Life as an International Volunteer

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By Xin Xin Loh - former CDF international volunteer

Wow. 5 weeks in the Galápagos have flown by and I can't believe that I'm typing this as I enjoy my last lunch by the sea in Puerto Ayora. I had such an incredible time snorkelling in some of the most untouched marine habitats in the world with sharks and green sea turtles, walked through volcanic landscape rich enough to be a geology textbook, got involved with a foundation dedicated to the conservation of the world famous yet very fragile Galápagos... So after such an intense experience, what would be the lessons I've learnt here as an international volunteer?

The first lesson is that anyone can be of service. I would have thought that the Galápagos would be one of the last places on earth to find an investment professional. The foundation took a chance on me, and in my own little way, I hope I have contributed by applying my skills to a different industry. 

Lesson #2 would then be that service does not involve only your contribution; through service, I have learnt to appreciate the work of others. I once tagged along with the Galápagos Verde 2050 team to the plant nursery to transplant seedlings from the germination patch into pots, which is such a repetitive and laborious task. Yet they do it with such passion and enthusiasm, because they know that this goes a long way in restoring the fragile ecosystem of the Galápagos. Giving my time to help with the reforestation project as an act of service for a day paled in comparison to their dedication, and I found this very humbling. 

The third lesson was adaptation, and where better to learn the importance of this than the Galápagos, the birthplace of evolution theory. I've learnt that it's ok to shower in salty water, that I couldn't find all my favourite ingredients to cook with because of the limitations on imports, and that internet connection is not very efficient on the island. Why sweat the small stuff when I am given the opportunity to experience this amazing place?

I have the following advice for other volunteers:

1. Leave home and appreciate the opportunity to disconnect. The internet connection here is so poor and mobile data network is almost non-existent anyway! But this is not the end of the world; there is a great comraderie amongst the volunteers and we've been out for dinners together, gone cycling to discover the highlands of Santa Cruz and had great fun at parties on the weekends. I have met such interesting people here, each with a back story how they ended up here in the Galápagos, and I am sure we will be keeping in touch for a long time to come.

2. Explore. Seize the opportunity to go for a swim during your lunchbreak with colleagues where you might see a huge spotted eagle ray! Plan to take day tours with other volunteers to discover the other uninhabited islands and be wow-ed by the wildlife! It may be a once in a lifetime opportunity for you to visit the Galápagos, and it has so much to offer!

3. Come to the Galápagos with an open heart and open mind, and be ready to adapt. Ask questions. But most importantly, enjoy the journey.

4. Enjoy and protect nature. I have such a fear of lizards and iguanas, so I struggled during my first few days here with the marine iguanas basking in the sun on the path to my house. But soon sharing my space with them became the new norm. Enjoy the fact that wildlife is so abundant and within such close proximity! Be responsible for the environment you will live in - leave the animals and plants alone, and be conscious with recycling your trash. Every little action goes a long way in preserving this beautiful place!

5. Learn some basic Spanish, because it will make your life easier! Most colleagues at the CDF speak English, but some Spanish will help you to order food or find your way around town. Or at least come here with the intention to pick up a few phrases.
Anthony Bourdain once said, "Travel isn't always pretty. It isn't always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that's okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind."

I hope that your experience will be as eye-opening and fruitful as mine, and maybe like me, you will leave a piece of your heart behind in this special place. I'd like to take the opportunity to thank the Charles Darwin Foundation for hosting me during the last 5 weeks and for this incredible learning experience. 

Check out Xin Xin's series of blog articles for Pikaia Lodge here: http://www.pikaialodgegalapagos.com/blog/