It is said that Dutch people keep themselves to themselves. Maybe Don Bosco Dutch people haven’t heard this rumour. On arrival with two Slovakian volunteers, in a foreign country to a place consisting of a Salesian house, a cafe and a glorified barn, I could be forgiven for being a little apprehensive but we were greeted enthusiastically and made to feel right at home as we sat chatting over tea and biscuits. Well, dishwater and biscuits to be precise – the Dutch can’t do a decent brew. Here I met Johfra, Roberta, an Italian volunteer also on my team and Suilven, Leon, Melissa and many others from the other team, who would be working at the camp held in said barn, known as “the shed”. The next morning, Saturday, after the arrival of Koen, Esmeralda, Judith and Wendi, who along with Roberta, Johfra and myself would be the tent camp team and other shed camp volunteers, we packed up numerous cars and vans and set off for the site. …
The basic outline of each day was the same. Up around 7.45, get the kids up and dressed, breakfast and corvee (dishes and tidying) then begin the activities. Lunch was between 12.30 and 1.00, and then activities would continue until dinner time. After more corvee we had an evening game, showering and “tick-control”, then sitting together with drinks, cookies and bedtime stories before lights out and evaluation. It seems so quick and insignificant written like that but the quality and range of activities put on for the children was incredible.
On the Tuesday, the weather really took a turn for the better and we were able to go on our cycle trip to a town called Ermelo, reaching our destination via a multiple-choice quiz in which wrong answers sent us off the long way round. In the town itself, we played a life-size version of Cluedo, with animators (I always find this title amusing) regaled in their pirate costumes hiding in the streets with children seeking us out to find out which cards we held and hence solve the mystery. It was my turn to cook that night, along with Koen. We cycled to a sandy location called Caitwikerzand and began frying the contents of a thirty-something litre pot. We were eating pancakes for days. That did, however, have to be one of the most memorable occasions for me. Kneeling beside gas burners, ladling batter into sizzling pans, eating hot pancakes while the children played games beneath a glowing sunset then cycling back to camp was not something I will forget quickly.
Other special moments included those around campfires, toasting marshmallows on sticks we had found in the woods or attempting to bake bread-dough over the flames. They had to be turned very quickly; we got the water to powder ratio a bit wrong. And the there were the bedtime stories, made all the more camp-like for being read in turn by the children, through mouthfuls of crispbakes. Or just sitting together in the warmth, with hot chocolate and cookies – lekker!
One day we went swimming. The weather was unbelievable and after a morning’s hard work burying treasure in Caitwikerzand, we cycled to a tropical pool. That was a really memorable time for me. Water breaks down so many barriers as the children (and animators) just mess around and many friendships were forged in those few hours, even among those who were struggling to relate to others. I also got a chance to reach some of those who were a little more distant. …
Of course, a pirate’s life is not always a barrel of rum. On the Friday, when preparing for the bondavond, I felt awful. It was a mixture of tiredness, feelings of inadequacy and frustration that despite my attempts to enthuse the children, they refused to be excited. The language was also a barrier. On the first or second day, I began to wonder why they had taken on foreign volunteers as there were times when I was seriously limited in my interactions with the children. Combined with the initial incessant rain and the cold, wet, sore feet, progressively later nights and Dutch tea, there were times when I wondered what I was doing there. Although close to unbearable at the time, these lows were to be expected and were fortunately immeasurably outweighed by the highs.
So what would be the most special part for me? The children’s attempts to communicate with me, their hugs, smiles and requests to sit or cycle beside me, their sheer joy or their spirit of fun? The love and support of the other animators, their translations, their encouragement of the children to translate for us, their enthusiasm or their humour? The infinite meals of bread with chocolate spread, peanut butter, Gouda, hagelslag (chocolate vermicelli which is poured onto buttered bread) and pancakes? Possibly the drink and meal we had after the children had gone and we enjoyed each other’s company one last time. Maybe the comments written by the children and animators in each other’s booklets on the last morning before leaving. It’s hard to say. But what I can say with conviction is that I wished that I had not waited until I was twenty-five before I started volunteering. I wish I had known about this when I was eighteen and my advice is, if you are that age – or whatever age you are, volunteer! There are just so many places to go.
So, I’m already excited for next summer. Hopefully this time I’ll make it to China or Swaziland but with BOVA, one never knows. Planet Mars, here I come? Just watch this space.