Volunteering Abroad Isn't All Sun and Sand

Keoni Abraham

Not even in Hawaii. 

The most common associations that surface in people’s minds when they hear the word “Hawaii” are wide stretches of pristine beaches with turquoise water, endless sunny days, waterfalls, and happy tourists with flower necklaces. 

Truly, these islands are a miracle of nature, one of her many gifts to humanity. But let me tell you, this gift is not as neatly packaged as the pictures on the Internet might have you believe. If you really want to get acquainted with the mighty nature of these islands, skip the tourist locations and explore the many remote corners—that is, if you dare.

And dare we did. Being nomads, we do not go to places on vacation. We go to explore deeply, to live like the locals as much as possible, and—if we can—to contribute something. With all these noble intentions in mind, we headed to Earthsong, the ecological community learning centre on Big Island, Hawaii.

Did we know we were not going to be right on the beach, that it was the rainy season and that the winds were strong in that particular corner of the island? Yes, we did.

But were we truly ready for any of it? Absolutely not.

To be fair, the weather here has been unusual. First, we were hit with particularly strong winds (the roof of our son’s little sleeping nook was blown right off!) then we were graced with non-stop rain that lasted for days. Earthsong is mostly off-the-grid and powered by solar energy. So with no sun, our electricity went out. So did our patience. It is one thing to fantasize about going on a retreat in the middle of the ocean, and another to actually retreat deep into nature and experience it in full force. 

The Big Island happens to have eight climate zones. Driving out on a rainy day onto a much-dreaded shopping trip at Costco in Kona (food shopping can be challenging in our area, with few grocery stores and limited options) we would suddenly find ourselves under clear skies, having to strip most of our layers off. The positive change in weather would make our shopping more fun with a quick trip to the beach before hitting the aisles of Costco. But we would also feel our hearts sink as we approached our neck of the woods, feeling the cold air rush through the rolled-down windows and rain sprinkling as soon as we turn the corner of South Point Road.

You begin to question everything: Why did we even come here? Whose idea was it? And what do we do now?

They say the island tests you, and get tested, we did. Yes, friends, staying in one of the most remote places on Earth (there is no land between our edge of the island and Antarctica) surrounded by water on all sides, with water falling from the sky, you begin to question everything: Why did we even come here? Whose idea was it? And what do we do now?

As the wall of water kept pressing all around us, moisture reaching into every corner of our house and our very souls, we longed for the sun and its warmth. My first impulse was to retreat deep into myself, cuddle up under a blanket and wait it out. But luckily, this is a community. Soon, I learned that most of my fellow adventurers as well as our hosts were having all the same feelings. 

We’d meet in the temple space (a circular building with wraparound windows in the heart of the community) and drum, move or talk. We’d have long tea times to the sound of the rain, and an occasional outing to one of the many coffee houses in the area (with so many coffee farms around, this is a coffee aficionado paradise). We found warmth on the island but it didn’t come from the sun: we found it in each other first. 

When I told a friend about the weather here, he said, “You’re in the wrong corner of Hawaii! Hawaii is supposed to be fun and sun.” At the time, I couldn’t agree more. Now, however, I know, there is no wrong corner in Hawaii. As Ryan, the Earthsong’s steward said, “This place teaches you not to chase the sun, but to stay and surrender.”

So, did we pass the test?

Not with flying colours, but we did. The sun came out after all; not for long and not every day, but whenever it did, it felt that much more precious. And as another of Earthsong’s stewards, Elena, said during one of our many conversations, "Those dark, rainy days teach you to appreciate the light.”

She said another thing that stayed with me: “We thought we came to work on the land. But in the end, the land is working on us.”

I couldn’t agree more. 

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Published in Volunteer Abroad Blogs
Irina Abraham

Irina Abraham is an actress turned writer. Originally from Belarus, she spent most of her adult life in New York City. She writes about her travels on a short school bus and is currently volunteering with her family on Big Island, Hawaii. @kit_the_bus

Website: https://www.irinaweavesmagic.com/

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