I knew since secondary school that I would someday volunteer abroad. All I needed was a project that would give me the opportunity to explore subjects that are my favourite but also important. My volunteering journey began in Slovenia where I joined Hostelling International Slovenia, the Slovenian branch of the Hostelling International organisation, as a volunteer where I’ve been writing articles on travel and sustainable tourism for years. One day I got an email from Hostelling International Slovenia that contained information about the ESC voluntary project at HI Iceland, which means that it was because of my being a volunteer at HI Slovenia that I got this opportunity.
This is where my story begins, the one where I’ll be talking about everything I’ve learned since I laid my eyes upon the incredible Icelandic landscape in the middle of July. I’m going to stay in Iceland for six months and during this time I’d like to share with you my newly acquired non-formal education. I think it’s especially important that people start realising how much one can learn through voluntary programmes that enable you to travel and learn about foreign cultures.
The name of my project is HI ECO PROMOTERS and it takes places at the HI Iceland organisation. There are two volunteers working on the project. I’m the HI ECO ADIMINSTRATOR and my co-volunteer is the HI ECO COMMUNICATOR. The main aim of the project includes developing new ways to increase sustainability in the activities of HI hostels in Reykjavik and raising awareness about sustainable development among local and foreign guests as well as the staff.
During my volunteering, I’m building up many of my competences that are important for both my professional life and my personal development. I was immediately inspired by the organisation’s way of adopting sustainable solutions in its activities from the very beginning. Writing down words like “sustainable tourism” in your documents is one thing, but sticking to what you’ve written is a whole different matter. And this is precisely what I’m learning here, how to live sustainable tourism and how to bring it closer to the guests. Even if it’s a simple thing like making waste stickers. And this brings me to my second non-formal education I’m in the process of acquiring and I’m quite certain I’m going to become a garbage expert at the end of my stay here.
I make rounds around the hostel and I’ve noticed some things that could be improved when it comes to sustainability. I’ve realised that it’s not enough if I write something down on a piece of paper, instead I should also point that out to the staff, subsequently achieving a positive change. Another thing I’ve noticed is the adjustment to the current situation, where something that holds true today doesn’t hold true tomorrow. The way how someone or an organisation reacts to change, such as the change due to the coronavirus, tells a lot about that person or organisation. I’ve quickly learned new ways of adjusting to the new situation here. It’s especially important to focus on the local population because it can quickly become your only guest. That’s why I’m learning how to bring sustainability to the local community. Sometimes it feels like people forget about the environment these days, which is why my major role is to change that. But the moments when we’re not surrounded by guest demands offer opportunities for us to consider, in peace, the future and to search for new ways to improve the old ones.
I gain competences necessary for hostel as I go along. For example, I learned how to fold the laundry the way they do it in hostels, and how to make coffee using the big coffee machine. I’m also learning about various roles and job tasks that are part of a successful hostelling organisation. I’m getting to know the importance of a positive working atmosphere and good relationships with guests. It’s important to know how to listen to the staff and the guests because that’s the only way to progress and maintain good relations. I feel like the project gives me the chance to make my ideas come true, ideas that I hope will contribute to even more sustainable work in hostels and improve the promotion of the vision.
I’m learning about the Icelandic culture, the language and the landscape. I’ve particularly focused on learning Icelandic because I believe that if you live long enough in a place it’s only appropriate to learn the basics of the local language. And Icelandic is such an unusual language that that very fact makes it so interesting. I’ve read many times that it’s similar to the ancient Viking language, which means I look at it as a Viking language. Which makes learning much easier. Now that the one-month course is over I’ll be speaking Icelandic with my co-workers in the organisation, who not only tell me what certain words mean but also explain the reason behind their meaning. In my free time I explore Reykjavik and discover both touristy as well as non-touristy spots. That way I’ll be able to help tell tourists which places to visit. In times when tourists plentiful, it’s important that they also explore the lesser known spots, which Reykjavik doesn’t lack. I often visit museums myself, which is great because it gives me lots of time to explore a museum and subsequently a new part of Iceland. The Icelanders love pools, coffee and ice cream, so I’m doing my best to learn about these parts of the culture. I’ve gained a lot of new knowledge from my trips outside the city, mostly on trips to Icelandic nature that is unique on our planet. One can observe the vanishing glaciers or the consequences of volcano eruptions. I would like to forward the message about this vulnerable nature to our guests and visitors.
I’ve mentioned I’m learning Icelandic, but it also just happens that I’m also strengthening my English skills because English is the project’s official language. I’m starting to think more in English and I’ve recently even yelled at my cat in the lingua franca. I live and work in a multicultural environment where I have the opportunity to meet different cultures directly from the inhabitants of various countries.
And there’s another important thing that I’ve learned. There’s nothing wrong if you spend a day or two over the weekend relaxing. In Iceland, this means spending your free time in a pool and then going out for some ice cream and coffee. And, of course, stopping at a bookshop where you make plans for the future.