Evaluation – three month in Kuterevo
To evaluate on the already settled three months in Kuterevo I find it necessary to take the time in Denmark right before departure to Kuterevo in consideration.
I had just finished high school and was now in the position of taking more responsibility and painting my own future. I decided to take a gap year since I was insecure about what to study. At first, I did not worry and just tasted the sweet taste of freedom. But as the days went by I knew I needed to do something and take a decision of what to do now. I wanted to travel, and explore new places but at the same time I wanted to calm down in Denmark; find a job, get my driver license and enjoy friends and family. I was stuck in between.
I remembered my high school had recommended EVS volunteering and I started to contact Dansk ICYE (my sending organization) and searched for projects in the EVS database. Eventually I found the project Mountain Spirit located in Croatia. Among other projects this was the one I found the most interesting.
The period, which ran from the first of December to the end of May, was perfect for me and the content of the project was something I was very passionate about. I read that the project took place in the Velebit mountains in a little village called Kuterevo and that the work consisted of nature conservation, animal care, guiding visitors and documenting. Apart from that, you could experience the simple lifestyle of the local people.
From the moment, I read it I was very drawn and was thinking that it was a huge opportunity. I sent an application and waited.
To my own surprise, I was one of few who was selected for a skype interview. Sometime after I got the message that I was selected. I remember how excited and glad I was but at the same time a little worried. I remember how nervous I was about my English and if I could communicate probably with the supervisor, the communicator, the mentor and other volunteers.
The preparation with my sending organization was short but informative. I got the most important information and was reminded of culture shock and conflicts combined with how to handle them.
All though this decision was quite spontaneous and filled with unknown things I still had some expectations for my coming volunteering experience.
For me the most important thing was the learning possibilities in the project. I expected to learn more about nature, nature conservation/preservation, sustainability and bears. Since this is something, I have been committed to my whole life it was something I was looking forward to the most.
In connection with this, I also expected to experience and take part in a simple and more nature friendly lifestyle. I expected to be capable of using fire, rainwater, homegrown vegetables and fruits, reusable products and compost.
Coming to a new country alone I also expected to meet and interact with tons of new people; the locals in Kuterevo, people from Croatia and people from all over the world, and get a lot of new acquaintances and friends. Alone or together with these people, I expected to explore Kuterevo and the Velebit Mountain but also to see beautiful parts and places in Croatia.
Since the environment in Croatia and Denmark are very different I expected to see another kind of nature that I am use to; mountains, different animals, cold winters with a lot of snow and warm spring/summer. All through nature is the thing I am appealed to the most I also take value in cultures. Therefore, among my expectations I also expected to experience and get to know the culture in Croatia; try traditional food, learn the folk, learn norms and tradition and learn some Croatian. Apart from the Croatian language, I also expected to improve my English. My final and maybe most essential expectation for the project was to experience a personal development. I expected first of all to get more self-aware and self-conscious. This included, among other things, to be surer about my future choice of education.
On the first of December I arrived in Kuterevo together with four other volunteers; Alëna from Russia, Clément from France, Irma from Portugal and Sophia from Germany.
They all seemed kind and conversable but at the same time as exhausted as I was after the trip. Ivan, our supervisor, received us. He seemed like an informal but open and dedicated person. To my own surprise he could not speak English but only Croatian and German. After a shot of rakija, which was something totally new and different for me, Ivan took us to Postaja, the volunteer station. Here our coordinator Maja, another volunteer, the warmth from the fire, filled walls and shelves and the smell of food, met us. By taking the first steps into Postaja I already felt welcomed. I felt home.
The following weeks we settled more down in Kuterevo. The first days Maya showed us around in the village. She showed us how to run Postaja with all the daily tasks; making food, cleaning dishes, cleaning floor, using compost toilets and handle fire. It all seemed really manageable and reasonable. I could already feel from the first week that I felt more alive with this kind of lifestyle. Sustainability and simplicity. It realised that I enjoyed the most important things in life more and that the weight of worries and materialism was gone.
Maya also took us to local people; old and generous women known as the tetas, where Croatian was the only spoken language and where we were close to the core of Croatian traditions. I found it hard to interact with them because of the language barrier but also because of their sight in live, that seemed very experienced and filled with such serenity, made me shy. Also these local people were the host of our recommendation.
Together with Sophia I slept by teta Ivanka in a little flat by the side of their house. Because of that, we did not interacted with our tetas as much as the other volunteers, who communicated with them every day and came for coffee in the morning. I remember that I founded it weird not to introduce myself to my hosts after one week of staying and that I felt somewhat jealous of the other volunteers and their privilege of being more close to a local person.
Besides the daily tasks, Maya and Ivan also showed us the work we needed to do. We needed to feed the chickens, the horses, the dog (Srečko), and the bears. If visitors came by we had the job to talk with them and guide them around. However, working outside physically and with tools was the work we were going to do the most. To learn Croatian was also counted as work. While working we needed to document by taking videos and pictures. At this time, the work was very easygoing and unstructured. I found it all very interesting and I thought it was nice with a soft beginning were I could adapt to the new surrounding and environment.
After about one month in Kuterevo we were sent to Orahovica for an on arrival training. Together with eight other volunteers, who also had their volunteer project in Croatia, we spent a week learning about volunteering. The learning process was very informal with use of exercises, drawing, role-playing, and discussions. This kind of learning made it more interesting and funny, which not only did something for the group bonding but also had the effect of giving us more motivation and making the learning process more easy. The only thing I missed was to hear more about personal projects and how to manage them. Overall, the on arrival training was a good preparation for my volunteering with the bonus of nice experience and new acquaintances.
At the return to Kuterevo Christmas was near. The evening we had prepared thoroughly went well and I enjoyed the time together with the others. However, I found myself missing Denmark and my family more than normal.
I missed the Danish traditions but mostly the nearness and comfy of my family. But the homesick was briefly and couldn’t compete with the pleasure of being in Kuterevo. At the meantime, the days changed after the on arrival training. The unstructured hours stopped and work began to be more serious and demanding.
During the Christmas holiday the amount of visitors increased. I took it as an honor and a privilege to talk with peoples from all around the world and to inform them about the bears and philosophy of the project. The work outside was also something I valued very much. I appreciated the work itself and how its ideology were showing how to save, reuse and take care of things and how we could help the nature. But also just to move and be outside in the fresh air with the view of mountains made the work worthy. On the other hand, the work could sometimes be tiring and unmotivating. We spend two weeks cleaning and sorting two ceilings filled with wooden items, furniture and other things. All though I could extract some useful elements from the work in the ceilings such as patience and time management it was not as beneficial as the work outside.
In the end of January, Ivan made us doing statistics. We needed to write down which hours we worked and which type of work. Every day we needed to work three hours before lunch and then three hours after lunch. I understood that the statistics was reasonable and logical but it also created a stressful condition where I always had a ticking clock in my head saying that I had to fulfill those six hours. The statistics made me feel less motivated and less voluntary and that I was working to get hours instead of working for the work itself. There was also a period where we had fulfilled all work that needed to be done. We did not knew what to do next so we came up with our own suggestions and ideas for work. Most of the times Ivan was not approving.
One time we planned to make a wooden fence for the ponies instead of the already standing fence made of metal wires. We showed the plan to Ivan and this time he accepted. But the weekend after where we were on a trip for two days he got two craftsman to make the whole fence. We were all disappointed. I understood that the fence needed to be solid and well-made but we just wasted our change to show initiative and management together with the opportunity to learn more about how to handle tools. I considered this situation as a lack of justice, appreciation and especially trust.
Beside the statistics Ivan have a lot of standpoints and a specific way of doing things. It surprise me that the Croatian language is the first priority for Ivan and not the nature conservation work we are doing. I find the Croatian language as an important part of the project but for me the work and the philosophy of the project is more essential. The value he put in the Croatian language is also reflecting the fact that he speaks and gives us construction in Croatian (or German). I think it is good in the way that we need to learn the language to understand him and that we learn it more quickly by him only speaking Croatian. On the other hand, it often leads to misunderstanding and really require a lot of energy from me when talking in several hours. However, I find it unfair to be mad on me not learning enough Croatian when I am doing my best only having three month to learn so far. But I understand why he wants to speak his mother tongue and I honor the Croatian language, which I think should not be overruled by English, or any other language in this project.
All though Ivan sometimes can be difficult and malo budala (a little fool) he is one of the persons that inspire and admire me the most. His down to earth and informal way to do things makes me feel more comfortable and home. For example when we went for a rakija at our arrival or when he invite visitor indoors to a talk. His metaphoric and strong conversations that are out of the ordinary and informative phenomenon are for me very impressing and always gives me new perspectives to think about. I am glad that he is my supervisor instead of a common person who just gives construction.
Apart from Ivan I also spend every day together with the other volunteers. I remember that my first impression of them all were good but that we all also were very different. At first we needed to get to know each other and how our personalities were. Then we needed to find out how to work together in the best way. We found out quickly that the most important thing for a group is communication.
One time at Christmas, we needed to plan what to do and what to eat at Christmas Eve and the days after. I took the responsibility and started collecting the others opinions on what to make. But at some point when they got annoyed and seemed to not care or commit I stopped with a sad and disappointed feeling left.
In this moment I should have asked them if they wanted to make a plan and they should have said more clear to me that they wanted to make later and not in that moment.
At the bear talk the following week after we talked about the situation and found out that we should communicate more with each other. This is why the bear talk, which is a weekly evaluation and talk about how things goes, is such a good tool to develop and improve the group. I can already see and feel that our group have improved a lot and that everyone works very well together both while working but also in the evenings were we enjoy each other’s company. I found myself embraced in the group and appreciate that I get to share this experience with such good companionships.
Doing this three month, I have also learned a lot about myself and acquired new competences. Talking about the group, I have learned how to team built, how to use strengths and weaknesses of group members and how to find a harmony in a group. I have also realized that I am that kind of persons who both enjoy and need company but also need some time alone. It is a balance that is hard to find and that I am still working on.
During my stay here, I have also learned a lot about bears, nature conservation and sustainability, which is a knowledge I appreciate a lot. I have learned how to live simple and nature friendly by looking at the lifestyle of the local people. This new understanding is something I will combine with my life after my stay and which I found very useful.
With helps from these domestic people and lessons, I have also managed to learn some Croatian language and traditions, which is important when interacting and working in Kuterevo. I also think that it has been healthy for me to be alone without my family where I have a chance to be more independent and expand myself. I feel more ready to live my own life now than before going to Kuterevo. Before going to Kuterevo I was insecure what I wanted to work with for the rest of my life. I knew that during my whole life, I had been committed to nature and nature preservation but I was not sure that it was something I would place as my first priority. Now after seeing the bears, the lifestyle and the nature in Kuterevo I am convinced that this is something I will spend all my energy and all my passion on.
As the final thing, I would like to write shortly about my expectations for the next three months.
Going from winter to spring, I expect to work more outside and later as it gets lighter. I expect to work a lot in the garden, which we have to prepare for the next generation of volunteers.
Because of this season change, I also expect more visitors to come. We will certainly in the last month of the project be very occupied with visitors but I think we also would have to receive a lot of scouts, pilgrims and other volunteers.
During the next three months, I expect that the personal projects will get on the field. I have already agreed with Irma and Sophia to make a lexicon of medicinal herbs that grows in Kuterevo and around for other volunteers to use. Apart from that, I would like to come up with another project in the next three months.
However, as well as the last past month I still expect to learn and experience lot of new things and to keep improve myself.
Update from the end of the stay
As the spring began we started to work more efficiently and continued to work at Obrstar. We cleaned an area at the down part of Obrstar from plants and branches and we started making an organic hedge at the upper part of Obrstar. In the middle of March we enlarged the area of the ponies by cleaning the area and making a new fence. Craftsmen from the village, so-called majstori, came to make new shelves in Postaja which we filled up with books and folders.
Just like previous years a big truck with three tons of bread for the bears came. We spent three hours throwing bread from the truck into the barn of a local near the big bears after which we were occupied with putting the bread in bags to dry.
In March we were also going to feed the bears for the first time after a long break without feeding. During the winter months they were supposed to retire and hibernate but because of this winter’s slightly warm weather they did not.
At the same time we had to prepare shelter and an area for four vietnamese pot-bellied pigs that we had agreed on to have a home in the refuge. I liked the principle and saw the importance of being a refuge for all kinds of animals and not only a refuge for bears.
After March we started gardening. We planted in pots, helped each other with digging, planting, seeding and watering in each other’s gardens, made signs and formed rows with sawdust. For me the work with the gardens was really interesting and useful. It was something I wanted to learn more about and to take with me back home. In connection with the gardening Ivan also gave us five trees that we had to divide between us. I chose the Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa) as my three which I decided to plant close to the enclosure of the younger bears.
Near Postaja there was a garden for herbs which we in April began to rebuild. It all seemed like a mess when we started.
In April we also used a lot of time throwing branches into the big bears’ enclosure which would give the bears some challenge in finding the food which at least could create some excitement or enthusiasm in their captivated life.
On rainy days I studied plants, read about bears and participated in the others presentations about pruning, menstruation, corona virus, ants, how to handle a defibrillator and lichen. It was a great way to gain some knowledge and I thought it was a smart idea to use rainy days for those activities
In May we finished the herb-garden. All through the garden did not look very pleasant in the process the result came out successful. This reminded me that it is always important to take the whole process in consideration and not only one part of the process. Slowly we began to plant herbs and flowers in the garden.
In May we also continued working on the seven gardens. Because of the sheeps in the village and the wild animals from the forest we found it necessary to make fences with branches around the most vulnerable gardens. I really liked the idea of using nature materials instead of using plastic or metal sticks with some rope. This was something I thought was fitting well into the environments and the philosophy of the project.
In the end of May the original project was finished but due to the virus we all got a chance to extend the project with three months. With the hope for three more exciting months I decided that I wanted to stay and wrote a motivation letter. As for two other volunteers it was time to go home which left the rest of us with a completely new group.
Going from spring to summer a lot of things changed including the work. To keep the place clean we got help from one of the domestic people to cut the grass around Postaja, the refuge and Linards House which we used a lot of time on collecting, transporting and giving to the bears and the ponies. A big change in the work was especially the way of feeding the bears.
Instead of changing the person that was responsible for feeding the animals every day we started in the beginning of June to have only one person being in charge for one month. One person was going to feed the small bears and the pigs and one person was going to feed the big bears and the ponies. All though, I was not in charge in June I still helped with throwing branches into the enclosures and moving corn from Alex Platz to Belgian House.
In June plants began to grow quickly which meant that we had to use a lot of energy to remove the weeds away from the gardens. But due to the other work we had to do we never managed to maintain the gardens which meant that all the time we used in the spring on the gardens was wasted.
In June we got a weekend visit from 18 womens and four children from the group in Zagreb called Women to women. The weeks before I helped prepare by cleaning American House and decorating with stones in front of the house. I thought it was good and healthy that something new happened in the refuge.
In addition to the visitors we also started making and preparing a lot of souvenirs. On rainy days we made necklaces and melted honey which we transferred into jars with handwritten labels. It was an easygoing and cozy thing to do which I liked to do in between periods with a lot of sun and busy days of visitors.
In the beginning of July we had the mid-term training. During the days before the training I spend time preparing the tasks that were given us. Due to the corona virus the mid-term only lasted three days and happened online. Together with Sophia and Alëna I spent around two hours a day with the trainers and other participants on zoom and made the task in between the meetings. For me the mid-term training was a nice way to evaluate and to receive knowledge. Especially the information about Youthpass and the opportunities after the service was something I found useful. But on the other hand, I felt that I already knew a lot of the things they said, the task required a lot of time and the meetings online made it hard to be personal and get the other members to know.
In the beginning of the month it was also decided that I was going to be responsible for the feeding of the young bears and the pigs in July month. Besides feeding the responsibility also included some other things; cleaning and cutting branches around the area of the enclosures, throwing these branches into the enclosures, making ice cream for the bears and giving grass from the valleys to the bears.
Besides from the work with the young bears I also helped with putting information posters in front of Postaja and around the big bears’ enclosures for visitors and in the end of July I was a part of cleaning Mirnas box.
One of the things we spent a lot of time doing in July was to take care of grass and hay. It was most of the time hard physically in the heat and in the dust of the stables but I also saw the importance of already preparing now for the times after summer.
Another thing I engaged me with in July was plants. We collected a lot of plants including St John’s-wort (Hypericum perforatum) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) which we prepared by tying them in bouquets and putting them up to dry on the roof of the souvenir shop. The rest we prepared for tea or mixed with olive oil. Gaining knowledge about plants and how to use them was something I found really interesting and something I want to continue doing after my stay here.
In the end of July we were also occupied with the fence of the ponies by removing the bark and painting the fence white. During July month the two female pigs gave birth to 12 piglets which of course was a beautiful sight but not ideal for the refuge.
As for August we continued taking care of the animals and talking with visitors. It was now time to harvest from the gardens. All though, most of the gardens were quite a mess we could still harvest some of the things that we planted back in the spring. I helped with harvesting onions and garlic that we braided together in long braids.
I was also occupied with making signs that would make the way to refuge easier for visitors.
While working it was important to document; taking pictures and videos. During the whole stay we all helped with documenting the work in Postaja, at Obrstar, at Linards kuca and outside of Kuterevo. Another thing we did during the working period was to make monthly evaluations. I found it beneficial and important to look back and evaluate but it was also something that required a lot of time and thoughts.
During my stay in Kuterevo I also tried to learn the Crotian language. The first months we got lessons from a domestic woman who had the time and will to teach us the basics. I learned some but it was not as efficient as I had expected. For me the language was quite difficult and very different from my mother tongue, Danish, due to all the unfamiliar sounds and pronunciation. I felt that I was not as good in Croatian than most of the other volunteers who seemed to catch the language more easily which made me feel a bit frustrated after which I blamed myself.
After the period with the lessons we had the responsibility to learn the language ourselves. It was first here we really got to learn the language.
By speaking with the organisation, the domestic people and the visitors, I slowly began to understand what they were saying and tried to communicate in the language myself.
I realised that the language was the key for us volunteers to be integrated in the village. In the beginning of the project I was actually very surprised that the Croatian language was one of the first priorities for the supervisor. He gave us instructions in Croatian which often led to misunderstanding and required a lot of energy from me when talking in several hours. But after getting in touch with the Croatian language I started to understand and see how important it was in the project.
During my stay in Kuterevo a lot of my expectations were fulfilled but the longer I stayed the more I realised that something was not fitting with one of my expectations. My expectation of the work and the leadership.
I expected the work to contain some kind of formal learning about bears, nature and nature conservation beside the practical work and that this knowledge would be provided by the host-organisation.
But instead we did not get any knowledge about bears or nature. Almost all the things I have learned and achieved is something I have done on my own or by informal learning. Here it is all about self-gaining knowledge. If you want to learn something or make something you have to read about it or look it up yourself. It was not what I expected and somehow I felt disappointed because I thought I would finish the project with a lot of knowledge about nature and nature conservation given by the host-organisation.
Another thing was that it was the volunteers themselves that planned the work of the day. The volunteers could plan the day how they wanted as long as it was considered as work that was helping the organisation and the community. I am sure that a lot of individuals are comfortable with self-management and to plan on their own. For me it was at some point a relief to be so free but most of the time I did not feel right or comfortable with learning and planning almost everything by myself and I did not feel either that I had enough knowledge or experience to fulfill that. In my opinion it was something the organisation was responsible for and not the volunteers themselves. However, the situation improved when we got another coordinator in March.
Due to the self-management of the volunteers it often led to the leadership blaming the volunteers. I felt that the leadership was using a lot of time on telling us what we did wrong instead of actually showing us how we should do things from the start and appreciate the work and effort we were trying to do. After conversations, with a lot of criticism of individuals and the group, I actually felt really sad and miserable. I judged myself and felt that I was not a good volunteer and that I was not good enough. But I also knew that no volunteer was supposed to feel like that. After all, I think it would all have been easier if they had guided us more and showed us how to do things from the beginning.
By evaluating and reflecting I think there is especially one thing I will remember and take with me. Something central and essential for the project – The Kuterevo Spirit. This spirit is the philosophy and concept of the project. This spirit is the atmosphere of the village. But I also see it as something bigger and something more universal.
The Kuterevo Spirit is the idea of being frugal. This is reflected by a simple, thrifty and careful lifestyle. By being aware and sparing in the use of resources. By avoiding unnecessary waste. By stepping away from lavishness and extravagance. And by taking care and appreciating what is already in your hands. This is what I faced with the lifestyle in Kuterevo where it was common to use compost toilets, fire stoves for heating and cooking, local and organic food, recycled materials and rainwater. For me the lifestyle seemed very manageable and reasonable. I could already feel from the first weeks that I felt more alive with this kind of lifestyle. I realised that I enjoyed the most important things in life more and that the weight of worries and materialism was gone. This made me realize how little you actually need and how simplicity leads to freedom and serenity.
But the Kuterevo Spirit is not only about being frugal. It is as well about the idea of achieving goodwill. This is demonstrated by providing help to others. By doing good deeds and services on your own will. By participating in charity and donation. By volunteering for something important. This is what I experienced during my stay in Kuterevo and I could feel how the rush of solidarity and altruism was flowing inside of me.
That is why the Kuterevo Spirit ceremony was such an important and touching moment for me. To say yes to the Kuterevo Spirit and what it contains and to say yes to be a part of the Kuterevo circle. My ceremony was held in this unusual and special place called Bilopolije close to an abandoned school with the view of the sea and the mountains. With the practise of the paleo therapy I got the honor to choose my bear and to be the number 9449 volunteer of the Kuterevo circle. The moment I stood there the time was standing still and there was a special spirit over the moment that I can not explain. But definitely, it was something I was going to remember and engage me with for the rest of my life.
Something unexpected that happened during my stay was the arrival of the corona virus. At the beginning of the year the influence of the virus on Croatia and Kuterevo was minimal. But as time passed by the virus began to affect more and more.
Shops, institutes and public places were closing, big gatherings were prohibited, the quarantine began, fear started growing in people and everyone began to protect and prepare themself from the virus. We decided to stop receiving visitors, to avoid travelling through Croatia, to be careful in the village, to take temperatures every day and to follow the situation in our home countries.
We all missed a lot of things in the project; visitors, pilgrims, scouts, interactions with the locals, tours around in Croatia, visits from home and evenings at the bar. The corona virus was also the reason for the arrival of a family from Zagreb that stayed for a pretty long and unexpected period (50 days) which affected a lot in the volunteering group but also in the daily work. On the other hand, the corona virus was also what gave us the opportunity to focus on work besides the visitors and to stay three more months.
During the nine months I have also learned a lot about myself and acquired new competences. By working in a group and together with different kinds of people every day I strengthened my understanding and ability to team build, cooperate and communicate. By being in a group I have also realised that I am that kind of person who both enjoys and needs company but also needs some time alone. The past nine months I have gained new friendships, seen new places and got new experiences. By following the lifestyle of the domestic people I have experienced and learned how to live in a simple and nature friendly way.
By being in the refuge I got the qualification of taking care and being responsible for animals. Because of that I also gained knowledge about bears and nature.
I have learned tons of practical work; working with tools, gardening, cleaning, painting etc. With help from the domestic people I got to experience and learn the Croatian culture. I improved my language skills by trying to learn as much as I could of the Croatian language and by using and communicating with English every day. Apart from that, I could feel that it was healthy for me to be alone without my family where I had a change to be more independent and expand myself. I feel more ready to live on my own now than before going to Kuterevo.
Before going to Kuterevo I was insecure about what I wanted to work with for the rest of my life. I knew that during my whole life I had been committed to nature and nature preservation but I was not sure that it was something I would place as my first priority. But now after seeing the bears, nature and the lifestyle in Kuterevo I am convinced that this is something I will spend all my energy and all my passion on for the rest of my life.