I put "brief" in quotation marks for a reason. After each of my programs finished, I wrote up a summary of my time as a volunteer to share with family and friends. Many of these could run to 10 pages, which I know is lengthy. But the primary audience for these overviews is me. I use them as my personal travel journals and I share them with those who I think might find them of interest.
It's not easy (for me!) to condense these summaries to a few paragraphs, but I do want to put my experience in Chiang Mai in context with the other programs in which I have participated. Each one has been unique in terms of housing, food, transportation, and privacy. And I have learned something on each trip, which is what it's all about.
The agency with which I worked in Guatemala was Maximo Nivel. I was met at the airport by one of their staff, and began a terrifying ride from Guatemala City into Antigua. It was good to get that experience under my belt as this was going to be similar to my daily ride to work.
My housing was provided at a guest house. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the material as I was surprised to learn that I would have a roommate! I wasn't thrilled at first, but came to appreciate that there was someone else sharing the experience with me. We were on different projects - I was working in an orphanage while she was working on a coffee plantation - which meant we could see how different types of projects operated.
We had our own room, with our own private bath and a laundry sink. The shower had the scary "electric heater attached to the shower head" arrangement, but this meant we had hot showers.
Meals were provided family style, with the house mother preparing three home cooked meals each day. This was better than I ate at home!
We took the local city buses - nicknamed the "chicken buses" because they packed so many people inside that people were practically hanging out the windows - to our projects every day. The ride up to Casa Aleluya (my orphanage) was a terrifying, high speed race up to the top of a mountain, winding back and forth so we ended up mushing all our neighbors on board. This was essentially our safety harness for the ride. The goal appeared to get as many bodies from Antigua to their destinations on the other side of the mountain as fast as possible. Our condition upon arrival was not a factor.
Security in Guatemala was our biggest concern. We were told to only use the ATMs during the day time, to not walk alone at night, to keep our valuables in our rooms, and to beware of those who will slash bags to take your stuff. They were pretty simple rules. For me, this meant that I got plenty of sleep while I was there.
As my first international volunteer experience, the work itself was a bit of a letdown. At Casa Aleluya the staff really did not value volunteers - they had a routine and we actually interfered with their ability to do their jobs. So the work that we did seemed superficial and I never felt like I was making any sort of impact. It's a good thing that I had already signed up to go to Nepal or I may never have done this type of program again.
As I was preparing for this experience, I was struggling with the idea of using "squat" toilets. Even though I love to camp - which means using the great outdoors as your bathroom - the idea that these would be my only bathroom option for two weeks was unsettling.
My first room in Kathmandu, Nepal, was at a hostel. I had one roommate and a bathroom down the hall. I only stayed there for one night before the program began.
Our sponsors in Nepal wanted to take us out to see rural Nepal. So we moved to a farmhouse that had multiple rooms with 5-6 mattresses on the ground in each room. At night, the farmhouse was freezing! It was impossible for me to get warm enough to sleep, but that wasn't the biggest obstacle to sleeping. For that, I blame the roosters! Some of you may know this, but roosters don't only crow at dawn. They crow whenever they feel like it! And since their resting place was in the ceiling above our heads, it was a long, long night.
I finally moved on to my volunteer placement. To this point, I had managed to avoid the squat toilets. When our bus stopped along the route from Kathmandu to Pokhara for a bathroom break, I saw the toilets for the first time! It looked awful! (But most roadside bathrooms do, so this was not a good place for my first impression).
My Pokara housing was in a brand new four story residential building. The owner, who also ran the children's home where we worked, lived on the ground floor with his family, and he rented out floors 2 and 3. The fourth floor operates like a hostel for volunteers. I shared a room with two girls. The room next to me had two girls and the other room had two boys. We all shared on bathroom - yep, it had a squat toilet! You do get used to using it but it is still not my favorite. The "Squatty Potty" that I have seen in Bed, Bath, & Beyond seems like an homage to the squat toilet.
I was up early every morning in Pokhara. Our home had an open roof where you could watch the sunrise and admire the snow-capped peaks surrounding us. It was a pretty beautiful place to start the day.
We were living close enough to town that I could walk into a coffee shop to enjoy wifi and cappuccino every day. I have learned how spoiled I am in the US to expect internet access everywhere, but it was nice to be able to tune things out since I had to actually work to get coverage!
As volunteers, our breakfast was prepared for us by the host family. We had pancakes and eggs and lots of toast!
For lunch and dinner, we had the option to eat at the children's home - Dal Baat, every meal! This is the Nepali version of rice and beans. They get old - fast! So we as volunteers would often feed the children, then go find a local place for food. I ate a lot of pizza.
Pokhara felt very safe. The biggest concern we had in living here was that power was not continuous. You would text some number at the beginning of the day to find out when you would have power that day. This is how you would arrange the activities that needed electricity. You always had power for some period during the night or early morning, so you would plan to charge things overnight. Then you carried a flashlight with you because it was not uncommon to end up walking home in the dark.
At the end of two weeks in Pokhara, I felt like I never wanted to leave! The children were beautiful, the other volunteers were wonderful, and the place was (and is!) special. It holds an important place in my heart and I will be back one day.
When I arrived into Quito, it was late at night. I could not find the representative of the agency with whom I was working - Volunteer Connection Ecuador - so I panicked. The arrival area was chaotic but I found an information booth and sought help.
My Spanish is basic at best, and this person's English was just about as good as my Spanish, so we were not communicating well. I gave the agent the contact information for my volunteer agency and asked that she call on my behalf (note to self - get a local SIM card!). After a few minutes, she came back to me and told me that the agency said that I should take a taxi. Great.
My taxi driver spoke less English than the information agent, so I knew this was going to be a mess. After many, many attempts to find the address that I gave him, and a few more calls to the agency, I made it to my home stay.
My room was in a apartment over a restaurant. My roommate was a 19 year-old from Slovenia who has seen more than her fair share of the world, mostly while hitchhiking. We had so much in common!
The host family was lovely, but my accommodations meant that everyone in the household shared one bathroom. Not fun. This became a real problem when I developed a bacterial infection and lost six pounds in 2 days. Don't worry - I have long since gained it back 😉
The family made breakfast and dinner for the us and we ate with the family. It was mostly basic Ecuadorian food made with love.
We used the local bus system when we commuted to the local markets every day. They were nowhere near as crowded as the ones in Guatemala. And I think these bus drivers had an incentive for us to arrive at our destination safely.
I always felt safe in Quito. Like most cities, there are areas that you don't go to after dark, and you have to watch your surroundings. But the same can be said of my hometown if Atlanta.
This was a great volunteer experience and it opened my eyes to education issues in Ecuador. I wish I had more time in this country as there was much to see and I had much more I could have learned from this volunteer experience.
In 2015, I focused on building my business so I did not volunteer internationally. But as I felt more confident in how my business was progressing, I decided that I could once again commit to an international volunteer experience. The question was "where to go next?"
I didn't really know where Sri Lanka was when I signed up for this experience. Just somewhere on the other side of the world, near India.
I was drawn to this country by an article in Rotarian magazine about work being done in Colombo to help in the recovery from the tsunami. So I looked to IVHQ to see what types of projects they had available and found a program in Kandy.
For this trip, I opted for a single room. At $5 extra per night, it seemed like a bargain. When I arrived and saw the volunteer housing, I was grateful that I had done so!
The volunteer house (called the "Green House", though it was no longer painted green), had 7-8 dorm-style rooms, each with 3-4 sets of bunk beds. Two of these rooms would share one bathroom , which had the shower, toilet, and sink in the same room. Getting ready in the morning would NOT be fun.
Meals were served buffet style at breakfast and dinner. Very slow wifi was available in the house as part of the amenities.
My home stay was about a block away. I had my own room (which, apparently was normally occupied by their 4 year old daughter, judging from the numerous princesses and pink dinosaurs on the walls), which was next to the bathroom. The only other residents were a couple from Sweden, who shared my bathroom with me.
Our meals were brought over to us from the Green House. The food was really tasty - Sri Lankan food is its own category that is somewhere between Indian and Vietnamese (in my opinion). We had no wifi, so any internet access required either going to the Green House or going to town. Since it was not safe to walk around our area after dark, it usually meant that we finished dinner, then went to our respective rooms to read books. I read a lot and slept a lot!
The great thing about this program is that you could change your volunteer experience every week. This allows you to try out a variety of different options.
For my first week, I worked at one of Mother Teresa's orphanages for disabled individuals. It was eye-opening, and amazing. I cried a lot but know that I was doing something worthwhile.
In the second week, I spent the mornings teaching English to 8-14 year old boys who were becoming Buddhist monks. In the afternoons, I worked with girls who had been rescued from human trafficking.
We used the local buses to get to our placements. The traffic in Sri Lanka is truly awful! Picture two lane roads where 6-7 vehicles are trying to maneuver. You have buses, cars, motorbikes, tuktuks, pedestrians (because the sidewalks are barely existent), and trucks all trying to lead the way. It is utter chaos. Our 5 kilometer commute would often take one hour!
But the overall experience was lovely. I loved each of my projects, and decided that I would definitely "upgrade" to a single room for any future programs.
Which takes me to Thailand, and Chiang Rai. This blog will post tomorrow.