If there's a place where we want to stay for a few weeks or more, house-sitting can be a pleasant and inexpensive way to go. For the past five years, we've been house-sitting for several months for the same couple in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. There are a lot of vehicles on the Web for finding these kinds of opportunities, as well as house-swapping. The Caretaker Gazette, for one, lists an incredibly wide range of options, from big-city apartments to stays on a cattle ranch. Some involve caring for pets, plants, etc., and others, which may be longer-term opportunities and include a salary, require more involved caretaking responsibilities, such as maintenance work or cooking.
We are members of Servas, an international organization promoting peace and understanding through homestays, which allows us to visit for a few days at a time with families the world over. This has been a wonderful part of our travels. We have had Servas homestays in many countries, including the United States. These visits, more than once, have led to house-sitting opportunities. We got along so well with a couple in Santa Fe, New Mexico, that hosted us for two days, that they asked us to stay in their house and keep an eye on their teenage daughter for a week while they were away. Each time we take a different fork in the road, it leads us to new opportunities, like this.
We want to spend some time in Australia and New Zealand and have joined, via the Internet, an organization called WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). It requires that you work a certain number of hours a day in exchange for room and board. We received a booklet listing member farms where we can stay for a few days or weeks and essentially work our way as we travel. It seems like a good way to see these countries and really meet the people, and it would allow us to save money on hotels and restaurants. We have some concerns about the level of physical labor that may be required, but if we find it's too much, or we don't like it, we can stop doing it, which is our approach to a lot of what we do.
What kinds of volunteer placements have you done and how do you find them?
Volunteer work has, without a doubt, been the best part of our retirement and traveling life. We have been volunteers for American Jewish World Service for nine years and have had placements in India, West Africa, and South Africa, and have also done work for them in South America. We usually do a three-month assignment, full-time, with one grass-roots agency at a time. Our responsibilities vary depending on the needs of the agencies, but in general, I do social work, grant writing, and community organization and Stan does small business development, microcredit financing, and construction-related consulting. These are opportunities to be close to the locals, learn about their culture and, hopefully—and most importantly—do some good for those in need. We have met extraordinary people and have had incredible experiences in our placements.
In 2000 Stan did a fascinating three-week assignment as a volunteer real estate consultant in Siberia for ACDI/VOCA, an organization funded in part by the USAID government program and designed to provide assistance to businesses in developing countries. A variety of placements can be found on its website.
We often tell friends who are interested in volunteerism that just having lived in the United States and worked at a job gives you enough skills to be valuable at many grass-roots agencies. However, finding the kind of volunteer opportunity that fits your interests, needs, and skills takes perseverance and a willingness to be flexible in what you're willing to do. Many organizations require that volunteers pay their own way. We work with agencies that don't have this requirement, but often these can be difficult to find. I usually take the reins on seeking out volunteer opportunities, both online and through personal connections. It took me more than six months to find our first placement, in Zimbabwe, but it was well worth it.
There was a couple at our hotel in Calcutta that went to visit a Mother Teresa hospice facility and ended up spending 10 days there as volunteers, helping the sick by reading to them or, in some cases, just spending time with them. There are volunteer opportunities everywhere of this nature. The more involved ones usually just take more time and planning.
When in your travels do you feel the most vulnerable?
We usually find the first hour or so when arriving in a new place to be the most difficult time. Terminals everywhere are confusing, and especially so in Third World countries. Collecting
luggage, getting through customs, changing money, looking for ground transportation, and orienting ourselves in a noisy terminal teeming with people is a challenge.
Knowing what we will probably be in for on arrival, we try to organize ourselves before getting off the plane (or train, bus, or boat). We batten down the hatches, so to speak, making sure our valuables are in secure pockets, with passports and a small amount of cash in easy reach to ourselves only. Any other items, such as maps and names of hotels, are in handy pockets in our daypacks. The last thing we want to do is to start frantically searching for tickets or passports at checkpoints, or to start digging around for cash. Looking and acting organized and composed is very important. We don't want to stand out as tourists (and potential victims).
Talk about standing out in a crowd. Landing at the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia several years ago, I had forgotten to get my passport out of my secure pocket, which, in this case, was sewn inside the waistband of my pants. In a crowded line of mostly Muslim men, I attempted to modestly unbutton my pants, unzip my pocket, and get out my passport. The sudden silence was palpable.
On another trip, as we were heading for New Delhi, we saw that our guidebook cautioned readers to be careful about changing money at the airport branch of the Bank of India. We thought it was a joke; after all, this was the national bank! But it was enough to alert us. We had checked the exchange rate and knew that we should get about 4,300 rupees in exchange for our $100 traveler's check. The teller had his hands below the counter and had already counted out the amount once. While continuing the conversation with his associate, he quickly counted out in front of Stan 3,450 rupees and stopped, expecting him to scoop it up and walk away. Stan did not touch the money and continued to look at him. After a brief pause, he continued counting and gave us the right amount.
Even going to the restroom needs planning in busy terminals. One person stands near the door watching the bags, while the other takes care of business. We carry a security cord that can be looped through the handles of the bags, keeping them together during bathroom breaks so that no one can run off with one.
Finding ground transportation also requires vigilance. Most terminals have registered taxis waiting in queues with uniformed attendants. We wait for one of these taxis rather than go with drivers who approach with offers of no waiting and cheaper fares. One time, in Mexico City, a pleasant man with his wife and little girl in tow approached us with a good offer to taxi us to town. We agreed, but when he went to get the car, a well-dressed local lady approached us and warned us not to go with him, that he was trouble. We took her advice and returned to the taxi line. We almost made a big mistake, mainly because we were tired and impatient after a long trip.