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

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

 

An Adventurous Week in Ecuador – Quilotoa

10 May 2014 – 17 May 2014

The Adventure Week AKA Ruta de los Volcanes

The Leap promised its Leapers an “a week of adventure and expedition, taking the famous “Ruta de los Volcanes” (Volcanic Route), biking to waterfalls, white-water raft, climb Chimborazo volcano and kayak over Quilotoa crater lake”, but it was much more than that, exceeding all of our expectations. It was a crazy week, finally getting EVERYONE out of their comfort zone, with loads of unforgettable memories, and loads of work for me as a leader! Here follows a great story, enjoy the ride!

Adventure Week Quilotoa The Leap Group

LAGUNA DE QUILOTOA

After having breakfast in Quito and giving my group an orientation about this week, we left by private bus to Quilotoa. It was a horrible temparature shock going straight from the warm Galapagos Islands to the cold Laguna de Quilotoa. I felt quite calm, although I knew I could expect a crazy week when it came to organizing, leading, transporting, arranging meals and making many many invoices in hotels, travel agencies and restaurants. But I was more ready then ever before and started to feel more and more comfortable with my job and the group.

The Quilotoa Loop is a bumpy, ring-shaped road that travels from the Panamericana far into the backcountry of Cotopaxi province. Along the way tourists encounter colorful indigenous markets, a crystal-blue lake that the locals believe has no bottom (!!!), and ancient trails that meander in the shadow of snowcapped volcanoes. The isolated location brought us in contact with Kichwa-speaking indigenous people and some lamas.

Adventure Week Quilotoa

After paying a 2$ entrance fee to Quilotoa, it was not hard to find our hostel as there were only a handful in town. We had a typical lunch, warmed up near the fire place where we met other travellers and watched how the clouds got ticker and ticker, until we could not see the end of the road anymore and finally watched how it started to rain. We felt quite stuck in the building, went to our room and collected wood for the fires at night. It got colder and colder, so freezing I had never felt before!

I went souvenir shopping in my raincoat with the girls as real fashionistas, we bought some drinks and food to keep us warm and strong, and spend the night making fire and more fire until we finally had de-frozen our fingers and toes, played “never have I ever” (my all-time favourite game!) and finally got to sleep. Some alone, some together… To keep each other “warm”?!

Well yeah, it was a lovely evening even though I was really disappointed in the fact that we did not managed to hike down the lake because of the weather. We agreed on having breakfast at 6h30 in order to leave for the hike early in the morning at 7h30 because usually it does not rain in the mornings.

And oh yeah, I woke up and the sky was bright blue and clear. We were very lucky and because there were no clouds, the reflection of the sun showed all kinds of colours of blue and green. We enjoyed the lookout on the top where we had stunning views of the mirror-green lake about 400m below and the snowcapped peaks of the Cotopaxi volcano in the distance.

Adventure Week Quilotoa

When you ask the locals how deep it is, they always say it has no bottom at all, they said in the Lonely Planet. So I did the test and asked some locals. Some could not even reply to my Spanish, because they only spoke Kichwa, and does who did speak Spanish confirmed: no bottom. Well, geologists say 250m…

After an hour going down, we rented kayaks to see more of the lakes surroundings. The alkaline lake water is not potable, and I assume it is too cold for swimming, even though it was clearly warmer near the lake then in the village during the day.

Adventure Week Quilotoa

With an altitude of 3914m, it is really hard to hike around the volcanic-crater lake of Laguna Quilotoa. You have no air in your longs, and it literally feels as if you had just smoked a package of cigarettes in 5 minutes. Impossible to walk back up, was what I said after giving it a try for 30 meters. I stopped a local, and continued by horse (or was it a donkey?!)

Adventure Week Quilotoa

I felt really sorry for my ‘animal’ which did not only suffer itself from the hike up carrying my weight, but apart from that he had some serious diarrhea and stopped every once in a while, refusing to walk further. Pobrecito,  I will never do that again but I have to admit it was way easier and enjoyable to get up like this.

Some of my group members took the challenge and hiked all the way up, arriving sweaty and tired, while I was already chilling up there for half an hour. Because of that, we were a little bit late for our private transfer to Baños, but it was definetely worth the delay and we had been so lucky with the weather after all.

If you ever plan on going to Ecuador, make sure you do not skip Quilotoa. Truly recommendable and one of the most beautiful places in the whole country, in my opinion.

Adventure Week quilotoa

Then it was time to head further to Baños, another 4 hours by bus away. Everybody slept as a baby during the transfer, preparing for “the thrill town” of Ecuador!! And every now and then I opened my eyes to enjoy the amazing views along the road. The Andes is fascinating!

Adventure Week the andes road

NEXT POST / STOP: BAÑOS

Hasta pronto,

Julie

My Galápagos Dream Journey – 6: Isabela

6: ISABELA

The 3rd of May it was time to head further to the biggest island of the Galapagos archipelago. In order to survive the 2 hour ‘lancha’ boat trip, I took an anti-seasickness pill, as many other travellers adviced me to do so. It wasn’t that bad, too be honest. I enjoyed the sunrise and was warmly welcomed by my tour operator on the peer. As it was the first time in my life that anyone was waiting for me with a personal nametag, I was super excited! Lol 😛

Just some advice for any Galapagos backpacker reading this post: Isabela has no ATM so you have to take enough cash with you from either San Cristobal or Santa Cruz. Upon arrival at the peer you will be obligated to pay an additional $5 entrance fee to Isabela, helping the island’s conservation.

I felt like ‘a real tourist’ with my super cheap all-inclusive package deal, checked in at Hotel Coral Blanco, got meal coupons and excursion vouchers. I paid $185 for 4 nights in a single room (airco, wifi, hot water), 2 diners, 2 lunched and 2 breakfasts, a city/flamingo tour, the full-day trekking to Sierra Negra & Volcano Chico and an excursion to Las Tintoreras.

Islas de Galapagos isabela beach

However, the first day on the island I decided to take it easy and I headed to the beach for some tanning and sleep. Every once in a while a crab or marine iguana passed by next to my towel, but apart from that it was a very enjoyable morning at the beach.

After lunch I had a very short city and flamingo tour, which was not so impressive as Puerto Villamil is a tiny beach village with only unpaved roads and everything is in walking distance. But it was pretty cool to see the wild flamingos chilling in the lagoon.

Islas de Galapagos isabela flamingo

After the tour I wandered around some more but got quite bored soon as Puerto Villlamil is an undevelopped and tiny village of which you can count the bars and shops on one hand…

I did another nap (siesta) and went to the restaurant with my food coupon for dinner. I felt quite lonely and bored, so headed to the Iguana Bar on the peer in search for some new friends and cocktails. I chatted with the bartender, told him about my job and found out some adresses and contact persons for new volunteer projects for Yanapuma. Lovely how working, enjoying cocktails and watching pinguins can go all together here! This is the life!

Islas de Galapagos isabela iguana bar

The next morning I felt like a new person and totally ready for my day excursion to Sierra Negra & Volcano Chico. With a lunchbox and loads of water packed, I left for what turned out to be a SICK day! Apparently, they ‘forgot’ to inform us that the hike was 16km in 2 difficult phases: a muddy and rainy hike uptil the Caldera of Sierra Negra, and a climb over lava rocks to Volcano Chico. And that everything, the same road as we went to go back. It took our group 8 hours of non-stop struggling through very changing weather and landscape types.

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After walking for 3 hours in the rain, mud and mist we finally reached the top of Sierra Negra. Here we could see the caldera partially, but it was still pretty impressive to see this black sea of lava floods.

Islas de Galapagos isabela caldera sierra negra

Then as we walked further the green and lush landscape changed into a dry desert of volcanic rocks…

Islas de Galapagos volcan chico

We reached volcano Chico and already left half of our group behind somewhere because they could not handle it. The hike was a real stuggle and adventure. I thought it was a good excercise if I would ever go climbing the Mount Everest, lol :-p

Islas de Galapagos volcan chico

Me, the guide and two other tourists climed all the way up to Volcano Chico, where we had the most spectacular views at +/- 1000 meter above sea level.

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We took half an hour to eat our lunch box and then we headed back. On our way we put our hand in some lava rock and it was very hot, so that means – yes yes – that this volcano is active! I was told that the last eruption was in 2005.

On our way back I thought about ice cream and home, that way the time went faster and I tried to forget about the rainy part of the hike that was still coming. I ended up making jokes and good chats with the other tourists and by the time we all arrived, we were friends and could only smile about this insane day. We headed back completely soaked, full of mud and exhausted, ran in the sea with clothes and walking boots to get the mud off and had a good time.

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Later in the night, after a good shower, I went to see the sunset at the peer, felt a little bit lonely and had dinner. The next day I woke up early again for the next excursion, I really wanted to make the best out of my stay here and see as much as possible. So I went to visit Las Tintoreras.

First we went to take our snorkel gear and drove to the boat dock where we started our tour. Las Tintoreras is a small archipelago of volcanic islands near Puerto Villamil.

On your way to the islands, you can see sea lions chilling on boats, pinguins chilling on rocks and so on…

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Once we got onto land, we walked around a little bit. We saw a colony of baby iguanas, which was very cute to see. They all sit on top of each other and it looks like some of them are hugging each other. Big love, babies!

Islas de Galapagos baby iguanas

Then we were on a beautiful beach were sea lions lived and played, which was absolutely paradise!

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And after that we walked on some more volcanic rock material and enjoyed the views and the sun.

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We encountered another colony of marine iguanas, this time it were the mommies and the daddies I suppose… And last but not least, we found granddaddie, but I think he did not survive it …. 😉 RIP

Islas de Galapagos skelet iguana

We headed back to the boat and jumped in the water to cool off and enjoy some snorkeling. To my biggest surprise this was one of the best snorkel trips so far, as I saw gigantic sea turtles of over hundred years in the water. At least 7 of them!

galapagos turtle snorkel

There were also sea stars and other fish types that had not seen before so far on the Galapagos trip. Recommendable!

Islas de Galapagos snorkeling isabela

In the afternoon I went to visit the tortoise project on Isabela, in order to find out whether they can receive volunteers for Yanapuma. I decided to walk via the 20 minutes trail, which turned out to be a beautiful walk. I had to pass some crossing iguanas every now and then, but it was peaceful and quiet.

Islas de Galapagos turtle project

Upon my arrival at the project I registered and introduced myself to one of the guards. I got a private guided tour through the whole area and got to feed the turtles, which is normally strictly forbidden for tourists. The advantages of working in the industry, I guess!

Islas de Galapagos tortoise

It was a rehabilitation center for tortoises that were rescued from an eruption of a volcano on Isabela, and over 2 years they had already made over 200 baby tortoises. I can only say it was a very nice experience to feed the tortoises, but in order to get more information for Yanapuma I had to go back to the village to talk to the people of the Ministerio de Galapagos, which I managed to do, but with all these restrictions it was quite hard to get a deal out of it.

So I made another appointment in the evening to visit another project the next day, and finished my day at a bar with some cocktails and met some French volunteers from Hacienda Tranquila, with whome I turned out to have dinner with. We ended our night near a campfire and a bar, drank Tequila Sunrise and Piña Colada, felt like hippies and went to bed tipsy. Love life!

isabela camp fire

The last day in Isabela was fully booked with ambitious plans: snorkeling in Los Tuneles and project visit to Campo Duro… I noticed that waking up at 6 o’clock became the weirdest holiday habit ever, but I enjoyed it as I could make the most out of my days. Although I have to say I was also happy that it was the last day of doing excursions and snorkeling, because after 3 weeks of die-hard travelling, you really have enough of it. No matter how much paradise factor this place has.

Oh yeah, last night I dreamed that there was a volcano eruption which caused a tsunami wherefor I escaped on a zodiac and I had saved my photo camera in a mysterious way. I was one of the only persons that survived on earth and when I woke up, I did not realize it was not happening for real. Was it the alcohol? Or had I just been to much fascinated by the stories of the guides on this island? Lol 😛

The tour started, I met a Dutch woman on the boat, who became my buddy for the day and we sailed away… On our way we passed by Union Rock, which is full of Nazca Boobies! Sailed around it up to very close, and then went further.

Islas de Galapagos isabela union rock

It was difficult to sail between the tunnels of Los Tuneles, as they are all volcanic erosions in the water. But it was a beautiful walk with nice views.

Islas de Galapagos los tuneles

We could also see some tortoises swimming and later we had the chance to snorkel with them and literally chased some sharks out of their tunnels. It was pretty pretty adventurous, and I was exhausted from doing this excercise snorkel around under and through the tunnels.

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After two snorkel trips, a lunch on board and seeing some gigantic manta rays jumping out of the ocean, it was time to head back.

I called a taxi to go to Campo Duro, which was a fantastic project I found on the island. This ecolodge does not only offer camping sites, but has its own tortoise refuge and organic farm where they harvest food for the animals and the community. Their grounds are massive and I have never before seen the tortoises living so happily in natural surroundings.

I was warmly welcomed by the owner, Don Michui, in his restaurant. Again I was offered a guided tour, got the chance to ask a lot of questions and felt very professional, lol. No, I’m serious… I really enjoyed doing this visits and negotiations and I really hoped that Yanapuma would be able to work with them because I could see volunteers coming here…

Islas de Galapagos campo duro isabela

I took a taxi back to the hostal and met my French friends again for one last goodbye dinner and cocktail on the beach. The next day I would leave very early to take 2 ferries and having a long travel day…

Next stop: SAN CRISTOBAL (7) –> Keep following for the last destination of my Galapagos Dream Journey

From Julie with Love

Confessions of a Jungle Girl

Two weeks can change a lot in a humans life. I travelled with my group to the Comuna of Bua in the Tsachila area near Santo Domingo de los Tsachilas, spent a free weekend with them in Atacames, discovered that I can actually survive two weeks without Facebook, Gmail, Instagram and Google and that life in the jungle is the greatest: living together with indigenous, washing not only yourself but also your clothes in the river, sleeping under a mosquito net in a wooden cabin, eating rice ricerice and more rices (and bananas) and I became a happier, more relaxed person. All of this thanks to the nature which brought me litteraly more DOWN TO EARTH. Hereby I would like to share with you a summary and my diary during this wonderful jungle experience.

Thursday 3 April 2014

After picking up both LEAP groups at the airport, having orientations, check-ins, passport registrations, Spanish tests, a welcome dinner and so on, I was burned out. Never have I ever felt so stressed and nervous, unprepared and responsible in my life… But the good thing was that I had hardly time to think and realize that we were about to leave for a two week adventure in the middle of the jungle.

Fortunately, because if I would have had more time to prepare and think, I realize know that I would only get more nervous about that! And from the first day I could notice that I had a great team, 7 boys and 4 girls, and me… the leader! Break a leg…

Friday 4 April 2014

After a first breakfast we were about to start the first day of work (volunteering) in the Comuna de Búa. As a group leader I had to coordinate and especially translate a lot of things. We digged into the ground, made mountains of sand and carried all of that sand in bags to the nursery nearby. It was a really heavy job because of various reasons: climate (humid, hot, sunny) and work load (nobody was used to this type of work).

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Fortunately in the afternoon we had free time to play some football with the local people of Santo Domingo, and enjoy the river. Yes yes, I say ENJOY because surprise, surprise… I love the river. I can tell you, after a day of sweating like a pig this is the most refreshing thing you can ever wish for!

My first impressions after this day: HUNGRY! I have to get used to having less food, around 11AM I get a small headache due to a very low sugar level. There are huge spiders in the river on the raft, watching how we wash ourselves,the group atmosphere is really awesome: they are independent, work hard, don’t complain and always enjoy their selves with playing games and stuff. Love it!

Saturday 5 April 2014

Lucky as we were, it was already weekend and that means NO WORK for two days. It was a perfect timing as that first day of worked asked for some recuperation. Instead of work, Alfonso (leader of the community about who I blogged about earlier), took us on a hiking tour through the reserve and botanical garden. Again I had to translate all his explanations, which is not only quite hard to do because the vocabulary is quite specific and I have difficulties remembering more than 10 sentences to translate in one time.

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After the tour, we had a cacao workshop. We would be able to make chocolate in a few days.

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I went with 5 of my group members to the nearby city of Santo Domingo. To get there, we had to take a bus for an hour, because we were living in a very remote cultural center. The main goal of the trip was eating sugar, buying more things containing sugar (cookies, sodas, chewing gum, …), visiting the local pharmacies (as some of us already had some ‘difficulties’) and buying a birthday cake for one of the group members which birthday was next day. Unfortunately, this trip was not so relaxing as planned to be as the city is really unsafe and you constantly have to take care about each other and your belongings. So when we got back to our jungle home, we were exhausted and cooled off in the river.

I also decorated my room, which obviously just means unpacking my bag and hanging stuff up to dry (humidity…). While I wrote my diary, I noticed that the days passed by so quickly and I reflected a little bit. I noticed that every day I woke up so peacefully and that I appreciate this place and the nature a lot more than I expected. I  also felt way more relaxed then the first days when the group arrived. Moreover, I had the feeling quite fast that this place would probably be the most special of all three volunteer projects. But never say never, it  can get better!

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More impressions after this day: humid and hot climate, everywhere along the road banana trees, terrible traffic in Santo Domingo, crazy and dangerous city where you never should go if you don’t need to, the smell of burned wood, the everlasting sounds of insects in the forest, falling asleep with watching fireflies above your mosquito net, the smell of sunscreen and DEET on your skin, the continuous sweating, … It reminds me somehow of my trip in Central America and I realize this is the life I love!

Sunday 6 April 2014

Waking up in the rain is something else. You feel like you can’t go outside, but on the other hand… You are outside. And you notice that when your bed is wet due the a leak in the roof. There are only two options: remove your bed or remove your body to another side of the bed. And after that, waiting until it stops raining to cover the open gap in the roof with another leaf that you take from a tree. Life is simple!

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When it stopped raining, Don Alfonso took us out for a walk to Umpechico, the nearest by civilization. It was not impressive and the shops were not worthy to call shops, the houses were not worthy to call houses and so on. You know what I mean, or maybe you don’t. Because honestly, you have to see it before you can believe it. And then when you did that, you say: ‘Okay. Ecuador is a third world country. Still a lot of improvement to be made.’ For lots of my group members, I could notice not only the disappointment of not encountering the places they wished to find, but also the culture shock. They wanted to return fast as they felt unsafe.

In the afternoon we celebrated the birthday of one of our group members. We had bought a cake in Santo Domingo and invited the Tsáchilas (simply called Chillas by the English volunteers) to join the party. We made popcorn, played games and had fun. I feel really blessed having such a positive group!

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We finally got to know Alfonso’s wife and other community members, and even the puppy dogs came to join the celebrations.

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Here you can see the jungle party crew in front of our “house”:

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In the evening I felt really tired. I noticed that going to bed around 10PM and waking up at 6AM is giving me a minimum of sleep. I don’t know why the jungle makes me so exhausted, but it is probably also because I am constantly coordinating all the activities and schedules, organizing and planning with Alfonso and translating is probably the hardest part of work, as the communication between my group and the locals is very poor due to this language barrier. I even did a small nap in the hammock in the afternoon, which is heavenly!

I noticed that I didn’t miss anything yet of the civilized world, except from my ‘drugs’: sugar, boyfriend and cigarettes. Luckily, that last one I bought in advance so don’t really need to miss it. And I already realize that once back out of the jungle, I will have to adapt to the normal world again… Not sure if I like that idea…

Monday 7 April 2014

Now that the weekend was over, it was time to get back to work. It started to be a daily routine to wake my Leapers up at 07.15, have breakfast at 07.30, point the ‘cleaning team’ of the day at 07.45 and start working at 08.00 AM. As Don Alfonso was not available, the organisation went a little bit bad. Eventually, we started working around 9AM and today we filled up bags with the sand we carried on Friday. A local group of volunteers from Santo Domingo joined us and we managed to fill 7500 bags, which we lined up in rows of 5 bags according to size and height. In this bags will be planted seeds of trees and after 3 months they would be ready to be planted in the forest. This is what we call REFORESTATION! Quite a relaxing job to do today, and plenty of time to chat with the group and the locals during work.

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After work, Alfonso passed by with some Papaya. I asked him about a natural cure for constipation as some group members, including myself have had problems going to the toilet (called “the loo” by the English). And I don’t know if it was superstition or not, but an hour after I managed to do “it”! This practical problem is quite crazy, as most of the groups have the opposite problem in the jungle…

Impressions of the day: I feel finally relaxed enough to focus on reading a roman in the hammock, slowly got frustrated by the fact that clothes and towels never ever dry here because of the humidity, jump under my mosquito net very fast every night to avoid any more insect bites, hate to go to the toilet after dark because of frogs, snakes, spiders and insects near the road to it, got frustrated because DEET and other repellents don’t seem to work at all and got bitten anyway, washed my clothes in the river today and woke up at night due to raindrops falling on my face… Another leak in the roof! Bats and insects don’t seem to understand that my cabaña is not their house and so I decided to compromise and just share it with them and the cockroaches, the fact that I see my textile stuff getting molded, my supply of cookies and chocolate that gets less and a sudden lightning storm and thunder that wakes me up in the middle of the night… A lot of things are frustrating, but I can only accept it, live with it, take a deep breath and go on, and I feel so much more quite when I do that. PEACE.

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Tuesday 8 April 2014

At six I woke up from the pouring rain. I guess this is what they call “showers” in English. It would have been the perfect time to take a shower outside, but instead, I turned around in bed and slept some more. As it was raining so much, we could not go to work. It is very demotivating and frustrating. So after breakfast, we just waited until it stopped raining. In the meantime, I talked with Alfonso and out of nowhere I came up with a self-made quote: “En la selva la naturalezaes el jefe del trabajo.” (In the forest nature is the boss of work.)

At 9AM it finally was over, but as it was late we couldn’t do what we had planned to do for today. We supposed to go to another community to construct a “casa tipica cultural” (typical cultural house), but that plan was definitely cancelled now. Again we had to go to the nursery and fill some bags with sand. It was quite boring after two days… At 11AM everybody got very hungry, and we ate banana. Did I tell you that Ecuador has more than 5 types of bananas?!! Maduro, Banano, Verde, Platano, … And they make all different kinds of things with them.

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As one of my group members had some emergency situation, I left quickly to the city of Santo Domingo with him. I was quite happy to get out of the jungle, not because I didn’t like the place but because I could go to the bakery to eat something sweet and ‘normal’. I ordered a cheese sandwich, which I didn’t manage to finish, no matter how hungry I was. I guess your stomach gets smaller when you eat less all the times. And oh yeah, the reason why I longed for that cheese sandwich is: we don’t have a fridge in the community so that means we don’t have fresh products like milk, cheese, yoghurt, meat, … Also, a bakery is unlikely to be nearby so we hardly eat bread there.

Before it got dark, we returned to our jungle home in Búa, where it was raining again. But because we were so sweaty, we went to the river anyway. You get wet anyway so what does it matter! We ate some more banana for dinner and Alfonso visited us to repair the beds and leaks in the roof. As always, the group members enjoyed their selves in the evening playing games, listening some music and so on.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

I woke up again around 5AM because of the rain. But luckily it stopped raining by the time I had to wake up the group. We had an awesome breakfast as they finally bought more tea and yes, we had some bread! Around 8 o’clock we started to work. This time, Alfonso decided that we could make a cultural house for our own community so we didn’t have to worry about the cancelation of the other project. Well, here in the jungle time is a concept that hardly exists. Everything changes from hour to hour and from day to day. You have to be open minded, flexible and accept that. It is the only way to survive.

And as we could only start the next day with our new project, today we would clean the road from the community to the public road. It wasn’t really a nice job, but clearing the leafs we saw a lot of insects and spiders. That made it a little bit more adventurous. As my group was not really motivated to do this job, I decided to work a little bit harder to give the right example. And as always, they did what they had to do, didn’t complain too much and finish the task of the day well. I was satisfied but tired!

By lunch time, I had blisters on my hands from cleaning the road so I was happy that we didn’t have to work again in the afternoon. Instead, Alfonso demonstrated the coloring of his hair with the typical plant called ACHIOTE.

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After that, it was time for a siesta in the hammock. I love it! The worst part is getting out, you never want to leave that place once you get in… While I was chilling, I was smiling to myself. My mother should see me here, how her daughter that never ever before touched something in the garden because she was more an urban chick now slightly turned into a real Tarzan&Jane personage with green fingers, like she had never done anything else before in her life… But it is the perfect proof that it is never too late to change as a human being!

In the mean time I’ve got quite attached to my rain boots. My socks smell like a death mouse, but it didn’t matter. One day more of work, and then we had a free weekend which we would be spending on the beach. And oh, what was I happy to have some pasta (and for god sake, not RICE) as dinner. Like a culinary orgasm…

Thursday 10 April 2014

After breakfast we had a reunion with Alfonso. Yesterday in the afternoon we had made a design for some new volunteer cabins in Búa, as the current ones are obviously getting older. At 8AM we had a meeting with the Tsachilas, which I had to lead. I guess I did it quite well, involving as much people as I could, translating from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English. Alfonso was very happy with our suggestions and designs.

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At 9AM we left walking to Umpechico, the nearby village, to hike into a forest where we would be cutting huge leafs with machetes for the construction of our typical house. It was a very hard task to do, as we had to go deep in the jungle, deal with lots of insect bites and snakes hanging around. It was also very very humid and hot so we were quite exhausted by the time we could return for lunch. Luckily, a pick-up truck (camioneta) took us back, so we didn’t have to make the hour long walk again to Bua.

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Straight after lunch we had to get back to work and clean the area where we would construct the house. We cutted trees to make space, we cleared the leafs hanging around away and sorted the branches and trunks. I can tell you, I was exhausted after that and I am eating so much cookies whenever I can!

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In the night, I woke up having a nightmare that I lost the group near the beach and I had my first night trip to the eco-toilet, which included an encounter with several frogs, spiders and other ugly insects. I can tell you, going to the toilet at night is the last thing you want at night, as you have to get out of your mosquito net, take your torch light, make sure your road is cleared from animals, survive a road in the jungle towards the toilet, do some stairs in the dark and go all the way back to your wooden cabin, jumping quickly back under your mosquito net, hoping no insect had entered. A whole adventure for a simple pee! But what needs to happen, needs to happen…

Oh yeah, and we have some small ducks in the community since a few days now. Unfortunately, two of them died but one of them seems to survive well. I called it PatitoLuís (little duck Louis) and took him for the first time to the river to learn it how to swim. He loved it, the cuttie! The girls of the kitched joined me also to the river today and they took me for a ride on the raft. We smiled a lot but didn’t really talk a lot as they are very shy, but I can see that I feel good back to basics and I noticed that these girls don’t need much to live here happily.

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I thought about Tuesday, when I entered my Facebook account in the internet café and suddenly saw a mirror of my life and my friend’s lives. It was a shocking experience as it all seems so far away and different from this reality I am in now. It is like I am not the same person here, and I started to wonder if the life back there is the life I really want. Deep inside it felt like I entered a new road in life, and something in me was scared that my old life would not fit in anymore. I am following my heart and my dreams, and living outside makes you think about the outside world at home, which is something completely different. Here nobody cares about your looks or your status… I felt like the river I was in, I’ve landed in a stream of life and I’m floating in the right direction. But there are still 9 weeks left before I return to Belgium, so time enough to worry about my comeback…

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Friday 11 April 2014

Time for the weekend to begin! At 8.30AM we took a pick-up truck to Santo Domingo, which I arranged for my group. There I assisted them to buy bus tickets for the bus to Atacames, which is a vibrant beach town in the north of Ecuador in the province of Esmeraldas. And yes, that’s a dangerous party place…

Around noon we arrived there and checked in into the hotel, which I also reserved for the group. It was really even more hot here in the coastline, and I had no hot water or air-conditioning in the room. But I did have a shower, and oh god, that did so good after this long time in the jungle river…

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In the afternoon, after having lunch with the group, I went to an internet café to write my weekly reports for school, Yanapuma and The Leap, and to talk to my boyfriend, friends and family at home. At night it was time for a first night out with my group members, and like always we had a lot of fun. Going out in Atacames was a very nice but different experience as the bars are lined out next to each other on the beach and all playing reggeaton music as loud as they can. Late at night I went to sleep. Satisfied!

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Saturday 12 April 2014

Quite early in the morning I woke up from the noises around my room. Atacames is definitely not the place where you should go for a good sleep! I had a nice breakfast near the hotel and chilled a little bit around. In the afternoon I went for some fresh seafood lunch with some of the group members and I had the chance to try the famous CAMARONES ENCOCADOS. It’s a local dish of the region. Delicious!

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In the evening we all went for a pizza on the beach strip and after that we went to party again. It was a lovely time there and although the group members ask me for help, translations and other things a lot of the time, I must say I am enjoying every minute of this experience and I feel so blessed being part of this!

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I feel super even though I am quite exhausted already. I just try to go to bed on time and get enough hours of sleep  every day. So dear mother, don’t worry. I’m fine! 😉 I do miss my boyfriend a lot, but I also realize that in life you can’t have it all. As I always say to my friends: CHOOSING IS LOOSING. And I have chosen for this adventure/internship in Ecuador, and so far I got a lot of things in return for that.

Sunday 13 April 2014

The weekend in Atacames finished Sunday morning as we took the bus back to Santo Domingo. After 4 hours on the bus we arrived, had our last nice lunch in a local restaurant and then headed back with the pick-up truck to our jungle home community of Bua. Once arrived there, I realized the last 3 days were here and I am going to miss it a lot as I feel already home here…

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I was happy to be back in my quite wooden cabin, as last night had been a rough night on the beach. I had some piña colada, which had some ice cubes inside, and gave me the “D” (diarrhea). Also, there had been a fight in the club we were and some of the group members were quite drunk. But fortunately, we had danced good, partied hard, enjoyed the food and the music, and nobody got robbed or sick. I just hoped my “D” got over quickly, because going to an eco-toilet like this is not fun!

That Sunday night, you can imagine I went to bed early as I was tired from the whole weekend trip.

Monday 14 April 2014

Yesterday evening I went to bed early, hoping to enjoy some private time under my mosquito net, enjoying reading a book. That wasn’t so nice and private as hoped… While reading I saw something coming closer and closer coming out of my pillow. When I turned, I saw it was a small snake/worm from about 25cm. I jumped out of the bed, catched the animal and threw it in the first plant I saw, I was shaking. Oh my god, in my bed!!

I didn’t read one page further or another giant insect entered my room. I could hear it flying in as if it were a helicopter, that big! It settled itself cosy on the ceiling, so there was no way catching it. So, as I was done with reading now, I decided to put the light out and go to sleep. But when I wanted to close my curtain, I was so surprised. My little gecko pet was hanging in the curtain and we both were shocked. The little poor animal looked like it could jump on top of me and so I didn’t know how to turn of the lights like this. I was done, enough jungle!!! I broke… I had enough of this jungle sh*t.

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Finally I went to bed later then planned, frustrated and sad. I had to take peace all the time with the fact that all this animals entered the room without my permission and that sucked. But yeah, nothing else to do about it. Just sleep.

In the morning all animals were gone, and I enjoyed the sounds of the jungle as I woke up. When I went to the toilet, I had another “tropical surprise”. The ‘D’ had not disappeared but continued for about 3 times in the same morning. I decided to wait until noon to see if it got better. It didn’t got a lot better, but it also didn’t got worse…

And at 8AM it was time to work and construct the house. I don’t know what it was, but maybe I was weaker after the weekend and this toilet problem, but I couldn’t seem to motivate myself to work good today. Just as I thought the days were almost over and nothing could go wrong, I felt down… I had to take a lot of breaks, ask fruits to eat more in the kitchen and take enough rest. But I also had to coordinate the work of my group, so I didn’t really have time to take a day off…

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Luckily, the group worked good and hard and they seemed happy finally being able to construct a little house. In the evening, they even helped to cook some dinner in the kitchen, and I am very happy that they take some initiatives. They are lovely!

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Tuesday 15 April 2014

The penultimate day of work in the jungle! And you should think that this last days go easy and pass by, but no no, the last days were a hell for me. I didn’t have energy and had difficulties with work. But I fought with myself and continued, knowing it was the last day of work for me.

As I felt weaker, I suddenly felt a little bit down too. I had the need to talk with somebody about how I feel, because it is always me who is asking my group how they feel. And as a group leader, nobody ever asks you how you are really doing. Well yeah, they do but it is never a ‘deep’ conversation…

I just tried to keep everybody busy with work and didn’t work so hard myself, to be honest. But I kept coordinating and don’t think the group was bothered by that. When it was finally noon, I fell asleep fast in the hammock and I woke up an hour later to get back to work again. After work, we were all tired and relaxed and cooled off in the river… What a day!

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In the evening Alsonso talked to me, because he could see I was tired. He told me that I was a fantastic group leader and that he admires my enthousiasm. I really appreciated that, as it was exactly the compliment I needed to feel a bit better.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The last full day with the Tsachilas! I had to go early in the morning at 7AM with two group members to the hospital to assist them with some medical consults. I also bought bus tickets for our return to Quito, and by noon we were back in the community.

In the afternoon we visited a local farm where the Tsachilas harvest fruits and vegetables such as yucca and maracuya.

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After getting back and going for a last time to the river, we had a goodbye celebration “la despedida” with all the community members. We evaluated our work, I translated as always what Alfonso said, coloured the hair of our boys with Achiote, bought souvenirs on the local market, made our own chocolate and had dinner all together. It was the perfect occasion to thank everybody for this wonderful experience and enjoy a last evening together.

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Thursday 17 April 2014

At 8AM we left the Tsachila, heading back to Quito. The jungle adventure is over. It was a long blog story, for which I apologize. But I hope you can see that it was an incredible and unique experience living and volunteering there for 2 weeks. I am grateful for each and every moment I shared and each and every person that was part of it. I think 2 weeks are not enough to change as a person, but at least some twinkle in my eye changed, is more relaxed and peaceful. I will never ever forget this in my life. And even though a return visit is unlikely, in my mind I will travel back often. I promise. Love you all, Tsachilas!

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From Julie with Love

Let’s take THE LEAP!

The time has finally come… The Leapers (group of volunteers from the company The Leap) have arrived… This means that from now on I am officially Group Leader for 11 youngsters, including 7 boys and 4 girls from the United Kingdom. After one month of hard work, explorations, reservations and organisation, I am happy to present my program for the next 10 weeks with this group.

However, this also means that I will not be able to write so much as before anymore, because there will be not always access to the internet in the volunteer projects. Therefore, I apologize and promise to do my best to write and post something every once in a while…

the leapWhat is THE LEAP?

Volunteering with The Leap is unique because every Volunteer Leap combines a unique mix of projects – so they will help with conservation, community and eco-tourism development over the course of 10 weeks overseas. Even better these projects are located in different places around the country of choice, with the Leap team moving around every few weeks. The result is a massively diverse, enjoyable mix of challenges, cultures and environments.

What is THE LEAP program in Ecuador?

ECUADOR: Jungle + Galapagos + Adventure Week + Andes

  • Jungle (Tsachila): 3 April – 18 April
  • Galapagos (San Cristobal): 20 April – 9 May
  • Adventure Week (Quilotoa, Baños, Riobamba): 10 May – 16 May
  • Andes (Chilcapamba, Mindo): 18 May – 2 June
  • Ruta del Sol (Guayaquil, Montañita): 4 June – 7 June

Between these dates, my home base will stay Quito, where I will return with the group to wash clothes, buy stuff and give orientations about the different destinations and volunteer projects. As you could see, I’ve already visited and posted about 2 of the voluntuur  projects that we are going to (Tsachila and Chilcapamba). I will also go with the group to a volunteer project in the Galapagos Islands, where I will have some time off of being Group Leader to discover the islands on my own. This is without a doubt one of my biggest dreams coming true. Thank God for all this wonderful opportunities and let’s pray that everything is going well with my Leapers throughout the 10 weeks! We are going to work hard and travel harder! 😛

As you can see, this group leading will take almost all of my time in Ecuador. And when this program is done and the group members travel further or back to the UK, I will be finishing lots of administration in the office of Yanapuma (the operating agent for The Leap in Ecuador). Then I only have a few days left until I fly back to Belgium on the 19th of June. Time will fly, as you might be able to imagine, and before you know, I’m reunited with my love, my friends, my family and my cats. ❤

If you’re interested, you can check out the program on the website: http://www.theleap.co.uk/volunteering-in-ecuador.html

do one thing that scares you

And let’s especially remember…

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone!”

Let’s take THE LEAP! I am ready to take off…

Julie

Volunteering in Quito – Spread the Wor(L)d !

The second week of my internship in Ecuador flew by. Before I knew it, it was Friday evening (while I’m writing this). I feel already ‘home’ at the Yanapuma office and more work and responsibilities are coming my way as the days pass by… But I wouldn’t like to talk about what I did at work, I would like to talk about what I experienced as a human being… Because I was sent to visit some of the volunteer projects of Yanapuma near Quito. And doing this, did make quite a movement in my heart and mind. So while reading this… Please consider volunteering at least one time in your life. Spread the word through the world, because your help is more than welcome!

The experience of volunteering is often one of the highlights of any traveler’s journey, and Ecuador offers some great opportunities for connecting with communities and worthwhile projects. And even though I didn’t come to volunteer myself, I got the chance to taste from this wonderful world of CARING and GIVING. And I start to understand it…

“Volunteers are not paid – not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.”

Boy in Conocoto

Or as Martin Luther King Jr once said:

“Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”

And so I started my journey to one of the first projects: CAMP HOPE, or in Spanish: Fundación Esperanza, a day-school for disabled and underprivileged children in the northern area of Carcelen in Quito. Every day the local staff and volunteers take care of medical attention, rehabilitation, vocational training and recreational activities for these kids.

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For me it was an eye-opening experience, as I felt so warmly welcomed by the local director. I still try to understand how these people keep smiling no matter how poor their life conditions are. Everybody, no matter in what circumstance they were living, was smiling. And the children loved to touch and hold me. I could feel they had so much love to give, and even though I felt uncomfortable being so much more ‘normal’ then them – almost feeling guilty for it – I smiled every second of the time I spend there.

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It just demands so much courage and emotional stability to be working and / or living in Camp Hope. And so I figured out where they got the name from… On the website of the project (http://www.camphopeecuador.org/ ) I encountered a video which is definitely worth to take a look at:

After the story, you get some information about the project itself…

Unfortunately I was not allowed to take close up pictures, and the pictures I did take were only allowed for promoting volunteers to come and help them out. So I would like to announce via this blog also to collaborate and volunteer. For more information:  http://www.yanapuma.org/en/volunteer-CampHope.php

And what we can all learn from this is maybe that the only disability in life is a bad attitude, or like Fundación Esperanza says: “prohibido decir no puedo” (forbidden to say I can’t…)

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The long hour traveling on the bus was definitely worth the ride, and I had some time to meditate about it on my way back. And God, if feels so good doing something that does make a difference!

The next day it was time to go to Conocoto Public School (“Escuela Fiscal Amable Arauz” in Spanish), also located about an hour away by bus from Quito center. In this project volunteers can teach (English) in the busy primary and elementary school.

There are more than 1400 children, as I was informed and most of them come from the nearby neighborhoods in Quito. As it is a public school, parents don’t have to pay BUT it also means that there is not so much budget and the classes are too full (I counted an average of 40 students in one class room).

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Although the project is a little bit far from Quito, it is worth the travelling. During the bus trip I had some amazing views over a valley in the Andes! (Why didn’t I make pictures of that?) And the town of Conocoto is also really nice: there is a small ‘plaza’ park with a beautiful little church. Right next to it is the school.

Inside the school you also have beautiful views over the surrounding mountains, but what was definitely the most impressive is the people themselves here. I met a wonderful English teacher, Lorena, who loved to talk with me about the school.

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Then I got the chance to enter some of the class rooms and the children were amazingly excited to see “LA GRINGAAAA” with a camera. (My job was to make pictures of the projects for the website, and to discuss information about the project with the director).

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All the teachers were also very friendly and warmly welcomed me to enter and interrupt their classes. I felt like some of them had never seen a camera before and tried to take as many pictures as I could of the children, and showed them afterwards to them.

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The happiness and purity in the faces of these young human beings, which is so far away from western lifestyle, is very confronting. Even though these people have so much less than we do in Europe, in my opinion they had so much more to give. And that’s what it was all about for me. Trying to give things which are not evident for me, not to have… but to be.

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I realized that as most of these children will never get the opportunity to continue higher studies or will never manage to speak good English, it is important as a further developed human being to try to help out the weaker amongst us. And we should realize that no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. See it like this:

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” – Muhammad Ali

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“When we seek to discover the best in others, we somehow bring out the best in ourselves.”

If you would like to volunteer in the Conocoto Public School of Quito, please surf to: http://www.yanapuma.org/en/volunteer-conocoto.php for more details.

And… SPREAD THE WOR(L)D ! 😉

¡Bienvenida a la Fundación Yanapuma!

Welcome to the Yanapuma Foundation “Sustainable Community Development in Ecuador”. This is a non-governmental organization is working together with local and international partners to bring about lasting change for the marginalized and indigenous people of Ecuador. And this is the reason why I came to Ecuador, to be part of a bigger project. To be the change I want to see in the world, as Mahatma Gandhi would say…

YanapumaThe Yanapuma Foundation office in Quito

All the projects Yanapuma works with form components of the integrated approach, which focuses on the interconnectedness of the social and environmental reality affecting rural indigenous and marginalized Ecuadorian communities. The aim is always to work to create and maintain active partnerships between Yanapuma, its funders, and the communities that they serve. I will be mainly working around 3 of their projects whilst traveling with groups: the Tsachila, Chilcapamba and Hacienda Tranquila.

TsachilaCommunity of the Tsáchilas, ethnicity of Ecuador

My position in the company as an intern is “VOLUNTEER GROUP LEADER FOR COMMUNITIES IN ECUADOR” because one important resource for the foundation are international volunteers and groups for short or long term periods (1 week to 6 months) to assist the communities with their goals. Yanapuma receives the groups of volunteers a number of times a year, and for this reason, they need people who are willing and able to motivate, manage and lead these groups of 10 to 15 volunteers in different locations around Ecuador. In the communities volunteer work will be done in construction, education, environment, and other areas.

My responsabilities will be:

– Learn about the local culture and previous projects in the different communities

– Prepare for the group’s arrival by setting up accommodation, food, transport, project work, and budget. This might include visiting the local community where the project is to organize with them the details of the work and accommodation

– Greet the group upon arrival and be their leader throughout their time with Yanapuma in Ecuador. This includes traveling with the group to coordinate and oversee their transport, project work, and additional activities.

– Introduce the group members to the community and vice versa

– Coordinate daily activities with the contact person in the community

– Explain the norms of living and working in a community to the volunteers and make sure they are being implemented

– Motivate and support the volunteers with their daily activities

– Organize activities during free time and weekends in coordination with the community

– Participate with the volunteer work

– Oversee the health and wellbeing of the group during their time with Yanapuma

– Be the point-of-contact between the group and the Yanapuma office in case of problems or concerns

– Maintain email communication with the contact person in the group (teacher, representative) to organize the logistics and project

My group will arrive the 1st of April 2014. Most group members will be aged 18-21 years old, and coming from the United Kingdom through a travel agency that offers gap year programs. They will stay for 10 weeks, until the 9th of June.

But for now I am working in the office preparing their trip together with Cristina Lopez, the volunteer and intern coordinator of Yanapuma.

Yanapuma 003The office

Also, I obviously need time to get used to the country and its culture ànd to the company. Therefore, I am staying one month in a host family. And until now I can say that I feel really blessed them around me because they have helped me a lot during my first days. They care about me as if I were their own hija (child) and I don’t know what I would do without them.    Gracias Ana Maria y Francisco!!!

ComedorDining area in the host family house

I have no idea how I will manage to become a real GROUP LEADER in one month, but there is no way back. Only forward… So I’ll keep my head up high, hoping for the best! I can do this!!!

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By the way: I already have a small idea of my 10 week itinerary but I’m not telling you yet… Surprise for the next blog post?!