Elinore, volunteering in East Iceland

11 February 2014

As a Modern Languages student, learning about foreign cultures and sharing my own have been my greatest pleasures.  

Elinor Wan

After completing the first semester at university, I decided to do something meaningful during holidays. The idea of volunteering internationally came to me after reading about Xchange Scotland – an experienced non-profit organization with a wide network, providing valuable opportunities for young people across Scotland. 

The search engine was easy to use and there came an opportunity of participating in a two-week work camp in Eskifjörður, East Iceland. Iceland was a country unfamiliar to me, but after much consideration, I decided to challenge myself to see what I am capable of doing in a foreign environment. I wrote a personal statement explaining what contribution I hope to bring to the work camp and the application process was smooth. Soon I heard back from Xchange Scotland and was invited for a pre-departure talk.

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I would say that the best way to learn about globalisation is by communicating with people with culturally diverse backgrounds. Learning to embrace other people's values could be hard at first, but my belief is that the biggest difficulty lies not on the language barrier, but on the willingness to do so. Volunteering internationally is greatly beneficial to one’s personal growth, as it provides you with what could not be learned from a book. The encounters you mave and all the experience you gain from volunteering will equip you with an awareness of global issues and an ability to appreciate diversity.

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The main aim of the work camp was to exchange culture with volunteers coming from all around the world. Our project leaders were from Slovakia, and the eleven volunteers come from Spain, Korea, the United States, Japan and Denmark. 

We lived in a community house which used to be a local school. Cooking and cleaning were done in turns, and on alternate ‘cultural nights’ volunteers from one country cooked dishes for everyone specific to his/her hometown (with the help of others, fortunately!). Living together was a lot of fun and soon we became close friends. It was interesting to try new dishes, from Tortilla Espanola to Kimchi and talk to the chefs about their traditions!

At Christmas, we decorated our house and performed Christmas songs at an old people’s home, which was my favourite part. We learnt from the priest of a church a beautiful Icelandic song called ‘Jólasveinar ganga um gólffrom’ and sang ‘Jingle Bells’ in six different languages (Danish, Korean, Slovak, Mandarin, Japanese and Spanish)! I was thrilled to learn to sing in such beautiful languages and I gained great satisfaction when the others could sing in my language after tuition. 

However, the greatest happiness came when our singing in Icelandic put smiles on the elderlies’ faces! 'Gleðileg jó!’

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It was simply amazing to see that Iceland has preserved its own fascinating culture from the ancient past. Let alone the purity of its language, it is a place full of surprises and natural beauty, and definitely not the isolated country that many people thought it was. 

During the work camp, we were fortunate enough to be invited for a visit in a stone museum which is in the basement of a lady’s house. She kindly invited us to see her house and the woodcrafts that she made. It was lovely and we learned a lot more about how Icelandic people live. I think the serenity and harmony of Eskifjörður formed the mentalities of the town people. Waking up to the sight of the majestic mountain, Hólmatindur, made me grateful for every day. 

One time a local retired teacher came for a talk about Icelandic culture and history which was insightful. The volcanoes have formed part of the identity of the Icelandic people and the close tie between them and the nature is what that is lacking in modern day’s societies. ‘Any questions?’ 
He asked, and I raised my hand: ‘Is Iceland the only country in the world where you can look up the president in the phone book, as I read at the airport?’ The answer is – yes. 

We were also invited for Christmas dinner at an old people’s home. The famous Icelandic putrid fish delicacy - kæst skata – was served. Trying skata was definitely an unforgettable experience – none of us had ever tried anything like it before but we will always remember its taste, for sure.

A few times, some Icelanders came to visit and we watched some films together, for example a documentary about Sigur Rós. I think their enigmatic songs encapsulated the spirits of Iceland and when I listen to them, the days in Eskifjörður seem like a dream.

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It was a life enriching experience. It might be a strange thing to say, 
but after living in Eskifjörður, the world seems so familiar and yet so foreign to me. 
Immersing my-self in an unfamiliar culture, living with people with great individual differences 
and adapting to a new environment has changed my mind set. 

The world turns to be an exotic place with opportunities lying ahead, waiting to be discovered. Through working with other international volunteers, I learned to look at an issue from different perspectives as the environment in which we grew up and the languages we speak affect the ways we think.

I would say that whichever profession you wish to follow, participating in volunteer activities locally or internationally would clear your path. Discover your potentials, give your mind a break and have an impact on other people’s lives. You will realize what you are capable of doing and the memory will always be a part of you.