James, from the University of Manchester, took a step outside his comfort zone and found himself working with the greatest view in the world on Volunteer USA!
After reading through the Volunteer USA description around 19 times, I decided to get a second opinion, enter Mum. Her only query, “James, you do realise you might have to go without a shower for up to a week?” Despite being a bit of a clean-freak, showering twice a day at the time, I applied for the Volunteer USA programme. The chance to go ‘au naturale’ seemed like a great excuse to be lazy and smelly.
Before I knew it, I had flown through the simple BUNAC application process, said my goodbyes and was now sat on the tarmac at the Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix, Arizona desperate for the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign to disappear. I spent the next few days at the volunteer house exploring the local area while making new friends from all over the world. One thing I learned immediately, is that you don’t know what a language barrier is until you’ve experienced an Israeli, a Dane, a selection of Americans, a Korean and two French girls, all hopelessly trying to impersonate Geordie slang...
Three days later I had settled in completely and all my initial worries about making friends and feeling lost seemed comical in hindsight. A full day’s coach journey was all that stood between me and my first volunteer project. Luckily the rule of ‘shotgun’ bagged me the coveted front seat, and more importantly it meant I had control of the music. While some of the passengers may not have appreciated a medley of Daft Punk and Michael Buble, they all left the coach feeling musically enlightened, I promise.
My first volunteer project was in the stunning Zion National Park in Utah. My idea of a great view was blown apart as we drove through mountains and down windy roads approaching our camp, deep within the park. I soon realised why around 2.6 million people visit the park each year, and more importantly how lucky I was to be allowed ‘behind the scenes’ as a volunteer.
Despite the work itself being physically demanding and the hours being long, it was hard to believe that this could be classed as a job in the same way flipping burgers in a fast food establishment is. Each time I felt tired from planting fence posts all I had to do was look up and admire the vast open landscape, occupied only by fellow fence-building volunteers, all eager to strike up conversation about anything at all.
At the end of my first day’s conservation work I still remember the feeling of exhaustion; it was different from the tiredness you get after a workout or football game, the blazing heat and physical labour had sapped all of my energy but the feeling of accomplishment and the fresh air had left me equally relaxed and content. We drove back to the camp and ate our first group meal, as eager as we were to reflect on the first day and the things we had seen, everyone was ready to make use of their inflatable beds and sleeping bags. Before leaving for America I found it hard to enjoy the prospect of crawling into a dark tent alone, covered in sweat and dirt, lying down with only a sleeping pad protecting me from the hard ground, with no internet or Facebook to talk to friends before sleeping. When the time came, I leapt into my sleeping bag, amazed at how comfortable my inflatable pad was, completely unaware of the mud mask I had acquired, with no desire to log onto Facebook or watch TV. Although I may have been in the middle of nowhere, miles from any of the comforts I had spent 19 years growing accustom to, I had never felt so completely at ease and free. Before my head even touched my makeshift pillow, I was fast asleep, at 7pm Utah time.
To this day I have never slept quite as soundly as I did that night or any other night after a day of conservation work. As daunting as it may be to go without all of the day-to-day comforts we are used to, the feeling of leaving it all behind is truly amazing and should be experienced by everyone at least once. Obviously the great sleep is just one of the many reasons I would recommend Volunteer USA, there’s also the friends you will make, amazing places you will visit and stunning things you will see. But be warned, after numerous days without a shower, you may not be aware of your own stench, but when you and the rest of the volunteers rock up to McDonalds, even the smell of burgers won’t be enough to stop the other customers from wincing at your own unique scent of volunteer work and freedom.
Find out more about Volunteer USA.