Wednesday, June 11, 2014

"My International Volunteer Projects 2013" By Barney Smith

Summer Rain

My International Volunteer Projects 2013

It was what every camper dreads: waking up to the sound of the patter of rain on the tent. The time was early July. The place was the francophone Belgian town of Marche-en-Famenne, the meeting place for my eighteenth international volunteer project. By the time I packed up my camping gear and lifted my rucksack, the rain had cleared, and I headed down to the station to meet the other volunteers from my project and the other Campagnons Bâtisseurs projects which were about to begin.

At the overnight stop - a hostel in the town centre - we got to know each other and completed a variety of activities and games. The leaders of my project were Arnaud from France and Noémie from Belgium, and the other volunteers Onur and Cansu from Turkey, Maria and Ana from Spain, Alice from South Korea, Damien from France and Mike from Belgium.

There followed two weeks of fun, laughter, games, sports, music, eating … and a lot of hard work too! Our project was to renovate a country mansion and its grounds, the site of a residential home for children from disadvantaged families. We trimmed trees and hedges, weeded the gardens, cleared branches from paths, unblocked the gutters, removed leaves from the ponds, swept the tennis court, cleaned statues and painted fences. Our excursions on our days off also gave us a chance to bond with each other; there was sightseeing in Brussels, as well as cycling, and a visit to the evocatively-named Festival of the Hoof (the name sounds rather more poetic in French, by the way!) in the nearby village of Porcheresse. We also organised some activities, including games and painting, for the children. We were skilfully guided in our work by Arnaud and Noémie, as well as by Daniel, a former railwayman and expert technical leader. Daniel and his wife showed great warmth and kindness to us throughout our project.

When the two weeks were over there was genuine sadness among all the volunteers (not least among those who had found love!), and there were even tears when the time came to say good-bye. My own farewell came when I changed trains in Dinant, where I was to camp before continuing my journey to Brussels. It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning, and after the two weeks which had come before I felt an acute sense of solitude as I walked along the river bank and watched the passing barges on my way to my campsite. After a night’s camping beside the River Meuse, on the day King Philippe was enthroned I headed for my next overnight stay – this time at a hostel in the Belgian capital - before beginning an overnight coach journey to the Estonian town of Pärnu, where I was to camp before the start of my next project.

I had been to the Baltic states once before, but my last visit was in the days of passport stamping and customs checks. This time the coach swept past abandoned border posts, as we crossed easily from country to country. In Pärnu I spent three days of quiet reflection (as much as this was possible in a slightly overcrowded campsite full of excited holiday-makers). The vast windswept beach and beautiful compact old town were a revelation and just what I needed to gather my thoughts.

It was soon time for project number nineteen; I was to spend two weeks as a volunteer at the Downtown Language School in Tallinn. I found myself in a diverse group of volunteers: Deyanira and Lorenzo from Mexico, Nives from Slovenia, Arturo and Nuria from Spain, Ege from Turkey, Liena from Ukraine and Hien from Vietnam. There were also longer-term volunteers - Cadence and Carrie from Hong Kong and Alex from Germany – as well as our Russian camp leader Maria. We worked with a group of teenagers from Estonia and around the world. During that time the teenagers worked on projects and carried out activities aimed at giving them a greater insight into the differences and similarities between various nationalities and cultures. These included daily country presentations, interviews, energisers, sports, competitions and games which took place in the school, as well as in the city and local area. Perhaps the highlight for me was the visit by boat to nearby Prangli, where we had a campfire, as well as a swim in the sea. We were taken on the back of a pick-up truck around this island where we saw the church and museum. Prangli has no bank and no law enforcement of its own, but the police fly in by helicopter from Estonia’s capital if needed. Does that happen often, I wondered? “Every weekend,” came the reply from the museum curator, with a wry smile. On our day off, while one group went on a day trip to Helsinki, another went on guided walking tour of Tallinn. We were also kept busy in our free time by football, volleyball and jogging.

And so my projects ended as they had started a little over a month earlier – in the pouring rain. As I headed, laden with my trusty rucksack, out of Tallinn’s exquisite old town, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, to catch my morning ferry to Helsinki for my first visit to Finland, I felt exhausted but also lucky to have met wonderful people, happy at my new experiences and ready for whatever challenges lay ahead. 

By Barney Smith

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