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Category: Volunteer Vacations in Laos
Globe Aware: A season for Asian travel

Globe Aware was featured in a June, 2011 spotlight in the International Herald Tribune:

For students longing to take time off before starting college or university or working people who would like a complete change from their daily occupation, taking a ‘‘gap year’’ can be a rewarding, lifechanging experience, especially if the time is spent volunteering.

Teaching English, for example, is a huge help in poor communities in Asia and requires little training. Other projects may include sports coaching, community building projects and working with handicapped children.

According to studies by such leading universities as Harvard, students who take a year off before college are more focused and motivated when they begin their studies than those who don’t.

Globe Aware, a nonprofit organization based in Texas, organizes volunteer programs around the world.

‘‘Gap-year volunteering broadens horizons, strengthens résumés and brings the kind of perspective that can change lives,’’ says Catherine Greenberg, its vice president of volunteer communications. ‘‘Kids who volunteer internationally realize how fortunate they are and gain insight into what’s truly important in life — not money or greed or luxury items, but community, compassion and hard work.’’ Each project aims to promote cultural awareness and/or sustainability. Cultural awareness, explain the organizers, means learning to appreciate a culture but not changing it.

‘‘By promoting volunteerism,’’ says Greenberg, ‘‘we’re promoting active civic engagement in disadvantaged communities in an exciting and different way.’’ Combining travel with volunteering has become popular enough that a conference on ‘‘voluntourism’’ will be held June 28 in Denver, Colorado.

‘‘This is the first time there has been a conference held that focuses solely on voluntourism,’’ says its organizer, Alexia Nestora.

Subject matter for the conference will include the economic impact of voluntourism, how it has evolved and how to create sustainable projects, as well as industry sessions on subjects such as the marketing of volunteer travel.

Nestora is a consultant on the industry Though the company is American, Asian students participate, too.

WLS International is a London-based organizer of volunteer-abroad projects that focuses on Asia, specifically Cambodia, China, Nepal, India, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Volunteering abroad, says the company, is a way to make travel meaningful and have a simple, affordable vacation. Many of its projects attract those taking a gap year.

Ben Mattress, a young volunteer from Australia, says his weeklong project teaching English to young children in Siem Reap, Cambodia, was a life-changing experience.

The children are ‘‘so happy and eager to learn, and very smart,’’ says Mattress, adding that he is eager to volunteer there again. An added benefit of this project is its location at the gateway to the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex, a Unesco World Heritage site.

Young people may spend several weeks or months abroad, but will certainly return with experiences that will last a lifetime.

Says Greenberg of Global Aware: ‘‘If our local young people can benefit from this experience, it’s one vital step toward reshaping our culture to be more green, more responsible and more caring.’’ and writes the blog Voluntourism Gal. She says that the industry has been very competitive and that conference participants ‘‘are showing their willingness to move into an era of cooperation that can only better serve the sometimes-at-risk and always needy populations where our collective projects are concentrated.’’ In Globe Aware’s Laos program, volunteers have the opportunity to work with orphans and schoolchildren in Luang Prabang.

In a weeklong program, participants work with local monks and perform such tasks as teaching English, assembling wheelchairs from recycled parts and distributing them to the needy, distributing books and helping to repair schools. There is also free time to visit the temples, Buddhist caves and waterfalls of this charming Unesco World Heritage site.

Adventures Cross-Country, a Californiabased youth-travel company, has been leading volunteer programs for gap-year students for nearly 30 years. Its Asia Gap Semester, for example, takes students to China, Thailand and Tibet, and includes such activities as helping mahouts and biologists rehabilitate elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, and teaching English to Chinese and Thai students, some of whom have never met Westerners.

 

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Pictures of Luang Prabang, Globe Aware volunteer vacation

Pilar Martinez first went with Globe Aware to Romania, where Globe Aware coordinators were very impressed with her work. At a late age she decided she wanted to do international volunteer work and signed up for the Peace Corps, but was told she was too old.

“I have traveled internationally, lived in China, and now in Australia. My volunteer activities have included rape crisis counseling, awareness efforts for individuals with congenital and genetic disorders, and research on complementary and alternative medicines for chronic diseases,” relates Pilar.

Pilar latest volunteer vacation was to  Luang Prabang, or Louangphrabang, literally: “Royal Buddha Image.” The a city located in north central Laos, where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong River about 425 kilometers (264 mi) north of Vientiane. It is the capital of Luang Prabang Province. The current population of the city is about 103,000. The Globe Aware program takes place in Luang Prabang, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its charming French-colonial architecture. Monks in saffron robes still stroll to Luang Prabang’s many temples with umbrellas over their shoulder, while longtail boats are guided gently down the Mekong River making deliveries.

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My Volunteer Vacation in Laos, part three

Our volunteer vacation experience to Laos was absolutely a highlight of our trip around the world. I am completely enchanted with Laos. If any of your future volunteers have questions about Laos I would be happy to answer them. I thought maybe you would like to see the article I wrote about our experience in Laos for Garden State Woman magazine:

Volunteering in Laos

Our final volunteer activity for the week was perhaps my favorite, sponsoring a reading and literacy event at a village. The event, called a book party, is a concept created by an organization, Big Brother Mouse (www.bigbrothermouse.org), dedicated to providing books to children in the country’s often remote villages. The company writes and illustrates children’s books in English and Lao and with the help of donations organizes a party complete with games, songs and storytelling, culminating with a gift of one book to each child and a surplus to the village to start a library.

The village we visited was not that remote by Lao standards, but still could only be reached by boat, even after an hour long drive through the jungle on a bumpy dirt road. After a twenty minute row on the Mekong in baking hot sun, we arrived, welcomed by a rambunctious group of children waving to us on the river bank. They grabbed everything we carried, including a heavy cooler and piles of books, and we followed them up a set of steep stairs to their village where everyone in the small town gathered to watch the event.

Within minutes, our book party leaders, themselves three very rambunctious college students, had the village children drawing and then singing, laughing and playing games. Everything was proceeding like clockwork when, suddenly, Kelvin told us it was time for me and Ken to teach the kids some English. I was not at all prepared, but in the spirit of the day dove into a warbly rendition of the alphabet song while Ken, suffering stage fright, hid behind the video camera. The kids did their best to repeat after me, but I doubt they will remember much past ABCD. When you’re up in front of a crowd singing, you realize how ridiculous LMNOP sounds–not like separate letters at all. After my moment in the spotlight, it was time for snack distribution – always a hit – and for our Big Brother Mouse leaders to read the children a story. We then distributed books to our happy attendees.

Thinking we were finished, Ken and I started to pack up, when Kelvin again had a surprise for us. As a thank you, the adults of the village asked us to stay for a Baasii ceremony, a traditional rite performed to invoke spirits of protection and good health. The villagers first chanted a blessing around a centerpiece of flowers and fruit. Next they each tied a piece of string around our wrists, I believe to represent the spirits of protection. Then they presented us with a meal. The menu – fried pig’s skin, omelet, papaya salad, sticky rice and homemade whisky to wash it all down – was not what I typically would order in a restaurant, but when an entire village cooks for you and performs a ceremony in your honor, it is unthinkable to refuse their hospitality. We all dug in, even Ken who is a very picky eater, and everything was delicious, although the papaya salad was so spicy that I could not take more than a mouthful without crying.

Luckily, it was acceptable to eat just some of the food, but Kelvin advised it was customary to drink all of the whiskey offered. In this village where very little, if any, English is spoken, cries of “WhiskeyLao!” filled the air as the villagers toasted us and offered us shots to drink, always in pairs!

The mood was celebratory, and we happily partook, touched to be honored by the village in this manner. When the feast was complete, we stepped down the stairs to our boat, followed by the village children, who dove into the Mekong and splashed and swam after us as we departed down the river for our long drive home.

And just like that, in the blink of an eye it seemed, our week volunteering in Laos was drawing to a close. As we rowed down the Mekong, amongst sheer cliffs, past lounging water buffalo, in this country we came close to not visiting, I counted my lucky stars and thanked my map of the world for bringing me to Laos, a place where the residents are so open-hearted that at the end of a week of volunteering Ken and I felt we had received so much more than we had given. But then again, isn’t that always the case when you volunteer?


This is part three of Krysten Kimmett‘s story of adventure and discovery while on a Globe Aware volunteer vacation to Laos. For part one, click here. For part two, click here. For more volunteer vacation stories, information and travel opportunities, be sure to check back or, even better, subscribe to Globe Aware’s RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feed by entering your email address in the Volunteer Vacations RSS Feed form in the right column.

I thought maybe you would like to see the article I wrote about our experience in Laos for Garden State Woman magazine.
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My Volunteer Vacation in Laos, part two

Our volunteer vacation experience to Laos was absolutely a highlight of our trip around the world. I am completely enchanted with Laos. If any of your future volunteers have questions about Laos I would be happy to answer them. I thought maybe you would like to see the article I wrote about our experience in Laos for Garden State Woman magazine:

Volunteering in Laos

We first shopped at a bookstore in town and then headed out of Luang Prabang to donate our purchases to a nearby school. As we drove through lush green countryside in Kelvin’s jeep we encountered a traffic jam of sorts when three buffalo lumbered slowly across our path. In the midst of farms and forest, geese, ducklings and goats, we pulled up a small dirt road and came upon three simple cement buildings, our destination. The school facilities did not have running water, and as I used the outhouse and tried my best to ignore the multitude of spiders crawling on a nearby windowsill, I thought back to my own grade-school classrooms. How comfortable they seemed to me now! The school served fifteen different villages and enrolled students in six grades. Because of its rural location, many children walk more than two hours to attend classes. Although school was not in session, we met with the principal and presented him with our donation. He in turn showed us the groundwork of a future Globe Aware project. At the time of our visit just four posts and a thatched roof stood, but the structure would eventually become the school’s first library.

After this meeting, I realized that as Globe Aware volunteers, we were part of an ongoing, gradual, step-by-step improvement of the local community. We saw this first hand the following day when we began work on our next project, building a gate for Luang Prabang’s local orphanage, which is also a school. Past Globe Aware volunteers at the orphanage built sinks with running water outside the dormitories, replaced doors and windows and installed a basketball hoop, no easy feat in such a remote location. Although remoteness is part of Laos’s charm, it also means there is no Home Depot nearby and we would build our gate completely from scratch. We would do everything – buy lumber, cut boards (sometimes with a machete), sand, paint and nail everything together by hand. I do, however, use the term “we” loosely, because Ken, Kelvin and I had so much help from the resident children. Every day as soon as we pulled up in Kelvin’s jeep, ten to twenty incredibly well-behaved teenagers magically appeared from the woodwork, ready to wield a hammer or paintbrush.

As a result of the enthusiastic assistance of the students we were supposedly volunteering to help, I spent little time doing manual labor, which was probably best because it turns out that I am terrible at hammering a nail straight. Fortunately for me, I found an area in which I could be useful: talking. One of the fifteen-year-old girls who had commandeered all the paintbrushes wanted to practice her English. We hit it off well, although when I told her my age (33), she was surprised and said “you don’t look old but you are,” which made me laugh. I decided to focus on the first part of the sentence. Talking with her gave me some insight into the situation of the students at the orphanage-school. She, like many of her classmates, is not an orphan, but when her father was killed in a motorbike accident seven years ago, she was sent to the school. She has brothers and sisters that remain with her mother at home in her small village. She told me she was happy living where she had many friends and could focus on school and studying. Kelvin told us later that many children are sent to the orphanage from rural, single parent families to get an education and are better off than at home where they would be needed to farm to help support their families. The students are well cared for at the orphanage, although it is a struggle: the school relies heavily on donations because the Laos government is only able to provide the orphanage with 1,000 kip, or about 11 cents, per student per day.

After three days of work in brutal Southeast Asian heat and humidity and interruptions due to monsoon-like downpours and losses of electricity, our gate went up at the orphanage. Unfortunately, we could not quite figure out how to hang it straight, but we left secure in the knowledge that Kelvin and a future volunteer group would put the final finishing touches on our work.


This is part two of Krysten Kimmett‘s story of adventure and discovery while on a Globe Aware volunteer vacation to Laos. For part one, click here. For part three and for more volunteer vacation stories, information and travel opportunities, be sure to check back or, even better, subscribe to Globe Aware’s RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feed by entering your email address in the Volunteer Vacations RSS Feed form in the right column.

I thought maybe you would like to see the article I wrote about our experience in Laos for Garden State Woman magazine.
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My Volunteer Vacation in Laos, part one

Our volunteer vacation experience to Laos was absolutely a highlight of our trip around the world. I am completely enchanted with Laos.  If any of your future volunteers have questions about Laos I would be happy to answer them. I thought maybe you would like to see the article I wrote about our experience in Laos for Garden State Woman magazine:

Volunteering in Laos

Looking at a map of the world, Laos is a sliver of land sandwiched between more well-known neighbors: China to the north, Thailand and Myanmar to the west, Cambodia to the south and Vietnam to the east. As my husband and I planned an extended trip to Asia, I had little knowledge of Laos aside from where it was located on a map spread on my living room floor. Laos was not on our initial itinerary, but we wanted to volunteer during our time in Asia and after researching volunteer programs on the web we decided, almost on a whim, to sign-up for a weeklong program in Laos with Globe Aware (www.globeaware.org), a non-profit that coordinates volunteer efforts around the globe. Little did we know that this decision would lead us to one of our most memorable experiences in Asia.

Our volunteer project was centered in the Lao city of Luang Prabang, a place straddling centuries, where orange-robed monks wander narrow streets amongst cafes selling cappuccino and pizza and the spires of Buddhist temples peak above the trees. At dusk the main street is closed to traffic and local merchants gather to sell colorful silks, clothing and jewelry under red tents. Walking to the waterfront on our first evening in the city, we sat enchanted at a café overlooking the muddy Mekong River and listened to the sound of crickets hidden amongst the verdant green mountains rising on the far bank. The next day we would be up bright and early to begin our volunteer project, but the evening was ours to absorb the peaceful vibe of this entrancing town. We settled in for the night at our $25 hotel room, which was clean, air-conditioned and complete with its own resident gecko.

Early the next morning we met our volunteer coordinator, Kelvin. Kelvin is a Laos native and lives just outside Luang Prabang with his wife and young son. He is multi-talented and multi-faceted: he owns and drives a tuk-tuk, guides bikers into Laos’s remote mountain villages, volunteers for an organization that clears landmines from the countryside, has a partial ownership in a shop at the airport and is a handyman and all around go-to-guy for the local orphanage. Kelvin laid out our schedule for the week. We would build a gate at the local orphanage, donate books to a school and village and explore Luang Prabang and its beautiful surrounds which include cascading, tiered waterfalls open for swimming and an otherworldly cave housing hundreds of Buddha statues. First, though, Kelvin gave us an impromptu lesson in Lao culture and language, resulting in much laughter as Ken and I mispronounced even the basics. Lao has an interesting cadence to it and words seem to just trail off at the end, like a foghorn fading into a misty night, easy on the ears, yet difficult to master. With “sabaii dii” (hello) and “khawp jai” (thank you) under our belt, it was time for volunteering to get underway.


This is part one of Krysten Kimmett‘s story of adventure and discovery while on a Globe Aware volunteer vacation to Laos. For part two and for more volunteer vacation stories, information and travel opportunities, be sure to check back or, even better, subscribe to Globe Aware’s RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feed by entering your email address in the Volunteer Vacations RSS Feed form in the right column.

I thought maybe you would like to see the article I wrote about our experience in Laos for Garden State Woman magazine.
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