From Boracay to Portugal: A Volunteer’s Journey

I wake up each day with ringing bells as my alarm clock in Braga, the third largest city in Portugal. The bell actually rings every 15 minutes and changes its tempo after each hour passed. The ringing bell symbolizes how religious Braga is, known as the Rome of Portugal and is also dubbed as the City of Bells with over two dozens of churches or igreja in Portuguese. Braga is home during my three months European Voluntary Service.

At Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga.

My stay in the westernmost side of Europe is part of the international project – EUROASI: From Europe to Asia: Capitalizing Experience in Youth Work. The project is coordinated by the Italy-based TDM 2000 International and is funded by the European Union under its Erasmus+ program. It is a project between seven partners from Italy, Portugal, Malta, Slovenia, Indonesia and the Philippines. The project’s main objective is for Asian participants to learn from the works of European youth organizations and to bring it home where their journey started.

The journey to Portugal however was not that easy for me. It is long, literally. I first discovered the project in February 2015. EuroAsi was introduced by Nigel Gamalong of One Media Boracay, the Filipino partner organization of the project. He was the one who brought the opportunity to Boracay and I am forever grateful to him. I was already looking for volunteering opportunities abroad that time so I claimed the opportunity ever since. In preparation for the international mobility, we were trained on the different aspects of NGO work by European trainers who came to Boracay.

I am actually supposed to do my EVS from April to July this year. Unfortunately, for Filipino citizens, getting a Schengen visa is a dreadful process. There is no Portuguese Embassy in the Philippines so I first tried to apply at the Greek Embassy in Manila. But after two weeks of waiting, I was told that I had to send my papers to the Portuguese Embassy based in Indonesia which delayed my trip for more than two months.

Waiting was an agonizing experience. Yet, good things really happen to people who persevere, and so it was granted to me. The delay even became a blessing in disguise for I arrived in summer time in Portugal. With ample amount of sun each day, it became easier for me to adjust. The summer time also means a lot of opportunity for me to see and discover the country. But still, Portugal’s weather is always unpredictable. Sometimes, the day will start very cold, then, it will become so hot after a while. Most of the time, a thick jacket is needed to survive the cold nights.

I arrived on June 28 in Braga and was welcomed warmly by the people of my host organization, Associação Juvenil SYnergia. SYnergia is a Portuguese organization that is active in promoting activities for young people by developing project for them in the fields of democracy, active citizenship, non-formal education, international cooperation and local development.

with-angelica-perra-president-of-tdm-2000-internationald-3rd-from-left-and-synergia-president-ricardo-sousa-right(From L-R) With Ian (my fellow Filipino volunteer), Matias (my coordinator), Angelica (President of TDM 2000 International, Mariana (my project coordinator) and Ricardo (SYnergia president)

EVS Work and Experience

I always wanted to travel the world, but responsibilities always hindered me from achieving this dream. EVS enabled me to finally realize this dream – this trip to Portugal was my first travel outside the country so I just carried enthusiasm in my heart.

I have been writing for different news organizations for five years now. Journalism is my first love. But doing volunteer work brings a different feeling of fulfillment for me. With SYnergia, I was able to realize this passion. This EVS period is a total break from my usual routine of hunting and writing the daily news.

During my 3-month EVS, I work mostly with children and young people. On my first month, SYnergia was working together with the Municipality of Braga in conducting summer camps for children and the youth from the different schools in the city. We conducted different activities related with art, music, culture and sports.

Through our work in the organization, I was also able to visit other cities in Portugal, especially its beaches. On my second month, we worked in the promotion of EVS through the “20 Years, 20 beaches” campaign of SYnergia. The activity was to celebrate the two decades of EVS and to encourage the young to do volunteer work. It did not feel like working because we get to enjoy the view of the Atlantic Ocean, the summer heat and the smiles of the people we worked with.

My most memorable activity was the one-week camp during my last month in Porto de Mos, a small city in the Leiria district of Portugal. That week, we conducted activities for the youth from two social welfare institutions in the country. Each has their own battles in life: some are orphans; others have problems with their families, while others are victims of their own vices. It felt good to see that somehow, what we helped brighten the lives of these young people, even just for a while. And that’s one essence of doing volunteer work – to make an impact on someone’s life.

our-one-week-youth-camp-in-porto-de-mosDuring our camp at Porto de Mos.

The camp also helped me realized my personal project of sharing the Filipino culture to the Europeans. During the cultural workshop I did, I taught them some Filipino words and introduced to them our food, traditions and the beautiful places in the Philippines. They also learned how to play our traditional game called Luksong Tinik.

Gain International Friends

Volunteering abroad is also a great opportunity to meet people from all over the world. I am lucky to meet Damla, Mesut, Ayca, Sema, Emel, Melih, Sebnem and Tugrul at SYnergia. They were all from Turkey. I thought I was in the wrong place. But kidding aside, meeting them enabled me to discover more about the rich Turkish culture, too. On my last month, Mateo and Martina from Italy, Alba from Spain, and of course, Turkish Irem and Utku, also arrived. Of course, I won’t forget Matias, my coordinator who welcomed me even before I arrived in Portugal, and Mariana, our project manager.

Aside from my fellow volunteers at SYnergia, I also met other volunteers from the rest of Portugal during a four-day EVS camp held in the town of Amarante and that gained me 50 new international friends. I also met more EVS volunteers during our arrival training in Braga. It was actually a bit late since the training was held two weeks before my trip home. Yet, reconnecting with friends from the Amarante camp and meeting new people made the five-day training a memorable one. ‘

Apart from the EVS volunteers, more interesting people likewise crossed my path during my travels in the other cities of Portugal – the Portuguese couple who owns a café in Porto, the travelers in The Travel School in Aveiro, my couchsurfing host in Lisbon and the people we worked with in a summer fest in Foz Coa. There’s just too many to mention; perhaps, another article for that.

visiting-belem-tower-a-world-unesco-heritagae-site-in-the-capital-city-of-lisbonEVS also allows us to travel and experience the culture of the locals. Me at Belem Tower in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal.

Embracing the Portuguese Culture

If we Filipinos love basketball, Portugal taught me to love football and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo. There is a football field almost everywhere. I will never forget the enthusiasm of the Portuguese people when the country won the Euro Cup 2016.

Portugal also introduced me to francesinha, a belly-buster sandwich made with bread, ham, sausage, steak or roast meat, and covered with melted cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce. I know you can now imagine how much calorie it has. Other Portuguese specialty everyone should try is their pastel de nata, bola de berlim and their Bacalhau dishes. The Vinho Verde or a young Portuguese wine is also more famous in the north.

Pastel de Nata and Francesinha. Believe me, it’s delicious and more delectable than these phone photos.

Yet, living abroad is also not just all about fun. It is also challenging. The greatest challenge is living thousand miles away from home. I never thought nostalgia would hit me. Due to time zone differences, it was hard to contact families and friends back home. Another challenge was losing my luggage during my long travel to Portugal. But instead of stressing so much about it, it enabled me to realize that I can actually live with less stuff.

Now, I am back in the island with the wisdom I gained from my EVS experience. Through volunteer work, I was able to see the other parts of the world. It is also the main reason why I will stay in Boracay for long. After all, it’s the world’s best island.

Karen Bermejo, Filipina, EVS volunteer

This article was first published at Boracay Sun


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