GoNomad Book ExcerptLife-Changing Travel Adventures
Volunteer vacations, a popular trend in travel, can be a cost-effective and rewarding way to see the world. They allow travelers to engage with the people, and experience the culture of a destination, in a way that would be otherwise impossible.
Suzanne Stone and Pam Jones's book, Volunteering Around the Globe: Life-Changing Travel Adventures, features inspirational stories from volunteers who have worked on a wide range of projects, from saving sea turtles in Costa Rica, to teaching English in Thailand, from building a school in Tanzania, to working on an archeological dig in Israel. The book also contains practical information on volunteer organizations and things to consider before you go. -– Jessica Courtney
Chapter 6: Cultural Preservation
“A shovel? Why are they giving me a shovel?” I asked myself. Somehow the leaders of this dig weren’t privy to my fantasy: I had envisioned myself sitting in the shade quietly and sensitively brushing centuries-old dust off pottery shards and helping remake the jugs and plates they had once been.
A shovel would be of no use in this delicate task. My next surprise was being given a pick, even less likely to be of use in my fantasy archeological dig.
But these were precisely the tools I needed and learned to use when I spent three fascinating weeks on a dig in the Galilee portion of Israel. It was the first season of a multi-year effort to excavate the bathhouse and other structures built in the area by Romans in the second century CE.
My boyfriend and I had joined a team of four archeologists and about 20 other volunteers trying literally to get to the bottom of an ancient bathhouse. Earthquakes in the seventh century damaged much of the structure, and disuse from the ninth century had covered the ruins with many feet of earth.
Every morning we awakened at 4:30 and had to be on the bus by 5:00 a.m. We were driven from our campground on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to the site. We spent the next three hours shoveling away the top layers of dirt.
While no Hebrew was necessary for this activity, I soon learned the words for “empty,” “full,” and “basket.”
About 8:30 we broke for breakfast, which was always hard boiled eggs, vegetables, and bread. Since we were working in an area where hot water contains almost five percent sulfur, the smell of which was always at least faintly noticeable, eggs were not always the most appetizing food that could have been provided. But they must have been in plentiful supply that spring because they often appeared on the dinner menu as well.
Lunch — the main meal — was served after an additional three to four hours of clearing away dirt, upon our return to the caravan camp. This was always a hearty and tasty meal. Nevertheless, the combination of hard physical labor for seven hours each day and the two egg-based meals was the perfect recipe of “more movement, less food” that is the basis of any successful weight-loss diet.
In fact, by the end of my three weeks, I had lost a few pounds and envisioned opening a weight-loss camp that would consist of a large dirt field, sparsely salted with fake ancient pottery shards where my clients would pay me for the privilege of back-breaking labor all day.
By the third week, we could see the results of our labors, and we learned to be more careful with the shovels and axes—the floor was soon to be uncovered. And before we finished, a small corner of it was!
This was very exciting, as it confirmed the archeologists’ understanding of the structure and the surrounding area and gave a hint of the beauty and majesty of the original building. Subsequent digs finished this initial effort.
As the bathhouse was completely unearthed, Greek and Arabic inscriptions were found on plaques incorporated in the floors and walls of the bath. These provided additional information about the construction, including dedications to rulers and wealthy patrons.
The bathhouse and some of the surrounding buildings—we could see the remains of an amphitheater while we were working in the bathhouse — have been restored and are open visitors. There is even a modern bathhouse, with pools, Jacuzzi beds, a waterfall, and spa-type massages and treatments.
It was definitely satisfying to be a part of this dig, and the satisfaction has continued over thirty years as I learned of subsequent digs, the restoration of the structures, and the establishment of a tourist spa. At the time, not being able to see this future, the satisfaction came in large part from the camaraderie with the other volunteers, who were mostly Europeans, and the Israeli archeologists.
I learned a lot about their lives, so different from my American one, and a great deal about myself. This activity was certainly different from my ordinary life, and the “stretch” has continued to be inspirational to me. I am not afraid to try new things, go new places, and meet new people. I know I can do things I have never done before.
Chapter 9: Healthcare
“My personal gift is teaching”
As a learning consultant with Walt Disney, I channeled my passion for teaching into a volunteer position with Global Service Corps (GSC). I worked at their HIV/AIDS Life Skills Day Camp in Arusha, Tanzania, during the summer of 2006.
My “aha” moment occurred when I first read about the global effects of HIV/AIDS in a magazine news article, which included a list of suggestions for taking action. As I believe HIV/AIDS is the challenge of our era, I saved up my vacation time and took extra personal days to participate in a long project.
My one-week orientation included lessons about the biology of HIV/AIDS, the immune system, and healthy lifestyles, and how to improve decision-making and goal-setting skills. After that week, I traveled to remote villages and lectured about HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
One of the biggest challenges in this instruction is respecting the local culture. I learned that many villagers practice what they call “female circumcision” and also circumcise the boys during adolescence. I had to hide my own feelings about these practices and focus on the proper sanitation methods; before my instruction, the same knife had been used repeatedly for these procedures.
Much of the instruction involved dispelling myths about HIV/AIDS transmission. The purpose of the day camps is to lessen the spread of HIV/AIDS by teaching about relationships and sexuality, as well as HIV/AIDS prevention.
I learned that the young people I counseled at the day camp believed that white people and government officials could not get HIV/AIDS; they had, after all, never seen the disease affect either of these groups. In addition, they believed that an infected person could be “cured” by having sex with a virgin.
I also took advantage of my weekends to make trips to other villages, where I could meet with villagers to learn about the cultures of some of the more that 140 tribes living in Tanzania. GSC arranges these eco-tourism trips and provides a tour guide/translator.
On several occasions, I discovered that the villagers did not speak Swahili, the national language of Tanzania, but only their tribal language. I learned to distinguish the different tribes by the sounds of the various languages and the clothes tribal members wore.
I lived with the most wonderful host family for the five weeks after orientation. (During orientation, I had been housed in a former boarding school.) Every evening, I stayed and spoke with my family — a mother, father, and five children.
This was an extra learning session — for both “my” family, who wanted to learn English, and me, as I learned more about Tanzania. During the day, I tried to imitate the little girls of the village by carrying water in a bucket on my head. It is very hard; the bucket was heavy and kept falling off. I paid for the water I wasted.
The fact that children have to walk to the river and carry these heavy buckets back makes it obvious what a very precious resource water is. The home had electricity only every fourth or fifth day and no running water.
On my last day, I noticed a new water spigot had been installed. I pointed to it and looked to the father of my host family. I saw a very proud man who had a tear running down his cheek expressing his joy in providing this for his family. I know that part of the fee I paid to GSC was provided as rent to this family and made the running water possible.
I experienced many personal rewards and am now planning a return visit to Africa, hopefully teaching in the new school Oprah Winfrey has established.
Buy this book from Amazon Volunteering Around the Globe: Life Changing Travel Adventures (Capital Travel Series)
Jessica Courtney is an editorial assistant at GoNomad. She recently graduated from UMass Amherst with a double degree in dance and communication studies, and is headed to France to teach English in the fall.
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