What do you think of when you hear the word “Volunteering”? Someone who works for free? Someone who serves society? Working in NGOs? Someone who is willing to do something for a cause? My answer is “Yes” and “No”. I’m not saying that all the above is false. They are true. But like most facts, they are half-truths. For me, Volunteering means so much more. So let me give you my meaning of volunteering alongside my story.
First off, why am I even talking about this question?
To all those who have no clue, I am currently working as a volunteer with the German Red Cross since August 2021. But my journey to become a volunteer began long before that. It was towards the end of 2019 when I first heard of such a volunteering opportunity. Before that, I generally associated volunteering with something more done on a regional level and in just NGOs. I assumed it to be something done either at a young age for part-time or around the age of retirement. Little did I know that this would be the time when my perspective evolved.
With this opinion, I hadn’t didn’t given much thought to it at that time. It was a couple of months later when Volunteering was brought up in my mind. I was planning on a gap year after my undergrad and I was thinking of what to do. That was also the time when I was putting most of my time into learning German. So I was planning on what to do in that gap year when I remembered this opportunity once more. I may not have had a very high opinion of volunteering but I always love a challenge. That’s why I decided, “why not?” and searched to apply. To my luck, it was literally the last day for application and I submitted it in a hurry. A few weeks later, I had no hope but I got a call for my interview from FSL India, the organisation that I was going through.
After the call, came the next challenge, the COVID pandemic wave around the world and a nationwide lockdown in India and Germany. This caused the rise in doubt about what would be happening next. Would there be even a volunteering program, would I even be going or staying. I had no answers to any questions. My only solution was to wait it out. Yet, in this period, to a great surprise, I got selected for this program. This was a huge shock and excitement for me. Even with the uncertainty, I started building my plans around this opportunity.
The Period of Endless Waiting…
The next step after that turned out to be an everlasting wait to even know if the program will continue and when it will if it does. No one knew what to expect. With the totally different COVID wave patterns in both countries, there never seemed to be a period where both had a falling slope in terms of cases. June and July passed quickly with only the development that all the volunteers going to Germany got in contact via WhatsApp. August, September and October seemed to pass with daily reviews of the German Consulate website for India. Just waiting to get a chance to get a Visa Appointment date.
By November 2020, all hope was dwindling. We, Volunteers for the German Red Cross, had been providing each other hope that it would continue as it was already announced that the program for the other organisation was cancelled for that year and postponed to the next. We also had received the notification that our program might start later, anytime from February or April and go on till November of 2021 or even till a year later. I wasn’t even sure at this point on how things were going to happen or if I’d even continue. There was only silence for the next few months.
Around February 2021 was when we finally got some answers, I’d say. It was around this time when there was hope that we might leave at the end of May and have a program for 1.5 years instead of 1 year. We were asked to find the closest dates for Visa applications. This was also the time when Visa applications weren’t still fully open but we could mail and request the consulate for appointments. With some luck, the three of us got the appointment for the end of March. Finally, things felt like they were at a moving pace.
With the online application form filled, flight tickets booked and all necessary documents collected, we went to our respective appointments and almost four weeks later, each of us received our visas. Though these Visas weren’t the usual nine months or year-long, we all luckily got three to six months. With this, we started preparing to pack. Somehow, we were again played with. The second wave of COVID hit India less than a couple of weeks later and we were once again in a nationwide lockdown through April and May. Till the last week of May, we all waited with some hope that we still might be able to take our flights. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. Finally, with no choice, the three of us had to wait. The only positive was that the program was still happening as all the other country volunteers were still departing on June 1st to Germany.
Unofficial and Official Start to Volunteering…
This definitely sounds weird, but I consider that my volunteering program had two or even three starting points to it. This, on June 1st 2021 was the very first one. To understand better, this was the supposed and finalised start date for our program and all the other volunteers, except the Indians, had finally reached Germany. Hence, we began with on-arrival orientation seminars. It might have been online for us Indian volunteers, but it at least cemented that the program was actually happening.
Still, the hopes dwindled until we finally climbed into our flights to Germany. Even with just about two to three weeks’ notice on flights, we had no surety that we’d be leaving till it happened. This led to our second starting point where we landed in Germany, only to stay in quarantine and have online seminars. The main plus point though was that we three really got to know each other. Whenever we were bored, which was a lot when you are in quarantine and have nothing to do, we ended up crashing into each other’s rooms and watching movies, talking or playing games. At least that way, we didn’t realise how fast time passed by and we finally began our programs.
Finally, about two weeks after arriving in Germany, we started volunteering at our assigned places. This brought about a roller-coaster of a journey for each of us.
Now, what actually was my project?
Coming to this point, that’s an obvious question. Especially since I just said that it was volunteering and gave no more details. So, let’s open the doors.
I was selected to work at DRK Tagungshotel Dunant as a project assistant. The main idea I was given about the tasks were based on the fact that it is a conference hotel and has conference halls and hotel rooms. This included working in organising conference rooms, papers for it and also preparing rooms. But let’s be practical. It was a volunteering program and we were working for free. Hence, I had expected this to be a broad and heightened expectation from the program.
To no surprise, my suspicions turned out to be the truth. When we had the pre-departure orientation seminars, I learned more about my program and I was informed by the previous volunteer about the work tasks. This initially was more on working with the cleaning team and cleaning the hotel rooms and preparing it for the customers. The other part of the work was helping arrange seminar rooms by organising tables, chairs and food, etc.
Why do such tasks?
Listening to all this and coming from an Indian middle-class background, you might wonder why I chose to continue with this program. Growing up in India, we all tend to never realise the privileges we have. With the cost of labour so low, most middle-class families tend to have a domestic helper or a maid to do most of the simple stuff inside the house. Someone to wash the dishes, clean the floors, toilets, kitchens, wash clothes, etc. Being raised in such an environment, we tend to feel that such jobs are low level and not worth our time and effort. But that’s where we are wrong, where our opinions need to change.
We tend to demerit people who do physical labour more than those who use their minds. But they are just as important. As a kid, I was always told to respect the domestic helpers and value their jobs. I even saw the amount of work that would increase when our domestic helper couldn’t come one day. As I grew older and travelled to different countries, I saw how people had to manage without them and do so many extra tasks on their own. This made me respect them more. So when I got the idea that I’d have to do this type of work, I was sure of one thing; I knew that I’d value the effort put by people who do these tasks on a daily basis.
This further concreted my belief once I reached Germany and started my job. One of the most special things I saw pretty soon was how much each person valued the next person’s job. I’m not saying that no one looked down on the next person, they are definitely people for that. What I meant is, that most people value the small efforts put in by everyone. I even saw these people being respected a lot more since there is a huge demand for people to do them in this land.
So I’d definitely say that living and experiencing personally the way these tasks are done day-to-day will not just make one realise the importance of these people but also give a new level of insight and respect in this matter. Plus, who knows, some even learn a lot more about themself or their life in this process. I’d say, if you have the chance, give it a shot.
How has my experience been?
One word: Enjoyable. This experience has been very unique and I’ve enjoyed the volunteering program most of the time. I can’t deny that there haven’t been hard times where I was super frustrated and just wanted to quit. But I pulled through those and still loved the experience. Coming from a very mind oriented job, this definitely had major changes in my life. I learnt how to be a lot more active and energetic while doing physical work. For someone who barely got up from her chair and exercised for an hour, working 40hrs a week with my body was initially exhausting. But now, I feel super active.
Then there was the fact of mental exhaustion. That’s what I had before – during school, college, after college, during weekends, all the time before this program. Now though, I still use my mind. But it isn’t mentally taxing at least. Most days, I feel so peaceful mentally. Especially since this job has no turnover. So we don’t take any work home or have to work at home. With this whole new environment and daily life, less mental stress is definitely a blessing. It allows us to have a social life, explore the culture, place, meet people or do anything we want.
Reality Check: The negative side of this program
Okay, now I know that if people are like me, I definitely want the negatives out in the open. At least that way, I can prepare for the worst and have a hundred backups ready. So, let’s begin with this reality check.
Starting off with the most obvious is that one has to be very self-reliant and independent. This is especially as a test for most people who have never lived alone or have had someone to always help them around. From cooking to shopping, cleaning, waking up, organising or sleeping on time to be able to work and even managing money. Just like in any other situation like going abroad for education, work, etc, this gives a definite reality check to everyone. Especially in the beginning when no one is used to it.
Coming right after that is homesickness. It’s definitely real. With a new environment, culture, food and lifestyle, missing the people back home and the feeling of home is obvious. This can be especially more if there is no sense of feeling of back home, like another person from the same country, some home food or even the weather. But one definitely gets used to it after a point. Plus the modern-day technology and ability to video call anytime and even buy home foods in nearby stores help. On a secret note, learning to cook a few favorite dishes from home before coming is a blessing in disguise. Makes things so much easier.
Then there are the culture shocks and language barriers. This also isn’t exactly a negative but starts off as a bugging one. Especially when you don’t know the language. These natives speak super fast. Actually, we all do, in the language, we are comfortable with. It’s just frustrating when you need to zone out and think about things or talk to yourself when others are discussing. Then there are the great culture shocks. I actually love these, but I know that some people find that to be a huge disadvantage. It is beautiful asking questions about things we don’t know. Feels like we are kids again. But the truth is, it is scary. LIke super scary if you aren’t used to being in such environments. You don’t know what to do, who to talk to or how to occupy time when you aren’t working or given a task. It gives a feeling of being lost.
Then comes my biggest nightmare, travel or daily commute. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a traveller by heart and would love to spend the rest of my life travelling and exploring. But the daily commute to work is a whole different story. Especially when you need to rely on public transport such as those in Germany. See, German public transport is great. There are buses and some five forms of trains and then there are cycles and carpools. But the trains are my biggest complaint. There is a huge monopoly of deutscheBahn (dB), the company that runs the railway network. They are doing pretty decently in major cities. But when it comes to connecting cities to suburbs and towns and villages nearby, they are the only public transport means in the majority. Plus, ask any German about the dB and they’ll say how bad it is and how randomly they go on strike or cancel trains. It is truly a horror when you realise that you are stuck in the middle of nowhere or at a station almost close to midnight and have no way to get back home and relax. That’s why I hate the monopoly of such companies and call it a disadvantage. I still appreciate the connectivity as dB connects most of the cities and towns and villages to a major city. My complaints are their cancellations and frequencies.
Next comes the obvious reality of sharing a common place with strangers. Let’s get this straight. It is definitely crazy at the beginning with groups being formed, back-stabbing, and arguing. Loads of misunderstandings, fights and dislikes. It is always good to have regular group meetings, some ground rules and set timings. But this is one challenge which all have to face and leads to loads of lessons.
Finally, there is the weather. For most Indians, this is not something that is easy to get adjusted to. It’s cold all the time. The rains here are like those British rain jokes, regular but drizzling for ages and ages at a shot. Can’t be wet but can’t be warm and dry.
Then there are small things like doctor appointments, grocery shopping, cinema hall movie experiences, eating outside, etc. and those are trade-offs or at least things that we learn as we go and don’t have to be major points in this long boring blog. So let’s head to the next section.
Fun Part: The positives of this program
Ooof, now that the negatives are out of the way, let me tell you all the plus points ….. Might be just a few as there are way too many to list.
Starting off is the cultural exchange. Don’t tell me that there are people who randomly decide to come on a year abroad program and have no interest in having any cultural exchange. Not 1%. For me though, it is super cool. That’s what got me to be a traveller. Duh. I mean, what better time to learn about different cultures and lifestyles of people. I definitely took advantage of this situation and had a few at least. For someone who had never celebrated Christmas, decorating Christmas trees and learning about their culture was great. Also, one of my flatmates and a dear friend and volunteer follow Islam and I also got the advantage of learning about his culture and costumes. Plus, don’t forget, it is an exchange. I also put my side of effort into teaching people about Indian cultures and customs and got a lot of people into Indian foods and spices.
The next great positive is the language. Come on!!! Going to a different country with a different language and not even trying to learn their language is the most boring thing possible. Plus, it puts you at a huge disadvantage in socialising. People love listening to others try to speak their language. I mean it. Everyone appreciates when you try speaking their language. No need to be perfectionists today Hello and Thank You. But the main thing is, you are in a country speaking that language. This means, you read, speak, listen, eat and even sleep the language. Where else can anyone learn a language other than among natives? It is a perfect advantage. You build your foreign language skills, you make friends with natives, you learn their culture and integrate amongst them like locals.
Another major advantage. If you choose the same program as me, then you are coming to Germany, to Europe. And the best part about being in Europe is to travel. That’s one thing you should never miss out on. It’s a must-do. Especially with no special Visa required or any checks while crossing borders on the road. You can cross to a new country in less than 30 mins at times and it’s fascinating and mind-blowing. Definitely a must. At least a few countries and cities.
Following travel, is definitely Food! Food is a must-try when you are in a new country. It is a major point in learning to adjust to another culture and it gives your taste buds some new sensations. Coming to Germany, the bread, sausages and beers are the main things you can try. If you are vegetarian or vegan, still try the bread. Germans are known to have 1000s of types of bread and they are definitely better than the bread we got in India. Oh and also Chocolate and Turkish foods. Since Germany is filled with Turkish immigrants, Turkish foods have become a major part of the Germans’ lives. The chocolates around Europe are also amazing and far better than those in India. So definitely give some of them a shot. Also, if you are someone who likes alcohol, the beers and innumerable wines are always a great deal. Especially for how affordable they are.
Then there are definitely the people. Seriously! Germans are so sweet. I don’t mean every single person. But most people in my region are. They are helpful and welcoming. The exact opposite of what we are taught and learned from dramatic social media and jokes. They surprised me and I really felt welcome because of them. I’m not saying that no one is racist or anything as such. But the majority of the crowd are amazing and so sweet.
Ugh! I could go on forever! But I think these many give you an idea of what I’m trying to say and make you hope for so many more.
Now please answer the question for this blog!!!
Okay. Okay. Now that everything is out of the way, I will answer the question for which I wrote this blog. In my opinion, YES. Seriously, if you are someone who read through this blog till here, you are already someone who has either already experienced this kind of program or definitely needs to. You are ready for it.
If you are the type that skipped everything and came just to read my final answer, I’d still say you need this experience to learn through it. Now, go and read the rest of the blog and come here. That’s the first step that you need before applying for such a program.
But if you are one of those who want nothing to do with learning about other cultures, living a different life and being open-minded, this program is unfortunately not for you and you can enjoy and stay where things fit you far better. Still, thanks for reading this article.
One last thing for those who actually want to and even will be actually doing this program or something similar. Enjoy the moment, learn from the bad experiences, live out the good times, exchange cultures and take this as a huge opportunity. The best times always come with an open mind.
Until next time,
Nidhi ( Outbound Volunteer, Germany)