My way to Russia
The question coming from friends, acquaintances and strangers is almost always the same: Why Russia? To be completely honest, a tone of this question suggests that the actual question is: Why the hell Russia? When I walk them through my mental process behind choosing my third language (as is briefly outlined at the very beginning), they seem almost relieved that there is no political inclination.
I started learning Russian in autumn 2016 along with the beginning of my Master’s program at the university. I was enjoying the lessons, but as the grammar started to be more challenging I knew, I’ll soon need a new incentive to keep going. I figured that the best motivation would be interaction with people. Having Russian friends, whom I would want to talk to, could do the trick. At this point, I started wondering – how will I get myself to Russia?
INEX was the first thing that came to my mind. I don’t remember how I found out about them in the first place, but I knew they were offering volunteering programs in the Czech Republic and abroad. Because I was working full time as a Project Manager, I narrowed my search down only to short-term workcamps. There is a wide range of available specializations out of which I chose to focus on culture, education or work with kids. The winner was obvious – Summer camp Berezka in Yaroslavl region. I was over the moon that I found a match and I dove right into an inevitable load of paperwork – application, contract, visa, passport and so on.
In a good project management manner, I didn’t leave much to chance and contacted my coordinator in Russia shortly after being accepted. Luckily for me. Saint Petersburg was listed in official materials as the closest airport. As it turned out, Moscow was a much more convenient choice (500 km more convenient choice to be exact). Those who haven’t checked this information and bought airplane tickets right away spent 12 hours in train instead of just 4. D’oh!
When I announced my plan for summer holidays at work, the reaction was almost unified – raised eyebrows. After initial shock faded away, opinions on my upcoming adventure ranged from “cool” to “weird”. Apparently, going to a country which is not considered a desirable holiday location, work there for free and pay for all your travel expenses isn’t a dream come true for a majority of IT professionals these days.
Time flew by and soon my big adventure came. Those three weeks in Berezka were simply marvellous. There were about 150 children in the camp, local teachers and six of us volunteers – three from Spain, one from France, one from Japan and me. We were spending time with groups of children from 7 to 15 years old. Camp Berezka is a closed facility located in forests near Yaroslavl with a broad range of available activities – we were swimming in a pool, playing card games, speaking English, dancing at the disco, talking about where we were going on holidays, speaking Russian, singing around campfire, painting, discussing studying in Europe, playing ball games, sunbathing and so on. I was very grateful for stakeholder management training and practice because handling a group of eight-year-old girls who are requesting to make them hairstyles, paint their nails, play a card game and tell them all about Prague at the same time would otherwise feel overwhelming. Although the time we have spent together wasn’t long, we grew very close. Everyone was really sad that we had to say goodbye at the end. Some were even crying. Well… the youngest kids and me.
As a bonus, I got to spend a few days in Moscow. The weather treated me surprisingly nicely, so I had a great time running around all Moscow’s must-sees. A cherry on the top was the hotel I stayed in. I don’t know what exactly went through my mind when I was choosing it a few months before. Maybe I thought I should reward myself for spending the majority of my holiday in a “wilderness”. Anyway, I ended up in a luxurious hotel, which looked more like a palace. Receptionists were very professional and didn’t look bewildered at all when I showed up looking a little worn out, with a dirty suitcase and wearing my last pieces of relatively clean clothes.
I came home determined to go back next year and started researching the possibilities immediately. I was attending language courses in the Russian Centre of Science and Culture in Prague at the time. There we were offered to participate in summer language schools in Russia lasting from two weeks to two months. At that time, I knew I wanted to take a break from full-time work and took advantage of my student status while it lasted. Therefore, I applied for a two months long course at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow.
As for student internships I chose to apply for one in the Czech Centre Moscow. After I took care of another load of paperwork – this time including even HIV test, official translation of my diploma and motivational letter – I could only wait and hope for the best. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when I found out I was accepted to both summer school and internship and will have a chance to spend almost half of 2018 in Russia.
Why YOU want to try volunteering
The experience I had at workcamp in Berezka wasn’t a necessary precondition for these following travels. However, for someone like me, who is quite a conservative traveller, it was an excellent opportunity to get familiar with the different environment and to create lasting friendships. During the whole time, I had support through a coordinator in the camp, another one in SFERA Movement and of course in INEX to whom I could reach out if I felt the need to.
I would highly recommend short or long-term volunteering to anyone, who wants to dive deeper into the culture and get to know local people. You have a unique opportunity to tear off a label of a tourist. Coming to the community with the primary purpose of helping others opens doors and hearts. I don’t remember many occasions when just my presence somewhere was as appreciated as in Berezka that summer.
The possibilities of INEX are not limited to activities such as teaching English in Russia, cutting down trees in Japan or promoting responsible tourism in India. There is plenty of work you can help with on workcamps organised in the Czech Republic as well. They last from a couple of days to a couple of weeks and I believe it is a great opportunity for all IT (and other) professionals to spend a part of their holiday in a little more adventurous, beneficial and – take my word for it – fulfilling way.
Keep an eye out on a database.
Huge thanks to INEX (particularly to Eva), my receiving organisation SFERA Movement, our coordinator Artem and all other people who were part of this experience.
“Act as if what you do make a difference. It does.”
– William James