When I decided to go abroad, I knew I wanted to do more than just travel and be a tourist. I wanted to interact with the community and do something productive and, hopefully, meaningful. I was in the process of completing a program in Nonprofit Management through UCLA-Extension, so I thought this journey could be an opportunity to gain some experience in the nonprofit sector. I then began researching options and before long, I was accepted into a YMCA program in Colombia, and then also had some ideas for other volunteer options in other countries. My worldwide foray into voluntourism was about to begin.
“Voluntourism” has risen in popularity over the past decade, as people want to make a positive impact while exploring new countries. Having spent over a year travelling the world as a voluntourist, I recommend this incredible way of traveling, albeit with some caveats that I will discuss later. I have found that in the places where I volunteered, I have lived a more authentic experience with the people and culture. If voluntourism appeals to you, I’ll share some of what I’ve learned to help you make the most of it.
To begin, here are the main options for voluntourism that I am familiar with. If you can commit to an extended period (usually six months or more) and/or have a needed skill set, you can find programs that will cover most, if not all, of your expenses, and maybe even pay you a small stipend. This was what I did with the YMCA in Colombia, but the most common version of this is teaching English, which may need TEFL or similar certification. And, although not really considered “voluntourism”, there are also the even longer term programs such as the Peace Corps.
If long-term programs aren’t viable for you, and you are looking for something more on the timeframe of a few weeks, you basically have two options: going through a fee-based organization or trying to find a local volunteering opportunity on your own. A fee-based organization will have local partners overseeing the volunteer programs, while the larger organization acts in a support role, especially as you plan for your trip. Your fees will usually cover your lodging and most, if not all, of your meals, as well as administrative costs and funding for your local project. Finding a program on your own can result in a variety of opportunities. You may find a volunteer opportunity but must cover all expenses yourself. Other times, you may find an opportunity that will offer lodging and food in exchange for your services and a commitment of at least 2 or 3 weeks, but no fees required.
The next step, and possibly the most important one, is to research the organization, program, and community. Some fee-based organizations are not much more than tourist agencies, with little or none of your fees and efforts really helping the community. Also, be careful of programs that may actually be counter-productive. For example, I am wary of orphan programs. There have been scandals in India and Cambodia where “orphans” were being rented so that unsuspecting fee-paying volunteers could work with them. Additionally, a revolving door of short-term care-giving volunteers can lead to further abandonment issues for the children. This is not to scare you away from these programs completely. Just items for consideration so that you can find the best placement for you. It is extremely important that you investigate to make sure that the organization is truly working to benefit the community or cause you wish to help. Otherwise, everyone would be better off if you just took a regular vacation.
This is also one of the benefits of using a larger, well-regarded placement organization. Usually, they will ensure that their partner organizations are actually beneficial for the local community or cause they are supposed to serve.
Finally, we need to set expectations. You are not going to change the world, or even the local community, in only a couple of weeks. It is important to remember that your role should be supporting those on the front lines. This may mean that you won’t always get the Instagram worthy pictures with smiling children or cute baby animals. Instead, you may be doing the much more helpful behind the scenes work of cleaning and repairs that have been neglected because there haven’t been the funds or time to do such work. But know that these unpublicized tasks are greatly welcomed, beneficial, and appreciated.
Along those lines, in all honesty, sometimes, the most important assistance you will offer is the fee that you pay. Some local nonprofits in these voluntourism hotspots are beginning to see it as a revenue stream; which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even if the work you do isn’t all that critical, but the money is being used to further a cause you support, and you gain appreciation and experience in the process, it is a win for everyone involved.
Gaining cultural and travel experience; and spending your time and energy in service to someone or something are incredible aspects of life that should be encouraged. Voluntourism, for all its positive and negative attributes, is a way to combine those aspects. If it is done correctly, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience, both for you and those you wish to help.
Here are some resources to help you on your voluntourism adventure. The first four links are websites/organizations I used on my journey. The others links have more information, including discussion of voluntourism with more eloquence than I can muster.
If you would like to discuss voluntourism with me, feel free to reach out to me directly!
IENA (www.iena.org): The organization where I found my YMCA-Colombia placement. They have a variety of long-term programs.
IVHQ (www.volunteerhq.org): Respected organization with many fee-based volunteer programs around the world.
Workaway (www.workaway.info): A website where travelers can find lodging and food in return for working part-time, usually at farms & hostels, but some nonprofits as well.
After my week exploring Cape Town, I was ready for the part of my journey I had been most looking forward to. When I first began planning this trip around the world, I knew I wanted to sail across an ocean on a tall ship as part of the journey. For those of you that don’t, the term “tall ship” refers to the historic type of sailing, think Pirates of the Caribbean. So early on, I began researching possible ocean crossings, I eventually found one that seemed to work in to my schedule. And, as luck would have it, this particular ship fit perfectly into my trip’s overall theme of volunteering.
S.V. Tenacious is operated by an organization called the Jubilee Sailing Trust, a non-profit based out of Southampton in the UK. They operate two tall ships, Tenacious and the Lord Nelson. These are the only two tall ships in the world that are built specifically to accommodate equal opportunity sailing. The ships are wheel chair accessible. They have special a “speaking compass” and similar adaptations for people that may be blind, so they can still helm the ship. They have special alarm systems for deaf people. Additionally, any crewmember that happens to have such a disability is paired with a “buddy” that can help them as needed throughout the journey. They offer both short term voyages of a few days and longer ocean crossings of a few weeks.
On an early April afternoon, I boarded Tenacious in Cape Town to begin my Trans-Atlantic adventure. I brought my bags up the gangway, and was greeted by Ally, the first mate. She called for Lee who would be my watch leader for the next six weeks. Lee then showed me around the ship and brought me to my cabin to drop off my bags and to meet Ian, my cabinmate and “buddy”. Ian was in a wheelchair, so that is why we were in one of the cabins, as opposed to the bunks in the bow of the ship where many of the voyage crew would be sleeping. During those first few days, including a night out in Cape Town, I realized that Ian’s dry and irreverent British humor would get along well with my smart-ass sarcasm.
I found myself in a strange mindset as I met the others on board. Given the nature of Tenacious and JST, instead of just meeting people as in a normal situation, I was trying to observe others that may have a disability of one kind or another. It was a rather disappointing thought process as I reflected back upon it. Almost the exact opposite of what the entire idea of the organization is supposed to be about: moving past disabilities. Even with my good intentions, it was still easy to fall into thinking about labels rather than just getting to know a person.
As it so happened, there was no one else in a wheel chair, and other than one person who had been partially deaf when a young child, but now was enabled with a hearing aid, no one else had any real disabilities, although some of the crew were older and did have issues with mobility or sight or were a little hard of hearing.
Before setting sail from Cape Town, we had a couple of days of training to get better acquainted with the ship and its operations. This included learning how to climb the rigging. I am not a big fan of heights, so I took advantage of this time alongside the dock to practice rather than when we were on the sea rolling around. This was yet another one of the accommodations that the ship had. They had special rigging to help people in wheelchairs go up to one of the platforms on the fore mast, mostly under their own power. After our training, a small group of us helped get Ian set up so he could pull himself up the mast. It was one of the first examples of how people in the crew would work together as a team to help one another throughout the voyage.
Soon enough, we were away from the dock and, after going through immigration at the cruise terminal, we made our way out to sea under power that night. The next day, we set some of the sails, while keeping the engines on, and did some “motor sailing”. But the first few days were still focused on getting used to the ship and the routine. A few people battled with sea-sickness and getting their sea-legs. But after a bit, things became more settled, and we spent more time with the sails set and making our way through the deep blue see stretching out to the horizon.
Sailing the vast expanse of the ocean on a tall ship, a barque, to be exact, was every bit as fun as I hoped it would be. The rolling of the ship, the vast distance from civilization, the sunrises and sunsets and clear night skies, all rekindled my interest in sailing. By far, my favorite place to be was the bowsprit, out at the very front of the ship, where I could enjoy the rise and fall of the ship as it made its way through the ocean swell. Additionally, we were able to anchor or come alongside and explore beautiful and out of the way islands such as St. Helena (the final place of exile for Napoleon) and Fernando de Noronha (which limits the numbers of visitors because of its undeveloped beaches). As wonderful as the pure experience of sailing and exploring these islands were, that is not the purpose of this blog.
Throughout the journey, as we learned more, and became more adept at whatever needed to be done, whether it be cleaning the ship, or galley (kitchen) duty, or setting/handing sails, we needed to work together as a team. This also meant being able to fill in and make adjustments. It may be figuring out the best place on the line for someone that may has limited mobility when we are setting a sail. Or if someone is sick, covering them when they have galley duty, or giving them a slightly different job. This is important to the ethos of the ship that everyone is a contributing member of the crew. This teamwork also manifested itself in fun times such as shore excursions or when we went swimming off the ship while at anchor, when we may have needed a group of people to help hoist Ian out of the water, or onto a boat. This teamwork was facilitated by the many days spent at sea, getting to know one another over meals or during the hours on watch.
Given the nature of sailing across the ocean, the possibility for tedium and boredom are high. Luckily, aside from the variety of tasks needed to keep the ship running smoothly, there were activities to keep us entertained, such as quiz nights, an egg toss competition, and the requisite Neptune ceremony upon crossing the equator, among other activities.
One recurring activity were talks by members of both the permanent (official) crew and the voyage crew. The talks from the permanent crew would usually be on topics related to sailing: types of ships and sails, navigation, weather patterns and currents, identifying and avoiding crossing ships, and the like. The voyage crew would give talks about their daily lives. These talks were interesting and wide ranging given the diverse jobs of the people travelling. The topics of these talks included raising soft fruit (raspberries, strawberries, etc.), the basics of dark matter, the psychology of language learning, among many others.
As the nature of my journey, and this blog, was discovering people and organizations that are doing amazing work on behalf of a cause. Therefore, I was especially interested to hear talks related to these topics.
One woman spoke about the work she’s done with different organizations dealing with wildlife. She especially focused on Antarctic wildlife and whales. She gave in-depth perspective to the variety of threats and work being done to protect these animals. Another talk was given by the voyage’s ship doctor. He and his wife had gone on a medical trip to Nepal last year as part of an organization called “Show You Care” which was founded, and is run, by a former monk. He described the various issues facing this remote part of Nepal. But also how the efforts of the organization providing education and proper medical care to the people.
Later in the voyage, after he became more comfortable with the idea of it, Ian gave a talk about spinal cord injuries and how people, and their families, cope when they occur. He also spoke about his work at the National Spinal Injuries Centre in the UK where he works with people that have relatively recently suffered a spinal cord injury. Hearing his talk helped bring so much more into focus, such as the immediate despair that victims suffer and the timeline of about 3 years on average for them to “settle” into their situation. But he also pointed out how effective disabled employees are in the workforce, that they often take less sick days and are found to be amongst the most productive in their teams. Yet so many people, only see the disability and not their capability.
But one important lesson that he imparted, that everyone should take away, is how true growth occurs when you push out of your comfort zone. He said that he had been giving that advice to his clients for years, and when he heard about JST and the possibility to sail across the ocean while in a wheelchair, he decided to take his own advice and push himself to do something that scared him. Towards the end of the journey, during one of our many conversations while on watch, he told me that despite the struggles he had at the beginning, this had been one of those deep life experiences that he will always be able to look back upon and say “I did that.”
After six weeks, and almost 6000 miles, an equator crossing, and stops at three different islands along the way, we arrived in Antigua. We had some end-of-voyage celebrations to top off an incredible journey. Then the day came when we had to disembark the ship which had been our home for a month and a half. There were the hugs and goodbyes and promises to keep in touch as crew members made their way to the airport or to their accommodations. Eventually, it was my turn to grab my bags and leave as well. Walking away, the sight of the ship was still as impressive as it was when I first saw it in Cape Town. But I now I could look at it and say, “I did that.”
Jubilee Sailing Trust: The UK-based charity that operates SV Tenacious and her sister ship SV Lord Nelson, the only two tall-ships in the world designed for equal opportunity sailing. The website shows their upcoming voyages, ranging from a few days to a few weeks.
Over the past year, I have been sharing stories of my travels and the amazing work I have witnessed being done around the world. I have shared pictures of gorgeous vistas and incredible people that I have been fortunate enough to experience. Yet there is much that I haven’t shared. I didn’t write about hiding in my room in Bogota for entire weekends; wishing that my roommates would leave the apartment so that I could let the dark and silence envelop me. I didn’t write about sitting by myself in a bar in Australia, rapidly gulping down a pitcher of beer, trying to drown the anxiety and frustration. I didn’t write about being surrounded by a group of people that I felt had finally seen through my projected image and had realized how bad of a person I really am. I didn’t write about walking through a museum in Africa, on the verge of a breakdown for no reason other than that I was convinced I am an absolute failure.
May has been Mental Health Awareness Month, and I have been struggling for weeks about whether or not to write this blog entry. I finally decided that if by some chance, it may help someone, anyone, then however painful it might be to share this, it would be worth it. I am not going to write about the specifics of my struggles. Rather I just want to make it clear that I have had, and continue to have, them. One of the main themes of the month is fighting the stigma of people dealing with mental issues. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has focused on “CureStigma”. This is why I am writing this blog post.
The dark secret of this entire journey is that it is actually rooted in one of my lowest points. After a combination of multiple personal and professional failures a few years ago, I began to think to myself that if I could get together enough money, I would just disappear. I would leave my old life behind and roam the world aimlessly, never to return, living out the rest of my life in a nomadic existence on the fringes. Over time, this idea took more and more of a hold and I began to take it seriously and started to make efforts towards it.
Luckily, at some point, I was able to find more of a purpose, and decided to make the journey about volunteering to help others, rather than focusing on my own issues. It has helped, but that has not led to a sudden “cure” or anything, as I have continued to have my bad days, as I mentioned above.
Throughout my journey, I have come across many people who have had their own struggles with mental health in one way or another, whether it be themselves or a family member. I’ve met a veteran that struggled with PTSD, many people with numerous family struggles, others with addiction issues, young people that have dealt with bullying. I once had a long conservation with a fellow traveler that had left home with the intent of committing suicide. None of these people should be shamed or pitied. Rather, others should recognize the incredible strength in each of them. The strength that allows them to regularly fight demons that others can only imagine. The last thing they need in addition to that struggle is to fight another battle against the stigma that too many people may place upon them.
Too often, that stigma and fear of judgment keeps people from seeking the support they need. A cultural shift must occur in order to better help our friends and families facing these issues, whether they may be long-term or temporary. I have been to therapy and I have been on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. I absolutely have the desire to keep that kind of information secret. But I also realize that is part of and feeds the stigma.
For those of you fortunate enough to have not ever had to face any such issues or had a friend or family member deal with it, I recommend you to still read about it and prepare. You never know when someone close to you may suddenly need help. And there are definitely wrong things you can say in such a moment.
I wish I had some words of wisdom to better help anyone reading this that is facing their own struggle. However, I’ve learned that each person’s struggle is unique. I can only say two things. One is to plead you not to try and fight alone. I understand that temptation and have often struggled alone myself, but please take advantage of any support and resources you can. The other thing I have to say is that you have an ally in me. What that may specifically entail for you, I have no idea. But I am ready and willing to support you in any way I can.
As a start here are some resources dealing with Mental Health and Mental Health Awareness Month:
I highly recommend this website for everyone. It is a resource website both for people struggling with some issue and for friends & family of people struggling. At a minimum, you can read up on how to talk to a friend or family member that is facing a mental issue in case such a scenario ever arises.
Barnabas picked me up from the Marafiki house on a Monday evening, after I had picked up my new passport from the Nairobi embassy. Barnabas was the local coordinator for Global Crossroad with whom I had booked my next volunteer excursion. I was fortunate to have found them. My original plan had been to do a program at Victoria Falls, but due to my passport uncertainty, I had decided a few weeks before to stay in Kenya longer in case there were any issues with it.
Specifically, I was looking for a program that would allow me to be involved in African wildlife, and this Elephant and Wildlife Program fit the bill. I would be working near the Tsavo National Parks in southeastern Kenya. For those of you near Chicago, the Tsavo “man-eating” lions that terrorized railroad workers in this region over 100 years ago are on display at the Field Museum.
That first evening, Barnabas and his associate Jackson took me to Barnabas’s apartment where I had dinner with his family, along with two other volunteers from Portugal, Phillippe and Inesh. They had started out on a medical placement, but it had not worked out, so they were going to be working at a school that Barnabas supported in his home village.
Early the next morning, all of us piled into the car and drove out to the school, about an hour and a half out of Nairobi. Around mid-morning, we arrived at the small compound. The ruins of an old car sat out in front and the building was an “L” block around the yard, with a toilet building set on the corner opposite the school building. Barnabas introduced us to the principal, a few staff, and a couple of the other volunteers. Then, we were taken around to the classrooms.
The rooms were small and simple, as well as rather dark, only lit by light from the window. The walls were only decorated by hand-made posters, and the students sat at simple wooden desks and chairs. After we were introduced, the students were prompted to sing a song to welcome us, often softly and shyly. A bit later, during their lunch break, as we were preparing to leave, many of the students would wave at a distance, feeling more confident playing in a large group of their friends far away from us, than they were in the confines of their classroom. We stopped at Barnabas’s home in this village, where the girls would be staying while volunteering, to drop off their bags and have some food and tea. Then we dropped the girls back off at the school, and the rest of us returned to Nairobi.
Early the next morning, I packed up my things and Jackson took me to the bus station. I was going to take the bus towards Mombasa, but getting off at Voi, which is the main city near the Tsavo National Park. Later that afternoon, I had arrived at the Lumo Wildlife Conservancy, just outside of Tsavo West National Park (Tsavo is divided into East and West sections about an hour or so away from each other).
Upon arriving, I met some of the staff and other volunteers. As it turned out, some of them were planning on going out camping in the bush that night. I hadn’t really had a chance to get settled, but I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. I did some quick transferring of stuff in and out of my small backpack, and soon I was in the back of a pickup driving down the dirt roads of the wildlife sanctuary in the fading twilight. Then, only a few hours after arriving in this part of Kenya, I was building a campfire in the middle of nowhere, under a dark sky.
When I woke up the next morning and walked out of the tent, I saw that there was just savannah as far as the eye could see, with no other sign of human life. As I became familiar with the area over the next couple of weeks, I learned that there were actually a few lodges not too far away, but they just happened to be out of sight from where we had camped.
Upon returning to the ranger and volunteer housing, we got ready to go on foot patrol with some of the rangers. Lumo is a wildlife sanctuary that was began and is run by the local community. While they work with Tsavo national park and the Kenya Wildlife Service, they do not get much financial assistance from them. As such, money is a scarce commodity, and they have limited resources. My first few days there were only foot patrols, because their only 4×4 vehicle was being repaired.
In my time at the conservancy, there were 3 rangers and a few trainees. During the patrols that us volunteers accompanied, we would be looking for any snares or other signs of poaching and any animals in distress. Additionally, the trainees would be recording animal sightings and locations, and we would pick up litter that visitors may have left along the trails. The normal routine was to go on two patrols each day, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon, avoiding the heat of midday.
The patrols were an amazing experience, especially once we got the 4×4 back and could drive along the safari trails throughout the sanctuary instead of being limited to where we were able to reach on foot. But even the foot patrols were amazing, knowing that you were in the open along with elephants, African buffaloes, zebras, giraffes, impalas, and hartebeests at a distance but still with no barriers between us except for a few hundred meters or more of savannah.
While I was there, we never found any poaching or snares, although Elvis, the head ranger, had received word of poaching one day so we went to a specific area to look. Instead, we found a small illegal mine that someone had dug on their own. Another day, we came across some visitors that needed a hand. Their tire had gone flat, and when they had gotten the tire off, the jack had given out. Luckily, this was after we had gotten the 4×4 back and had the necessary tools to help them.
One bit of excitement during our patrol was when the rangers spotted hippo tracks. Hippos don’t live in the conservancy as there is not a good enough water hole for them to stay long term. So, it must have come out of Tsavo. We spent the next day looking around different water holes to try and find the hippo. The next morning, the rangers found fresh tracks around a water hole. They walked around the hole and were about to leave when Hanna, the other volunteer with us, noticed a little bit of movement in the water. We waited a bit longer and sure enough, we again saw just the tip of a hippo nose come out for air. The rangers then notified KWS and plans were made to hopefully tranquilize the hippo at the next opportunity to move it back to the park. Unfortunately, this did not occur. That night, the hippo moved again, and then came across and was aggressive towards some people, so the hippo had to be euthanized.
As mentioned earlier, Lumo is a community run organization. There are a couple of lodges and campgrounds in the area that work together with the rangers and the community. This has also helped to establish a local school. Previously, children in the area had to travel much further, usually almost an hour’s walk to go to school. We were able to meet the wife of one of the rangers, (he happened to be away at training while a I was there), and their two children who were extremely sweet. One afternoon, a couple of the volunteers and I went for a walk, and the family joined us. She led us to the school, about a 15-minute walk away, and told us a little bit more about the school and the community. The lodges also help to provide food for the children at the school. The school was like the other schools I had seen in Kenya, a simple building with simple classrooms and handmade décor. There was an outhouse for the toilets, and another out-building that served as a “kitchen, really not much more than a space for some pots and pans and a cooking fire. It is humbling to see children strive for an education in such basic conditions, while in the western world we too often take for granted all the technology and educational opportunities available.
Soon enough, my time was up at the conservancy. I took a bus back to Nairobi and spent my last day there doing some sight-seeing. While walking around a park, an older man and then a child came up to me to beg. Not that different from many other places around the world. But what made this different was that in both these cases, other locals chased them off. A similar thing had happened my first week in Kenya, but I hadn’t given it much thought. This time though, combined with other experiences from my time there, I realized how much pride the Kenyans have. They did not like seeing someone begging from a mzungu (someone of European descent) because it obviously looks bad on the nation. One night during dinner at Lumo, Dennis, one of the rangers, was passionate about Kenya’s stance against poaching and the ivory trade. He mentioned how some have criticized Kenya’s annual ivory burn as a waste. But he was adamant that it was the right thing to do, and that Kenya would lead the way. The conviction was clear in his words as he spoke, and it was inspiring to hear him say such things, with the sounds of the African savannah in the background.
After Kenya, I travelled to Cape Town, South Africa. I had hoped to do some short-term volunteering there, but it did not work out, and I was only there for a week. While I was unable to work there, it was still a humbling experience to be in Cape Town and visit places that have an almost sacredness to them because of their role in the struggle against the inhumanity of slavery and apartheid. It was moving to be in the District Six museum, the district where persons of color were forcibly removed in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for new development by the white government. It was surreal to be in a jazz club beneath St. George’s, the home church of Desmond Tutu, with a small apartheid gallery as you walk into the club, and then listening to a multi-racial band sing an incredible cover of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”. And, of course, the historic weight of visiting Robbin Island, where Nelson Mandela spent the majority of his imprisonment, along with so many political prisoners, including seeing a small cave in the limestone mine which was used as the bathroom by the prisoners, and do to the heat and the smell was never visited by guards, so it was the only place these future national leaders could speak freely.
Of course, even though apartheid ended almost 30 years ago, there is still a staggering amount of economic inequality in the country. While going out a couple of nights in Cape Town, I realized that it was eerily similar to my nights out in Los Angeles. I went to “First Thursday” where many art galleries were free and open, and many bars displayed art and had live music all within walking distance, very similar to LA’s Downtown Art Walk. But beyond that, it was mostly a bunch of well-to-do white people, with attractive and well-dressed mostly white bartenders making craft cocktails, while the other serving work was done by native Africans. Substitute the native Africans with Latinos, and you basically have a night out in LA. Obviously, that is a far from perfect comparison, and I know there are vast amount of differences in both situations, but it was still another surreal experience.
Even though I didn’t do any work myself, learning more about South Africa personally, including some organizations still working to help the many people struggling economically, was an incredible experience. Between the inspiration of the incredible leaders of South Africa’s struggles and the proud self-reliant people of Kenya, I came away from Africa with such a heightened respect and role models that we could all be well-served to learn from.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela
“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” – Desmond Tutu
From India, I flew to Africa to begin the next part of my journey. My African travels had to be changed around due to a rather fortunate problem to have: my passport was rapidly filling up with stamps and running out of space. My original itinerary was to begin in Kenya, then go to Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border, and finally to South Africa. For those of you that don’t know this, the USA no longer adds pages to passports, so a new passport is needed. Luckily, I noticed the passport issue before leaving India, and I was already going to be working on a project in Nairobi. So, I made an appointment at the US embassy in Nairobi, and found another program in Kenya so I could stay there for some additional time. Unfortunately, it meant that I had to cancel my Victoria Falls plans. That just gives me something to return for.
I arrived in the evening at the Nairobi airport and was met by a young man with a broad smile (which over the next few weeks I never saw leave his face) named Bonaey. He drove me to the Marafiki house on the outskirts of Nairobi. I booked my travel through Agape Volunteers, but Marafiki was the local partner organization that would oversee my placement. Marafiki means “friendship” in Swahili and they are involved in a variety of activities around Nairobi and elsewhere in Kenya. That night and the next morning, I met other volunteers staying in the house and from a variety of countries. There were a few Americans and Brits, as well as others from Canada, Chile, Bolivia, Australia, and Spain.
These fellow travelers and volunteers were working in a variety of projects that Marafiki was involved in or connected to. Many were involved in health care (doctors, nurses, and EMTs in their home countries) and served in some of the clinics in the area. Other volunteers served at childcare centers, helping as teachers or in the direct care of children, as some of these centers also serve as homes. One young woman from the US was teaching women computer skills at a local community center. Others were helping at a camp for Internally Displaced Persons outside of Nairobi. In the aftermath of the disputed 2007 election in Kenya, there was violence around the country and many people fled to other parts of the country and are still living in these camps.
As usual, it was inspiring to meet all of these people who are willing to spend their precious vacation time helping others, and learning about the work they are doing and the struggles and triumphs they are experiencing, ranging from the limited education that a group of children are facing to the empowerment and new found confidence of a woman that has mastered a new computer skill.
As for myself, I worked on a few different projects with Marafiki. Originally, I was going to be working with an HIV/AIDS program in Nairobi. However, I was rather limited in that realm since I was only going to be there for a couple of weeks. Ideally, I would have volunteered with them for a month or more. Then I could have been trained and certified to do HIV testing and counseling independently. Instead, I spent just a few days at the clinic at the Kivuli Center. I sat in on the testing and counseling sessions, listening to Judy, the counselor, talk with the patients that came in and recording information in the log book. It was a humbling experience to be in the room with these people who were at such a vulnerable moment in their lives. People came in for a variety of reasons: routine testing (which has been strongly promoted in recent years), finding out that a partner had cheated on them, or exposure in some other way. For example, one young man had recently been involved in a fight and was bitten. People reacted to the test, and the counseling discussions, in a variety of ways. Some were calm and matter-of-fact about everything. Others, would avoid eye-contact and laugh nervously to personal questions, and their leg would be shaking throughout the session, especially while waiting for the results of the test strip.
Fortunately, due to medical advancements, as well as government efforts, HIV/AIDS is no longer the death sentence that it was 20 years ago. That being said, Kenya (along with Nigeria, South Africa, and many other African nations) are still dealing with the devastating effects of the spread of the disease and trying to stem the tide. All the tests performed during the 3 days I was at the clinic were negative. However, Judy told me that positive results have a range of reactions: calm acceptance, anger, denial. She told me that many people have become physically ill at the news. But part of her job is to help them with the transition and acceptance of this new reality.
Judy was one more example of the best of humanity. She is currently studying public health and wants to serve these communities because she has seen the pain and suffering that many go through, and how often HIV-positive patients can be ostracized, even within the healthcare community.
Unfortunately, I didn’t make the best impression on Judy. My first day at the clinic happened to be the same day as my morning appointment at the US embassy. I awoke early that morning to go to the embassy, grabbing a piece of toast on my way out and taking my malaria medication. I then went straight to the clinic after my embassy appointment and sat in the small office with Judy and the first consultation of the day. The day began to heat up, and the office started to feel stuffy. Then, I believe the malaria medication started to have a negative effect on my near-empty stomach, and I started to become light headed. I excused myself to go get some fresh air. I pulled the door shut behind me, and the next thing I knew, I was half-laying on the ground outside the door, with a woman yelling “Judy! Judy!” as she pounded on the door. As I came around, I made my way to a chair, telling the woman and Judy that I would be fine, I just needed to eat something. Judy fetched me a snack cake and a drink, and I sat in my shame, realizing that on my first day, I had been more of a burden than any kind of a help.
While at Kivuli, there were a couple of other experiences aside from the HIV testing. The center runs multiple programs to support the community. There is a school for boys, a workshop for refugees to create and sell handicrafts, even a small radio station that broadcasts news in some of the various tribal languages. I met a man named Genesis who overcame living as an adolescent in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa and is now involved with Kivuli as well as other programs, including in his home village.
As it happened, a couple of days after meeting Genesis, I visited Kibera with the Marafiki group. We walked through the refuse-filled streets following our guide Benta. When viewed from a distance, the slum, of about 1 million people, seems to almost have been built by placing a countless number of tin shacks upon a giant landfill. Benta took us to a few workshops, similar to that at Kivuli, where people make trinkets to sell when they can. But more importantly, she took us to her organization in Kibera: the Julie Hope Children & Rescue Center. The organization operates as a school and general child welfare group, including housing for a few of the children. The important aspect of this organization is that the children have been affected in one way or another by HIV, whether it is a parent or themselves that is infected. Benta openly acknowledges being HIV-positive herself. But if she was ever distraught about her diagnosis, that must have been long ago, because she was one of the most glowing and optimistic people I have ever met. We bought some food for the school to bring with us and brought it to the shack that doubled as a school and home for Benta and a few of the children that are HIV-positive. Benta monitors the children’s medication, as the children at the center, at least the ones we met, are around ages 4 to 9. The children welcomed us with a song as well as the common phrase that many of us recognize from The Lion King: “Hakuna Matata”.
One boy caught my eye. He was one of the younger children, maybe 5 years old, and wearing a Chicago Cubs t-shirt. I wanted to get my picture taken with him. He obviously felt special to be singled out, although I’m sure he had no idea why. The reality of the situation, though, is not all that happy. It was a ragged T-shirt, with “Fukodome” written on the back; a player from about 10 years ago. The shirt was donated at some point, and the boy probably has little to no idea of what it really is. He might not even like it, but that is the shirt that he wears because it is the shirt available to him.
Since I wasn’t going to be as much help as I had hoped at the HIV testing center, I decided to volunteer my second week in Massai land. The Massai are one of the more than 40 tribes in Kenya, and one that has most strongly held on to its culture of herding cattle. Images that may pop into your head if “Kenyan tribe” is mentioned: slender men in red cloth holding a long spear; that is Massai. Additionally, the Massai-Mara natural reserve is the Kenyan side of the Serengeti and home to many of the African safari animals.
Early Sunday morning, a group of us climbed into a 4×4 vehicle to leave Nairobi and take us into the bush. Some were simply doing a 3-day safari around the nature reserve, while Kyla, a young woman from Canada, and I would be staying with them the first 2 nights, and then going to another village to help at a local school that Marafiki helped to construct. As we came closer to our destination, and entered the savannah area, we began to see the African wildlife, zebras, giraffes, and a variety of antelope species, gently ambling alongside the dirt roads we were traveling.
Izzo, the director of Marafiki, has been busy in the Massai area, and has many plans. He is in the process of building a mid-range safari camp both for tourists and volunteers. As part of that more permanent physical presence, they have already set up a new water supply for the village, piping in water from a spring up in the hills, so that it is much cleaner than the stream that runs openly by the village. They are also working on some agricultural education projects to help the local farmers increase their productivity. These include using a new type of grass and feeding method for goats in order to decrease the grazing impact on the area. In support of this, the task for Kyla and me during our time there, while the others were on safari, was helping build a goat pen. This would be used to raise the goats in this new way to serve as a demonstration for the local populace, as they need to see results before being willing to adopt a new style of raising their animals.
After a few days of fencing the pen, and many resultant cuts and blisters, it was time for our next project. While the safari-goers would be heading back to Nairobi, Kyla and I were to head with Sheldon and Dan, two of the Marafiki workers, to the next Massai village. However, there had been steady rains over the past few days, washing out the roads to the village. So, the 4×4 vehicle couldn’t make it. Instead, we would be traveling by “peeky-peeky” which are the local motorcycle-taxis.
We each got behind a driver on their beat-up bikes, along with one other bike that was loaded with more of our luggage and supplies. Then we headed through the countryside of Massai-land. Passing groups of people walking along the roads, who would smile and wave at the passing “mzungus” (white people” on the motorbikes. We occasionally had to make some interesting water crossings, sometimes by getting off the bikes and wading across after the motorbikes were carefully driven across. It was a fun new experience of travelling through this country. I even was allowed to take one for a quick spin myself a couple of days later.
After about an hour, we arrived at a tiny village seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We were taken to a group of three “manyattas”, traditional Massai dwellings, which are made of sticks, mud, and cow dung. This was to be our home for the next few days, sleeping on mattresses laid out on bed frames fashioned from sticks.
While enjoying the simple life of this rural village with the African plains spread out before us under a wide-open sky, we walked a few hundred meters each day to help at the small village school. We didn’t work with the children directly, but rather did simple tasks that had been on the back-burner around the school: painting, making up posters, attaching protective covers to the textbooks. This is one of the key features that most people need to understand about “voluntourism”: often the necessary tasks where you can be of the most help are the simple behind-the-scenes jobs. It doesn’t make for great Instagram posts, but it helps thing work better and frees up the teachers and staff to focus on educating the children.
However, occasionally we would interact with the children. Many of them would often walk miles to attend the school. They would walk by our manyattas and smile and wave. Some mornings, I would walk to the school to collect water from the rain cistern around the same time some children were arriving. I would talk with them, although they were often extremely shy, giggling and looking away if I spoke directly to one. I played a couple of games with them, and sang simple songs like “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” just to have a bit more interaction than just them crowding around and watching the mzungu.
It was striking to see the simplicity of the school. The students would run around and play in the open grassland around the school during their recess. (One of our tasks was to clear away the thorn bushes that were so prevalent). They had no playground equipment, other than perhaps a soccer ball and a makeshift jump rope. They were called back to class with an old-style hand bell. There were no computers or technology of any kind, only desks, books, posters, and chalkboards. It was basically the type of classrooms you would expect in the first half of the 20th century. However, there is truly a desire for education amongst many people. Dan, the Marafiki worker staying with us in the village, is Massai. He actually left home because, while his parents wanted him to settle into the traditional lifestyle, he wanted to continue his education. He enrolled the help of his grandmother to argue his case. Not because his grandmother had a particularly noble view of education. Rather it was because, like grandmothers around the world, she was willing to give her grandson almost anything he wanted!
Our last day at the village, we walked up into some of the nearby hills, where the savannah plains turned into an almost jungle like atmosphere. This dense forested area is where the local boys will leave their families for an extended period of time during adolescence as part of their journey into manhood. Early the following morning, I left with Sheldon to make our way back to Nairobi. Kyla and Dan were returning to the original village we stayed at in order to join up with a new safari group.
I spent a couple more nights at the Marafiki house with the volunteers, including a St. Patrick’s Day night out. That Monday morning, I went back to the embassy to pick up my new passport. Then, in the evening, I was picked up for the next part of my African experience.
Marafiki: The local organization in Kenya I worked with during my first two weeks in Kenya
Kivuli Center: A local community center run by the Koinonia community outside of Nairobi that offers a variety of health and education services. This is where I worked with the HIV testing & counseling.
From Morocco, I headed back towards the east. It was going to be a long journey, by design, with a couple of layovers for some touristic purposes. I arrived in Munich in late morning. I took the metro into the city to get in touch with my German heritage, which mostly consisted of tasting a variety of Bavarian brews. From Munich, I flew to Amsterdam for an evening layover. There had been a wind and ice storm, which caused some issues with the public transportation, but I was able to find my way to the canals and the red-light district to witness the famous legal depravity the city is famous for. After walking around for a bit and having a couple of beers at a local bar, I made my way back to the airport for my early morning flight.
While waiting on the train to the airport, I had an interesting thought. Unsurprisingly, as I walked through the red-light district as a single man, many of the women in the windows tried to get my attention and entice me to come in. Throughout this journey, that has been a common occurrence. In many parts of South America, in Dubai, in Morocco, and now in Amsterdam, I have often been solicited by women. My response has always been to politely decline and then extricate myself from the situation as quickly as possible. But as I sat on that late-night/early-morning train looking out into the darkness, I wondered what some of their stories were. I am travelling around the world, trying to learn more about it and the people who inhabit it, but I haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities. to learn more about these women and what has led them to their profession. I looked at them simply as either nuisances or victims, but not actual people I could learn from. I kind of wish I had paid one of these women for her time, and just had her tell me about her life and what led her to this vocation. I resolved that if such an opportunity again presented itself, I would try to do just that.
From Amsterdam, I spent the next day on a couple more flights travelling eastward until I finally arrived in Beijing at about 2 AM. The Asian leg of my journey was about to begin. I took a taxi to my hotel to drop off my luggage and wait for my sight-seeing tour to begin. I spent that first day in China at the typical touristic spots: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall. That night, I had planned on going out to sample the nightlife of Beijing, but the almost 3 days of going nonstop with only a bit of sleep on the planes had finally caught up to me, and I was out for the count that night in my hotel room. That next morning, I went to see the Temple of Heaven as my last excursion in Beijing before catching a train to Zhengzhou. The train ride and then upon arrival in Zhengzhou, I began to have the experience of being a minor celebrity, with random people coming up and asking to take pictures with me, as a 6’7” white blonde guy was a rarity in this part of the world. That night, I had caught up on sleep enough to go out, and a couple of young locals who spoke reasonable English invited me to join them at their table. It turns out that Champaign-Urbana, Illinois is relatively well-known in China, due to the high number of Chinese students that attend the university. One of the young men was actually hoping to study there. On all the tables, I noticed cups full of dice, and I asked them about it, and was promptly taught a fun little Chinese drinking game. Eventually, I made it back to my hotel as I was going to be picked up the next morning for my ultimate Chinese destination: the Shaolin Temple.
Over the next four weeks, I studied Kung Fu at the Shaolin Tagou Academy within the Shaolin Temple grounds. The academy is the largest, and one of the best, martial arts academies in China. They have graduated many top athletes, and the school performed at the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Unfortunately, as I was there from mid-January to mid-February, the school was on its winter holiday and would not get back to full strength until after the Chinese New Year celebration in mid-February. Yet, there was still training for the foreign students, myself and three or four others throughout my month there. While I fell into the routine of the training, I fell ill shortly after my arrival and spent much of my time fighting a bad cold which put a bit of a damper on the experience. However, it was still a special experience to be able to walk around the Shaolin temple grounds during my free time. A special moment involved walking up to the Manna Platform overlooking the main temple during to observe a lunar eclipse, specifically the “Super Blue Blood Moon” as it was called given that the moon was at perigee, and the second full moon of January during the eclipse.
At the end of the month, I flew to Hong Kong in order to participate in the Chinese New Year celebrations. My three-day weekend for the festivities were fun, but not quite up to the expectations I had built up in my head. But I enjoyed my time nonetheless, especially due to the variety of friends I made in my hostel and whom I shared many different experiences of Hong Kong.
After China, I flew to the Himalayan nation of Nepal, and its magically named capital: Kathmandu, where I was going to be volunteering for a week. I found this placement through IVHQ, the same organization that I did my first Argentinian placement through. The local partner organization in Nepal that I worked through was called Vertical Ascent. They are an organization that oversees a variety of volunteer programs in different parts of Nepal. They also organize more touristic excursions for interested volunteers that will be in the country for an extended period.
The first couple of days were spent in orientation with other volunteers, including mostly other Americans, a couple of Brits, and one Lebanese. We spent the mornings in orientation meetings, the afternoons doing a little sightseeing, and then the evenings socializing. Most of the other volunteers were going to projects in Pokhara doing construction work, working in schools or in other childcare roles. On Wednesday, most of the others left, while Angela and I went to our placement on the outskirts of Kathmandu.
While on the way to the placement, Cwani, one of the Vertical Ascent employees, who had been doing the cultural lessons during our orientation, explained a bit more about the school as she had been there many times before. Nepal, being a majority Hindu country, still has some of the social remnants of the caste system. These children were from poor families in the lower castes, and therefore did not have many opportunities. The school, the Bal Sarathi Academy, was focused on trying to reach out to these underserved children. Unfortunately, many of their families see little use for such education, as the children could instead help try to make some extra money for the family. Cwani explained to us that one of the benefits of having international volunteers come to the school was simply to maintain the children’s interest in school, as it was the only opportunity for them to meet people from other countries and learn about other places in the world. This gave the students more of a reason to come to school.
The direness of their situation was driven home soon after arriving in the first classroom. While playing a game with about 16 students about 7 to 10 years old, Cwani showed us some of their earlier writing samples. The assignment seemed to have been to write a paragraph describing themselves. Many of them gave rather normal responses: their names, where they lived, some character traits that described them, maybe if they were a boy or girl (more often a son or daughter was the phrasing they used), and the like. One sample stood out though. One of the students described that they were from a poor family, and that is why they had to attend such a school instead of one of the more prestigious “named” schools as the student called the nicer private schools. The student stated that their hope was to be a doctor, but because of their birth to a poor family, “I have to forgot (sic) every dream.”
We only had three days working at the school, and I wish I could have stayed longer. Throughout this journey, I have been hesitant to do short term volunteer projects with children or schools for this specific reason. One must be cognizant of developing relationships with students and children, as well as not leaving so soon as to make them feel temporary. It is a very real problem in the realm of “voluntourism” that all people considering such trips need to take into consideration. That being said, since it seemed that the entire idea of my being there was simply to provide a distraction from the normal routines of schools and the children’s regular lives, I made peace with my temporary presence. The students were extremely outgoing and loved to play the games that Angela and I prepared for them, sometimes getting a little too competitive. If nothing else, this was yet another eye-opening and rewarding experience to bless me with a glimpse into the struggles others must deal with, and how we should be more grateful for the opportunities we too often take for granted.
A quick aside: the youngest children in the school were around 3 or 4 years old. I bring this up only to say that these young Nepali children giving the traditional greeting of bringing their hands into a prayer pose, slightly bowing their heads, and softly, shyly, saying “Namaste” as they walk by in a line to their classroom is, most-assuredly, the single cutest thing I have ever seen in my life. Probably, my biggest regret from Nepal was not being quick enough to record video of this precious scene.
One other important note about Nepal: they are still recovering from a devastating earthquake that struck the country in 2015. While walking around Kathmandu, I had noticed that many of the streets were completely torn up all over the city. Even in the touristic areas. At first, I assumed it was simply leftover destruction from the earthquake that had not yet been repaired. However, I soon learned that the earthquake did not do that much damage to the streets themselves. The problem was that it almost completely destroyed the infrastructure beneath the streets: the water, gas, and electric lines, etc. The city has had to dig up their streets in order to make those critical repairs. An interesting wrinkle in these repairs that I learned from one of our hosts was a cultural aspect of the construction work that needed to be done. Due to the caste system, a sizable portion of the population looks down on manual labor. As such, many people are willing to go to foreign countries to work in such jobs, but do not want to be seen doing such work in their home communities. Obviously, this has added more complexity to an already difficult situation in the country.
My next, and last, Asian stop was India. Another of the must experiences, which also drove my schedule, was to be in India for the Hindu festival of Holi, the festival of colors. During this celebration, streets are filled with revelers aggressively dusting each other with powder of varying bright colors. In addition to the colored powder, children are often dousing the participants with water from water guns, hoses, or simply, buckets from windows and rooftops.
I started out in the holy city of Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges River. One thing that was obvious very quickly was the number of beggars throughout the city: people missing limbs, mothers with children, old women, they were all over the city streets. While I had seen many beggars throughout my travels, but never to the extent that I saw them in Varanasi. It was a situation that made me feel both cruel and helpless as I walked by these pitiful scenes, not giving money for a variety of reasons, and not knowing what to do to help.
The Holi festivities were just beginning in Varanasi, including my last day there when I braved the chaos of one of the Hindu temples along with the mass crowds going in to give offerings in preparation for the festival. From there, I went to Mathura, a little way out of Agra. After the mandatory stop at the Taj Mahal, I entered the fray of the color wars. During the first afternoon, after I had made my first foray, and then cleaned up and ate lunch, as I left my hotel, I met up with a group of 3 Brits, two girls and a guy, that I ended up joining with for the next couple of days. A few months before going to India, I was messaging with an American female friend that I had met in Argentina who was going to be in Asia around the same time I was. I mentioned meeting up in India for Holi, but after researching it, she declined because of what she learned about foreign women going to Holi. After hanging out with the two female Brits during Holi, I understand the concern. The first day was not too bad, mostly it was just a bunch of enthusiastic locals wanting to get their pictures taken with us, especially the girls. And during those pictures, there was an occasional misplaced hand. But the next day, it reached a new level. As we went to the temple area in Mathura, the celebration was intense, and during the course of it, many more locals wanted pictures with us, often finishing with a “Happy Holi” and a hug. But the girls began to get blatantly groped, and even some of the guys tried to grab the girls’ faces and kiss them on the mouth. I had to myself pull a guy off one of the girls. We moved out of the temple area to a quieter, and safer, side street. And we could tell that it was a common occurrence. A little bit later, another group of westerners came through the street from the same place we had just exited, with the men protecting a couple of petite and obviously uncomfortable girls. The young men would not let any locals near the girls. It was unfortunate, because the vast majority of the revelers were simply enthusiastic and friendly, but as always, a small group ruined it for everyone else. I hate to have to say something like this, but I cannot in good conscience recommend that any of my female friends go to Holi in India, unless they go as part of a mixed-gender group, or know a local family to celebrate with. Local women are almost nowhere to be found during the public festivities. Instead, they usually celebrate in smaller parties with families and friends.
After the chaos of Holi, I then went to Delhi for a couple of days to do a small amount of sight-seeing and then finish my week in India. Soon, my crazy week in India was over and I was en route to Africa for the next leg of my journey.
IVHQ: The website that I organized my Nepal program through. They have multiple programs throughout the world.
Vertical Ascent: The local organization in Nepal that oversaw my time and placement in Kathmandu.
Bal Saranthi: This is the organization that runs the school I volunteered at in Kathmandu.
After a long overnight journey through a few different airports, I arrived in Agadir, Morocco. I had accomplished one goal. I had now visited all seven continents. Actually, thanks to a one day layover in Dubai, United Arab Emirates which is part of Asia during my travels from Australia to Greece, I was even able to have been on all seven continents within the year of 2017. But that was not the main reason for coming to Morocco. I was there to spend three weeks working with an organization based in the small town of Taroudant. The organization was the Youth Association for Culture and Development, and had a few different programs, mostly for youth but also for some adults. I would be spending my evenings teaching English at their center.
I was lucky to have found this program. I had been planning on participating in two different programs in Morocco, but unfortunately, both of them were cancelled. So during my time in Australia, I was making adjustments and searching for something else in Morocco, and came across YACD on www.workaway.info. It was an opportunity to help teach English, while working with a youth program.
So, after an extremely long wait in line to go through Moroccan immigration at the airport of Agadir, I met with Khalid, who I had been communicating with for a few weeks. Then, after about a 45 minute drive, I arrived in the small city of Taroudant, at the apartment home of Muhammad, the director of YACD. I would be staying with him and his small family, along with two other volunteers for the next few weeks.
I was welcomed with baked treats and Moroccan tea. The tea was actually one of the reasons I wanted to go to Morocco. And it lived up to the expectations. After this wonderful snack, we went to the YACD office where the other volunteers were finishing up their classes. I met Phillipe from Canada, who was teaching French, and Jose, from Mexico, who I would be working with to teach English.
The next day was spent walking around the city of Taroudant and getting to know the area a little better. Taroudant is known as “Little Marrakech” because it is a walled city with a bustling market, but much smaller, and less touristic, than Marrakech.
Each weeknight, we went to the office to teach language. We had three different classes, each meeting twice a week (one night each week, we taught two classes). The classes ranged from young children of about 8 years old, with very limited English ability, to adults with rather good English conversation skills. Each night was a different challenge. Sometimes it was simply trying to find a new activity to keep the students engaged. Other times, it would be that there were only 2 or 3 students, so the plans wouldn’t work quite well. Regardless of the typical teaching struggles, the students were all extremely friendly and it was great getting to know them. In fact, my last night, some of the women in the adult class brought more baked goods as a “going-away” party. The same as much of the other food I ate in Morocco, their treats were delicious.
On weekends, I did some personal traveling around western Morocco. These trips involved some unique experiences, such as spending New Year’s Eve in a bedouin camp on the edge of the Sahara Desert, getting attacked by a dog on a beach, or somehow ending up at a private table in some underground club in Agadir.
One of the more rewarding experiences though was learning about a great international organization. Khalid invited us to his family orange grove on a Saturday, when he was receiving some other guests from Poland. Khalid had visited them in Poland through the YACD’s work with Brave Kids. This is an organization that invited youth groups from around the world to Poland each summer. The youth groups each come to present some type of cultural performance. It is an amazing opportunity for these young people to participate in a unique cultural exchange as they get to know other youths from different nations.
The following day was a reunion of the Moroccan Brave Kids participants at the YACD office. The office was packed full of people and food. Then, the participants gave an abbreviated performance of their cultural music. The evening ended with most of the crowd dancing along to the young musicians.
My three weeks in Morocco served as yet another window into a completely different culture than what I was used to. But I witnessed the universal desire to share one’s culture and learn about another’s. That was one of the reasons I was so impressed with organizations like YACD and Brave Kids.
At the end of my time in the desert, it was time to head back towards the east.
After my adventures down under, I began a long journey to my next destination. I planned my travel so I could have a day long layover in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. I had heard much about this modern boomtown of the Middle East, including the home of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and wanted to see it for myself. Sure enough, the city was a strange mixture of traditional and contemporary, with women in burkas walking alongside women in tight fitting designer clothes. The traditional Arab style was an obvious influence, but it is a cutting-edge city with so many modern trappings of Western culture. The city is assuredly still building, as it seems there were just as many buildings under construction as those already complete. I wish I had more than just a day in order to get a better sense of the city, but alas, I had to continue on.
I finally arrived in Athens, and only had a few hours to walk around the city, mostly due to my own confusion and lack of hustle in leaving the airport as I tried to figure out the public transportation and where I wanted to go. I was able to walk for awhile around the bustling neighborhoods surrounding the Acropolis. While, I would have liked to actually go into some of the historical sights, this quick little fly-by would have to do for this trip. I had booked an overnight ferry that evening to the island of Lesvos.
At one point during my travel planning, I realized I wanted to do something to help out with the ongoing refugee crisis in the world. It has often been said that we are currently in the midst of the worst humanitarian migration crisis since World War II. I remember first laying my eyes on this situation about two and a half years ago, while visiting Budapest, Hungary. I arrived by train and noticed a great number of Middle Eastern people there. I remember rearranging my bags at one point and looking up to a young boy of probably 4 years of age, shyly smiling and kind of playing peek-a-boo with me, while he sat on the floor next to his mother and siblings. When I left the station, I was dumbfounded by the mass of humanity surrounding the station. There was basically an impromptu camp set up there, which would actually boil into a confrontation between the refugees and the authorities the day after I left Budapest. Ever since then, I had it in mind to try and do something to help such people.
While searching for such an opportunity for this trip, I came across Refugee Rescue. They are a nonprofit that operates a search-and-rescue boat on the north shore of the island of Lesvos. This is the shortest crossing from Turkey and serves as a “gateway” to Europe for many refugees. I was going to help out on the spotting team, keeping an eye out for crossing attempts, and helping at the transition camp for any landings before people were taken to the more permanent camp of Moria on the island.
The small village I stayed in is Skala Sikamineus. It is a tiny fishing village with narrow, stone paved streets, and only about 10 of them at that. The local fishermen started rescuing many of the refugees they noticed making the journey from Turkey. I was informed that some of these fishermen were actually nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.
Soon, governments and NGOs were involved in the proceedings of the area. The politics involved were far more complicated than I ever imagined, and far beyond the scope of this posting. However, so many players are involved including the Hellenic (Greek) and Turkish Coast Guards, NATO, FRONTEX (basically the EU border patrol), and numerous NGOs. Besides Refugee Rescue, the one I was working with, other NGOs that we interacted with were Lighthouse Relief, Refugees 4 Refugees, and IsraAid. However, one brief note of the politics that I was informed of… technically, any refugees that make it into Greek waters are supposed to be rescued and brought to Greece while any ones intercepted in Turkish waters are supposed to be sent back to Turkey. One of the coordinators informed me that the NGOs have been keeping an eye and reporting activities of some of these ships, and some times refugees that were supposed to be brought to Greece were actually sent back to Turkey, and that if it weren’t for these NGOs and their reporting, it would be happening far more often.
The influx of refugees was far less in December of 2017 than it had been during the height of the crisis in 2015. Whereas back then, they were having multiple landings a day, during the two and half weeks I was there, we only had 4, including the one that happened in the early morning hours just prior to my arrival. With this slower pace of activities, it was interesting to meet the variety of people from around the world who had come to help. Among the different organizations, there were volunteers from the UK, Switzerland, Egypt, Australia, Ireland, France, Lebanon, Poland, Israel, Canada, and the USA as well as others I am probably forgetting at the moment. This mixture of nationalities, converged upon a small fishing village in the Greek Isles, with a relatively slow pace of life where we often waited for our volunteer shifts by sitting in the local café socializing, gave me the impression of what it may have been like during the Lost Generation years in Europe for many of the ex-pats.
However, in our case, there was a common purpose, and many of our conversations focused on the situation at hand. It was an incredible opportunity to gain perspective from people with different specializations such as the international law student from Australia providing background and legal issues of the current situation, the journalist who had spent years investigating migrant and refugee issues and now wanted to actually do something to help directly, the founders of these organizations helping to support the refugees, and the search and rescue crew that had served not only in Greece but also in the South Mediterranean with refugees crossing from Libya. Hearing the different stories and viewpoints of these people both gives hope but also illustrates the complexity and difficulties of the problems facing us as a society.
One day, a small group of us decided to walk along the beach towards a ferry wreckage. Some of the group went swimming for a bit and then turned back , while another and I pushed forward, but got separated for a while. As I made my way through the ancient olive groves and stone terraces, I noticed life jackets. There were dozens of life jackets attached to trees throughout the groves. Suddenly, it dawned on me what these life jackets represented. They had been placed there for any refugees who happened to make it to land without being intercepted. The life jackets served to mark a safe path to roads and civilization.
I wanted to, but never actually made it to the “life jacket graveyard”, a staggering pile of tens of thousands of life jackets that had been worn by landing refugees or had floated ashore on Lesvos. Unfortunately, many of these “life jackets” offer no real flotation support and were simply sold to refugees by unscrupulous human traffickers trying to squeeze even more money from desperate people who had likely never before seen let alone been on the ocean.
During my first week, I went through some different training sessions, and served on watch duty both during the day and overnight. We would spend our shift on an overlook continuously scanning the ocean with binoculars and a telescope during the day and a night vision scope during the dark hours. While the goal was to always have eyes on the water, due to a lack of resources, we were unable to have a lookout during the hours when we had to made the transition from day to night shifts. As winter was setting in, it became extremely cold during the night shift, and sometimes, there would be a cold rain falling, with strong winds coming off the ocean. There were a few shifts that had to be cancelled due to the conditions.
One day near the beginning of my second week, I was on call during the morning shift to help at the transition camp in case of a landing. At 6 AM, my phone rang. There had been a landing the night before. They were already at the camp and the initial process of feeding them and giving them dry clothes had already happened. I was to go to the transition camp mostly just to have a presence and then help out when the buses arrived to take them to Moria the large-scale refugee camp on Lesvos.
There were close to 60 people that had arrived, mostly from the Middle East and some from Central Africa. When I arrived, clothes were hanging anywhere possible around the camp. These were the soaking wet clothes that they had been wearing while making the crossing. Most of the refugees were still sleeping in the large tent when I arrived, so I went into the food tent with another volunteer to wait by the small heater that was in there. A stray cat joined us, and found my lap to be a warm napping spot despite never having been invited.
Soon we received word that the buses were on their way so we began to tell the refugees to get their belongs together. The camp sprang to life as the refugees went to and fro. Amongst the Middle Easterners, there were only a couple of men, most of the group were women and their children. Often it seemed that young teenage boys were serving as the “men” of their families. Some of the refugees had not received a few items (like dry shoes) the night before, so they were asking for these items now. And often it would be these teenage boys asking for items. It turned into a rather chaotic scene, but eventually we got everything taken care of and prepared to put them on the bus. I handed out water bottles to each person as they boarded the bus for the two-hour ride to Moria and an uncertain future.
That night, I was on the night watch again. The temperatures were near freezing and the wind was blowing hard. At one point, as I stood scanning the waves with the night vision scope, my mind wandered to what it must have been for those people who had crossed through those frigid waters, facing similar conditions, in a dinghy and wearing not much more than rags. And here I was, shivering beneath layers of high quality clothing.
Due to the low numbers of volunteers, I stayed on through the Christmas holiday to help with the staffing shortages. My Christmas Eve was spent on night shift once again. It may be cliché, but my thoughts during the solitary times of that watch turned to the oft mentioned fact that Jesus and his family were refugees early in his life, fleeing to Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod. While I missed my normal Christmas festivities back home with my family, thoughts like that made me feel better about where I was and what I was doing.
The day after Christmas was my flight out of Greece. I was on call for one final night before I was going to take the early morning bus to Mytilene to fly out later that evening. At 4 AM, plans changed. My phone rang as there had been another crossing. I had to hurry and get ready in order to meet at the Refugee Rescue headquarters to get a ride to the transition camp so we could prepare for the arrival. A while later, before dawn had begun to break, we were helping distribute dry clothing to almost 30 refugees from Afghanistan.
I was unable to make the early morning bus. But instead, I was going to be able to get a ride to Mytilene with a group from Refugees 4 Refugees who would be going to their warehouse outside of the Moria camp in order to organize some clothing that afternoon. (This also allowed me to catch up on some sleep in the late morning.)
This unexpected side trip allowed me to learn even more. Omar, one of the founders of Refugees 4 Refugees, drove the van to the warehouse. Along the way, I learned a little more about his story. He himself was a refugee. He had originally left Syria due to a family dispute, but then when the civil war broke out, he put that aside and returned to help support his family. They eventually decided it had become to dangerous and they left the country together. After being in a Europe for a while, he decided to help support the continuous influx of refugees and he helped to found Refugees 4 Refugees.
As we came close to the Moria refugee camp, a place that was commonly described to me as having hellish conditions, I noticed the large numbers of people just aimlessly walking up and down the road. Many of the refugees in these camps are in a constant state of limbo, not knowing what their status is or where they may be able to go and settle (if anywhere) so they have nothing to do except while the hours away. Just seeing them walk as we drove along, I could sense the frustrating boredom emanating from their purposeless steps.
While in the warehouse, I began helping the Refugees 4 Refugees volunteers sorting through the boxes of donated clothing. It was simple, but meaningful work. A young refugee girl had come through a hole in the fence and was hoping to get a better pair of shoes. Unfortunately, the warehouse was actually closed that day (so that it could be sorted) so we weren’t supposed to handing out items. However, a couple of the volunteers tried to help her. But it was taking too long, and a crowd was beginning to gather at the fence, likely wanting to get something if they could as well. Eventually, the volunteers had to send the girl away. But she actually did not go easily. With a smile on her face, she would walk away and then try to sneak back in another way. It did not seem that she was directly trying to disobey them. Rather, based on the look on her face, it was a game to her. She was playing, trying to find some kind of distraction from the monotony of the camp.
Those scenes, including the sprawling tent settlements that were actually outside of Moria, were the final scenes and reminders of the refugee crisis in Greece. A crisis that is still on-going, and only one of many refugee crises around the world: Africa, Asia, the Middle-East. It is an oft-stated fact that we are in the midst of the worst refugee crises since World War II. I wish I had definitive solutions to offer, but there is no easy solution to this. There is so much complexity and competing aspects to the situation and how to handle it. However, the one thing I do know is that ignoring will not cause it to go away. What would it say about us if we just close our eyes to men, women, and children that have struggled in ways most of us could never fathom and are willing to risk everything for a chance to live they types of lives we far too often take for granted?
There are plenty of resources online dealing with the refugee crises around the world. A quick Google search is really all you need to learn more and find something of particular interest to you. I am mostly just going to list the organizations that I worked with during my time in Greece.
Following my excursions in South America and Antarctica, it was time to head onward to new continents. This started with a short layover of a couple of days in New Zealand. My parents had been planning a vacation so we worked out timings so that we could spend a few days together in the area around Auckland. We went to Hobbiton, the glow warm caves, and the hot springs of Rotorua. After that short family visit, I continued on to Australia while my parents spent another week touring New Zealand.
I arrived in Brisbane, Australia far too late on a Sunday night. It turned out I had not looked closely enough at my hostel booking and it closed at 10:00 PM. Which was unfortunate since I arrived there at 11:30 PM. Luckily, I was able to find a hotel not too far away, so other than spending a little more than I had planned, it was a minor inconvenience. My first task the next morning was going to the Chinese consulate to get my paperwork started on my Chinese visa. After the usual bureaucratic annoyances involved in that exercise, I was soon on my way to a small shopping center on the outskirts of Brisbane.
My goal in Australia was to work with wildlife in some way. During the course of my multiple searches and travel planning, I came across Oceans 2 Earth volunteers. They are an organization focused on wildlife, based in Australia, and run multiple programs for visiting volunteers. Now, I was going to be spending a week working with wallabies and kangaroos. Brian found me in the parking lot of the shopping center and soon we were on our way. We stopped at a grocery store so I could stock up for the week. The one restriction that was going to be a bit a little different for me was that they asked me to maintain a vegetarian diet while on the refuge. So, not surprising to anyone that truly knows me, peanut butter was going to be even more of my staple diet that week.
On the way Brian explained a bit of their history. He and Lexie used to live in Brisbane, but as they got more involved in taking care of animals, living in the city was obviously not well suited. They bought some bushland about 45 minutes outside of the city and have spent the past 20 years or so taking care of wallabies, kangaroos, and possums. The common circumstance is that a kangaroo or wallaby female is hit by a car with a baby in pouch. The mother is killed, but the pouch protects the baby and it survives. These are the patients that get brought to Lexie and Brian. Brian has maintained his normal “9 to 5” while Lexie cares for the animals full-time. In addition to the wallabies and kangaroos, they also take care of a variety of local possums.
Soon enough, we had arrived at the Coomalong Care Center, and Brian gave me a brief lay of the land, and showed me to the little cottage where I would be staying. He told me to go ahead and rest as it would be a couple of hours until the next feeding, and then we could go through more details. After a brief nap, I was right into the thick of it. Helping to bottle feed, cutting up fruit for the possums, holding some of the younger wallabies so they got some attention. There was a surreal moment standing in the kitchen at one point as a small group of wallabies and kangaroos went hopping down the long hallway and past me when I realized this is a completely different scenario than I’ve ever been in before. It was almost as if I were in a parody of Australia, it was too cliché. To add to the overly cute aspect, the animals would sleep in woven bags that served as “pouches.” Sometimes the “pouches” were hanging off of wooden frames, and sometimes cuddled up in baskets with each other.
It was easy enough to fall into the pleasant routine of the lifestyle. I would wake up early to help with the morning feeding and then begin to help clean the house. You can imagine what a dozen or so wallabies and kangaroos being in a house can do (they aren’t exactly house-broken). Sometime would be spent taking the joeys outside to begin to transition them. There was a small enclosure that is used for the really young, and in only small groups at a time. It is maybe 15 ft x 15 ft, and is basically just an outdoor playpen for them. But then up on the hill, is the large enclosure, about the size of a residential lot, where older wallabies and kangaroos spend most of their time as they begin to transition to the wild. Usually, they will go out for a time, and then return to the safety (and ready food supply) of the enclosure.
I was able to witness the incredible amount of love that Lexie puts into this calling. I began regularly feeding two wallabies that shared a basket and often spent time together. They were named Indy and Lolly. One day, after we had been up in the enclosure, Lexie found Lolly kind of a daze. Lexie put her back in her pouch and into the basket to rest. Later that evening, when time for feeding, I couldn’t get Lolly to drink anything at all. Lexie tried as well, but also with no luck. In fact, she noticed that Lolly seemed to be almost paralytic on one side. Over the next few hours, the focus was on Lolly. Lexie’s theory was that somehow, she may have taken a tumble and had a severe head or neck injury. Her breathing seemed to weaken and struggle as well. Phone calls were made, along with efforts to medicate. The decision was made that, if she survived the night, we would take her to the Australia Zoo and its wildlife hospital the next day. However, it did not look promising. Lexie sat next to me on the couch, cradling Lolly, while Brian was on the phone. Lexie’s eyes began to well up as she quietly cursed. As many animals as had come in and out of this woman’s life, this one she held meant the world to her. Just like each and every one of the others did as well. It was humbling to witness. I awkwardly tried to comfort her with a hand on her shoulder, not really know what to do or say.
A few hours later, as luck would happen, Lolly seemed to perk up. She still did not seem to be quite right, but she was definitely more active. Lexie and Brian began to think that maybe she had just been slightly stunned or had a small concussion. But at least things looked more promising than they had only a short time earlier. The next morning, I went with Lexie and Judy, one of the permanent volunteers, to the Australia Zoo to get Lolly checked out. It was such an awe-inspiring opportunity to be in this place. This was the home zoo of Steve Irwin, and I was able to get a behind the scenes look at the wildlife hospital as Lolly was getting checked out. It was a testament to investment in conservation, with a state of the art facility dedicated to Australia’s wildlife. Lexie also told me they occasionally due work on the zoo’s animals there as well, and one time she saw a tiger under anesthesia there. I simply was able to see a koala with a small green cast on its arm. Quotes from biologists and conservationists adorned the walls, including one that stood out to me, attributed to the Audubon society: “A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his father, but borrowed from his children.”
The prognosis of Lolly was about as expected, wait and observe. She seemed much better, but they would need to keep an eye on her. We headed back, and the atmosphere was much lighter than it had been the evening before. Unfortunately, my time there was drawing to a close. In a few days, we did one last night out in Brisbane with some of the permanent volunteers, and then Brian and Lexie dropped me off at my hostel. I was about to continue on with my Australian adventure.
I spent a few days exploring more around Brisbane, including a trip to nearby Stradbrook Island, which Brian had recommended, and the Lone-Pine Koala sanctuary, the oldest such sanctuary in Australia. After my short time around Brisbane, I took a flight north to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. My first day in Cairns was a day tour up to the Daintree Rainforest to see that ecosystem, as well as learn a little bit about the aboriginal culture there. The symbiotic relationship between the people and the environment was breathtaking. I was most taken by the fact that in pre-colonial times, they would bury their dead in the hollowed trunks of certain trees so that they would become one with the forest. This is why, before entering, we actually took part in a welcoming ceremony, walking through smoke as part of purification as we entered such a sacred place. What was also interesting was some of the similar adaptations that these rainforest aboriginal people had made when compared to what I learned in the Amazon region about the indigenous people there. Unfortunately, much as is true with indigenous peoples around the world, the aboriginal people of Australia are among the poorest in the country. Luckily, Mossman Gorge Center where I visited, is actually run by and helps to train the local indigenous people.
My next week was spent getting my SCUBA certification and diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I was a little nervous at first about how I would act underwater, but I found it to be such an amazing and calming experience. Then being able to spend four days and three nights staying on a boat, hopping around spots on the Great Barrier Reef was thrilling. Just the expansive sight of the reef from the surface was breathtaking. Seeing such a diverse array of wildlife in such an alien environment is a life experience that cannot be taken for granted. I actually learned that many of the professional dive excursions actually don’t take the majority of divers to the truly pristine places on the reef in order to better protect them (and with my clumsy efforts in the water, that is definitely a smart decision.) There is special concern now especially given the reports of recent years about the growing expanses of bleached coral due to rising water temperatures. The experiences I had in those depths, from witnessing a sting ray burrow into the sand to a moray eel popping out of its cave to look around. From finding myself surrounded by tropical fish, to diving at night with a UV flashlight to witness the bioluminescent life of the reef. These experiences just add to the belief of how critical it is for us to protect such wonders of creation.
More Information and How You Can Help
Oceans2Earth Volunteers: The organization I organized my travel with and my placement at Coomalong. They are based in Australia but have projects around the world.
RSPCA Queensland: Supports many animal welfare programs including wildlife carers such as Lexie and Brian
Eye on the Reef: A project sponsored by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority of the Australian Government that allows visitors from around the world to help with monitoring the Great Barrier Reef
Fight for our Reef: A campaign run by the Australian Marine Conservation Society. They have different issues they are working all in order to help the GBR.