A Day in the Life of a Humble Volunteer

girl in hatIt’s a strange thing, this volunteer gig. I mean, who wants to go and work their ass off for free. For Free. Actually, for more than free, since I’m paying for everything out of my own pocket (“self-sustaining” in NGOese), except for transportation and the occasional free lunch of rice and watery soup (when I have time to eat).

But this experience is so interesting and valuable in so many ways that I’m kinda over feeling bitter about having to use my own money to pay for photocopying etc. There is never a dull moment, with everyday bringing new surprises (some welcome, some not so much).

If I could pin down a typical day, it might go something like this:

One of my four drivers will meet me at my guesthouse. We drive through throngs of motorcycles and tuk-tuks to get to one of the three centres that I work at, two of which are deep in the slums, or ‘the community’ as the organisation calls it. Depending on the driver and his English language skills, I may or may not get a lecture/rant about the lack of opportunities available to the average Cambodian.

Yesterday’s rant went something like this: “Itisveryhardforpeopoleinthecountryside.Theyhavenochanceforopportunityandteacher




I teach on average for 4-5 hours everyday. During the course of the day, there will be endless clusterfuckery with any kind of technology – the speakers don’t work, the printer is out of ink, the photocopier is dead, the Internet gets cut off, there are power cutsĀ  – I mean, who needs electricity anyway – and there are a million other things happening at the same time, so students might not even be present in class. Often, I will get cornered by one of the Cambodian teachers (80% of whom are male) and be lectured at (again) along the lines of: “PolPotverybadnowCambodiahasmanycorruption


Temperatures hover around 35 degrees and the simple fans don’t do much to stop the beads of sweat from dribbling down one’s face. Doors and walls are a beautiful thing and in these large, 4-storied-houses-turned-into-classrooms, there aren’t enough of them.

The happiest moments are the minutes spent between classes playing with the little girls who may be five or six or seven but look about three. Their energy and adorableness is infinite. Then there are the older students who are so innocent and pure – who, at 17, want to learn about trees and who are scared of worms. Yesterday, one student introduced me to his pet hamster. I imagined most 17 year olds to be into heavy metal and experimenting with drugs, but no, here they are developing bonds with furry creatures. I love it.

These students are not allowed to date, or dye their hair. They can’t have much of a social life outside of the organisation (for good reason), yet they spend their free time making documentaries about the dying grandmothers in the slums, or interviewing those who have been displaced by government development and finding the neediest cases to support. They write essays for global leadership contests and write letters to their sponsors. Always courteous and sincere, and so willing to contribute, they are the reason I have not gone crazy working in a ‘low resource setting.’

Moving between centers, floors and rooms, there are always a few interesting white people to bump into: groups from international organisations who are touring the facilities with their cameras, semi-famous entrepreneurs from California (the last one I recognised was a dude who invented some kind of best-selling pogo stick), and philanthropists with serious money whose last names we lowly teachers speculate about (affiliated with famous universities, newspapers, companies, shops).

Then there are the high-flyers from Australia (so many Australians here) or the States who have come for a month or two, taking a break from their job at Apple or Google, or relinquishing their position as the CEO of this business or that institution in order to contribute their expertise to the organisation and help build, influence and shape it. I guess they are more ‘consultants’, who sit in offices with laptops, a bit different from the teachers who are working, ‘hands-on’, in the field.

Nights, dark and balmy, are spent with a few hours work in preparation for the next day, often with a trip to the copy shop where more clusterfuckery ensues (Internet not working, power cut, printer out of ink, photocopier jammed, no-one speaks English). There is little time or energy for a social life during the week. Dinner is usually eaten alone in one of the dozen or so restaurants that dot the relatively posh area I have called home for the past six weeks.

Two things have not escaped my attention about the other volunteers here teaching (there are only a handful of us): first, we are all women, and second, we are all ‘older’. In fact, I am the youngest which makes me infinitely happy, as these days, I’m never the youngest of anything. These women are accomplished, in their 40s to their 60s. They come from Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney and bring with them all their acumen in finance, health, education, manufacturing, technology and have resumes that would make even the most zealous overachiever green with envy. We are all well-educated and well-traveled. We are all (with the exception of one nurse) single and childless. It is an interesting phenomena.

Of course, I am still processing this experience as a volunteer here in a beautiful land ravaged by genocide and poverty. When I write about it again, my perspective will probably be different and my understanding deepened with the benefit of hindsight and reflection.




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