Volunteering, Mexico and the Western Guilt Complex

“Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints” – The above quote is one of my favourites about travel and it sums up this month’s topic very neatly. We’re discussing Sustainable Travel – it’s a term which covers a wide range of meanings, from eco-travel, to shopping, transport to volunteering. We will cover them all over the coming weeks, but first, I think the time has come for me to tell you about what happened in Mexico. It was the summer of 2008; I had just turned 20. Young, naive and idealistic, I suppose I was your typical languages student. I had learnt just enough about world issues to consider myself worldly-wise. It was a ridiculous thing for me to imagine, but hindsight, as so often said, is a wonderful thing. I decided to use my summer holidays to travel alone to Mexico and engage in volunteering. I thought I had done my research: shunning the big voluntourism companies, whose ethics even then I found questionable (not to mention the vast amounts of money they charge for their programmes were beyond my reach) and choosing an independent organisation. I had a fair amount of childcare experience, though no formal training or qualifications, and the project I found was to work in an orphanage in the depths of rural Mexico, close to the Guatemalan border. I didn’t pause for a second to wonder why the man I was communicating with and sending the money for my stay to was based in the USA, or why the details I had on the orphanage were pretty scant. As far as I was...

An Education

Yesterday, I secured my first ‘proper’ job as a teacher. It’s been my dream since circa age 5, so I’m a little bit delighted. And having my future safe has allowed me to sit back and breathe a little today and to think about all the children I’ve already taught, all over the world and realised that they have taught me more than I could ever teach them. To my gorgeous Peruvian chiquitos, thank you for your glorious smiles, your ‘fan-mail’, your requests for my autograph. Thank you for your boundless enthusiasm, your spirit, your determination and eagerness to learn, despite the system. You came to school every single morning with laughter and energy, pulling your mini suitcases with pride and your chatter visible as cold puffs in the frozen morning air. You bigger ones raced up the stairs, swinging your cases up with the vigour of your youth, while you little ones lugged them up, one huge step at a time, eyes fixed firmly on your next obstacle, perseverance getting you to the top. Thank you for the moment when we sang ‘Go Bananas’ and you loved it so much that you refused to go when the bell rang for break – instead you stayed and wrote the strange English words on the board and sang it again and again. Thank you for your curiosity, your questions, for being excited when it was my turn to teach you. I hate that you have to study in those concrete classrooms with the tables fixed to the floor in rows, with the one tatty map on the wall, the teaching...

Planning for Long-Term Travel

Planning a long-term adventure is both hugely exciting and overwhelmingly daunting. At the moment the idea is conceived and when you begin to sense that it is actually a viable option, the sense of anticipation is enourmous and you feel on top of the world. But the moment you sit down and begin to look at the practicalities, a gulf opens up between where you are and getting to a point where the trip will be a success. But it’s not an impossible task. I am one of the least planning-oriented people there is, far but when taking an extended trip, some things simply have to be taken care of in advance. So here’s a bare-minimum, easy-to-do guide which will help you take care of the essentials and leave you free to dream about your trip! 1. Flights Now, long-term doesn’t necessarily equal long-haul, but it often does and in this case, it pays to sort out your flights early. The flights can account for a significant percentage of your overall budget and the hope of getting a cheap last-minute deal is not worth the stress. Booking early will give you time to shop around, check airline reviews and see what options are available to you, as well as giving yourself time to be flexible with your dates to get the best deals – and this should be your first priority. This also makes the dream a reality – once you have that confirmation email, there’s no going back. The euphoria at this moment is hard to describe, but you might just find yourself telling anyone – and everyone...

Planning the adventure of a lifetime

…with very little time and on a shoestring budget! You’re probably sick of me banging on about it, but in four weeks’ time, I will be starting a four-month adventure in South America. Although I have been wanting to go for a long time, I only started planning this trip last month. Compared to a week ago (Preparations of a Novice Backpacker) I am feeling remarkably Zen about it all. I understand that doing everything at the last minute might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s not always a choice, and I can show you that it is at least possible! So here, in my view, are the things that are important to sort out in advance, and those which you don’t need to worry about. 1. Work/Volunteer Placements If you plan to combine your travel with work or volunteering, if it’s more than casual work, get this sorted first. I especially feel strongly that volunteering placements should be carefully researched to make sure that they are really benefitting the local community – and also that you are going to have a positive experience and not be ripped off. I was researching volunteer options for a few months before I planned anything else about the trip and my first priority was making contact with the organisation. Everything else has taken shape around this. I’ve also kept up a dialogue with the co-ordinator, asking loads of questions and I’ve even started preparing some teaching resources at last! The point is, you need to make sure that the placement is right for you, right for the community and that all...

Preparations of a Novice Backpacker

In exactly 33 days time, I shall be hurtling (or more likely crawling) towards Heathrow airport to catch a flight bound for Lima. I will watch England disappear beneath the clouds and my four-month adventure in South America will begin.I would like to be able to say that I am taking my “trusty” backpack and give you that knowing nod, indicating that I am a seasoned backpacker, who can set up camp in the wilderness, survive with just two t-shirts and a pair of trousers for over a year. Sadly, this is not the case. I had to buy a backpack specifically – usually any trip lasting more than 3 days requires luggage on wheels in my world – and already I have encountered problems. Now, I did my research. I visited forums, asked stupid questions, all to determine which was the right type of backpack for me. Then I compared web prices, found the perfect thing, bid for it on ebay and bingo! An absolute bargain price and a few days later my Vango Freedom (sounds suitably backpackerish, doesn’t it?) arrived. Only it wasn’t the right one. This one is 80 litres, rather than the 60 litre one I thought I was buying and it is MASSIVE. Now, when talking suitcases, the bigger the better in my book, but when I have to carry this thing on my back and it is nearly bigger than me, it doesn’t work. Backpack issues aside, I’m also trying to co-ordinate the biggest adventure of my life, in which I plan to see as many places as humanly possible, while still enjoying...
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