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Volunteering

 

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you make your travel plans?

Sometimes we decide where to go based on where volunteer placements are available. Other times, the determining factor is where we can get cheap flights. I often do searches on the Web for "cheapest fares." If I find a great deal to southern Chile, we'll be there in two weeks! No itinerary, no reservations, no return tickets: earmarks of being retired and footloose, free of any time restraints. This is such a luxury after spending our entire working lives planning vacations that fit into our work schedules. No more of those debates about whether it's better to come back home on Saturday to allow for a day of rest before returning to the office Monday morning, or to stretch the vacation and fly back late Sunday night.

Now we think about the places we want to visit on any given trip, formulate a general plan that makes some geographic sense, book a ticket to the first destination, and set off. On a trip to West Africa, we knew we wanted to go to Ghana and Senegal but weren't sure about the other countries there in terms of interest and safety. Our only predeparture purchase was a one-way ticket to Accra, Ghana's capital. For us it's almost always better to play things by ear. This way we're without restrictions on destinations or time, and we can use ground transportation more often, which is more interesting and cheaper than flying.

One of the advantages of staying in budget accommodations, as we do, is that it's easy to meet like-minded travelers and share information. We stayed in Ghana for five weeks, using Accra as our base, and from there traveled by bus in different directions to places we wanted to visit, such as Cape Coast and the Volta region. Sitting around in the evenings with our fellow guests, we exchanged suggestions of where to go, stay, and eat, not just in Ghana, but all over West Africa. Stan and I used this information to plan our travels in Togo, Benin, Senegal, and The Gambia.

How do you stay in touch with family and friends?

We have two grown daughters and—as with many people we know that have grown kids—the parent-child role seems to have reversed in recent years. For the peace of mind of our daughters, we do the following:

  • Keep them informed of where we will be. This is sometimes difficult, especially when we are in remote areas, but we do our best. Even some of the smallest towns have Internet cafés, where we can send and receive e-mail.
  • Let them know that we check our e-mail regularly and can always call them if they need us (or if we need them).
  • When we fly, we give them our flight information.
  • If we're someplace where there's an internationally reported incident, we let them know right away that we're all right. When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004, we were on the east coast of India, and we immediately contacted our family, as well as our friends, to tell them that we were not directly affected.

 

We also send a more-or-less monthly e-mail newsletter to all our friends. We find that so many interesting things happen to us every day, especially on volunteer assignments, that people are happy to get these letters. Many have told us that they feel connected to what we're doing, and in the days following one of our letters, we get dozens of return e-mails. It means a lot to us to hear from those at home, no matter what is happening in their lives, so we encourage them to write.

How times have changed…during our earlier travels, we hand-wrote all our letters, sending them to family members to photocopy and mail on to our friends!

How do you determine what to pack?

We've found that it doesn't matter whether we're taking a 12-month trip or a 12-day trip. We still need pretty much the same amount of clothes. In Third World countries, doing laundry is very inexpensive—and often includes ironing and delivery

Before every trip, we stand in the attic of our friend's house where our remaining belongings—mostly clothes—are stored and decide what to bring. We learned from our early travels that it's important to be able to carry our own bags, which means traveling light. Our backpacks are medium-size, which we try to keep to 15 pounds each. We carry a small daypack as well. When we fly, we nearly always go carry-on, which has saved us a lot of grief and waiting time in some very hectic airports—but this has been more of a challenge since 9/11. Stan has stopped carrying his favorite pocketknife and just buys a cheap one when we arrive in a country. For cutting hair, which Stan does for both of us, we bought a good pair of hair scissors with rounded tips.

Most valuable to us is a zip pocket, which I devised and make for us, that is big enough to hold a passport, cash, and credit cards. We pin or stitch it inside an existing pocket, and access is near-impossible for anyone looking to steal from us. It has come in handy.

When we travel in warm climates, which we do often, it is easy to pack simply, with a few long- and short-sleeve shirts, a couple pairs of lightweight shorts and pants (good pockets are key), a wind- and water-repellent jacket, a long skirt for me, a few pairs of underwear, and a couple pairs of socks. Most of our clothes are from thrift shops and easily replaced. What we need we buy en route and often leave behind as we go, such as bulky cold-weather clothes.

In many less affluent countries, it's easy, and often quick, to have clothes made, especially if you have something to be copied. In Thailand, a tailor copied an expensive pair of Eddie Bauer shorts, including lots of pockets and zippers, for less than $10—overnight. For a wedding we attended in India, the groom took Stan shopping for a shirt, trousers, a silk vest, and a pair of loafers. For $13, he looked as good as anyone else. The friend who invited us to the event picked out one of her best saris, with gold jewelry to match, and insisted that I borrow it. Everyone was so happy to see us dressed like this that we were a big hit at the wedding.

The basic hostels and hotels where we stay don't offer much in the way of security, so it makes sense not to carry anything of real value, such as laptops or fancy cameras. We wear inexpensive watches, and I leave my wedding band in the States. Much of the weight in our bags is actually from medications, including ibuprofen—crucial for long bus and train journeys—and vitamins. We're at an age when we need more of these things, but fortunately, major cities in Africa, India, and South America have many drugs available, so we can get them as we need them. Toiletries, too, are generally easy to get.

What do you do about paperwork and money matters?

When we started on this path nine years ago, good friends of ours offered to pay our bills and handle our checkbook, as well as let us use their address to receive mail. That was, of course, before the Internet really took off. We have since made things easier by setting up automatic deposits from Medicare and Social Security, and arranging for medical insurance and other regular bills to be paid automatically by our bank. We also notified all catalog and other junk mail concerns to take us off their lists, so we don't actually get much mail. We've pretty much narrowed it down to two credit card bills a month. Anything of importance our friends forward to us. And every year we make sure we come back to the States before April 15 in order to file our taxes.

On the road, ATMs are our main source of cash (we use an ATM debit card), and they seem to be just about everywhere now. We carry $500 in traveler's checks as a backup, and an emergency $100 bill well hidden in one of our bags. We're selective about when we pay with credit cards because many banks are now putting a surcharge on purchases made outside the United States—we usually use them for larger purchases, such as airline tickets.

We always wait until we are in country to change money. The rates are often substantially better, and whether we arrive by plane, bus, train, or boat, there are almost always people standing around waiting to be of service. On arrival, we usually change about $25 from unofficial money traders until we get a chance to see what the rate really is. We once crossed from Senegal to The Gambia by ferry, which, to our surprise, threw an anchor out 100 feet from shore, leaving all the passengers to wade ashore or use one of a dozen strong, young men to carry us piggyback style. As we dismounted from our porters' backs, someone was right there with the offer "change money?"

We always have to be ready for the unexpected. At an ATM in Africa, we punched in the equivalent of $200—and received $20, along with a receipt that said $200. An airline clerk was waiting around the corner to sell us two tickets for a flight that day from this city that we were anxious to leave. Believe it or not, the airline's credit card machine was not working. In desperation, we tried the ATM again, to no avail. When the bank finally opened, we found that the assistant manager who assisted us not only spoke perfect English but had gone to college near where we had lived in Connecticut! Our experience has been that somehow things always work themselves out.

Where do you look for homestays and house-sitting opportunities?

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.

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