Volunteering for Self Discovery - Toward Community

Volunteering for Self Discovery


Living without money and off-grid, Mark shares his journey of personal growth, volunteering in Europe.

“My journey is all about understanding where living ends and work begins so I was making giant steps towards being more intuitive about decisions and taking risks.”

My shoestring budget morphed into Velcro…then to a broken flipflop on my last 8 months of a 2 year near-moneyless mission. Have I learnt anything about how volunteering can contribute to the evolving understanding of a modern work ethic?

Scrolling through Workaway’s bewildering array of options, I searched for somewhere that flagged permaculture, water management or sustainability. Naturally, then, my first stop was a clothing-optional gay B&B, a 15 minute train ride from the Algarve’s most loved beaches. I intended to learn more about their greywater treatment system, only to discover that Portuguese law doesn’t currently allow it…so I spent my time mostly enjoying the American couple’s hospitality while keeping the place spick and span, helping to prepare regal breakfasts for the wonderful guests and hanging out with everyone at dinner time. This followed a blissful, if surreal, hotel break with my family, the surroundings in dramatic contrast to the spectacular lack of anything vaguely luxurious at the off-grid project where I’d spent a year. Hotels are so clean and bright and easy that you could be mistaken for having passed through the pearly gates. Planning my volunteering adventures brought me back to the realer, messier land of earth.

So, after a deluxe intro, I was ready to get stuck into some manual work. I found myself in rural Foz do Farelo, at Happy Valley, a permaculture garden with goats and, delightfully, a litter of kittens. A German Gandalf-esque grey bearded man was definitely the one to impart wisdom, although sometimes so quietly that I missed most of these nuggets of wisdom and felt far too English to say so.

In certain ways, it was the authentic experience I had been seeking: a connection with the land and a stillness within me. I spent the weeks getting into the rhythm of working outdoors and learning gardening. I was fully immersed in the project which was in no small way related to its rural location and lack of internet access. I worked after breakfast until noon, studied plants and took a siesta during the hottest part of the day then continued working, finally finishing with a run, shower and dinner around 9.30pm. I was introduced to an Ayurvedic vegetarian way of eating whose simplicity I loved – we ate one vegetable, one grain per meal. But the job’s physical nature and the owners’ personalities were very different to my own, which made it tougher. Other volunteering experiences would since prove to me though that personality match, and managing expectations, rank highly in having a great experience.

I left Portugal, intent on visiting a sustainability community project in Barcelona but discovering that the trains were full or way out of my budget, I returned to the desert from whence I’d came… to work at the neighbouring music school. This time I would be wearing the hat of sustainability musical school marketer!

The couple who hosted me were already friends and I was so delighted to see familiar faces. We were all eager to get the school promoted. The flexibility in my working day was amazing – I would start work, mid-morning, take lunch at 2pm followed by siesta then work on the plantation as the day’s desert heat eased up. I learnt so much about my working rhythm, agave (a cactus that many instruments were made from) as well as what enables a good working relationship to be great.

As inspired as I was by the school, my excitement occupied the space where experience lacked. My journey is all about understanding where living ends and work begins so I was making giant steps towards being more intuitive about decisions and taking risks. Sometimes, they paid off; other times, I realised the inherent limitations. This practice of living in an entirely new way has lent my experiences a certain intensity as I figure out where I want to put roots down and what style of working really works for me. Having left the weird comfort of familiarity in the UK, I had to discover my strengths and focus on finding them within a project. Never before have I allowed myself the honesty that this moneyless trip has enabled me to trial and the liberation has been rewarding but fraught with massive challenges, the least of which are monetary.

When I am aligned with my purpose and beliefs, I am energetic, charismatic and joyful; the work is incidental. When I am tired, I can’t offer this best version so I sleep and rest, resisting (or at least trying to) the feeling of guilt. The more honest I am with myself and others, the more I can give back. I want to be truthful in my passion while supporting another project or person’s purpose while also honouring my own, not given a list of duties to complete – I want to be actively involved in playing to my strengths. If that has meant that my energy would be more productive elsewhere, I have stepped courageously into the absolute unknown to continue to find that place, without blame, bitterness or anger. After a month at the music school, it was time for me to move on.

Another attempt to reach Barcelona failed, a discovery I made on my way there. With the support of great friends, I returned south and I arranged to arrive earlier at the yoga centre from where I write this update. The segue between the music school and my arrival here, about 10 days, was unprecedented madness, made infinitely more scary because my budget was miniscule. I did my best to stay at peace within it, resisting the colossal urges to flex the credit card. I constantly considered jacking in the experience and returning to familiar soil. But, there were still even so many false assumptions in that thought – the experience I would jack in was actually my new life, and to return home was to have returned to probably a convenient coffee shop job to earn and save for another travelling experience. I breathed deeply, continued to put one foot in front of the other, dealing with the sadness of projects gone, while looking forward to new adventures.

As an ending worthy of a cheesy Hollywood film, I landed on my feet on my final volunteering project of the year – helping at a luxury yoga retreat in southern Spain. As well as cleaning, animal care and tidying, my ideas have been met with enthusiasm and encouragement, and we have a good degree of flexibility to budget our working time. I’m currently negotiating time so I learn how to build using straw bale to create the new yoga hall. We also get to attend daily yoga classes in the existing dome.

Undoubtedly, this place is amazing. What helps to keep it fresh and relevant and new to me is also remembering to honour my learning objectives of the trip. It requires a consistent re-visit of my values and consideration to what’s important to me so I don’t get bedazzled by the rainbow of wonderful distractions. I am finally learning how to politely say “no”, in favour of pursuing my own goals. I’m a language nerd and a major part of this journey was not just to become fluent in Spanish but to figure out what I’m trying to say (in any language!) and respond to the way I feel, enhancing my emotional literacy is alongside my other skill sets. Visiting many projects continues to help me achieve this through true understanding of empathy, diplomacy and compassion with others, and bringing clarity to my own voice.

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Mark Charlton

Mark Charlton is a British Freelance Writer who loves to travel and visit eco-projects, organic growing and sustainable communities to meet like-minded people and continue to steward the planet in a responsible way, while working on his creative productions online. See Mark's Website

2 thoughts on “Volunteering for Self Discovery

  • 10th November 2015 at 4:22 pm

    Thanks Mark. I think you nailed it with:

    “When I am aligned with my purpose and beliefs, I am energetic, charismatic and joyful; the work is incidental.”

    This is how we know that we’re doing the “right” work. Do you think it is possible to create a position where we only do this kind of work and feel inspired like you describe?

    • 10th November 2015 at 5:36 pm

      Thanks for your comment! I absolutely think that’s it’s possible – especially when we adopt the right attitude and, most importantly, stay relaxed so we stay creative. If we keep the stress/excitement in perspective, we can stay buoyant with the natural flow of contributing something significant to whatever we are trying to create (either alone or in community). This means more than the right work – it means the right state of mind. Listening and learning about which environment and situation makes you thrive enables you to keep in your ‘zone’. A great book I’m reading at the moment describes that ‘zone’ as nothing more than pleasure, a subject which attracts a lot of criticism and accusations of selfishness and hedonism. I agree with the author that maximising that perceived selfishness actually brings us such joy that we can’t help but share it and bring it to the world. It keeps our voice within any environment strong, but it takes discipline and focus. Who knew pleasure could be such hard work?!


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