In the blog series Reasons Why You Should Learn a Foreign Language we explained that knowing a foreign language does not only make travelling easier, but also more enriching. As an example, we mentioned volunteer travel, which allows us to get in touch with locals, dive into their culture and learn how other people live. In order that you can get an idea of how exactly volunteering abroad looks like I will now share my personal experience with you. I hope you enjoy reading it!
Planning my trip and looking forward to it
It was cold and wet and winter, and I just wanted to go away – I wanted summer! Further, I wished to travel to a Spanish-speaking country because I study at the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, know Spanish grammar inside out, but I am lacking speaking practice in my everyday life here in Switzerland. My choice finally fell on Chile. Next, I thought about how I could travel with little money on the one hand and, on the other, get to speak Spanish as often as possible. On Worldpackers, an online platform for travellers, I found the NGO Oveja Verde, whose aim is to protect the environment, especially through PET recycling, in Southern Chile. Volunteers from all over the world are welcome to work for the NGO during a certain period of time and receive in return board and lodging. I was thrilled! Environmental protection is extremely important to me and, what is more, it had always been my dream to get involved in a local project. I applied, waited for confirmation, booked my flight and could not wait to finally go to Chile!
The NGO Oveja Verde in Victoria, Chile
The NGO Oveja Verde is located in the south of Chile, more precisely, in a small town called Victoria, with breath-taking national parks, forests and lakes nearby. The house where we live and also work is an artistic masterpiece. There are mosaics and murals in every corner.
In total, we are 11 volunteers: 6 Chileans, 1 Mexican, 1 Brazilian, 1 Belgian, 1 Indian and me, the Swiss. Some of us stay at Oveja Verde for months, others only for a few weeks. Apart from us, a dog and two cats live in the house and from time to time friends and former volunteers come over. They eat with us, help out around the house or take us on excursions into nature environments. The NGO encourages the population of Victoria to recycle PET bottles and to lead an environmentally conscious life in general. The collected PET bottles are categorised, reduced in size and finally picked up by a truck that takes them to the capital city, Santiago de Chile, where they are processed into cups or plates, to name just a few. There is also a lot of work to be done in the Oveja Verde house, for example painting walls, doing some cleaning tasks, repairing tools, gardening, cooking and much more. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, we have a stall at the local market where we sell second-hand books, plants, recycled glassware and homemade biological detergent, among other things. From Monday through Friday, various workshops take place in the NGO’s house, which of course must be promoted among the local population. We organise hula hoop workshops for kids, meditation and yoga classes for adults, concerts, lectures and so on. In Oveja Verde, everything is shared, nobody is forced to do anything. Certainly, living in a commune is not for everyone, but I personally learned to love it in Chile!
My daily routine
I am the first to get up at around eight in the morning. I feed the animals and then, between nine and ten, the Brazilian guy joins me. He has been living in Oveja Verde for three years now and, thus, holds the reins. In Portuñol, a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese, he tells me what must be done today and what I should start with. Some days we crush and sort PET bottles and remove and collect their lids. Other days we repaint the walls, sort out the library and sell our goods at the local market. Every day someone else is responsible for cleaning, cooking, washing up and watering the plants. In addition to that, in the mornings, we go to supermarkets and ask for fruit and vegetables. They give us food that can no longer be sold and that would end up in the rubbish bin. Using our creativity, we conjure up a colourful, sustainable and delicious meal out of the donated ingredients. In the afternoons, we often conduct the aforementioned workshops or go swimming in the nearby river, make campfires and so on. I am practically never alone. From morning to night, I am in exchange with all these inspiring, open-minded and kind people who seem to be as interested in life in Switzerland as I am in South American culture.
I spent a wonderful and enriching time at Oveja Verde, which I will never forget. I was able to use my knowledge of the Spanish language every day and towards the end I even dreamt in Spanish. Additionally, with volunteers who were not yet fluent in Spanish I was able to practise my English, which was great as well. Through volunteering, I learned much more about Chile, the people and their culture than I ever thought I would. I worked and lived 24/7 with local people. I even got to know some Mapuche women – women from an indigenous group – who sometimes came by. I was able to expand my knowledge about sustainability and I now try to integrate certain aspects into my everyday life in Switzerland. Moreover, I immediately took the people from Oveja Verde to my heart. Spontaneously I visited national parks with some of them, and with one woman I even travelled further south after my stay in Victoria. Today, I am still in contact with some of the women I met during volunteering. We keep each other up to date with WhatsApp messages and very long voice messages. By doing that, I practise my Spanish and do not forget the Chilean accent that I definitely acquired during my stay in Chile. Nostalgically and with wonderful memories in my heart, I look back on this time and hope that, one day, I can go back to this beautiful place. At the same time, I am sure that my next volunteering assignment is not far away. Maybe next time I will go to an English-speaking country – who knows?
Nelly Müller – Sprachen Akademie