Friday, May 3, 2013

Reflections: The Joy of Volunteering

We returned to Seattle last Thursday, April 25, exhausted but happy.  It has been three months since we began our first volunteer journey to South Africa on Super Bowl Sunday.

It was a fantastic overall experience.  If you have any desire to volunteer abroad, we highly recommend doing so instead of taking a regular vacation.  Whether you are trying to determine how to start a career, taking a break from one, or reflecting back on it from retirement, you probably have something significant to offer to those in need.

There is an important role in volunteer work for almost everyone:  the energy of youth; the organizational and specific skills of corporate employees; the empathy and expertise of social service professionals; the practical knowledge of those in the building trades; and the wisdom of the experienced.  Whatever your age and interests, the cross-cultural exchanges are priceless.

The activities in which we were engaged didn't really feel like work, but rather a more culturally fascinating way of spending our vacation time.  It didn't seem as if we were missing out on other checklist items we could have been doing.  We pretty much did them all anyway, only with a richer perspective on each country's history, personality and challenges.  And ways to have fun!

We would not have discovered some of the more interesting and meaningful experiences outside of our placement work without the advice, and in some cases accompaniment, of the locals and the other foreigners we met through volunteering.  We are so glad we did.

Unless you have the luxury of volunteering for several months or years, you need to believe in the power of the ripple effect.  We do.  It would be easy to be pessimistic, and doubt that you can have any lasting impact on people with whom you interact for only 2 or 4 weeks.  But combined with the efforts of other like-minded volunteers, while you are in the country as well as before and after, we think this has a cumulative effect.

For example, we spent a lot of time teaching the KSEDO kids geography lessons.  We covered continents, countries, capital cities, population, what animals they have, what they enjoy doing, what their money looks like, which countries our grandparents are from, etc.

The kids have probably already forgotten many of the specifics.  But if one or two kids are stimulated enough by tales of the broader world around them, who knows, maybe they will be more inclined to apply to universities abroad someday or pursue a career that bridges gaps between nations.  And maybe they will encourage their friends to do the same, and extend the cross-cultural exchange.

We left the laminated map in the KSEDO classroom, so hopefully future volunteers will use it to teach the kids new things.  At the very least, when another volunteer says they are from Denmark or England or Australia, the kids will know where that is.

In Cambodia, we felt that we were part of the transition team for KSEDO.  We helped them adjust to their new physical space with new learning, sports, play ideas and building activities.  And Internet connectivity!  (Note:  Press the right arrow button below to play the Unicorn Song video.)

The building construction project in South Africa could be completed by trained professionals many times more quickly and with much higher quality.  But the project is as much about building memories for the day care kids as it is about building walls, which may never be perfect.  By the time the project is finished, there will have been several hundred volunteers who have contributed.  More importantly, that many people will have made a small difference in the lives of the kids and vice versa.  That's pretty cool.

On a lighter note, we are confident that the kids in both South Africa and Cambodia will always remember singing "Hail to the Redskins."  Our fellow volunteers in South Africa reported back that the kids still know the lyrics by heart 2 months later!  The KSEDO kids in Cambodia are born performers, and already had a large repertoire of memorized songs.  So it will be no problem for them.  Fight for Old D.C.!!!

There are a number of excellent international volunteer organizations that offer programs that are similar to the ones at Projects Abroad.  We researched the choices for months before our trips.  Most organizations offer placements in teaching, care (e.g. orphanage, hospital), community development (e.g. construction), sports and conservation.  Some also offer more specialized opportunities in areas such as human rights, journalism, business, performing arts and women's empowerment.

No matter how much research you do, there are probably still going to be some unknowns and mild surprises.  With the exception of a few organizations like The Peace Corps or Habitat for Humanity, which may have each of their projects perfectly defined after many decades of operation, things are usually fluid.

It helps to be flexible, and adapt to the current needs at the placement organization.  You may need to be proactive about defining your exact role.  It is unlikely that you will get step-by-step instructions on how you should spend each hour of the day.  That can be a good thing for volunteers who have a variety of life skills.  You can help determine where you can make the most difference.

Below are the web addresses for some of the better U.S. and U.K.-based volunteer organizations and umbrella websites we researched:  (Projects Abroad U.S.)  (Projects Abroad U.K. = headquarters)  (Cross Cultural Solutions)  (Global Volunteers)  (Global Vision International)  (International Volunteer HQ)  (The Peace Corps)  (Cheetah Conservation Fund)  (info and links to many volunteer organizations) (International Volunteer Programs Association = IVPA; has screened member organizations such as Habitat for Humanity)

None of the organizations listed above have a specific religious affiliation.  Faith-based charities are another good source of volunteer opportunities.  Most of the organizations listed above charge fees.  In exchange, they take care of many logistics and provide food and lodging, either with a host family or in group housing.  They have well-established projects.  Many offer flexible starting dates, and they can process your application relatively quickly.  One notable exception is the Peace Corps, which requires a long application process and time commitment but low/no fees.

This list is far from exhaustive, but if you are interested in volunteering it will give you a starting point.  Feel free to contact Sarah or John for more detailed information.  We can also provide some opinions on the pros and cons of various organizations.

We are sad to be ending this travel blog.  Writing it has helped to crystallize our experiences, choose and organize the best photos, and most importantly prolong the vacations!

Thanks for reading.  And for some of you, hopefully, happy future volunteering!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Little Bit of Seoul

On our way back from Siem Reap to Seattle, we had a 12-hour layover in Seoul.  We had woken up in Phnom Penh at 6 AM, taken a 6-hour cacophonous bus ride to Siem Reap, killed 5 hours in Pub Street plus 3 more at the airport, and flown 6 hours to Seoul.  And we were soon flying another 10 hours to Seattle.

We did not want to waste an opportunity for further blog material, and we needed to do something culturally meaningful for Sarah to legitimately count South Korea as Country # 38.  We had earlier decided to take a train and subway into downtown Seoul and do a few things.  We even found on the Internet someone's excellent step-by-step list of what to do in Seoul on such a layover.

 Gwanghwamun Gate and the Palace Wall at Gyeongbokgung Palace

We're not going to lie and tell you that this was the most fun day ever.  Or that we never get tired during our whirlwind adventures.  The truth is, we were tired and grumpy.  Really grumpy.  Also, the temperature was in the high 40's F and it was pouring down rain.  Quite a body shock after 100 F every day in Cambodia, even if we do live in Seattle.

Oh, and the first ATM machine we tried appeared to deduct cash from our bank account without actually giving us the cash.  But we called Bank of America and got that straightened out.

The first part of our city journey wasn't so bad.  After briefly considering the un-us-like option of an organized tour, we bought our Airport Express tickets and boarded the train.

The first interior gate at Gyeongbokgung Palace (spelling bee later)

We met several nice Koreans along the way.  One woman helped us figure out which direction to go at the station platform.  Another woman gave us her fold-up subway map.  A nice man practiced his English with us, and said good things about us for having done the volunteer thing.  We were off to a good start.

We made our way to Gyeongbokgung Palace, our first stop, relatively easily.  The subway station is close to the palace grounds.  We bought our tickets and started walking around. The rain was cold, but it wasn't bothering us too much at this point, since the palace's history, layout and buildings were stimulating.

The palace was built in 1395.  It was destroyed by the Japanese invasion of 1592, and languished for almost 300 years before being rebuilt in 1867.  The grounds reminded us of the Forbidden City palace in Beijing, China, near Tiananmen Square.

The first room we looked into was called Sajeongjeon.  Per the pamphlet we received, this is "the hall where the king should think deeply before deciding what is right or wrong."  We think everyone's house should have such a room.  We know that not having one is the only reason we sometimes fail to do the right thing.

Sarah considers whether jet lag is compatible with deep thinking

This is where the king formulated all the really cool ethics

Another room with heated floors, for the king to hang out in winter

Next we visited several rooms that functioned as living quarters and visiting rooms for various members of the royal household.  This included the king, the crown prince, the queen dowager (king's mother), the court ladies and the ubiquitous concubines.

We don't remember which royal family members resided here

 Visitors (e.g. court ladies) stayed in these side rooms at night

There were other interesting spaces throughout the grounds:

Roof detail in a room that housed the king's scientific inventions

The king threw formal banquets for foreign envoys at Gyeinghoeru Pavilion

Wet and tired by this time, we decided to leave the palace and go somewhere to get.....even more wet and tired.  But first, we got a glimpse of the Palace Guards on the way out.

The Palace Guards are all incredibly tall, probably 6'6" or so (almost 2 meters).  They might get an extra inch or so from their shoes, but not much.  We're not sure if they were all that tall in the 1400's, but maybe so.  They were well trained to stay in character, with stern, unflinching looks on their faces.

 Is their other job playing for the Korean national basketball team?

The man on the right is not to be trifled with

That same evening, at the Seoul airport, a troupe of Palace Guard wannabees walked up and down the concourse.  They clearly did not have The Right Stuff.

Not tall enough, not mean enough, not BAD enough

John's next quest was to briefly see part of Cheonggyecheon.  This is a San Antonio riverwalk-like stretch of stream and pavement, 20 feet below street level, that runs for 3.5 miles.

We knew it was in the same general area as the palace, but we didn't know if it was 2 or 10 blocks away.  We traipsed through the cold, hard rain for a few blocks.  After being told several times that it was "just up and to the left", we finally gave up, got back on the subway and proceeded directly to Itinerary Item # 3.  This was shopping and/or eating lunch in Myeong-dong.  We agreed this would be our last stop.

We knew there were some interesting places in Myeong-dong, just not here

Myeong-dong is a shopping area with Western brands, certainly not very traditionally Korean.  We had hoped to find some trendy restaurant for lunch.  We had difficulty finding what we were looking for, even with a map app and some restaurants in mind.  Walking around, all we could see were hole-in-the-wall eateries that looked likely to cause stomach problems on the long flight home.

Remembering the advice of two guys we met on the subway, we went into a shopping mall to the restaurants on the 6th floor.  There we found an authentic spot, where the local office/retail boys and girls were eating.  Actually, about 9 girls to every 1 boy.

You had only this option:  Large, Medium or Small for a flat round pan full of chicken, vegetables, spices and sauce.  And some rice.  We chose, correctly, Small.  It was pretty good, and indeed spicy.  Life was getting better.

On the same floor as the lunch spot, John discovered something that really lightened our mood.  This is apropos of nothing, other than it was really funny to see it in Korea.

Elvis and Marilyn now live in the Men's room in Myeong-dong

Elvis and Marilyn must have hoped for something better in their next incarnation.  Elvis should definitely leave this building.

Rhapsody in Red and Blue

As we did for South Africa, we wanted to share a few photos of people we met and liked, but whose photos have not yet made it into any of our blog entries.

We will always remember the resilient people of Cambodia

Rey from Projects Abroad was always there when we needed him for advice on any activities, to call a tuk tuk driver, to take something to the orphanage, or anything else. His childhood friend Bunthoeun spoke English about as well as anyone we met.

Rey and Bunthoeun, in front of Bunthoeun's lumber shop

Han was one of our favorite tuk tuk drivers.  He is frequently used by Projects Abroad.  He picked us up from the airport, shuttled us around to temples for 2 days, and gave Sarah a back rub and words of encouragement when she was feeling ill (understatement).

Han in front of his tuk tuk at Khmer Village Restaurant, near Angkor Wat

Than took us to and from KSEDO in his tuk tuk each day.  He frequently dropped us off at the Internet cafe after work.  On our last day in Cambodia, he picked us up at the bus depot and dropped us off at the airport.

This is the side of Than that we normally saw

This lady taught Sarah a few apsara dancing moves during the "Hit the Pot" festivities at the monastery near Banteay Srei.

 The key is in the hand motion:  one palm up, one palm down

The family below lived across the street from our villa.  They had a small market, where we purchased many lychee fruit drinks, Cokes and lollipops for the KSEDO kids.  They washed, dried and pressed our laundry twice, for a reasonable fee.  They always waved goodbye when we left for work in the morning, and waved hello when we came back in the evening.

Sarah got a hug and a gift (scarf) from the mother when we left

Adam was our go-to tuk tuk driver when we were out at Pub Street after 9 PM.  He is the only one we trusted to get us back to our difficult-to-describe villa location!

Adam frequently drove his tuk tuk until 2 or 3 AM

Below is one of several groups of physically challenged musicians who played traditional music for small donations in front of various temples.  They all sounded pretty good. Many are land mine victims, while others are missing one or more of their five senses. There was a Land Mine Museum midway between Pre Rup and Banteay Srei.  We didn't have time to visit, but it definitely made us stop and reflect.

Land mine victim on the left; the other two may be blind

We met this lady near Banteay Srei in front of a house, where we stopped to take a photo. Another nice lady we met at the same house assumed we had stopped to take a photo of a man picking coconuts 60 feet up in one of their palm trees.  Actually, we just thought their house was nice.

This is probably a member of the household staff, not the owner

This adorable boy at the Internet cafe couldn't stop laughing, smiling at and "talking" to Sarah as she posted a few blog entries.

His mother was pleased at the attention he was getting

And there are so many more great people that we don't have pictures of!

Roluos Group Flashback

At the end of our second straight day of temple trekking near Siem Reap, we visited two of the three Roluos Group temples.  These are the earliest temple monuments built by the Angkor Empire.  They date from the 9th century, around 880 A.D.

The temples were built near the site of Hariharalaya, the first Khmer capital.  It is located 8 miles east/southeast of Siem Reap.  The other temples we visited were all 4 - 20 miles north of Siem Reap.  Unlike most of the other temples we visited, the Roluos Group temples are in the middle of what is currently a residential, almost suburban neighborhood of Siem Reap.  So they feel less isolated.

Sarah and Chek walk up to the raised laterite platform at Preah Ko

The first of the two Roluos Group temples we visited was Preah Ko.  It was built by King Indravarman I to honor his parents.  This Hindu temple was dedicated to the god Shiva.

As is the case with Pre Rup, Preah Ko was constructed with a combination of red brick and grey laterite.  You may remember that laterite was the material used to construct The Bayon temple at Angkor Thom.  The six brick towers at Preah Ko have equal prominence.

Sarah and the sacred bull Nandi show mutual respect

View of three of the six brick towers at Preah Ko

After spending 20 minutes at Preah Ko, the tuk tuk took us less than a mile away to the second Roluos Group temple, Bakong.

Bakong is the largest temple in the Roluos Group, and was built around the same time as Preah Ko.  It later became a place of worship for Buddhists.

Bakong looks quite different from Preah Ko.  The color is much greyer, indicating perhaps a higher percentage of laterite vs. brick.  The temple builds up over four levels to a single lotus-shaped tower at the center top.

View of Bakong, as we walked up to the front entrance

It's lonely at the top

There are large stone elephants at each of the four corners of the first three plaza levels of the temple.

Neighborhood kids play at Elephant Corner

Elephants cascade down the side of Bakong

The back side of Bakong looks out over a monastery.  Not just any monastery, but the one that our guide Chek happened to study at for a couple of years. Monasteries provided education for boys that would otherwise not be able to afford it. Chek showed us several large flower pots that he built during the time he was there, as he helped to design one of the surrounding gardens.

The kids are in a Khmer New Year frame of mind

Close-up view of another structure; maybe a library?

Chek's monastery, with garden (not visible) at right center

After leaving Bakong temple, we walked down a dirt road and briefly joined a neighborhood celebration of Khmer New Year.  We met a shrewd, funny and cute 10-year old girl who tried to sell us a soda.  She spoke pretty good English.

"We need to go home now.  But maybe we'll come back and buy one tomorrow," we offered unconvincingly.  "You're not really going to be here tomorrow!"  "You're right," we said.  "But definitely the next time we're here."  "So when is the next time?"  "We can't say for sure," we replied, "but maybe in one year."  "You know if you leave without buying something, I'm gonna cry." Then she cracked up, and wished us a pleasant remainder of our day.­­

This is not the soda vendor, unfortunately

We jumped in the tuk tuk and started back towards the villa, at the end of a long day.  Our adventures were not quite finished.

Within about a half block (if there had actually been a block) of Bakong, we passed a group of 6 or 7 twenty-something men in one of their front yards.  They were on the patio, enjoying lunch, some frosty cold beverages, and some Khmer New Year good cheer. They smiled with amusement and waved hello.

After hesitating a few seconds, John asked our tuk tuk driver to stop, and hopped out to run back and say hi.  He introduced himself, and was surprised when one or two of the revelers spoke some English. John was invited to send the tuk tuk driver on his way, and stay and have some beers with the boys.

This unfortunately wasn't possible, since we hadn't yet paid our tuk tuk driver Han and temple guide Chek for the two days.  It was also getting late in the day, and we all needed to get home.  But John was able to get a good photo of the gang before jumping back in the tuk tuk.

Fourth of July cookout, Cambodia version

Seven temples.  Great people.  Warm weather.  Free entertainment.  This is definitely our kind of New Year's Day.