What I Learned From Being a Volunteer Tourist Abroad

**SPOILER ALERT: THIS IS AN OPINION / LONG READ ARTICLE **

After having worked in the volunteer tourism industry in Ecuador and Cambodia, I realized that if I really wanted to make a meaningful difference, I should be writing about volunteer tourism and researching the phenomenon rather than to do the actual volunteer work. So I started to conduct research on the phenomenon in Cuba. For now, my own research is done (and compiled in some articles and a Masters’ thesis), but for some the research continues…

Recently I got contact by Julia Rommel, a student at ‘iba’ Internationale Berufsakademie Köln in Germany. She is currently conducting research for her own thesis on “Volunteer-Tourism as a form of travel in context of development cooperation – a critical analysis of assorted characteristics, development possibilities and effects of the view of the various involved participants”. She asked me if she could interview me about my own personal experiences. It turned out to be a very meaningful reflection for myself again, and I realize I should keep sharing what I have learned from volunteering abroad. 

So here’s to all who consider to volunteer abroad. Julia and I wanted to share the interview online so that we could raise awareness and open a public discussion. 

Continue reading if you want to know: 

  • How the involvement in the projects can be envisioned locally on the spot.
  • What exactly I did in Ecuador and Cambodia
  • Which impact volunteering abroad had on my personal life 
  • How I finance my trips abroad
  • What I think is the best way to organize a volunteer trip
  • How I really think about volunteer tourism

Please share your comments after reading. We love to hear from you and who knows… it can help Julia to collect more research data for her thesis!

1. What do you personally find fascinating about travelling?

I love to travel because it allows me to see different parts of the world and de-familiarize my own culture, habits, world views and so on. You can meet new people, discover new places, eat different foods, see other types of architectures and religions, and so on. Traveling is part of my personal development because it turns you into a different person after: in my case, traveling has made me feel more open-minded, conscious, knowledgeable, confident, adventurous, flexible, social, assertive and open towards a multi-cultural society.

Travel far enough, you meet yourself.

David Mitchell

I feel also that travel gave me more understanding of life outside my own bubble (village), but also about political and religious issues, such as climate change, female circumcision, prostitution and illiteracy. By experiencing things first-hand or witnessing situations you often learn a lot more than from reading it in books or hearing about it on tv or in the university. Simultaneously, you get to know yourself better because you obviously start to question your own life, conditions and ways of seeing or thinking. This is why I like traveling so much. 

Moreover, I love photography and writing so I love traveling because it is beautiful to go somewhere for photographic reasons or to write about places for my travel blog. On top of that, traveling allows you to learn languages and practices your language skills better than any course can do. I have learned basic Spanish at school, but it was only by studying in Spain, doing my internship in Ecuador, conducting research in Cuba and working in Mallorca that I could become so fluent in it.

Lastly, because travel is so adventurous and challenging at times, it gives you an adrenaline rush. Therefore, I would say that travel becomes an addiction. You always want to see more places, travel more often, do it again and again. For me, it is very hard to settle in a small Belgian village now that I have travelled to so many places and lived abroad for so many times and so long. I am so used to having stories to tell, to get inspired by the things I encounter along the way. I just love it!

2. Where do you currently work and live?

I currently live in Palma de Mallorca where I work for Thomas Cook in Destination Management. This is a temporary contract for the Summer Season from March until October. I chose this job because I wanted to live on a Spanish island in the sun under good working conditions (apartment, salary, insurance, …) but I am not sure yet if I will want to or can stay in the company. I am thinking of going on a Working Holiday Visa (WHV) to Australia before I get 30 (I’m 27 now) so that I can travel while working in Oceania as well, but the plan is not concretized yet.

3. How do you define „Volunteer Tourism“?

For me, volunteer tourism is the travel that includes some activities of volunteering. Ideally, it should represent a balance between a holiday (tourism) and volunteering (work), but often this is not the case. Usually, it tends to focus more on the touristic part of the trip. We must not forget that tourism is an economy (providing a product or service in return for money), whereas volunteering is usually associated with altruism (doing something good without expecting something in return for it). My thesis deals with the contradiction between profit-seeking activities and charitable generosity. Nowadays, any kind of touristic activity that includes volunteerism can be considered volunteer tourism.

For a detailed conceptualization of the term ‘volunteer tourism’ I refer to chapter 2.1 in my Master’s thesis (p.22) ‘Why Don’t You Give Me Some Love – An anthropological examination of the intimate relationship between volunteer tourism and jineterismo in Cuba’ and a paper I wrote ‘PLEASE MIND THE GAP! (In-) Consistency in Gap Year Volunteer Tourism’.  

4. From March until June and from June until August 2014 you worked as a project coordinator and group leader for volunteers in Cambodia and Ecuador. How can I envision the involvement in the projects locally on the spot?

What exactly did you do there? Were the projects comparable? Do they have something to do with Volunteer Tourism? Tell me about your experiences and about the volunteers that had applied for the voluntary work.

Yes, indeed. I worked in Ecuador and Cambodia as a volunteer group leader for a gap year company in the UK in 2014. I also participated in a volunteer brigade in Cuba for my Master’s thesis research in 2016.

Ecuador

I worked for the Yanapuma Foundation in Ecuador. This is a grassroots, self-sustaining NGO in Ecuador that works with a number of rural, indigenous and marginalized communities on sustainable development projects in the areas of health, education and agriculture. As part of its long-term goals to assist local communities adapt to an increasingly globalised world while promoting and preserving their culture, Yanapuma provides economic, material and human resources so that they may partake in social development projects within their communities.

An important aspect of my work at Yanapuma Foundation was the provision of international volunteers for both short and long-term periods (from one week to six months) to assist these communities with their goals. The NGO receive groups of volunteers from The Leap Gap Years Overseas between 18-22 years old from gap year programs several times per year, particularly for 6 to 10-week programs.

My responsibilities were to maintain in contact with the volunteer coordinator at the office to organize logistics and plan the project prior to their arrival. I had to receive the group upon arrival and be their leader through most of their time with Yanapuma in Ecuador. This included traveling with the group and living with them on site to participate in their project work and coordinate accommodation, food, and extra activities. I was serving as the principal English/Spanish translator between the group and local project coordinators. I also managed money for group expenses such as bus tickets and I made expense reports at the end of each phase. I was the point-of-contact between the group and the Yanapuma office in case of problems or concerns, and I was overseeing the health and wellbeing of the group, during their time with Yanapuma and react in case of emergency. I provided weekly updates describing group activities and/or any health issues.

As a Volunteer Group Leader I had to motivate, manage and lead these groups in different locations around Ecuador. Locations included Quito, Otavalo, indigenous communities, Baños, Quilotoa, and Riobamba. The programs included a mix of community volunteering and tourism. As a group leader, I lived with the group. In the indigenous communities, everyone lived in volunteer cabins, and while in Quito and traveling to other destinations we stayed in hostels.

Chilcapamba

Cambodia

In Cambodia, I was contracted by Indochina Adventures, Co. Ltd., a tour operator based in Siem Reap since 1999. I worked for them as a Volunteer Group Leader for similar volunteer groups as in Ecuador sent by The Leap Gap Years Overseas. Indochina Adventures is, in contrary to Yanapuma Foundation, not an NGO. It is a commercial tour operator specialized in cycling and trekking, but the company also offers bird watching, photography tours and volunteer programs.

Indochina Adventures is a local travel company that actively participates in country development and helps the Cambodian community as it strongly believes that local people are the people who should get the most income from tourism. The founders recommend tourists to sleep in home stays, to eat delicious local food such as Amok, to support the floating school at Tonle Sap lake by providing school kits, and so on. Indochina Adventures strongly believes that poor schoolchildren with better education will have a better future. In addition, it supports some of the NGOs to help the kids with HIV/AIDS, it also support the Trailblazer Foundation to provide water filter for ‘the poorfamilies’ (quoted from their website). 

Comparison – Difference in Projects

My job role in Cambodia was similar to that in Ecuador. The difference is probably most in the nature of the projects. Hereby a list of the various project I worked on:

Ecuador – Chilcapamba

The Chilcapamba Community is located near Otavalo in the Andes, two hours north of Quito. The region is a center of indigenous culture in Ecuador and continues today the production of world-renowned handicrafts. Many indigenous communities in the area still face economic hardship and erosion of their culture. The community of Chilcapamba is working hard to preserve their language and identity, whilst still participating in modern Ecuadorian life through education and the development of sustainable industries. There are approximately 100 families in the community and they are currently undertaking a range of projects in the areas of education, development, sustainable agriculture and the preservation of indigenous culture. 

In the mornings we were helping with a variety of projects. Activities included digging irrigation ditches, clearing rocks and planting trees. Volunteers also cleared weeds near future garden sites, helped to maintain existing gardens, worked on construction in the community centre or helped out in the local school. In the afternoons, volunteers had group Spanish classes for 2 hours in the community.

Ecuador – Tsachila Community

In the lowland jungle there was another volunteer project with the Tsachila community. Here we did a number of cultural activities and got to know the community. The volunteers have participated in expanding the cultural centre and the cacao cooperative. They have helped to reforest the area, maintained the botanical gardens and constructed additional tourist cabins and classrooms for the local school. 

Projects included planting hundreds of cocoa plants (3 days a week) and constructing small plant nurseries for a number of the families (the other 2 days of the week) so that they could easily care for the crops that they grow from the beginning. Volunteers also had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the Tsachila culture with afternoon activities such as making artisan crafts, painting your hair bright red with achiote paste and learning how to play Marimba (typical instrument).

Ecuador – Hacienda Tranquila

In the Galapagos Islands, I took the volunteers to Hacienda Tranquila. The Hacienda is located in the highlands of the island, on a 50-hectare site, where there is still native vegetation. The main objective of the project was to develop the technology to reconstruct native habitat in the highlands on San Cristobal, and to serve as a centre for similar projects in the highlands of other populated islands in the Galapagos chain. We worked to reverse the negative effects of invasive or introduced species, restoring the native and endemic forests of San Cristobal. This means much of your time was spent cutting down invasive species such as blackberry bushes and in turn planting tree species native to the islands. Afternoons were spent working in the organic garden: watering plants, weeding, and caring for the baby plants in the nursery.

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, special needs children from the community came to the Hacienda and the volunteers assisted them in a form of therapy in which the children ride horses. Finally, volunteers took care of the animals on the hacienda which include cows and chickens. 

Cambodia – Water Project

Despite its beautiful exterior, Siem Reap is one of the poorest regions in Cambodia, a town the difference between rich and poor is stark. The illegal slum settlements which perch on the polluted riverside are a stones throw from luxurious 5* hotels with their turquoise swimming pools and overflowing breakfast buffets. Communities of displaced people, army families, victims of landmines and sex-workers live in deep poverty with little access to education or basic amenities – tucked out of sight of the cities’ affluent tourists. It is estimated that only half the population have access to clean water and less than a quarter have access to a toilet. With the volunteers’ help, Indochina Adventures aimed to build functioning wells and flushing toilets to service these communities and, in the process, help to restore health and dignity to people too often overlooked by the authorities. 

The mornings were spent with a team of local construction workers, digging, mixing cement, helping to lay pipes and installing water pump kits.

Cambodia – Orphanage Project

In the afternoons volunteers joined forces with the Cambodia Development Organisation (CDO) who provide a home for orphaned and poor children. Founded by a local Cambodian in 2006 CDO provides children at risk with vital shelter, protection, food and education for people who need it most. The centre is situated 7km East of Siem Reap and comprises basic accommodation, classrooms, performance spaces and outside play areas for 30-40 children at a time. Volunteers assisted the centre with improvements to the buildings, interact with, feed and teach kids English whilst supporting CDO financially through the donation Indochina Adventures made on their behalf. 

Cambodia – Eco-Agriculture Project

Another morning project included the immersion in a rural farming community in Samrong village near Siem Reap, where subsistence rice farmers still live in wooden houses on stilts and children catch fish with simple wooden rods. Like many small, traditional agricultural communities the people of Samrong were, until recently, entirely dependent on the rice harvest for their livelihoods. The grain forms the basis of their diet and any additional rice left over after the community have used their share is sold for a small profit to purchase other foods, pay for education and health care. 

However, unpredictable weather conditions and the fluctuating value of rice on the market has left them vulnerable. Now with the help of local NGOs the village is working hard to diversify into other areas to have a more stable income and range of crops, increase their farming areas and productivity and have even built a communal rice store to make their harvest go further. Volunteers assisted the community with harvesting, infrastructure projects and a variety of income generating schemes, such as basket weaving and making incense sticks.

Cambodia – Teaching English

In the afternoons, volunteers worked with school children at a local school in Siem Reap while teaching English, which focused on education as a means of breaking the poverty cycle in the area. The school provided social care and aimed to improve access to education for around 1,500 disadvantaged children and young adults in their area and have a variety of incredible community projects that volunteers can get involved with. From sports coaching to painting or construction, helping out in organic farms or delivering English lessons – volunteers supported the work of the school and got to know the incredible young people they work with.

Cambodia – Children’s Painting Project ‘Let Us Create’

Let Us Create (LUC) is a day centre that provides nutritional food, clean drinking water, educational enrichment, and a creative outlet for over 100 registered children in Sihanoukville. This community group of children comes from very poor backgrounds, and many of them scavenge through garbage bins or sell souvenirs to tourists on the beach to help support their family. These identified children come to the LUC centre every day between the hours of 7:00am and 7:00pm, where they are provided breakfast, and lunch, and have the opportunity to attend educational enrichment classes. 

The project aims to provide a safe environment where the children can learn, play, be creative, challenge themselves, have fun and grow into happy, healthy young adults. In addition, LUC hopes to give them the skills and opportunities they need to become confident about and prepared for the future whilst having the tools to make educated decisions. Here, the volunteers assisted in the daily tasks of the staff members at LUC: cooking, teaching, playing, cleaning, painting, dancing and so on.

Cambodia – Elephant Valley Project (EVP)

Here I was working alongside local mahouts (elephant keepers) the volunteers were taking care at Elephant Valley Project for the rescued elephants, some of which have been abused or cruelly maimed by landmines. They spent many, magical sun-drenched hours escorting the elephants on its ambling adventures as it roamed free through jungle and grasslands, washing troubles away in the river and simply observing the largest mammal on Earth at incredible close-quarters in the wildest reaches of South East Asia.

Link between volunteering and tourism

During the weekends and between the phases of their volunteer trip, the volunteers could go on day trips or overnight trips to touristic places in the areas where they stayed. Sometimes, there were even ‘Adventurous Weeks’, ‘Island Trips’ or ‘Rutas del Sol’ included, for example. For the volunteers, the volunteer program was a way to stay longer in the country and to get a more in-depth immersion into the local culture, as compared to a usually shorter roundtrip or backpacking trip through Latin America or Southeast Asia. Moreover, it was a way for the them to make their travel not only beneficial to themselves, but also to the local communities they visited along the way.

My experience with the volunteer projects

When I started as a group leader in Ecuador, I had no experience in volunteering abroad. I was enthusiast and I really enjoyed the work. Each project had its own unique character and contribution to sustainable development. The projects seemed to be carefully selected by the local NGO which had a good reputation since many years in this sector. Of course, the volunteers were very young and not always as interested or motivated in the volunteer work itself, but with extra effort from our team we were able to lead them through the various phases of their program: despite them feeling homesick, sick, unmotivated or more interested in exploring the country or having a good party. 

When I later moved to Cambodia, I started to look different at things. The projects did not seem to be that well selected, I had the impression that the volunteer program was operated by a business rather than a community-based organization because the owner was a rich business man with many connections in the country. The owner let me stay in his boutique hotel for the whole Summer, where I was treated as a princess, which did not feel right to me. I felt that the volunteer business was for him part of a philanthropic effort while still making money out of it. Think of the Gates Foundation… There’s no such thing as a free gift. I started to learn slowly but steadily what volunteer tourism was about. The children in the orphanages seemed to be coming and going to the center whenever they wanted. I had to hand over hundreds of dollars to the school and orphanage directors without ever needing to ask what was happening with this money. The wife of my boss gave a television as her own birthday present to the school. There were no requirements for volunteers regarding minimum stay or teaching experience when going to teach in schools. The schools did not follow any learning plans (and neither did we offer to implement this) so the volunteers kept repeating the same basic stuff, and so on. 

I think I started to understand what was really going on (and what was really going wrong) when we were working on the water pump wells in Cambodia. While driving through the villages, I could see that many existing wells were broken or not operative. We drove further until we reached a village where there were no wells built yet. The plan was, according to my boss, to provide all villages with wells until everyone had water. It sounded great, but when I asked why we did not go to fix the broken ones or teach the village people how to use them better or how to repair them their selves, he said that was not in his business interest. Moreover, volunteers wanted to see instant result and he felt pressure to keep them happy with what they were doing. They needed to feel like they were making a difference. Here is when I realized that volunteer tourism is really a business which is not sustainable, and still mostly oriented towards the creation of profit for the volunteers and the organizers of it, rather than for the orphans, school children or village people.

Volunteer tourism is not a sustainable business.

– Julie Rausenberger

I decided not to continue my position after that contract (even though they offered to extend it) and I returned back to Belgium to start my Masters’ degree in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Leuven, where I wanted to research intimacy and the concept of gift-giving within the context of volunteer tourism, this time in Cuba. I never regret this decision to quit my job in the volunteer tourism industry because the volunteer program in Cambodia has been operating the same way it was since 2014, despite my constructive critique towards the company to be more careful in the selection of volunteer projects and their long-term implementation. 

My experience with the volunteers 

I worked with volunteer tourists from the United Kingdom who were mostly between 18-22 years old and who were currently on a gap year before starting their higher studies at the university. Most of them were dividing their year off between a few months of student work in the United Kingdom and traveling abroad to explore the world. The volunteers did the latter rather in organized and controlled ways because of different reasons: they felt too insecure to travel to far-away continents on their own, or were too unexperienced to go on a backpacking adventure on their own, or they did not have a travel mate, or they were not allowed by their parents to travel alone, or they did not know where to start, or they wanted to contribute to the world while traveling and volunteering, or they wanted to have a unique travel experience, or they were looking for a way to stay longer in one country without ‘just traveling’. They also gave the impression that they wanted to make a difference somehow this way, and that they were looking to ‘find their selves’ while seeking personal development in this year off. 

Some volunteers were even sent by their parents because their parents were convinced that this program abroad would broaden their horizon and would prepare themselves better for the ‘real world’. I had the impression that, in this case, the parents found their kids spoilt and wanted them to get out of their comfort zone by traveling in a basic but still organized and safe way (because of the guidance, group leader presence, follow up, weekly reports to parents, …). Also, the volunteer programs were very expensive and therefore obviously targeted towards a specific target group of richer families who sent their children on ‘an adventure of a lifetime’ in the hope that their children would learn not to take things for granted. Sometimes this led to paradoxical situations: the volunteers wanted to go back to basics and experience the ‘real Ecuador or Cambodia’ but in the same time they complained when their room was not ‘good enough’ or when they did not get cereals for breakfast or milk in their tea (knowing that milk and cereals are expensive in Cambodia).  

At times I was frustrated because the volunteers did not show as much interest and motivation in the volunteer work as I hoped for.

– Julie Rausenberger

A reason for this could be that they were sent by their parents, but also that they expected to see faster results. It was not motivational for them to be working on digging holes for water pipe lines in Chilcapamba, for example, for weeks. Rather, they seemed to be satisfied when they could see instant results such as when they were building a water well pump in Siem Reap: this only took a few days to be finished per well. I also noticed that they enjoyed it more to be surrounded by children or to be involved in social work in orphanages or schools. The fact that they never spoke the local language (Spanish or Khmer) withheld them from engaging more in-depth with the local community members they were working with, so the contact was again very limited and not reaching the level they had hoped for. With children, this seemed less problematic because playing did not need that much conversation. Interestingly, most of the volunteers did not make efforts before or while traveling in-country to learn the local language. This showed for me that they were only partially looking for a real engagement with the communities.

Last but not least, it speaks for itself that a large part of the trip was about fun, parties, adventures, activities and other things that are related to tourism for young travellers. The touristic aspect of the trip was very important to the volunteers, despite us – as organizers – trying constantly to put the voluntary work to the foreground. 

5. Which impacts did the work in these projects have to your personal life and to the other participants?

Impact on my personal life

At the very personal level, I think that the volunteering pushed me into the direction of my continued university studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology (after having studied Tourism and Leisure Management). I remember I met a French anthropologist, Richard Couedel, in the jungle in Ecuador. He was studying the community we were working with and eventually published a book “Yo me acuerdo, biografía de un líder Tsa’chila”about it a few years later. I was very inspired by his research and life in the community. A colleague of mine in Quito was also an anthropologist, so again, I felt that anthropology was a useful discipline to study if I wanted to continue a career in the non-profit sector. Most of all…

I realized after many personal experiences in the volunteer industry abroad, I could make a more meaningful difference by writing about volunteer tourism and researching the phenomenon than to do the actual volunteer work.

Julie Rausenberger

I also met very interesting people along the way while I worked within these organizations. For example, one of the volunteer coordinators in the UK became a friend and she now runs her own travel business in Tanzania and she has invited me to come over. Another colleague from Canada who worked in Ecuador with me is now living in New Zealand and working with another NGO, for example. It is these connections with other persons that I really value and that really had an impact on my life because they inspire me and make me believe that there are other life routes than a village life and a 9-to-5 job in Belgium.

Impact on the volunteers’ life

It is of course difficult to tell what the impacts of these volunteer programs were on the life of the volunteers because I did not keep in touch with all of them and I cannot know how they feel about it. However, from what I have seen, there are very varied scenarios: some people really opened up, I could see them becoming more confident, more assertive, more culturally aware and so on. Others could not deal with the out-of-the-comfort level of the volunteer programs. Some became very homesick or even wanted to go home (one volunteer really left home early despite us trying to cheer him up repeatedly). 

Others again saw this volunteer experience as the starting point and preparation for their independent travels. They went to travel afterwards on their own in Latin America of Southeast Asia. For some, this continuation of later travels – post-volunteering with our organization – turned out a great adventure, but for some it was a complete disaster: they were shocked how much they suddenly needed to plan and organize their selves without having the support and translation of our organization. 

On the long term, I kept in touch with some of the volunteers whom I saw growing from adolescents to young adults with a university degree and a full-time job nowadays. I do not have the impression that they became ambassadors for the volunteer work they did, or that they repeated a volunteer program ever again (not even in another country). They also did not become ‘world travellers’ or ‘frequent backpackers’, in most cases. Rather, I see them going back to a more traditional form of tourism (like package holidays or city trips within Europe) when I see and hear about their recent holidays on social media. 

One thing is for sure to me…

Volunteer programs have more impact on the personal development of the volunteers itself than that their personal effort has an impact on the volunteer projects

– Julie Rausenberger

6. What was the greatest experience during this time?

Without a doubt, I have the best memories from my time working as a volunteer group leader in Ecuador. Maybe because it was the first volunteer program I worked on, but I think it has to do with the professionalism of the NGO I worked for. The projects were very well selected and I was also very lucky to have a nice group of volunteers to lead. The most beautiful memory I have is from the Tsachila community in Ecuador because this was for me the most authentic experience. I slept in a wooden bungalow without electricity supply, there was only a natural toilet, and the shower was in the river in a lush forest. We ate bananas with fresh river fish in the morning and had no fridge. There was not even a phone signal and there was only one truck per day going to the nearest village one hour further from where I lived. The volunteer work was rewarding because we were planting small tree in bags to plant new forests to beat the deforestation in the area by American oil companies. I just knew how important this was for the local community and they were never able to build all of these trees ever again in this amount of time on top of their normal daily work. It was very humid and tough at times to work here, but because of the remote location and isolation of the community, we grew more closely together to the locals, even without knowing their language: Tsafiki.

I personally grew closer to the head of the community, who spoke Spanish, and for whom I translated everything to English to the volunteers. He was a shaman with a lot of natural wisdom who taught me to get closer connected to nature. He taught me about his spiritual life and the magic effects of ayahuasca (a traditional drink containing natural ingredients from the Amazon that causes shamans or healers to reach the expansion of their consciousness). For me, these are experiences and interactions that I will never forget. Also, the Yanapuma NGO worked together with him for many years in the battle against capitalism and the deforestation in the area, and they used the money for the conversation of this community. I really felt that the work we did, combined with the financial contribution of the volunteers, made a difference in their lives. 

7. How do you finance your trips?

I always had a both fortunate and unfortunate situation when I was a student: because I came from a rather disadvantaged family background, I managed to get scholarships more easily to finance my studies as well as my studies abroad. I got a scholarship for my internship in Ecuador and I was lucky that the NGO covered my daily expenses: Yanapuma provided food, accommodation, program related travel, and certain activities (such as white water rafting and mountain biking) while I was working as a group leader with my group. When the group was traveling to the Galapagos Islands, I had the option to stay on the mainland or to go with the group but then I had to pay my flight myself, but I still got accommodation and a few weeks off there. 

When I went to Cambodia, the company paid my flights and travel expenses, as well as housing and food. My personal expenses I covered with some saving money, which I gathered together from during student work in Belgium as a travel agent, social media manager, sales assistant, and many other student jobs that I combined with my studies. My parents have never supported my travels financially, but I always managed to budget my trips carefully. Gradually, I also became an expert in negotiating deals in destinations with local suppliers: for example, in Ecuador I would always take my volunteers to restaurants where I got good deals so that I could get something for free, or when I organized excursions for the groups in in Ecuador during their free time, I negotiated that I could join for free as their group leader. This way, I did not need much more additional pocket money to travel either.

8. In your opinion what is the best way to organise a volunteer trip?

I think the best way is to start with volunteering at home and to think about which values you are willing to represent and defend even before and after the volunteer trip.

– Julie Rausenberger

Especially now that we are living in a digital era, we can no longer find excuses to defend the values we stand for, whether these are civil rights in Ecuador or equal access to water in Cambodia. There are many social and political platforms where you can share your experiences, knowledge, where you can start campaigns, sign petitions, or you can become a member of an NGO in your country which defends your values. 

If you are then still feeling the need to go volunteering abroad, instead of empowering local communities in their own country, to defend their rights and develop their lands, then you should do a lot of research before you decide what you will do and where you will do and with whom you will do it. Nowadays, the internet is full of articles and papers about the pro’s and con’s regarding volunteer tourism. One good source I would recommend is: ‘Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad’, a book in which I contributed my experiences (anonymously) as well. On the website www.leaningservice.info you can find many useful tips and information on how to do ‘doing good’ well.

On a personal note: I found out about Learning Service through Daniela Papi. She was also working many years in the volunteer industry in Phnom Penh in Cambodia for PEPY Tours. When I first saw her TedX Talk on YoutubeI was mesmerized. In my opinion, she hit the nail on the haid. I started following her work and that’s how I started to understand better how to organize a volunteer trip.

Another good checklist on ethical volunteering trips abroad can be find on HostelWorld

9. What is your personal view on Volunteer Tourism? Do you have anything to criticize about that concept? (if yes, why and what?)

This is a very complex question to answer because I can give many arguments both pro and contra the phenomenon. As already mentioned, nowadays I support more the perspective of Service Learning, as developed on the website www.learningservice.info.

As mentioned before, I believe that people should not engage in volunteer tourism if they are not willing to OR engage in volunteering at home OR engage in defending the project at a long-term basis as ‘an ambassador for the good cause’ they are supporting during the trip. First of all, if you are willing to volunteer, there are plenty opportunities at home. If you are merely willing to do this because you can travel abroad, then maybe the intention is more self-centred / opportunistic than altruistic. I believe that the idea of volunteer tourism should still be to support local communities / projects / … primarily, your personal development should come second. So, basically, my greatest criticism would be that volunteer tourists tend to think more about how it will turn out for them personally, then for the ‘Other’ and this is a treat to the phenomenon. This is in line with critiques of volunteer tourists using their volunteer trip as an argument on their CV to show that they gained experiences in intercultural awareness etcetera. 

Also, I mentioned before that organizers of volunteer tourism should be engaging more with long-term goals and ways of working to improve the sustainability of projects and benefits for local communities. Think about the water pump wells in Cambodia example I gave. The problem that summarizes this tendency of ignorance is expertise. Both the organisations as the volunteers lack the expertise to be involved with volunteer tourism: the volunteers do not have the skills to be teaching English, for example, and the organizations do not have the means, tools or knowledge to be creating a sustainable project plan. 

What happens when there is a lack of awareness of expertise, is that volunteer tourism can do more harm than good.

– Julie Rausenberger

It is not good for children to get another teacher from another country every two weeks. The dynamic of volunteer tourism can also undermine local workers, who are put aside when a volunteer comes to take over the job.  

10.Meanwhile the combination of travel and voluntary work is developing into a profitable business. What do you think about tour operators that offer Volunteer Tourism? Is helping in this concept helpful for the locals?

First of all, we must recognise the difference between non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) offering volunteer programs and tour operators (commercial enterprises). 

To be honest, I think that tour operators are undoubtedly monetizing volunteerism into an industry. They are charging a lot of money for these programs, and most money goes into the organizational aspects of the volunteers’ trip as well as the support given to the volunteers. Many staff members are involved in a volunteer program: imagine that for my groups there was a travel agent involved in the UK, a webmaster, a marketing director, a volunteer coordinator, a group leader (or two in case there is a local group leader needed for translation or in case the groups are large) and a reservation agent for operational queries, just to name a few. The donations given to the projects are indeed also included in the expensive program prices, but I did not have the impression that the company cared about what is actually done with the money. For example, I remember that I had to donate money to an orphanage director who had the latest new smartphone and a nice motor cycle, and that I was promptly wondering whether it might have been that he bought those with the donation money (because we never got to see what he actually did with the donations). Also, in order to maintain a long-term collaboration with local projects, the projects need to remain ‘poor’ in order to be attractive in the ‘needy’ discourse that volunteer tourism organizations like to present to the tourists. This is such a pity. I think this is also the case with The Leap Gap Years Overseas, a company specializing in volunteer programs abroad for UK based travellers. 

In the case of NGOs, I think that the situation in much different. In Ecuador, for example, I worked with Yanapuma Foundation. This NGO has financial challenges to survive: they need to commercialize their projects through collaborations with volunteer companies such as The Leap Gap Years Overseas in order to earn an income to invest in their community project. They lack financial support by governments and depend on donations from volunteers. The money that they earn by collaborating with volunteer programs goes partially into the operational costs (such as housing, transport and staff salaries), but also to invest in the development of their projects. To give you an example, developing a website is very costly for an NGO and to finance this, they can also use the money they earn by their collaborations with tourists. You can also find the yearly reviews of NGOs online, or request them by email, which usually reflects their transparency. 

For the ‘locals’ involved in volunteer tourism, this is a business like another: whether you are selling a cooking workshop or a toilet construction project, it is basically the same. I had the impression that the locals saw it as a job and that they were nothing like ‘the needy’ persons that are often depicted in advertisements for volunteer tourism. They gave me the impression of participating in the game of tourism: you look authentic, poor, smile, be thankful, speak a little bit, show them a bit of what traditional skill you can, and in return they get paid for this. Maybe it is not always this straight forward: sometimes the organizers will come ‘for free’ and are ‘invited’ by local communities, but they are well aware that such a collaboration will help them to construct a new house or that they will leave them with a donation at the end, for example. In this regard, I am still very frustrated with the power dynamics going on in the First World Giver – Third World Receiver discourse that is deeply entangled in the tourism industry. I tried to write about this in my Masters’ thesis as well.

In summary, I think there is always an interest involved, whether financial or not, for all of the parties involved, and it is therefore much less about the actual help that local communities or projects need than about economic or personal development for the parties involved. 

If volunteer tourism organisations and volunteer tourists really wanted to help local communities, they would pass on their knowledge and skills to the local communities involved. 

– Julie Rausenberger

However, this does usually not happen because it would translate soon into a death end of the business, which it unfortunately remains. I questioned once too: why do we not invest the money that we spend on our volunteer program travels ourselves fully into a donation, if we would really want to help financially? Ah, because maybe the volunteer wants to travel more than he wants to support?!

11.Is a catalogue of requirements for tour operators or anyone who offers Volunteer Tourism in that business appropriate (as an entrance examination)?

The last decade there has been an increasing attention paid by NGOs and in academia to the volunteer tourism industry. Many articles are published in scientific journals and online to raise awareness about the issues with volunteer tourism. Simultaneously, the volunteer tourism industry is booming and Generation Y, or the Millenials, keep showing a significant interest in traveling ‘for a good cause’. 

Many organizations have been publishing guidelines and tips about ‘how to volunteer abroad ethically’ and ‘how to avoid the voluntourism gap’. Tour operators such as Gadventures nowadays promote such guidelines on their own websites by collaborating with Planeterra, for example. Together with the International Ecotourism Society (TIES), Planeterra (a leading non-profit organisation dedicated to sustainable community development and environmental conversation through travel), has set up a set of criteria to help volunteer tourism organisers to offer, plan and manage their volunteer programs. 

A catalogue of requirements exists but there is no overarching international organization that is controlling their operations. There are organizations who try it, such as Fair Trade Tourism in Africa and beyond, but I think there is a need for more attention to be paid by the phenomenon ‘volunteer tourism’ at a global scale by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)The Code on Responsible Travel launched in 2017 was a good start. Hopefully it is the beginning of a continued trend.

12.Critics are particularly concerned that unskilled volunteers take a part in the children lives, especially short-time stays are under strong critique which do more harm than good. Do you agree?

Yes, as mentioned above, I believe that it is irresponsible to engage as a volunteer tourist for a short period of time in teaching English to children in schools or to engage in social work more generally. Orphanage tourism should be banned overall, regardless of volunteer activities being short term or long term because it is focusing too much on compassion and guilt. This again something that I tried to explain in my thesis ‘Why Don’t You Give Me Some Love?!’ in Section 4.3.4 on ‘Help, Consciousness or Guilt?’ (page 84).  

Orphanage tourism should be banned worldwide because it focuses on discourses of compassion and guilt.

– Julie Rausenberger

When I was working with orphans in Cambodia, I heard rumours that the children were bought from their own families to go and live in an orphanage. For their families this initially seemed an excellent opportunity: they got money which they otherwise never be able to earn and they were promised that their child would be educated, well fed and taken care of. However, the child was taken away from its family which could sometimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and detachment. Moreover, when the child got ill or misbehaved in front of tourists, orphanages tend to send back the child to its family. The family then ends up dealing with the problem and loses the money. These are situations that I believe often happen. The offer is, in most cases, too good to be true.

13.Local people get degraded to an aid recipient, volunteers presented as social workers or even heroes. The communication doesn’t seem to meet at eye level. How would it be possible to change the point of view in their heads?

*This question is hard to answer as it is not entirely clear to me. Volunteers are presented by who as social workers? Which communication are you referring to? Whose communication are you referring to when mentioning ‘the communication’? Whose heads are you referring to?* 

I assume that you are trying to ask how I suggest to change the mentality of volunteer tourists when it comes to their – what we call in academia – ‘White Savior Complex’. It refers to white people helping non-white people, which can be perceived as self-interested and which is typical to our times. I think that the book ‘The White Man’s Burden’by Rudyard Kipling is explaining very well what is going on, still today.

Communication of volunteer organisations is a matter of marketing, not anthropology, unfortunately. There is a lack of cultural relativism in volunteer tourism discourses as adapted by volunteer companies.The often-used expressions such as ‘Discover the real Africa’, ‘Help poor people now’, ‘give back to society’ and ‘go local’, are good examples of typical expressions that can be problematized from an anthropological perspective. Not enough attention is given to the agency – the capacity of persons to independently act and make their own decisions or choices – in the press or in marketing of such companies because they want to enforce the hegemonic discourse of need. In Ecuador, for example, I have personally witnessed that the local communities were acting as very powerful examples of sustainable development to other communities in their society. They were seen as creative entrepreneurs with an open-minded approach to development because they were having cross-cultural relationships with volunteers around the globe, learning foreign languages and because they were actively engaging in political struggles to defend their lands. 

Marketeers in the volunteer tourism industry still reinforce the hegemonic discourse of need in development cooperation.

Julie Rausenberger

Even more, sometimes – I would dare to say – communities were actively trying to ‘play’ the ‘impoverished’ role because it was in their economic advantage. This was especially the case in Cuba, where I have been participating in a volunteer brigade to express solidarity with the Cuban Revolution in 2016. We often neglect the agency of the communities we work with because we are made believe that they need our help. The first steps to change this would probably be education, ethically responsible marketing and communication and no misleading advertisement and press. 

14.Do you think a volunteer trip has more good impact on the local society than bad?

Like any other type of tourism, volunteer tourism has a strong effect on the development of a local society, village or community.There are always positive and negative consequences involved in this, depending on the parties involved and the perspective you have. Economically, volunteer tourism will be beneficial for those parties involved that work in the industry. For others, it might translate in a loss of jobs: think about English teachers in Thailand, for example. At the socio-cultural level, I do not believe that volunteer tourism is good: it reinforces unequal power relations in the world through a First World giver and Third World receiver discourse and it reinforces tourism as neo-colonialism through its indirect political control over developing countries. 

15.How can you improve Volunteer Tourism in regard to the critical points that it might has?

I often feel ashamed these days when I look back to my volunteer tourism activities and because I actively promoted the industry myself. I feel that I have been part of the neo-imperialistic machine that characterizes the capitalistic rather than altruistic trend in volunteer tourism. However, there is no way back and I cannot erase my past experiences. I can only turn my negative experiences into something positive: I have therefore transformed my attitude towards one of service learning (and this interview is part of this transformative attitude). 

I feel that I have been part of the neo-imperialistic machine that characterizes the capitalistic rather than altruistic trend in volunteer tourism.

– Julie Rausenberger

I learned to accept my ‘mistakes’ in the volunteer industry abroad by turning it into something positive these days back at home: because of my own experiences I also have the power to share why volunteer tourism is bad and now I try to encourage people to think twice before they book their volunteer trip, rather than to support them to ‘do more harm than good’. I believe that if all ex volunteer tourists who feel the same can unite and spread this message of a sustainable tourism and inspire other to engage in positive volunteer practices at home and abroad.

Interview conducted by Julia Rommel.

Interviewee: Julie Rausenberger

The Morning After Cambodia

What happens the morning after? Will we get closer? Or will I just feel like I just made a big mistake? The “morning after” usually refers to what happens after two people have sex. And it usually depends on what happens the night before. In my case, the morning after refers to Cambodia, and to what happened a few months ago. I do not mean that I had sex with the country (of course not), but I do refer to the manner in which I was emotionally overwhelmed, because it was at least as ‘deep’. 😉

Sihanoukville 400

In love with Cambodia @ Koh Rong Samloem

I mean, if you are in love with a country and you have thought about the decision to volunteer, your entire experience can be something turning out dramatically different than your initial expectations if the country – or other (f)actors – do not seem to be on the same line as you are. Volunteering won’t automatically bring you closer, you might probably feel better by doing it initially but if you and the country do not seem to find a solution for the projects you’re working on, you might be asking yourself questions:

  • Why do I (still) want to volunteer?
  • What does voluntourism mean to me?
  • Does voluntourism fit with my values?
  • Is this a short-term thing or do I see this having a long-term benefit?
  • And if we have a relationship, what does connect us?

I never expected myself to raise these questions in my mind, but after working in the volunteer industry in Cambodia, I did ask myself many deep questions about volunteering and tourism (so called ‘voluntourism’).

  • What kinds of projects work?
  • Who will benefit from our projects: the locals, the industry or the volunteer?
  • What will we do if it fails?

Tonle Sap & Basket Weaving 233

What if voluntourism was like a fake ‘snake’ / sneaky friend?

“Don’t fear the enemy that attacks you but the fake friend that hugs you.”

When I was working in Cambodia this summer, the first weeks I was doing my job great and I traveled around with the volunteers. Only by the time we were finishing our volunteer projects, I started to raise these questions. Some things just weren’t right. Maybe that’s the reason why I stopped blogging? Because I was confused?

I mean… If you are building toilets without offering maintenance or technical support, what does the family then do when the toilet is broken?

I mean… If you are building water pumping wells and you don’t supply the water filters, how can those people then give water to their children?

I mean… If you are teaching English to a class of children, but you only stay for two weeks, how can you get to teach them something worthy?

I mean… If you are going to play with orphans in a so-called orphanage, does it really make these children better if you leave again after two weeks? 

Cambodia Leap 228

Volunteering in Sihanoukville (Cambodia), Summer 2014

These are only a couple of questions that raised in my mind, after working as a volunteer group leader in Cambodia… And of course, I have seen many beautiful things too and the volunteering did contribute to many factors too. I am only disappointed that I feel like voluntourism does seem to have more positive impacts on the personal development of the lives of my volunteers, than it does on the country. That is why I talk about a “morning after” effect.

In the mean time, months have passed by that I am back from Cambodia, but I can’t get this questions out of my mind. And as I started my Masters in Anthropology in September, I found that this issue is the appropriate topic for me to write my thesis about. Therefor, I am now researching a lot about Voluntourism and its impacts. And I have found surprisingly much information and articles about it. So much that I am even stuck in finding my own research question to solve in my thesis. 🙂 So if you can help me, comment bellow and help me finding my thesis topic!

No, the real reason why I want to share my feelings about voluntourism in this blogpost, is not about willing to stop the explosion of voluntourism. I still do have a lot of respect for all the volunteers in the world that want to spend time hoping to help a country and its people forward. I believe that they all have the right intentions, but that the problem of voluntourism is somewhere in a layer underneath: somewhere between the intermediaries and the local businesses… And I am afraid I am not powerful (and even not brave) enough to fix that fundamental issue.

to hell with good intentions

What I do hope to send out as a message via this blog post is to be aware that you might be going to hell with good intentions. One of the problems is that “There has always been a nagging inadequacy around the assertion that one cannot sell poverty, but one can sell paradise. Today the tourism industry does sell poverty.” (quote from my Professor Noel Salazar from Tourist Behaviour: A Psychological Perspective)

I am afraid that I cannot give you that much answers yet, but what I can advise you is to be careful when you decide to go abroad volunteering. You can find tips and tricks on http://learningservice.info/ , created by the ‘rethinkers of volunteer travel’. Because I am convinced that we all want to make the most out of volunteering and travels, but we have to do it the right way. And if we – volunteers – are aware of the critical issues in voluntourism, we are one step closer to rethinking and re-creating what used to be a noble random act of kindness.

service-learning

And don’t worry, I don’t have the intentions to stop volunteering. I won’t stop before I have the feeling that something has changed, partially through my efforts. Because you have never really lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you. ❤ Share the message if you agree that volunteer travel needs to change. Awareness is the greatest agent for change! ❤

Lots of love

x Julie x

Livin’ the GOOD Life in Cambodia

I’m writing this post during a rainy Saturday evening in Siem Reap. Although it is rainy season, it has only rained for a few hours a day, mostly in the afternoons or evenings. And while I’m sitting here cosy in my bed with the laptop on my lap, I have time to daydream about the past month here in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Actually, it is not a dream – it is real – but the time has gone so fast ever since I arrived here, that I realize I’m already half way through and there are still so many things I would like to do. I guess “time flies when you’re having fun” and you can definetely only regret chances that you didn’t take in life. But before I get too deep in my musing, let me briefly tell you what I experienced the last 4 weeks here…

volunteering cambodia

Life feels good when you are doing something good… ❤

When I came back from my short field trip to Sihanoukville on a night bus, I was sick. That bus was one of the most horrible experiences in my entire travel life. I had to sleep in a cabin which looked like it was for one person, but I had to share it with two. The journey took also more then 14 hours (19.00-09.00) with no space to stretch your legs/arms and hardly any toilet stop. I had to go home from the office later after that day, and I slept the clock round, taking paracetamols struggling to get my sudden high fever down. I was scared to have catched a tropical disease and was worried about being so sick as the group arrived next day. But surprisingly, I felt a lot better already the next day and God-bless-my-strong-body-and-mind, because ever since the group arrived the 2nd of July, I have been busy for more than 15 hours a day, each day!

Siem Reap Volunteer House

The Volunteer House in Siem Reap

After picking up the group at the airport, I showed them the volunteer house in Siem Reap where they would be staying for 4 weeks, and I took them for a strawl around town. Later at night, we had the welcome dinner and the next morning we did the orientation session about their volunteer projects here. The afternoon was spent getting to know eachother during a visit to the local handicrafts market and the best icecream bar in town (The Blue Pumpkin).

 Siem Reap first drink

First drink with the Leapers in Siem Reap

The day after that, we started our first day on the project sites, which consisted mainly out of introducing them to the work and dividing them in smaller groups. The afternoon teaching project did not seem to be able to offer us the desired work, which caused a lot of extra work for me and the project leading team to find another school. Stressy days!

Siem Reap Projects Self Help

Self Help Community Centre

Then at night, we started of the weekend and I decided to go out for a drink with the girls to socialize and get closer to them. We headed to the famous Pub Street, which is the most famous street in Cambodia, with endless dining, drinking and party options… As pretty much everyone got way too drunk way too fast, I headed back home at a descent hour, sober.

first night out in Siem Reap

First night out in Siem Reap with the volunteers

The next day, Saturday, we planned a full day visit to Angkor Wat, the biggest religious monument in the world, a temple complex for which you need at least two days to visit the main sights only. Spectacular!

Siem Reap & Angkor Wat

Monks around the Temples of Angkor Wat

We also used our free Sunday to visit some more of the temples and I felt a 100% blessed to be able to work in Cambodia for the summer and seeing al these beautiful and unexpected things in the world.

Siem Reap Angkor Wat

+/- 3 million of tourists visit Angkor Wat each year…

After an impressive first weekend, I started a new work week with loads of positive energy. We started to build a water pumping well in a local community in the Puok District, and we were able to find a great little school for the afternoon teaching sessions, with many children in need to learn English. The first teaching experiences were hard as it was difficult to tell their level of English, but the great thing is that while the volunteers are teaching, they learn as least as much theirselves too from the experience itself. It was definetely a great opportunity to do this for a few weeks, and the children obviously loved our presence at the school. They are adorable!

Siem Reap Water pumping well project

Our water pumping well, nearly finished…

By Wednesday we already finished our 2 water pumping wells (each group one) and we moved on to the next water project: building a toilet. We could see that the locals benefit a lot from our help and so our time is very well spent. We are doing such a great job here, which gives a huge feeling of appreciation! However, I had some difficult days on a personal level, maybe because I was tired and adapting to a new life style and a new group in a new country again, but it could not stop me from feeling proud of myself for what I was doing here! And the more the days passed, the more I started to enjoy Cambodia and the group. (of course I would!)

I was enjoying Cambodia and The Leap program more and moer everyday. The work was enjoyable as we moved from the one community to another and it did not feel as tough as the program in Ecuador. It was a luxury to come back every time to the hotel room, having nice food and a shower every day. But I also feel like I’m rather gaining weight than lossing it… So I decided to start a 5 minute workout program daily: 61 sit-ups (the number of days I stay in Cambodia) and 10 squad excercises (with a Youtube clip). The price you pay for having all this luxury and food around you… 😛

dinner night out siem reap

One of the many nice dinners out in Siem Reap

Anyway, after finishing the water pumping well, we started to build 2 toilets for 2 incredibly friendly but poor families in another community. Initially, the project was planned for only 3 days but we ended up staying there 6 days. One of the families had 4 children and they had to walk down the whole street to use a neighbour’s toilet or go in the wilderness. Our toilet was more then welcome so! Their oldest daughter was 17 years old and the only one in the family who could speak some English. In the afternoon she went to school and in the morning she helped her mother with the household. She LOVED having us there and I had many beautiful conversations with her, that in the mean time broke my heart… For example, she asked me about my favourite food, so I said curry and rice (because I thought that might be something she knew) but she didn’t. They only eat rice, leafs, coconuts and other vegetables or fruits they can cultivate there. She never ate a pizza in her life and she did not even know what it looked like.  I took some pictures of her and her mother because they did not have any mirror either to see theirselves, and of course no family pictures either.

Toilet Project Siem Reap

Me with the daughter of 17 years old, she could be my little sister

The family also had a baby pig, which they were growing up to sell later on to get money from. One of their only sources of income… But the pig was the cutest pig ever and became my friend more and more every day. It loved being petted and I took it for a walk a few times because it was too sad seeing it in its small cage. My “Babe” behaved like a dog, was obviously having the best days of its life running down the street, playing in the mud and eating grass in the ricefield. On our last day, I asked the family not to sell the pig for slaughter, but they said they needed the money. So they asked me to help them buying a male pig (this one was a female) so they could make babies and sell those, and have more income. With the money they explained they would build a new house, because the one they had was too old and too small. I realised that indeed one pig extra could change the financial situation of the family drastically. I was convinced and we promised to come back one day with a male pig (costs about $50).

Siem Reap Volunteer piglet

The cutest Piglet I’ve ever seen in my entire life! ❤

I have such a great memories of our time there with these people and piggie! In the afternoons, we went to ELMA School, where my volunteers were teaching better and better every day. The atmosphere there was great and we had also fun with the kids, playing games after the classes. The last day we were thanked with a traditional dance show and an English song, and the volunteers got their certificates of teaching English. Another mission accomplished! 🙂

Elma school

ELMA School : ‘Education – Love – Motivation – Action’

Now we are spending our mornings in Samrong Village near Angkor Wat, where we already made insence sticks (which looks easier then it is), and we plan to do basket weaving for next week.

Insence Sticks

Making Insence Sticks

In the afternoons, we are now going to CDO (Cambodian Development Organisation), where the volunteers spend 2 hours teaching English and Computer classes to orphans and 1 hour of constructing a new orphenage for them each day from Monday to Friday.

There is only one week left at those projects in Siem Reap, so the time definetely goes fast. This weekend we went to the Floating Village and we did a boat trip on Tonle Sap Lake, which used to be the biggest sweet water lake in South East Asia.

Tonle Sap lake floating village

The floating village at Tonle Sap lake

Usually, the girls go out on Friday evenings so they can be hangover on Saturdays, enjoy a brunch in town, have a pedicure/manicure/massage and do some shopping. Then Sundays are reserved for an excursion. The first weekend we went to Angkor Wat (temples), the second weekend we went to Phnom Kulen (waterfall) and this weekend we visited Tonle Sap (Floating Village and Lake). Phnom Kulen was a National Park with some buddhist statues in it and other religious places, but most famous for its giant waterfall. It was nice to cool off and swim there, feeling like Tarzans in the jungle, enjoying a picknick and tanning a bit.

Phnom Kulen waterfall

The waterfall at Phnom Kulen N.P.

During the week everyone goes to bed surprisingly early and the spare time is filled with shopping at the market, going for Indian/Mexican/International food and watching shows like the traditional Apsara dance show. We also got slightly addicted to the fruit shakes that they sell everywhere for only $1: they are frozen and contain fresh fruit! Jummie! 😛

apsara

Apsara traditional dance show at Temple Club, Siem Reap

I think the girls are having the time of their lives and even though I have busy days being with them most of the time AND training my fellow local colleagues in group leading AND writing reports for The Leap AND preparing various documents for the program, I am feeling better and better here because the days go fast and the program is going so well and nice! I’m starting to fall in love with Cambodia’s charming landscapes, laid back way of life and beautiful children. Only one month left to go and I’m back home! Half way through now!

x x x Love x x x

Julie

From Ecuador to Cambodia .with Love.

Quite a lot of things have changed since my last update from Ecuador. I am currently 18.500 km further, literally on the other side of the world, and a lot has happened in the last few weeks and days, wherefore I didn’t manage to structure some nice blog posts. So for all of the ones who cannot follow (I can’t follow myself sometimes anymore), here’s a short update of a long journey to a new life in Cambodia.

I returned from Quito (Ecuador) to Brussels (Belgium) the 20th of June, had a only a full 3 days there to meet up with my family and friends, and left again the 24th of June towards Bangkok (Thailand), from where I would take a long distance bus crossing the border to Siem Reap (Cambodia), my new hometown for the next two months. Taking The Leap again for the Summer Program was the most crazy and impulsive decision I’ve probably made in my entire life, as it meant I would be tour leading again for two months… I was also absolutely NOT prepared for this one (as it would be my first time in Asia!), but I switched OFF the ‘think’-button and ON the ‘do’-button. Trust was the new keyword in my life, after many crazy experiences, and I was sure this would be another great time abroad.

job

I decided to do this job for many reasons: first of all because it was LIVING THE DREAM, an amazing chance I had to take, and travelling for a long time abroad had done something with the person I was and the life I lived… I was questioning all aspects in life: my studies, my job, my home, my boyfriend, my friends, my lifestyle, … In Ecuador I had learned that gap years are all about finding yourself, but when you find yourself, the reality just does not make sense anymore. And I felt like I could use the time to overthink life some more and have a better perspective on things when I would return the end of August.

Every end is a new beginning, and all great changes are proceeded by chaos… With these new quotes I left for a 9 hours flight to Mumbai (India) where I had a stopover for my flight to Bangkok (Thailand). During that time in the airport and on the flight, I got to taste a little of the Indian culture and I can ensure you: this country is on my wishlist even more now: lovely people, a special culture and delicious food! Then I flew another 4 hours further, arriving in Bangkok (Thailand) where I would spend 1 night before crossing the border to Cambodia.

bangkok

Me hanging around the Buddhist temples of Bangkok

It was my first time in Asia, and I expected to have a serious culture shock again, but I guess I was getting used to travelling and getting lost in a new city. I was simply amazed by all the cultural differences: how a city can be so busy and chaotic from the ‘outside’, but as soon as you enter a temple (the ‘inside), you feel Buddha’s everlasting peacefulness… I also loved the fact that they all walked barefoot in temples 😛 Add up the amazing Thai food to that, and you’ll understand why I enjoyed Bangkok so much. Love at first sight, and definetely ready to return in August for another overnight stop before flying back to Belgium!

A few tuk tuk and Sky train rides, and 500 questions about finding my way later, I was on my way to Cambodia. The border crossing experience was “something else” (as Kevin Hart would say it), with the usual chaos and visa procedures, but I kept calm and arrived safe but sweaty in Siem Reap, a 9 hour bus route from Bangkok.

The first thing I noticed was the amazing hospitality of the Cambodian people, who seem to live to serve others. An amazing feeling that sometimes overwhelmes me too much, coming from a rough and tough culture in South America where hospitality is not even mentioned in the Spanish dictionnary… I also felt safe, very very safe, even in all this tuk tuk and motorcycle chaos.

I got a room in ‘Angkor Boutique Villa’, where I met my new boss upon arrival. He was the owner of the hotel and he told me I would stay in this place during my whole time with The Leap in Siem Reap. That ment: airconditioning, a mini-fridge, a hot shower and room cleaning service all the time. This was such a blessing!

Angkor Boutique Hotel

A room at Angkor Boutique Villa, this is HOME.

http://www.angkorboutiquevilla.com/

We also had a 4-course dinner with the group leading team. I felt like I was the only one talking on the table, which made me feel quite stupid. But I immediately realised: these people are just so ZEN and stress is a word that they didn’t seem to know. So frustrating, haha! Who am I going to share my dramaqueen-moments with now?? 😉 No, seriously, the people are shy, open to listen but they obviously think twice before they speak. They are so well mannered that sometimes it feels artificial and as if they studied what they supposed to say. I definetely have culture shock with that part, and have to get used to dealing with the locals in a proper way…

Also, the weather is hot and humid, more than anywhere in Ecuador and I had no idea how I would ever be able to work here. God bless the A/C in my room! The food is nice, less spicy than in Thailand and of course every day twice rice, but they use curries, basil and lemongrass a lot. Hmm, I love Khmer cuisine!

Khmer Amok

Khmer Amok – A typical curry dish

Friday was my first day of work, again it surprised me how relaxed everyone was working (barefoot) in the office. I felt welcomed and they already asked me to stay working after one day for a longer period. Guess they liked me!

I felt quite privileged having my boss, a busy man running 2 travel agencies and 1 hotel, all for myself on a few private tours, introducing me to the volunteer projects around Siem Reap. Honestly, it was all way too overwhelming and too much information to absorb in only two days, but I just went along with it and let it all happen to me. Trying not to stress out was definetely easier with calm people around me. God, I need to learn how to meditate…

It were also very emotional days, going directly to the poorest areas where hundreds of poor kids lived in bad conditions, and on the other hand realizing I really did it. I left Belgium again for 2 months and I started to realize it for real now! But luckily, there was not much time to think…

Siem Reap Projects Volunteer

Mother and child in a local community, Siem Reap (Cambodia)

Saturday evening I had a business dinner with the company I worked for (Indochina Adventures, the local agent for The Leap in Cambodia). I didn’t understand much of the Khmer conversations they were having (and it’s hopeless to start studying this difficult language). Also, I wasn’t prepared with my adventurous backpack clothes to participate in this ‘beau monde’ life. And I had difficulties being served with another 4-course dinner while the same day children on the street were begging me for money and food a few blocks away from that same restaurant. What a shocking contrast!

Siem Reap was one big tourist resort, in my eyes, where one can find every Western product wished for. Made in China, low prices and happy hours everywhere… I could see a Leap group having the time of their lives here soon… Whether I honestly liked it, is something else, because I lacked authenticity and I wasn’t used to having such a big offer in comfort food and products anymore, after living in Ecuador anymore. I missed my ‘back to basics’ life!!!

Early in the morning on Sunday, I left Siem Reap to Pnomh Penh and Sihanouk Ville to visit the volunteer projects there. They bought me first class VIP bus tickets and my gave me $100 cash to pay my hotel and eat 2 days. I felt treathed like a princess, being picked up at the hotel entrance and given a packed breakfast box for on the way. This was too much!! Such a big contrast from where I came from and I wondered why I was being treathed so well here. But I could find a reasonable answer and decided to believe I deserved all of this after 4 months in Ecuador and I would give the best of myself of work, that was the only thing I could do in return and a good motivation to start of with!

Sihanouk Ville

Sunset in Sihanouk Ville

It were 7,5 hours to Pnomh Penh (the capital city of Cambodia) and another 6 hours to Sihanouk Ville (beach alarm!), so it was too much time to think for me on the bus, and arriving in another tourism paradise like this on my own was hard and confrontating. I felt lonely and lost in this paradise, had too much time for myself – being here to work and “change the world” – not to enjoy really, but I kept strong thinking about the great times that would come once the group arrived and then I didn’t have to be lonely anymore, being able to start doing what I loved to do: group leading, volunteer coordinating, working hard on the projects and party even harder. (HELLO GOD? IS THERE A WAY TO SIGN A CONTRACT FOR LIFE TO DO THIS DREAM JOB?)

I just hated this random days before / between a new phase in life, when you don’t know what to do with yourself. You’re preparing and preparing, but in the same time you know you’ll never feel prepared enough, so sometimes in life (no, most of the times in life) you just have to stop thinking and start doing! And that’s exactly what I did when I decided to go from Ecuador to Cambodia, and the reason why good things happen!

Take The Leap, Take The Risk. Take The Chance.

It might be worth it! ❤

Julie

risk care dream expect