1. I realised that I am a lot stronger than I ever thought I could be
Emotionally, mentally and PHYSICALLY. For me the decision to volunteer for a month was a massive leap into the unknown. It was overwhelming, surreal, transformative and incredible. I learnt that I am capable of far greater independence, resilience, courage and hard work than I previously thought possible. Long days, oppressive heat, physical labour, sleepless nights and culture shock were hard hitting for my first couple of days, but your body and mind quickly adjust to the demands.
2. I realised that I can do something on my own
People always make a ‘big thing’ out of the person who eats alone, or goes to see a film alone. Although you quickly make friends and bond with the people sharing the same experience as you, one of the most important things I gained from my experience was realising I could fully trust myself to do something that I really wanted to do – ALONE.
3. I realised I have to give myself time…
Sometimes when you leave your comfort zone, you have an instinctive urge to run straight back to it. You put one foot out the door, nod satisfactorily and shut it closed again. On my first day of volunteering, I didn’t like it. Not. One. Bit. The phrase that was floating around in my head was ‘quit or commit’. I didn’t make a rash decision to leave. I stuck with it, and after the adjustment of the first few days, I fell in love with the experience. Looking back, I realise that if I had left when I felt awkward and uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have all the pictures, memories and experiences that I came away with.
4. You don’t need as much as you think you do
Inexperienced at launching myself into the big wide world for long durations, I packed a suitcase that could have served as a life dingy for survivors of the Titanic. I tended to wear the same clothes on repeat, barely used a hairbrush, didn’t use a hairdryer once and probably wore the same socks more times than is recommended. Outside of my torch, sun tan lotion, my mosquito spray and a toothbrush, I didn’t really ‘need’ any of my things, and after full immersion in the dirt and grime, I didn’t really miss much of it either. Cold showers refresh you quickly and certainly prevent you from languishing on ‘vanity time’.
5. The beauty in people is not physical
I was surrounded by people who for the most part wore not a slick of make-up, wore dirty, unfashionable clothes, were covered in cuts, grazes and mosquito bites and had the odd tick jumping to and fro, yet the people I lived and worked with here were honesty beautiful to me in their courage, commitment and compassion to the project we worked on. Stripped of anything superficial, materialistic or glamorous you see people only for who they are and what they have to offer.
6. Nature is an amazing alarm clock
It is better waking up to the calls of gibbons, the trumpeting of elephants and the howling of territorial dogs than it is to hit ‘snooze’ on a bleating alarm clock.
7. Very different people can unite under the umbrella of a singular cause
The people I worked with were from various countries, cultures and some spoke different languages. What we were connected by was a desire to help. Everything else falls into place.
8. Even in a ‘good’ place, there will be ‘bad’ people
You could be staying in a nunnery and still come across someone you can’t stand. People are people wherever you go.
9. When you live with the sun all day every day, you learn to be smart with it
Vacation sun and everyday sun are very different. You learn to cover up, keep up with the sunscreen and no, no, NO sunbathing.
10. White is…not your colour
White clothes will end up anything but white if you insist on wearing them to clean bear enclosures, go swimming and machete banana trees.
11. Belly button piercings will not stay in
Carrying a basket of food around all day will eventually dislodge it…and the next one…and the other one…AND that one.
12. The only things impressed by your shiny jewellery are the gibbons, and they will try to grab it!
You don’t really need to ‘dress to impress’ anyone.
13. Prepare for the unexpected
Sometimes good people are the targets of the very bad. Sometimes places that serve as a sanctuary are invaded by those with hostile intentions. During my stay, we were raided by the DNP (Department of National Parks) who removed 100 animals from the centre using violence, cruelty and a complete lack of professionalism or compassion. I felt it was important for me to witness this to understand firsthand the threats facing wild animals and those that try to protect them.
14. God/fate/guardian angels…something guides you to where you are meant to be
My desire to volunteer came from out of the blue. I typed in ‘volunteer’ and ‘elephants’ not really knowing why and having no expectations. What came out of that Google search was one of the most enriching experiences of my life.
15. Caring for animals is a 24-7 job
Volunteers and staff care tirelessly for the animals they work with. The vets in particular dedicated uncountable hours to the treatment, rescue and care of numerous animals. Little life’s need constant maintenance and lots of consistency and routine.
16. Your heart will get broken
You will fall in love with the animals. You will learn their stories, grow mad at what happened, and then have to leave them. You will communicate without words, you will admire the love and patience of such animals, who after so much abuse, torture, neglect and suffering can still play and are still happy to see a human.
17. You will learn about local life
The good, the bad, the hidden, a few odd words here and there, throw in some misunderstandings and miscommunications, maybe a romance or two, hospitality, rudeness, ‘sniff kisses’ and swear words.
18. You will realise that home is where you are now, not where you were raised
It’s amazing how strangers can become your tribe, animals your guardians, and strange, basic bedrooms can become your sanctuary.
19. You will start to hate their food
I was so un-infatuated with the food that I lost a stone. That should speak for itself
20. Your feet will hate you
The only other ‘vacation’ to batter my feet so much was a shopping marathon in New York.
21. You won’t need language to be understood
People will take an interest in you, or they won’t and if they do, you will both find your own language.
22. Time will fly
So enjoy every moment and be open to everything that this new and strange culture can show and teach you.
23. Life goes on if you keep moving
So keep moving!