The Heart of Volunteer Travel

You are here

The Heart of Volunteer Travel

We welcome you with two invocations, written for us by Adrian Smith of Nepal and Jacqueline Wigglesworth, when she was in Fiji last year. Both are of Earth, more than anywhere. The first piece is from Adrian. At the end of this section are excerpts from Jackie’s journals and a few key bits of advice.  

Inside the Kali Temple before us the crowd surged forward on the shrine before shouts from the temple Pujari drove it back. Regrouping, the wave of bodies rushed forward again before receding in what emerged as a tidal rhythm of fervently devout chaos. More bodies pushed past us, drawing us toward the shrine for Kali Darshan. Soon we would be engulfed, pressed so tightly on all sides we would be unable to lift our arms

I looked to read my students’ faces. I had met them only the night before at the Kolkata airport. Their expressions revealed an appropriate bewildered disbelief. I briefly described temple etiquette and where we would meet in half an hour while their eyes fixed on me to say “you are abandoning us… here?!” I gave them a reassuring smile and a wave and watched them as they were swept towards the temple, engulfed in mother India.

“Shock and awe” I thought to myself with a smile, just the introduction I liked to give to our 3 month semester program. In a quick assessment of the students, whose ages ranged from 16-19, they could handle it. All but one who I decided to keep with me. I guided her cross-stream to the back of the temple. Out the back we arrived just in time to see a goat decapitated over a stone pillar, the spasming body held as blood spurted over the altar. Several women fell into trance and the crowd drew back as they wailed and fell to the ground, their long hair loose and thrown forward into the pooling blood. Convulsing, their eyes wild and possessed, they threw their heads back, spraying the blood over the crowd behind them. This was a bit more than I had expected. I turned to look at my student, her eyes still on the women in trance. “Are they going to kill them next?” she asked. I was momentarily struck silent, as much by the absurdity of the idea as by the tone of her voice which conveyed that she was prepared to watch. I also knew it was time to get the group to a quiet place to debrief. Enough shock and awe for the first day.

I often think of what I can communicate to students to prepare them for a semester in India and I find myself coming back to what we need to remember when we travel anywhere, and in fact what we would do well to remember continually wherever we find ourselves: to cultivate an open curiosity and a willingness to have our deepest assumptions and beliefs shaken to create space for more wisdom and compassion in our lives. I find that travel offers a path of accelerated learning precisely because it disorients our habituated ways of thinking and forces us, often uncomfortably, to confront the present moment with a fresh perspective.

I began with this story as I want to emphasize that we must first let the places we travel to speak for themselves, even if we travel with specific purposes and specialized skills. There is a danger in looking too quickly to find common ground and in doing so, glossing over differences with one’s own projected assumptions, and imposing our ideas in places they may not be well suited to. Having lived in Nepal and India for most of the last 14 years, I have seen many well intentioned foreign aid and volunteer projects fail to accomplish their intended aims because they proceeded more from their sponsor’s desires than from the community’s needs. Of course we can only begin with what we know and anyone volunteering in a foreign place starts on a steep learning curve. If we are honest about where we are, have some humility and humor, and remember that we have at least as much to learn as we do to teach, then I believe our travel will result in positive change.

When traveling to volunteer, if you are able to join with an organization which has established trusting relationships with the communities it serves, it will make a world of difference in your experience and in what you can offer. Without the local understanding and support that a good organization can provide, or years of in country knowledge ourselves, our efforts are likely to have limited impact, or worse, may even do more harm than good.

Volunteer work is truly successful when one can begin to see through the eyes of those that one is looking to serve. Much has to be reconciled to come to that place, and we need to proceed slowly and with our eyes wide open, as the difference in perspective can often be as great as one set of eyes seeing hysterical women before their execution and another pair seeing the divine incarnate.

~ Adrian Smith, Katmandu, 2012

The second invocation is from Jackie:

Travel can be a moving meditation, a prayer in which you are humbled, surprised and astonished at every turn, ever aware of the poverty and idiocy of humankind, yet also in thrall to its utter joy, kaleidoscopic wisdom and the constancy of hope  –  mesmerized, in fact, by the kindness of strangers and abundance of beauty.
I remember traipsing in silence through a dark green jungle when suddenly something changed: directly in front of me my Mayan friend indicated something hard and hidden, just above knee level. It was solid stone. Above it, set further back was another, higher stone. They were steps. I had been taken to an “undiscovered” Mayan pyramid covered from sight by nature’s green mantle of protection. He knew it was there but the rest of the world did not. I was humbled by his trust.
Once, in Tibet outside the Jokhang temple in Lhasa, a High Lama caught my eye and beckoned to me to join him. When I got past the many nomadic Tibetans prostrating themselves reverently towards the temple, the Lama simply looked deep into my eyes and with a knowing smile proceeded to unlock an ancient door, letting me in, locking it again behind me. I found myself alone inside the most sacred monastery in Tibet, with only flickering butter lamps and distant chanting as companions.
Another time, while running a ‘Book Bus’ for children in Zambia, our driver became desperately ill on a three-hour journey back to the refugee camp where we worked. He was unable to continue, it was late at night and it was a deserted road. As I was contemplating a plan B for the new volunteers we had just picked up at the airport, a car pulled up in front of our bus and 3 large Zambian men came to my passenger window. Though I had never experienced anything other than incredible kindness from Zambians, still I was caught between fear and relief. But it turned out that one of them was a doctor, another a truck driver and the third worked at the very refugee camp where we were heading. In short, we’d been sent angels. They took care of our driver and drove us back to the refugee camp, asking for nothing in return.
I have ventured to over seventy countries on six continents, leading expeditions and working on community projects across Mother Earth. I know there is most of the planet still to see and much still to learn, but I do know that when we travel, our own perspective and attitude is often reflected back to us. What world do we believe we inhabit? Are we expecting kindness, cooperation, beauty and synchronicities or danger, pollution and trouble? It serves us to be mindful, optimistic, excited, humble, participating in making things better. Indigenous people around the world meet on the full moon each month to trace the possible futures for Mother Earth, choose the best one and then collectively “Dream the world into being” through conscious visualizations. The full moon reputedly amplifies those thoughts and visions helping to manifest them as reality.
Anyone can do this. It goes without saying that travelling doesn’t have to involve physical movement but can be done within the privacy of one’s own mind, which has no limitations or constraints. As Rousseau exclaimed whilst imprisoned: “No one can prevent me from travelling daily to the farthest reaches of the world in my mind.”
Attitude is everything for we individually and collectively create our world. We each choose whether it will be a dangerous, doomed globe or an inspiring world of wonder. Einstein was once asked what is the most important question in the world. He replied, “Do you believe you live in a friendly or hostile universe?” Asked why that was so important, he said “because whichever you believe in, you will create.”
~  Jacqueline Wigglesworth, Fiji, 2012