Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Gaziantep, that was supposed to be Reykjavík and became Ankara

The first destination I had on my mind when I thought about EVS volunteering was Iceland. I remember how drugged I was with this country that had much more to it than just ice and lava. I loved it for being so different than other places I'd visited by then (in May-June 2011). For being a paradise for a geology nerd like me. For magnificent views towards all points of the compass. For sky dark with volcanic ash. For walking for hours and not seeing a living soul. For hot springs located 100 meters from bone-chilling Arctic Ocean. For sunsets lasting more than you have patience to watch. For finally having a chance to use my neglected Danish. For extremely helpful and winsome locals. For everything not yet discovered there. It was the first country I got to know thoroughly, either from my own experience, or stories of my fellow travelers, or pell-mell plans we made together that eventually never came to fruition because the time of the year didn't allow us to discover less accessible places in the interior.

Long-term volunteering seemed like a perfect opportunity to get to know Iceland closer, this time just by myself. "I love not men the less, but nature more" and, frankly speaking, at that time I was focused more on reasons not strictly connected with volunteering rather than getting to know the culture and experiencing a lifestyle far removed from my life in the "rich" Europe.

How these reasons have changed for me... I was inconsolable to hear that an organization from Reykjavik I'd corresponded with for quite a long time eventually turned me back at the door. But on the good note, time cooled my dismay and and I started questioning myself "Shouldn't I look for something different?"

In March my friend Mateusz returned from a 9-month stay as an EVS volunteer in Istanbul. Before, my main associations with Turkey were mainly genuine hospitality, forced marriages, baazars where vendors stop at no end to get your money and package-deal tours to most touristic spots. Not a very sophisticated picture of a country oozing with variety of cultures and traditions. That's why Mateusz's presentations about Turkey were a real eye-opener and a turning point in my hunt for a hosting organization. I listened to his stories in open-mouthed wonderment, as he uncovered the inconveniences and pleasures stemming from living in a 12-million metropolis. But images most engraved in my memory were these of people he met during his stay and simple ways they made him humbled. Victims of Van earthquake enthusiastically unwrapping packages sent to them by volunteers. Elderly Turks who couldn't express their gratitude when they got to know about Mateusz's voluntary service, for their country and their people. A little boy, whose brother died in military service, telling him "Poland is such a beautiful country" after getting to know that military service is not compulsory there. Kids from underprivileged communities struggling with English and volunteers feeling their effort was still more than worth it every time they noticed the smallest flickers of improvement in their pupils' studies.

A country that hasn't slipped under my radar before, eventually got my attention. This time I gave my search more thorough consideration and based it on where the local people would benefit most from my service. People in developed countries have both access to education, entertainment and culture and enough funds to take care of themselves without help from abroad, while in Turkey the percentage of immigrants, those living in poverty or lacking educational opportunities is so high that bringing about their welfare would make you feel you really did something meaningful and not only had pleasant holidays.

My heart leaped when an organization from Gaziantep that had a very interesting profile agreed to host me for 10 months. I jumped at the opportunity, but, to my disappointment, it soon turned out they had confused the projects and I could only come for 6 months. To make things more nonplussed, I also corresponded from an organization from Çanakkale at that time - and they offered a placement for a year, so I was on the fence about my final choice. However, I didn't really feel like renouncing a 6-month stay in more interesting city just to live for a year in much more European Çanakkale. My mind was set on going east when out of the blue a message from an organization in Anakara arrived. A placement for one year, starting as soon as possible. I felt sad for Gaziantep, for kids I was supposed to tutor, for the close proximity of Syria and Iraq, for the best baklava in Turkey (every time I'm close to this sugary delight, I can't help betraying my sweet tooth), but the temptation of experiencing life in Turkey year-round (especially during the Ramadan) seemed too irresistible. I had the biggest remorse ever having to back down from my commitment in Gaziantep, but felt consoled when their leader told me they could still host me as a guest volunteer for a couple of days. Relieved, I sent my positive response to Ankara, mildly terrified about something I thought about near-constantly was finally going to materialize. In two months from now I'll be slowly getting ready for leaving for a new home.

Meanwhile, I'm cherishing the fist days of fall in (still) sunny Scotland, riding a bike like crazy, earning new bruises and scratches on my still tanned hands and legs and letting my colleagues catch me humming songs by Beirut at 10 pm at work.