The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.
- St. Augustine.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

10 Reasons Why Volunteering is Better than Traveling - discussion

Here's a link to a provocative article on Matador.

My take on it: I agree that volunteering is better than traveling, for the most part. Volunteering is such a personal, spiritual, and culturally immersing activity that I will never regret the time that I spent rooted to one spot and grounded in a community, rather than traveling to as many places in as short a time as possible.

Yet I don't think that people should necessarily feel bad about their voyages (OK - most people don't. I refer to those who might feel bad about their travels after reading this article and this blog post). I think that people should instead examine their motives for traveling deeply, and ask themselves what they are after. Healing, inspiration, love, status, world domination, or just a break in the everyday routine - ask questions that only yourself can answer. I feel that interacting on a daily basis with members from a different community and attempting to understand their lives and problems deeply, aided by the passage of time, can not only fulfill many of those desires (save world domination and status but let's assume that these are goals that you good readers of this blog are not after) but in addition might truly help another person. At the very least, somebody will remember the time that you have gifted them, the curiosity and respect that you have shown for the world.

Let's not forget that the volunteering is tied to travel but traveling does not always involve volunteering. For example, whether I am in central Quito, South Los Angeles or the HousingWorks (an American nonprofit that fights for those who are homeless and who have AIDS) Bookstore Cafe in NYC, volunteering shows me and involves me in a different world. Poverty is a different culture and all that one knew for sure slowly crumbles away.

Of course, I will now throw you all a twist after having mostly espoused volunteering over traveling - I am considering a multi-country trip in 2011. Not once in my life have I done the multi-country trip; I've always stayed in the same country for a month or longer. Yet I feel that now is the time, while I am young, when I have taken a long break from school, to see as much of the world as I can. I'm doing it on my own terms, and with my own principles. My goal is still cultural immersion. My interest is still social justice. I see myself as a kind of cultural journalist - I have a gift for integrating myself into the heart of a different culture, and then being able to translate that experience in my writing. So whether I journey through South America or Asia, whether I volunteer the entire time or not, I know what I am after. I hold myself accountable to my goals. I'm not doing this to inspire envy amongst my friends or to check off countries on a list. I just hope that I will be able to learn more about the world in this relatively free time that I have, and in that way learn more about myself - it may not come now or in the near future, but I often wonder... what is my true métier? How will I engage in the world in the future and attempt to solve social problems? This is my goal not only when I volunteer, but also when I travel.

Comments, questions, feedback, criticism - all welcome below!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Colibrí Video Interviews and Updates

Quoi de neuf, indie volunteers? I have so much to write about!

Firstly, I've been on hiatus since I got back to NYC from Paris: working full-time and trying to figure out my immediate and future life plan will drive thoughts of updating a blog clear away. I can't not write about Paris though: living there for three months was an experience that changed my life. I am now hoping to go to a French university very soon, or at the very least study abroad in Paris. I fell in love with one of the most beautiful commonplace civilizations in the world - where discussion and eating is an art, where family and friends are valued more than work or money, where traveling is expected, and the list goes on. Remember that if you wish to visit Paris and you can't afford to pay for a place to stay, you can live as a writer-in-residence, or tumbleweed, in the Anglophone bookstore Shakespeare & Co.! Highly recommended, but make sure you're not looking to practice French, cause they're mostly English speaking Brits there ;)

While I enjoyed my time in Paris, I had written to you all about how anxious I was to get back to New York and work so that I could volunteer again. I was a bit restless with my life in Paris - mostly walking, eating, reading, and dancing (terrible, yes, I know) - but, my, how I had forgotten - you can volunteer anywhere! Paris is one of the richest cities in the world with a very high standard of living, but that does not mean that there are not people in need there. On my very last night, on the way to dinner with a friend in the ritzy 7ème arrondissement, I passed by a plain, small parc that held what seemed to be a celebration. A trailer was there, pulling out tables, lights were strung around it all, and lots of people were milling around. It wasn't a fancy party though, upon a second glance, and I saw that the trailer said "Les Restos du Coeur"  - restaurants of the heart. I stopped dead in my tracks and hit myself on the forehead. How amazing of an experience would it have been to get involved in something like that! I could have learned so much from the down-and-out-of-luck, just plain old working hard, or volunteering Parisians and enjoyed countless discussions. I did some research afterwards and have added some links for you all in the sidebar - so that the next time you're in Paris for an extended period of time, you will know about what you can do in your time there that will help somebody and also be an invaluable learning experience. Plus, I'm sure that the food they serve is WAY better than the food I've served in NY or Boston - it's Paris, after all ;) Il faut manger bien pour vivre bien! 

I'm back in New York now, and have been for nearly three months. Since I've been working full-time and switching my life plans almost everyday, I'm nowhere near close to finishing the video, but I've accomplished something in the meantime - a transcript of the Colibrí promotional video. For those of you who are new to this blog, I volunteered at a center for working and economically disadvantaged children in Cuzco, Peru from May to June of this year. My plan to volunteer at a community house in the more rural Chincha had fallen through, so I came to Cuzco without a plan and started asking around for meaningful and free places to volunteer. Another long-term traveller fluent in Spanish recommended Colibrí to me, and I knew from the moment I walked into the center that it was very much needed. The atmosphere was so warm and the faces there so happy - Colibrí is much more than a place for these kids to receive tutoring, to play fútbol, eat some food and get medical care. It's a second home for them, a place of safety and full of people who care for them. No matter how much people say that centers like these are a drop of water in the ocean of need out there, they are necessary because this is the most help that these children are getting right now.

I was especially impressed by the policemen who had started and continue to run the whole operation. They keep the center going with a small allowance from the Policia Nacional de Perú and donations from locals and foreigners. The promo video will be mostly interviews with them and montages of the daily scene at Colibrí.

Interview with Alcides, Director of Colibrí [translated from Spanish] 

Me: What is Colibri?
A: Colibrí is a program that works with children, specifically children who work on the streets here in the city of Cuzco, Peru.

Me: When and how did it begin?
A: Colibrí began in September 23, 1997 to aid the adolescents whom I saw working in the streets. I saw that they were in great need, working in the streets without protection and constantly in danger of being arrested or taken advantage of. Colibrí would bring some security to them.

Me: What do the children do here?
A: They come here to work on their school assignments,  or make some art and learn some English. They also come for the volunteers who always visit them.

Me: How do volunteers help?
A: Volunteers help them directly by teaching them things in their homework, and sharing with the children some of their own culture.

Me: Why is volunteering free at Colibrí?
A: Volunteering here should be free because we are not an organization that recruits volunteers and collects fees from them - we just hope that volunteers would help us with some things, and be of a useful presence to the kids here.

Me: What would you like to have at Cilobrí?
A: Oh, there is so much. We need more computer resources, chairs, hygienic services, a bathroom, running water.... Ultimately we need things that will be of use for the children.

Me: What do you ultimately hope for the children who come to Colibrí?
A: I hope that they will be changed, that they will be useful to society. We want improvement for them, a better life. I hope that they will be in a good place in the future, that they will be good people, that tomorrow they will be better off, and not participate in activities in the streets anymore. I want all of these kids to be good citizens.*

For the rest of the interviews with the policemen and volunteers, stay tuned for the Colibrí video! I'm working my darnedest, what with three college applications and all :)

My exciting update is that I am going to Cartagena, Colombia for a month in January! I have always wanted to go to Colombia, since I have met so many friendly Colombians around the world who are proud of their country and eager to have me visit. I chose the ciudad Cartagena de Indias because I have long read about this city in the fiction of Gabriel García Marquez and because it is reputedly a beautiful, romantic, and vibrant Carribbean city. Nonetheless - I do not take vacations - I go on cultural expeditions! We all know that volunteering can be an invaluable window into another culture and different daily life, so my search for a free and meaningful volunteer opportunity in or around Cartagena thus begins. I will be looking for something in the realm of education or healthcare, preferably the latter.

Finally - though this has nothing to do with volunteering abroad - I took notice of former Washington DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee's new campaign/nonprofit organization, Students First. Michelle Rhee is a leader in the education reform community, and has been celebrated as well as criticized for her rapid yet effective approach to changing the education system in Washington D.C. She resigned as Chancellor after her boss, incumbent DC mayor Adrian Fenty lost the mid-term 2010 election to the Republican candidate. Since then, she has launched her website, a Students First Facebook page and a Twitter. I have heard about Rhee's work and philosophy before, but after finding out about her nonprofit, I did some more research on her and am duly impressed. Michelle Rhee is indignant about the education most children in the United States receive and rightly so. If you are a child without money, you are a child without options, because the zoning and lottery system the US education system employs only has a few good public schools to dole out. Videos | Before I tested into the Bronx High School of Science, I was zoned for Van Buren High School in Jamaica. I don't have any illusions about the education I would have received there, nor more importantly any about the academic atmosphere in which I would have been immersed. Rhee is an advocate for the kids without options, and demands better policies and better teachers stat. I'm with her. So please, check out her nonprofit, sign the pledge, make a donation if you can and join a local discussion group. What we're all doing here is taking baby steps that may pass by unnoticed and can be very frustrating at first, but I have no doubt that we're going to change things.