When I was offered the option of volunteer coordinator for R2S’s Cambodia’s project, I immediately knew it was something I would enjoy doing. It had all the ingredients which excited me – volunteering in a diverse culture while coordinating people!
I arrived in Cambodia a few weeks before the first group of volunteers arrived. This gave me the time and space to orient myself with the place, the people, and the project itself. It also helped me prepare the logistics involved for when the group arrived – lodging, food, transportation and the actual work that volunteers will be doing once here. I was really excited before the first group arrived. Having had a taste of the project already, I was really looking forward to having them experience it themselves. At the same time, I was also a little bit apprehensive about whether I will do a good enough job.
For me, volunteering is not about changing the way things have always been done in the culture that you are working in, but it is about collaborating with the local people – and to collaborate, you first need to understand. During my previous experience in India with R2S, I was told that the first time you visit a new culture to do voluntary work, you do so for yourself….it is only during subsequent visits can you start doing something for that country. And perhaps this has been one of my motivations why I wanted to come on a long-term placement. My previous 3-week experience in India taught me that you cannot just drop into a culture, expect to make changes and drop out again. I wanted to experience the culture on a long-term basis – I wanted to immerse myself in it, understand, listen, participate, build connections, find common ground and only then contribute some of my thoughts and ideas.
Cambodians are people with a big heart, sharing generously from the little that they have. This has been such a lesson for me. I have visited families in rural villages who welcomed me in their humble homes and share whatever food they had with me. Or being invited to a party – Cambodians always have a reason to party, whether celebrating the passing on of a dear one, a house-warming, or a wedding – and being treated like royalty! Cambodian life is also teaching me to slow down the pace of life that I had been used to. I am learning to live in the present moment and treasure the surprises that the day offers. Like waking up on a Saturday morning with no plans at all and ending up being invited to a local’s house in a very remote village and eating the freshest, organic meal I have ever tasted. These are some of the joys of living within this culture.
And then being with volunteers….it is very enriching seeing volunteers savouring the joys of working with the kids who are always so eager interact with volunteers. Watching volunteers return back from a day’s work with children, sharing their observations, speaking about how such experience is touching them and seeing them change certain perspectives of theirs, are all things which nourish me. Volunteers also help me to keep looking at this culture with fresh eyes. Like anything else, I tend to get used to the way things are done here. But when a new volunteer arrives and comments on aspects of the culture, I’m reminded of how much I have adapted and challenges me to see whether there are certain things that I have already started to take for granted.
Is there a downside to this role? Of course! Adapting to a different work ethic and work practice can be frustrating at times. This is when I need to remind myself to understand first instead of judge. At times it can also be lonely, especially when no volunteers are around. But I’ve learnt to use this time for myself – explore a little bit more of the country or simply learn to enjoy the company of my own self. Another challenge is having to say good bye to volunteers when it is time for them to leave. Living with the same group of people in close proximity, while undergoing an intense experience, does bond people more than usual. And with each group of volunteers, I have found friends with whom I can share a bit of myself. Saying good-bye is not always easy. However, I know that the connections I have built will remain.
There are many joys this experience is giving me. When the going gets tough I remind myself of where I am and what I am doing, of the beautiful people I meet every day, of the happy faces of volunteers after a day working with the children, and feel grateful that I have the opportunity to experience all of this.