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Volunteering abroad

Volunteering Abroad

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I suppose that for most people, the idea of embarking on a major travelling experience on a shoestring budget strikes around the pre- and post-grad era of life. Perhaps I simply wasn’t ready for this ‘bug’ back then, as in my case it didn’t hit until just seven months ago, by which time I was most certainly on the wrong side of forty!

It must be said that the events of the past few months have come together more through luck and love than my good judgement, but the trip has been a life-changing experience that I think I should share.

When I first met my partner, Jenny, she already had ambitious ideas for travel firmly inscribed on her bucket list. This – or rather her impending absence from my life in the UK – didn’t seem such a bitter pill to swallow, as her plans were a predefined part of the ‘relationship’ bundle, and therefore it would have been totally inappropriate for me to suggest ‘dropping the dream’ on my account. Since at that time there was no way I could have entertained the idea of going on such a venture, or indeed adventure, it was just something I simply accepted. Besides, after Christmas 2015 I did manage to go with Jen to France where she would drop off her car, cats and belongings with friends before heading off into the wild!

As somebody who suffers from insomnia, my condition worsened after Jen had left on the first leg of her trip, partly due to not having her by my side and partly due to my flawed attempts to keep track of the numerous time differences as she moved from one eastern country to another! Communication, as I have since discovered for myself, is far from easy to prearrange; Jen was travelling on a shoestring budget, volunteering and staying in hostels where often Wi-Fi and phone signals were only available for fleeting minutes, usually at the worst time for us both. However, we persevered until Easter 2016, when Jen came back to the UK for a ‘break’. I found this term difficult to understand at the time – a break from her holiday?! Now, though, I’ve shared the experience, the time-critical planning and organising, the constant moving around, the pace that leaves little time for pause… and so the need for a break makes perfect sense!

During Jen’s visit to the UK and after long thought, consultation and consideration, we worked out how to make it possible for me to join in the journey with her. We achieved that objective some weeks after that Easter visit, by which time Jen had visited a further two countries: I flew out from London to meet her in Helsinki. Aware (though she denies it!) that I was effectively gate-crashing her trip, I was reluctant to do much in the way of decision-making. After all, I was now able to be there with and for her, and still did not want her to change her plans simply because she had a passenger in tow. Initially, the trip was more about being with Jen rather than being involved in her exploits, but that very quickly changed as we got started in our first volunteering role in Finland.

Before leaving the UK in April, Jen took me through the websites she had discovered which assisted her in planning volunteering roles; HelpX, WWOOF and Workaway. Since all three work along the same principles – give a few hours of work a day in exchange for bed and board – they’re a very cheap way of gaining insight into different cultures. I therefore decided to help Jen plan some of these stints, looking ahead, guided by her aims and objectives. All I really knew at that time is that the plan was to travel from Finland to a further four countries: Sweden, Norway, the Faroe Islands and Iceland, before finally heading back home. I say ‘home’ meaning the UK, although both Jen and I gave up our respective accommodations before leaving the UK *Eeeeek*!

Prior to Finland, Jen’s travels had already taken her from the UK to France, Japan, Malaysia and New Zealand, then back to the UK in April, and then off again a fortnight later to Italy and Rhodes before meeting me in Helsinki and continuing her journey with me. Her goal was to find out more about how countries other than the UK were becoming more eco-friendly, and to improve her own knowledge of permaculture and sustainable practices. Her findings are interesting and well documented in her own blog: www.lionessabroad.weebly.com

For both of us this had turned into the opportunity of a lifetime.

Volunteering abroad with our first host (well, my first; probably about Jen’s seventh!), in Finland was a real eye-opener for me. Micke is an actor and teacher whose knowledge about ‘getting back to nature’ was astonishing.

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He’d gained expertise in all sorts of things from harnessing the sun’s natural energy to making fuel out of human poo! He was developing what he hopes will one day become an arts and crafts centre for like-minded creative sorts, and his pad, next to lake Karjalohja, was anything but what I had expected. Through working with and talking to Micke we learned SO many new things – again, see lionessabroad for a fuller description! For instance, natural antibiotics taken from the sap of birch trees; running cars such as his Volvo V70 on biogas (recycled poo!); working his in-house sauna by natural means; and generally living a modern-day eco-friendly life without giving up the luxuries and conveniences that many of us Westerners are accustomed to. Parts of his house and workshop are still under construction, but nothing would go to waste. An example: one outbuilding we helped to put together had been built from scratch using recycled wood salvaged from a nearby farm, whose owner had discarded the older wood in order to renovate with brand new material.

Micke was not 100% self-sufficient, but had designed his house – everything from the sauna and wet room area to the underfloor heating – to be run using a modern, eco-friendly methodology. He and his partner eat a mainly vegetarian diet, supplemented by the fruits of their labour as extremely competent foragers! The range of food produced, whilst mostly new to me, was extremely edible. Micke and I also *ahem* went fishing, and as per one of my own principles, ate what we caught. It was an eye-opener to eat pike-perch, a form of fish which in the UK might have been caught for sport and returned to the river.

Moving on from Finland, we headed to an eco-village in Sweden called Stjarnsund. This was not via the volunteering websites, but rather through a direct and speculative email from Jen to the site managers which, I am happy to say, paid off! We were hosted by a native Swedish-American gentleman, David, and his wife Eliza.

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The fact that they said “yes” to our request to come and volunteer was something of a risk for them and a stroke of luck for us; previous Stjarnsund volunteers had turned out simply to have cheap travel on their agenda rather than any eco-passion of their own. I think it was a breath of fresh air for Eliza and David to work with ‘mature’ folk like Jen and myself, who have genuine, and in my case growing, desire to learn about what they were trying to achieve.

The eco-village, or community, was home to around 100 people from surrounding districts, and the area was steeped in history about people who had arrived over the decades to live a more holistic lifestyle. Jen and I lived in a tepee…

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…but as a second wave of rain set in we were moved to what the others called a “tiny house”.

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It was minimalistic living at its best! Imagine a bedsit with everything you could possibly need handy and within reach. The house designs were similar to those of boats and/or motorhomes but these wooden dwellings were unique in that they were all built on site, once again harnessing the natural resources available within the community. Here again we saw a common thread between Finland and Sweden: nothing recyclable went to waste…

Members of the eco-village at Stjarnsund meet weekly and discuss any community issues, an example being a neighbouring farmer who, much to the displeasure of the community, was developing a huge swathe of his own land with GM products, using poisonous chemicals to keep away weeds. When David and I talked with the farmer directly, even he started to have second thoughts about the methods he had essentially been coerced into using for commercial purposes/gain.

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David and Eliza were essentially the leaders of the village community, and had previously engaged with local politicians to discuss what the community was trying to achieve. They had also held open days so curious locals could become more informed about their goals. Stjarnsund was something of a ‘back to basics’ form of living, but it was enlightening and enjoyable in a different way from the work and lifestyle we had been involved with in Finland. David, like Micke, is also something of an innovator 🙂 He had worked out how to heat the water of the meeting-house using compostable waste; he runs a solar-powered boat which, naturally, we used to go fishing! It was powered by outboard motors run with rechargeable batteries. His bicycle was also battery-powered, and in our last couple of days we stumbled across his custom-built battery-powered bicycle with sidecar!

The community at Stjarnsund are working towards self-sufficiency and all their crops are produced organically. They breed chickens, and the eggs gathered – like wild salmon versus farmed – tasted nothing like what you’d purchase in a shop. As with our volunteering visit with Micke in Finland, Jen and I left inspired, both by what we had seen and by how we might also, perhaps, put some of the ideas we’d seen into practice once back in the UK.

We had hoped to volunteer in every country we visited, but despite our best endeavours we struggled to find placements in the Faroe Islands and Iceland. Whilst neither country has any real shortage of such posts, many hosts have become so popular as to become commercial in their own right i.e. one can pay a small fortune for the privilege of volunteering for a week of hard graft! Since this pay-to-work regime was not only slightly confusing from a common-sense point of view but also well out of our price range, we gave those projects a miss!

We did, however, receive a positive reply from a lovely American lady, Amy, who has lived in Norway for some 20 years. We were to become Amy’s first HelpXers and whilst we were assisted (or led, in my case!) by a couple of very competent carpenters/German HelpXers “on loan” from Amy’s partner’s farm, our task at Amy’s was to build a new chicken coop, which turned into such a luxurious little pad that Jen and I felt like towing it home and moving in!

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Amy is currently learning about all things eco and making adjustments to her lifestyle accordingly… and she couldn’t have been a better host! In fact one might go so far as to say she was TOO good to us, spoiling us more than a little. Home-made iced cinnamon bun when we’d only been there an hour? Yum… ok! After being used to long (self-inflicted, I might add) working days in our previous posts, we were suddenly thrown into confusion; we were being fed like a King and Queen whilst putting in what seemed to us fewer than enough hours in return. But once again, all placements are different and our time at Amy’s, whilst not the most eco-efficient of our three Scandinavian posts, was incredible. For anyone who might be tempted to do a not-so-“hardcore” volunteering post, Amy would be your absolute perfect hostess! She insisted that we took frequent breaks and we both certainly piled on a few pounds during our stay. The chicken coop was completed around Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday and was aptly named ‘Cluckingham Palace’ in her honour. As this was Amy’s first time as a HelpX hostess, we arranged to meet on Skype and have a chat well before our arrival so that she (and we!) could get an idea of what we were all letting ourselves in for. It was wonderful.

It certainly seems that throughout the time I’ve been with Jen on this journey we had been fortunate enough to help out three very lovely hosts, all of them at different stages of their projects, all with similar eco-intentions, but with different practical approaches to eco-living. Amy lives on the island of Helgoya in Norway, and her particular interest was in small numbers of animals i.e. chickens, geese, cats and dogs. She owns the largest dog I have ever encountered, a majestic Leonberger, and to my amazement he was possibly the soppiest I’ve ever met too! Her house was idyllic with wood burners for the winter and a beautiful ‘living roof’ of the kind we have seen across much of Northern Europe. During our stay with Amy’s family we felt we’d found the right balance between “our own time” and hours of volunteering. Whilst we were eager to learn, even after a full month on the move, there was also much we felt we could teach here. But Amy also took time out to indulge Jen and I in our passion for hiking, which we would return to later in the Faroes and Iceland. We drove into the mountains on a number of occasions to go hiking, and accompanied by Amy, her visiting daughter Julia and indeed our fellow “borrowed” HelpXers, we managed to climb several peaks during our stay. Our integration as foreign volunteers living alongside the entire young family – Amy’s young daughter and 18-year-old son – was far easier than I had imagined. Having said that, we hope we haven’t now made certain young family members’ lives more difficult due to our working so cheerfully and seeking out extra duties…!

On leaving Amy in Norway we still had no positive news from hosts we had contacted in our next two countries. The trip took on a ‘suck it and see’ approach, but with the renewed bug for hiking we weren’t to stay bored for a moment.

Looking back at our time with our three, very different, hosts in Northern Europe I see an unmistakable similarity between them all. All three were at different stages and had different approaches of eco-living, but each host was doing their best to use natural resources without ‘taking’ more than their projects required.

The journey has made me look at what takes place in the UK, and I actually think many of us Brits are fairly backward when it comes to taking part in eco-living. Perhaps those who many saw as a nuisance in the 80/90s, i.e. the New Age Travellers, were trying to take steps towards this form of living and/or methodology but at times lived outside the law. More often than not, when I heard about them it was generally because they were trespassing and had failed to communicate their intentions and methodology to anybody outside of their inner circles. But the people and communities that Jen and I have been privileged to meet and work with, albeit for a short period of time, are all well-established in their communities, good communicators and essentially innovators.

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Volunteering has been a great way to meet a myriad of people from different cultures and communities. It has taught me about myself, something I will revisit in my blog at a later date. Primarily, it has highlighted to me the many other ways we can shape our modern-day lives without inflicting the kind of damage and turmoil as the majority, which is contributing to the likely downfall of our planet. These different approaches, if adopted on a large scale, could not only improve the longevity of our planet but I believe, given Micke’s dream and his “all mod cons” solutions for achieving it, could be a way forward that is also acceptable to the masses. People don’t need to live with smelly toilets (my idea of a compost loo BEFORE setting off on my travels!) or say goodbye to home luxuries such as saunas, wet rooms and underfloor heating. Indeed, even transport such as cars don’t have to disappear or be withdrawn if governments can be persuaded to adopt (not simply look into!) alternative and efficient methods of energy production.

From Karjalohja to Stjarnsund and the island of Helgoya we have been fortunate, indeed privileged, to lend a hand whilst learning about eco-methods, and also soaking up something about the culture of the countries we visited. I would recommend this form of travel to anybody, of any age, particularly those who are looking for something more than a mainstream holiday package, something off the beaten track, and are able and willing to give something back to the communities they wish to visit.

This post was edited by the lovely Jennifer Lyon whose travel blog can be found by clicking here.

Simon Duringer is an award-winning blogger, interviewer and author. His own books can be found on Amazon too by clicking any of the following icons…