Volunteering Overseas (take 1)

In 1990, I worked in the Victorian Public Service – I was practising living a ‘normal’ life, doing ‘normal’ things, with ‘normal’ clothes, listening to ‘normal’ music, and basically, behaving myself.  One of my bosses, Sue K, went to Papua New Guinea as a volunteer and her stories were exciting and inspiring and adventurous and challenging and awe inspiring – all the things my current ‘normal’ life were not.  By the time Sue had returned home, I’d been overcome by impatience and the thought of never really doing anything useful, and had applied for leave without pay to pursue a one year teacher education course.  Long story short, they didn’t let me, I quit and I spent 1991 becoming a qualified secondary school teacher, specialising in Art and Media.  It was a time of major cutbacks (anyone remember Jeff Kennett?) and I was assured there would be no job at the end of it.  That is when I first applied to be a volunteer overseas.

At that time, the process was more about contacting the organisation (AVA at that time) and letting them know you were interested in volunteering overseas.  I remember the classic question:  Asia, Pacific or Africa?  Asia – busy cities, too many people, no, Africa – hot and dry, no cities, no, too hard, too far, Pacific?  Palm trees, beaches, perfect weather?  Easy choice!  No position was forthcoming at that time for a newly qualified Art/media teacher so I packed up anyway and set off to Kalgoorlie, Western Australia for two years (1992-3).  Wherever I go, I end up getting bored/frustrated/letting life pass me by – usually (then) after around the 1 year mark, and spend the next year trying to move to the next adventure.  Perfect time to re-activate my application to volunteer, and this time a position was found.  I set off to Honiara in the Solomon Islands as an AVA (Australian Volunteer Abroad) a few months later (1994) for the next adventure.


Intellectualising the Visceral?

People keep asking me … are you nervous?  are you excited?  how are you feeling about …?

Abel c1984
Self-portrait c.1984

I’ve never been able to answer such questions because when I’ve made a decision, that is what I’m doing, where I’m going, but I have NO IDEA how I’m feeling, what will eventuate, what might go right/wrong, what might be/not be… The future is as always, a huge unknown – just as it was back when I took this photo so many lifetimes ago.  Always in the process of becoming – destination/s unknown.

As I’ve said, I’m taking myself with me – so all my insecurities, all my fears, all my anxieties.  All my values, experiences, good/bad/indifferent; my achievements and failures; my strengths and my weaknesses.  Most of all, my passion to experience, to live, and to feel through it all.

I love the word ‘visceral‘ – but when I looked up definitions, they didn’t work for me and how I understand it.  Binaries – so apparently visceral is separate from reason, logic, intellect?  That it is about ’emotions’, which can also be defined as something unworthy, unimportant, insignificant, not to be trusted, feminine, weak…  The questions I began this post with, are they related to my ‘visceral’ (gut?) feelings, or to my rational thought processes?  Can we rid ourselves of nerves/anxiety/fear through intellectualising or ‘ordering’ our responses to stimuli?  And ultimately, should we be avoiding situations in which we feel discomfort?

I’m seeking out – pursuing? – discomfort because for me, it is a place in which I learn the most.  I’m not avoiding it, but I’m not asking for it either – I just don’t want to be so afraid of experiencing it that I live the rest of my days ‘playing it safe’.  I also want to share it – not for sympathy but to share my understandings and experiences for those who chose to live vicariously (I have problems with the way that word is defined as well!)

Does that help to answer the questions I started with?


Volunteering Overseas (take 2)

Since returning from my first stint as a ‘volunteer’, I have wanted to do it again – but as a wiser, more patient and experienced individual.  Twenty years later I reapplied, with vigour.  After travelling through SE Asia with my sister (2014-15), I decided to look for possibilities in either Myanmar (Burma) or Laos.

So here I am, 22 years later, about to head off to Savannakhet in Laos, to try to get it a bit more ‘right’ this time around.  Definitely wiser and more experienced – more patient?  Only time will tell.  I believe that I got the job partly through being absolutely honest about mistakes that I’ve made and learnt from.  I’m going in with my eyes wide open, and I have a lot of varied experiences to draw from to help me through.  I’d like to think these qualities could have got me an ongoing position to continue doing what I do now, working with pre-service teachers in a university but no, it seems that research/publishing status, youth and ‘potential’ are the pre-requisites, rather than anything I have to offer.  So leaving my ten+ years in sessional/casual positions in the university system is not difficult – really, who would notice?laos-map-savannakhet-300