14 – 23 July 2014
The image above probably isn’t what you expected to see in a post about Switzerland. The thought of this small, peaceful nation usually evokes scenes of glorious snowy mountains, green hills and pristine lakes. Is the wealthy nation of Switzerland in a crisis?
When Americans go on long trips abroad, they may want to volunteer in less developed countries. Plenty of critics and journalists have revealed that this process sometimes does more harm than good. Often this form of “voluntourism” is just a guilt “trip”. It helps us feel good about ourselves. Having the privilege to visit less fortunate (by Western standards) countries, take photos, buy some handicrafts, and then leave again can bring up some complicated feelings. Many citizens of those countries have little hope of traveling through their own country (to visit pilgrimage sites or family members), and they have less of a chance to leave their oppressive or resource-poor situation. Travel backpacks are heavy enough! Why carry all that guilt when you can spend a few hours each week reading to orphaned school children or picking up used water bottles? Afterwards, treat yourself to cheap local massage! You’ve done something good. For yourself, mostly.
But we did want to give back in some way, and we wanted it to be meaningful and effective. We spent weeks researching online and talking to experienced travelers about where our efforts and skills would be most needed and welcome. Interestingly enough, it turned out Switzerland really stuck out as a neglected volunteer destination. This surprised us, until we arrived and saw the devastation of the countryside and the hopelessness in people’s faces.
The first thing we noticed, while walking around outside the Zurich train station, were two pieces of trash on the sidewalk. And no one was picking them up! We looked at each other and smiled, knowing we had finally come to a place where we could give instead of consume, consume, consume.
But we weren’t there to help the urbanites. We were headed to Altdorf, a small town way out in the middle of the country (maybe 2 hours from Zurich). Stepping off the bus, we were met by our Swiss friends Maya Karin and Martin. They were the first people we met when our journey started last September, literally as soon as we left our apartment. We gave Maya Karin a ride from San Francisco to Esalen and spent a month together there as work-scholars. We all became close friends and Jessica and I set an intention to see her again in Switzerland. We were lucky to have such wonderful hosts take us in and show us around, given how difficult life is on ground there. For example, one evening we waited until the grocery store closed and took a loaf of day-old bread from the bin out back. That bread went well with the aged handcrafted Alpine cheese we had to hike up a mountain to procure.
The true extent of the damage hit us once Maya Karin and Martin led us on a walking tour around Altdorf.
As you can see, the lake was littered with trash and debris, and some kind of construction barge was out dredging the lake. At first we were emotionally overwhelmed seeing the conditions the Swiss have had to endure, but the resilience of our friends gave us hope.
Sometimes we needed to get away from the bustle of Altdorf (pop. ~9000), and we would go hiking in the Alps. Really, our time in Switzerland was spent connecting with our two friends there as they showed us around the country. Fellow dancers, healers and travelers, we’re grateful they had so much time to share with us.
Switzerland was shockingly clean, orderly and expensive after where we had been. Possibly it is that way no matter where you have been.
After a week, I (Jessica) headed north out of the mountains to Germany for a few days to visit a dear friend from graduate school. Seeing an old friend was just what I needed after all my wanderings. Afternoon walks, cribbage, shopping in Heidelberg, and a pedicure, German-style, were so welcome after many months of life on the road. Thank you, Erica!