I lived in the world’s most populated capital city for the last 10 months. It was crowded and hot, very hot, and a beautiful mess. The turquoise lagoons of the Maldives hovered over a political abyss for most of my time there. Yet, volunteering overseas as a Curriculum Specialist at the Maldives National University on behalf of Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID), is hands-down one of the most satisfying forms of travel I have ever done.
I had fantasised about it for years. On a bad day at work, I’d surf the net for assignments that would fit my skill set. What would it be like to work as a curriculum adviser in Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu or Addis Ababa?
I’ve done enough travelling to know that living in a developing country was not going to be without challenges. I wouldn’t be living anywhere near those postcard perfect beaches we associate with the Maldives. But I had the opportunity to really immerse myself in a different culture and to contribute something of real value. That’s what made it one of my best travel experiences.
Have you ever thought about volunteering overseas?
Here are 7 reasons why volunteering with the AVID program is a great idea and what it was like for me.
1. Broaden your horizons and learn about a foreign culture from close up.
My assignment was a rare chance to look behind the curtains of this closely guarded country. Everybody is familiar with the tourist image, the over water bungalows on stilts in turquoise lagoons, but not much is known about how the locals live. A friend actually asked me “What do Maldivians look like?” She had a point. Who had ever seen a Maldivian? The brochures of paradise inevitably feature Western girls in bikinis. And bikinis are strictly forbidden on local islands, unless where guesthouses have created a patch of segregated ‘bikini beach’.
2. Expose yourself to the unexpected
Living in the Maldives, during a time of extreme political turmoil was an eye opener. During my second month here, former president Nasheed was controversially arrested and the large protests that followed meant that we had to stay indoors on a few weekends. To avoid the largest of the protests on the 1st of May we were actually evacuated to another island and spent 3 days in a guesthouse by the beach enjoying an unexpected holiday on Thulusdhoo.
As Australian volunteers, we were ambassadors of sorts to our country and it wasn’t our place to comment. For an opinionated person with a big mouth, that was a new experience. It was even more bizarre to observe my local colleagues refraining from comment, some no doubt for fear of losing their government jobs. But this experience also taught me, that it’s too easy for an outsider to make judgments about a country with a complicated history, a very tight social fabric, caught between its attempts to embrace Western style democracy, a history of autocracy and increasing Islamisation.
3. Build intercultural bridges.
All applicants are expected to have some experience interacting with foreign cultures. Intercultural communication is sort of in my DNA, it’s what I live and breathe and it’s a skill I am able to market with confidence. And yet, having to deal with a totally different work ethic and an unfamiliar culture, took me by surprise.
I had a huge job to get done within a tight deadline and the Maldivian laid-back attitude was a real struggle. Every day the local consultants who had been hired to help me write the curriculum, would promise with a straight face, that they’d get it done over the weekend. I have no doubt that they meant it and believed it, but of course it wasn’t realistic. Every day I would have to follow up with a phone call and every day I got the same answer. Communicating to these highly skilled professionals to set realistic deadlines was one of the hardest and most frustrating things about my job. There were of course many reasons for this behavior. Times are tough, rents are expensive and many people work more than one job to make ends meet. But the main problem was the curse of the smartphone.
The whole island nation is constantly glued to their screens, concentration, of young and old, is frazzled by too much multitasking and digital distractions. It’s not bad form in the Maldives to answer a call or reply to a message in the middle of a meeting or a conversation, including official work conversations. And it’s never a call from a wife who is about to give birth, or mum who has been admitted to hospital. It’s as if the entire nation is frantically catching up after centuries of isolation in a remote archipelago.
4. Challenge yourself. Step outside of your comfort zone.
For me that meant living in a strict Muslim country, where alcohol is unavailable outside of very high-end resorts. Life in Male is the opposite of the postcard we associate with the island paradise. It’s a crowded, unliveable concrete jungle with nowhere to go on weekends and after work.
Islamisation is on the rise here. Only 5 years ago the majority of women did not wear the veil, now a minority of women go without the veil. For me, at a government workplace, that meant observing a very conservative dress code. I didn’t mind that as such, because covering my arms and legs made me feel more comfortable around my colleagues, but it was a huge struggle in the relentless heat.
Writing an academic unit on Islamic Art as a white Westerner in an Islamic country was always going to be a very sensitive task and it posed challenges I had not expected. Even the mere mention that students would discuss how Islamic art differs from Western art was fraught with danger, as it apparently implied Islamic art to be inferior to Western art. It was a steep learning curve.
5. You will learn more than you will give.
I had the privilege to learn about a country that little is known about. Until a law was passed at the end of 2009, foreigners were strictly segregated from the local population of the Maldives and guesthouse tourism is still in its infancy. Travelling to local islands in some ways felt like a trail blazing adventure. Inter-island transport is tricky, if not impossible between atolls and there is no centralised point of information that will provide timetables and clues on how to get from A to B. You’ve got to piece it together yourself. Even the Lonely Planet proved to be totally unreliable. I could write my own guidebook now on how to do Maldives as an independent traveller.
Writing the curriculum for a Visual Arts degree, was as if I’d gone back to Uni myself. It felt like I was doing multiple crash courses in Photography, Graphic Design, Fine Arts, Islamic Art, Art History, Oil Painting, you name it, I did it!
My assignment also involved researching and writing a unit on traditional Maldivian arts and crafts and how to revive and preserve them. This involved travel to remote atolls and a stay at a 5 star resort, which has a heritage site and a small museum full of artifacts. Discussing with the Heritage Department how students taking this degree would be able to use their multimedia skills to contribute to cataloguing, documenting and displaying the collection of the National Museum, was a tangible experience in ‘giving back.’ They were as excited as I was, that the Maldives National University would soon be producing graduates equipped with skills to preserve the country’s dying cultural traditions.
But the biggest surprise and insight was how after more than two decades in Australia and as many decades teaching Italian language and culture at university level, deep down I had remained a German who craves structure, punctuality and order.
6. Apply your professional skills in new ways and ad an edge to your cv.
“By the end of your assignment, you will have produced something like this,” my boss the formidable dean of Arts, Absy Ali said on my first day at work. He pulled a fat folder off the shelf and held it under my nose. It contained the curriculum for a 3 year BA degree written by another Australian volunteer on a 6 month assignment. I was no expert in Visual Arts, I had to write a 4 year degree and I had 5 months to do it, 2 weeks of which had already gone. I felt my knees go weak and my chest tighten.
My workplace was a crumbling former school, home to the Faculty of Arts, Sharia Law and the Centre for Open Education. It had dodgy wiring, leaking ceilings, unreliable plumbing all of which made it a frequent news item. The old Jamaluddin School, as it is generally referred to, had been earmarked for demolition the previous year and during my time there, we were served several eviction notices by the police. The final came a week before I was due to hand over the completed curriculum. I was told to take all of my books and materials home, as nobody knew whether or not we would find ourselves locked out of the building the next morning. My last week at work was no fun at all, schlepping books back and forth in sauna like heat, working until late at night to get it done, whilst removalists began to clear the offices around me.
My organisation didn’t expect me to work this hard and my in-country manager reminded me frequently to just do what I could, I was only a volunteer. It was a matter of personal pride to get it done, to leave behind something completed. And it was worth it. It’s an achievement I will be able to look back on with pride.
7. It’s the best form of immersion travel you can do.
Where else would you get the chance to be smack bang right in the centre of action of a society within a week of arriving. Within the first month I had met almost every important artist in the country and I was treated with the utmost respect. I was here to create the first ever university-level Visual Arts degree. It was everything these artists, who felt completely undervalued by society as professional practitioners, had ever hoped for. The end-result is that from 2016, for the first time ever, Maldivians will be able to study visual arts in their own country.
The bonus of this type of travel, is that everything is taken care of. The flights are booked, the first week of accommodation is organised and paid for, the health and travel insurance is the best cover available, and your visa is taken care of. You’ll have an in-country manager to call in case of crisis or if you need a shoulder to cry on. But deep down you are on your own and that’s what makes us grow.
Want to know how it all works? Stay tuned for another blog post about the nuts and bolts of being an Australian volunteer with the AVID program.
What would be your reasons for volunteering overseas? I’d love to hear from you, whether you are thinking about it, or are an experienced volunteer, or perhaps even have some reservations or questions.
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