"Did you have a good time?"
"Do you think it was worthwhile?"
"Did you enjoy it overall?"
"Are you glad you did it?"
"What are you going to do next?"
To all of which I am afraid I don't have any ready answers. How to sum up such an intense and complex experience in just a few words? In some ways I think it is too soon to be able to have that sort of overview of the whole experience, and in particular to understand how it has affected me and my outlook. And yet, for the sake of completion of the blog I feel I should attempt some sort of evaluation and reflection. So bear with me...
Throughout the pre-departure training process, VSO do their best to prepare volunteers for the challenge that lies ahead. They tell you to expect the unexpected - that it is very likely that the work will turn out not to be quite what was described in the original placement overview. They prepare you for the emotional roller-coaster of adjusting to a new culture and situation. They warn you not to have over-ambitious expectations of what you will be able to achieve. They mince no words when going through all the potential hazards to one's health and well-being. In short, they make sure that volunteers cannot say: "No-one told me it would be like this!" Being prepared for the ups and downs does not necessarily make it easier, but at least you know that what you are going through is relatively normal. And I was especially fortunate to have been sent off with words of wisdom to confront any crisis:
In terms of the location of my placement I was very lucky. Compared to most of the countries where VSO volunteers are placed, Thailand is very well-developed. Mae Sot is a rapidly developing border town, with an abundance of shops, bars, restaurants, superstores, hotels and other facilities. I lived in a very pleasant, modern little house with western-style kitchen and bathroom facilities, rapid internet connection, reliable electricity and - apart from a horrendous couple of months at the height of hot season earlier this year - reliable water supply.
Sadly, Mae Sot also has an over-abundance of semi-feral dogs which roam the streets at will. For someone who has had a lifelong fear of dogs, this presented me with a particular challenge. To start with I was doing very well at putting my fears to one side and going about my business as normal, but after I was bitten my fears took over again. I no longer walked anywhere, using my motorbike for even the shortest of trips. Even then I was nervous that a dog might jump out at me or chase the bike, causing me to panic and do something daft like swerve into the path of a truck. I rarely went out in the evenings, as the dogs are at their worst after dark, when they roam around in packs. Going out was not the problem - it was the coming home again that terrified me. And even in the safety of my little house they plagued me, frequently waking me from much-needed sleep with their nocturnal vocalisations!
They look so harmless... the little black bundle at the far end is the one that bit me
The other main personal challenge I faced was to do with health issues, and especially the intestinal symptoms that I struggled with throughout the placement. Eventually I was diagnosed with IBS, but I never managed to track down a specific cause. Interestingly, since coming home I have not had a single attack and I am wondering whether the cause was stress. I lost a lot of weight, but for the last three weeks I have been on a strict regime of abundant home-cooking supplemented with regular between-meals healthy snacks, and I have so far managed to put on around 3lb or 1.5kg.
So, what about the positives?! The work was amazing - not without its challenges, but then I do like a challenge! True to VSO predictions, the project did not get off to the expected start, and the first few months of the placement were especially tough, trying to get the project off the ground and deal with all the settling-in issues at the same time. There are many different organisations addressing migrant education issues on the border, but the VSO project was the only one focusing specifically on Early Childhood, so even though it was small scale it was making an important contribution to an otherwise largely neglected area. One unexpected result reported by the directors of the early childhood centres was that the very fact of the VSO project taking place had raised the profile of the centres with the local government administration, who had never considered them much of a priority before. One example of this was the "fast-tracking" of planned playground improvements once VSO got involved:
Working with the teachers and the children was hugely rewarding. I really appreciated the opportunity to use my skills and experience to help others to develop their own skills and confidence to try new approaches. It was slow and at times frustrating work, but constantly stimulating, and the children's joy and appreciation made it all worthwhile even when the teachers seemed less than convinced!
I am very realistic about the scope of the change achieved. On the grand scale of migrant education issues in Thailand, and the even grander scale of tackling global poverty, my contribution is tiny. However, the appreciation of the teachers by the end of the project was genuine, and I do believe that some real changes in understanding and practice have taken place that will continue to benefit children into the future.
It is often said that volunteers gain just as much as they give, and in terms of my own development it was a tremendously positive experience. I had a very high degree of autonomy in designing and carrying out the project - i.e. I was left to get on with it pretty much entirely on my own - which did wonders for my self-confidence. I developed a whole range of skills, which I will not list for fear of making this sound alarmingly like a job application, of which I suspect there will soon be many...
One of the aspects that touched me most deeply was the opportunity to work with inspirational colleagues from around the world, and in particular with colleagues from Myanmar, who showed such dedication and passion in working to improve the future for their own people and country. Having the opportunity to be a small part of that was a true privilege. Possibly the most valuable aspect of all was the relationship I built with my coordinator, and the contribution I was able to make to his development, as well as everything I learned from him. His commitment, enthusiasm and eagerness to learn were a constant inspiration to me, and his calm and positive demeanour helped keep me steady at moments of high stress!
Aside from the work, there was also the opportunity for travel. I didn't see as much of Thailand as I would have liked, but I enjoyed inspirational trips to Vietnam and Myanmar - thank you, Alice! - and the visit of my Italian friends remains a highlight (though we never did find a map of the national park!)
Vietnamese cooking class
Outside the home of Aung San Suu Kyi
Dinner in Chiang Mai
Who needs a map, anyway?
So, in summary: yes, I am glad I did it; no, I don't think I'll be doing it again!
And to anyone considering the possibility of volunteering, I would say this:
And to anyone considering the possibility of volunteering, I would say this:
- Are you seeking an opportunity to apply your professional expertise in a totally new context?
- Do you want to have your way of thinking and doing things challenged?
- Are you open to new and unexpected possibilities?
- Do you want to work in partnership with people who are seeking to make a positive and lasting change in their communities?
- Are you prepared to leave behind everything that is familiar and comfortable, and face a completely new, uncertain and challenging situation for the reward of an experience you could never have imagined?
If so, then VSO may be for you!