7 things I learned while volunteering abroad

After publishing Wednesday’s guest post , I felt inspired. I’m about to do another project, my flight actually leaves today, so it’s time to review the lessons I learned last time I volunteered. Hopefully I won’t do all my mistakes twice.

1. Volunteering equals working. I worked every day for two months. Hard, manual labor. Losing weight wasn’t part of my expectations, but it was a reality after only a week. This time I’m in better shape and hopefully won’t feel so sore the first days.

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An enclosure doesn’t look this good without someone having cleaned it. 

2. Just because I signed up to work, doesn’t mean everyone else did too. Some are there because it will look good at a future application, or make for a good story. Ignore their complaints. Shake it off.

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Or take a walk with a cheetah.

3. The true meaning of “African time”. “Soon” doesn’t mean the same in every language. It could be 10 minutes or it could be hours. If I respect their meaning, they will come to respect mine.

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Time will pass; relax.

4. Abnormal can rapidly become normal. I worked with cheetahs and other wild animals; the first days my heart was on constant overdrive. After a while though, it was “just” cheetahs.

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Their fur was softer than I ever could have imagined

5. “Luxuries” can include juice. Especially when water and food supply is running low. Missing material stuff is normal in the beginning, it will pass.

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6. The place I am visiting is also learning from me. As a visitor I first made the mistake of thinking that I was the student, while in reality it is a two-way street. I brought my Norwegian culture to Namibia, and took some of the African ways with me home.

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Everyone loves to dance. They taught us, and we taught them.

7. Small changes do make a difference. I dug waterholes and fixed fences; stuff anyone could do. However, I was the one that was there, and that waterhole has made a difference to the animals in the area.

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How to survive extreme heat

“Isn’t it very warm in Cairns, Australia now? I heard it’s warmer on that side.”

I get this a lot when I tell people about my upcoming volunteer trip. However, I’m visiting when it’s almost winter, so it’s “only” going to be 20-30 Celsius. The temperature on my last project, in Namibia, was much higher, averaging between 35 and 45 Celsius, but going on 50 on the warmest days. How do you survive this? Work in it? Well, I don’t know about you, but here’s how I did it:

1. Keep hydrated. Keep one two bottles of water with you at all times when you don’t have a place to refill nearby. Consider using thermoses instead of the regular plastic ones, as they can keep your water cool. In addition remember to drink before you’re thirsty, you need more water in a hot enviornment – drink regularly.

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2. Avoid caffeine and alcohol. They have diuretic effect which increases water loss and contributes to dehydration. Take a bath instead.

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3. Do like the locals and stay inside (or at least in the shade) when the sun is the strongest: 12 pm – 3 pm. Go out early or late. Work smarter instead of harder.

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4. Food = Energy. Eat fresh fruit and nuts to help replenish the electrolytes (i.e., “salts” such as sodium, chloride, potassium). lost through sweat. Try to keep your meals light and balanced, if they are large they take more work to digest which will increase your temperature.

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5. Cover up. Use sunblock on all exposed skin, and don’t give in to the temptation to wear as little as possible. When the temperature is high and humidity is low, sweating may not be noticeable because it evaporates quickly. Therefore remain clothed to avoid direct sun on your skin and to reduce your body’s water loss to evaporation. Lightweight and lightly colored clothes of natural fabrics such as linen, cotton, and hemp are good choices to keep comfortable.

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6. Better safe than sorry. Take a couple of minutes to look up the signs of heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. No one ever plans for something to go wrong, but often it does anyway, so plan ahead. If it doesn’t help you, then it just might help someone else.

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Good luck everyone, and stay safe in the summer heat!

My Biggest Adventure yet

Some of you might think that this is about my upcoming trip to Australia. However, I have found that I can’t start a new adventure without properly finishing an old one. Before Christmas, September – November, I volunteered with animals in Namibia, Africa. It was the greatest adventure I have ventured out on, yet.

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A braai and sunset is always a great combination!

My trip was challenging beyond most travels I have done before. The animals kept hurting me and the camp was in the middle of nowhere. I was isolated with 50 other volunteers that sometimes did not have enough food and water for everyone. However, I don’t regret any of it, even if some of the nights lasted forever.

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Just one of many.

I met people from all around the world and we are bound together by the experience. It changed us; I came there as an eager teenager, but left as a leader. One evening walking home, after having been back in Norway for several weeks, I realized I no longer look over my shoulder. I’ll know if there is anyone there. I’ll know how to react. I have fought baboons and faced off with cheetahs – I am no longer ordinary prey.

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The baboons accepted me in the end, but not before I had learned the true meaning of dominance.

When I left Namibia I had volunteered for two months. I was one of the people that had been there the longest, so in the end I had a lot of responsibility. I led several of the activities; I had lives in my hands. My back is straight and I keep my head high, I now know I am good for it if something were to happen. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – I have the scars to prove it.

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Thank you, Namibia. Or as you would say – Dankie.

Goodbye to the land of straight roads and white cars

It’s time. One last hug. One last “We’ll stay in cantact”. One last whispered “I’ll miss you.”. One last look. Goodbye two months of volunteerwork. Two months of challenges. Of new and good friends. Of animals you’ll never forget.

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Missy-Jo, I’ll miss your purr in the mornings.

You’ve been saying goodbye for a week. It’s easier to ease into it. You’ve walked around taking pictures, spent time outside of work with the animals – and now the day is here, the day to leave. In one way, you can’t stop smiling, because everyone knows that after a long trip – coming home is always nice. However, in another way, your heart is breaking. You’re massaging the back of your right wrist; the tiny scars from a baboonattack that now seems so long ago. That was such a long day. You learned so much from it.

IMG_3814Remember my struggle with them?
The Baboon Bullies

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Always be ready for a fight – one of the things I learned
If you had a bad day

12180803_915777411822598_252476890_oAnd that it gets better.
The reality of volunteering

“Do you think you’ll ever come back?” Your roomie looks over at you from behind the white bus that’s going to take you away. You shake your head “probably not. This has been an amazing experience, and I’ve learned enough to write an entire book, but… This isn’t a come-back-to-place for me. It’s more of a once in a lifetime thing. One you in the end will only remember the good memories from.”

DSC_0456This crazy group of friends I will always remember.

The coordinator hands out your certificates.

wp-1448814379287.jpgNotice the word “Survival” anyone?

People hug again (there can never be enough hugs). The group leaving enters the bus. All of your heads are turned. You stare at what you leave behind until you can’t. Some are crying. You reach out and take your roomie’s hand. Going home now would have been ten times worse if she wasn’t leaving at the same time.

At the airport you all sit down and get milkshakes.

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They still exist! Good heavens, you’ll have to have another one. Chocolate of course. You wander around afterwards, Windhoek airport isn’t big. “See ya when I see ya,” you say to your Danish friend, and he waves. “It was nice meeting you,” the german couple smile and nod, “you too.” And then there’s you and your roomie, your best friend, left. You’re on the same flight to Johannesburg.

Take off. Holding on tight. She’s leaving someone special behind. She cries silently. Both are leaving a great time. A time where you matured. Fought baboons. Walked cheethas. Cared for an injured caracal. Cleaned waterholes and dug graves in 50 degrees. Friends you don’t know if you’ll see again. You watch the straight roads. The white cars becoming smaller and smaller.

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In Johannesburg you buy Amarula, promising to think of each other when drinking it.

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Promising to tell your stories if drinking with others. It’s emotional, but neither says anything. The last goodbye is right around the corner. At gate A00. You’re going to Norway. Your flight leaves first, so she has acompanied you to your gate. You watch her like you watched your camp when she walks away. Not turning back. A short woman. 27. Poledancer and jewelery-maker. Direct and honest. Funnier than most. The French dialect in every word she says. You will see each other again. Life won’t get in the way. Not this time.

Up, up, above the clouds.

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Africa under you. Africa behind you. Africa coming home with you. You fold your hands in your lap. Close your eyes and lean your head against the cold window.  Your heart beats faster and your breath threathens to choke you. Pictures run through your head.

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A bat-eared fox baby ❤
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Bat eared foxes a few weeks after birth
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Totally normal to sit on a caged car, going too fast through the desert. I’m gonna miss the wind in my hair
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Hey! They are stealing my hat.
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Jesse, my girl ❤
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After a sleepout
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Meerkat interaction
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Pride’s cubs a month old. Little biting monsters. Adorable, of course.
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Athino, always thirsty, always friendly
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On baboonwalks – you walk.
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In the end I worked it out with the Teenagers. After all of our fights, after all the pain they caused me, winning their trust and loyalty will be one of the memories that will make me smile the most.

“Thanks for everything. Dankie,” you whisper.

The shower community

Thirteen past 6 pm. You lock the door behind you and stroll from your hut to the showers. On your short walk you smile and wave at the people you know, who smile and wave back. You avoid the warthog, curse the thorn that sneaks past your sandal and into your middle toe. Several people a standing by the showers. They stare at you as you approach. Oh, you forgot it’s Friday. Newbies. You politely greet them before you step around and into the shower hallway.

There’s already other volunteers there. You meet each others eyes and laugh with your hands covering your mouths. It was strange for you too the first time you saw someone walking in only a towel and sandals. Not to mention doing it yourself the first time. Now you know everyone does it. It doesn’t matter what gender, age or size you are – you all have two things in common- you are all so freaking dirty. And you all hope there’s water left.

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Like the bathrooms, the showers can’t be locked. Hanging your towel over your door is therefore important, unless you want visitors. You may get them anyway, some people needs glasses.

The spiders welcome you as usual, you chase the cat away, and step into one of the showers when it’s available. You only turn on the cold water, because turning on the hot water makes no difference. It’s nice though, it cools you down.

“NOOOOO! I have shampoo EVERYWHERE!” You laugh. Like everyone else. The voice belongs to a friend of you, and there’s undoubtedly no more water in her shower. You rinse and listen to that girl that always sings. You listen to someone’s story about a caracal sleepout with lots of mosquitos. You smile. This will, strangely, be one of the things you will miss when you leave.

Feeling refreshed, you get out of the shower. What you thought was a new tan is down the drain, and you can see the real color of your feet again. It will be possible for about five more seconds, until the sand from outside blows over you.

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As you look yourself in one of the few mirrors on the entire camp, another volunteer enters the showers. He puts his fingers to his lips as you open your mouth to ask what everyone asks around here: “how was your day?” With your head tilted, you watch him as he slowly approaches one of the showers. He has something balled up in his left hand. Your mouth takes the form of an “O” and then you grin. He lifts his eyebrows at you and drop it over the door. He starts grinning too. A few seconds later another guy, the one currently taking a shower, goes “what the hell?!” And you both hurry silently out. There you laugh and whisper “see ya!”.

Who would have guessed that taking a shower in a volunteercamp could be such fun? Not you before you came here. But every shower is an adventure here, at Harnas Wildlife Foundation. Especially when warthogs are hiding in the bushes. Your towel looks like an excellent dessert.

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They sneak up on you when you least expect it…

P.S. It was a pair of his old boxers he had in his hands

Into the wild

Welcome to Bushmanland.

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Forget showering. Forget Wifi. Forget cell-signal. Forget the rest of the world. It’s you and the bushmen now. You and the wild.

“Bushmanland”, says the sign. There are no fences here. One cannot own land. Animals roam freely. The people that live here survive on hunting and gathering.

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For five days I had the privilege of staying with the San people – bushmen as they say themselves. They have lived the same way for thousands of years and have the most similar genetics to Everyone. No matter who comes here can see something of themselves in their faces.

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We were nine people on the expedition. Five volunteers from Harnas Wildlife Foundation (myself and four more), one traveler from England (a british guy named Jamie who couldn’t have stopped telling puns if his life depended on it) and the three people that organized the trip. It’s funny how quickly people get to know each other around a bonfire. Hank and Renate – two of the organizers – got married the second of October, the same day as I arrived in Namibia. We bonded instantly. Hank is a several time world champion in archery, was a profesional MMA fighter, but listens to Cascada and keeps referencing chick-flicks. Renate is from Holland, loves dogs, and is currently following her dreams here. Aleksandra is the last, but main organizer. She’s Norwegian, but has lived in Namibia for six years. She gave up being a supermodel to find herself, and along the way she found her passion too. I could have listened to her stories around the bonfire for forever. She speaks their language. She knows them.

It was certainly a curious group that met the San this Monday. They welcomed us with open arms though – literally.

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Bushmen! And butts… 😛

I was a bit nervous before we met them. It didn’t help that Hank joked that if one of the bushmen shot an arrow into my ass I shouldn’t freak out, that’s one of the ways they propose. I just had to remember not to pick the arrow up, because that would mean I accepted it.

However, from when we met the San until we said goodbye, I couldn’t stop smiling. I’ve never met such people before. They are incredibly short, weigh around 30-40 kg and laugh with, not just their whole faces, but their whole selves.

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Big smiles.

In the short time we visited them, they took us in as their own. They wanted to teach us as much as possible. They took us tracking, gathering, bird-trapping, and showed us how to make rope from a plant called mother in law tongue. In addition they let us use their bows and spears. I would not have made a great Robin Hood it seems.

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Snare.

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Norwegian foot vs Africa. Africa won. 

Bushmen are playful. When I was told we were going to play games with them I first sighed. More football, really? I got enough of that at High School and had no need to play against people that run marathons every week (no joke, they actually do.)

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No matter where in the world. Funny videos bring people together.

However, their games are quite different from football. They sing. They dance. It involves a lot of rhythm. Clapping. Buttshaking. Fun. I took one of my favorite pictures of this whole trip when playing with them. We taught them a song we do around the bonfire at Harnas “This is the repeat after me song”. Take a guess at how the game goes.

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There is something special about being in the untouched wild. One night we heard hyenas in the bushes. Every night we had a sky with a billion stars.

12242779_923879217679084_1768923201_o Bonfires. Magic. N a m i b i a ❤

Namibia is one of the few countries where you can still find large groups of elephants. It was HUGE, seeing them.

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Elephant footprints in the sand, and my tiny foot in comparison.

All in all, it was a great trip. However it was also great returning to Harnas. I have had days where I feel like I just don’t belong, but when we came back – we definitely belonged. My roomie ran to meet me, our friends that didn’t join the trip greeted us loudly at dinner and the kitchen lady reached over the counter to take our hands. We could take a shower again after five days. We had beds to go to. It almost felt like… Coming home.

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PS. Remember that comments make me happy 🙂

The Caracal’s funeral

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They were the first animals you connected with. Their enclosure was your safe haven. As you sit down under the usual tree, pull your knees up to your chest, you feel their absence more than ever.

One day earlier.

You see it in her eyes. They’re half open. It’s like she’s looking at you through a fog. “You can do this Jesse, I’m here. Hold on, please hold on.” You whisper in a strained calm voice. Not Jesse. Not Jesse. “Blankets. Her temperature is dropping. Run.” The veterinarian nods to you. Up, out the door to the tiny clinic, past familiar faces that turn with questions on their lips. Faster. Heads turning. People yelling. Sheep in your way.

Jesse needs a blanket. She needs it now. You get to the kitchen and bang around until you find what you’re searching for. One of your roomies is there; “what’s going on? Are you okay? What’s going on?!” You breathe heavily, but manage to words before you’re out the door again “Jesse, dying”.

“I’m here. The blankets” You stumble in the door. The vet shows you how and where to rub the caracal. You do as told. “Good. We need to take her temperature again.” A short nod is all you have the energy to respond. It’s hard running in 40 degrees celsius. You grab her neckskin and hold tight. With your other hand you pet her. Another of Harnas Wildlife Foundation’s volunteer’s joins you. She speaks soothingly with Jesse. It’s too late. There’s nothing to be done. The last hope is the big clinic in Gobabis, an hour away. The veterinarian and someone from the staff is taking her.

They ask you to get Bonnie as well. He’s (yes, they named him Bonnie). You hurry back to the Caracal enclosure. “Bonnie” you call. He doesn’t usually come to you, or anyone for that matter, but this time he does. You take a deep breath, and lift him. My god he’s heavy. He protests and scratches you, but it doesn’t matter. Jesse got worse in only a few hours. He might too.

They drive away. You stand at the gate, hugging yourself, watching the car until you can’t see it anymore. It will be a shitty night.

Two days after sitting alone in their enclosure: You’re alone again. This time on the animal graveyard. You have a shovel in your hand. A lump in your troat.

You only knew them for five weeks. It’s amazing how quickly one becomes attatched. You start digging. It’s hard work. However, there’s something special about doing it yourself. No machines. It takes time. The sun is burning your neck. Three others join you.

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Silently you finish it. Afterwards you head out and collect stones and wood. You find paint and make a cross. The funeral will be held the day after.

The funeral.

Most of the volunteers have gathered at the grave when you arrive. You sigh, this is not Europe, someone actually have to bring a shovel. You turn and walk go get two. When you return, the caracal is brought as well. It’s put in the grave and the coordinator with us says a few words. Then he looks up and asks if anyone else have something to say. No one says anything. The coordinator shrugs and someone closes up the grave. Everyone puts stones on it. Then people leave.

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You stay until most of the others have left. A slight smile plays on your lips, my god, the time when Jesse almost ate your toes. You sigh and take one last look at the grave.

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I’m gonna miss you, Jesse.

P.S. Bonnie is alive, although he is still sick.

P.P.S. I’m going into the bush from Monday until Friday, to experience “the real untouched Africa” – so no updates for a while. I’ll write when I’m back though, and tell you everything 🙂