular in 2017), it’s easy to just “drop in” here and there to check out whatever rouses one’s curiosity. The latest exhibition I went to see had a library theme: it was basically a small special collection of history, travel, art, etc themed books in a communal sitting area, with a smattering of books in the adjacent room suspended from the ceiling.
As someone who trained to be a librarian not too long ago, this felt like one of the things I had to go see at least once. It has been the motivating factor for many of the slight detours I’ve made on recent trips (basically any renowned public library or collection in the city I happen to be in (with the personally infamous inclusion of the Library of Congress – the librarian’s pilgrimage site – which it never occurred to me for a second would be closed on a Sunday…)) because what better way to delve into the psyche of a place – if places can even be said to have any kind of collective psyche – than to meander through the written collections of its literary representative, and even also some up and coming voices from the region. So… a library collection serving as an art exhibition near where I live? Alright then!
More often than not, due to repeat experiences in crowded, noisy, bright museums and galleries and other cultural venues – where the distractions all around by far cancel out any potential enjoyment or appreciation to be had from the actual artefacts on display – I’ve started to try to go to these things less and less, and only occasionally now. Yet as a trainee librarian, one thing which was made very clear was the collective bid to encourage the general public’s patronage and attendance, including measures to make venues more accessible to those with special requirements and/or disabilities. In short, they really want lots of people going to these things, which in and of itself is really no bad thing. Furthermore, as someone who finds that the more personalised and exclusive a place feels the more enjoyable, I realise that I am most likely very much in the minority. There have been occasions, however, when the conditions have been, if not ideal, then perhaps as close to ideal as is possible.
The British Museum in London ran an open evening a year ago (not sure if that’s a regular thing) which held an instant appeal for me as I was alone and didn’t feel like either going on a “night out” alone or, well, going back to my hotel room alone. However it seems that almost everyone in the area had the same idea; cue one of the noisiest and busiest sessions at a museum that I think I’ve ever seen. Although this time, I had a secret weapon – earplugs. Along with a resolute will to make the most of a rare free activity in London.
Earplugs made a huge difference to the ability to appreciate objects of antiquity such as the Rosetta Stone and the personal collection of, arguably, the world’s first librarian. It was then that I was able you appreciate what a cool place the British Museum is, especially during an open evening, when you can (almost) imagine that things in there are about to come to life…
More recently, there was an exhibition at the nearby Tramway Theatre involving a special and now-obsolete type of film being used in the photography of a visiting American artist, which required the entire room – the size of a warehouse – to be almost completely blacked out. In fact, here’s the bit I liked – you needed a torch to go in there, because any exposure to light would have been damaging to the type of film being used. Wandering around in an almost completely dark and empty place was intriguing and a bit good-scary, but of course I was unable to take any photos, even if it was allowed nothing would have been properly visible.
The examples above are, as far as I’m currently aware, exceptions to to the general rule. Due to increasing (over)population and the competing need for everyone to be everywhere at all times – and to take the appropriate selfies to prove they were there – very few places have an ambience of retreat and escape. Yet this is perhaps all part of the challenge of modern living, to find a way to both co-exist with fellow people and to create a way of being both original in and true to oneself whilst sharing an experience which, essentially, was designed for the very purpose of being shared by and amongst people.
It is an ongoing challenge, and I’ve no idea how that will work out for me personally in the future.
I made the decision to volunteer with animals again. As given away in the title.
I’m always on the look-out for events where I can actually interact with animals, especially in a vegan setting. If there’s one thing I can never understand it’s when animal products are served or consumed in a place where the animals are meant to be enjoying a “safe space” from that very thing. Just over a year ago I volunteered at a place in Spain called Jacob’s Ridge, otherwise known as Pig Village, and as a vegan sanctuary it ticked all the boxed for me. In exchange for a few hours’ volunteering per day, you got a tent, lots of homemade vegan food and the pleasure of interacting with animals with personalities all over the spectrum, and of course falling asleep – and waking – to the sound of pigs snorting and munching just outside.
I didn’t write much about it at the time, because I was only just getting the hang of blogging and there were simply too many angles from which to approach it (going through a writer’s block at the time didn’t exactly help either) so one of these days I’ll need to retroactively write a fuller account of my time there. In the meantime I’ll just focus on the present, and most recent experience.
I’m a member of the London Vegan Meetup group, which I joined a year ago when I realised that you were actually allowed to join groups based in places where you don’t go to an awful lot but simply have an interest in what they might be doing and want to decide, at the time, whether or not you’ll be available, or be willing to make the effort to attend. I was both of these things and, based on a quick read of the website (and the fact that I was looking for an excuse to visit London (and Brighton) again anyway) I signed up and booked into the cheapest accommodation possible. This proved to be not too difficult as student accommodation starts freeing up during the summer months so woo hoo!
As per usual, I scouted around for lodgings which made up the magic combo – affordable, central in location, and with free wifi. However because it was central London I was prepared to compromise on things like cleanliness, comfort and noise level. As for getting to London, I was going to fly down, having had a not too great experience getting a very busy train for a very long five hours last time, but because it was so last minute flight prices had been bumped right up, so I looked again on the train website for journeys that wouldn’t be too expensive. It was then that I noticed that some first class seats were going not exactly cheaply but far less extortionately expensive than usual, and it was the option which allowed for individual seating. That was me sold, although it took a bit of going back and forth before finally committing to the entire thing – the day before departure.
So I packed as lightly as possible and away I went, the journey going without a hitch except that the seats weren’t quite as “individual” as they were advertised as being, resulting in me cursing my decision to “treat” myself to a first-class ticket for the very first time. Luckily the accommodation was within walking (huffing with a suitcase) distance of the train station, and the room was indeed very “spartan” – it resembled a prison cell more than a student’s room to be honest but knowing that I could leave at any time (minus the accommodation price) made it easier somehow.
Rising after virtually no sleep (if any) early the next morning, I popped into Regent’s Park and took some photos – and met a squirrel who was not in the least bit shy about approaching me – before meeting fellow volunteers at Charing Cross Station.
It would emerge that only a third of the fifteen or so people who signed up actually showed up, which was incredibly disappointing (although this wasn’t exactly the first time I experienced this sort of thing) not least of all for the organiser, but we went ahead anyway. We were picked up at the nearest train station by the volunteer who was driving and we arrived at the sanctuary. It was a glorious sunny day for the event to be happening, and the animals – pigs, cows, ducks, chickens, geese and one very friendly goat – were all happily splashing or wallowing around, just as they were meant to be.
A bit of background info: FRIEND Animal Rescue is an organisation based in the rural Kent area which takes in any abandoned and/or neglected animal they can. These are primarily what most people would consider “farm animals” – who are quite possibly the most systematically abused and unfortunate creatures on the planet – along with a few “companion” animals, and here they are allowed to live out their lives in comfort and peace. Also (what particularly drew me to this place) is that it is a vegan sanctuary, with the humans actively promoting a vegan lifestyle, namely through their open days where visiting humans can observe and interact with the animals (subject to the wishes of the animals of course) and learn more about a responsible and compassionate lifestyle.
Back to the volunteer day; knowing that I don’t do well when put in a situation where I don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing, I decided to simply do exactly what the volunteer I was paired up with was doing, and got to work sweeping out the hen houses, picking up the eggs they had laid (along with the, ahem, accompanying fluids attached to said eggs), refilling water, shovelling manure, and generally meeting and greeting (and getting nibbled and pecked by) the non-human residents along the way.
I learned a few things about some of them; geese and ducks are quite bold and defensive, squawking constantly and trying to peck at you if you get too close;
Chickens don’t mind too much if you stroke them, providing they’re in the right mood;
Goats, or this one goat in particular in any case (who I took it upon myself to name Goaty McGoatface in the absence of knowing their name) can be surprisingly friendly, going as far as to follow you for a stroke or two;
Cows, particularly bullocks, are more massive than you’d imagine;
And pigs can demolish entire pineapples and watermelons at an alarming rate;
Of course, these traits – particularly the ones relating to temperament and personality – are not necessarily ones which define the entire species, as that would be a blanket generalisation which contributes, in part, to the speciesism which humans are all too inclined towards. Some of the negative traits, such as the fear, aggression and irritability, are just as likely to have been the result of mistreatment in their past lives as mere quirks of their individuality – with it being a rescue centre, the animals coming to the place will have come from a background which many would not even want to think about, but one which is all too often a reality – and indeed routine – for virtually all of their kind. However as volunteers we came prepared for entire personality “spectrum”, taking care to practice sensitivity and kindness, and being pragmatic about some of them not wanting to get too close.
In any case, the animals were by and large very good sports at having us there, making brief interruptions to their personal space in order to do the maintenance work required for the open day, although I did get pecked and grunted at more than a few times. Such is the price of caring!
Before even the lunch break (an all-vegan potluck for which I was woefully ill-prepared with cereal bars being my sole contribution) I was absolutely shattered, and genuinely felt unable to continue for much longer. It is rare that I do a full day of concentrated work these days, my energy only tends to only come in the shortest of bursts here and there (if I’m lucky) but knowing it was for a special cause, and being among like-minded people, I pushed on, and I was most glad I did so. As a vegan who strives to do as much good for animals as possible (I still have too many commitment issues to adopt one but I’m working on that), I would love for this to be a more regular thing to do.
As of yet there is no fully vegan animal rescue centre in Scotland to my knowledge – at least one that can be reached without a car. There is one which is still in the process of being funded and is not yet open but I don’t know its exact intended location. Not even FRIEND Animal Rescue could be accessed easily without carpooling, but if there were such a place near where I lived I would be a regular volunteer. Ever since volunteering itself seemingly became a “privilege” which necessitates a rigorous screening process and put on a months-long waiting list – or like me, simply being let go after a session or two for no apparent reason – I’ve found my drive to continue to make a come-back into volunteering wane considerably. One might think that simply a willingness to help would be the only necessary prerequisite (along with a basic background check if working with vulnerable beings) but when I find that I spend most of my time at home not really doing anything of much use to the wider world when I KNOW I want to be more productive, and to participate more in society, one can’t help but conclude that there has to be a reason.
The great thing about places like FRIEND Animal Rescue is that they welcome any and all volunteers with open arms, perhaps in part because compassion and consideration for animals (outside of those relegated to pet-status) is still so rare, despite growing awareness with the help of vegan activists, that all the help anyone can offer is the very least that people can offer these animals who have endured such a hard life.
I’d strongly urge anyone to go visit their nearest animal sanctuary or rescue centre – actually go to meet these animals face to face, and then never allow themselves to forget the faces that will imprint themselves on their mind’s eye. The faces behind the “machine” which only views them as products and property, doing all it can to hide the fact that they, in the truest sense, are people too.
Books can be – from time to time – exactly what you need to press the re-set button on your life.
Over the past few months I’ve entered a weird sort of limbo, feeling quite low and not having any particular direction to go in – and then acquiring a lot of additional anxiety to add to the mix. Indeed I originally aimed to write this post two months ago, hence why it is dated to two months before I actually got round to finishing writing the entire thing.
For a brief period of time I tried to re-imagine myself as a travel writer, as one might ascertain from my past few blog posts. Having plenty of spare time, and nothing in particular tying me down to my current residence, I jaunted pretty much wherever I was inspired to go. However, after my most recent trip down to London to volunteer at an animal sanctuary, it was unofficially “the plan” to put another plan in place.
However… one thing I did not account for was the possibility of my mood taking a very sudden downturn – previous existential issues which had been humming in the background of my brain for as long as I can remember suddenly got a lot louder and more urgent, and long story short, I’ve really not been in a very good place recently, brain-wise. Indeed, perhaps it is a good thing that, by this time, I hadn’t acquired any greater commitments to any third parties than a remote part-time gig as a freelance literary study guide writer, with no deadlines set in stone. Because I was about to spend at least a good few weeks getting reacquainted with my old regular companion, anxiety – and its bigger and meaner cousin, existential dread. The extent to which I had failed, repeatedly, to “establish” myself in the greater world’s society and culture, and even just in everyday life (by failing to meet many of the milestones which are normally expected of someone my age), was beginning to weigh heavily upon me. For a good few weeks I could do little other than stay in bed numbing myself with Netflix and Youtube re-runs in a bid to silence the ever-growing voice saying, let’s just say, rather scary things to me.
Whether this would have happened anyway, or whether it was a result of a recent change in medication (which can make you feel much worse in the beginning) I’m still not entirely sure, and I still suffer from recurrent depression and anxiety, only now I can (usually (eventually)) leave my bed, and even the house, at some point during the day. There’s no apparent reason why the very things which had been playing on my mind for a long time should have bothered me so much more but there you go. In a bid to cope, one thing which I ended up doing, which I didn’t realise I was doing all that much of at the time, was reading.
Some of this was work-related, which kept my brain somewhat active, and delayed the spiralling of the thoughts I was beginning to have. But most of it was a bid to seek an escape, and some hope. Below are the books in roughly the order I read them in, except where grouping them together makes better narrative sense.
*For now, I will not apologise for the fact that almost all of these books were acquired via Kindle – when you can’t even get round to renewing your library card and don’t want to risk having to ask someone for books you might be interested in (what a terrible would-be librarian I’ve become!) but still need to read things, then you’ll do things which are normally not quite in line with your principles: for me, that’s giving lots of business to Amazon.*
The Humans – Matt Haig
This author has started to have an increasingly greater influence on my outlook on life. “The Humans” was the first of his books that I read, as part of my study guide writing project, about an alien being from a faraway part of the universe coming to earth with an order to destroy the main character, Andrew, and take his place while completing the rest of his mission. Initially a coldly rational being who is puzzled by the strange-seeming ways of humans, he begins to slowly adapt and even to come to love his “family”, and ends up protecting them from the very mission which he was originally assigned to. Various aspects of the personality of “Andrew” – the alien – emerge through interactions with the humans around him; he is baffled as to why people eat animals and refuses any meat dishes offered to him (could he be an alien version of a vegan?), why people wear clothes and make certain facial expressions, and otherwise do things for no clear logical reason. The detached perspective on the ways of the human race cast a new light on how people find meaning in life. “Andrew” begins to find it in seemingly small things; music, wine, the poetry of Emily Dickinson (the author and I seem to share a bit of an obsession with Dickinson) – and ultimately in a newfound love for his family. The “rules for life” at the end of the book, which “Andrew” writes for his son, are full of deceptively profound pieces of advice, and it’s quite difficult to be honest to not try out at least a few.
The Last Days of Night – Graham Moore
Another book read for the study guide writing project, “The Last Days of Night” chronicles the dawn of the era of electrical lighting, and the resulting legal war being waged by proclaimed light-bulb inventor Thomas Edison on his immediate rival George Westinghouse. Precocious young lawyer Paul Cravath, attempting to make a name for himself far away from his humble beginnings, is tasked with defending Westinghouse, which seems like an increasingly impossible task given the ruthlessness with which Edison is prepared to defend his patent. Meanwhile New York has become, literally, a beacon of light in the new world of America as Edison’s bulbs, despite their dangerous direct current electricity, begin to adorn the streets, bringing new light – and resulting new possibilities – to the people. Paul rises to the challenge, and soon encounters another major figure from the era, Nikola Tesla, who has developed brilliant and unprecedented visions for scientific progress, including the safe harnessing of alternating current which would see safe and reliable lighting being brought to everyone in the country, and eventually the world. Paul’s attention is soon waylaid by the appearance of actress Agnes Huntington, who seeks his legal assistance for another case and is soon shown to be hiding a secret past life.
The main thing which drew me into this book was the portrayal of the characters, who have dialogue almost exactly of the style which would be used today, and indeed the author has a knack for making the world of late nineteenth century New York feel just as vivid, relevant and contemporary as it is today. The secret desire of Agnes to shed her stuffy facade and cut loose into the less reputable corners of New York high society shows a flicker of rebellion which contradicts the flat and lifeless image which many have of that era. Another key detail which gives the narrative an additional relevance is the use of quotes from key modern figures in science and technology, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the internet (at least as we know it today)), which effectively foreshadow the events shortly to come. As a fan of historical fiction (when done just the right way) the juxtaposition of old and new automatically catches my interest and creates the feeling that the past is not so much a foreign country as a thing which is often overlooked and misunderstood by many, and takes a skilled writer to bring back to life.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind – Yuval Harari
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow – Yuval Harari
*I’ll get round to reviewing these two books shortly. They require quite a bit more dissection than I feel capable of right now but trust me – they’re quite something*
How To Stop Time – Matt Haig
The most recent release by the author, “How To Stop Time” is a story about a man called Tom who has lived for over four hundred years, due to having an extremely rare condition – “anageria” – which delays ageing and vastly prolongs life. Over the most recent years he has been starting his life over every eight years in a different part of the world under a different identity, and this time he has chosen to be a history teacher at a school in London. He carries the unimaginable emotional burden of hundreds of years of love, grief and strife, having personally known some of the figures who we consider to be icons today, such as Shakespeare. He meets Camille, a fellow teacher at the school who bears her own emotional burden and with whom Tom begins to fall in love, a thing which he never felt able to do ever again. Almost continually on the brink of having his secret identity uncovered, Tom attempts to come to terms with his past and his condition, and tries to find a way to seek meaning in an unnaturally long life.
In contrast to “The Humans”, “How To Stop Time” casts a new perspective on the significance of the human lifespan by provoking thought on how we experience the passage of time. As the former invites you to imagine landing on Earth from an unfathomable distance, the latter invites you to imagine living several consecutive lifetimes, and what such a life would do physically and emotionally to a person. Also, it has a way of making even the oldest-feeling person feel young, which is something which would benefit me seeing as I feel old all the time.
Reasons To Stay Alive – Matt Haig
This is a book which I put off reading for quite a while, but one day recently, decided that I needed to read as soon as possible. “Reasons To Stay Alive” is the personal account of the author’s struggle with severe depression, recalling the worst of the time with emotional clarity, interspersed with thoughts and musings on the nature of depression and how it is perceived and treated by society at large. As someone who has done battle with anxiety and depression on and off (mostly on) throughout my life, this is a deeply reassuring – and of huge value to many more people – book to have to hand when things feel particularly rough and unmanageable. At first worried that the book would contain mere platitudes on the “meaning of life” and how “life is a precious gift and we must live every day to the fullest extent possible” (which to me is not so much helpful as demoralising because if it really were that easy why is not literally everyone doing it by now?), it instead contained a gently but unrelentingly honest examination of the various nuances in mental state which the author experienced on a day to day basis, when simple tasks seemed impossible and the world took on an intimidating hue. It also recalls how the “cure” for depression did not appear suddenly, or indeed even be really a cure; rather the good days eventually began to outnumber the bad ones, small but memorable steps towards the light were made and the author found solace, primarily, in writing. The resounding message is that depression is a common part of the human condition and that it is up to ourselves to find out what gives our own lives meaning. That’s something I’ve been trying to work on for quite a long time now…
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Having watched the show “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” in my teeny-bopper years, I was intrigued to find a “re-imagining” of the show in graphic novel form whilst quite urgently seeking out more reading (i.e. distracting) material on Amazon. The instant download option – and the resulting instant gratification – is just too irresistible for someone who now, more often than not these days, does not leave the house. This was… quite a departure from the TV show.
This version is basically an R-rated version of a very PG-rated show, in which Sabrina is a member of a satanic coven of witches who are not averse to casting terrifying curses on, and even killing, those who interfere with them in any way. An initially innocent high school romance turns rapidly into a murder mystery, and Sabrina as a young novice witch must try to navigate this world. Exactly how this will be done remains to be seen.
The Little Mermaid – Metaphrog
Metaphrog are a Scottish graphic artist duo who produce rich and vibrant illustrations, often to accompany traditional fairytales. Their latest, “The Little Mermaid”, tells the original Hans Christian Andersen version (quite different from the Disney one), of the mermaid who gave up her entire life (at first figuratively then eventually literally) for a young man she rescued at sea. Of course I did not read the book for the traditional tale but rather for the evocative imagery accompanying the narrative. For a while I considered a move into graphic novel writing but I never felt confident enough in my illustration skills – once upon a time I was quite adept at using Photoshop but I’m living proof that if you do not continually maintain your skills they will quite rapidly deteriorate until it is as if you never had them in the first place. I consider myself a fan of Metaphrog now and I feel like they will inspire me in the future.
Neil Gaiman once dubbed the humble book as an “empathy machine”, through which anyone can experience another perspective simply by reading. As someone who, more often than is desirable, misses out on the opportunity to flex and exercise my empathy muscle in a more obvious and active way (say by contributing more creative output via actually writing fiction, as I have long aimed but somehow felt unable to do) I settle for absorbing whatever I can, in terms of literature, and trying to write (or photograph, or compose, or something) about my own perspective, in the hopes that it will have any resonance to anyone out there.
Reading – if and when I cannot write, which is the case an embarrassing amount of the time – at least helps me to feel tangentially involved in the wider world (I think the closest term I can think of is the “zeitgeist” but that sounds unbearably pompous but hopefully you get what I mean) and as if the spark which will finally kick me into action is waiting on a random page – that it’s just a matter of keeping going. Sometimes that really seems to be all you can do because… well, just because.
It takes me a ridiculously long time to post here, and I’m becoming more aware that it takes me a ridiculously long time to do absolutely anything now. For a long time I had no idea why this would be the case, considering that blogging is meant to be “what I do”, but then again if you don’t have anything to blog about then it becomes harder to blog about just… nothing. Well some might be able to manage it but I only ever want to blog if I feel like I have something worth saying.
After returning back home from Israel I relapsed, with a startling ease, into my default “do nothing but worry about everything” lifestyle, which usually involves… doing nothing. At least on the surface. However I had it in the back of my mind, the entire time, to try to keep up the momentum that I had built up over my most recent excursion, before I became too stuck in my “routine” (more on that on a post soon to come), and it occurred to me that I had not yet used a tent I’d had for ages and was going spare.
Spring + good weather + tent + free time – full-time-job – anything else to do = camping
Also, I wanted – or rather needed – to get back to nature.
A few weeks ago I went camping in Arran alone for the first time. That is to say, I went to Arran alone for the first time and I went camping alone for the first time. Despite making an effort to travel more – which more often than not means going it alone – these two things I had never once done alone before then, so it was another experience to try, in order to see if I wanted to repeat it in the future. Having initially been thwarted by a ferry already departing when I was about to board (because apparently you cannot arrive less than fifteen minutes before departure) I summoned up my motivation, with some effort, to try again and three days later I finally made it to the ferry – and to Arran – this time.
Opting for the same campsite I stayed at the last time, due to it being conveniently located for someone who doesn’t drive, I was sure that it would be a relatively painless first-solo-camping experience. Above all, I was there to go walking, take photos, and generally reconnect with all the things I tend to miss out on when holed up in my home much of the time. It made sense to do this in a place which already held good memories for me.
Setting up pitch was a doddle, with my tent being one of those pop-open ones (flimsy as hell but far more novice-friendly), and I immediately got to appreciate one of the known highlights of staying at that particular campsite: the resident deer community.
There is something quite special about getting so close to a typically reclusive species, but of course their appearance at the precise moment I arrived, in the mid-evening, indicated that it was already getting late. Not necessarily too late for a quick hike, given the lengthening of the days, but on account of the relatively infrequent bus service, too late for me to do anything except wander to the nearest pub to charge my devices (electrical outlets were only available for tent-residing guests during the day for some reason) and planning the route for the “main” hike the next day. Then it was during the walk back along the virtually deserted road both to the pub, and then back to the campsite, that I was able to take full advantage of my camera and get some of my best yet shots of the twilight and of the moon; (note the words “best yet”, still plenty of room to improve…)
That night, however, would be one of the coldest I’ve known, not on account of the weather itself which was relatively mild, but due to the specific location of the campsite – which acts as the opposite of a suntrap in the evening – and the aforementioned flimsiness of the tent. I suppose it was one of those experiences which they call “character-building” but in any case eventually it became daylight, first marked by the snuffling and munching of the deer just a few inches away outside. I actually feared, one more than one occasion, that they would try and trample onto me, confused by the colour of my tent blending in so well, but I did sign up for interacting with nature so…
It was the original plan to do at least one “proper” hike, from the choice of downloadable routes on my hiking app, but of course to do anything of the kind I would need the phone it was downloaded onto to have sufficient power (I came of age just when technology started to overtake the traditional paper map, and I never learned orienteering) so it was that the entire morning was spent merely charging my phone at the local distillery cafe. This would definitively narrow down the number of routes I could do to definitely one, and *maybe* two at a big stretch. I chose the one which I could access from where I was already, a route which took you from Lochranza round the tip of the north of the island, towards the Cock of Arran (yes that’s really its name) which would make for some impressive scenery along the way.
The app leading me up along the bay of Lochranza, many photos were taken and many sheep were seen, albeit not too pleased to be approached too readily, only being willing to give a wary stare.
The northern coastline, at least alone the prescribed route, was quite low and right by the shore, and would lead to a beauty spot called Fairy Dell, where there was meant to be a cottage, then a climb up into the wooded area. Along the shore was where I noticed the features of the landscape seemingly unique to the area; the types of moss, flowers and rocks textured by the sea. It would turn out that I would only make it as far as the cottage, because my phone still managed to run out of power and I wasn’t quite confident enough to go climbing up somewhere I didn’t know with no other means of navigating.
Also, due to the lateness of my starting, it was starting to become more… populated. Which wasn’t exactly what I’d come here to seek out, judging from the expression I now reserve for just such an occurrence.
I’d come seeking total seclusion, but I suppose that if your plans are prone to being overthrown all too easily – say by being unable to gain a full phone charge until later in the day – then these things tend to happen. So doing my best to proceed as planned, it was in this picturesque little area I indulged my camera some more, and tried to figure out just what this Fairy Dell cottage was supposed to be, apart from a landmark on a walking route.
For one thing, there were two cottages: one white and one brown, although from the guide the white one was what they called Fairy Dell cottage. The brown one looked more like a regular hermit’s cottage by the sea. They each looked like a normal residence from the outside, albeit one from a traditional fairytale. According to local folklore, this is the area where fairies come to dance – and presumably, the cottage is where they go to put their feet up and have a drink when they’re tired of dancing (and of constant passers-by interfering with their dance) but when peering inside, the cottages seemed to serve as nothing more than storage space. So much for the magical illusion. But it was nice to pretend that it might still sometimes serve as an idyllic home for some kind of creature, human or otherwise…
Making the pragmatic realisation that, due to transport schedules, this would most likely be my “main” hike of the day, I doubled back on the route back to the campsite, meeting some more sheep along the way who were enjoying the local delicacy, the gorse:
Then it was time to think about sustenance, and also getting some kind of extra layer of material with which to survive the second night camping. Hitching a ride into Brodick (the main town on Arran) I stocked up on vegan supplies at the local store and, realising that I wouldn’t want to sit alone in a pub anyway, even if they did have something I could consume besides alcohol, I hitched a ride right back to the campsite, “squirrelling” my supplies in my tent (as I was once frequently accused of doing, by, as it happens, who I stayed at the campsite with the last time) and squeezing in one last hike. The sunset from this part of the island is a wonder to observe, especially in the summertime, and from this vantage point it would’ve been a crime not to at least try to immortalise it on camera.
The second night, rather than turning into a human popsicle, it was only the weight of my body which stopped the tent from flying off to another remote point in the western isles, and a middle-of-the-night trip to the loo was consumed with worry that the tent would not be there upon my return. Fortunately it was, and having been subjected to both low temperatures and high winds, unexpectedly, during my stay, I “treated” myself to a prompt departure back home.
However ill prepared I tend to be for these types of endeavour, I’m almost always glad afterwards that I at least made the effort to try. If nothing else it produces an amusing anecdote or two, and some images to add to my portfolio. As I’m in the (slow) process of developing a sideline in photography – with a view to becoming more of a “full-time” thing – I try to maximise the situations I wind up in which allow me to take advantage of the ability to practice. Although I’m not sure if I’ll camp again anytime soon though – it turns out that being able to drive is something of an underrated skill, so ubiquitous as it is now, and one that which becomes starkly apparently by its absence. Therefore when I choose a place to set up camp – literally and metaphorically – it has to be both within relatively easy reach of vegan food and have decent wifi.
These are things which I’m perhaps able to survive without for a time – but under my particular circumstances, not to thrive.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
… 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:
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.
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.