Medical Student Volunteer in Nepal
by Eleanor Morad
Checking villagers' health
I am a third-year medical student and my initial reason for going travelling this summer was to experience healthcare in a developing country and see how different it is to how we practice medicine in England.
I chose Nepal, as I had never previously been to this part of the world and decided to go through INFO Nepal, as the organization seemed well organized and arranged our placement as well as sightseeing, jungle trips and accommodation.
I travelled with a friend and we arrived in Kathmandu airport after 30 hours! Instantly, we appreciated the change from London – it was hot, busy and we were quickly surrounded by taxi drivers and hotel owners trying to help us. We were taken in a car to the Happy Home in Kathmandu, where we would stay for the next three days.
As we drove through Kathmandu, the pollution was as we expected but we had not been prepared for the numerous cows patrolling the streets and poking their heads through the taxi windows! The driving also took a little getting used to – horns are used more to warn other drivers of your presence, which was a little nerve-wracking at first!
The Happy Home was a lovely place to stay while we acclimatized to the city – it was very luxurious and the family were most welcoming and hospitable.
During our first few days, we had language lessons and sightseeing. The language lessons were invaluable as I went from knowing absolutely no Nepali whatsoever to being able to have a very basic conversation. I learnt some useful phrases, especially medical ones for the placement. We were taken to temples which were beautiful and really worth going to, especially the "monkey temple!"
The next stage of our experience was a three-day stay in a jungle resort in Chitwan National Park. After a lengthy eight-hour bus journey we arrived and the differences with Kathmandu were instantly apparent – the climate was much hotter, the land was flat and there were mosquitoes everywhere – even with repellent spray and mosquito nets, I still managed to acquire an impressive number of bites! My favourite day here was when we were taken on a canoe to the jungle – passing crocodiles in the water as we went! We then had a three-hour jungle walk, where we saw rhinos, deer, monkeys and many other smaller creatures. It was amazing to be so close to animals that I had previously only seen in books!
Later in the day, we went on an elephant trek through the jungle, which was definitely an experience. With branches lashing at our dangling legs, we were able to see the jungle from a height and again saw many wild animals. In the evening, we were taken to a Tharu cultural show, consisting of singing and dancing, which was very entertaining.
The majority of our time was spent staying at the Happy Home in Chitwan, home to 22 lovely children. We stayed here with two other volunteers and quickly felt right at home. The only problem was the frequent power cuts – they were usually fine but when one coincided with a little girl being taken quite seriously ill, it caused a bit of general panic. Fortunately, we were able to give her medication and she was fine.
Our days were mostly spent at the local Health Post – the rough equivalent to an English GP surgery. Patients presented with a variety of medical problems, most frequently skin infections and gastrointestinal problems. After the doctor there gave us a summary of what the patient had complained of, we were left to examine the patient and formulate a possible diagnosis and management plan. This was challenging, as the language barrier caused some degree of uncertainty but by using basic phrases and sign-language, we usually came to a decision.
As I expected, healthcare was very different in Nepal and basic hygiene measures were not implemented, so we left handwash gel and rubber gloves behind for future use. However, it was really useful to see how medical practice worked here and I really felt that our contributions were listened to and valued and we were able to be much more involved in patients' care than in England.
Altogether, I had a thoroughly enjoyable experience in Nepal and am glad I went through INFO Nepal. Nepal is a beautiful country to visit, despite the widespread poverty, and the Nepali people were very welcoming and friendly to us. We met many other volunteers throughout our time here, both through this organisation and others, so it was nice to meet so many new people and share our experiences. The INFO Nepal staff were all very helpful and I would recommend the healthcare program to any medical students, who want to combine seeing healthcare in a totally different setting, with an unforgettable experience in a beautiful country.
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Teaching Schoolchildren in Nepal
by Alex Norton Payne
My time at the school in Nepal was some of the best I have spent during my travels. Both students and teachers went out of their way to accommodate me, and I was made to feel like one of the family.
Physical education is something the children only have a cursory knowledge of. Outside football and early morning fitness they just don't do any. Gradually over my stay we moved from basic stretches, hand/eye co-ordination exercises and cardio-vascular fitness up to running, marching and high-speed fitness games. The children loved every second of it, just enjoying being out of the classroom. Throughout classes it was equally important to stress health issues - why we should keep fit and so on.
To teach, prior knowledge of your subject is of great importance because the children are relying on you to teach them new and useful things. So think first, do you really know enough about a subject to spend maybe an hour a day teaching it? Bear in mind that the Nepalese are incredibly fast learners, and something that would take a month to learn here can be figured out in a week there. Not perfectly, mind you, but enough to get by.
To be honest, I think that during my time at the school, I learned more than the students did. The Nepalese are a magical people, and after coming from a consumer-based society where community spirit is all but forgotten, they rekindled my faith in humanity. If you can teach a subject and want to know more about my experiences and volunteering opportunities, please visit VEEP Nepal (http://veepnepal.org.np/). They are very much a professional organisation.
Chitwan Happy Home Orphanage in Nepal
by Alana and Kristy
(Wallsend 2298, NSW, AUSTRALIA )
Orphan Children with us
We arrived in Kathmandu 26th Nov 2007, the airport was an experience in itself. We were hassled by many taxi drivers and guest house owners, but once we saw the INFO sign there was a sense of relief. Bicky was there to greet us and we made our way to the Happy Home in Kathmandu (where Asim and his family lives). The family was very welcoming.
During our first 2 days we had Nepali language lessons with Krishna. She was fantastic and taught us so much. We also were able to explore the streets and shops during our spare time. The surrounds are very overwhelming and it took time to get used to the pollution, chaotic traffic and the busy streets and markets.
Day 3 led us to a village (Sanga) in the mountains. The views as we trekked was amazing and the host family so inviting. There were goats and cows in a room in the house! But it made our time here even more memorable. To experience how village people live is amazing.
After our training we moved to our placement at Chitwan Happy Home. The six-hour bus trip from Kathmandu to Chitwan was so beautiful - with the river following the winding road. Our lack of experience led us into the Chitwan jungle – we didn’t get off at the correct stop! Asim managed to track us down and send a driver to take us to the Happy Home. If it wasn't for him we would still be stuck in Chitwan jungle!
Our first day at the placement was welcoming. Three previous volunteers were finishing up but it was good to be able to hear their stories and carry on from where they had left off. We spent our mornings organizing the kids for school – helping to prepare their breakfast, pack their school lunches, hand out their medication, bathe them and dress them ready for school. It was hectic with 13 kids but so much fun!
During our days we washed their clothes, cleaned their rooms and bathrooms as well as organizing the evenings activities. After school we played outside with the kids and bonded well with them all. We also occupied them with lots of games, coloring in and craft – all of which they loved!
The kids really made the experience worthwhile. It was very rewarding to see them happy, healthy and safe. On our departure we threw a mini party with fizzy drink chocolates and presents! Seeing the kids appreciate the simplest things topped off the week (we were very emotional!) Please visit their website at www.infonepal.org to know more about their work.
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Hospitalera at the End of the World
by Silvia Nilsen
(Westville, KZN, South Africa)
Sil and Isa - Hospitaleras at San Roque
“Well, that’s that then,” said Judith, volunteer warden of the San Roque pilrims' albergue (hostel), a small two-up-and-two-down school house on the edge of a common outside Corcubion near Finisterre on the west coast of Spain.
“Remember, if the place burns down, it’s your fault!” She was joking - or was she?
Judith had collected us from Finisterre that morning and driven us to Cee to do grocery shopping. She and her husband took us to the albergue to show us the ropes - how to work the temperamental washing machine, where to check the fuse box if there was a power failure, and how to check the fire extinguisher in case of a fire.
“And remember” she said sternly just before driving off, “You must not accept more than 20 pilgrims. The insurance cover is very strict and if you feel sorry for a lone pilgrim and allow him sleep on the floor that’ll be the end of our albergue.”
As she drove away I realised that Isa and I were now completely in charge of this pilgrim shelter on el Camino for the next two weeks. Isa, a young Basque woman from San Sebastian, and I just looked at each other. She couldn’t speak any English and my Spanish was rudimentary to say the least. Over the next two weeks my Spanish improved tremendously and Isa learned how to say, “OK, no problem”, my favourite response to some of the many crises and challenges we faced caring for a 20-bed albergue whose hospitaleros provided breakfast and dinner, and tender loving care to a stream of pilgrims every day.
We soon got into a routine and alternated the chores of scrubbing, sweeping and mopping, often to the beat of a 'Full Monty' music CD.
“We are family – sweep, sweep, sweep. I’ve got all my sister with me" – mop, mop, mop”.
One day I scrubbed toilets, showers and dormitory floors and the next day I changed beds, washed the linen and swept and mopped downstairs. My pet hate was HAIR. Hair in the showers, hair in the beds (of all varieties!): hair on the furniture, hair on the floors. Some days I swear I could have stuffed new cushions with all the thick bunches of hair I pulled off the broom.
When the last pilgrim left in the morning, we spent a couple of hours cleaning and then waited for the bread van to buy our daily bread. Then we donned our backpacks and walked a kilometre into the town. We shared the shopping, tearing a list in half after translating my half into English. Some days we struggled back up the steep, narrow path to the albergue laden with groceries. I often bought the wrong thing. When items came as ‘no-name brands’ it was impossible to tell what was floor cleaner and what was toilet or tile cleaner and for a few days I mopped the floor with lavender toilet liquid and washed the linen in softener. On the way back to the albergue we placed bets on how many pilgrims would be waiting for us. The bet was a martini for Isa or a hot chocolate for me. I never had to buy Isa a martini!
At night we shared cooking (sometimes for 22 people) on two small hot plates and a tiny microwave oven. My curried beans and lentils dish was a hit – made with ‘curry spice’ pimento, colouring, pizza spice and peach marmalade! One could make the same meal every night – with new pilgrims arriving every day – but for our own sakes we varied the meals and served a salad with every meal. On day two I made a salad dressing using lemon juice and oil and cut little yellow arrows out of the lemon peels. Pilgrims were delighted when they found ‘flechas amarillas’ on top of the salad pointing the way to Finisterre!
In some parochial albergues the hospitalero is expected to do an ‘oracion’ or blessing. This was not required at San Roque but I decided that the pilgrims should sing for their supper. I made a list of the words “we are hungry”, which we heard every night, in different languages and before we ate, all the pilgrims had to sing “we are, we are hungry” in their own language to the tune of the Queen’s ‘We will Rock You’. I started them off with the English words, clapping and banging on the table.
Clap, clap, bang; clap, clap bang: “We are... we are … HUNGRY!” bang, clap, clap bang. “Tengo, tengo HAMBRE” bang, clap, clap, bang. “Ich bin, ich bin, HONGER” bang, clap, clap bang!” Some nights there were up to ten nationalities around the table and the song sounded like a football chant!
We worked really well together sharing the early and late shifts. I am a morning person. Isa is a night bird. After supper we would chat and sing songs with the pilgrims and I offered foot massages. We set the table for the breakfast and at around 10:30pm I said goodnight and went to bed. Isa stayed up until the last pilgrim was shooed upstairs and she switched off the lights and locked up. I got up at 6am and crept downstairs to cut the bread, put the milk on to boil and play Gregorian chants at 7am to wake the pilgrims. Isa came down at 7am to help serve the coffee and Cola Cao (hot chocolate) and wave the pilgrims good-bye.
I’m sure that being a hospitalero at the end of the Camino is different to being one at the start. Pilgrims at the start need encouragement for the long journey that lies ahead. Most of our pilgrims were comfortable with their backpacks, had survived blisters, shin splints and other physical problems. Some were excited about finishing what they had started but many had haunted, sad faces – fearful of what it would be like when there were no more yellow arrows to follow; when they had to return to their normal lives.
The Federation of Hospitaleros Voluntarios only allows you to serve for two weeks in an albergue. I didn’t really understand why before I worked at San Roque, but after two weeks of early mornings and late nights, daily physical work, emotional caring and responsibility, I understood.
Isa and I are still in regular contact. I am her “Africa-Mama” and she is my Spanish daughter. We are planning on working together again some time.
NOTE: There are two requirements for volunteers to work as hospitaleros in albergues staffed by the Spanish Federation, Asociacion Galega de Amigos, some Confraternities and other voluntary organisations. You must have walked a Camino route and have done a Hospitalero Training course.
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Tutoring Oaxaca's Street Children
Child in Oaxaca
About a decade ago, I came to Oaxaca for six months to finish writing a novel and to better my Spanish to a bilingual level. What I encountered when I arrived was a beautiful place that was also the second poorest state in Mexico.
Many of Oaxaca's children live and work in the streets, and attend little to no school. Add to this fact that even public schools demand a certain amount of financial obligation for school supplies and even uniforms.
Grassroots is an organization begun in Oaxaca that attempts to level the playing field for Oaxaca's Triqui people, many of whom don't speak fluent Spanish but rather their indigenous language. I wandered into Grassroots and wound up with a weekly volunteer position. I was one of many young women (all female, all young) volunteering at the learning center.
On any given day, several children would show up with homework in hand, their basic supplies and needs met by donations. I would be waiting, prepared to assist in school subjects. Rather than write each answer together, I would attempt to do activities to reinforce information. We would sing, play games, act things out, and tell stories. I can honestly say it was an incredibly rewarding teaching experience that helped begin my successful career in the profession. To this day, Grassroots helps the children of Oaxaca, and now offers a fuller spectrum of services.
I have returned to Oaxaca and have plans to work with Oaxaca's street children again. They now can attend a preschool and kindergarten program through Grassroots. There is also a free English language program for children and a bilingual story hour. So many opportunities to help so many people. Viva Mexico!
(Photo: Nicholasf via Flickr)
Ed. Note: You'll find this organization at http://www.oaxacastreetchildrengrassroots.org/.
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How good came out of my disaster!
I first volunteered in my first year summer of university. I went with a British organisation to an orphanage in Mpumalanga, South Africa.
I enjoyed every single bit of the 6 weeks I spent there. I worked as an HSS (then geography) teacher in a local combined school, teaching grade 9, and the results for my modules were exceptionally high. After school, I played with children at the haven, going on walks in the local area, reading stories, doing food pick ups and baking cakes. There were a lot of tears when I had to leave.
I actually enjoyed the experience so much, that I returned the next year, and worked as a carer for the children, this time staying for 2 months. And then the following year, when I graduated, I arranged to spend a year working and helping out on the farm and at the children's haven, and organising for a group of British volunteers to visit the haven and help there too.
That is when it all went wrong. The children had grown up into young men and women, and the middle-aged South African guy, who was the son of the 'mummy' of the house was living there too. I started hearing snide stories about myself (well, what I could translate from Afrikaans!), and being expected to collaborate in some, let me say, not so legal practise that went on. As my Afrikaans improved, my understanding grew, and I was far from happy. The children were wonderful but the 'responsible' adults, not so. In the end, a row and a fight left me sore and sorry, but I left.
Now, a couple of years on, I am engaged, and my fiance and I have started our own volunteer organisation in Zavora, Mozambique (www.mozvolunteers.com). We have based the organisation of our place and projects on the terrible experience that I had as a single woman volunteering alone in an African environment. We have made sure that every problem that was present in my own volunteer experience has been tackled, and as such now have a successful organisation that recruits many women from all over the globe. We have had only good responses, feedback and success in our projects.
It took a disasterous experience of my own to create a great organisation. I experienced the problems myself, and am now able to ensure that when under my care, other people do not.
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Main Course in Morocco
(Spokane WA, USA)
I have made my first visit to Morocco since it became a Projects Abroad destination. The first thing I've just got to mention is the food. Saad Rbiai and his partner are looked after by Saad's childhood nanny who is the most utterly amazing cook. We started our dinner with chicken and mint pasties, a subtle blend of flavours in perfect puff pastry. The main course was a traditional Moroccan tajine, a kind of excellent beef casserole. The pudding, for which I thought I had no room but somehow had a second helping, was a lemon pie which I will still remember after several years in heaven. STUNNING!
I am pleased that Projects Abroad Morocco is based in Rabat. It is rather an attractive city with lots of walls and castles, including a splendid fortress called Chellah overlooking the river and inhabited by many storks who nest on the turrets and towers of the old castle. I went back to the airport at the end through Casablanca which is really just a huge industrial city and not at all in keeping with its romantic image - Bogart and Bacall and all that.
I met all our volunteers who work on a variety of Teaching and Care projects, and these all seem to be going well, doing work that's really needed. I was also able to see a brilliant new care project where we're soon going to start work, a highly imaginative scheme for street-children from the shanties surrounding Rabat. In this project, kids do ordinary school lessons and get a square meal - and just a few are residential as well - but, impressively, they also have drama classes and learn how to do circus acts.
It's great to see kids in difficulty not just doing the necessary things but also having a great time just for fun, not just kicking a ball around the yard but doing something really special and unusual that will always be a part of their lives.
From Morocco, I headed to Togo. The most important thing there is that we will be able to have human rights projects for French-speakers. These will be at the Organisation for Women in Law and Development, where volunteers will be able to help set up and run educational campaigns and can help to deal with the individual cases of the women who come for help. Morocco and Togo have in common that they are both French-speaking African countries. We in the English-speaking world tend to forget about French-speaking Africa - yet to return to the theme of food - a mix of baguettes and fufu, of Cotes du Rhone and mint tea. Ah yes, I forgot the mint tea - we finished off our meal at Saad's place with mint tea - amazing mint tea - the mintiest, most honeyish, subtlest, spiciest, sweetest. "Get me back to Rabat - get me back to Saad's nanny - NOW!
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