My dear friend, Alex, gifted me with encouragement, a travel journal, “Be Wild & Wonderful” and much needed mosquito spray when she dropped me off at the seabus terminal as I embarked on a solo voluntourism adventure the summer of 2015. The soft purple cover was shiny, and filled with crisp, clear, blank pages.
I stuffed it into my worn canvas tote bag, and proceeded to manoeuvre my heavy suitcase and 55L knapsack, both overstuffed with donated supplies, through Vancouver’s public transportation system to YVR airport. I was already sticky from the heat although I had only showered shortly before leaving my cozy home. It would be the last hot shower I would have in some time. If I was struggling in my clean and organized hometown, how would I manage in gritty Central America without knowing Español or the ways of the land and people? I was petrified, but determined to proceed.
This journal became my crutch, just like Linus in Charlie Brown, holding his beloved security blankie.
This diary has since travelled several time zones, countries, and continents over the last couple of years fulfilling my wanderlust. It has given me great comfort and solace when I suffered homesickness (especially worrying for my bratty kids), the courage to face new adventures, braveness to adapt to unfamiliar social situations when either encountering locals of the region or fellow travellers from around the world, and immersing myself in unfamiliar surroundings and cultural situations. Travelling is amazingly addictive, but sometimes can be isolating and challenging.
I have travelled solo, with family and friends abroad, enjoyed local getaways, and the occasional work trip. For some reason, I never packed my journal for trips in Canada or the USA. I regret not putting my pen to paper for each and every journey regardless of location, reason, or duration. All have been incredible, but there is something magical about backpacking to exotic places for the purpose of participating in eco and volun-tourism projects.
I wrote about the long hot dusty days spent at the remote Casa Guatemala orphanage (www.casa-guatemala.org) in the jungles of Riu Dulce “meaning sweet river” when I returned each afternoon by open launcha to my temporary home. The decrepit Backpackers Hostel was located at the bottom of a long bridge leading into Fronteras town. Every night, I was awakened to the thundering sounds of vehicles driving into the walls of my room. Well that’s how I felt as I jerked up, startled in the middle of the night.
It was not easy; I struggled in many aspects. The natural environment was stunning, but life was the polar opposite to the civilized world I am accustomed to. I discovered a former volunteer’s blog (www.twobadtourists.com) while researching this NGO. The writer described rambunctious children as “Spider-Man” climbing exterior walls of the school buildings built on stilts above the murky water. At the time, I thought it was an exaggeration. It was not, to my disbelief and exhaustion. I was exasperated experiencing first hand the high energy levels of the Guatemalan children who loved to take advantage of me. During recess I could settle some kids down by tracing their hands in my journal, but how easily it could turn poorly. It only took one bratty child waiting in line to poke at the student next to him/her, for all hell to break loose. A Spanish intern coached me to command authority in the classroom by sternly warn the youngsters, “SILENCIO!” In return, I comforted her during a meltdown. She had left unopened packaged cookies in her hostel room. The mice immediately initiated her internship upon arrival (hour 1 of day 1). They feasted leaving crumbs everywhere. Since I am anal, I had intently pre-read the TripAdvisor reviews of the Hostel and the orientation guide for the non-profit school and medical clinic set upon the banks of the river. Scorpions, poisonous snakes, mice, cockroaches, and god knows what else were prevalent. I half-slept with my mosquito and bug sprays squeezed in the palm of my hands every night, fretting. I did not leave any food in my room, but I did not know how to prevent the cockroaches from visiting. arrrrrrgghhh!
I originally planned to return to the school excited to see the children again, and determined to overcome my challenges the following summer. I spent months engaged in Spanish lessons with a Honduran tutor to enhance my interactions with the locals. I excitedly mapped out various possible itineraries after each work day and after my household/children chores were completed. How many Quetzales was I willing to spare to transport myself from eastern Guatemala to Ruinas de Copán, the Mayan archaeological site in Western Honduras? A coach bus would be ideally more comfortable, but a chicken bus would be more economical. I tried to remind myself that it would be fun people watching the odd mix of gringos and Guatemalans. However, I was not confident that would outweigh motion sickness. There was a high probability that I would stand in bus aisles with my arms outstretched gripping the ceiling bars as we whipped around bumpy roads without air-conditioning for long periods. After sightseeing the ruins I could slowly meander to the northern Carribean town of La Ceiba. I would eventually venture to the tropical Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras via ferry where I planned to spend days frolicking in the sun and sand. In the end, I cancelled my return trip due to family sandwich generation issues. My father had spent the greater part of the winter and spring hospitalized. Although his deteriorating health stabilized slightly, and we figured out an action plan, I did not feel comfortable staying in isolated tropical wilderness with limited access to the world (especially contact to home), and a long return bus ride to Guatemala City airport. Wifi was spotty in Rio Dulce, but virtually non-existence further down the water on the orphanage grounds.
Instead I headed to Europe after a 7 year hiatus (layovers in airports do not count regardless of the length). Although across the Atlantic Ocean, a continent away from home, my criteria of easy transportation routes home within a 24 hour period, internet access, and English language were easily met. I felt guilty leaving my stressful life filled with obligations and not fulfilling my eco-social goals, but I really needed fun, rest and relaxation. My journal writings were became a little sketchy because each day was filled with vibrant and social interactions.
On another occasion, I returned to Guatemala for the Semana Santa holy processions in colonial Antigua. If I ever find that one to marry me, I have already planned to honeymoon here. How romantic it would be to walk hand-in-hand along the cobble stone streets enjoying colonial architecture after enjoying a glass of vino. This trip would be followed by the white sandy remote beaches of Little and Big Corn Islands in Nicaragua. Part of my Easter Spring break included an educational orientation of Eco Homestead, now Cultiva (www.cultivainternational.org) in Sololá, Guatemala. I was picked up the Jensens and an organization’s board member in Lake Atitlan after heartwarming and heartbreaking days spent with my Spanish tutor. One learns quickly how cruel life can be, but the resilience in some individuals are powerful values I would like to uphold.
The Jensen’s van climbed the rugged terrain of the Guatemalan highlands moving above the volcanic crater. The views were breathtaking! I held on to every visual sight in the distance, and each word that these humanitarians emitted. They bravely gave up their American dream lives (defying what is considered acceptable normalcy) to teach sustainable seed-to-mouth farming to the Mayans.
The purpose of eco and volunteer efforts are not to change what is, but to empower the people with what they already have. The land had fertile soil for vegetation that can nourish impoverished bodies and their families. This agricultural project was not a handout, but an educational exercise that encouraged local Mayans to learn about crop and self growth. One day, I will return to participate from step one of building the garden box with plywood pieces to teaching the locals that the fruits of their labour can feed them and provide sustenance for their family.
Most recently, I volunteered at Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary (www.kselephantsanctuary.org), Amphoe Mae Chaem, Thailand. Another non-profit organization, basically in the middle of no where. I wonder if the wildlife interns, zoologists, and mahouts (elephant keepers) laughed at tourists like me? Stopping in wildness to scrutinize a dead rat or dried amphibian made me cringe while they became impassioned. I think our group would all agree that the daily forest hikes to feed and observe the 4 darling elephants foraging and ripping trees down delighted all of us. The mahouts and mammals affectionate interactions are vivid in my memory, but my writings preserve these special moments. I diligently wrote daily when we were marooned at volunteer base camp, a large treehouse, after every elephant trek. I knew when I booked my trip it was the beginning of rain season, but it did not deter me from registering.
I do not normally go back to re-read my scribbles and garbled writings. However, I plan to replace this diary to chronicle what’s next. I am enjoying the freedom of not knowing, and researching random exotic places that peak my interest.
Lessons learned: I will not repeat a rookie mistake. Rollerballs gel pens are ergonomically friendlier since the ink glides on paper when writing extensively, but will bleed if the diary gets wet. Use a good ole-fashioned cheap ballpoint pen and store the writings in a large ziplock bag.
Everyone should travel alone at some point in their life and document their activities. It is an educational privilege to see the world, and learn about people and cultures particularly in a non-traditional holiday. Most of all, it teaches oneself about oneself. Each experience was an opportunity for self-spiritual growth. You do not know your true you until you are tested to the limits.
Svadhyaya is a term often used in yoga to define “self-study.” It is one of the 5 niyamas that promote healthy living and eventually leads to infinite consciousness. Conservation travel is my path to lead to this. There are so many circumstances that have arisen that tested my limits, and my journal stands witness to many of these. It has made me appreciate what I have taken for granted, and compassion to understand others circumstances.
I thank Alex for her dear friendship and my beloved diary. Pen to paper was an impetus to start this blog that I had only talked and procrastinated about. My booklet is not as bright and shiny as it once was. The worn cover with bleeding ink on crumpled pages are symbolic for the contrast of grittiness and beauty that I hold in my heart and memories.
August 2015-September 2017
Belize-Caye Caulker, Corozal
Guatemala (loved it so much I returned a second time)
Calgary, Rocky Mountains, Okanagon, Whistler, Canada
San Diego, Seattle, Leavenworth, USA