Not long ago I wrote a rather extensive rant in which I explained the many reasons I do not recommend or endorse voluntourism as a way of traveling, or any of the work away from home programs into which many of the younger backpackers eagerly enroll into. Having to work for a business that actually makes profit and doing it in exchange of just a bed and at most a meal is wrong, because really, we all deserve compensation for our work, especially when that work we are doing is producing a revenue.
Read more of what I think of voluntourism on my post “Is voluntourism really worth the time and money?“
As with every rule, however, there has to be an exception. And I found my exception to the “no voluntourism” rule in Indonesia, and more precisely in Melo, a lovely village in Eastern Indonesia.
The real face of Indonesia: Melo
Melo is set at about 17 km from Labuan Bajo (access point to the fabulous Komodo and Rinca islands), in the island of Flores and thousands of miles away from the lively chaos of Jakarta and of other cities in Indonesia. More than anything else, it is a fantastic place to visit in what evidently is my favourite part of the country. Here is where I got to know the life of the local Manggraian community. This is where I was able to experience the Ndundu Dake dance and other Caci performances. This is where I felt I wanted to stay longer, way longer.
Read more about Komodo and Rinca Islands on my post “How to find heaven on earth.”
One of the women of Melo carries her identity proudly
I arrived in Melo on a hot October day. Together with other visitors, I was met by the head of the local community in the Panorama hut, a bamboo hut that is located in the highest spot in the village and whose name really gives an idea of the stunning view that it embraces: the sea and the islands of Komodo National Park, as well as the surrounding hills and mountains. There, the head of the community introduced us to the local culture through some traditional rituals, he offered us a drink of sopi, a local liquor made of palm, and then invited us to take part in the dance we had been seeing, too.
Melo people will always spare a smile
Melo village doesn’t offer much in terms of comforts, but it is charming to say the least. People live in modest homes and the only electricity is that generated by solar panels. The main livelihood is farming. They live their lives according to their traditions, proudly speaking their language, and keeping their culture and identity alive. People in Melo are welcoming, they smile a lot, they are completely charming and always willing to share their lives, their experiences and their culture with the visitors that occasionally venture in their village. I could see them peeping through their doors and windows, at times shying away as I walked by, and other times inviting me in, proudly posing for pictures. It all felt very peaceful, very real, and very relaxing.
This older lady did not mind posing for me, but the rest of the people in the house were shy!
Taman Bacaan Pelangi: volunteering done right
My visit to Melo, however, was not restricted to observing and experiencing the beautiful local culture. Melo village, indeed, is one of the locations of the project of Taman Bacaan Pelangi (Rainbow Reading Gardens), a no-profit organization that focuses on establishing children’s libraries in remote areas of eastern Indonesia, which has the lowest literacy rate in the country. Taman Bacaan Pelangi got word that a bunch of tourists was in the area and asked us to visit for an afternoon and volunteer for them. As a former human rights lawyer who has worked closely with disadvantaged communities, I could not help being curious about this project. I have always believed in education as a key factor in empowering people, and in my previous career I strived to promote equality in access to education too.
A relaxing walk around Melo – photo courtesy of Seth Carnill
The right to education is indeed considered a fundamental human rights, that has been codified in a variety of international legal instruments, but that some countries still struggle to guarantee. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, in article 26 states that ‘everyone has the right to education’ and, further, on paragraph 2, ‘education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship […].’ Education has been linked to the development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and, according to the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966, it enables people to participate effectively in a free society. The right to education has also been stressed by article 28 of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child of 1989.
Having a good laugh with the kids at Taman Bacaan Pelangi – photo courtesy of Seth Carnill
Taman Bacaan Pelangi fully understood the importance of education as a way to improve the lives of children who live in the most remote areas of Indonesia. Its project is quite simple: providing children with books, so that through reading they will broaden their horizons and opportunities. It does not simply ask for financial contributions (which are by all means accepted) but it encourages its supporters to donate books, which can be sent to its various locations via mail and even be dropped off directly. It really is a simple, yet ambitious project that in my view is bound to success.
That is why, even though I am not a supporter of voluntourism as a way to travel, if I had to pick a project to become a volunteer in Indonesia and have the chance to experience more of this gorgeous country, I would surely apply for Taman Bacaan Pelangi. Not only it is located in what to me is the most beautiful and remote part of the country, which is amazing to explore, but I also truly believe in the great potential of the project. Because really, when deciding to volunteer, the decision has to be made based on the project rather than the location and the tourism that may be involved with it. I feel that the volunteering project of Taman Bacaan Belangi rightly answers all the questions that a volunteer-to-be should consider before committing his time and effort. The first, and most important one is on the type of organization it is.
Lesson time with the volunteers – photo courtesy of Umei Teh
This no-profit organization works in a way that does not demand volunteers (who are screened through a proper application process) to pay any fee in order to take part in the volunteering program. Taman Bacaan Pelangi partners with other international no-profit organizations too. It has a clear mandate, a clear project and it benefits the local community, with the aim of empowering children so that they have better opportunities in life. It is a well established organization, founded in November 2009 when the first library, with only 200 books, was opened in Roe, a small village at the foothills of Flores. The project has since developed and to date, 37 libraries have been opened all over Eastern Indonesia. All this information, which can be found on the Taman Bacaan Pelangi’s website, goes to show that Taman Bacaan Pelangi is seriously committed to improve the living conditions of the local communities and aims at empowering the local people.
A relaxing stroll in Melo, on the island of Flores – photo courtesy of Seth Carnill
I only spent an afternoon volunteering with the children of Taman Bacaan Pelangi, but during that time I have had the chance to meet and chat to some longer term volunteers who arrived all the way from Germany and who committed themselves to 18 months of work. Their duties vary, but they all generally contribute to the maintenance and running of the library; they help the children with their homework; they teach English as well as sports and crafts; they take part in environmental protection education workshops and they hold the much needed and very welcomed reading classes.
People in Melo live a modest life, and so do the volunteer of Taman Bacaan Pelangi
Volunteers usually live and eat together with the local community, so there really is a proper cultural exchange and they really do get to embrace the local way of life. They receive a small allowance by their government and, in their free time, they have the opportunity to explore the wonderful area in which the village is located. Their feedbacks convinced me even more that this is a viable, recommendable project and that if anybody who is interested in combining their travels to this part of the world with a bit of field work asked me, I would eagerly recommend to apply.
I gave volunteering a second chance
The time I spent with the children that participate in the Taman Bacaan Pelangi project was by far the highlight of my visit to Melo. The skeptical part of me, the one that is always checking for how a good organization should work, had yet to be convinced about the effectiveness and viability of the project. But then I tagged along, and I am happy I did. I was indeed thoroughly overwhelmed by emotions as the multitude of children surrounded me and the other volunteers, observing us, smiling at us, holding our hands, asking us questions, making us feel as whatever little effort we made was helping them in achieving a better life, and making a proper show of their reading and other skills for us.
Trying to explain where Sardinia is on the map – I could not reach as high!
All we really had to do during the few hours we spent at Taman Bacaan Belangi was tell the children about ourselves, share our stories and show them that travel can open minds, build bridges, and create opportunities. We taught them songs, we played with them. The children were eager to listen, curious about us and our country, they wanted to chat in whatever little English they spoke (it was quite good, actually!), they wanted their picture taken and asked to pose with us. But, more than anything, they wanted to learn, and they were hopeful and happy. Hopeful that one day they can do big things in life, that they will have a choice in deciding what to do.
It really felt like a mutual exchange, however, where we, the volunteers, learned about life just as much as they did. I left with a huge smile on my face. And to me, anything that puts a smile on my face, anything that puts a smile on anybody’s face is bound to be good.
Indonesia has a huge heart, and one of the things to do in Indonesia is volunteering. I am pretty sure that its heart is well set in Melo. And that is where I left my heart too.
Read more about Indonesia on my post “Fantastic things to do in Indonesia.”
Have you ever taken part to a volunteering project? What was your experience?
Legal Disclaimer: This article was written in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia as part of the #WonderfulIndonesia campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience.
For as much as I intended to, I never seemed to be able to make it to South East Asia. Something kept me from going – either I had no money for the flight, or I had some commitments that took me to the other side of the Atlantic. My trip to Indonesia happened in a real whirlwind. I got my plane tickets on a Monday, and left on a Thursday. I won’t lie here – Indonesia was a huge cultural shock to me. I am used to the big, empty spaces of countries like Nicaragua, or to the emptiness of the rural areas of Sardinia. My trip was very fast paced and I did not get to spend nearly as much time as I wanted in each location. Nevertheless, I had a blast and truly enjoyed the country, its culture, the sights and the people, and I am eager to visit again and spend more time exploring.
The following pictures show just a fraction of what Indonesia has to offer. Although I only spent 3 weeks there, I know it is a new favorite of mine and I will want to go back. Seeing these pictures will most likely make anybody want to go too!
My trip started on a hot day in Jakarta. Thankfully, I had no commitments then. I was so tired from the long flights and jet lag that I just relaxed at the lovely infinity pool of the hotel.
The trip then took me to Tangkuban Perahu, the crater of a volcano not far from Bandung.
That’s where I also had my first encounter with the locals. I was literally stopped and asked to be in their pictures. It was funny, and I felt very welcome.
The light in Indonesia immediately captured my attention. It was always stunning!
Kawah Putih is another volcano crater, but it has a fantastic bright green lake that shined against the grey sky.
Seeing the sunrise at Borobudur, the world’s biggest Buddhist monument, was an out-of-this-world kind of experience. It was simply magic!
I also enjoyed visiting Yogyakarta and getting to see a bit of local action.
Rato Boko Keraton is a interesting place to visit, although under the blistering sun it can be a bit overwhelming. Nevertheless, it was lovely to take pictures there – mind you, those steps were blistering hot!
And Prambanan temple is an absolute must see, both at sunset
And at night.
Yogyakarta has some interesting street art too.
And the light is great for taking pictures, especially insite the Royal Palace.
Mount Bromo was a demanding stop on my tour, as I had to wake up at 2 am to see the sunrise over it. It was challenging especially as the sun did not seem to want to come out! But when it finally did, I got to see this…
Next stop was Labuan Bajo, on Eastern Indonesia, which welcomed me with an incredible sunset.
I got the chance to volunteer with the children of Taman Bacaan Pelangi in Melo Village, and it was an enlightening (not to mention a lot of fun) experience.
Komodo National Park, spread over the islands of Komodo and Rinca, was by far the highlight of my trip. There, I saw the Komodo dragons.
And got some of the best views one can imagine.
I also made it to the Pink Beach – I found paradise there!
The final stop was Bali. And there are few words that can describe how marvelous the sunsets there are. The ones in Kuta Beach…
The ones from Ulu Watu…
Bali is inhabited by some funny and mean monkeys. They tried stealing my sunglasses, but did not manage.
And the rice patties, so green, so beautiful…
There is no doubt that I will want to visit Indonesia again.
Have you been to Indonesia? What was your favorite attraction there?
Legal Disclaimer: This article was written in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia as part of the #WonderfulIndonesia campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience.
I have travelled so much since I was a child that even before going on my long term trips across Central and South America I thought of myself as an expert and independent traveller and as someone who knows how the world works. I’d back up my opinion of myself using my academic background in international human rights law and my many travels, throughout Europe and beyond, whether of a few days or a few weeks, as examples to prove what I said and thought. I really felt I had a good idea of how most people live outside the Western world. I was surely convinced that as a backpacker, it would be a good practice to have a strict schedule with carefully planned days so that I could see more places and do more things. I enjoyed spending my time before a trip making minute preparations that included checking the bus schedules and the opening times of a museum, whether I intended to visit Valencia or to go to Peru.
Do I not look like an experienced traveller?
When I gave up my academic career and started my first long term backpacking trip through Latin America, I actually realised that I knew very little and had an eye opening experience. The things I have learned in those months of travel through that incredible continent I would have never learned even if I kept reading, studying and watching as many documentaries as possible. I had to come to terms with some aspects of my personality that I wasn’t aware of; I changed my perspective on what travelling really means and I finally started understanding much more of the world.
So, here are the eleven things I have learned in my wanderings across Latin America.
1. I won’t carry a backpack that is heavier than 12 kilograms ever again – or at least, I will try
I always start thinking about what to pack well before I actually have to leave. I make a list of things I must carry, and then pick my clothes. Each time, I carry less. I have even resumed to buying only black socks, so that if one breaks while I am travelling, I only have to throw away that one and not the pair. I have actually understood that I don’t need to carry that many clothes, because I am not going to attend gala events or fashion shows. I have managed to come to terms with the fact that one pair of shoes is enough, and that nobody will think less of me if I don’t wear something different every day, as long as my clothes are (sort of) clean. The problem is that I like shopping at markets. I love ethnic stuff. And I like buying presents for my family and friends. So, on my last trip I ended up carrying up to 18 kg on my back, when I filled my backpack with a bottle of Mezcal I had bought in Mexico (by the way, who drank that?) and two bottles of Malbec I bought in Argentina. Way too much to carry around. I promised myself not to ever buy so much alcohol again. Or to drink it so that I don’t have to carry it around.
I could hardly walk with such a heavy backpack on my back. Have I learned my lesson?
2. When I gotta go, I gotta go.
One big fact I have learned in my travels is that I can pee anywhere. It actually is a skill I am quite proud of. It’s more than just going to the loo when it is not so clean, or in sharing a bathroom in a hostel. It even goes beyond the peeing in the nature concept. I have peed behind bushes, in coconut shells (yup), on a hole in the ground covered by some wooden boards, in the (dark) toilet of a moving bus, in the hole of the helm on a sailboat in the high seas. I challenge anybody at saying they can do the same.
Amateurs! Despite the strange position, this actually is a proper toilet – photo courtesy of Bjarki Reyr (flickr)
3. There is no way I will ever be able to stand cockroaches.
Or spiders. Or rats. I can adapt to weird toilets, uncomfortable beds and I can sleep almost anywhere. The almost means I have to strike out places that are infested with cockroaches, spiders and rats. I just can’t take them – try as I might, if I know there is a cockroach in the room, I have to leave. It is a matter of survival. It’s either me or the cockroach. I respect its space and would like it to respect mine, but since I know for a fact that cockroaches have a reputation of invading other people’s vital space, I pack my stuff and go, exclaiming in defeat: “Ok, you win!”.
I hope my effort in placing this picture on this post is appreciated. I will shriek any time I see it – photo courtesy of Jean and Fred (flickr)
4. I don’t really have to be obsessive with planning.
On my first trip to Cuba, I was so obsessed with the idea of “making the most of it” that I thought the only way I could have a full experience was by following my plans minutely. Then, I was crushed with the Cuban system. No wi-fi, no booking system, no computers, no facebook: I had to improvise or leave. I decided to stay, do as the Cubans and stop having arguments with the locals who had apparently joined forces to boycott my plan to visit their country. When I eventually started going with the flow and relaxed, I felt liberated and I enjoyed Cuba so much more.
It’s when I start relaxing that the trip gets better
5. Life changes depending on how we look at it.
I never get on a crowded train or bus in Europe. If the London Tube approaches and I see that the train is packed, I resolve to wait for the next one, I get annoyed and I make a mental note to write a complaint to the company. In Nicaragua, packed chicken buses are part of the fun and I find the whole thing a good way to get in touch with the locals – quite literally so. I end up taking pictures, having a laugh at the lady that gets on with a basket of live chickens, and eventually even write a post about it. Same thing with the timings. The train is late in London? I want my money back! The bus I need to take to get back to Lima is not running that day, for whatever inexplicable reason, is not running at all? I shrug it off, spend an extra night in the village and go meet some locals.
Chickens ride the chicken bus to Estelì, Nicaragua
6. What is hell to me, may be paradise to you.
I have travelled to certain places because anybody I met told me they were amazing and I should visit – only to find out that I could not see what they saw in them. My friend had a fantastic time in Bocas del Toro, Panama. I was completely disappointed when I saw it with my own eyes. Then I have been to places that are not even on tourist maps and fell in love with them. People’s opinion should only matter so much when picking a place to visit, because what moves one person’s emotions won’t necessarily cause the same reaction in me.
Bocas del Toro main attraction?
7. It is actually ok to trust people I don’t know.
Whenever I travel to some exotic country, my family and friends warn me to be careful, watch out and don’t trust strangers. I get back, and people ask me if I have experiences any danger, if I ever was afraid, if Ecuador/Honduras/Guatemala are as dangerous as people say. I was either very lucky or very oblivious to my surroundings, because not for a minute I felt in danger during my travels. Quite the opposite indeed. I have met some truly kind people in Central and South America, that have gone above and beyond what was reasonable to help me out. For example, a stranger in Costa Rica saw that I needed a toilet and could not find one, and showed me to her home so that I could use hers. Or another woman at a local market in Peru crossed the city to look for some herbs to prepare a tea that would help my sore throat – and she would not want a penny in exchange of her efforts.
The lovely lady who helped me cure my throat
8. We should never hide our identity and we should preserve our traditions.
People all around Latin America – from Mexico to Peru, from Guatemala to Bolivia – proudly wear the symbols of their identity. Whether it is a traditional hat, a beautifully embroidered skirt, golden teeth, tresses or other particular hair-dos, they do all they can to protect their culture and pass it on to future generations. It is a notable effort at preserving and protecting identities. I used to be a human rights lawyer and I have spent years researching on how to protect cultural identity. I also am a member of a minority in Italy: I can’t stand racial discrimination and don’t appreciate the subtle attempts of governments’ to wipe out entire cultures for the sake of so-called progress. Integration can’t and won’t ever mean assimilation.
I had to show my Sardinian pride even when I was in Chile!
9. Culture and traditions are actually profitable.
One thing I saw in my travels in Latin America is that indigenous groups hold on to their traditional sources of income. Women in Guatemala have created cooperatives to keep their traditional occupations: they weave, they sell their works and they even organise workshops and demonstrations for visitors. Their businesses are successful. A sign that a possible solution out of the major financial crisis that Sardinia and Italy are facing may be in returning to their ancestral traditions?
Fully dressed in traditional clothes in San Antonio Palopo – the women have turned their traditional occupations into a profitable business
10. In 2015, not everybody in the world has access to potable water.
Tap water is safe to drink all over Europe and North America. Yet, we have an incredible offer of bottled water; tv advertising that shows the benefit of one specific brand for having low sodium, for being bottled in recycled plastic bottles, for coming from the highest mountain source in Europe and what not. In most of Central and South America, it is not safe to drink tap water. Most people can’t afford to buy bottled water and have to vigorously boil tap water to be able to drink it safely. Malnutrition is hardly due to lack of food or to poor quality food, but is generally caused by contaminated water used for cooking and drinking, whose bacteria cause bad infections and diarrhea. We take right to water for granted in Europe and North America, but for most of the world it is still a dream.
11. There are poor people who are way happier than wealthy ones.
I came across shanty towns. I met people who, despite the fact that they lived in what to me was no more than a shack, gave all signs of being happy: they laughed, they smiled, and they enjoyed life. For example, I never really enjoyed Christmas – all the frenzy to buy presents, to sit around during endless meals, to meet those relatives that ask the same, annoying questions every time. Then I ended up in Ometepe, Nicaragua, and on Christmas day I was caught up by a thunderstorm. It was raining so hard that walking back for 45 minutes to get back to the hostel was not an option. The first shelter I found was in what I soon realised was someone’s home. A group of people were sitting in the patio, enjoying the day singing and playing the guitar. I ran into their place, said “Merry Christmas everyone” and after a blank stare that lasted no more than one second, they just offered me a chair and went back to their singalong. They seemed poor to me and I am pretty sure they had not been exchanging presents that day. Their only wealth were probably the chickens roaming about in the patio. Yet, they seemed way happier than most of the families I know that live a comfortable life.
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My luck has it that I was born and raised in Sardinia, and this is what I call home. I have the chance to explore it one bit at a time, and I am not done exploring yet! I have a few favourite places of course. My hometown, Cagliari; Costa Rei, my favourite vacation spot, and all its surroundings; the area of Golfo di Orosei and Isola dell’Asinara – these are only a few of the amazing places Sardinia has to offer to those who visit.
Sardinia is a great place to travel to in all seasons. Most people enjoy it in the summer, as we have amazing beaches with crystal clear water. I think it is incredible even in spring, fall and winter, despite the rain may be abundant. During spring time, the countryside is blooming, the weather is good for going on amazing hikes (like those to Su Gorropu) and we enjoy long walks on the beach. Spring is when Sant’Efisio, in Cagliari, takes place. A great free event. Fall is mild, and if we are lucky enough we get to go to the beach well into October. This is when the various village festivals are held. I love Cortes Apertas, and Autunno in Barbagia – food sampling, wine tasting, lots of great traditions. My favourite? Su Prugadoriu in Seui – our own very traditional version of Halloween. Finally, did you know that we even have a ski resort in Sardinia? Ok, it is not really a ski destination… but it is nice nonetheless.
One more reason to love Sardinia? The music festivals – jazz lovers will have a huge choice of places and events. And even the book festivals.
We call Sardinia paradise, and for a good reason!
To read more of my posts about the most amazing island in the world, click here
My first stop in Peru was Trujillo, in the North. The city, which is surrounded by the desert, is very lively and interesting. I visited the nearby site of Chan Chan. A long bus journey across the desert took me to Lima, the incredible capital, where I visited the main attractions around Plaza de Armas and in Miraflores. Not far from Lima (although it is a long ride), I hiked Marcahuasi.
I then went south, to explored the Islas Ballestas, Paracas, sandboard in Huacachina and finally reach Nazca, where I took a bumpy place to fly over the lines and where I visited the many surrounding archeological sites. From Nazca, I made my way to Arequipa, the white city, from where I hiked the Canyon del Colca.
My next stop was Puno, which I used as the starting point to visit the islands of Lake Titicaca. A flight then took me to Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire, and an incredible city altogether: it offers so many attractions and even its surroundings are packed with archeological sites, such as Saksaywaman and Pucapucara. I further visited the Sacred Valley – the sites of Moray, Pisac and Ollantaytambo, which was my stop before embarking on the incredible experience of the Inca Trail. I got to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu from the Inti Punku, I explored all of the site and even hiked mountain Huayna Picchu.
Cusco was my last stop before having to fly back to Italy.
Read more about Peru!