Photo: Mila Supinskaya Glashchenko/Shutterstock

6 Lies You Tell Yourself When You're Volunteering Off the Grid

Ethiopia Student Work
by Isabelle Martin Oct 17, 2014
1. You’re becoming one with nature.

Before you leave for the field, you’ll have this Bear Grylls-style idea of what you’re about to become. You’ll picture yourself growing sleek and tough — foraging for food, stealthily tracking your study animal, expertly whittling axe heads in your spare time.

You’ll decide you don’t need imported, DEET-filled, environment-destroying bug spray, and that you’re going to bathe exclusively with camp soap to protect the local ecosystem. Once you get to your site, you’ll try to toughen yourself up by doing everything the locals do: eating the food, drinking the water, getting to know the area.

A few weeks in, you’ll realize nature is actively trying to take you out. You’ll try to silently sneak up on an animal, only to scare the shit out of it with your high-pitched shrieks as thorns the length of pencils shred your soft, pasty, indoor-person flesh. Amoebas wait in your food like tiny intestinal grenades, ready to destroy your GI tract and mutilate your dignity. The hundreds of mosquito bites on your ankles will swell and fester, throbbing with every step. Your hair will become a greasy, disgusting mop.

Mother Earth is not a nice lady.

2. You’re going to be fluent in a new language by the end of this.

The fact that I managed to spend two months in Ethiopia surrounded by Amharic speakers yet learned virtually no Amharic is testament to my extreme ineptitude at foreign languages. Some people are great at actively learning the language, but most get distracted with work and never seem to give it enough time.

3. Everyone will think you’re bad-ass when you get home.

Some people will think you’re pretty impressive. Some will think you’re nuts. Either way, as time goes by and you keep talking about your wild field experience, it can get a little old.

4. You’re becoming best friends with your coworkers.

If you’re working in a remote location, you’re stuck with whoever else was crazy enough to consider this a reasonable line of work, and they’re unfortunately stuck with you. In addition to being your only source of socialization, they’ll usually be your major pipeline to things like food, water, and medical care.

You will get weirdly close with one other person, telling him all kinds of embarrassing and overly personal things about yourself. He’ll turn into a humanized journal, listening to how
much you miss your best friend, your ideas for your PhD research, and line-by-line descriptions of all the genius inventions you’ve been meaning to patent. You’ll listen to his odd adventures in online dating in small-town Australia and get into long, overly involved discussions about which baboon in the study group is your favorite.

Then enough time will go by, and you’ll start to get thoroughly sick of each other. Particularly if you’re somewhere a little unsafe, there is literally nowhere to go for alone time, and so you’ll both plaster over your irritation and force a surface level of cooperation. But don’t be fooled; no one is happy about you using up all the toilet paper, your leg ulcers are nasty, and if you tell that story about karaoke night in Stockholm one more time, you’re getting “accidentally” pushed off a cliff.

5. You’ll be able to keep up this lifestyle when you get back.

Being without internet, television, fast food, and a desk job can do wonders for your quality of life. Without electricity, you’ll go to bed when the sun goes down and wake up when it rises. You’ll eat sparingly and healthily, and spend most of your day walking. You’ll discover natural pauses in your work where you can read a book, write, or relax. You’ll be blown away by the fact that removing luxuries has allowed you to reach this zenith of mental and physical health.

While you’re still in the field, it will seem so easy to implement these changes when you go back home. You’ll cancel internet service in your apartment! You’ll walk to work! You’ll eat more vegetables! When you get home, you’ll be surprised by how quickly you fall back into old patterns.

6. Nothing has changed back home.

You’ll try to picture what your family is doing in real-time and fail. When I was in Ethiopia, the only mental pictures of my parents that I could conjure up involved them sitting out on their back porch, sipping beers in the late-afternoon summer sun. I was in Ethiopia in February, and my parents live in Boston, so this made absolutely no sense. I was in such a remote, new place, with so little access to the outside world, that I felt like I’d stepped into an alternate universe. Everything outside of my immediate vicinity took on an ethereal, unreal quality.

Far from being a sad thing, this often imbues your thoughts about loved ones with an unusually rosy glow. Your boyfriend may be rekindling the romance with his old girlfriend, but you don’t know about that. All you’ve got to go on is a catalog of memories about him, and so you’ll choose the best ones, replaying them over and over in your mind.

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