Living in a non-English speaking country, you hardly end up learning the local language well enough to work/volunteer. That is why a posting to an English-speaking country brings so much cheer...

Whenever I tried to speak in Dutch, people usually laughed first and replied later. We had lived nearly four years in Netherlands, and I had picked up a smattering of the language, except my accent was ridiculous. In my defence, Dutch is a hard language to master; it involves a throaty ‘ghh’ - not unlike the sound you make when you’re clearing phlegm – and I was self-conscious to do it outside the bathroom.

When the husband was transferred to Scotland, I was, naturally, delighted… it was a heady feeling, to think I would be able to read the local newspaper, ask for directions in remote bits of the country and tell the doctor what’s hurting.

More importantly, it would mean I could finally do something with my time – it’s quite hard to integrate, work or even sign up to be a volunteer, when you’re not conversant with the local language. But Scotland would be easy; and so, I quickly researched my options, and told everybody I met: “I’m going to become a volunteer at the Edinburgh zoo!”

I’ve always been fascinated by animals. In high school, thirteen neighbourhood cats (including kittens) roamed our house; to their credit, they never actually ate any of our fish, although they spent a worrying amount of time with their paws on the fish-tank.

Two elderly lady-cats fought for my lap every evening, especially when I was studying for the 12th boards; they weren’t very happy when we bought home a dog; they sulked on top of trees for sometime, and then went away. In the final year, some destitute white rats from our college lab came to join our menagerie.

They all now live in fading photo albums and in my dreams; because, after marriage to an animal-loving but allergic chap, and after the birth of an animal-crazy but asthmatic daughter, keeping animals inside the house has become a no-no.

Volunteering in a zoo, I figured, would give me a chance to spend time around animals, and meet like-minded people, without setting the family sneezing. So I emailed the Edinburgh Zoo, and received clear instructions on how to apply to be a volunteer. First, there was to be an open evening, when anybody interested was invited to the zoo, and they got a chance to ask questions and pick up an ‘application pack’. So I booked a place for it.

That evening, wrapped up in many stout layers – it was late January, and the cold bit – I got off at the car park, and the husband and daughter wished me luck and drove back home.

There were several dozen people at the car park. One lady asked loudly, “Is everybody here to be a volunteer?” and we all laughed. We got chatting, and I learnt that many of them had long volunteering histories, some of them truly formidable.

“I worked with primates in Africa, for a few years; am back home for a bit, and thought will volunteer in the zoo… I miss the animals,” a softly spoken young man told me. A young lady said she was doing her Ph.D, and was keen to spend her spare time as a volunteer.

Before other such stories rattled me, a lanky young man thankfully asked us inside. We followed him up the winding path, hearing strange, sleepy noises from the enclosures. “The penguins are over there,” someone said, but I saw nothing in the velvety black night. “There, you can hear the big cats!” another said, but all I heard was my own ragged breathing; the zoo was set on a hillside and the paths were punishingly steep…

We reached the education centre, and found the place already half-filled. The education officers gave us a talk, and then some existing volunteers spoke about what to expect on the job. I had already figured I wouldn’t have any direct contact with the animals – only professional zookeepers did that – but I’d be happy to just be around them, one day every week.

If only I made it to the short list!

I sent in the application, and was thrilled to receive the email asking me to come in for a half-hour interview. The email ended with “congratulations on reaching this stage of the recruitment process”. If selected, there would be two full-day training sessions, and I would become a 'proper' volunteer, manning the touch-tables or brass-rubbing and helping around the Zoo. In my dreams, I was already walking around the enclosures, wearing an Edinburgh Zoo jumper, and I would see the penguins and hear the big cats clearly.

The interview went okay. It was a Sunday, the zoo was crowded, and so was the waiting area, filled with interviewees. It was hard to believe there was such a scramble for a non-paying position (there were just a few voluntary positions open, but over a hundred people had applied for it).

Earlier, waiting to be called in, I learnt that for many, a volunteering job was a way to keep themselves occupied, having lost their job/unable to find one, given the deep global recession. Many of them confessed to applying in several places. And I thought a red carpet would be rolled out for me, the moment I said I was willing to spare my time for a cause!

I was quite disappointed the day I got an email saying I didn’t make the cut. “As you are aware there was a high level of interest in the volunteer positions this year” they said, and wished me luck in finding alternative voluntary work. For a month, I just moped around, feeling rejected.

Irene, my neighbour comforted me. “There aren’t many paying jobs to be had just now; and people want to do something with their time, so that it will look good on their resumes”.

She suggested I register myself with an agency that matches volunteers with their passions. I dithered, hoping to find something myself. And when I finally did, few months later (with a second hand charity book-shop in Stockbridge, a lovely neighbourhood in Edinburgh), I was elated. But every time I went past the zoo, I did wish I was in there, with the primates and the penguins…

(Aparna Karthikeyan is a mother, traveller, freelance writer and true-blue Chennaiite. Email her at