I am having lots of technology issus So posting has been much harder than I anticipated. When I can ever get the pieces together, I will add this to my "lessons learned" page. Suffice it to say that the Kindle Fire is USELESS as a blogging tool. I cannot tell you what else it is good for but the keyboard takes up the screen so you cannot even see what you are typing. That's helpful. And the external keyboard keeps randomly disconnecting from my tablet. I know - Fist World Problems in a Second World country.
It's perfect place to start on my story about my adventure in Chiang Rai.
I arrived into Chiang Rai mid-afternoon on Monday. The Mirror people picked up me along with three other volunteers (no- I did not get into the wrong car because I am not stupid - see previous blog). Our ride to the village where we would be living and working took place in a Songtou (sp?) - essentially a pick-up truck that has been altered to convert the bed for more "comfort". They have added bench seating along the sides of the bed and placed a roof on top. It's basically open air riding.
The Mirror compound (as it can best be described) consists of about 12 buildings. They include an administrative office; a small coffee cafe (which had excellent smoothies and French fries!); a work area where Hill Tribe women made clay whistles to see, a store which sold those whistles and other hand made items; a kitchen and eating area (similar to an outdoor pavilion at a park); a shed for work tools; a laundry area (the "washing machine" did agitate clothes in soapy water and spun out excess water, which was helpful after a day of outdoor work); four homes for families living on the property; wifi room (Nikki kept trying to get us to refer to this as the "volunteer office" but that name never stuck); and about 5 dormitories for volunteers. The accomodations were simple, but it met all of our basic needs. Someday, I will figure out how to get my technology to allow for adding photos to this blog and you can see for yourse!f! A girl can dream...
Sadly, I did not get my own room. This time of year, Mirror gets too many volunteers to give anyone an individual room. So I saved $40 and got two roommates. We shared our bathroom with 4 other rooms of three girls Surprisingly, this really did not turn out to be an issue. Perhaps it was because no one was using hair dryers or putting on make-up.
Volunteers were arriving from all over the world at a variety of times throughout the day so Monday was just a day to get settled. Orientation would begin on Tuesday morning, and we were scheduled to start working in the rice fields in the afternoon. Mirror offered us a trip into town for any necessary supplies, but I decided that I was set so I took advantage of the downtime to read.
I did not sleep very well the fist night. It was bloody hot, the mosquito netting kept getting in my eyes (not to self buy the mosquito net with the loop at the top or you will continually be pulling at it all night long! But I was grateful to have it as I watched one particular mosquito examine me each time I woke up), and the bed was really hard. And then it started to rain - a lot. One of those good rainstorms that we get in the southern US where it thunders and lightnings, but you are content to watch movies and thank God for your well-made home. Except there is no TV and my house feels like it was put together by previous volunteers. I was officially awake by 5 am.
It was still raining when I awoke. The compound had large puddles throughout and streams of water passed along every rail. I made my way to the wifi room, only to learn that the network was down. And in this little corner of the world, cellular service was not good during a storm. So I went back to my book.
Breakfast was served at 8. We had really good food, even though I would not have chosen rice and eggs for breakfast. There was always lots of fruit, so that was nice, and he instant lattes were actually tasty! Not bad for a volunteer compound.
Our daily morning meetings were at 8:30. Nikki used the time to provide reminders about dress code and travel arrangements for the day. Those of us who had just arrived would spend the morning in orientation, and then work in the afternoon. It was still raining.
I really like the way they did orientation. They began by providing us a more detailed overview of The Mirror Foundation (Mirror) and the work that Mirror does in the area. As a bit of background - Mirror has been operating since the early 00's (what do we call these years?). They started by working on human rights for all Thai people, but decided to focus on the Hill Tribe people late in the decade. The Hill Tribe people were cast-outs from China and Myanmar who farmed in the hills of northern Thailand. The government decided to take over this land and make it national parks so they forced the Hill Tribe people out.
Hill Tribe people have no citizenship, which means they have no rights. They are limited in their education opportunities, which then leads to limited options for employment. Until 206, Hill Tribe people were only allowed to work in 27 jobs. They are now allowed any jobs except for government work.
The Hill Tribe people still live in their own communities. Their lack of skills often leads to high incidences of alcohol and drug abuse, as well as sexual exploitation. Mirror works within the community to offer education and programs to combat the abuses that are rampant with the Hill Tribe people.
The Mirror purchased land in the lowlands from where the Hill Tribe was displaced and they offer volunteer programs to help the people work the land. t is on one of these projects that I would be working.
It continued to rain all day Tuesday. Sadly, this meant that we would be unable to work. All we could do is go buy thigh-high boots and work gloves because we were definitely going to need them the next day.
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.
This is my fifth international volunteer experience. I found the agency with which I have worked when I decided to take a break after a job elimination and find an international volunteer experience. When you Google "international volunteering", you will see many options. I started with the first option on the list and was shocked with what they wanted to charge for the experience!
I worked my way through the list and decided that IVHQ had the best reviews, and the fewest negative reviews that were not based on amenities and comfort. As long as safety was not compromised, I was fine with basic accommodations.
Each of my experiences has been unique and memorable, and I am confident that this one will be, as well. I like the fact that IVHQ partners with an NGO in each country to manage the projects. IVHQ merely screens the agencies to make sure that the projects are legitimate and that the volunteers will be safe.
Magic Mirror runs the projects in Thailand. This organization runs a variety of projects, working with people affected by sex abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, human trafficking, as well as the project on which I will be working. I know that I will be doing outdoor work, but the specific work will be determined based on the agency's needs at the time I arrive.
I must admit that I really like all the email reminders the volunteers have received in preparation for our time in Chiang Rai. I realize that I am twice the age of most of the volunteers in these types of programs, so some of the messages sound like common sense advice. One of the emails started with the acknowledgement that "for many volunteers, it is the first time away from home without parents". Emails have addressed the fact that Chiang Rai is a very traditional culture and that, as guests, we are expected to respect the local culture and etiquette rather than fight it. We are asked to "step out of our comfort zone" so embrace the local culture.
The agency will kick you out of the program for ANY drinking during the week. They say it sends the wrong message to locals and can be dangerous. They also don't want you drunk or hungover at work in front of the children and parents. I find this notice amusing as it seems like this must have been an issue in the past.
We even have a dress code - for men and women. There is nothing that out of the ordinary considering where we are working. But it reminds me of my experience in Sri Lanka when volunteers had to be sent back to their rooms to change clothes because their attire was not appropriate for teaching child monks or working with girls who had been rescued from human trafficking!
The organization is very direct - in a recent email about airport pickups, they warned volunteers not to leave with the wrong person. It seems that they have had volunteers leave with the wrong agency. A quote from the email says "we're not sure who was more stupid, the volunteer for not checking before wandering off with a stranger, or the staff for not checking to see if they have the correct person." This amuses me 😉
I just arrive do to my home for the next five days. Very basic accommodations! And I did not get my own room 😥 There will be three of us together and about 10 of us sharing a bathroom. Should be interesting!
Wifi is awful so that's all, for now.
Technology is not my friend, so far as this trip has gone. There has been a bit of "user error", but it is not all my fault. My five year old iPad has died. It was working okay until it arrived in Bangkok. Then it got tempermental.
I have also had problems with WhatsApp, which is a lifesaver for communicating when you are outside the US. Thankfully, my older sister has patently sent me code after code until it agreed that I am really me.
The first technology hurdle can be blamed on Delta. I am very good about doing my homework before I travel so there are no surprises regarding immunizations, insurance, travel warnings, and visas. So when the Delta gate agent told me - RIGHT before I was boarding the plane - that I needed an international visa to board, I was not happy! I had to prove to him - in his system, - that anyone who needs a Thai visa can obtain one in the airport. He pointed out that my boarding pass says that an international visa is required, and I just let it go.
The travel itself was not bad. I couldn't really sleep so watched many movies and bad TV all the way to Seoul. Incheon is a really nice airport, with a surprising number of high-end shops in which people are actually spending money.. After a brief layover, I was on my way to Bangkok. I arrived late - some time after 1 am - and I actuall tried to get a visa (which I did not need so wasted that time, thank you Delta!), got through immigration (only 45 minutes at this time of night), and found a cab to take me to my hotel.
My cab driver could not find my hotel, in spite of the fact that I gave him the address and landmarks. At one point, he shared his Google maps screen with me, which was thoughtful, but useless for two reason: 1) I cannot read Thai characters, and 2) I have never been to Thailand before. So there is no point of refernce. The darkness saved us because I could clearly see the neon sign with my hotel name on it. It was 2:30 in the morning before I got to bed.
There are plenty of travel websites which will provide detailed descriptions of where to stay, what to see, and what to eat. My blog will be based on my experiences and observations.
When I awoke on Saturday morning, I actually felt rested and ready to tackle Bangkok. The only must-see on my list today was Lumphini Park. Luckily, my hotel was right on the MTS (subway) line and so is the park. A win for me and my limited planning.
The weather looked fine, but I knew enough to put on sunscreen. But I was NOT prepared for the humidity! I grew up in Houston and lived in New Orleans, so I should be used to it. Not the case. It hit like a wall as I walked outside.
Lumphini park is really lovely. There were lots of people out running, biking, and doing Tai Chi. As I walked around, I admired the art and noticed how clean this park is. What a pleasant surprise! I wish I weren't jaded but many parks that I have visited are full of litter.
The only thing of note from my visit to the park is that I saw a really large lizard (at first, I thought it was a Komodo dragon, but I reall don't know what those look like and I don't know where they actually live. I just feel like they are somewhere in Asia). I took his picture but was afraid to get too close.
As an aside, I have a friend I travel with -DTF - who is a great traveling companion, but is much more "safety" conscious than I am. I don't take unnecessary risks, but she is overly cautious. When I returned from Vietnam, I told her that it was a good thing that she had not come with me as she would have never made it across the street from the first hotel in Ho Chi Minh City! She has many great qualities, and she will always be my favorite person with whom to attend Jazz Fest, but this trip would not be good for her. She asked that I run all my decisions through the "WWDTFD" test. I have already failed.
I already mentioned the cab from the airport. When DTF was originally joining me in Thailand, she wanted us to have a driver pick us up at the airport. Perhaps this is why?
My next memorable experience also failed this test. As I left Lumphini Park, I wanted to catch the Sky Train to the River so that I could take a boat up to see the Wats (temples). As I was standing on the landing between the MTS and the Sky Train, trying to decipher my map, a nice man came up to me to ask if I needed help. I explained where I was going, and he took my map to show where I should go. But then he suggested that I might prefer to take a tuktuk to a location where locals pick up the boat (yes, my antennae did go up, but he seemed so nice). We talked for a bit, and I thought "what could it hurt?" I actually like riding in tuktuks and it was the middle of the day on a Saturday. The nice man negotiated my fare with the tuktuk driver and I got it.
This experience is not as sketchy as it may sound. Nothing bad happended, but I did end up in a place that was selling boat rides, but certainly not to locals! The nice lady offered me a "good price" on a half day boat ride up the river, with stops at all the highlights. This is when I played poor, asking if she took credit cards, which I was pretty sure she's didn't. She suggested that I go to an ATM to get the cash and I would enjoy my trip. I told her that I needed to return to my hotel to get cash. Then I left.
Okay - not one of my best moves. But it did lead me towards a huge plus for the rest of my time in Bangkok.
As I left the alley, I saw a sign showing the boat launch. There was a young man studying the sign, and we tried to figure it out together. He suggested that we take the locals boat up to Wat Arun. I was a it apprehensive after the last travel suggestion, but this kid seemed like he could figure it out.
We went to the boat launch and joined a line of locals headed up the river. The ride was cheap, and the boat reflected this. It was a "long boat" that mad stops along the river. No narration - no snacks. He barely stopped at the piers! You had better be ready to get on our get off when the boat made the landing. But it was perfect for our needs.
We made it to Wat Arun and decided to go for a drink before moving on to the next location. It was really cool to talk to this young man - Kris (his "English" name as he says his Chinese name is hard to pronounce". He is from China, living and studying in Malaysia. We talked about outside perspectives of each of our home countries. He said that the news shows all Americans have guns and I said our news shows all Chinese are rich. Kris also talked about how his world has opened up since he moved to Malaysia and can now access sites like Facebook, and he now sees news that has not been filtered by his government. It was an eye-opening discussion.
We we finished out the day, and decided to meet again the next day to go see the Emerald Palace. Then we parted and I went in search of Thai food.
I don't often do research on restaurants when I travel like this. My meals tend to be dictated by when I get hungry and what type of view I want. I found a Thai restaurant and had amazing green curry. Then I checked my map and decided I was close enough to the MTS to walk to a stop. This decision would not have passed the WWDTFD test.
It was after dark, but the street was fairly busy so I was not concerned. After I walked for a while, I asked a security guard in one of the buildings if I was close to the MTS stop. He looked at me like I was crazy and said "very far". Then said "just go that way", so I kept walking. At this point, it seemed like a challenge.
The MTS was about another 15 minute walk, but not bad. I took the subway home and called it a day. Kris and I finalized our plans via Facebook, and I attempted to access my WhatsApp. Another failure.
Sunday was nice. Nothing much worth reporting. I loved wandering around Bangkok, seeing the Royal Palace, and more Wats. One interesting thing was that when we arrived at the Palace, there was a HUGE line of people dressed in black. I asked our guide what they were doing and he explained that they were waiting to pay respects to the king who passed away in 2016. He lies instate for a year, and is then cremated. New coins bearing the likeness of the new king are not made until after the cremation. Pretty fascinating.
That's all from Bangkok. As I write this, I am at the Don Meung Airport, waiting for my flight to Chiang Rai. This is where I will be volunteering for the next week. I think my wifi will be limited so I don't know when I will next be able to write.
I hope you are enjoying this blog. I know that I need a good editor but I write like I talk - in bursts 😉 I call it "8 tracking" - if you are younger than 35, you may have to look this up.
If if I get a chance before I take off, will share a bit about the the organization with which I will be working.