Category Archives: volunteering

What To Do When You’re Too Poor To Travel

When people talk about taking a holiday, does it leave you feeling somewhat jealous? Inadequate? That you should be travelling and having amazing experiences in order to live a meaningful life?


Earlier this year I read an article on Wired.com where our obsession to escape into ‘authentic’ experience and travel aesthetic was highlighted through a fake Instagram account featuring Barbie as its protagonist. Wired called it ‘an endless barrage of pensive selfies in exotic locales, arty snapshots of coffee, and just the right filter on everything.’

But why, why, why? Who’s looking at this stuff? And who cares?

Many of us, apparently.

I want me some of that. Oh hang, on. Really? Now I feel silly. 

We gobble up ‘breathtaking photos of mountains and beaches,’ and long for ‘a day when we can just get away from it all,’ say Wired. We all want to escape our lives, it would seem.

Like 20% of UK families, according to children’s charity Barnados who say that the poorest families have a disposable weekly income of £39 (US$59/$AU80) where even a trip to the beach is considered a luxury.

Or like one of my blog’s readers who left the following comment on my 5 Benefits of Family Holidays post:

i cant afford holidays because im poor as fuck……

Clear and direct, it jolted me into researching and writing this post.

The privilege of budget travel

Here’s the thing: many of the world’s travel bloggers, myself included, might talk about budget travel and how if you work really hard and cut back on daily luxuries (think coffees, lunches out, drinks with friends) you will be able to see the world. How short term pain (think working long hours, skipping coffees and losing friends because you’re obsessed with saving) will only lead to long-term travel gain if you want it enough.

Ahem. Writing this down feels awkward and embarrassing because I know I have told myself, and probably others, this same script. It is, in part, how I managed to make it happen, but there’s more to it, of course.

The reality is that most the people spouting this rhetoric, myself included, have a set of privileges that need to be acknowledged: A solid education. Access to jobs and career paths. Sound health and mind, for the most part. Supportive social and professional networks who encourage us to be ambitious, search out our dreams and explore our talents.

In terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we’re talking highest-level stuff here. Self-actualisation. To not have to worry about all the basics like shelter and security, we are lucky. Very lucky.

In a recent article for xoJane.com, Keziyah Lewis supports the idea that luck plays a big factor and concludes by saying: ‘Budget travel writers may have worked hard to get where they are, but just like me, they’re also lucky. Ignoring this, and the financial circumstances that prevent people from seeing the world, is simply classist.’

‘Budget travel’ as a term is fairly problematic, in any case. It’s all so relative. The ‘budget travel’ discussed online is predominantly relative to ‘mostly white, middle class travel writers’, according to Lewis.

But let’s get back to the core issue: you can’t afford to holiday this year (or ever). Maybe you’ve never been abroad. Put plain and simply, you can’t afford to travel.

Is there really a choice?

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 1.36.36 pm

Change your mindset, says Nomadic Matt (Image from nomadic matt.com)

Nomadic Matt, a prolific travel blogger and budget travel advocate writes in his article How To Change The “I’m Too Poor To Travel” Mindset And Say Yes To Travel: ‘I’m too poor to travel” is a belief that causes many to lack the confidence to believe travel is possible.’ He effectively argues that – for a good handful of people – there is the choice.

And it’s a common argument: we all have the power to make choices in our lives that impact on our experience of life.

Whatever our income (or lack of) our lifestyle choices do determine to some extent our potential to travel. For example I’ve got friends on the dole who spend their income on internet, tobacco and weed. I’ve got friends in high-income roles who do exactly the same. Both could save money to travel if they truly desired.

Can desire, then, play a role in us reaching our goals to travel? Somewhat. It might kick start a process, but there’s no guarantee. Effectively, without money (and time), desire can be quashed as we are pushed into survival mode, which makes it impossible to imagine any other way of being. Travel appears to be something that other people do. Richer people.

So is there a way to become richer that can apply to all? Unlikely. Maybe there are things you can sell, things you can do in your spare time to earn extra cash rather than watch TV. Hell, sell your TV and cancel your cable plan. Cancel your internet service and go to the library instead. Switch your phone to pay-as-you-go. Prepare food at home. Find amazing deals and coupons and vouchers. Every little bit counts; it all adds up.

But maybe you work so damn hard ten hours a day that by the time you get home you’re too flogged to do anything but flake out in front of the TV.

The comment left on my blog made me realise that it’s too simple (and even insulting) to say that travel is just a mindset and that anyone can travel. Clearly not everyone can, at least not in the way that the media talks travel. (To be fair to Matt, he does acknowledge this in his blog post).

So maybe there’s a different way we can think about and approach travel?

Seeing things differently

One person who realised this was a retired aircraft engineer called Bahadur Chand Gupta who bought a decommissioned Airbus A300 and transformed it into a travel experience, The Flight to Nowhere. Charging up to a dollar for entry, Stuff.co.nz explains that it ‘offers people who might never be able to afford to get on a real flight the experience of being on a plane.’

Coming from a place of wanting to share the experience, this flips the whole travel thing on its head. Not only are people getting to enjoy a ‘flight experience’, they’re possibly getting a better – or at least more holistic and fun – flight experience than those people who actually use planes to get from A to B. It’s not the real thing, but it a real thing in its own right, an experience nonetheless.

And it shows the world we live in where a ‘travel experience’ is interchangeable with a ‘new experience’. Thanks also to the internet, we can now ‘see’ and ‘experience’ the world more readily than ever before, without ever leaving our sofa/home/country. Google Earth takes this a step further, in that we can virtually navigate through the streets of a totally new place, pull up at the driveway of a foreign friend and check out their neighbourhood.

But in amongst this mass of information is a whole lot of content curation. The photo you see is unlikely to be the only photo from that collection. It’s just the best one of many. Who’s going to post their worst photo(s)? Who wants to look at them?

Real travel vs. real travel?

A 'travel' photo that I took yesterday in my backyard in Australia. It was 1 of 13 photos that I took (and I didn't even see the bee until when I reviewed this picture).

A ‘travel’ photo that I took yesterday in my backyard in Australia. It was 1 of 13 photos that I took (and I didn’t even see the bee until afterwards until when I reviewed the pictures).

Does this then mean that the travel we think exists is actually a myth and we’re doomed to be disappointed by reality? In his book, The Art of Travel, philosopher Alain de Botton indicates that this may be too pessimistic, and that it ‘might be truer and more rewarding to suggest that it is primarily different’.

Advice across the board seems to be: Keep things in perspective when reading everyone’s amazing travel accounts, mine included. I have barely written about the nastier, grosser and sadder moments of my travels because most people won’t be interested. It doesn’t offer the same escapism as stories with glossy, beautiful backdrops. Keep the view that those pictures and videos too are but one account of that place, one glimpse of much more complex reality. We live in a real world, after all. It’s complex and multifaceted (and surely all the more beautiful for that?).

Darby Cisneros, the artist who created the satirical Barbie Instagram account (mentioned earlier in this post) has now pulled the plug on her experiment. She told Wired ‘I get it, it’s pretty to look at. But it’s so dishonest. Nobody actually lives like this.’

How can this help us? Whenever you feel like everyone else is doing all these incredible things and seeing all these special places because of all the fun, zen, wide angled pictures they’ve posted, realise it’s possibly a load of BS. Or at least a very constructed moment in time.

(The likelihood, anyway, is that during the BEST experiences of your life you will be too absorbed IN the moment to take a photo that does it justice. And it really doesn’t matter. What really matters is that YOU JUST HAD THE BEST EXPERIENCE, right?)

But there’s also the flipside that if you do want to go out and take some amazing photos of the world and your experience in it, do it. Why not? The world clearly craves well-constructed scenes of beauty, scenes that hint at a life of ‘what could be’, whether that’s through city excitement or the serenity of nature or whatever you damn well please. Someone will consume it.

And maybe if you spend some time and care taking photos of where you live and of elements that constitute your life, you’ll look back and realise that your life is beautiful in it’s own right. Landscapes, cityscapes, concrete graffitiscapes, they all have beauty and associated stories. Share them.

Take time out

Sometimes to see that beauty, though, you need to step back and take some time out.

I recall my ex’s mum telling me that ‘change is as good as a holiday’. It’s only really now, after what’s been a slog of a challenging year, that I’ve realised that maybe a holiday is as good as a change, and that some time out might actually mean you don’t have to change, whether that be your job, your life, whatever.

I’ve realised that a lot of the time all I really need is a break. I don’t need to do anything high-adrenaline like jumping out of an airplane, I don’t need to fly anywhere foreign or sit in a car for hours to get to a town up the coast, I don’t need to be hyper stimulated by new sights and sounds or handfuls of new people.

Travel doesn’t have to be about perfect beaches, neon city streaked frenzy or screaming markets stuffed with dried llama foetuses or dyed pink chicks for sale. It can be, but it certainly doesn’t have to be.

Could the answer be to think of travel as something a little more internal? Of giving your mind the space to appreciate where you’re at by taking a break from your busy life?

Travel local and staycate

If you’re craving more than just a break but a bus ticket to the next town is out of the question, maybe consider a full-blown staycation. At certain times of the year there’s an increased expectation to go away, but why?

Image borrowed from thewire.com

Image borrowed from thewire.com

In the last few weeks I have had four people ask me whether I’m going away for Christmas. I didn’t realise it was such ‘a thing’. Feeling slightly inadequate listening to other people’s plans to travel to Brazil, Europe and South East Asia, I’ve since decided to embrace the staycation. If other people come to this area for their holidays, why can’t I holiday here too? I’ll cut back my work hours, pull out my walking shoes and wander where I live. Yes, it helps that my current base is beautiful and exotic but my yearning right now is to (re)connect with this area and (re)discover why I settled here in the first place.

When people travel to your part of the world, what are the touristy things that they do? Where do they go? What are they capturing in their holiday photos? According to life coach Charlene Tops, all too often we forget about what’s on our own doorstep. Her suggestion is to ‘observe the area you are living in with fresh eyes just like an outsider would do. It’s amazing how different we view our surroundings when we look at them as though we have never seen them before.’

Is there a way that you can afford a few days off work to do what you love to do in your locality? Or try out a few touristy things? Walks, waterfalls, museums and art galleries, among other things, are often free.

Volunteer travel

If it still doesn’t feel different enough from your normal life, there’s one further recommendation I have for when times are tight but where you still yearn for that jolt to your routine that travel so beautifully provides. Volunteering.

I remember looking for volunteering options before travelling to South America and being shocked that many of companies I came across were asking me to pay!

Without going into any longwinded detail about why these companies ask you to pay to volunteer your time and expertise, I do now have a basic understanding of the funding that’s needed to run some voluntary organisations, and also how these particular organisations can offer a ‘safe’ first volunteering experience. But, still. Coming from a family where my parents have spent their entire working lives volunteering full time, I’ve seen first hand the value and impact of people being generous with their time and energy. Money doesn’t always have to come into the equation.

So I’m not talking about the type of volunteering where you have to pay for the privilege. I’m talking about opportunities that allow you to exchange your time for meaningful service and experience. In terms of travel this means connecting with new people, places and ways of life.

Two organisations that I’ve tried and tested and would recommend exploring are HelpX and World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF).

Both organisations have worldwide presence. Wherever you’re based, there’s a good opportunity to get involved.

Do it your way

The more I explore this topic, the more it seems to come back to the following: Forget feeling like you should be doing anything, or that amazing experiences and personal growth are only gained by long distance travel. Don’t buy into the belief that you have to see the world in order to live a meaningful life.

Travel, like everything else, comes in all shapes and sizes. Don’t go judging on it this holiday season.


Wishing you all some amazing adventures this festive season, whether they be abroad, in your backyard or in your brain. I’d love to connect, hear your stories and see some holiday season photos in the comments below. That way we can all travel without leaving our homes after all. 

And if you’ve found some value in this post, please share. I’d love to reach out to people who might find this of benefit. Thanks! 😃

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Filed under health, local travel, reflection, travel, volunteering

HelpX? Working for accommodation

helpxOne thing was for sure: I might be going back to Byronshire but I most definitely didn’t want to rely on others whilst I got settled.

What were the options, though? With barely a penny to my name I needed to find paid work quickly, but in the interim I knew there were some other options to explore. Back in New Zealand I’d CouchSurfed and done some WWOOFing but this time I was looking to HelpX, a site that links up people needing help with all sorts of home, garden and business needs and those who want to offer up some time and effort in exchange for accommodation and food.

After a blissful couple of days hanging out on a beach and at a friend’s house I moved into a B&B right in the bustle of Byron Bay, into my own room with cupboards and space and all the luxuries you forget about whilst travelling proper.

And I wasn’t paying big bucks to stay here because this was a HelpX arrangement that asked for a few hours of work a day (and in this case, every day of the week) in exchange for a bed.

So whilst I settled back into Australian life I had a base (and coincidentally, an introduction to a wonderful Australian mum substitute). I swept and vacuumed and did washing, I checked people in, I made beds and I wiped down skirting boards. I did a thorough job and ensured that the guests stayed happy.

And afterwards I walked on the beach, I searched for paid work, I met up with friends, I started dating, and I found my feet. Kinda.

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13 ways to be childish

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Kids playing in the plaza in Pucara

I met Adele* whilst she was beating a bug out of her system in Sucre, stole her friend when she left for Cochabamba and met back up with her in La Paz for some partying. Like me, she’d left behind her entire life to throw caution to the wind and see what life and travelling had to offer.

Unlike me, though, she was having a little panic about her upcoming birthday. And she wasn’t the first person I’d met who was worrying about the big 3-0.

For me, being 30 has been an incredible year, a real rollercoaster of emotions and experiences that have let me reconnect with what matters to me. My philosophy is that every year I get older, the happier I get.

How so? I am more comfortable in myself, I know myself better, I’m more confident to say no to things, I’m more open to life.

And I care a whole lot less about what people think about me. Too much of my life I’ve tried to adapt to be how I think other people want me to be; so much effort gone into appeasing others and losing myself into a falsity. So yeah, I’m not scared. Bring on the ageing process.

But! Not at the expense of immaturity and silliness!

Travelling has taught me to reconnect a bit with my inner child. Not necessarily in some intense hippy way but more just reminding me: don’t take things too seriously.

During my travels in the last year I’ve helped out and hung out with toddlers in Sucre, volunteered at a school literacy fair, stayed with a young family in Australia, taken bus journeys with teenagers in Bolivia and sat in amongst a smiley school group on their way to Galapagos. These are some of the times where kids have reminded me how to live. Untouched by the trials and tribulations of life, they cut through all of the bulls***t and live life openly and honestly.

When you feel some adult heaviness creeping in, I invite you to try one or more of the following:

  1. When with a group of friends, chatter and giggle and whatever you do, don’t stop. Occasionally stick out your tongue or pull the other person’s hair or ear. They won’t be annoyed (if they too are subscribing to this childish therapy, or are indeed a child).
  2. Lie on the floor and just stare at the ceiling. Maybe hum to yourself, if you feel like it.
  3. Be affectionate with friends. If you like someone, hold hands and cuddle them. Simple.
  4. When you get up off the floor, put your hands in front of you, lean a little forward and lift your bum up first. Your hands and feet should both stay in contact with the ground. This doubles up as yoga practise.
  5. Put on some silly music and dance around, flailing your arms, bouncing on your legs, waving your hands and shaking your head. Don’t think about it, just feel it and let go. Completely.
  6. When on public transport, really enjoy it. Whoop and scream if you hit a turbulent spot in an airplane. Similarly, when taking off and landing, let your excitement spill out. Verbally and physically. When on a bus, clamber over the person next to you to look out of the window at the moon. Be fascinated by the little streaks of water slithering across the pane and follow them with your fingers, leaving smudges on the glass.
  7. Smell everything, including the clouds and sky. When people ask you what it actually smells like, come up with something obscure or silly. ‘Poo’ normally hits the mark.
  8. Stamp your feet and stick out your lip when you’re annoyed. Forget why you stamped your feet when you’re easily distracted by a passing airplane.
  9. Run to the window and wave frantically at airplanes.
  10. Be brutally honest. If, for example, someone makes silly voices in an effort to make you laugh, just go for it and say ‘Finola, you’re really funny… and weird’.
  11. If you don’t get your own way, lie face down and bash the floor with clenched fists. Check someone is watching you and if not, move to a spot and repeat where someone can take note.
  12. Blow raspberries and pull silly faces. At strangers is usually more fun.
  13. Finally, melt an adult with tired openness and affection. ‘Nola?’ ‘Yep?’ ‘Nola, I love you’.

*name changed to protect identity

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Filed under australia, bolivia, ecuador, oceania, peru, random, south america, volunteering

Doing my little bit for literacy levels in Bolivia

http://www.tourist2townie.com/culture-food/portraits-of-a-bolivian-book-fair-the-feelings-involved/

Big books, little kids and some high fives

So this was my last attempt at volunteering in Sucre. Third time lucky.

Realising he was still in town, I’d contacted Gareth of Tourist2Townie when I had arrived into Sucre to see about a catch-up and to gain some inside info on the city. He’d already been in Sucre for a couple of months getting acquainted with the locals and volunteering at Biblioworks, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving literacy and opening educational doors through building libraries, supplying books and training librarians in the poorest communities of Bolivia.

Literacy in Bolivia at first glance doesn’t appear to be terrible. Despite the country ranking number 101 out of 183, literacy levels come in at a reported 91%, just above Peru and Brazil (90%), higher than Ecuador (84%), but falling behind Paraguay (95%), Chile (96%) and Argentina (98%).

Despite this, illiteracy in Bolivia is, however, still deemed to be a big problem that is contributing to holding the country back from developing and improving their economic situation, something that Biblioworks echo in their mission statement:

We believe that where knowledge, literacy, and learning exist, people have the resources they need to solve social issues, maintain and strengthen their cultural identities, as well as to grow their community economically.

Gareth was involved in putting things together for Biblioworks’ first ever book fair. We could use all the help we could get, he told me. I asked him to let me know the time and place. I’d be there.

Saturday 14th April, 09:00. Posters decorated the town and Plazuela San Francisco was bannered up and ready for the occasion, La Feria de La Lectura. After a breakfast of sugar dusted buñelos and a warm trojori drink at the central market, I headed over to meet with the guys from Biblioworks. By coincidence I was wearing a bright yellow t-shirt. Turns out that yellow was uniform of the day. Tuned in, oh yeah!

School children threw themselves into all elements of the event. Small groups of boys group read together, classes played literacy games and competed with each other, kids wrote and listened and got inspired. It was beautiful to see.

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Out loud reading

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Literacy game play

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A longer term volunteer helps kids put their creative writing skills to the test

If I’m honest, my role on the day was pretty basic. Much of the time I photographed and videoed the activities. I gave out balloons. I handed out pens and paper to kids continuing a group story. I helped children choose books to read and then passed them on to someone who had a better grasp of Spanish. So although I again felt that I wasn’t really doing anything special or making a difference, being part of a group of volunteers felt good and as a whole we helped to make the event successful.

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Volunteers and school children at the event (me hiding at back right)

Hopefully some kids who might not have previously entered the world of reading and writing may now have sufficient thirst to pick up a book of their own accord or to write a story or a letter or whatever. Everyone certainly seemed to respond well. Focused concentration and big smiles punctuated the day (and I’m sure it wasn’t just the free balloons that did it).

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Filed under bolivia, costs/money, culture, south america, volunteering

The world’s worst volunteer? Trying to be good in Sucre

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Run by friendly monks, this Catholic retirement home was my first volunteer placement

AFTER THE MONKEY INCIDENT, IT was a no brainer that I wouldn’t volunteer with animals. At least for the moment.

I’d hoped to teach English but with limited Spanish ability it wasn’t going to happen. ‘Where do they need help?’ I asked Stefano, the volunteer co-ordinator at the Sucre Spanish School.

A day later I found myself sitting and holding the hand of a little lady with weathered skin, poker straight white hair cut to a bob and a delighted smile ornamented with the odd giggle. She reminded me a little of the special needs adults that my parents care for.

It was a hopeless situation, a no starter of a conversation. Her lips clung around gunked-up false teeth as she mumbled away quietly. I tried to understand, really I did, but even with a clear pronunciation, the likelihood is I would have only understood marginally more. I felt stupid and sorry as she looked directly into my eyes, pleading me to respond with something other than ‘no entiendo’ or ‘no se’. It was frustrating.

Having met a few other characters and warm grandma types, I joined a mini Good Friday procession within the grounds of this Catholic old people’s home. Led by cloaked monks we shuffled along stone corridors, stopping regularly to repeat and respond to their calls. Finally we arrived at a little chapel.

More chanting, more singing. When people knelt or crossed, I bowed my head. I’m not really sure why, but it felt like the right, respectful thing to do.

I left the place smiling having spent the last half hour eating an early dinner with three Colombian monks who joked and chatted and pulled out  some kung fu moves. All a little surreal.

But my time at this place was short-lived. I wasn’t ready for the old people’s home just yet.

Another couple of visits and I was crawling the walls. Actually, no, I was simply sitting and smiling at old people, trying to talk, being grandly ignored when they couldn’t understand me, pushing the odd wheelchair, taking someone for an occasional walk and sitting in on Catholic rosary bead sessions where the repetition mixed with a good dose of tiredness nearly lulled me to sleep. Sitting up. Maybe the old people’s home was the right place for me after all.

I never like to let people down and I’m not one to shirk from a challenge but I felt as though I was making absolutely no difference. When I’d first arrived at the old people’s home I’d been waiting upstairs for my contact, Luis, when another monk lost in his own world suddenly saw me and got a bit of a  shock. ‘I thought you were an angel!’ he had exclaimed, throwing his hands up. What he probably realised pretty quickly is that I’m just another rubbish human being.

Because I quit. Sort of. I switched to a kindergarten. The orphanage was full; everyone, it seems, wants to help out disadvantaged kids. But the kindergarten needed help so I opted to give that a go. Second attempt at trying to do something useful.

My Spanish teacher had told me to stop struggling and Stefano easily arranged the transfer so that the very next day I started at a kindergarten, helping out babies and toddlers who possessed a similar level of language ability to me. I felt less stupid, less judged.

But I’ve never been a big fan of children, so would spending time volunteering in a kindergarten help switch things up?

Teaching teenagers in my previous life was just another way for me to challenge my fears and address any prejudices (and boy, did it work, because I met and taught some of the most fun(ny), open and interesting young people in the world). I got over that one. But babies and children?

In all honesty, its babies that I have more of an aversion to, with their strange, wrinkled skin and fragile fontanelle that has me running any time a friend asks me to hold their precious, little child. Dropping things is a reality in my life. Therefore, I avoid holding babies. And it’s not just the fragility, it’s the constant cry, puke, shit, sleep cycle. It just doesn’t work for me.

I suppose, when they smile I start to melt a little, but really, if I could honour the agreement I made with my sister when I was in my teens, any baby of mine would be in her care until it was past the six month mark and actually did something interesting. Do we still have a deal, Adilia? I’m only half-joking.

So here I was in Sucre on my second volunteer placement in a kindergarten full of little terrors aged between one and three. It was a way for me to see whether I was capable of warmth, whether I could deal with wiping snotty noses, with getting jelly and slobber stains on my clean trousers, with observing tantrums and playing repetitive ball games.

And of course I could. I guess I fell in love a little with each of the pre-school monsters, even the stern, trench coat wearing screamer. How could I not? He was the coolest kid in there.

Isn’t she a great mama?’ the kindergarten owner Doris asked a two-year old girl who had become totally attached to me. She just clung on tightly, wrapping little arms and legs around me. Maybe I was actually being helpful, and maybe I was starting to be okay with kids too. Only my fear of teeny babies to go.

And then I got sick. Of course. I should have guessed. Bolivia was continuing to punish me with a low immune system. With gleeful germs from the coughs and splutters of innocent kids whizzing around the kindergarten, it was only ever going to be a matter of time before I picked something up.

Ah, I tried. Thanks for the opportunity.

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Filed under bolivia, south america, volunteering

The day a monkey shat on me

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Zoologico, El Refugio near Samaipata in Bolivia

One fine day in March in Samaipata, I joined an American and a Dane for a trip to a local animal refuge. And for some unknown reason I brought along a spare top. Smart move.

It’s nice to support the refuge’, Olaf at Roadrunners had told me earlier in the week, ‘ten bolivianos goes to maintaining the place’.

The boys were a bit tight for time but when a taxi driver wanted 15Bs. for a 2km journey we decided to set off on foot. A dusty, muddy road with a barely a person in sight or a vehicle passing by, this was an easy little hike out into the countryside.

Before too long we spotted a cage but it was a small set-up and I wasn’t convinced that it was the right place. ‘There’s no sign’, I said, ‘surely they’d have a sign’. But then this is Bolivia so who knows. Anything is possible.

When an angry dog nearly bit my face off through the wire fence, I thought about leaving. Thankfully a woman came out to tell us it was the wrong place in any case. Phew.

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Zoologico El Refugio in Samaipata

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Meeting the cheeky monkeys at El Refugio in Samaipata

And literally fifty yards further along was a big sign and a well-marked entrance through a garden of aviaries and coops, and a wild boar running loose, and dogs (much friendlier this time), and all sorts of rescued monkeys; monkeys that clambered all over you and clung on tightly.

And shat down my back. Oh happy day.

I think I’m going off monkeys. Butterflies are so much nicer. Do butterflies poo?

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Just call me Dr. Doolittle

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Why so sad? You’re in a good place now. Relax.

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The animal refuge in Samaipata comes across all Disney’s Lion King. I feel a song coming on…

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Birds at El Refugio near Samaipata

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Entrance to Zoologico el Refugio in Samaipata costs 10Bs. (US$1.46/£0.90) for adults and 5Bs. (US$0.73/£0.45) for children. It is open from 0800-1800 every day. If you want to volunteer at the refuge, you need to contact them at least two months in advance as they only tend to take on two or three volunteers at a time. When I visited, volunteers were Spanish speaking. Volunteering here is free (this might sound like a strange point to raise but much volunteering in South America carries with it a fee).

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Filed under bolivia, nature, south america, volunteering, wildlife

Is paradise in Bolivia?

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Are you wearing anti mosquito spray?’ Cris asked suddenly in a curt manner, ‘because we don’t do that here, we’re an organic farm’. I flinched. Yes, it had been one of the occasions that I had used some of the dreaded DEET, but feeling ill and in real need of a hug, this question felt like an attack that put me into a naughty child headspace. This happy, hippy experience was threatening to be a whole lot less healing than I had hoped.

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The red rock face just above Ginger's Paradise

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The shaky bridge over to the start of the path to Ginger's Paradise

Twenty minutes earlier, together with four other travellers, I was dropped off after a two-hour journey on the verge of the Santa Cruz-Cochabamba Highway alongside a lone motorbike and a handcrafted sign set against a backdrop of red rock face mountains. We crossed a rickety wooden bridge that hung lazily across the Bermejo River, the gateway to a scattering of habitations, pretty mud pathways and a little organic idyll known as Ginger’s Paradise.

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The gringo house at Ginger's Paradise

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Downstairs sleeping options at Ginger's Paradise

We dropped our bags at a deserted, colourful house and, following instructions left pinned to the front door, walked deeper into a jungly landscape that started to twinkle with fireflies as dusk set in.

Cristobel, dressed in off-whites dirtied with smudges of soil met us along the path. His work on the land was nearly over for the day and he welcomed us with a smile and a handshake. And that cutting comment. I had to make a conscious decision not to let it affect my stay and my judgements, which was actually fairly easy because I did understand why it mattered.

During my short stay in Ginger’s Paradise I ate great, wholesome food and sung along silently to well-known songs and improvised guitar strums in the evenings. I listened to the chatter of insects and to the stories of my host and other travellers. I bathed in the river, dunked my head in fresh water and watched locals wobble across the bridge on their way to school and work. I got my elbows deep into soapy suds whilst I washed a stack load of sheets to part-pay my stay, and I played dominos with one of the children and a gentle, volunteering French couple.

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The bathroom at Ginger's Paradise

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Part-paying my way at Ginger's Paradise

Before I had decided to go to Ginger’s Paradise I did a little research on the place and most reviews I read were damning.

To clear a few things up, there is a cow that you can milk at the farm and chickens run around the grounds. There are compost toilets on site that are cleaned every day and as electricity is generated by solar and a bike hooked up to a charger, at times it can be temperamental. There isn’t a shower easily available (and it is a bit awkward to ask to use the shower in the main family house) but providing you embrace this rustic lifestyle, the river really is a beautiful place for a refreshing, calm morning wash. Foodwise I really can only be positive: I ate three hearty meals per day with predominantly home-grown and homemade ingredients.

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Hanging out with the chickens at Ginger's Paradise

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Outdoor toilet with views at Ginger's Paradise

Cris and Sol (the couple who run the place) are friendly but I assume that the constant turnaround of visitors has meant that at times they have to be direct, however, once you get involved and show some interest in what’s going on, they are chatty and warm and interested in people’s journeys.

Some people online complained about the constant pushing of products and activities that demanded an additional payment. There are indeed extras that you can buy and do at Ginger’s Paradise, including chocolate, Lulu hairwraps and jewellery lessons, and there is an additional cost for these. If you expect this, it’s less of a surprise or a problem.

Cris himself has come under some criticism. In response: he is undoubtedly a talented musician, he does love his chess, and in many respects he is pro-drugs, possessing a considerable understanding of weed culture.

Being so far from civilisation with a guy who declared his admiration for the serial killer Charles Manson (stating that he understood Manson’s reasons for killing soap stars in an effort to stop the dumbing down of society) was not something that made me particularly comfortable, but I quickly realised that Cris seemed to get a kick out of being controversial.  It certainly stirred up conversation. Really, in my humble opinion, his heart is in the right place, even if he indulged in playing Devil’s advocate. Some critics have been pretty harsh. I say just open your mind to different people and enjoy the eccentricity.

Some people stay a good few weeks or months working and living at Ginger’s Paradise, something Sol and Cris suggested helps one to really experience the spiritual and lifestyle benefits of the place.

A few days was the right amount of time for me. For now.

And the DEET spray didn’t make a reappearance during the rest of my stay there, although I did leave with some fat, raised mystery itches the width of my arm.

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Monkeying around

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Me and Martina had a connection. She kept playing with my hair.  She couldn’t stop hugging me (well, my head, more specifically). I thought it was love until, after less than an hour together, she switched her attentions to Gareth, an American forever-traveller in his late twenties. Sure, he’s a good looking guy, but come on! Fickle affection.

Martina is a chorongo monkey, one of many at the Centro de Rescate Monos or Paseo Los Monos – a sanctuary near Puyo for rescued monkeys, monkeys that have previously been pets (illegal in Ecuador) or who are orphaned following the hunting and killing of their parents, usually for meat. The idea is to reintroduce them to the jungle, but in some cases the damage and trauma to the animals is too great and they will remain in the care of the centre for the rest of their lives.

Asides from chorongo monkeys, the place is home to squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys and white and black capuchin monkeys. Although housed in cages, many are given the freedom to roam around the grounds. There are also some coatis (Coati Amazonzo) – crazy, persistent and somewhat vicious creatures. The centre workers had to step in when one scrambled all over me, hanging onto my bag, undoing the zip and then biting when I tried to get him off. And then there are some turtles that currently live in an enclosure – something to do with the coatis attacking and ripping them apart and eating them.

I had wanted to volunteer at the centre ($100 per week and the work involves cleaning out the enclosures, developing the site and just spending time with the monkeys, amongst other things) but the place was full. A half day at the Paseo Los Monos as a visitor was my next option, so I paid my $2 entry fee. There isn’t a load to do as a tourist other than wander around and hang out with the animals and relax and watch the feeding sessions.

Pretty soon after I had arrived, Martina attached herself to me, wrapping her tail around my neck and massaging my head with her little hands. She stayed there as I strolled around the pretty woodland nature walk and down to the river. She fell asleep. It felt like having a ridiculously hot hat and scarf set, which, considering the high temperatures and humidity, was really quite unnecessary.

I have no idea of what suffering Martina had gone through, but she was clingy and affectionate and wanted to be close to people. I did wonder whether she could ever be rehabilitated back into the jungle, or whether she was too damaged and had got too comfy with human beings. After my Cuyabeno jungle trip where butterflies had captured my heart (there were some beauties at this place too), I thought I had moved on from my childhood monkey fascination. But it turns out no, I haven’t.

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Hanging out with the Hare Krishnas

I was in the kitchen with Druva, a young and well-travelled Colombian monk. We were preparing lunch – a feast of vegetarian food – for the other community inhabitants and volunteers. I had been prepped on proper kitchen conduct, which included never tasting the food (the first mouthful is for Krishna himself) and washing my mouth thoroughly with water before re-entering the kitchen if I had left the room to have a drink.

This was Finca Vrindavan, a little ashram based near Rio Negro, Ecuador (along the route from Baños to Tena) set in an isolated, lush, tropical setting. With focus on vedic philosophy, bhakti yoga and ecological principles, this place sounded like a perfect stop off from the backpacker trail.

You do know it’s a Hare Krishna place’, said the hostel owner before I left from Baños. I had guessed it would be. Whenever I had researched yoga ashrams in South America, they seemed to be run by Hare Krishna devotees. An older Canadian woman was concerned that I was going to be brainwashed by a forceful cult. ‘Aren’t you worried?’ she asked me. I wasn’t. I was curious and happy to go and do yoga in the jungle with some interesting people.

Arriving in Rio Negro, I was approached by Druva (Peruvian Druva, not Colombian monk Druva… I know, it’s confusing!), a gentle and welcoming character who shared a taxi ride up to the finca along with Rachel, an American resident of the community. Also going by the name Vrindavan Jardin Ecologico, this place has a few simple, pretty, wooden houses and a temple dotted around what feels like a bit of a spiritual, eco village.

Inside one of the huts up some stairs was my room. It was basic: a bunk bed, a wooden shelf, a window with a missing pane. Things felt a bit tired and unkempt. I learned that this estate was under a state of regeneration and repair; the dust in the buildings and vast blankets of weeds on the ground were confirmation of this.

The first evening I decided to go along to the 6:00pm ceremony which started with kirtan, a call-and-response chanting led by Colombian Druva, the rest of the attendees clapping and playing various instruments. We sat on a floor of woven reed mats in front of a decorative shrine with an ornately crafted wooden frame whilst Druva sang from a homemade pulpit style set-up.

Following on from this, he rang a bell and chanted in front of the altar, addressing the Krishna deity directly, before drawing the heavy red curtains and retreating to the side and deciding on the night time clothing for the statue. Whilst the rest of us sang along with an accordion style pull and push instrument, Colombian Druva disappeared behind the curtain to change the clothes and then gently placed the idol of Krishna into a crib. I found the attention and care given to this process, if I’m honest, quite bizarre, but then my own agnosticism and ignorance to this religious strand won’t have helped.

The final part of the ceremony involved Peruvian Druva reading from the Bhagavad-gita, an extended activity due to the constant translations from Sanscrit into Spanish and English. It was interesting, focusing primarily on the beliefs associated with karma. The analogy of carrying a ‘backpack’ of suffering through life was used to highlight how we each can truly feel the immediate effects of karma, but that by behaving with love and consideration for others (and not the self) we can lighten this heavy load. I also liked the concept that full renunciation of the modern world and materialism was not a prescription of the teachings, but rather that working with and using what you do have as a way to reach out to others is hugely effective.

So, back to the cooking. I had opted to help out in the kitchen whilst some others laboured away in the garden, clearing weeds and revealing streams and creating pathways. The change in that little section of the garden was incredible. It proved that with more help and perseverance, this place could be restored to its former glory. There were, however, a few grumbles from a few volunteers about the usefulness of some of the activities and who felt that more purposeful and structured work was needed.

Finca Vrindavan definitely isn’t a place that will suit everyone. The Hare Krishna element is not compulsory and there is no push to make you into a believer, so hopefully the religious part shouldn’t put people off of coming along to visit or volunteer. The 7:00am yoga session was a great way to start the day and re-inspired my own practice, but for some it was just too early. The communal dining was social but difficult unless your level of Spanish was proficient. The accommodation was pretty primitive and let in all manner of bugs (including funky fireflies that flash around on the walls and ceiling at night) and mini midgelike insects with the  itchiest of bites.

And cost is likely to be a sticking point for some. Paying  $12 per day (food and lodging included) to volunteer your time and effort is  something that can seem strange, but then most volunteering in South America carries with it a cost. Weigh it up and make your choice.

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Welcome to the jungle (we got fun and games and good food)

The bus whizzed away from Lago Agrio at scary speeds past the DESPACIO sign, past the ESCUELA sign, and onwards into the jungle along a road bordered by thick, rusty oil pipes and vast vegetation.

Two hours later my group of ten arrived at El Puente where we loaded up our bags onto a motorised canoe and clambered on board. The sun beat down and the breeze was minimal and the little wooden benches were hard, but as we travelled down the Cuyabeno river I was transported to a happy headspace. I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a movie – with all the varied landscape it could have been a horror, an action-adventure, an exotic romance– and then I pinched myself and thought – this is freakin’ real! – this is actually my life!

Heading down to the lodge

The journey took us past old, hairy trees with gangly, gnarly roots exposed by the low water levels of the dry season. Social yellow butterflies hung out in groups of twenty, thirty, more, and giant Blue Morpho butterflies gently fluttered by along the river banks, visible from far away as the sun caught their colourful backs.

All sorts of things stuck out of the brown, murky water and appeared to be snakes or birds or the tops of caymans’ snouts until you got closer and realised they were just, well, sticks and stones and leaves. Without our guide, Jairo, we would have missed the majority of wildlife. His keen eye, fine tuned to the jungle backdrop, sought out anacondas and yellow-headed vultures and stinky turkeys and yellow-spotted river turtles. We stopped the engine on a couple of occasions to watch squirrel monkeys, yellow-handed titi monkeys and black-mantled tamarins scramble through the trees. All this and we had yet to arrive at our destination, Samona Lodge.

Spot the monkey

After two hours I was ready to get off the boat, my clothes sweaty and my bum pretty numb. The humidity was high and the bugs and insects were starting to come out as dusk approached (although the cockroach in my bed was by far the worst I had to deal with, even more so than the baby tarantula on the hand railing). I got shown to my shared room inside a naturally vented wooden hut, and to my lower bunk bed which was surrounded by a mosquito net.

Slapping on the insect repellent and grabbing my torch, I headed to supper around a candlelit table and prepared for some days without electricity. Over a delicious quinoa soup, Jairo told us of the plans for the next few days, which included hiking, walking, fishing, swimming, and siestas. After more great food (I’m now of the opinion that yucca is so much better than potato) I swung in a hammock in the central social area, my batteries already massively recharged, and I realised that I’d fallen in love with butterflies. Who would have guessed?!

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