Why I gave volunteering a second chance

Why I gave volunteering a second chance

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.”

Proud identity

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

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.

Posing

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.

Taman Bacaan Pelangi

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.

Melo

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.

Taman Bacaan Pelangi

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.

Taman Bacaan Pelangi

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.

Taman Bacaan Pelangi

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.

Taman Bacaan Pelangi

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. 

Sardinia dos and donts: what to do in Sardinia

Sardinia dos and donts: what to do in Sardinia

Best beaches in Sardinia: Crazy gorgeous fjords of Cala Domestica

Best beaches in Sardinia: Crazy gorgeous fjords of Cala Domestica

Things to do in Sardinia: watch the Sartiglia

Things to do in Sardinia: watch the Sartiglia in Oristano – photo courtesy of Marcello Treglia

Things to do in Sardinia

Things to do in Sardinia: watch the Sant’Efisio parade of traditional Sardinia costumes – photo courtesy of Marcello Treglia

Where to go in Sardinia: Roman ruins and lighthouse in Nora

Where to go in Sardinia: Roman ruins and lighthouse in Nora

Visit Sardinia: Barumini

Visit Sardinia: Su Nuraxi – Barumini

At the heart of the Mediterranean, Sardinia will make you feel like you are a world apart from the rest of the world. Here you can switch off from your daily routine, without having to cross an ocean; you can enjoy lush nature, incredible beaches, wild mountains, tasty food and a secular cultural traditions. The good news is that although it is almost mythologically described as a place for a few rich people, it can actually be visited on a budget and there are so many things to do in Sardinia that you could spend a year without ever getting bored.

Here are a few simple rules for your low budget holidays. For more ideas on things to do in Sardinia, check my post “A Local’s Guide To The Things To Do In Sardinia”.

Dos

Do book your flight in advance, making sure you catch one during the week (avoid weekends) and playing around with the dates (be flexible). This way you can even catch a round trip ticket for less than €50. There are three airports: Alghero, Cagliari and Olbia, all a great starting point for a tour of the island. Most budget airlines have fights to Sardinia from a number of cities in Italy and Europe.

Do use public transport: it links the main cities, villages and tourist destinations. While a bit slow, it is cheap enough, and once you get to your destination you can walk, rent a bike, or participate in organised tours that offer pick up services. For information on bus and train schedules visit the pages of ARST and Trenitalia.

Do consider a car rental. A splurge if travelling alone or as a couple, but if there is a few of you it may actually turn out cheap and you will have the opportunity to roam around independently. Most well known agencies have stands at the airport and are quite convenient. But book in advance to catch special deals.

Do book your accommodation early. Most cities have budget places and all tourist destinations provide camping sites. Rooms are easy to find in the low season, but during the summer, when Sardinia is at its peak season, it may be harder to get cheap accommodation. Camping sites are good options if you can carry your tent, and they often have bungalows for rent.

If travelling in a group, do consider holiday home rentals: prices are surprisingly cheap and estate agencies and apartments can be easily found online. Considering you will have your own kitchen, your budget will benefit in the end.

Do enjoy your days at some of the best beaches in Sardinia, which all have free access: carry your umbrella, towel and plenty of sunblock and relax for free.

Do go on a boat tour: some of Sardinia best beaches, especially in the Golfo di Orosei or La Maddalena, can only reached this way. Although not too cheap it is completely worth it. Do book a day or two in advance!

Best beaches in Sardinia: Cala Luna

Best beaches in Sardinia: Cala Luna

Do go on a free trekking: hiking is one of the best ways to visit Sardinia. There is a gorgeous path to Cala Goloritzé leaving from the Altipiano del Golgo; a well signaled hike to Cala Domestica; a roughly 2 hours walk from Cala Fuili to Cala Luna; or try any of the trails in Isola dell’Asinara.

Do enjoy free festivals and cultural events. If you are searching for what to do in Sardinia and feeling in the mood for some cultural activity, you will be glad to know that on first of May Cagliari hosts the spectacular “parata di Sant’Efisio”: people from villages all over Sardinia, wearing their traditional dresses, go on a march in honour of the Saint patron of the island (Sant’Efisio). In February, the beautiful Sartiglia takes place in Oristano: men (and women) wearing traditional carnival costumes gallop down a street mounded with sand as fast as they can and attempt skewering a hanging star using their foil – pure adrenaline.

If you are a jazz and nature lover, don’t miss Time in Jazz in Berchidda, patroned by trumpet player and native Paolo Fresu. Picture a whole week of jazz, across a number of villages in the area, with open air concerts (free to attend) and the possibility to stay in camping sites. This is only one of the many jazz festivals here: listening to live quality music is one of the things to do in Sardinia.

Do enjoy nightlife in Cagliari: locals go out no earlier than 10 pm. You can either walk around Largo Carlo Felice, or, for some fresh air, Libarium, in Castello, which has a great terrace and view of the city; or Caffè degli Spiriti or De Candia in the Bastione – the lattest occasionally have some live concerts: look for local bands such as Sikitikis for real fun. Cocktails cost between € 7 and 9, wine and beer are cheaper (around 3 or 4 euros).

Do enjoy a romantic dinner at Quintilio, right outside Alghero, and admire the great view of the city, the bay and Capo Caccia. Sunset is the best time to go. Do book in advance to seat outside.

Do try traditional Sardinian food: piglet on the spit, malloreddus (small gnocchi), mussles soup, fregola (a sort of cous cous made with seafood), pecorino cheese, seadas (sweet fried pastries filled with cheese and topped with honey)… There is a lot of variety.

Donts

Don’t miss Isola dell’Asinara, originally a fishing community, later on a criminal colony, a peasant colony and leprosy centre, and a maximum security jail; it was finally turned into a National Park in 1997. Should you not have much time to sleep on the only hostel in the island (highly recommended!), book a guided tour on a jeep. This will allow you to visit the sites of historical and natural importance, such as the historic jail of Cala d’Oliva and of Fornelli, and some of the best beaches in Sardinia, such as Cala Sabina, Cala Trabuccato and Cala d’Arena. You can also go on one of the many hikes (free and well signaled) or opt for a bike tour.

Where to go in Sardinia? Asinara, for sure!

Where to go in Sardinia? Asinara, for sure!

Asinara - Sardinia

Donkeys are the only inhabitants of Asinara, together with boars, cats, goats…

Don’t miss a sunset walk on the beautiful bastion overlooking the sea in Alghero. The same goes for Cagliari and its lovely bastion or the Poetto beach: they are gorgeous at sunset. You can’t visit Sardinia and miss a sunset here!

Don’t think Sardinia is only beautiful in the summer. It is just as nice in the winter, although weather in Sardinia can be brutal in the winter months. But of course summer is the best season to enjoy the beaches.

Don’t litter: all beaches have bins for garbage and if they don’t, carry your garbage back with your and throw where appropriate.

Don’t forget to try “gelato artigianale”: ice-cream made from scratch. Tip to know it is the real thing: it melts really fast!

Don’t miss a sip of mirto or fil’e ferru: the first one is a strong liquor made of myrtle berries. The second is more like a grappa. They are very much Sardinian!

Don’t miss the archeological sites such as the beautiful roman ruins of Nora, are easy to access from Cagliari, or the many “nuraghe” which are unique to Sardinia such as that of Barumini. Take lots of pictures!

Don’t miss some off the beaten path places, such as Is Aruttas beach, with its incredible white tiny pebbles; S’Archittu, with a rock formation in the shape of an arch, Masua Pan di Zucchero, Buggerru and Cala Domestica, and Porto Pino, famous for its sand dunes.

Sardinia best beaches: Masua Pan di Zucchero

Sardinia best beaches: Masua Pan di Zucchero

Don’t be afraid to communicate with Sardinians, as they are very friendly. They may not all speak English, but they will always help out.

Don’t forget to read my other posts on Sardinia for more information and to ask me if you have any more questions!

Guatemala best market: Chichicastenango

Guatemala best market: Chichicastenango

Places to visit in Guatemala: Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Colours of the market

For those who visit Guatemala, Chichicastenango is a must see. This small city feels isolated in time and space from the rest of country. Picture high mountains and a mist that covers the city, and when it comes down at night, it looks almost surreal. Set at 2172 meters above sea level, it does get cold in Chichicastenango, so be prepared and wear good layers. Travellers who do not have sufficient clothing to keep warm, can definitely find what they need at the local market but they should always barter the prices!

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Does this look good on me?

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Shopping for chickens at Chichicastenango market

Chichi, as it is called, has always been an important trading town. The main attraction here is the huge crafts market, where Maya traders meet on Thursdays and Sundays to sell their produce. Visiting the market is thus one of the things to do in Guatemala, even if you only just go for half a day. Tourist-oriented stalls – selling anything from clothing to wooden masks to leather goods – are mostly at the outer edges of the market, while the ones at the centre are mostly devoted to locals’ needs, selling fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese and live animals. I don’t think anybody should miss the colourful vegetable market, but it is important to be aware of pickpockets there. It is incredibly crowded, and tourists are an easy target.

I always advice not to carry the passport or any bulky, showy item, and make sure to keep belongings in the inside pockets of clothes, or in a money belt. Pickpockets are often just children who won’t find it hard, in the mist of the crowd, to unzip pockets and take out whatever is inside (be it a passport, a credit card, or just cash), to throw whatever they may not find useful. A 5 minute distraction may well cost a long time at the police station (where people literally line up to report thefts), at least a phone call to the travel insurance and credit card company, and the stress of having to get a new passport while away from home.

Chichicastenango Market

The colourful vegetable market of Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango Market

Tourists may be distracted by such cuteness while their pockets are being unzipped – that’s what happened to my friend

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Chickens being sold at the market

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Colours of the market in Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango is one of the places to visit in Guatemala, and not just for the market. It has a very strong Mayan influence, and here it is possible to observe some traditional Mayan rituals. Many local shamans will crowd the colourful cemetery and the two main churches, where they are summoned to pray by the locals looking for some specific “favours”. They will start ceremonies that involve colourful candles (each colour having a different meaning), sugar, eggs, and chanting. While pictures are strictly forbidden inside the churches, they can be taken (from a distance) at the cemetery.

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Mayan rituals in Chichicastenango

On the way to Chichicastenango from La Antigua Guatemala, it is possible to also stop for a visit at Iximché, one of Guatemala Mayan ruins hardly ever included in Guatemala tours. Once at Katok it is necessary to take a short diversion. When I visited it the first time, I was among the very few visitors, which meant that I did not have to fight my way to the Mayan rituals that regularly take place on this lovely site.

Guatemala mayan ruins: Iximché

Guatemala mayan ruins: Iximché

How to get there:

Shuttles: Chichicastenango is connected to Antigua via shuttle buses. Any hostel can arrange door to door transportation.

Chicken buses: adventurous types can opt for local chicken buses (camionetas). Keep in mind that these do not have a real schedule but tend to leave when full. From Antigua get any bus headed to Guatemala City and change at Chimaltenango.

Chichicastenango can also be easily reached from Panajachel: take a bus to Los Encuentros and then change there to Chichicastenango.

Where to stay and eat in Chichicastenango:

Hotel Mashito (8a Calle 1-72) is a family run hotel, with plain comfortable (if only a bit humid) rooms with private bathrooms.

On market days, the best option for meals are the cook shops at the centre of the market (the fried food stalls surround the edges). For as little as $ 2 it is possible to have meal of caldo de res (meat soup) with potatoes and corn; or a chuleta (pork chop) with vegetables and rice, and a drink. On any other day, the comedores near the post office are a good budget option.

Care to know about more places to visit in Guatemala? Click here.