Change of Air by Ivor Micallef

It is so demoralizing to be living in a world where the day is not long enough, the money is never enough and the partying till 6 in the morning is not enough; and suddenly it occurred to me… this is not what life is meant to be. My life had taken a trip down material world with one and only focus: myself. Everything was about fulfilling my selfish needs.

So I decided to go back to my roots; my Salesian roots which I grew up in and explore the possibility to do some voluntary work abroad. I was aware of the European summer playground projects that are organized by other Salesian youth centres for kids, but never actually got the chance be part of them. This time, though, I decided I wanted to do it – take time off from work and spend two weeks in another country, dedicating some of my time for others.

I decided to go to Spain, a country which inspires me a lot and then came the planning stage. Typically these playgrounds are organized in such a way that the kids attend the youth centre for various fun activities from morning till late afternoon and go back home in the evening; the volunteers are hosted at the youth centre. So there I was, with my mind at rest that I will be travelling to Valencia to join the Spanish youth centre and give my share. At some point, though, I learn that the Spanish youth centres take the kids’ adventure to another level – they travel 8 hours by bus and make camp, literally, in the Pyrenees Aragones, north of Spain border with France. That is one big change of air! I, not being exactly the “scouts” type of person, was staggered by this revelation. Well, try putting yourself in my shoes… two weeks with 50 Spanish-speaking-only children, sleeping in tents – which is not something I ever do, and living on basics. Not exactly what I imagined it to be.

That fear, coupled with a stressful period at work, I was actually considering of cancelling everything and stay put in Malta where I had loads of work and planning to attend to. Why hassle?

However, once you allow things to sink in, and not take any impulsive decisions, I took a new perspective to it: take this as a new adventure and do my best to adapt… after all I was going there as a volunteer – why should I stay thinking about my commodities?!

Quickly came the day for me to pack my backpack (not luggage) and sleeping bag and fly off to Valencia where I was welcomed by a warm bunch of other Salesian volunteers, with whom I hit it off straight away. I felt part of the group already. At first, the communication was a bit hard because I could understand Spanish very vaguely from knowing Italian fluently and having studied French, but it was tough for me to talk back in their language… until I got the gist of it. Then I was fine.

When we arrived on location, my jaw dropped to the ground. The scenery in front of me was spectacular. A perfectly flat plane enclosed between three mountains. You could feel the grandeur of nature. We quickly set up tent which was a great opportunity to get to know the kids, who were incredibly cheerful and so interested to get to know me and open themselves to me.

The first few days were a bit difficult; not because I wasn’t made welcome… far from it. But the sleep was little, the nights were cold, the showers were freezing (cold water straight from the mountains and no heating!) and then came the infamous third night, which ironically was supposed to be “La Noche del Terror” – the night of terror, where we organize activity to scare the hell out of the kids. It’s funny how much kids want to be scared! But the terror had yet to come.

A massive windy thunderstorm took us by surprise at around 1am. The large tents in which we ate and stored props were blown away by the winds and we tried to hold on to whatever we could. I felt my heart beat rapidly thumbing in my throat. Literally. Everyone was in panic mode, and when you don’t understand a word of what’s being instructed the fear grows even more. Some leaders ran to get the kids out of their tents and into this very smelly stable next to us, which at least provided shelter from the winds and rain. I thought this must be the scariest moment of my life, and all I could think of us going home; now.

The storm passed, a sleepless night passed also and then came a sunny day. All the kids worked with the leaders to try and bring everything to normal. Before noon, the site was just as before. I gazed at the scene and thought, there’s a special feeling about this group – you could touch the charisma and positive approach in life. I came to terms with the fact that once you’re there in open space, you are subject to nature’s will!

The busy days went on quickly, organizing one activity after the other, playing with kids, making sure they enjoy themselves in a safe environment, dining with them, trying to control the cheeky ones and just be a good example to them. You go there with the idea of giving, but you actually end up taking much more than you give.

The chemistry with the other leaders was fantastic. We quickly became friends and I worked well with them to make the kids’ summer camp a memorable and fun experience.

After the summer camp, I had planned a holiday in Barcelona and funnily enough, on the last day the only thing I could think of is leaving the kids whom I was sure I was going to miss.

Come to think of it; had I known straight away that I was going to be camping in the mountains, I know myself enough to know that I wouldn’t have done it. So now I’m relieved that I had committed myself before knowing all the details and not miss out on an experience that helped me grow as a person.