ARGENTINA - Abi (English Teaching)

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Hola! I’m Abi, a New Zealander currently volunteering on my gap year in Argentina with Lattitude. It’s an awesome experience and if you’re considering this country, I encourage you to read what I have to say – because I promise you that it’ll be an experience unlike anything else!

Why did you decide to take a gap year in Argentina?

I decided to volunteer so that I could take a breath and learn more about the world before moving forward in academic education. I studied Spanish in high school – and quite simply fell in love with the language. My Spanish teacher lived in Argentina for a year, and his passion for the people and the country rubbed off on me a bit, I think.

In 2016 I came to Argentina for 3 weeks as a part of a school trip, and the atmosphere of this country really sucked me in – it compelled me to figure out how I could spend more time here learning about the language, culture, history and people. It’s so different to New Zealand – it’s crazy and beautiful and a whole new eye-opening experience.

Can you describe your town, and your placement?

I live in a small city in the Northern Patagonia called Cipolletti. Here, I help with English classes in the home of our local representative. The majority of my work on placement is at this school – where I generally help with multiple different groups of kids aged 9-16. Sometimes we help with adult English classes too. It’s nice to have a wide range of ages to work with, because we get different questions, different jokes, and different experiences depending on the age of the pupils. Having such a diverse range of people to teach is a really unique experience, and I love it.

About 10km down the road, or 15min by train, is the city of Neuquén. We travel into Neuquén twice a week, where we both receive Spanish classes, and help with the English lessons at a language institute. Once a week we also attend a high school to assist the English teachers there. In reality, we help (and learn) in 3 different places.

Neuquén and Cipolletti are both reasonably small cities. They are beautiful, homely, and easy to get around in. They lie on the banks of a few rivers – which are beautiful to visit on Saturday afternoons. There are many shops, bookstores, parks, and gyms to find; and many small restaurants, bakeries and heladerías (ice cream parlours) to sample. The food in Argentina is exceptional – if you’re a foodie, this is the perfect country for you.

What are some of the duties you perform there? I’m valued as an English tutor because I am a native speaker. Consequently, a lot of my work involves communication – asking and answering questions, conversing with the pupils etc. However, I also help with grammar, pronunciation and writing. The majority of the English activities involve working through textbooks and activities. I often help to mark answers and answer questions about vocabulary and the use of different tenses. Sometimes I think that all of the work we do is as equally beneficial for the pupils as it is for me – I’m learning so much about my own language because I’m seeing it from a completely different perspective.

Can you describe your host family/accommodation?

My host family are lovely! They don’t speak any English – so as much as it’s difficult sometimes to explain how I feel or what I mean, it’s very beneficial for my language skills. In my house there is just me and my two host parents. We also have a dog called Bolt – he’s pretty cool too. I have an abuela who sometimes stays with us, and she’s such a caring and sweet person! Despite initial awkwardnees and uncertainty (as you can expect), there’s no doubt that my family here care about me as if I was one of their own, and that’s something really special to experience; another family halfway around the world.

I live in a rather large house with my two host parents. I’m walking distance from the school I work at in Cipolletti, as well as from the Centre of town. It’s very easy to get around – the train to Neuquén is only a 15min walk away. I have my own room/own space (bed, desk, wardrobe, drawers etc.), and we have a pool, which is pretty fun, even though it’s getting too cold to use!

How are you coping with the differences between Argentina and home?

I rolled into Argentina and this experience expecting a lot of changes and differences to New Zealand. Because I had already experienced a little bit of Argentine culture, I had some background knowledge of what I was getting myself into. Not only that, but I knew that I had a big network of people, both within Lattitude and without, that were (and are) supporting me.

I find the best way to cope with the changes and the differences is to talk them through. Whether that be with your fellow volunteers (who are likely struggling with the same things), or with your host families and local representatives. Maintain open lines of communication, be open if you’re struggling with something, and everything should go smoothly.

What’s been your favourite moment so far?

About 2 weeks ago we were helping to teach a class of 9-10 year olds. They had been studying how to tell the time in English – (“It’s quarter to one” or “It’s twenty-five past seven etc.) There were two boys who were really struggling and not really understanding how to pull the sentences together. The teacher asked us, myself and the other volunteer here, if we could take them into the other room and try to explain the time to them. Finally, after 30 minutes of confusion, distractedness and challenges that had to do with the language differences, their willingness to learn, and our patience; they were able to say the time back to us when we drew it on the board.

Seeing the look of comprehension and understanding on their faces, and the feeling of pride when they understood a really difficult concept was so rewarding, and it’s been my favourite moment by far. I helped make a difference – I helped someone to understand something and learn more. It’s wonderful when you realise that your favourite moment isn’t something personal or selfish, but something that you helped somebody else learn – it shows that giving and volunteering is so much more personally rewarding that simply receiving.

And I think that that’s what this is all about – the subtle lessons we learn, the realisations that we have about what it truly means to give; to work and help for the sake of helping, and not for the sake of money. Because instead of being paid in wealth (because we’re just volunteers), we are paid in happiness, knowledge, and laughter.

ARGENTINA - Laura (English Teacher)

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At my placement, my hours are more or less 9-11am, and then I come home for lunch with the family, and then I go back to the institute from 5-9pm in the evenings. I am rarely in a situation where I take a class by myself (only in certain circumstances – if a teacher is sick, or travelling etc.) however when I have had this opportunity, I have come away feeling positive, as it has been a success, and the children I have worked with have all been extremely cooperative and respectful.

At my institute I do a variety of different things each day, such as helping children of all levels with written work and pronunciation, marking exercises, as well as helping students study for first certificate English with conversation skills. I think that my time here has been extremely fulfilling. I know all the students names, and I feel like a have really built up a relationship with the institute during my time here. The teaching staff have been absolutely fantastic, and make great use of my presence here.

Back home I enjoy sport and going to the gym, and here I have been able to continue that. On the weekends and on public holidays we have also had plenty of opportunities to travel, which has been excellent.

As soon as we arrived in Neuquen, our Lattitude representative organised Spanish lessons for us which have been very useful. We attend these classes twice a week, and, looking back to when I first arrived in Argentina, my Spanish has definitely improved a lot.

My accommodation here is excellent. I absolutely love my host family – they are like a second family to me. I have a wonderful host brother and two wonderful host sisters whom I adore, and get along with like a house on fire! At the house I share a room with one of the sisters which is no problem at all. The house is situated about 11 blocks from the institute where I work and about 20 or so from the city centre, so getting around on my own is never a problem whether it be by bus or on foot. Although my Spanish is quite basic, and my host parents do not speak English, I feel as if I have been able to build a strong relationship with them, and I will be very sad to leave. Having sisters has also meant that I’ve been able to meet a lot of new people and make friends outside of my school.

I would recommend that future volunteers be as open as possible about their placements (school and accommodation). You cannot predict what kind of family or work you will get, so you just have to be completely open-minded, and make the best out of your situation. Of course it will be different to what you are used to at home, but in my eyes, that is the essence of this kind of program – to immerse yourself in another culture, and to find each new day fulfilling. I think the aim is to go home with no regrets, knowing that you took advantage of every opportunity that came your way.

Our local representative here in Neuquen has been absolutely fantastic – in fact, I couldn’t think of anyone better for the job. She is kind and caring, and has given us all a huge amount of support in terms of building a comfortable relationship with us, so that we feel able to talk to her about any problem we might be having.

I would just say that this is definitely one of the best experiences I have ever had, and I would recommend anyone to do this if they have just finished school and are unsure of what to study as a career, or wish to take a break from their studies, as it is a wonderful opportunity. I have made some amazing, lifelong friends, and feel like I have grown a lot, in terms of being independent during my time here.

AUSTRALIA - FERGUS (SCHOOLS ASSISTANT)

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Thank you to Fergus for agreeing to be interviewed following his Gap Year experience with Lattitude!

Why did you choose a Lattitude Placement for your Gap Year?

I had only been out of the country once and wanted to become much more independent. I’d heard really good reviews from other Lattitude volunteers who had already been on the programme.

Why did you choose to go to Australia?

I wanted to do a placement in an English speaking country but one with a different culture. Australia provided this and would enable me to be able to meet new people and travel in a beautiful country.

What kind of support were you offered before you went on your placement?

The support was very beneficial to my preparations. A full pre-departure event for Australia at the Lattitude offices prepared me for my placement and everything that was involved. Speaking to past Australian Lattitude volunteers was a highlight of the pre-departure briefing event.

How did you raise the money for your placement?

I worked full time for several months to raise the money and save for my gap year. I also did some fundraising like running a sponsored half marathon. I found friends and family were really supportive in helping me to fundraise. I raised 80% through paid work, 10% from fundraising events and my parents very kindly gave me the remaining 10%.

Why did you choose to do a Schools Placement?

I really love to work with other people and inspire young people. The most rewarding part was seeing young people learn. Before I went on placement I didn’t know what career I wanted to go in to. The placement made me realise that I want to go in to teaching as a career and so I’m about to start an Access to Teaching Course. I’m really glad I took the time to find out what I really wanted to do for my career.

What happened once you landed in Australia?

I was met by Lattitude staff at the airport and we had our 3 day Orientation. This helped us settle in to Australia and adjust to our surroundings. It was a great opportunity to meet and bond with other working volunteers. The Lattitude Australia staff were brilliant at doing everything to help us make the transition to being in a new place which I was incredibly grateful for.

How did you feel when you arrived at your placement?

I felt excited to arrive at my placement and I enjoyed meeting the host family that I was living with. My host family were incredibly welcoming to me and were certainly one of the main highlights of my Gap Year in Australia.

What class were you working with and what was the highlight?

I was allocated to the Year 1 class. The highlight was dance lessons. I saw students loving being at school which was hugely inspirational. Seeing students improve their reading and numeracy skills was very satisfying from a teaching point of view. This inspired me and made me realise that anything is possible. The students were always excited to be at school which made it a brilliant environment to be part of.

What was the biggest challenge during your gap year?

There were a few moments when I was travelling that I felt a little bit homesick. But I overcame that by getting involved in activities. It was great to do a Skydive, climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and go to the Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains was my favourite trip in Australia – they were very impressive and the rainforest below was incredible.

How did you feel when you finished your placement?

I felt good finishing my placement as I felt I had made a real contribution at my School and I was looking forward to my next challenge back at home. It was sad saying goodbye to people at my school and my host family though. I still keep in touch with my host family regularly and hope I can go back to Australia soon and visit them.

What were the main skills you developed on your placement?

I became much more independent during my placement and was much more organised in terms of time management and booking tickets for myself. My confidence improved greatly through learning to meet new people and spend time in new environments. I worked mainly with Year 1 students but also occasionally worked with other age groups which helped me become more adaptable.

Would you recommend a Lattitude placement?

I would definitely recommend a Lattitude placement as the support I was provided with was outstanding. It was a real life-changing experience for me. The only reason I now know I want to go in to a career in teaching is as a result of doing a School Assistant placement with Lattitude. I’ve been hugely inspired and motivated by my experience.

AUSTRALIA - MAYA (ABORIGINAL BOARDING SCHOOL)

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Volunteer in Australia! We are proud to share this excellent interview with returned “gapper” Maya about her gap year down-under.

What made you volunteer in the first place?

I had been interested in taking a gap year for some time. Some people are lucky enough to have a vocation from a young age, but I’m not one of them. Although I have some passions and ideas, I wanted more time to develop them before starting post-secondary. I was drawn to the idea of taking some time off after high school to work or travel, and volunteering turned out to be a perfect combination of the two!

I wanted to go somewhere where no one knew me and establish on my own terms what my values were and what I’m capable of. And, as I think many people my age feel – I was frustrated. The world around me seemed so big, but my own world seemed so small. I wanted a taste of what else was out there, and I suppose I wanted to stand on my own two feet as well.

So why did you pick Australia when you were deciding on where to go?

I picked Australia initially for pretty simple reasons: I love hot climates and beautiful places and as an added bonus, the official language is English. Since it was my first time travelling internationally by myself and living away from home, I wanted to start off with something a little more familiar. I’m very grateful that I was encouraged to apply for an Indigenous school program.

My experience was so much richer because I was lucky enough to be placed at Shalom and I have a lot of respect and gratitude that I got to spend time with Indigenous people and learn about their cultures. I remember preparing myself to be slightly disappointed with the reality of Australia because I had such a glorious vision of it in my head, but it was so much more amazing than I could ever have imagined. I fell in love in a way that I didn’t expect to with the land. Aussies are amazing so long as you’re practical, down-to-earth, can laugh at your mistakes and most importantly, know how to have fun!

Can you describe your placement at Shalom Christian college?

At Shalom, gap staff (commonly referred to as gappies) worked on a rotating schedule. Every week we would alternate between secondary, primary and the school’s health clinic. I would say in the classroom we pretty much performed the duties of a TA (teacher’s assistant). We would help students with their work, run errands for the teachers, and help supervise the class. In the health clinic, we helped the school nurse, especially by fetching students from class to come down to their appointments (which was quite the wild goose chase half the time).

What would you say was the most important quality to have at the school?

The most important thing was flexibility. Every day was slightly different, and rather than sticking to a set routine or list of duties you had to be ready to respond to the situation and environment around you. Coming from a traditional school background, I was very shocked at first by the differences at Shalom. It is certainly less organised and much more chaotic than I was used to.

What was your accommodation like?

A really cool thing about the Shalom placement is that you get to live on the school property in little units they call “dongas”. The donga is simple but comfortable. You have a bed, a sink and a little bathroom – plenty of space for one person. There’s a central rotunda with a laundry machine and TV where you can socialize with the other donga residents, gappies, school nurse, year 13 students and elders who are there to mentor the kids. You take meals in the dining hall with the kids from boarding which is nice because it gives you the opportunity to get to know them better (about half the school are boarders, and the others are day students).

Did you have time off? What did you do in your free time?

On weekends, you have the option of tagging along on boarding activities with the kids, often to the beach. Or if you need time to yourself, that’s okay too. Something I worried about before arriving was whether I’d have enough time to myself. I’m a relatively serious runner, and I was concerned I would be too busy to fit in my own interests. Also, I’m a vegan and was living in the middle of cattle country! But I shouldn’t have been so anxious about it. There was a gym and a mall right down the road and one of the teachers lent me a rice cooker to help me make my own meals. If you manage your time smartly, you can find a perfect balance between your job and your own time. If you’re open and honest, there is usually a solution to whatever issue or concern you’re having.

What was the best part of your placement?

The people I met were definitely the best part of the trip for me. As I said before, Aussies are very friendly and I got to know quite a few of the teachers well and became friends with some of the TAs who were closer to my age. In my first week there, I met the school nurse. She was a seriously cool and awesome lady who looked out for me, gave me advice and took me to play poker with her twice a week. I love her so much for the advice and laughs she gave me.

How about the kids you worked with?

I certainly can’t talk about Shalom without talking about the kids, who were the highlight. Although they were very different from me, and at first I was honestly a little frightened and intimidated by them, I grew very close to some of them and value the time I spent with all of them. There were so many great kids- funny, sporty, smart, fiercely proud of their culture and determined to overcome obstacles in their lives. I won’t sugarcoat it – there is a lot of pain and challenges. There is still a lot of racism and division in Australia, and generational trauma from colonisation that effects Indigenous peoples today. But there is also a lot of strength, faith, family, determination and love, and Indigenous cultures, languages and people remain unbroken. The most special part of being at Shalom was being with the kids, teaching them and learning from them, and although many gappies come and go and they surely can’t remember us all, I will never forget them.

How did you cope with the differences between Australia and home?

I think I was relatively lucky in that I didn’t find the adjustment too difficult. I immediately loved the climate and the environment, and people were very welcoming and friendly. Of course, there was certainly a shift between living with my family to being on my own, as well as going from being a high school student to being a staff member. There was amazing independence and freedom that came with it, but also a lot of challenges and responsibilities.

How about cultural differences?

The adjustment was double for me: adjusting to Australian culture and also to Indigenous culture. People were very kind, welcoming, and patient with me as I learned and educated myself. They knew I wasn’t going to get it all right away and I do remember feeling a sort of loneliness and isolation at times. Because I had a lot of love and admiration for the cultures around me, I knew I wasn’t part of them and couldn’t be even though I wanted to.

What was the most important thing you learned through all of this?

I think the most important thing I learned was that although we divide ourselves by lines of nationality, race, social class, sexuality – all humans are in essence the same. We all take pride in our land and traditions. We love our families, we want to have fun and laugh, and we all suffer griefs and sorrows and work our way through them. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that although there was an adjustment period, I was surprised by how much like home Australia felt- it’s a big world, but it’s also a very small one.

The time I spent in Australia was certainly the most vivid and intense time in my life so far.

What do you think was your favourite moment or memory?

Oh God, this is a tough one. The time I spent in Australia was certainly the most vivid and intense time in my life so far. It was only a handful of months, but so much happened! I can pick one best day during our term break when some of the gappies went up to Cairns. One of them went on a bus tour with me into the Atherton Tablelands. After several days of expensive and touristy trips to Green Island and Kuranda, this was a breath of fresh air. For 60$, a chummy Australian guy named Steve drove us and about eight other tourists around on an old bus for 12 hours of swimming, walking, and road tripping. We swam in beautiful natural spots like Josephine Falls, Lake Eacham, and Milla Milla Falls, we walked through the rain forest, and he took us to a pond where we saw platypuses out in their natural habitat. It was fun, relaxed, and absolutely magical! As we wound down the mountains on twisting roads back to sea-level, I felt so satisfied and so in love with the beauty of this country.

What was your favourite memory from the school?

Auntie Marianna, a beautiful and warm housemother from Vanuatu, sat up with me in the evenings and taught me how to weave purses out of pandana leaves. I met the greatest pair of cousins, related to Cathy Freeman (a famous lndigenous Olympic gold medalist). They were hilarious, free-spirited kids, and it was really hard to say goodbye. I also met a group of girls from up in the isolated Northern Territory. They barely spoke English, but they would walk with me and show me pictures of their families back home. I remember them saying they loved me and they would pray for me. I feel lucky that I got to meet all these people.

How did you grow from this whole experience?

I definitely had to learn to deal with my own problems and rely on myself more. Although I did have a lot of support, it was different than having your family around you. I was my own agent. I had to manage my own schedule, make all my own decisions, and deal with whatever professional and personal issues that arose. I think I had to grow and change a lot. From the emotional to the mundanely practical such as doing my own chores, shopping, laundry and cooking. I was no longer a high school student, rather I was expected to be someone mature, strong, and steady that the students and staff could rely on. It was quite a switch for me from going from being a student just a month ago to being expected to behave and conduct myself like an adult. There were certainly times when I felt a bit overwhelmed and it’s hard to be young and on your own but overall I’m very pleased I had the opportunity to live on my own in a foreign country. I think I developed a sense of self-confidence and ability that I didn’t have before that will serve me well for whatever I take on next in my life. As I often joked during particularly tough scrapes: university will be nothing next to this!

Other than the personal skills I developed while volunteering, my experience helped me find a direction in my career goals, which was one of the main reasons I decided to volunteer. I enjoyed being a teacher’s assistant so much that I’ve decided to become a teacher. Most of teaching is a frustrating uphill battle, but those moments when you break through to a student and really connect and help them learn a concept is such a precious feeling that it more than makes up for it. I really enjoy the social aspects of being at a school community. Because I’m somewhat introverted, I want a job that makes me interact, engage, go outside my comfort zone, and always continue to share my skills with others and grow myself. Teaching is about sharing knowledge, but also learning from your students. Children have a lot to teach us, if we can have the humility and wisdom to listen to them. On my return, I’ve had two friends approach me about Lattitude, and I enthusiastically encouraged them to give it a shot. Although every placement will be different depending on who a person is as an individual, I think I can state unequivocally that if you put your best effort and attitude into your placement, you will have a transformative experience that you will remember for your whole life!

Maya Bridger-Denz was placed at Shalom Christian College in far north Queensland, near the tropical city of Townsville. She volunteered with Indigenous kids as a schools assistant.

AUSTRALIA - MELLANI (ABORIGINAL BOARDING SCHOOL)

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I volunteered at Shalom Christian College, an Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander boarding school in Northern Queensland,Australia. I lived on campus with the five other volunteers and we ate our meals with the children who were resident at the school.

Being 15,000 miles away from all my family and friends was of course going to be challenging but I found that the complete immersion in a different culture; experiencing something new everyday, actually made my time there a lot easier. I feel that because my placement was so challenging, I got the most of out the experience as opposed to someone who perhaps had a more familiar placement.

Every Wednesday I went to the schools separate campus for children who found it difficult to be integrated into main-stream education. This was definitely the most challenging part of my work. For all of the children there, English wasn’t their first language, most couldn’t read and write and many had behavioural problems. My duties there were basically that of a teaching assistant. For the first term I helped and supervised the children during Maths, English and Science lessons and during the second term, they introduced a music program there and so my skills were required to help with that. I found the children were far more responsive and engaged with the music programe than with more literacy based subjects.

The children were also very tactile; always wanting to hold your hand and hug you. This is really different from British culture and so was a bit alien to me and took some getting used to. Being in a residential school, the children were far away from friends and family and some boarders were as young as 10. Their tactile nature, as I learned, was a sign that they felt comfortable with me and counted me as someone close to them and being a volunteer in a school, this is what you aim for. It meant a lot to know that you had made even the smallest difference to someone.

The rest of the week I spent in the primary school which was a day school. I spent a day each with the grade 1, 2 and 5 classes. I spent a lot of time doing one to one tuition in the classrooms with children who were slightly behind with their reading and writing. When you work on something with them for a long time and finally it sinks in; the look of achievement and happiness on their faces is something I’ll never forget. There were many things I took away from the experience. One thing I definitely do now know is how lucky I am. The accident of where in the world you are born has an enormous impact on the kind of life you are going to lead.

I was born in the UK … whose society promotes the importance of a good education. Aboriginal Australia is a world away from ‘white’ Australia and this came as a big shock for all those that I know who spent time there. There is no literal line that defines the boundaries but the boundaries are clear for all to see. Many start school very late in their lives if at all and education isn’t promoted in the communities as much as it is in the western world. There are 15 year olds who can’t read or write, can’t speak full English and don’t have shoes to put on their feet and yet they are the happiest children I have ever seen and I was the happiest I have ever been whilst I was with them.

I got close to students and staff at Shalom, friends that I know I will have for a very long time to come. There were definitely some very challenging times but volunteering gave me so much in return. You encounter new challenges and problems that’s for sure, but you also have the same problems you had before but all those who you relied on for support when you were at home are no longer around you. I learnt how to deal with things myself and I’m a much stronger person than I was before.

I don’t come from a wealthy family and the bursary that Lattitude gave me made such a difference. It paid a large amount towards my Lattitude fee and so freed up some saved money I had to go towards my flight out there and without that, I don’t know if I would have been able to go! The year I spent away was the best year of my life. I will always look back on it with a smile and happy memories.

CHINA - LEWIS (ENGLISH TEACHER)

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China is one of the most mysterious and magical countries on the planet, full of culture and endless adventures. Shrouded in History and full of vibrant life, it was for these reasons that I chose to volunteer there. I spent 5 months with Lattitude Global Volunteering in the south of China in a town called Yuxi, in the province on Yunnan and it was the most incredible experience of my life. The time I spent there was so humbling and educational; it was everything I had hoped it would be and more.

My main role in China was to be an English teacher to students of all ages. The kids were amazing, they were all so willing to learn and work hard that it made every day enjoyable. The daunting task of teaching lessons to over 60 children slowly begins to, with time, become the highlight of your day. There is no greater feeling than knowing that a group of people are learning and improving by your teaching, the English Language plays a key role in the world and the people of China know that. The kind of kids I taught had the ambition of people who saw no end to what they can achieve and where they could take their lives. Before long I began to realise that, although I was the teacher, I was learning so much from the people I was meeting.

I had no end of invitations to visit the homes of the students and be involved within their families’ routine. Learning about culture and traditions here in the U.K. normally involves reading a book or watching a DVD in school, but being out in China, in the heart of the country, educates you in a way that you can’t forget. My eyes were opened to all kind of foods, traditions, scenery and history that made every day an adventure.

Although I was placed on my own in China, this was possibly the best thing that could have happened to me. It enabled me to have the determination and courage to completely drop my guard and fully immerse myself within the culture. I worked really hard on learning the language and tried to get the most I could out of the country. I got to experience things and explore places that I would never have dreamt of before I visited the country.

A word of warning, volunteering in a country, especially China, gets under your skin. It moulds you into a person that you could have never imagined you would become. The country will never leave your memory and you will always remember your time there as the best of your life. No matter how hard you try, you can never articulate to someone how amazing China and the time you spent volunteering there was.

I cannot thank Lattitude Global Volunteering enough for enabling me to travel to this most incredible place. I made lifelong friends, had experiences I will never forget and began to really understand what life is about and what exactly I want to do with mine. I enjoyed it so much, I’m planning on going back again this year to visit my friends, the school I worked in and learn so much more about the most magical place I have ever been. Good luck to anyone planning on going there, you’re in for an adventure!

CHINA - LIAM (ENGLISH TEACHER)

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Train car 3, seat 100. I look up from my ticket for what might be the dozenth time, half sprinting along the train tracks towards my train-car. I’m kind of late, but mostly just excited to be out of Beijing. Nice city, but I’ve always been more of a country-side kind of guy. The sharply dressed train attendant glances at my outstretched ticket then curtly waves me aboard. I struggle down the crowded corridor, my heavily over packed orange hiking pack bouncing into my fellow passengers. In any other place I’d be apologizing profusely, but this is China and a few thrown elbows mean nothing. I find my seat(which is a window seat, score!) but notice that the luggage rack is nearly full leaving no room for my colossal pack. I stare for a few moments, before I’m approached by three or four young men who offer their assistance in pretty admirable English. They proceed to tackle the situation mathematically and with a cold calculating manner, like a team of engineers. Later conversation reveals they actually are engineering students on their way home to Xi’an for summer break. I thank them and take my seat in the poorly padded chair, nesting in for the next 12 hours.

Yup, 12 hours in a hard seat, that’s what you get when you take the T train, the slowest yet cheapest train choice. I sit for a few moments looking out the window, you know, thinking real deep thoughts and such. I reflect on the last train I had been on, 8 days before. The train from Kunming, all the way down in the south up to Beijing. 33 hours cross-country in a hard seat with nothing but donuts, Chinese made Swiss rolls, and about three litres of ice tea. Really didn’t think that one through. I remember the bittersweet feel of leaving Yunnan province, the place that I had come to think of as home-base for the past few months. A mix of nerves, sadness, an excitement. It was going to be my first time on a train! 33 hours, 5 donuts and about 50 Swiss rolls later I was kind of over that initial excitement. This second time though, I was better prepared. You see, I also brought water.

I’m pulled from my reminiscing when I’m joined by a young man who takes his seat opposite of me. He looks nervously at me, as most young Chinese people do when they’re trying to work up the courage to try their English. I decide to break the ice, may as well if we’ll be stuck together for the next 20 hours or so. I greet him with a “Ni Hao Ma?”. He breaks into a grin, responding with an enthusiastic

“Hao”.

“My English is not very good” he says to me.

“Better than my Chinese” I respond.

The train shudders and begins to roll. Me and my new travel buddy start to talk, and an hour later we’re pretty much best friends. He tells me about his studies in the north of China, I tell him about life back home in Canada. He shares some “traditional Chinese sweets”, which look and taste exactly like taffy. Almost like it was Taffy. The engineering students a few seats over dish out some sunflower seeds, and I gratefully take some. I look up and down the train, taking in the scene.

China has always reminded me of a giant anthill, thousands of people scurrying around all completely set on their task ahead. Controlled chaos, and this train is no exception. The seats are all full, but no one told the ticket sellers I guess because there are dozens of people chilling out in the aisle. Food and drink is being passed around, packs of produce thrown down with burlap sacks containing possessions, rugged looking farmers mingling with fancy dressed business folks. There’s a sign that says NO SMOKING, people have interpreted it as NO SMOKING IN YOUR SEATS and so are standing in front of the exit door by the bathroom, sharing cigarettes amongst each other and laughing at jokes. A train official is trying to push his way down the aisle with a trolley full of goods: apples, bananas, mangos, water, beer, whiskey, you know, the essentials.

My eye is drawn to an old man, who must have been pushing 200 years old. He sat casually in his seat in a blue suit, a dusty old field hat on his head, leaning slightly forward on his gold cane. He pulls a flask from his suit, sees a young lad of about 4 years of age looking at it and offers it to him. The young boy shakes his head, the old man laughs and takes a good 5-second draw from the flask before lighting a cigarette, because to hell with the rules right? It’s complete anarchy. I love it.

As the dystopian looking outskirts of Beijing begin to fade, and are replaced by smog laden hills I can tell my travel buddy is working towards asking a question. He finally gathers the courage and says:

“Can I ask you a question? I hope it will not offend you…”

I say “Sure man, go ahead.”

“I’ve seen many foreigners take this train, but I cannot remember ever seeing one sit in here. Usually they get a bed for the trip. so, why are you in here?”

I laughed a little, and responded simply: “Tài guìle”. Too expensive.

He laughed, some folks who were eavesdroppers laughed. Yeah, It was a whole lot cheaper to sit through 20 hours in a rigid chair, sleeping while sitting up and surrounded by the general noise of a hundred Chinese travelers. That’s not to say China wasn’t already cheap, but I saved every penny to get where I was, and was reluctant to spend more than was necessary. The more deals I made, the more bargains I struck, the more of this crazy country I could see.

This train ride, was one of many journeys I had in China. One of many adventures, many tales, many laughs, many trials and triumphs. Sure, I could say it was all purely financial, buying that cheap ticket on the T train. But if I were to be dropped back in that moment with a million dollars, I would have still paid for that crappy little spot on that crowded train in those rolling Chinese hills. Because the experience, the people, the stories, they’re all completely priceless.

ECUADOR - JENNIFER (TEACHING AND COMMUNITY)

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In the mornings I worked in a nursery, a lovely place with gorgeously-warm staff and lots of hyperactive children and inquisitive babies from 1 to 5 years. My tasks included playing (a lot), monitoring and cleaning up during ‘lunch’ (break time) and teaching English. I did not anticipate just how hard the latter would be especially to a group of 3 to 5 year olds. They were unable to read or write and didn’t know the days of the week in Spanish, let alone in English! These children challenged my creativity and at times my patience! Unlike the Ecuadorian culture of copying off the board, I had to do anything but to maintain their interest and get something to stick. One time we ripped up coloured paper and made a big bowl of salad together. Their sweet faces lit up with the excitement. Often we’d march round the classroom singing silly songs I’d make up, or crawl around on the floor pretending to be farm animals. It usually looked like chaos, but when I asked them “What colour is this?” and they’d shout “BLUE!” simultaneously, I knew that my hard work was paying off.

I loved working at Cenit during the afternoons. There, I took part in the street child project, playing with children in the nearby market. The other volunteers and I, about 5 of us, worked in Centro Comercial Chiriyacu where we sang songs, played games and made things according to the theme of the week that we’d chosen. Our kids ranged from ages 3 to 12 and as many as 30 kids would come to play with us in the empty room above the market. Sometimes we’d play ‘Simon dice que’ (Simon says) or sing ‘La Familia Sapo’ (The Family Toad). Many of our kids had rotting teeth, mainly because their parents would give them sweets but never brush their teeth. So we started to brush their teeth with them every day. A brother and sister, Pamela (4) and Leandro (5), gorgeous children weighing each little more than a bag of flour, came every day. Leandro told us that he’d never brushed his teeth before. And you could tell, as he was already missing his four upper front teeth. At Cenit, I had the pleasure of meeting some of the happiest children I’ve ever known. The other volunteers and I were all well-known in Chiriyacu and the parents trusted us to take their sons and daughters to play when we walked around the stalls each day.

Nearing the end of my time volunteering, I spent a month teaching English in the ‘hermosa’ city of Cuenca at a primary school called Gran Colombia and helping in a Christian organisation for children called Aurora. I was invited to live with a gorgeous family who my friend lived with, also a Lattitude volunteer. Cuenca is beautiful and I felt privileged to stay there. There’s a wonderfully designed church on every corner and the central Parque Calderon is simply stunning. They had festivals it seemed at least once a week where the whole town would gather by the cathedral, light fabric balloons that rose into the sky and watch the fireworks explode from a huge ‘castillo’ (castle structure they’d build especially for the occasion). It was such a warm friendly atmosphere that I realised I’d never felt more part of a community before. As strange as it sounds, my friend’s family became my family within days, and my Cuencan brother always called me ‘ñaña’ (sis). We went to visit the whole family during weekends and every Wednesday we would have a big meal with all our aunties, uncles and cousins. It was truly humbling how welcoming they were. They even have a photo of me on their fridge next to their family photos!

My time in La Escuela de Gran Colombia was really fun. I would teach lessons to classes of 30 children, from ages 5 to 13. All the volunteers were given free rein and we taught them starting from the very basics. It was awesome seeing our pupils improve, even over such a small period of time. Sometimes I’d teach lessons with my friend Pam and they would be some of the most fun. At times the whole class would be in stitches just like us! And every Friday we would continue painting the walls of the art room with flowers, butterflies, birds and anything pretty and colourful. The room looked amazing when we finally finished.

In the afternoons I played with the kids in Aurora, sometimes football, sometimes merengue dancing, and sometimes just keeping the kids quiet while they were having a talk about friendship. Though sometimes I felt like the kid! I brought the games I learnt in Cenit with me, and every now and then we’d even have a game of ”Simon says”!

A year ago, I never would have thought I’d be able to call another country home, but now I can say that I will always feel truly welcome here. I would also never have believed I’d be able to live so long and so far away from my family and friends. I wondered whether you needed to be a cold person to manage without shedding a tear. But I’ve realised that if you put in the effort, you can always find a place to call home, especially in a country with such warm friendly people. That’s not to say I didn’t miss everyone back in England, but I got used to not seeing them every day, especially as it became apparent I was perfectly fine without the constant assistance of my mum! This without doubt has readied me for university.

Lastly I’d like to say how I am forever grateful to Lattitude and the funders of my bursary for what you have given me. I went to Ecuador lacking in confidence, frightened of being away from home, and not sure what to expect. I will leave feeling confident and proud, and knowing that it’s more fun when you don’t know what’s going to happen next. It hasn’t been easy, but that’s what’s made it so invaluable to me as I never would have grown the ways I have without this opportunity. I’m excited for the future and I know some day I’ll go back there to visit my second home.

Here are some of my most memorable moments:

Singing with Pam like we’d never sing again, on the bus home from work in Cuenca

My awesome day in the huge market town of Otavalo with Carolina, my friend from the nursery

Celebrating the World Cup with the Cuenca girls like burly men in a pub!

Machu Picchu

Abseiling through waterfalls in Baños during Semana Santa

Showing the Chiriyacu children their new playroom for the first time Watching the sun rise after the scariest night of my life enduring a thunderstorm in a tent on top of an Andean mountain

Saying good bye to my family at the end of my volunteering experience

ECUADOR - NATASHA (ENGLISH TEACHING/COMMUNITY)

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Below is the last of 9 installments chronicling Natasha's journey through Ecuador with Lattitude.

You know you’ve loved when saying goodbye breaks your heart I wouldn’t be lying to you if I said that I feel like I’ve lost a part of me. How do you say goodbye to people, and places that have become your life? It is definitely a tough task. I am now officially no longer a volunteer in Cuenca, Ecuador. Whilst I still have two more days in my second home, I have said farewell to my beautiful placements. Anyone who knows me will know that these farewells were conducted half drenched in my own tears. Today, at my final day in San Jose de Calasanz I biked away from the school for the last time. As I pedalled I looked over my shoulder at the place that had shown me such love, happiness, and acceptance. I looked back with an ambiguous feeling in my heart. I am so blessed and thankful that I was able to have this experience, that I got to meet all of these incredible people, and visit these amazing places; and while saying goodbye was difficult, and painful, I know that this only goes to show how amazing the experience was. I left with a heavy, yet overwhelmingly happy, heart.

At both of our farewells – Wednesday at Centro Aurora, and today at San Jose de Calasanz – Lucy and I said goodbye to children, students, and teachers that we don’t know if we will ever see again; people that have taught us so much, and have a precious place in both of our hearts. Today, students had be balling when they hugged me with a smile on their face, and said “hasta proximo año” (“see you next year). I didn’t have the heart to correct them. They will never know how much I love them, how much I respect them, and how much I am going to miss them. It was especially difficult to say goodbye to my amazing painting teacher, Belinda, and my group of primarily Down Syndrome Chicos. They will always be a part of my family.

This experience has truly been the best experience of my life. It has, of course, had its’ low and tough times – everything good and worth it does – it has also had its fair share of odd/weird times (I won’t go into detail, but Ecuador is definitely a strange country!!). But, it has never, ever lacked in smiles, laughter, and happiness. There have been days when I was tired, and slightly irritable. On these days the kids seemed to be extra crazy (I swear they have a 6th sense). Yet, all I needed to do (apart from stop staying up late watching movies with my gorgeous host sister) is take a deep breath, look at the precious children and students surrounding me, and remind myself of what I was here to do – love on them unconditionally, no matter how I felt. There have been days when my students in San Jose de Calasanz have made me laugh so hard that my hidden abs hurt – Jose, you crazy chico! I have, more than once, worn a look of shock/amusement/disbelief when something so randomly strange happens that would only happen in Ecuador: watching horror movies as afternoon entertainment with 5 year olds, serving chicken feet soup – claws and all, clowns on the bus, cats and dogs on the bus, y mucho mas. ECUADOR ES LOCO, PERO LE AMO MUCHO!!

Apart from saying goodbye to amazing staff and students I now have to say goodbye to my incredible host family. At lunch today I gave my host mum and búho (owl) that I had made in my placement. It’s mounted on a wooded board, and is now hanging proudly across from her seat at the dining table. She has put it there so that every day she can look up and think of me…. five months creates these kind of bonds; bonds that are unbearable to break, but oh so sweet. She started crying when I presented her with the gift. Those tears were proof of the love; proof that we’ve created a connection that neither time nor distance can break. Gracias por todo mi familia – Mama, Papa y Rafa. Ustedes son increíble, no voy a olvidarse.

Apart from love, I have also learnt Spanish! Yo no sabía nada de español antes de venir aquí, and now I can say that! I will admit that I am not as good as I hoped I’d be (fluent), but all expectations aside I am proud of myself. I will continue to pursue the beautiful language, and I am excited to see where it takes me. If anything my learning gives me a valid reason to come back!

So this is where it changes, from a volunteer blog to an amateur traveller’s blog. From Monday I have 2 months of amazing, crazy, exciting travelling through Peru, Bolivia and Chile!!! Our first stop in Peru is Cordillera Blanca where we are doing a 4 day hike through some of the most beautiful scenery in South America. I can’t wait!! I am ready for more adventures, with a backpack on my back, experiences in my heart, and grand company by my side. Wish me luck, and I’ll see you on the road!

Fue una experiencia muy increíble. Voy a nunca olvidar toda la gente, y todos los lugares. Ecuador tiene un lugar muy cerca a mi corazón. Yo aprendí mucho, pero especialmente amor y español. Quiero decir muchísimas gracias a Lattitude Global Volunteering, Centro Aurora, San Jose de Calasanz, y mi familia increíble. Estoy sin palabras. Amo a todos.

FIJI - ELIZABETH (TEACHING)

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Below is an article that was published following Elizabeth’s return from Fiji.

‘Life-changing’ trip inspires teen to help

When South Surrey teen Elizabeth Tichelman left the Semiahmoo Peninsula more than three months ago destined for a remote area of Fiji, both she and her mother, Tracy, shared a few tears at the airport.

After all, it was the first time the then-17-year-old had been away from home for any length of time, and she was venturing all alone to the other side of the globe, where she’d be volunteering among strangers at a small primary school.

However, the mild sadness Tichelman felt when she set out on her journey was nothing compared to what she experienced last week on the day she left Koroinasau Primary School, its 87 students and fellow teachers.

“It was a hundred times harder leaving the school than leaving home,” Tichelman, now 18, said, pointing out photos on a laptop of her and the children taken the day she left, tears streaming down their faces.

A recent Elgin Park Secondary graduate, Tichelman came upon the opportunity to volunteer abroad in one of her senior-year classes, when she was introduced to a program called Latitude Global Volunteering.

She had initially planned to start school at UBC in the fall, but negotiated a deal with her parents that would allow her to spend three months away, then start post-secondary in January.

After an application and interview process, Tichelman was accepted to the program and arrived in Fiji late August.

It didn’t take long for Tichelman to settle in – though she was originally told she’d be teaching English, she soon found out she’d be responsible for Class 8 (12- and 13-year-olds), and her curriculum would also include math and science.

“You kind of learn when you’re there to just go with it,” Tichelman said of the challenge of teaching students just a few years younger than her. “It was fun to prove to myself that I could do it.”

Along with her volunteer partner, Australian Ella Sheehan, Tichelman set out to not only educate the students at the school, but to help improve their lives.

Prior to leaving South Surrey, she collected donations for the school and was able to buy a new printer as well as pay boarding fees for the 36 students who live at the school full-time, a necessity for many of the children who live in a village up to five hours away. “These kids that are maybe six or seven years old are taking their horses or even walking, getting up at 3 o’clock in the morning to leave for school because they can’t pay for boarding,” Tichelman said. “That was a big thing for me, these kids are just amazing.” Upon realizing the financial challenges faced by students and their families, Tichelman and Sheehan set out to find sponsors to pay for a year’s worth of boarding fees for every child – a cost of around $70 Canadian per student.

With parents’ permission, the duo created a short video about the school, which they’ve posted online. They also took head shots and created biographies for all the students, and created a Facebook group where potential sponsors could learn more about the fundraising project.

They’ve recruited 15 sponsors already for the endeavour – dubbed the Global Smile Project – and plan to continue fundraising efforts with the hopes of returning next year to expand the boarding house.

“Ideally, all the students should be at the school because they live so far away, but they only have room for 36 of them right now,” Tichelman explained.

In addition to igniting a philanthropic spark, the experience also offered Tichelman a new perspective on how people around the world live. Running water at the school was considered a luxury, and the students bathed in the nearby river.

“These kids don’t have a lot, but they’re all so happy all the time,” she said.

“I definitely realized that I take a lot of things for granted. I’m more aware of myself and the things I do and the way I behave – it’s definitely changed me for the better.”

As she looks ahead to her studies at UBC in the new year – she’s registered for general arts classes, but is now also looking into humanitarian studies – Tichelman credits the students themselves for providing her with a “life-changing experience.”

“I don’t know if I could have had the impact on them that they had on me,” she said.

The video Tichelman and Sheehan produced can be viewed online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wstu_tmXXSg

FIJI - LEILA (TEACHER)

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Living in Fiji has really opened my eyes, it was the first time I have left London to be away from family apart from a couple of short holidays. In Fiji everyone smiles and says “bula” to each other on the street; on my road in England, I would be lucky if I got one ‘hello’ a week!

‘Fiji time’ means that everything is slow-paced, appointments are often not met and people stroll around very slowly in the streets. It’s not rare to find yourself waiting around for someone or something to happen in Fiji. Therefore I can say with confidence that patience is a skill I have really developed. Ironically I have had to be very pro-active during my time at the kindergarten. The teachers used to always say, “have a rest” but I would always go and find something that needed doing. I’m proud to say that I would do my best to find a way to keep busy and I really learnt to use my initiative to get things done! At Nadi Airport Playcentre I assisted staff by helping to organise the classroom in preparation for the morning and afternoon sessions. During class time I supervised children with activities such as puzzles, play-dough, drawing and reading. Art and craft has always been my passion so I regularly helped to design and make teaching props. I also assisted with IT by helping to type up documents, such as newsletters, and encouraged teachers to develop their computer skills, which were fairly basic.

Having completed this placement, I feel more independent and have more faith in myself. I feel like I could take on almost any challenge. Confidence, positivity and open-mindedness are the best tools. As a volunteer of seven months, I really enjoyed learning about the country, the culture and making new friends; I now consider Fiji to be home and my friends to be family. Some of the best things about being a volunteer were when my colleagues thanked me for teaching them something new and useful; when I was told “we’ve really learnt a lot from you”; knowing that I positively influenced the people I worked with; knowing that they will continue some of the practices that I initiated, such as recycling. I was learning new things every day and consistently finding ways to help.

I felt that the more I learned about the kindergarten, the more I could offer them, and the more useful I could be. Making a positive contribution is the best thing about volunteering.

During the two-week school holidays another Lattitude volunteer and I stayed with a Fijian friend’s family in their village. Before every meal the family would pray. Although they spoke in Fijian, we could always hear our names in their prayers. On some occasions, they would even cry. When I asked my friend what was being said, she told me that her parents were praying for us – asking God to bless us, guide us and protect us. When it came to the end of the holiday there were plenty of tears from everyone when we were saying goodbye. Calling them “Mum” and “Dad” and feeling like I was really a part of their family after such a short amount of time is a feeling that I wish I could share with the whole world. On the last night, the entire village had a party for us. I was there for less than two weeks yet I felt so welcomed, there was so much love and so much warmth. I was really moved. No matter how much or how little someone has of something, they will always share it. I honestly cannot describe how warm, genuine and welcoming the people of Fiji are. Being in Fiji over 10000 miles from the place I call home, I had lots of time to reflect on the person I was and think about the person I would like to be. Living in ‘Fiji time’ has given me a chance to think about the relationships I have, my approach to people, the targets I would like to achieve in the future and my general attitude to life. I’ve learnt about what makes me happy and what makes me sad, I’ve learnt about how I should treat myself and how I should treat others.

Before my trip to Fiji I had planned to have a career working with NGOs or doing community work; although I would like to realise this dream, I have also realised that I don’t necessarily need to be in such a profession to be humanitarian and do good to others. Charity comes from the heart; it’s about attitude. I can always do good to others – I don’t need a paid job to do it.

In Fiji people are softly spoken, considerate, they will explain what their point is and listen to what you have to say; when I went back to the Western way of life, I felt upset by the way some people could speak mindlessly at times. In the West it is not unusual to be judged by the way you look, how your hair is styled, what clothes you wear, how you speak, where you are from, and those things didn’t seem to matter in Fiji. I miss that. Everything is everyone’s and everyone is equal – that’s the way I like living. I will keep this attitude with me.

GHANA - LUCY (TEACHER)

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If I had to sum up my time in Ghana, I would say that it was a phenomenal, life-enhancing and truly unforgettable experience. Volunteering in Ghana for five months made 2009 the most special and memorable year, I truly feel privileged to have had completed a placement in such a fantastic country.

My role in Ghana was to teach English and ICT to various classes but I also worked in the crèche on Fridays. Teaching ICT without a computer was certainly a challenge, as was teaching in a wet classroom full of puddles every time it rained. These are just two examples of many moments I had in Ghana which reminded me of the privileged life I lead at home.

When I first arrived, the children had difficulty understanding my English accent and I believe that aside from the teaching, hearing spoken English really helped them develop their language skills. I saw a big improvement in their speech and understanding throughout the course of my placement.

I stayed with Madam Love Kwofie (Grandma) who lives at and owns the nursery and primary school, Heavenly Home Academy. Heavenly Home Academy is a wonderful school, with friendly, bright and loving children, and, like the rest of the country it has an amazing sense of community. It didn’t take long before Ghana felt like home and immersing into everyday life as part of a family was a really big part of that. I was welcomed with open arms and I felt so much a part of everything.

I became very close to two of my students, a boy named Kweku who lives at Heavenly Home and a girl named Beatrice who lives very close to the school. Despite the abundance of beautiful beaches along the coast, neither of them had ever been swimming before. I took them to the beach and felt very proud to see them gain confidence in the water and begin developing the ability to swim.

However big or small the input I had into the children’s lives at Heavenly Home, I feel fortunate to have had the chance to meet and interact with them all. Although time has passed, I have to admit my heart is still in Ghana. The friendships and bonds I made and the memories I have gained, mean so much to me and for that reason I would like to thank Lattitude Global Volunteering for the generous grant given to me towards my trip, I cannot imagine not having taken a gap year. The experiences and challenges of living and working in Ghana have made me a more independent, confident and stronger person.

GHANA - FELIX (FOOTBALL FOR HOPE/TEACHING)

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Gap Year Ghana! If adventure is what you’re after… if incredible experiences are what you crave… you can’t go past Ghana as a destination.

Returned volunteer Felix has been kind enough to answer some questions about his Gap year in Ghana with Lattitude (and shared some pretty sweet photos too!)

What made you volunteer in the first place?

I volunteered because I wanted to do something different than leaving school and heading straight to university. My sister had done a GAP year with Lattitude before me and loved it and this helped me choose to go abroad.

Why Ghana?

Ghana appealed to me because Africa was a continent that I had not spent much time on. I had previously spent a month in Morocco but wanted to see more of Africa and Ghana being the team I supported in football helped. What ultimately made me chose Ghana was the fact that I could teach football which was an idea that appealed to me more than being a regular teacher or community worker.

Can you describe your placement in detail?

I was placed in Cape Coast, Ghana. Cape Coast is a large sized (for Ghanaian standards) town on the coast of Africa placed only a few hours from Accra. It gave us a great sense of Ghanaian life, as you got a mix of rich and poor all while heavily being surrounded by Ghanaian culture. Access to the beach was a huge plus and CC (Cape Coast) being half way between the other two placements made it ideal for seeing the other volunteers in the weekends. Our house was very nice and from it we had no trouble exploring and finding our way around and we lived very comfortably. The old slave castle on the beach is a stark reminder of the dark history that CC has put behind it, as CC used to be one of the main exit ports for the African American slave trade. The town has flourished since then and is full of life, the marketplace being such a place which is great to explore and get lost in.

What are some examples of the duties you performed there?

For work we had two main roles: to teach the children at the Oguaa Football for Hope Centre, and to involve ourselves in the community. The community was made up of all the people who sent their children to the centre on a daily basis and our job was to communicate with them to let them know what was going on and take in feedback that they may have for us. Teaching the children took place 4 days a week with the 5th day dedicated to ‘free play’ where we would play football in the afternoons. Towards the end of our time we started to work our program in some of the other CC schools in which we ran our program.

Can you describe your accommodation? Your host family?

Our accommodation was very pleasant and much nicer than I was expecting coming into Ghana. I was paired with one roommate and we lived together in a nice sized room each with our own bed. We had a large dining and lounge room as well as a proper kitchen, bathroom and much to the envy of some even a rooftop space in which we could star gaze and do our washing. We lived above our host families’ cousins and we got along with them superbly and often played games with them or watched the mother prepare dinner while talking to her and her kids.

Our host family consisted of a host mother, Agnes and her 28 year old son, Josef. Josef’s brother would also come home some weekends but often was away as he lived near Accra as a teacher. Agnes was amazingly kind and made us feel at home right away but Josef was by far one of the best people we could have been placed with. I cannot say how much we loved staying with him as this would go in far too long. However, he made us feel welcome and would often take us places to adventure or down to the beach to play volleyball. Lattitude got the host family perfect for us.

How did you get by with the language barrier?

The language barrier was something that all of us were nervous about heading into Ghana, but we soon realised that it was nowhere near as big an issue as we first thought. A great thing about Ghana is that most of the people that you will be interacting with on a regular basis have a very good understanding of English and the children in some cases are near fluent. We learnt some basic phrases in the local languages and through our time we learnt more and more. After about a month in, we were competently able to greet and thank people as well as have short conversations and talk about ourselves.

What kind of things did you do during orientation?

Orientation helped us to settle in to the country after 3 days of flights over. During orientation we learnt some history of Ghana, some of the local traditions and etiquette and the staff briefed us for what we were likely to experience over the next 6 months. We also did some research on the types of things which would be expected of us as teachers over the next half year in the class rooms. This involved lesson planning, learning about classroom etiquette and an extensive talk about having to discipline students and how we should go about it.

What are some of the big differences between Ghana and home?

Living in Ghana is like another world compared to back in New Zealand, as everyday life is different in nearly every single way. Living in Ghana may be a shock at first as things that you have become used to using in your everyday life at home are no longer around, things such as dishwashers, running water, active showers, privacy, steady choice of food etc.

One thing you will notice right away is the difference in climate as Ghana can be twice as hot as an average NZ day. At the start this will take its toll as you adjust but after a few weeks you really do not notice the heat nearly as much as you do when you first arrive. This was the case for all the people in my group. The choice of food is very basic, lots of carbohydrates and very little protein and zero sugar unless you choose to purchase a soft drink or candy bar. Although the food is basic, it does not lack in taste as nearly all the meals which I ate in my 6 month spell I Ioved, and always looked forwards too. The meals can be very heavy and if you do not keep active it can take its toll. Keeping hydrated is incredibly important, far more than it is at home due to the intense heat. Water is easy to come across however as in every village and town you can purchase it with ease and for next to nothing cost wise.

How did you get around?

Travelling in Ghana is something which you will very much want to take part in but the modes of transport are very different to how you get around in NZ. Due to large poverty you will not have easy access to a vehicle which you can drive yourself, instead Ghanaians rely on taxis and tro tro’s. A tro tro is a minivan with around 15 person capacity and is used for the sole purpose of taking people between towns and cities. Your first time using a tro tro may be very confusing and daunting but within a few trips you will have acquired the skill to be able to ride any tro tro and they are by far the most cost effective and easy form of transport for long distance travel.

Tell us about how you got on with Ghanaian food.

I mentioned it briefly before but Ghanaian food, although very plain, is delicious and very filling. Breakfast will usually consist of oats or bread with butter / whatever spread you can get your hands on, as well as a hot drink (Miksi Hot Chocolate should be your drink of choice). Depending on your placement the local dishes will change slightly but at large they are very similar. Some dishes you will come across often are:

– Jolloff Rice, which is like fried rice with a tomato base cooked into it. Delicious.

– Fried rice and chicken served with salad.

-Banku / Fufu – These two are the most Ghanian meals, both being served with soup and meat and eaten with your hands.

Fish is a very common meal if you are placed close to the coast but if you do not want to eat it I highly recommend trying it then politely telling your host family so you avoid offending them. Goat and cow are often eaten in small amounts with dishes like Fufu and Banku but are nowhere near as bad as they sound. Western food is available at certain places, Oasis Beach Resort in Cape Coast being one, but often will cost you around 8-10 times as much as a normal Ghanaian meal would so I recommend eating them sparingly and really getting stuck into Ghanaian cuisine.

What do you think was your favourite moment/ best thing that happened to you whilst on placement?

I cannot pinpoint one specific moment which I could say would be my favourite as my trip had so many incredible experiences, but all the time spent with my host family, roommate and the other volunteers I remember extremely fondly.

The best thing to happen to me on placement was the people I was placed with as we all became incredibly tight and a few days after writing this we are all meeting up in Wellington.The best thing was making lifelong friendships with my fellow volunteers. The travelling didn’t hurt either!

What positive impact, even small, do you think you made?

I think that being able to interact with people and share parts of my culture with the world as well as learning about the world outside of my box had an impact. Even though we didn’t change the world, the small contributions we made in education and just having fun with the locals, turning up to events and helping promote programs benefited the communities in small ways. I believe that although your aim in volunteering is to try and make an impact in the lives of others in the world it is them that actually have a bigger impact on you and your life.

Did you travel much in Ghana? Highlights?

I travelled a great deal in Ghana, we were fortunate enough to get 4 weeks off work when the school holidays were on to travel around Ghana as a group. Although 10 people spending 4 weeks straight together can be stressful it was one of the best parts of the trip and we managed to cover Ghana from north to south, spending time in national parks with elephants and other wild beasts to swimming in waterfalls, hiking in the mountains and staying in the highest village in Ghana and being able to look out to Togo from our house. Ghana is a beautiful country and getting to see it all was something I did not expect when I arrived. We also travelled a lot on weekends to all meet up as a group, with people often coming to Cape Coast to enjoy the beach and local culture.

Did you get on well with the other volunteers?

Easiest yes of my life. As a group, we all became incredibly close and as mentioned earlier are still friends and have arranged to meet up in soon. Due to some delays on our flights over we had already spent three days together before we arrived in Ghana and by the time orientation was over we had already formed a close knit bunch and we all saw each other nearly every week we were in Ghana. I was especially close with the two I was placed with, my roommate and I spending only thirty-two hours apart in six months. I can happily say I formed many lifelong friendships during my time in Ghana.

Can you give examples of any personal development you may have gained during your time there?

Ghana had a huge influence on who I am as a person and I went through significant personal development in those 6 months. Having to live a very basic life gives you a lot of time for reflection about life back home and how lucky we are to live in a country like New Zealand. One thing I think I really noticed since I left was how much more I appreciate the basic things that I use on a daily basis here, things like hot showers, water that runs when you need it, being able to head to the store and get whatever you need, a comfy bed to sleep on etc.

Living in such close proximity to others for such a long time also really makes you realise things about yourself which you may not have noticed before and will have a huge effect on the way you interact with people around you as it really develops social skills and your ability to understand other humans. In situations like that you have to form close relationships with others and learn to rely on them as well as yourself to overcome hardship or any obstacles in your path.

Finally, what are you doing now, and has your Lattitude experience helped or influenced your path in any way?

I am currently working full time before heading down to Otago University to study economics and political science. I do believe that my Lattitude experience has helped me to settle on this path as taking time to see the world through another lens and really see what is out there before making my career choices opened up more paths than if I had gone straight into university straight out of school.

GHANA - MEGAN (TEACHER)

Visit our Ghana page!

Below are some reflections and observations Megan wrote during her placement. These selections relate to her time while on placement and day to day life in Ghana. Megan also traveled extensively throughout the region with her fellow volunteers. For more stories of her travels please have a look at her blog!

http://www.meganstravels1.blogspot.ca/

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Akwaaba (means welcome.. i think)

I made it!!! I am exactly two weeks into my Ghanaian life, and I feel like I’ve already had an amazing experience!

My first impression of Ghana, stepping off the plane was a bit confusing as I thought I had mistakenly entered a sauna. The heat and humidity (especially) are the two things that you can run, but not hide from. I have found that at all times I am covered in at least 3 of the following: sweat, stick, dust, an oily layer of sunscreen, sunburn, a layer of mosquito repellent and probably a few other things… I wouldn’t say that you get used to the heat, rather you just accept the fact that you are and feel disgusting and will be so for the next five months.

Putting that aside, Ghana is an amazing place. It has taken some adjusting and getting used to, but has been growing on me every day. For the first solid week and a half I was jet lagged, culture shocked, hot, sticky, constipated, exhausted and wondering why I ever decided to come here. Thankfully, all of those are decreasing (except for the hot and sticky bit). But the people here are fantastic! I’ve made some great friends with the other volunteers, and every local you pass wants to know how you are, what your name is, where you’re from, where you’re going and how you are liking Ghana! The Ghanaians are extremely friendly and hospitable people, though the guys can often be too friendly (and extremely forward).

Another thing is that everywhere you go you are followed by the never-ending call of “obruni!” which means “white person”. The response that usually ends those calls is “obibini” which means “black person”.

Absolutely everything here is completely different from home. Where I’m staying there is no running water (we have to get it from a well), so bucket showers are the new thing for me, the water comes in 500ml sachets which you can get for only a few cents, the power cuts out daily for a few hours (usually at night when you need it most), and the driving here is terrifying. On our second day here, our bus of volunteers almost collided head on with another huge bus trying to pass a line of traffic by making a third lane in the middle of the road!! Don’t quite know what they were thinking, I guess they weren’t. It’s funny that they are such peaceful people with a laid back lifestyle,, but as soon as they get behind the wheel it all changes into an aggressive competition of how many cars you can pass//who can go the fastest! Yikes!

I’ve been in the school, Peter Pipers Annex, for a week already.. I was told that I’d be able to simply observe for the first week to find which subject and who I’d like to teach. THAT never happened, on my very first day I taught a kindergarten class about Muslims.. yeah that was interesting :S It is getting better though and I think I will like it a lot. The kids are incredible and have been writing me letters and drawings

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Takoradi

Helloo hello!! I would love to give you my location here, but I am still not completely sure of it. Though the city I am by is called Takoradi, which is in the Western Region of Ghana. To get to the centre of the the city (the market circle) from my house it takes about 7 minutes by Taxi (with no traffic) that costs 80 pesewas. Still haven’t trotro’d into town yet, but that is coming! A trotro is the cheapest and most popular form of transport here in Ghana. It is basically a big van with four rows of car seat benches that they pack full of people, with a pleasant aroma of sweat. Three of us girls took a trotro to get to Cape Coast for a weekend. It was a two hour(ish) ride there and thankfully the driving was uneventful! Anyways, the main street that I am really close to is called I.ADU street.

Takoradi is an interesting city, it isn’t touristy at all which I am liking because it allows you to see how the locals live, eat, shop, etc. It has taken some getting used to I have to say. It is quite dirty and the smell in the market circle is overpowering at times. There are open sewers everywhere and close to the circle all you can smell is the strong stench of fish. Thou that is the only negative part to it,, the pace of life is very relaxed and things happen “all on God’s time.”

In market circle (the center of the city) there is always something happening. It is pretty much an actual circle with vendors on the outsides selling almost anything you can imagine; fruits, rice, fish, clothes, dvd’s, fans, electronics, jewelry shoes… and inside the circle part is a never ending maze of even more sellers of mainly food (fish, fish and lots of fish) and clothes. People are sitting everywhere chatting, laughing, trying to get you to buy a fish head that they just cleaned. My friends, Georgia and Chloe, have a go-to supermarket called “All Needs” where we stock up on breakfast foods, snacks and juice. This store is a few blocks away from the market, and not far from there is the internet cafe! We are getting lots of walking in over here!

Interesting view points

The school (and all of Ghana for that matter) is extremely Christian. At my school, Peter Pipers, they have long worships Wednesday mornings, pray before and after school and study R.M.E (Religious and Moral Education) in class. This is all great and fine but I have noticed that it has carried its way into their science textbooks. For instance, during the first week I observed a natural science class where the students were learning about water. Not only was it stated in the textbook, but also supported and clarified by the teacher that “Rain water comes from Heaven, therefore rain is pure because God has given it to us.”

Another teacher was explaining to my partner Georgia that if a person has cancer or a serious disease it is because one of their grandparents/someone further back their relative line had sinned at one point during their life. So when you marry you want to make sure they have a clean family history. Bizarre. It is frustrating because you really can’t say anything to oppose them because they are so set in their ways, there is actually nothing you can do.

Food

Food food food. If you’ve got a big appetite then you’ll like the meals here! The portions are huge here and the meals are pretty much all carbs.. Rice is the most popular I’d say. At most street food stands/Chop Bars you can get a giant portion of either Plain/Fried/Jollof Rice with a chunk of chicken and spicy sauce sided with a small amount of coleslaw. Traditional Ghanaian dishes that I presently know of include Fufu, Banku, Kenkey. Fufu is made by boiling starchy vegetables like cassava, yams or plantains and then pounding them into a dough-like consistency. You then pick off small parts of it and dip it into an accompanying sauce or stew. Kenkey is like a sourdough dumpling (according to Wikipedia) and I found it to be cold and sour and I didn’t enjoy the one that I had. Oh well, I’ve still got lots of time to adjust my taste buds some! At my placement I am getting two meals a day, lunch and dinner. My host mum is an excellent cook and all of my meals have been delicious and tasty, not to mention spicy! So far I’ve had plenty of rice (fried or jollof), stews, Yam (mashed or chunks), Potatoes, Chicken, Sausage, a few veggies, lots of spicy curry-like sauces, sausages, beans, occasionally noodles and my absolute favourite, Plantain. With plantains I’ve eaten them boiled and fried (the best), and they are also dried and made into chips which are delicious and my new weakness. It’s all quite heavy in your stomach, and it has been slightly uncomfortable to be eating such hot and spicy food when it is 35-40 degrees already and you are pretty much melting in your chair. The fruits here are absolutely delicious mangoes and Pineapples have never tasted better! Usually we buy some fresh mangoes/pineapples at the market and eat one for breakfast. Fruit here is eaten more for digestive reasons and benefits. Veggies are hard to find and expensive when you do, but completely worth it! Sugarcane is another neat local food/sweet. You bite/chew on it and a sweet nectar fluid gushes into your mouth and it tastes like cantaloupe!

A note about fish- when you order Fish out at a restaurant, they give you the whole entire fish. Head, skin, fins, bones, eyes… though they do gut them for you which is appreciated! That being said they are very tasty and enjoyable once you figure out how to eat it!

Peter Piper’s Learning Ways Annex

Peter Pipers Annex is the school I’m teaching at. There are about 60 or 70 kids here. There is a creche, nursery, kindergarten 1, kindergarten 2, Stage 1, stage 2 and stage 3. There are 5 teachers for the Kg1-Stage 3 classes. Georgia and I just received our teaching schedule this week but we’ve pretty much been everywhere in the classes. Often a teacher leaves as I come to teach for the scheduled time, and then “forgets” to come back. Interesting, is all I can/should say on that matter. There are great teachers here who really care about the kids. The kids are fantastic and so eager to learn and play. I’m teaching English, Math, ICT (Information and Computer Technology.. one class was spent teaching them how to play solitaire), French, and Creative Arts. Every student has a text/exercise book for all their subjects which is a lot more than plenty of the other schools have. Although no student ever seems to have pencil. That seems to be the only issue supplies wise – they lack writing materials and working coloured pencils/crayons are hard to come by, so the ones I brought are much appreciated! Another thing, the kids here go absolutely CRAZY for stickers!! Stickers have been a lifesaver for me, because I prefer to encourage effort and good behavior with stickers than cane them after misbehaving (which is completely relevant and has been offered/suggested to me that I take up). Overall, I think I am learning much more from the students than what they are learning from me. These are great kids here with lots of stories and they deserve so much more.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Lights off

Lights on. Lights off. Lights on. Lights off. Lights on. Lights off. Just about every day the power shuts off at some point for a few hours (if you are lucky). Here power outages are called “lights off.” The other day the “lights were off” pretty much all day. It’s not so bad during the day, but the nights get to a whole new level of discomfort when you are melting into your sheet and your mosquito net is sticking to you. Just the other morning I could’ve used a spatula to get myself off of the bed. Care package, anyone? (jk)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Hangman

The other day I walked by the youngest kindergarten class in the school and noticed they didn’t have a teacher (turns out she just left, from the school for good). I thought it’d be nice for the kids to do something fun for a change so I decided to teach them how to play hangman and have a game or two. Now this is a class of 20 four or five years olds, I’m talking about some of the cutest kids you’ve seen in your life. After a basic explanation of the game, I’d chosen the word school – simple enough, or so I’d thought! “Alright, now can someone guess a letter? Give me ONE letter from the alphabet!” Ten of them stood up, “Madame! Madame! ABCD! ABCD!” “Ahh, great. Now pick one of those letters!” **Blank stares, followed then by the biggest smiles ever** “EFGHI!” Then another kid stood up, “JKLMNOP!!! Madame JKLMNOP!!” Oh boy. They were so happy it was hard not to fall over laughing. Turns out (a neighboring teacher told me) that none of them even understood what I was saying, other than “alphabet.” That’s good to know, would’ve been nicer to know that half an hour before! Back to the drawing board for me!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cape Coast and Elmina Castle

A few weeks ago, on a school field trip, we visited the slave castles of Cape Coast and Elmina. The Cape Coast Castle was one of the largest slave-holding sites in the world during the colonial era. As the educational part of the field trip, we all went on a guided tour of the castles. The guides were brutally upfront in their recounts of the lives and inhumane treatment of the slaves once inside the castle. They didn’t beat around the bush or hold back anything from the students (some were quite young), so it was very shocking and disturbing for them (and me) to hear and realize the reality of where they were, and the awful events that happened on the floor on which they were presently standing. Deep into the dungeons we went together, where they had crammed thousands of slaves in over the years. The air was warm, damp and heavy with history. It was a very powerful and moving experience being there, not to mention ranging from slightly to immensely uncomfortable being one of the four white people on the tour with 100+ young Ghanaians. At one point I was approached by a couple of girls who reminded me that “my forefathers did horrible things to their people.” Nothing I can do about it, but Yes ma’am, they certainly did.

Books, books and more books

I walked into Class 2 one afternoon with an armful of picture books. The boy, Prince, who opened the classroom door for me literally dropped down to his knees and threw up his hands in the air upon seeing them and said, “THANK YOU GOD! THANK YOU! God bless you Madam!!” And then he gave me one of the biggest hugs I’ve had from a kid since I’ve been here. Before I knew it, the whole class was around me in one huge vertical doggy pile! They were SO excited to read all these books!! **lots of Clifford the big red dog, Berenstain Bears, Magic school bus…** I loved it so much and was so happy that I almost started crying. Awww. When they finally sat down I read them stories for an hour, but could have kept reading with them for whole day. Seeing their faces light up like that made my whole week, we read now almost every day 🙂

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Where’s Waldo?

Greetings loved ones, Shall I reintroduce myself, or do you still remember me? I am very pleased to inform you that I am still alive (though there was one close call with a warthog a few days back) and busy going on wild and slightly insane adventures, having the time of my life, and learning lots with every passing day. For the past two weeks I’ve spent my time (and money) travelling around the country with two crazy girls who just so happen to be my best friends. I am lucky to have the whole month of April off of teaching; my school has two, one-month long breaks throughout the year, as opposed to one, two month long break, so it’s been GO GO GO LET’S DO EVERYTHING!!! for the past while. I do apologize a little but for not blogging, though the question has not been “is there a decent Internet cafe in this city?” rather the question was, “Internet cafe or Waterfall?” “Internet cafe or Lake?” “Internet cafe or largest market in West Africa?” “Internet cafe or elephant?” Hands down, I’ve never asked myself an easier, not to mention satisfying, question in my life.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Madam

Good afternoon friends, how are you all? I suppose it’s due time for an update on the Madam Megan teaching situation. Let me assure you- it’s been very busy!

Since the beginning of May I’ve been teaching everyday (except 1) usually from 8:15am (or 9 when our bus was broken) until seeing the kids off at 2:45-ish. Break is from 10:30-11:15, then Georgia and I get lunch between the times of 11:45-12:30.

As thrilling and adventurous as the weekends have been, it’s the weekdays that melt my heart. I confess that I have fallen in love 100 times over with all the children in this school, it’s hard not to when their charm is never-ending.

I know, as teachers, you are not supposed to have favourites, but saying that I have collected a few. My absolute favourite is Emmanuel.. he is 4 years old, in KG 1, has the highest voice I’ve heard, and always compliments me on my dress! Then there are a few little guys in the nursery named Benjamin and Francis who are adorable and always fall as they go up the stairs. The classes I help teach are class 2 and class 3. Generally I’m in class 3 for 3 days and class 2 for 2 days (and no, I didn’t do that on purpose!!)

I am still teaching plenty of English, some Maths, and lots of French lessons as well. The French that I’ve offered I believe has been the most beneficial, as no teacher in the school can speak it. One even said if it wasn’t for me he’d throw out their textbook! It’s nice to know I can at least teach them a few new things!

Lately I’ve been doing plenty of creative arts with the kids. We’ve made finger puppets, fortune tellers, and friendship bracelets! The friendship bracelets were the hardest task, as even after I explained and demonstrated how to make them multiple times (about half the class got it) I was shown about a dozen strings tied into clumps of knots followed by complaints and demands for more thread to take home. Perhaps that was a one-time-only craft? Was worth a shot anyways! Now the fortune tellers have become all the rage. In fact I spent the last three school days folding paper.. I don’t mind the work-suppose it is a lot to ask of a 5 year old!! They love it, and so do I. It’s been impressively cute to having my “fortune” told. Yesterday I had, I “will be blessed by God,” “will go to Heaven,” “will become a princess,” “will go to Canada,” “will get a chicken,” and “will meet a nice boy.”

To most students of the school I’m known as Madam Megan, but when I venture into the nursery classes, they tend to get a bit more inventive with my names and I get everything -BUT- Megan.. the latest ones are Madam Maiden, Maggie, Mega (my favourite), May.. once I even got a “Madam Bacon!!”

Time is ticking, and BAM I’ve only got two more weeks left in Ghana.. hmm.. not quite sure how I feel about leaving- as much as I want to go home, I have made a life for myself here that I love. This coming week will be my last week of teaching, and I know I am definitely not ready to leave these kids!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Crowd Surfing Baby

Before my time comes to a close here, as one of my final posts I would like to leave you with what may be my favourite story of the trip. **It’s tough to officially give it the golden title, so just to be safe I’ll rank it rightly in the top three.**

Somewhere between the beginning and the hazy end of the Worst trotro of my life, my sanity was saved by a baby. The undesirable situation at hand included Chloe, Georgia and I wedged onto the back seat with two full grown Ghanaians, our feet tucked up to our bums and chins resting on our knees, (pretty much) hot boxed on a 6 hour trotro from Techiman to Tamale. **central region to northern region**

Layered in sweat and dust, our bladders full with no feeling left in our legs, in the claustrophobic air we were just one factor short of throwing ourselves out the cracked and duct-taped window.

“Bus stop!” I’m guessing one woman said in the regional language, as the bus jolted around before finally stopping at the side of the road.

The woman got out of her place leaving her baby lying on the seat, as she climbed over top of the four rows of travelers ahead of her to exit the tro; she proceeded to go halfway behind a nearby tree for a pee. In the short time she was gone, the driver had let on an additional 10 eager passengers, who immediately took up every spare inch of available seat and breath of oxygen.

When the mother finally returned to the bus, she sat down on the front row next to the driver without a second thought. Four minutes ago she may have been able to climb over the rows, but there was no visible way of doing that with our new friends on board. Needing something to distract me from myself- I focused my energy on wondering how this mother and baby were to be reunited. Sensing my concern (okay okay- probably not, but maybe she did), the mother turned around and – to the man beside her content baby said, “Pass me my baby.”

With no more than a nod of obedience, the man picked up the small unbothered baby by its middle and looked on to pass it forward. Getting the path going, he nudged the man in front of him in the back with the baby’s head. “Oh.” said the next man, as he proceeded to grab the baby by its arms.

I watched in fascination (with a bit of worry) as this poor baby was being passed up over the length of the trotro, turned sideways, upside down, passed headfirst, feet first, grabbed by the head, legs, dangling from one sweaty hand to being supported by six. I can most accurately describe that scene as a cross between a game of Hot Potato, and Crowd Surfing. Except instead of a ‘hot potato’ or an enthusiastic fan, it was a few-month-old baby we had on our hands… literally!

Chloe, Georgia and I had been holding our breath, but as soon as the baby was safe, all that air was let out into gasps of hysterical laughter. Quite honestly it was one of the most hilarious things I’d ever seen. Apparently, the humor we’d found in the situation was not shared with the rest of the Ghanaians, as we were flashed dirty looks and requests for quiet, we were to “stop disturbing them..” We tried to ‘contain’ ourselves for a while, but sat beside each other and having just seen a group of 20-25 grown adults play a combo of Hot Potato/Crowd surf with this emotionless baby (it didn’t even cry!), Chloe and I let the laughter take over; allowing ourselves to enjoy the much needed humor for the remaining hours of the ride. You’ve got to take every opportunity to laugh when you can; especially when crowd surfing babies are in the room.

Friday, June 28, 2013

See ya, Kids!

Five long months of being Madam Megan it has been, in which time I feel I have grown into a stronger and more patient person. Along with myself, my heart has grown four sizes, though it shattered over the hard concrete floor on Friday when I said my final goodbye to the kids. Of everything that has happened here (lots and lots and lots), saying goodbye has been the toughest thing I’ve had to do. Many tears were shed, by my students and even more by me; it was quite the emotional day.

I had written short letters to each of my students, and then ones to both classes. Though I wasn’t able to read out the letter myself, my message was given and received that teaching them has been the biggest pleasure and privilege of my life. Immediately after my gifts and letters were handed out, I was thrown about 25 cards and letters, scraps of paper with little sayings, prayers, drawings and thank you’s for me to keep. One girl wrapped up her old Barbie pencil case for me, while another gave me her storybook that she flat-out refused to take back.

To be honest, I’m not sure how much I really taught anyone, and five years down the road I can’t tell you if they’ll remember their obruni Madam Megan. What I can tell you even less of is how much everyone here, especially the kids, have taught me…way more than I ever could have hoped to learn about life and love from small school of kids. I sincerely apologise, but I am at a complete loss for words when it comes to explaining what I’ve learned from these 3 to 10 year olds whom I’ve shared four of my last five months with. What I can do is show you 500 pictures and videos of perfect, smiling faces and cheeky grins. Perhaps that may be best.

Since I have physically left Peter Piper’s Annex, I have been missing the kids and teaching like crazy. It’s given me some time to reflect back on being Madam Megan – and all the fun, stressful, tough, inspiring and demanding moments included. From hand clapping “Double double this this” for hours, to reading stories, to giving math tests, to creating artwork, to Worship Wednesdays, to making poor Chariden cry with an unfortunately drawn ‘smiley’ face on her paper.. I have been through a lot with these kids.

My plan is to write the school/class(es) a letter every now and then… try and keep in touch. A few students have my phone numbers; so far I’ve been called by Vincentia, Kelvin, Deborah, Daniella, Erica and Emmanuella. Little Deborah and Vincentia took it on her to call my Canadian Home phone and ‘introduce themselves to my nice mother and nice sister.’ How sweet!! Nightly I am reminded that no matter how far away from them I may be – in an African dress with flip flops or not – I will always be Madam Megan to them.

JAPAN - CASSIM (MEDICAL)

Visit our Japan page!

After failing to secure a place to study medicine following his A-levels, Cassim decided to take a gap year and worked in a Red Cross Hospital in Japan:

At first it all seemed like a dream. Six months in Japan on a medical placement, a substantial bursary,accommodation and a decent monthly allowance? This was the offer I received from Lattitude Global Volunteering. I was writing a new page of my life and little did I know that this would have an impact I could never have imagined.

I climbed to the summit of Japan’s highest mountain, Mt.Fuji (3,776 metres high) and saw a night sky I thought never existed, a glorious sunrise and the world beneath me. I tasted food I thought I’d never eat and found I loved it. I learned to speak, read and work in a language I’d never have imagined I’d learn. Japan truly deserves to be a hot spot for tourists, especially those with a keen desire to immerse themselves in such a different culture.

Once I had started working in the Red Cross hospital in the city of Nagoya I was amazed by the incredibly high standards of one of the world’s most powerful work-forces and I will always cherish the memories and the opportunities given to me.

Within 4 months, having picked up a significant amount of Japanese the Director of the hospital allowed me to work in the emergency room where I gained so much hands on medical experience that I knew I’d have no problem getting a place at medical school when I returned to the UK. It was truly a privilege to be trusted to work in such a challenging environment doing something I loved.

By the end of the placement I didn’t want to come home so I decided to extend my placement for another 6 months. Between these two placements, I returned to London for 2 weeks to see my family and attend an interview for a place at medical school that I had applied to while in Japan. The next six months in Japan passed a lot faster than the first and I adapted to the culture and lifestyle so well that by the end of my placements, I was nervous about coming home.

I sincerely hope others will take the chance to transform their lives into something so insanely wonderful that their former selves would beam with pride. To this day I am envious that my own country does not match up to the standards I witnessed in Japan. My only regret is that I had enjoyed myself to such an extent that I can’t help but crave to return to the country that transformed my life: Japan.

I am now back in London as a medical student – I know in my heart of hearts that my Lattitude Global Volunteering experience was the key that has enabled me to achieve my dream.

JAPAN - LAUREN (CARING)

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Most people my age rush through the transition of school to university to career, not thinking that they can pause for a moment and really experience the world, so I am thankful that I have had this opportunity and that through the help of this organisation, others will do the same.

My typical day in Japan began with rushing to get breakfast in the dining hall of Harima Home and hurriedly eating the fried egg/banana/ ham and spinach (and ALWAYS some jam on toast!) in the staff room, before rushing off to the independent living section of Harima Home, ‘’Rose House’’, to help with the breakfast care. The Japanese have an almost religious view of time keeping, and so we often had to race to be there at 8:25 with a smile on our faces.

In Rose House, I’d prepare coffee and breakfast for the 8 residents, whilst aiding people to take medicine if required. On my first day, I was taught how to feed Aota-San, who had to be helped due to his epilepsy preventing him from holding his head still to eat. Initially, I was terrified – I’d never done this kind of thing before and I didn’t want to spill hot coffee on him if he jerked the straw too fast. But, Aota-San’s encouraging smile and his daily bellowing of ‘Thank You’ in English made us firm friends and boosted my confidence, and he would always make sure that it was me who helped him in the mornings (and woe betide any staff who got in his way!) Gradually, I got to know all the residents in Rose House, celebrating New Year’s Day together with a feast of traditional sushi.

At 9:15 am, I’d say goodbye to Rose House and walk back over to the main building to board the minibus to Shiso Home (affectionately called the ‘’Shiso Bus’’). The Shiso Bus drives backwards and forwards between Shiso and Harima Homes every day, swapping residents between the Homes for activities and programmes (and also just taking residents for a drive who wanted to get out and about).

The bus would bring Lee (another Lattitude volunteer) from Shiso Home, who would then spend the day working with Julia at Harima Home, whilst I would go to Shiso Home to work with Luke (also a Lattitude volunteer).

At Shiso Home, my duties mainly involved running arts and crafts programmes – paper collages, making 3D sculptures, calendars and wall displays. In addition, once a week Luke and I organised our own project. We did things such as baking, English lessons, day trips out to scenic walks, film days and bowling competitions. Our key aim was resident participation, as many were mentally handicapped, so we focused on simple ideas designed to stimulate their senses. Initially, I struggled to see the individual underneath the disability at Shiso Home – many residents struggled to interact with those around them. However, once I had settled into my stride, their vivid personalities began shining though. You always hear about people becoming instantly gratified with their work whenever they receive a positive response from someone but I had never really understood it until this point. The really fulfilling moments are very difficult to put into words .

At 3:00pm, I’d set back off to Harima Home, with a stop on the way over to help load the Shiso Bus with bread from the bakery. The staff at the Bakery were really lovely people – they’d often give me a bag full of goodies to take back and share with the other volunteers! Also, once a month, I’d escort residents from Shiso Home to the Bakery, which also included a section where they sold handmade goods, made by the volunteers and residents. Usually, the work involved helping the residents paint holiday themed woodcraft objects (such as pumpkins or candy canes), followed by an outing in the afternoon to the local cultural interests (such as the old Samurai Castle outpost or Shinto Temple).

I picked up many skills whilst in Japan: arts and crafts; care for the disabled; social networking in a foreign country; how to cope under extreme pressure and stress; how to look after myself and keep a home and also rudimentary Japanese.

Without the Lattitude Bursary Scheme, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to undertake my placement, so for that, they have my sincerest thanks.

NEW ZEALAND - LOUISE (SCHOOLS ASSISTANT)

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I worked in a New Zealand girls’ boarding school called Woodford House during my gap year.My main responsibilities were assisting with the intermediate department (10-12 yr olds) in English, Computing and Drama classes. I also helped with Yr 10 maths classes, taking those girls out that needed extra assistance, which I really enjoyed. About twice a week I would also supervise evening prep classes; this left me in total charge of a class of girls, who were sometimes not too willing to do homework!

Out of classes I was responsible for a dance team which I set up, and for whom I organised practices and choreographed a piece for a regional competition. I was also given a volleyball team to coach and accompany to games. I really enjoyed the total responsibility of these jobs.

If there was a residential or field trip organised with the school then I would be taken along as another member of staff whether this was a Social Studies trip to the local court house or a week up in the mountains! All in all a Lattitude volunteer at Woodford becomes a Jack of many trades!

I have learnt so many new skills during my placement including living away from home, which meant handling my own finances, organising my travels and even my own washing! I learnt a lot of administrative skills such as photocopying, making booklets/leaflets, laminating,invoicing, postal orders, which I know will be very useful in future jobs. I also learnt how to work with many people of different ages. Being in close working contact with many teachers, parents and pupils really gave me so much confidence.

Being a volunteer was such a great opportunity. I was able to see a totally different side of the world (literally!)and live and work in it knowing that I had the support of Lattitude if I needed it. I really loved working in the school environment with two other great volunteers whom I got along so well with.The other teachers at the school really looked after me and were always there to help with anything I needed;there was a real community feel about it.

I am due to start at Queen’s University, Belfast in the coming weeks to study an LLB in Law. I was very apprehensive about starting before but since returning from my Gap year I have found a whole new confidence and am now really looking forward to it. I know I am capable of living away from home and have a new self-assurance when dealing with other people. I definitely hope to return to New Zealand one day as I had such an amazing experience and it really was like home to me.

VIETNAM - JOSH (ENGLISH TEACHER)

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Vietnam….I hadn’t been sure what to expect but now it is ‘Việt Nam’: an experience that will stay with me for a lifetime. At first I was completely baffled by chopsticks but after the four months I was able to pick up the smallest grain of rice. My teaching placement was in Binh Duong, an hour away from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). It gives an impression of the ‘real’ Vietnam, in the sense that it is a town hoping to develop and industrialise.

Every day we were normally woken up pretty early by Ms. Loan knocking on our door with breakfast. Ms. Loan was our cook; a lovely, old lady who didn’t speak a word of English and completely mothered us. In fact, she became our Vietnamese mother. At the start of the placement, when everything was new I hadn’t been sure of what to expect, I wondered what I had let myself in for? I soon found teaching my students was always enjoyable, I never got through a lesson without smiling at some point. In the future, if I ever have to address a room full of people I will draw on the teaching experience. I grew more confident and relaxed in the classroom.

In the mornings we would usually teach two periods. With any new class there would be standard questions I would be asked, the last one always being ‘Can you sing a song?’ The Vietnamese love karaoke and I learned to be prepared for impromptu sessions! All of my teaching was from textbooks, sometimes with and sometimes without direct teacher support. I noticed a huge leap in my students’ confidence in speaking English which was incredibly rewarding and reflected the need for contact with native English speakers. Afternoon lessons were again usually two periods. The classes would typically be about 40 students aged 18-22, most of whom were female and often giggling.

Teachers in Vietnam work very hard and are shown a lot of respect. In fact, Teachers‘ Day is a national public holiday. At any social occasion, bottles of rice whisky magically appear and Teachers’ Day was no exception. Being the only Westerners meant that we were always being asked to make toasts and being toasted to. We were also interviewed by two local papers.

In the late afternoon, when the heat of the day had passed, we would often play volleyball or football with the students. Football was usually Skins vs Fake Replica Shirts on sandy rough ground behind the college, while the sun was setting.

It was little things like this that would remind me where I was and how very lucky I was to be there. We would hang around and chat afterwards, until we were driven inside by mosquitoes. On Mondays and Wednesdays we taught evening classes that were open to the local community, there were different classes each week. Teaching young children was all about energy and improvisation whereas working with adults would often require more encouragement.

Other evenings were spent with the students or teachers, exploring local Vietnamese coffee shops. Vietnam has a never-ending stream of traffic but after four months I was able to confidently step out into the mayhem like a local, learning that not stopping is really the key. At the weekend we might catch the bus into Saigon, where we would sometimes meet up with some of the other volunteers. During a week off, my volunteer partner and I travelled the Mekong Delta (rice paddies and floating markets) to Phu Quoc Island (white sand and blue sea). The rice paddies would stretch into the distance, dotted with palm trees along the footpath dykes and with the odd house on stilts. The markets bustle with trade and float on the river, with goods tossed between the huddled boats.

When we stayed at Binh Duong for the weekend, the students would often invite us to hang out with them. On one particularly memorable weekend we were invited to a student’s brother’s wedding. It was a two hour motorbike ride to his house; two hours of avoiding pot holes and not provoking lorry foghorns, to arrive with numb thighs from the rough roads. It was a traditional Vietnamese wedding, six courses of lunch (one dish was a whole chicken inside battered rice) under a brightly coloured, open-sided marquee. There was a champagne pyramid, speeches, three changes of the bride’s dress, a few dreaded shots of rice whisky and then a relaxing hammock in the shade.

Before my placement I was quite naïve to the subtle cultural differences between North and South Vietnam and between the different generations. Now that I have had a flavour of living in and becoming part of a different culture, I want more. I am already considering another Lattitude placement after university and I think that in the long term, I would like to work for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, working in embassies around the world.

I will miss the friends I made out there: the students, the teachers, our cook, the other volunteers and even the odd ‘xe ôm’ driver. I will also miss the feeling of being thousands of miles from home and trying something new, with the locals’ warm smiles as it all went slightly wrong. I feel that my placement experiences, along with some travel, gave me a more balanced impression of Vietnam and its people. I hope to return one day, so it’s not ‘goodbye’, rather it’s ‘hẹn gặp lại’

VIETNAM - LILY (ENGLISH TEACHER)

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Below is a wonderful message we received from Lily after returning from her placement in Vietnam.

I hope all is well and you are enjoying the summer weather! I just wanted to say thank you for helping me with my Vietnam placement process and departure. I had such an incredible time there. That trip was a pivotal time for me, it was exactly what I didn't know I needed and has changed me forever.

Since returning home, I have really struggled with readjusting. Coming from such a peaceful and loving country back to the United States was a real shock for me. I felt like Vietnam was a place where I was really able to grow and tackle a lot of personal issues that I struggled with. Before I left for my placement I was really worried about my anxiety getting the better of me, but in fact, it seemed to almost disappear while I was there, and when it didn't, I felt totally in control.

I completely fell in love with teaching and feel like I finally have some real direction as to what I want to do with my life. I have decided that I want to pursue becoming an ESL teacher. Being able to watch my students develop their language skills and gain confidence was one of the most profound and rewarding moments that I have witnessed. I have never felt so passionate about anything until I went on my Latitude placement. It really has opened my mind to so many possibilities I never thought were an option for me.

I am so excited to tell you that I have withdrawn my admittance to my local college and will be moving back to Vietnam in January with my boyfriend. He came to visit me twice while I was away and his experience was as eye opening as mine. Both of us are moving to Hanoi to get our TEFL certification so that we can teach English overseas. While I'm there I will be getting my bachelors degree from Southern New Hampshire University online. I would love to one day become a part of the Lattitude family and help other volunteers going to Vietnam have an experience as amazing as mine.

I am so excited to be starting this new chapter and would not have been able to imagine doing so without the help and support of Lattitude. Thank you all so much, it truly was the best three and a half months of my life. The people I met there, and the other volunteers were all so kind, welcoming and supportive. I feel like I have made friends for life.

Thank you so much!