“Hi, my name is Tony and I am here ’cause my dog died.” It was January 1996 when I heard those words on the first night of an orientation course organised by PALMS, http://www.palms.org.au/ an Australian association which recruits, prepares and places volunteers in positions around the world. At the end of the previous year, my husband and I had begun our search for volunteer opportunities and after a friend suggested PALMS we contacted them and decided to participate in their 14 day/night orientation program. We wanted to learn as much as possible about becoming a volunteer, to ascertain if we were ready to pursue our dreams and to consider accepting a position which might be offered.
The venue for the course was the Columban Mission Institute at North Turramurra on the north shore of Sydney, just at the entrance to the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. The historic building was originally a seminary and was set in magnificent grounds and gardens and included a full size football oval and tennis courts. For the next two weeks our lives would be somewhat institutionalised; all the bedrooms had a single bed, wardrobe, desk and hand basin; meals were eaten at exactly 8am, 12 noon and 6pm daily; the food was delicious and plentiful and never varied – buffet breakfast, soup and salad for lunch, hot main course and dessert for the evening meal.
As we gathered on the first evening, we were asked to introduce ourselves, talk about our reasons for attending this orientation course and why we wanted to become a volunteer. There were inspiring and unique stories, a diverse group of participants, some individuals, some couples; some from religious organisations; an assortment of cultures, professions, hometowns. We listened to dreams, desires and hopes; we shared the heartache of farewells, leaving friends and families. So when Tony stood up and said just one short statement about his dog dying, it certainly changed the mood of the room. Tony is a single man, at that time in his mid 50’s with a great love of animals and he told us that he had to wait until his beloved bulldog passed away before he could devote himself to being a volunteer. My husband and I have remained friends with Tony since then.
The course was intensive and relentless; we listened to local and international speakers who shared their wisdom and experiences; we learnt about cross-cultural life, inter-faith relations, the role of a volunteer, medical advice, vaccinations, safe travel; we listened to returnees who shared their joys, triumphs and difficulties; we participated in personality type programs such as The Enneagram and Myers Briggs and discovered there were head, heart and gut people. We laughed at the demonstration of head people looking in mirrors as it was suggested they do not have full-length mirrors in their homes and that they have never seen their body below their shoulders. We discovered truths about ourselves that were difficult to accept; we were challenged by the motivation and beliefs of others in the group and celebrated the uniqueness each had to offer; but everyone was single-minded in the desire to become volunteers, to live in another culture and to work with people who were less fortunate than ourselves.
Sydney was an unfamiliar city to me, having only visited for a brief holiday. Living in community was sometimes difficult but soon the regimented time-frame of the day was starting to become normal. One morning, we were each given an assignment and a small amount of cash and in pairs (not friends or partners) driven to the North Turramurra Train Station with the challenge to:
- Find our way to a nominated suburb – this was somewhere we had not been to before and the allocated locations were enriched by various cultures including Vietnamese, Chinese, Italian and Aboriginal Australian.
- Attempt to find accommodation – the scenario was based on our living in this location for some time;
- Contact employment agencies in search of a position that would provide sufficient income;
- Eat a meal in a venue where the menu was not in English or we did not recognise the food;
- Purchase an item which was totally unfamiliar to us and be able to present it to the group at “show and tell” when we returned;
- Find our own way back to the conference centre;
Remember, this was 1996 and mobile phones, I-pads and the internet were not commonly used in daily life. Until then, I had only lived in small regional towns without public transport so metropolitan train travel was a new experience for me. I had to read timetables, study maps, talk to people I did not know, some who had little or no English and ask lots of questions. Some of the rental accommodation on offer was less than the standard I was accustomed to and eating a meal in a food court in another culture was daunting but enjoyable.
We did find our way home, totally exhausted but with eyes wide open. Spending just a few hours in a new location and environment introduced challenges and surprises and gave us just a glimpse of what it might be like to volunteer in another culture for months or years. I have subsequently learnt the importance of being informed and knowing as much as possible about each new country and culture I am visiting and to live or work in it with the utmost respect.
Being part of the 1996 orientation group was the first of many opportunities for my husband and I and after several meetings, interviews and discussions with PALMS executive, Greg and I accepted a posting and would be travelling to our new destination as soon as the orientation course had concluded. Little did we understand then that the preparation we had undertaken would only touch the surface of the reality of living in another culture.
Lesson learnt – When arriving in a new environment/culture/country or starting a new job/career do not make any decisions or changes initially. Give yourself time, several months, to settle in and become familiar with the surroundings and the people.
The Columban Mission Institute is now located at North Sydney , Australia
Palms Australia is located at Petersham, NSW, Australia
I will soon publish several articles about locations where we have lived and opportunities we accepted since participating in this orientation course.