It's been 2 and a half weeks since I started volunteering in Malaysia at an Afghan refugee school. I applied through the travelers favourite - work away. The project changed twice before I even arrived and perhaps that should have given me an idea of how my time would go, but I arrived ready to get stuck in and most importantly to help. I was ready to do something good with my time, traveling is great but it had been 5 months and whilst I had some incredible experiences, seen things I'll never forget and learnt more than I could imagine, aside from a short stint teaching in South Africa I didn't feel like I'd given anything back. I hadn't left a mark or done anything lasting. So this was exciting for me, a chance to make a difference.
It sounds so very cliche, I'm aware, I want to make a difference. And perhaps that is why I arrived blinkers on getting straight into what I could give and teach. I'm used to hostels and sub par living standards, this was not a hostel but not exactly a house either. My base was a cross between the 2 shared with 4 dogs and a cat. With a lot of love it could be a cool place, it is eco living to it's fullest. We recycle, compost, nothing is wasted and all materials are eco friendly or reused materials. Whilst some places can do that effortlessly in a new modern way this I can only describe as more rustic. The main problem was that when I arrived it was just me and so the chores were mine alone. The owner lived next door and did most of the cooking, but I had to clean and look after the dogs, all while planning and teaching lessons. I used to want a dog, now I think I'll pass.
I don't mind helping out and doing my fair share, I'm certainly not going to moan about having to do some cleaning, even if it has been 5 months! But what I do object to is someone asking me to do all the work while they do nothing. Which happened far too many times these past 2 weeks. Thankfully, another volunteer arrived a few days after me and she and I were fast friends. Splitting the chores was far better, but still a pain when others don't help. My overall impression of the house and the chores is disorganised. There was a list of things to do and how to do them that changed on a whim and were added to without warning. We were expected to get up at 7 and do the chores, when we could have easily done them at any time in the day, but getting into a routine was one of the things I enjoyed while there. After I got over my initial shock at the accommodation and adjusted to constantly smelling like dog, I began to quite like the rustic nature of the place and the eco living really appealed to me. Though eating almost moldy food is not something I'm going to miss.
The teaching followed the same pattern as the house, disorganisation ruled. The days and times I taught changed almost daily and even the subject changed in the last week. When I arrived I was told I would be teaching environmental science, which was what I applied for, but when I asked what specifically I would teach, I was told that was up to me. I was expected to create and teach a scheme of work for a group ranging from 12 to 19 year olds (even the ages were decided by me when I arrived) . With no real goals, no topic lists, no idea how many students there would be; I was on my own.
I think you'll agree this was not what I thought I had signed up for.
Nonetheless, I had ideas and most importantly I had bundles of enthusiasm. I decided to focus on pollution and do a 10 lesson Arc around this, culminating in a group project. The owner of the charity listened to my ideas and changed a few things, practical ideas she believed would not be feasible, but liked the overall idea. I got the distinct feeling the majority of it went over her head. When I turned up at the school, 10 minutes before the first lesson, it seemed the headteacher had a completely different idea, she wanted more practical work! So communication was clearly not going to be their strong suit. When another environmental science volunteer arrived a week later, the programme changed again and a 6 week SoW needed to be created. I was the only one with any teaching background, so most of this work fell to me.
Anything we planned had a 50/50 chance of happening, I was told that the organization cooked for the homeless every Sunday and did a street salon for them every Wednesday, in my time these never happened and I was left wondering if they ever did or of it was just good talk. A SEND swimming session that was supposed to happen twice a week also never happened. Again disorganised. But by far the worst was my attempt to organise a trip to the science museum (see my previous blog) the headteacher was no help with missing children and keeping students together.
I have to attribute a lot of the disorganisation to the owner, and at this point I don't want to whine or bad mouth another person, but I have spent 2 weeks listening to her insult many of her previous volunteers as well as some of the current ones. I have spent a lot of time removing negativity from my life and she was a very negative person, there world it seemed was out to get her. Very few positive comments came out of her mouth and most of the time she was just interested in what you could do for her. Setting up a charity of this size and keeping it running can't be easy so I'm sure I barely scratched the surface of her as a person, but bad mouthing other volunteers to a brand new volunteer just seems unprofessional to me. So towards the end of my stay I began to look forward to the release from the negativity. My energy was being drained and my determination to stay positive was tested.
In this sense it was a good dry run, seeing how I handle the stress of the real world again. I have been worried about how it will be when I go back to working. But I also know that any longer and I might have broke, so it is a good thing I am leaving for a meditation course tomorrow. I think the private time to reflect and think, or not think as the case may be, is truly needed.
Looking back I have to divide my time into 2 parts the teaching and the rest of it. And the important part will always be the teaching. Again I was struck by how similar teaching is across the globe, the fidget spinner made it into my class, students needed lots of praise and encouragement. There was a small language barrier but having to explain things 10 times not only helped me come up with inventive ways to explain global warming but also helped the students understand it better. It made me speak slower and clearer as well, something I need to work on when not teaching in England. I was also reminded how much I truly love teaching. I could not imagine any other job and it's reassuring to know I will always be able to teach no matter where I end up. But, this project opened another door I wasn't even aware was there, teaching others to teach. I ran a short workshop on some key tips to effective teaching and I loved being able to share my wisdom and experience and discuss methods we could use, which ones worked and which didn't. Definitely something to think of going forward.
I will miss the volunteers and it was great staying in one place for a bit longer but my feet are itching to keep moving and I'm excited and a little terrified to be heading to the meditation course. I'll be in a gadget free zone for 10 days so expect a post about how my life has changed and how I've seen the light shortly after that.
(I think I'm kidding but most things I read suggests this may be closer to the truth!)
So I decided to try Ramadan for a day for a few reasons. Firstly I think it will be an enlightening experience, to appreciate another culture. Secondly, I'd like to gain an appreciation for what my students go through every year, not being able to drink water on the hottest days of the year. I'd been thinking about doing it since seeing Amjad Ali (@ASTsupportAAli) #sharemyramadan on Twitter. I just needed to pick a day. I'm in Malaysia at the moment teaching, a Muslim country, so a lot of my students are fasting. It's also hot, very hot; 35 degrees most days with no air con. I finally settled on today as it's a holiday here so there's no possibility of me passing out during a lesson!
My main worry when I started this was water. I do get migraines when dehydrated so I was very concerned about dehydration. But, if millions of Muslims do it for 30 days every year, I really hope I can do it for a day. It also just so happened that last night another 2 volunteers arrived, one of them was fasting. I asked advice from a few different people, drink lots of water before and during the night, eat early and then keep busy. So last night I started drinking water like it was going out of fashion! I must have drank 3 litres before bed and another litre during the night. I woke up at 3am to drink more then got up at 4.30 to eat with my new roommate. In Malaysia the timings are different to the uk, we fast from 5.30am to 7.30pm. Considering some countries fast for 22 hours, I've ended up on the short end of the scale, but I'm thinking the sheer heat evens it out. I was told porridge and raisins, fruits and nuts are good, but I'm working on limited resources so I only had porridge and raisins with jam. It was definitely nice to have company at the very early hour, but I struggled to eat so much so early! It wasn't until I was nearly finished that my new friend said a light meal was better. Oh well! At around 5.15 I collapsed back into bed to sleep again.
I'm used to drinking a lot of water throughout the day so when I woke up I immediately went for my water bottle (usually by my bed), but fortunately I had hidden it this morning after breakfast! After the initial want of water, it passed and I got on with chores and lesson planning. It wasn't until around 11.30 that I began to feel a bit hungry. Hunger though I can deal with. The being thirsty is new to me and was the hardest to deal with. I kept thinking of that quote “water, water, everywhere yet not a drop to drink”. I'm exaggerating I know but at some points this is actually how I felt!
I started to get bored not doing anything and it only made me think of food and water so I decided to do some light yoga and then mediation. It definitely too my mind off it but the yoga may not have been the best idea, it made me more thirsty and a little light headed.
Lunch was another story. I think this was obviously going to be the hardest part but I forgot about a few key things.
I retreated to my room while everyone else are to spare myself having to watch them eat, but oversee I could still smell it and now my stomach was rumbling. But the worst part was the running water while washing up. I never realised I had such a fascinating with water, I mean I've always loved it, from waterfalls to swimming pools to the oceans, but just a running tap captivated me for far longer than it should have!
I spent the rest of the day in bed, trying to pretend I wasn't hungry or thirsty. Part of me felt like this was cheating as I slept and surfed the internet, but I honestly didn't have the energy to do much else. I felt slightly better that the friend also doing it spent the afternoon in his bed. I eventually found things to take my mind off it at towards the end I began to really look forward to breaking the fast. My host even offered to cook a special meal to break our fast, I was very excited to say the least. But most importantly, I wanted that cold refreshing glass of water!
Finally 7.30 came around! I can honestly say no drink has ever tasted so good! I tried dates for the first time, and although I've always thought they were for old people (I just associate them with my Nan) they were quite nice! Dinner was also fantastic and tasted even better as I thought I had really earnt it. Though I did make the fatal mistake of over eating and I devoured 2 and a bit plates!
Now with a full stomach and a happy feeling inside, I can say that I really enjoyed the experience and I'm glad I gave it a try. Perhaps had it been longer it would have been harder and no promises but next year I think I may try a few days if not a week!
So I must say a massive thank you to Amjad Ali for sharing his Ramadan! A true experience I think we should all try, if not for the students then for ourselves to gain a real appreciation of another religion.
It's been a horrific couple of weeks back in the UK. I think I spent a few days in shock and then a few more struggling to understand why! Finally I guess you have to accept that's it's happened and look for the good. There's a quote going around on Facebook that I love - look for the helpers. And it's true. There were so many helpers in Manchester and in London. But this post isn't about that. It's about whether or not you would be the helper?
I like to think I would be. I'm pretty experienced in first aid, I'm not afraid easily and I consider myself a pretty good person. But then I looked back on the opportunities I've had to help that I've let pass by. People who have fallen off motorbikes right next to me, I debated helping but decided the others who were going over would know better than me what to do. Or the homeless people I walk past everyday and do nothing to help. I started to think maybe I'm not one of the helpers anymore. And I was reminded of another quote - all it takes for evil to reign is for good people to do nothing.
So I began thinking of how I could help.
I went for dinner with a friend a few days ago, and we ordered far too much, the waiter asked if we wanted to take it home, I was going on a day trip the next day and my friend didn't want it, but I had a thought. So it was bagged up (using far too much packaging, but that's a separate issue), on the walk back to my hostel I knew we would pass at least one homeless person, I gave it to the first one we came across. No big deal, I didn't wait for profuse thanks, just placed it in front of them and gave a polite bow (as is custom in Asia). You see I'd read about people doing this and meant to do it myself, I mean it's only going in the bin otherwise but this was the first time I had done it and it won't be the last. You see when we talk about the helpers it's always the little things that are important and we must never lose sight of that.
When I left the UK I was adamant I would teach while travelling and I'd blog to stay in touch and clearly I've not been very good at that either. I got myself on a site called work away and sent at least 10 messages to various charities and schools offering to help teach English or anything else.
I got 1 reply. Maybe I was too full of myself, I thought they would jump at the chance to have a qualified teacher who is an English native. But it was late notice and I don't have much experience teaching English as a foreign language. It was humbling, I mean all I want to do is help, I didn't want money just somewhere to stay and maybe food, a lot of these programs want you to pay them! Could you imagine that in England?! Teachers paying to teach. Anyway, I did get one email reply from a place called Yellow House in Kuala Lumpur. They have a few teaching programmes and they are very centered around helping the refugees in the community as well as feeding the homeless, taking in strays and giving back in as many ways as possible. All run by a one woman team!
This is where I find myself now. I'll be here for just over 2 weeks and I'm teaching environmental science. I did teach a bit of science back in the UK as my degree is in biology, with my new found passion for environmentalism and protecting the planet, I thought it would be a good fit. We cook and feed the homeless once a week, talk to locals to help their English and live a fairly zero waste life here at the house. I'm excited to start giving back more and will hopefully get involved in more of these projects. The teaching however is not as straightforward as you expect.
I had to come up with 10 lessons to teach a class of around 30 on pretty much whatever I wanted under the topic of environmental science. The only equipment I have is a white board and the students will have pen and paper. No worksheets, no power point presentations and no technicians or assistants, oh and the students don't speak great English! I have a plan but I'm expecting to change it at least 5 times. Think of this the next time you're in your class rooms with your projectors and sheet after sheet, scissors to cut out, glue to stick in. I love a challenge so I'm excited but I do wish I could help them more!
Stay tuned for an update in a week or so to see how it goes, my first lesson is tomorrow!!