So there we were waiting outside a cash machine, on a long road to nowhere, in the dark. Waiting for a boy we didn’t know to pick us up. Our host had assured us that her son would be there waiting when we arrived. But he was late. “Are we crazy? What are we even doing here?!” we thought. Eventually a car pulled up and a boy who looked about 14 got out, “Are you the helpers?” he asked in a thick Greek accent. “Erm, yeah.” we replied, with more than a hint of apprehension. “Get in.”
He drove us to a local shop, “Mum says to take you here to buy yourselves some food, and you need toilet rolls too, keep them in your room though, or the other helpers will steal them.” We wandered the aisles of the tiny mini-mart. The boy recommended some local olive oil and then went outside to smoke. We had no idea what the kitchen would have or not have, no idea about what to expect at all. So we grabbed some pasta, some fruit and veg, some feta, the olive oil, some snacks and some booze.
We were driven along dark roads, eventually up a big hill and down a long gravelly path to a large white house. A barking dog came to greet us and nearly ran under the car. “That’s Alan.” said the boy. “You’re in the tent for the next two nights.” He showed us a small kitchen and toilet block where we left our bits of food, “Keep it in the fridge and cupboards, there is a mouse in here,” and then walked us towards a pitch black forest, “Do you have a torch? You’ll need one. Here, borrow mine for now. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
We zipped ourselves into the tent, hung the torch from the ceiling and looked at each other. It was dark and silent except for the noise of the trees rustling and the insects chirping. It was 9pm and we were alone in a forest in the middle of nowhere. We forlornly snacked on our biscuits and crisps. What the hell were we doing here? During the night we heard howling. We really hoped it was the dog.
The next day the birds, our hunger and a desperate need to pee awoke us. I gingerly peeked out of the tent to check out our surroundings. Not quite so scary in the daylight but I couldn’t remember how to get to the house. I wandered until I found a pathway leading up, and found the kitchen/toilet block. Giz followed a few minutes later. We made some tea and checked out the kitchen which had a fridge, a cupboard and a camping hob inside and a sink outside. Next to the sink was a huge waste water tank . There was a faint smell of poo in the air.
As we were loitering a little plump woman in a blue dress approached us. “Ahhhh you are the new helpers!” she looked us up and down suspiciously. “Remind me your names and what SKILLS do you have?” What skills DO we have, I thought? Actual useful skills?! Erm… I can cook! I said. “That’s not important! Can you build anything? Can you make things? Have you experience gardening? Can you do tiling?” … I was beginning to feel useless already,”I can try, I’ll try anything if you can show me…” but she stopped me there, “No TRY. I have had people before who say they can TRY and they just end up doing some BULLSHIT! Hmmm. Why did I agree to host you?”
She proceeded to tell us some house rules: we MUSTN’T waste water, must always clean up after ourselves, starting with one hour every morning cleaning the toilets, shower and kitchen, especially the kitchen because of the mouse. We mustn’t be lazy, she had had lazy helpers before and had vowed never to take on people with no skills again. But here we were. “Where is LUCY?!” she suddenly exclaimed. Lucy was the other helper, our host pottered off to rouse her from her slumber and returned shortly. “That lazy girl is asleep again, we will wait for her then start work.”
Our first task after cleaning the kitchen block was to tie up some grapevines onto a frame with bits of tough metal wire, after that we were taken into the garage to ‘sort it out’. Our host didn’t seem to know what she wanted sorting, it was as though she was making it up as she went along. She pulled out an old freezer and told me to clean it with some soap and water and an old rag. I started enthusiastically but when I reached the bottom part I found it was crawling with maggots. I tried not to let it show how disgusted I was but it was blatant. Our host had to take over from me, I was nearly sick, she scooped out maggots with her hands. I felt like a total wuss but I was not up for this kind of work.
Over the next two weeks we worked damn hard. Tasks included painting a tin roof, an iron gate, various furniture, walls, steps and floors all with bad quality paint which was piled up in quarter and half filled cans in the garage. We cleaned and scrubbed her house, her windows, her airbnb rooms… Giz spent several days chopping down huge bamboo canes in an overgrown field which was also full of rubbish and rusty bits of metal, he did this with a pair of shears. We dug holes around shrubs and trees in the garden, weeded til our backs felt like they would break, watered acres of land and generally busted a gut for a few hours each morning in the hot hot sun. Our host shouted at us when we did anything ‘wrong’ but didn’t really explain how to do it ‘right’ and had strange ideas about the two concepts anyway.
Lucy worked pretty hard too, she was a pleasant, free-spirited French girl who seemed to be running away from her university education for a while, trying to find herself or something. We liked her. She was our host’s pet though, she whined a lot about the work and spent a lot of time in the house. About half way through our time there an Italian boy arrived. He had been there before and come back and it seemed obvious very quickly that he had been one of the lazy helpers our host had mentioned. She hadn’t wanted him to come back but Lucy had a thing for him and had convinced her to allow him to return. We watched in amazement as this guy spent a whole week painting a rainbow circle on the side of the house with a Buddhist symbol inside it. The circle was about a foot in diameter. It took him a whole week. He stepped back and contemplated, mixed paint, ummed and ahhed, researched Buddhist symbols online and generally made a meal out of this small task. He was ‘an artist’, they said, so he had different rules about work to the rest of us. One day he painted for 8 hours so he could have a couple of days off in a row, and it still took him a week to finish. This taught us a lot about this kind of volunteer work, and how people ‘play the system’. We didn’t want to be lazy, but we could see how easily people can get away with that.
Why a Buddhist symbol you ask? Well the funny thing is, the reason we applied for this particular help-x assignment was because it had been advertised as a Yoga retreat! I can tell you that not once were we invited to participate in yoga, nor did we see any yoga classes occurring. Our host talked occasionally about her love of yoga and one day I had to clean her house and discovered a BEAUTIFUL yoga studio in the roof, with many books on the subject and Buddha statues, trinkets etc. But we were never invited to a class and our host, as much as she seemed to have a passion for yoga, was so un-yogi-like! She was grumpy and grouchy and shouted at us regularly. It did NOT feel like a relaxing yoga retreat in the slightest!
We underestimated how tired we’d be after relatively short working days. The work was hard, sweaty and usually boring and we’d cook lunch straight after work too as we were always really hungry, which felt like a chore some days. The hill on top of which the house sat was steep and exhausting. Every few days or so we’d go down to the local beach, which was nice, quiet but with surfy waves, not ideal for swimming, but a good chill. We’d pick up a few groceries and head back home but the hill was so steep and it took us a good hour to walk back from the beach uphill, so that any relaxation had at the beach was undone, we just couldn’t be bothered most days. So I did some skype teaching most afternoons to make our time there more worthwhile.
We had one day off a week, which we turned into three by working a double shift one day. We went into Rhodes on these days. We’d had an attempt at going into town one afternoon but had waited at the bus stop for an hour before giving up. It was a good hour on the bus there and back and by the time we’d worked, cooked and eaten some lunch (we were always starving after work) and walked to the bus stop we would barely have an hour in Rhodes even if the bus did come on time. When we eventually got to Rhodes town we loved it, it was pretty, architecturally interesting and full of lovely, cheap Greek food. We ate out once or twice locally too, at really good authentic local restaurants, and we drank gallons of cheap wine.
It went dark pretty early, and when we moved out of the tent we were in a wooden cabin, which was really nice, but we had to cross a big field to get to the toilet, in the pitch black. It was always an ordeal, but one day when we were coming back from the toilet our flashlight fell upon a SNAKE slithering across our path! After that I was terrified every time. There were lots of frogs hanging around too, pretty cute but they made me jump when they hopped across the path of my torchlight outside the toilet. We met lots of colourful insects while gardening and the cats were lovely and cuddly. This place was teeming with animal and insect life, and as lovely as the hammock outside our cabin was, I was eaten alive by mosquitoes if I tried to sit in it one second after the sun began to descend. Which meant I often missed the glorious sunsets too. I tried vegemite, insect repellent both chemical and natural, long sleeves and trousers, garlic, aloe vera, everything, but mosquitoes just love me.
So towards the middle of our second week we found ourselves counting down the days. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. Rhodes is a very pretty town and the beaches are lovely, Theologos where we stayed is a nice place to visit too. But this volunteer experience wasn’t what I’d had in mind when thinking about doing this kind of thing. I’d heard such wonderful things about experiences on organic farms, learning permaculture and how to build earthships and live off the grid. I’d heard about people working at wineries and breweries, picking grapes, labelling bottles and drinking free beer all day. I’d heard about volunteers working with children in poverty, teaching, doing arts and crafts. I’d applied for many positions like this but having no experience or references we had to choose from fairly slim pickings.
Our host wasn’t a bad person, she was very funny, dry, honest, concerned about us and her guests. But she did shout at us a lot, she didn’t really teach us any new life skills, the work was grunt work. We felt good about helping her, there was a lot to do on her land. But we didn’t feel appreciated a lot of the time and even though our hours of work were short, it was a long way to walk or bus to get away from the house so our free time wasn’t as well spent as we’d hoped it might be.
One thing we did get out of the experience was an appreciation of the jobs we have back home, this was really hard work physically, very unglamorous and not something either of us were used to. We did have some lovely moments sitting on the beach watching the sun set. We were treated to a couple of meals by our host when new airbnb guests arrived or left, which we helped to prepare, and ate outside the house on a big table, simple, real Greek family food in good company and with lots of retsina. Would I do a help-x again? Absolutely. But I’d be a lot more picky about the type of place and work and I’d choose a place where all meals were provided too. I’m sure there are many amazing experiences in this world of volunteering, but I probably wouldn’t return to this one.
currently reading – Just Kids by Patti Smith (audiobook on the ipod while weeding!)
lyric in title from “Up a hill backwards” by David Bowie.