Experiences of a volunteer field assistant

Are you interested how the life of a volunteer on the Tarsius project looks like? Read below an article written by Alex who spent six months with us.

„These following words should be viewed as a condensed, written version of some of my experiences as a volunteer for the Tarsius Project during my seven month long stay in the island of Bohol, Philippines.

First off, I feel volunteering is something for everyone if you have the right mindset and are dedicated to put your time and effort for the cause, whatever it is. Don’t expect, don’t assume, just have an open mind and deal with whatever life throws at you in the present moment. It is something that can make you grow as a person and if the subject is something related to your professional field, it is a perfect addition to your CV!

I came back to Sweden feeling soulfully refreshed and with a sense of balance in my life. I truly enjoyed the way of life in the remoteness of the small village of Subayon. That being said, everyone’s different in their likes and dislikes so particularly this project might not be for everyone. Challenges of different kind naturally arise in daily life. Experiencing cultural differences over a fairly long period of time or navigating through a new professional setting could be some triggers. But I feel it is then up to you as the experiant to determine how to deal with whatever one encounters. You kind of create your own reality.

I came to the island of Bohol as a vegetarian, lived there as a non-vegetarian but left as a vegetarian. It is entirely possible to live a longer period of time not eating meat in the Philippines. Whenever I cooked, I cooked vegetarian (ovo-) as there is plenty of veggies and beans at the local markets. However, don’t expect much variation. The tricky thing is when you are invited to people’s homes. There are very few pure vegetarian dishes in the Filipino cuisine, and I felt that I did not want to reject the generosity of the locals. So I tasted and ate meat when I was a guest in someone’s home. If you are a vegan you might have a more difficult time having a nutritionally balanced diet but if there is a will, there is a way.

I luckily had no major problems with my physical health during my stay besides being bedridden during two days with an ill stomach and fever. But take care of cuts as infections can be very nasty. Snakes rarely moved around the house but it is advisable to always check where you are stepping when moving about. This kind of trip is not for people with arachnophobia, unless you see it as a good time to face your fears. Spiders are everywhere but mostly harmless and keep to themselves. But always check boots and shake your clothes before putting them on. I had once a 15 cm centipede in my shorts that were hanging on the clothing line.

The humidity is really high in the Philippines, although it is not felt as “thick” where the project site is located compared to other tropic areas. But still you will encounter some humidity-related issues. First your clothes rarely dry completely if they are not put out in the sun. Next, your computer will have serious issues, mine wouldn’t start if the humidity was too high, I had to warm it in the sun for 10-15 min before being able to use it. Make sure to start and use your computer everyday and store it in a container when not in use if you encounter the same problems as I did.

The locals are super-friendly and generous, almost to a degree that the situation becomes demanding sometimes. A good way to come closer to the locals is, perhaps unfortunately, to drink with them. And sing karaoke of course. If you spend a longer period of time in the Philippines and leave without even trying the karaoke machines, or biyukes as they’re called, shame on you! I had a lot of laughs shared on those occasions.

Communication can be problematic even though many Filipinos can speak English. Especially in the more rural areas, miscommunication is fairly common. Have patience and be prepared to repeat yourself! Don’t take for granted the information you pass on is understood completely. And try to learn some Visayan. It is not that complicated and it is very much appreciated when you know some of the local language, even if it’s only words and phrases. If you like birds and are into photography, don’t forget to bring binoculars and a good camera! The different kingfisher-species are truly amazing and the surroundings (people included) are very esthetic.

One thing that has become very evident for me after being back in Sweden now for a couple of months is that time, or the perception of time, is truly relative. I miss the concept of Filipino time and way-of-life which can be frustrating for the control-freak. Here in Sweden time is a precious resource; time seems always be limited and you always have to “take” time when doing things. During my stay however, time just was. You really get to appreciate the moment as it is. Whatever happens happens.

I have not seen the last of the Philippines. As Arnold put it, I will be back.“

/Alexander Wielbass


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