'Five things I now know about volunteering'

After volunteering in Timor-Leste as a Communications Mentor with RAEBIA Timor-Leste, Sophie Rayner shares five key lessons she learnt from the experience.

A group of people with blue and green shirts posing for the camera in an outdoor setting.

1. The culture is different, embrace it!

In my pre-departure training, Australian Volunteers Program staff advise repeatedly that working conditions will likely be much slower-paced than what we’re used to at home. 'Yep, I get it,' I thought impatiently, but I didn’t truly understand that until I was in-country.

The work culture and career expectations may be a little different to Australia, but don’t let that hinder your ability to give and grow in your volunteer assignment.

I now know: A country like Timor-Leste has its own way of doing things, so why resist?

2. You’re the same person you were back home

Although a different environment naturally makes different parts of you vulnerable; at your core you’re still the same person you were pre-assignment.

I forgot I love apples and instead tried to eat native papaya for breakfast. My Kindle gathered dust as I read reams of online articles, wondering why I hadn’t suddenly transformed into the traveller bookworm I expected I would.

There’s a balance that must exist between leaning into your new environment and understanding your limits. My examples here are tiny tokens, but the same thinking applies to more challenging and ambiguous situations too.

I now know: To keep my eyes open, to lean in, to know my limits, and to listen to my gut.

3. Don’t be afraid of getting sick

I had a reasonably robust stomach in Australia. I took regular precautions with eating, drinking and cleaning when I moved to Timor, but was still spectacularly felled by a gut parasite at the start of the wet season.

A wise friend of mine, who’s lived in Timor for decades, told me he had to sleep an extra hour a night for his first three years in Timor. 'There are just so many new experiences, our bodies need time to process it all,' he explained.

I suspect my recurring gut problems were not only due in part to water quality issues, but also from my body continually adapting to new and different things.

I now know: There’s no use beating yourself up if you get sick. Treat your body well and do the best you can.

4. Be open to new things

Again, the Australian Volunteers Program did a great job of encouraging us to be open-minded in approaching our assignments, which is critical to volunteering internationally.

Some of the best friends I made in Timor came from making the effort to meet new people. I attended a wedding, tried Latin dancing, descended a mountain on motorbike and learned to scuba dive. I’ve driven in convoy across the island because someone said, 'You keen?' and I replied, 'Um…I guess so, yeah.'

I now know: Even if, like me, you'll always be a little bit of a scaredy cat, as long as you follow precautions (and read up on any relevant Smartraveler advice), openness is worth it, especially on assignment.

5. Don’t forget to enjoy it!

For my first three months in Timor I didn’t really give myself permission to enjoy it. I felt overwhelmed by the privilege and prestige of the program, and couldn’t believe the investment they’d made in me.

Then I pulled myself out of the guilt-riddled mental vortex by reminding myself to trust the people around me and working hard to get to know myself, my abilities and my limitations better.

It’s about adjusting expectations and channeling energy into the best possible work you can do. And by giving yourself permission to enjoy it.

I now know: For perspective, for sanity, for privilege, for the sheer joy of living in a place as beautiful and blistering as Timor-Leste, please, do not forget to enjoy it!

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