Unbrave Girl on the Job: Finding a Volunteer Gig that Fits

September 11, 2010

Ahh, new jobs… aren’t they the best?!

New jobs are kind of like a new pair of shoes or a new relationship. We approach them full of hope and optimism. We just know that This One will work out. This One will be the perfect fit. This One won’t make us sit in a cubicle for eight hours a day, or give us blisters, or “forget” our birthday or our phone number… or, umm, our name.

This One may very well be The One!

On Wednesday, when I boarded the bus from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, Laos, where I was starting my new volunteer gig, I was full of all kinds of new-job-optimism.

I was hopeful and energetic and looking forward to my next on-the-job adventure — despite the grueling ten hours I’d have to spend on the bus to get to that adventure. (Hours made only more excruciating as half of them were spent listening to Lao pop karaoke videos blaring from the television set above my seat after the battery to my iPod died somewhere around Hour Five.)

Upon arriving in Luang Prabang and being packed into the back of a pickup truck with nine other passengers, I was still hopeful (if headachey) and ready to face my most challenging job yet!

What job is that, you ask?

What job had me shaking in my flip-flops and seriously doubting my sanity?

Was it rescuing porcupines from tiger attacks?

Was it teaching orphans how to communicate with dolphins?

Was it coordinating the shuffleboard tournament at a leper colony?

Nope, none of the above.

My new gig was working at backpacker’s hostel in town.

Okay, so that may not sound very challenging.

Heck, it may even sound cushy.

After all, some people choose to stay in hostels — like, on purpose.

But, I knew working at a backpacker’s hostel would be a particularly big challenge for me.

First of all, I am not a backpacker (my luggage has wheels, thank you very much).

Secondly, it’s been over ten years since I stayed in a hostel dormitory. Back then sleeping on a bunk bed in a room full of strangers seemed like a good idea. It was a good way for me to meet other people and sleep on the cheap so I could save my money for other, more important things… like my college education or, ummm, shoes.

Then again, ten years ago, a lot of things seemed like a good idea; for example, writing bad poetry about ex-boyfriends (and then sending it to them… in an envelope marked “Fragile. Handle with Care… unlike my heart, you jerk), drinking alcoholic beverages the color of nuclear waste, and dying my hair blue (Yes, I did dye my hair blue. Or at least my friend dyed my hair blue, and it seemed like a good idea during the ten hours it took her to do it. The next day when I woke up with hair the color of Tidy Bowl, it didn’t seem like such a good idea any more).

Despite worrying that maybe I don’t have what it takes anymore to live and work in a hostel, I was convinced that I could do it.

After all, hadn’t I survived two months on my own in a Thai jungle? Hadn’t I spent the better half of my Spring weeding rice paddies? Hadn’t I managed to overcome my fear of water-bearing vessels and live on a sailboat for a month?

Living in a hostel would be a piece of cake, right?

Ummm, wrong.

In less than twenty-four hours of arriving in Luang Prabang, I had quit my new job, hastily packed my bags and moved myself to a guesthouse located as far away from the hostel as I could manage while dragging my half-packed luggage behind me.

You see, new jobs, like that new pair of strappy sandals or that new boyfriend you met on Craigslist, don’t always work out.

Sometimes they aren’t a good fit for you.

Sometimes they just aren’t what you expected.

Sometimes they post a ten-year-old photo of themselves online… and forget to mention that they have love handles and a double chin… and a wife.

You can easily avoid getting into a new job or volunteer position that doesn’t suit you (as well as avoid the hassle of wandering the city streets with your laundry sticking out of my luggage while you search for a new place to stay), if you know yourself and you know what you’re getting yourself into. But if you still find yourself getting into something you would really rather not be into, it’s also good to know when to throw in the towel.

Know Yourself

A certain level of self delusion is helpful, even required, for world travel.

Much like pursuing a career as a rock star or actor or professional pancake tester (please tell me that this career actually exists!), you have to believe in yourself — but not your real self. Instead, you have to believe in a better version of yourself.

This better version of yourself is flexible, open to new experiences and willing to try anything; whereas, the real version of you would never dream of jumping out of an airplane… or ordering anything but your usual Double Cheese with Extra Garlic on the Thin Crust at your favorite pizza place. This better version of yourself is witty and charming. The real you has her moments of wit and charm, but they only happen after noon… and, even then, they require the help of a little tequila.

The better version of you has perfect hair that never frizzes and teeth the color of pasteurized milk. The real you could use a little styling gel… and maybe some of those Crest Whitening strips.

The better version of you can scale high mountains without breaking into a sweat and hit all the high notes in a Whitney Houston song. The real version of you sweats as soon as she steps out the door and has the singing voice of a basset hound.

It can be helpful to believe in this better version of yourself when facing situations that would, otherwise, be daunting for your real self.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that you are human (not superhuman… or Whitney Houston) and you do have your limits.

The better version of myself wouldn’t mind sleeping in a dorm room full of strangers (Heck, even the twenty-year-old version of myself didn’t mind doing this). But the real, crotchedy, thirty-four-year-old version of myself values personal space, privacy and the God-given right to go to bed at nine on a Saturday night should that be necessary (and not have to worry about being woken up by late-arriving roommates who flip on the light and then ask loudly, “Who’s the old lady sleeping over there?”).

Before I signed up for the hostel gig, I suspected there was a strong possibility I might be sleeping in a hostel dormitory, and there was an even stronger possibility that I would hate it.

But I chose not to think about this reality until I arrived at the hostel Wednesday night and was directed to my new “home”: the only empty bed in the middle of a five-bed dormitory on the first floor of the building.

The evidence of my roommates’ existence included discarded backpacks left strewn on the floor, towels and toiletries piled on their beds and an empty potato chip bag in the middle of the room.

Staring glumly at my new abode, I tried to cheer myself up. At least, I didn’t have to sleep on a bunk bed, I reasoned.

Plus, my bed was located in a choice location directly below the one and only fan in the room. There was even an electrical socket above my bed. I imagined my new roommates trying to butter me up with gifts of potato chips and compliments on the color of my luggage in order to sit under my fan or plug their iPod chargers into my electrical outlet.

After throwing my bags down on my bed, I decided to check out the rest of my new home.

Aside from the three dorm rooms, the hostel had a central lounge area: a dim, narrow room packed full of discarded books, empty water bottles and dirty flip-flops.

The seating consisted of old benches taken out of passenger vans, lending the area the charm of a mechanic’s garage… or a garbage dump.

There were a total of three bathrooms in the hostel — two of them inside the building and the other one located around the corner of the building on the outside. A dead grasshopper the size of Kansas adorned the doorstep of one of the indoor bathrooms. I was too afraid to check the outside bathroom to see what dead animal might be acting as welcome mat there.

Slowly realizing exactly what I had gotten myself into, I, again, tried to look on the bright side.

I had had a long day on the bus. I was tired and cranky and still in pain from all those karaoke videos.

Maybe all I needed was a beer and some sleep and everything would be better in the morning?

Maybe magic fairies (or more volunteers) would show up in the middle of the night and clean all the dead grasshoppers from the bathroom floor?

Maybe my roommates would turn out to be the most wonderful people in the world… or, at least, really quiet and capable of seeing in the dark, so they wouldn’t have to switch on the light while I was sleeping?

After dinner and a drink, I settled on to my bed and I attempted to go to sleep.

The hostel faced a busy street where motorcycles, cars and tuk-tuks zoomed by incessantly. From the barks and growls that came through the open window, I suspected the sidewalk outside of the building was being used to house a pack of wild dogs… or maybe a herd of backpacking werewolves.

By the time my roommates, a drunken, disorderly band of twenty-something blondes, arrived at midnight and switched on all the lights in the dorm, I had already given up on sleep and settled on a state of cranky, near-comatose.

In the morning, after clocking a grand total of two hours of shut-eye, I awoke groggy and grumpy. I was promptly greeted by the sight of my dorm-mate’s naked rear-end in the bed next to me.

My real self did not like this… not one little bit. My real self wanted nine more hours of sleep. My real self wanted her own room. My real self wanted her dorm-mate to put on some pants, already.

Know What You’re Getting Yourself Into

All the articles I’ve read offering advice on applying for volunteering gigs recommend that you ask a lot of questions before you go to find out what you’re getting yourself into… you know, before you’ve got yourself into it.

This makes sense… but it also kind of spoils the surprise, don’t you think?

Prior to arriving at the hostel, I knew only one thing about my upcoming gig: my boss’ name was Shampoo.

To me, this seemed like reason enough to work there. After all, how bad could a job be when your boss was named after a shower product?! He sounded like a fun-loving, carefree guy… prone to smelling like strawberries… or tea tree oil.

I had no idea what I’d be expected to do while working at the hostel or who I’d be working with.

When I arrived on Wednesday night, I tried to ask the young man working as the receptionist about my expected job duties, but he only smiled shyly and told me I should wait to talk to Shampoo, who was in another village visiting some friends that night.

I didn’t get to meet Shampoo until the next morning, when he introduced me to the rest of the staff, which consisted of the man I had met the night before who took care of checking in and out guests, a few shy college-aged girls who did the cooking and waitressing, and two boys, who could not have been more than ten years old and were in charge of the cleaning. (This could explain the dead grasshopper outside of the bathroom door. For all I knew, those boys put that bug there on purpose — for decoration!)

It seemed all the jobs needed to run a hostel (checking in and out the guests, cooking, waitressing, cleaning, decorating the bathroom with dead insects) were already being taken care of (well, to some extent… I still question whether it’s prudent to have someone under the age of twelve in charge of the housekeeping).

I asked what my job responsibilities would be, and my boss simply responded that I should “help with the guests.” I was never told what kind of help I would be giving them or what kind of help they might require (In the case of my roommate, I suspected she might need a little help finding her pants… but, other than that, I really had no idea how I could be of service).

In the few hours that I spent “working,” it quickly became apparent that not only did I not know what I was supposed to do, neither did anyone at the hostel.

I spent an hour or so chatting with the receptionist who told me he was trying to improve his English.

I spent some time inspecting the hodge-podge of books that were lying around the lounge.

Then I spent another hour watching kung fu movies dubbed into Lao. T

he few times that I asked my boss if there was something (anything!) that I could be doing, he simply smiled at me and told me to “chill out.”

Know When to Fold ‘Em

After a few hours of “work,” I knew this job wasn’t for me.

Yet, I tried to tell myself to stick it out. After all, it certainly wasn’t a difficult job — “chilling out” and watching kung fu videos was definitely a fair bit easier than weeding rice paddies. Sure, the no-sleep thing was worrying, but maybe my roommates would turn in early that night… or check out of the hostel… or get eaten by werewolves.

After spending most of the day waiting to be asked to do something (anything!) and wondering how much more boredom and kung fu movies and sleepless nights I could take, I knew there was really no reason for me to stick it out.

I stood up, turned to Shampoo (a man who, disappointingly, smelled neither of strawberries nor of tea tree oil) and informed him that I was leaving.

He seemed neither very surprised nor saddened by this. I suspect, he knew I wasn’t exactly the “chill out” type… or the backpacker type… or even the kung fu movie type.

Sure, persistence is a virtue, but so is knowing yourself, knowing what you’re capable of and knowing when to throw in the towel. It was definitely time for me to throw in the towel.

As I threw my belongings back into my luggage and headed for the door, the words of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” started running through my head:

You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.

I won’t say I was running when I left the hostel… but, I will say, there was a certain spring in my step.


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On July 10, 2011 at 12:09 am Audrey said:

    It’s good you quit as soon as you realized the job wasn’t right for you. I once put myself through three miserable months doing a job I knew I hated from day-one. I had tears of joy the day I finally quit!!!

    • On July 10, 2011 at 2:02 am Sally said:

      3 months? Wow. I can usually stick things out pretty long if there are a few perks. I wasn’t crazy about boat building, but I stuck with it for a month because there were some cool people there & I had my own room. But this volunteer gig had absolutely nothing going for it… and I’d have to share my room with drunken fools. No thanks!


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