The first car I ever owned was a blue and white, 1978 Volkswagen microbus.
I had the “Safari” model, which means that it had a large retractable sunroof (in some places that model is called a “Kombi”).* But beyond the fun factor of that sunroof, it was anything but a phat ride. It was slow, didn’t handle particularly well, and was freezing cold in the winter in Michigan which is where I happened to be at the time.
For those who don’t know, Volkswagens of that vintage are famous for their heaters not working. More importantly, they’re also famous for being very durable and reliable (“they’ll run forever”), provided that their owner regularly maintain them.
Volkswagens of that vintage despite their often low cost are not good cars for drivers who are not able and willing to do their own oil-changes and tune-ups, change their own brakes, and adjust their own control cables. Those old air-cooled VWs are great, reliable cars that really will run pretty much forever, so long as you’re committed to studying the repair manual, investing in the right tools, and putting in the time in routine tender loving care that it takes to keep them running and on the road.
There’s actually one more very important requirement: You have to love an old Volkswagen for what it is.
It’s not a sports car, and you can’t expect it to behave like one. Nor is it low-maintenance: if you go for a few weeks of around town driving without pouring in a little oil, you will burn up the engine. They’re not particularly sexy, either (as one friend told me, “you’ll never get any girls with that thing!”). An old VW is not typically the car you want to be driven to the gala at the Kennedy Center in. If you want fast, low-maintenance and sexy, you need to be looking at a modern Mazda or BMW or [INSERT MAKE/MODEL OF DREAM CAR].
As many within the old Volkswagen sub-culture proudly declare, “Owning an old Volkswagen is a way of life.”
I did make those investments, as at the time, still in college, it was far cheaper to buy the manual and a few tools and to spend Sundays adjusting valve clearances, than to either buy a lower-maintenance car or take my micro-bus to a professional mechanic on the clock. While I was and am not a master mechanic, I did and can keep an old Volkswagen running. And sexy or not, that micro-bus faithfully got me from point A to point B and back many times over. Not a lot of drama or fanfare. I didn’t have to bother with a Lo-jac system. But for as long as I owned that old microbus, there was never a time when I turned the key and it wouldn’t start.
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Many times over the past years in the Humanitarian world, I’ve sat and listened to young, up-and-coming aid workers venting in my office about how the Humanitarian Industry is just not quite as awesome as they’d imagined or expected. I’m not talking about huge travesties of justice or ethics (those do occasionally happen), but rather routine stuff. Perks, supposedly deserved, withdrawn or perhaps never granted. Salaries not high enough. More frequent travel to the arse-ends of nowhere than to life-saving meetings in the humanitarian capitals. Putting up with all manner of annoyance from clueless HQ visitors or incompetent local staff or maybe just the Regional HR manager.
I sit and listen, and maybe dispense conciliatory advice. And while I do believe that it’s okay to want things to be better, that it’s okay to expect a fair wage for one’s effort, to expect organizational systems to work, to be given the tools needed to do one’s job… At the same I very often find myself wanting to say that aid work is a lot like owning an old Volkswagen:
You have to love it for what it is, and also understand what it is not. You have to have realistic expectations coming in. If it’s not for you – maybe you want a sexier ride – then maybe you need to look at another career path. You don’t have to love everything about it, but aid work does require commitment if you’re going to do it. I have come to be in the habit of reminding myself of this every time I see one of those old Volkswagens on the road – and there are a lot of them out there, scattered about the places that aid workers go, still being patched together, still running, still getting their owners from point A to point B, drama and fanfare still distinctly absent.
I’ve written before that some days, aid work is just a job. And there are most definitely those days when that is the case. There are absolutely days when it is about surviving through to 5:00 PM, crossing the T’s, dotting the I’s, and trying not to be too late for Happy Hour. But in the overall big picture, aid work is just a “job” the way that an air-cooled VW is just “another old car.”
Very much like owning an old Volkswagen, aid work is a way of life.
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*Unlike the green VW, photographed on a Yangon sidestreet, that has accidentally become my “official” online gravatar, my microbus had a large bay window for the windshield, rather than a split windshield.