WorldNomads contacted me to see if I was interested in contributing stories about voluntourism to their Responsible Travel page. I was pleased to do it and my first (of four) stories appears on WorldNomads.
“We will not be needing you.”
This was said in heavily accented English by a grumpy man who I later discovered was the director of the equestrian farm—a part of the non-profit therapeutic center that accepted and confirmed my volunteer position before I had arrived. The gruff man returned to his office and shut the door behind him, effectively closing the door to any further discussion. Another employee ventured out and sheepishly explained that they had decided not to take new volunteers for the summer. The person who had accepted my application had been fired the prior week and no one had bothered to contact the new volunteers. The employee’s manner seemed to convey the apology that the director would not provide.
I sat on the office’s front step, dumbstruck. I had done everything right—applied for the position, sent the required information, and confirmed my placement. I had been in Greece for a mere five days, had taken an overnight ferry to Crete, and had only just arrived that morning. My head was spinning with thoughts as one of the farm’s baby goats trotted by in a pair of diapers. Diapers. Somehow, this didn’t seem out of place with the surreal nature of what was happening. My fatigued brain replayed the director’s message one more time. I felt both incoherent and incredulous that so much planning could fall apart so quickly.
That was my first experience with voluntourism. Thankfully, it was not my last. Although I was tempted to fill my newfound free time by lounging on a beach sipping cold drinks and gorging on spanakopita, I wanted to do something different. I already knew what it was like to be a tourist—with a whole summer ahead of me, I wanted something more. Thankfully, a Plan B began to form. I had thoroughly researched Greek volunteer organizations prior to selecting the opportunity in Crete, so I remembered another non-profit organization that accepted foreign volunteers. I took a week to make my way back to the mainland so I could enjoy a few islands (while sipping cold drinks and gorging on spanakopita), and when I returned to Athens, I contacted the organization. They accepted my application immediately and before I knew it, I was back on a ferry to the neighboring island of Aegina to volunteer at a wildlife hospital.
My experience with the wildlife hospital turned out to be both extremely challenging and rewarding in equal measure. It pushed me to do things that I had never imagined myself doing—bandaging and medicating animals, performing a necropsy, catching birds to prepare them for release in the wild, and the monotonous, day-to-day care and maintenance of wild animals. During a particularly memorable day at the hospital, I found myself on the cold floor of the main building with an injured stork in my lap. The large bird had collided with electric lines earlier in the day, which sheared off a wing, amputated part of its leg, and paralyzed half of its body. In its terror and pain, the stork had been flailing around the hospital floor before I gently picked it up and cradled it in my lap so it wouldn’t hurt itself further. As I gently stroked its body and its long, graceful neck, the remaining stump of its leg quivered as though electricity still coursed through it. This bird, which would normally fly away at the approach of a human being, accepted my attempts to soothe its traumatized body and the crazed look in its eyes gradually mellowed with every gentle caress. The bird died later that night.
My first experience with voluntourism taught me a great deal about how quickly even the best-made plans could change, how resourceful and resilient I could be in a pinch, and what it means to experience a culture by investing yourself in it. I may not have been needed at the therapeutic farm in Crete, but I was needed somewhere, if for no other reason than to bring comfort to a stork while it struggled with the last moments of its life. The way that I traveled would change from then on.