Tag Archives: Volunteer Abroad

Angering the God of Education

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I’ve spent the past eleven months, hopping all over the world. I’ve been having fun, but…

I hit a wall right around Ukraine and haven’t fully recovered to form. I’m mentally exhausted. You would think, walking across an entire country (Spain) would give me time to return back to my adventurous flair, but it wasn’t enough. If anything, it made me antsy to return home. But not home home, but rather to Pokhara, Nepal. I can’t say it enough—Nepal has occupied a giant chunk of my heart. That’s why I felt the desire to go back there for a while, before I continue on this quest to the seven continents.

Once I arrived in Kathmandu, my people in Sarangkot were messaging me like crazy! I swear I only told a couple of individuals that I was coming back, but it just goes to show how fast word spreads in the villages of Sarangkot Hill. I took a bus the next day to Pokhara where I was greeted by my “son” Samir and his fellow classmate Bishal. They came all the way down the mountain just to welcome me. I’ve trained them well.

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To celebrate, I took them out for milkshakes and then to my local favorite reggae restaurant, Buzz Cafe. Later on, one of my Nepali brothers, UK, came down to welcome me. It’s only been three months since I last saw them, but as soon as I did, I knew I made the right decision in returning. I felt at home.

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I taxi’d up the always-horrible roads up to Pandeli, one of the many villages in Sarangkot. It was now the rainy season and the roads were more beat up and muddier than before. Nearly impossible to drive through. My driver had to drop me off about half a kilometer early, because it was impossible to drive any further. As I walked down with my bags in tow, a little boy shouted out from a distance, “Give me sweet!”. I cringed. I recognized the boy from the school in Pandeli I taught at before. He’s the same kid who always and only asks me for sweets and nothing else. Not even a single polite ‘namaste’. I take a little blame for that. I may have bribed the younger classes a little too much with sweets in order to get them to calm the heck down. But I swear that one day, I will give him that “sweet” he consistently demands from me, except I’ll wrap a piece of cow poop in a candy wrapper and give it to him. If that doesn’t stop him from asking me, then I don’t know what will.

I walked down the muddy paths into Pandeli, with kids and random villagers saying hello and wishing me welcome upon my return. I walked half of the way basically in a small stream. This exact path was completely dry just three months ago! Not only that, this mountain was a lot more jungly. So wet. So humid. So muddy. Everything, taken over by green. Below, Phewa Lake was larger and darker than before. This version of Sarangkot felt more alive. It was a welcoming sight.

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I normally stay with Aatma and his family, but this time I opted to stay with his brother Yam and his family; just for a little change, even though they are just a seven-minute walk from each other. Bindu, Yam’s wife, came to welcome me along with my other Nepali brother, DJ. Yam came a little later and helped settle me in. I then explained my prospects to them.

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Yam and his wife, Bindu.

I usually come to Nepal with an agenda. The first time, almost three years ago, I came as a naive volunteer to help teach English at a primary school. The second time, in January 2017, I came back to fulfill a promise I made to the older classes. That promise was to take them on a field trip that they wouldn’t have to pay for. We did that and we had a lot of fun. This time however, I came with the purpose of just absorbing the culture even more and of course helping out at the school. Only I vowed I wouldn’t do anymore field trips. I took the students on a boatload of big and little trips last time, which my bank account showed for. Not this time.

Soon after settling in, I went down to Aatma’s to visit and noticed he expanded his place even more! He’s now built another kitchen and he made my old room even bigger! Where is he getting the funds to do all of this? The whole family was there: Aatma, Mina, Amish, and little Aakash. All except for Aatma’s teenage daughter, Amisha. “Where’s Amisha?” I asked. “She’s staying down with our uncle because she’s menstruating,” said Amish.

Oh, let me explain this.

So, if you’re a female on your period in Nepal, you are considered “unclean” and must be away from the rest of your family members. You can’t touch them, can’t even be more than a few meters away at all times. It’s especially worse when it’s their first time on their period. They are cast aside, essentially locked inside another room, far away from where the family resides. Like in a shed or something. They can’t even read or study while menstruating or otherwise they will upset the god of education among their many, many other gods. It’s totally superstitious, just like many other zany Nepali superstitions I’ve encountered here over the years. I’ve heard about this the very first time I came to Nepal, but I’ve never witness it happen, until now.

I visited Aatma’s neighbor, the home of Abishek, one of the class ten boys who lives just a couple minutes away.

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Abishek and his classmate, Bhuvan.

As usual, I was greeted warmly and with black tea by his family. Normally Abishek’s mother or sister are the ones who serve me tea, but since they were on their menstrual cycle, they weren’t allowed to be anywhere near the kitchen. I found it amusing and rolled with it as Abishek did all the kitchen handling while the females kept their distance. Amused by what was happening, I casually began to whistle random tunes without thinking, and as I did, the two women of the household began speaking to him in Nepalese. I could tell they were speaking something about me.

“Dan, they are saying not to whistle,” Abishek told me.

“Why?”

He just smiled and it seemed like he couldn’t explain. That’s when I remembered someone telling me that whistling attracts ghosts or something like that.

“Oh, the ghosts,” I said, with a slight hint of mockery.

I began to whistle even more, just to see how they would react. All they did was attack me with smiles and laughs whenever I did.

Abishek lived just below my good friend, and fellow teacher, Shree Krishna (Caesar). I wanted to pay him a visit. As a matter of fact I would have seen him by now, but he’s been MIA. According to some of the talk of the villagers, the reason I haven’t seen Caesar yet is because of a plague of bad fortunes, accidentally committed by his mother and sister-in-law.

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Shree Krishna (Caesar) and me during my birthday celebration last February.

“Did you hear, [Caesar’s] mother and sister crashed their car into a cow some days ago?” they would tell me.

“Ummm no?” I said

“It’s very bad.”

Very bad indeed. A cow is considered their sacred god…and they rammed into one that was standing on the road (which is actually pretty normal in this country)! From what I gathered, a string of bad luck was on its way to the family of those involved…which meant Caesar himself. Caesar’s brother, Arjun, took a motorbike to Kathmandu to follow respected Hindu figures…or something like that, to relieve their family of guilt, perhaps? Since then, Caesar’s mother has been suffering greatly from a serious lung cancer and since he is the only available one in the family, he has been escorting her back and forth to the most capable doctors all around the central lands of Nepal. After a couple weeks, I finally met up with Caesar at his home, which is about a fifteen-minute walk from Yam’s. But unfortunately, it was brief. While I was there, he received a phone call from Kathmandu telling him that his brother Arjun and his wife were involved in a near-fatal motorbike crash. Caesar, who JUST got back home to settle, had to rush all the way back to Kathmandu, to tend to his brother and his wife. While at the same time, Caesar’s mother still had pending operations where she needed Caesar to escort her. She was too old and fragile of doing it on her own.

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Caesar constantly traveled back and forth about six hours each time between Pokhara and Kathmandu to tend to his brother and mother. Photo courtesy of Caesar.

I’m not superstitious in the slightest, but it is all a bit strange how all of these unfortunate events are happening right after they hit that cow in the street. By the way, Caesar’s family extends into Yam’s. Bindu is Caesar’s and Arjun’s sister, which means my brothers, UK and DJ, are their nephews. I don’t expect anyone reading this to actually follow the family trees of this village. It’s mostly for my own admission. Poor Caesar couldn’t catch a break. He had to leave his position at Bal Prativa Boarding School in order to support his ailing family.

Caesar was the maths and science teacher at the school. He also spoke English the best out of all the teachers. Sarmila, the usual English teacher I followed, was on maternity leave. It seems I came at a time where there were many gaps to fill at the school until Aatma could replace their two most qualified teachers.

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A photo of most of the staff at Bal Prativa Boarding School, the school I help out at, taken last February. Three of the teachers have left, leaving a major hole in the student’s education.

I always enjoy having my own classes, but sometimes it can be a bit overbearing with the language barrier. The students generally understand me when I speak slowly enough, but then there was always a handful of students, forever lost in the cosmos. Also, I’m calling them out right now, Bal Prativa is full of sneaky little cheaters! It’s examination time (again) and it’s my role to act as a class officer to make sure everyone keeps quiet and doesn’t cheat. It’s way more difficult than it sounds. I had to pretend to record them on my phone and show it to principal Aatma if they continued talking.

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I came to the conclusion that the majority of these students cheat, some more than others, and there was very little I could do to stop it. The other teachers weren’t too persistent about it. Once I came to that realization, I just let them be. It’s Nepal.

I didn’t realize how daunting the school situation was going to be this time around. Class ten will be studying for their major exams soon and they were without three of their teachers. The third one took up a job in South Korea doing God knows what. Aatma and Ashok (another teacher) relied heavily on me to continue where they left off from their books, not just with class ten but also with class nine, eight, seven, six, and sometimes five, four, and three, teaching English and Social Studies mostly. Then sometimes they’ll have me dabble in Science and Accounting. What the heck would they have done if I decided not to come back to Nepal so soon?! I gave it my all.

At this point, I still have not seen Amisha nor Caesar, though I have been in contact with Caesar at least. He has been busy, staying bedside at the hospital in Kathmandu, taking care of his brother and sister-in-law, because they were unable to do so themselves. They couldn’t even walk! That’s how bad it was, but Caesar remained diligent in handling the tasks between them and his ailing mother.

Whoever this “god of education” was, he or she put a massive workload on me, which I wasn’t expecting. Now, I don’t believe in any of this stuff but while in Nepal, I roll with it out of respect to everyone there. When I brought it up in class, one student told me that maybe the god of education sent me to Nepal to help while there are no other teachers.

“Maybe…”, I began. “But I think it’s just pure luck.” 

She along with others began to snicker and say things to each other I couldn’t comprehend. It’s no secret to them that I don’t practice Hinduism, like most foreigners who visit this country, but it’s important for me to remain respectful and go along with it.

If anything, the god of education and all the lore that goes with it certainly does make life in Nepal interesting for me. Even the cattle have gone mad.

For better or for worse…

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Living in Nepal…With 18 Teenage Students That I Thought I Hated

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Getting to my old village in Nepal was a pain in the beeehind!

First, we had to endure a six-hour bus journey through twisty mountains from Kathmandu to Pokhara. The trip actually took ten hours because of ridiculous road conditions. I also vomited while on the bus from a combination of motion sickness and probable food poisoning. Those chicken momos I had the day before did not settle well.

Once we finally arrived in Pokhara, we stayed the night at Simrik Hotel and hired a taxi in the afternoon to take us up another giant hill to a village called Padeli. The roads on this particular mountain will instantly turn from reasonable to downright ridiculous. So much that cab drivers refuse to drive on them, and thus we have to get out of the taxi and hike the rest of the way.

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After a twenty minute jaunt, I spotted my old school, Shree Bal Prativa Boarding School, with the intention on surprising everyone there, former students and teachers alike. A handful of them knew I was arriving today.

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We walked through the school grounds with teachers popping their heads out of classes, welcoming me with warm returns and students who remembered me from two years ago, shouting my name. It was a humbling feeling, because I couldn’t remember most of their names, although their faces struck me with familiarity.

I was finally welcomed by Aatma, the principal of the school and the head of the home-stay I would be living in. Also by his wife Mina, the vice principal of the school. They haven’t aged one bit.

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On the way to my old home-stay, I reunited with Aatma and Mina’s three children: Amisha, Amish, and little Aakash who was still a runt even though it’s been two years since I last saw him. Seeing them all again was like seeing distant relatives I haven’t seen in some time. Except, these were the kind of relatives that you wanted to see.

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Upon arrival to my old digs, I expected to settle back into my old room that Tim, Emre, and I used to occupy. But not this time. Instead, Hamish and I were put into another newly-built room on the opposite side of the home, equipped with our own toilet. Aatma has made some additions to his once simpler abode and added two new toilets, a “shower” room, and three new rooms including a full sized classroom.

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“Why is there a classroom here now?” I asked Amish.

“Because class ten is staying here now”, he replied.

I was taken back.

“What do you mean they are staying here now?”

“Class ten is studying here for four months and it’s required for them to stay here at the hostel.”

So they are calling this a hostel now? And all of class ten lives here now?!

Back in the day, class ten, who I knew quite well as class eight…well, they weren’t exactly my favorite class.

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It was no secret to anyone. I always avoided them and spent my time mostly with class seven and nine. Class eight was a group of 18 students who looked at me with blank stares whenever I spoke to them and some would even snap back and curse at me in Nepalese. When I say some, I mean primarily a boy named Milan. He was the absolute worst and one of the sole reasons I wasn’t fond of the class. He was loud, obnoxious, a bit of a bully to his classmates, and for some reason, he was the outspoken leader of his peers. The rest of those students were silent and barely spoke to me, unlike the students in class seven and nine who always responded to me respectfully.

When I found out that I would be living 24/7 with class ten, formerly class eight…my excitement for being here went from a raging high to an “aw sh*t” low.

What are they even doing here anyways? Aatma’s school only goes up to class nine! Aatma building another classroom to his school to extend to a class ten was another change that I was unaware of until I arrived.

As I settled in, little by little, students from class 10 began to arrive. Although I wasn’t the fondest of them, I was still a bit eager to see them again. They’ve grown taller, their voices deeper, their English a little better, and their demeanor a tad calmer. Even Milan matured from a rotten brat to a seemingly well-mannered young adult. All of them remembered me and were happy that I was back. I remembered all of their faces as well, but not their names so I took it upon myself to relearn.

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I asked them what the deal was with this whole living-in-a-hostel-thing and they said that it’s mandatory for them to stay here to study for their board exams at the end of March. Everyday they will take exams given to them by the school in preparation.

“Everyday?” I asked.

“Yes,” they replied. “More than 150 exams until the board exams.”

My jaw about hit the floor.

“150 exams?!” I said in somewhat disbelief.

“Yes!” they said in laughter in response to my reaction.

Holy sh***t! I think I may have cursed in front of them but it was appropriate for emphasis.

“Well, I’m here to help whenever you need it,” I said to them. “Especially with English since I am the most fluent English speaker on this mountain now and you live with me. Don’t bother me with your math though. I stink at that.”

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I began to realize how different these students were in comparison to two years ago. They have definitely matured and their demeanor is a lot more relaxed. I can actually hold a conversation with them now, mostly with the boys. The girls were still somewhat shy around me but made more of an effort this time around to speak to me in English.

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Out of the five boys in class ten, Samir had the most trouble with his English. Though he was the most curious about me upon my return and spoke to me asking me loads of questions, broken English and all. Two years ago, he barely said a word to me.

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Over the course of the next few days, I tried to find the time to implement educational activities to the students but finding the time was difficult. Aatma made them study constantly. They would wake up at 4:30am to study, go to school at 10am, return back to the hostel at 4pm, study more, have a class around 8pm, and then study until 10:30pm. Jeez! I don’t know anyone who studied like that! Other than the extra classroom sessions that Aatma would ask me to teach, like Environment and Accounting (I haven’t taken an accounting course in years!), I would take the students out to the field for team building exercises that implemented snippets from lessons they were learning at the time. Group projects don’t exist at the boarding school, and as much as I disliked them growing up, I felt that it was important to acknowledge the teamwork aspect.

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As far as English is concerned, the best thing I can do for the students is to speak to them as much as I can, in the most natural conversational tone. Except I would speak just a bit slower, pronounce my letters a bit more, and use less complex words. Hand gesturing is also key. I would correct their English when they spoke or wrote something, as well as the teachers. Their English wasn’t exactly the best. It’s good, but not great. Especially, Aatma’s. You would think being the principal of a school and having loads of western travelers stay at your home would develop your English. But for his case, it’s still as wonky as it was two years ago. And out of all the staff, I have the most trouble understanding him. As for Mina, she gets a pass because I missed her delicious dal bhat.

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Samir enjoying his daily double dose of dal bhat. A signature dish here in Nepal.

Everyday we get served dal bhat for breakfast and dinner and Mina’s dal bhat is certainly the best in the village. It’s basically a load of white rice with steamed vegetable curry and a broth made with lentils. Mina remembers exactly how I liked it; no added eggs, no added buffalo milk, but with lots of veggies grown right from their garden. The only difference this time around was that I ate with all of class ten. Many of them ate with their hands, which is normal here. I was battling a stomach bug so I wasn’t ready to be utensil-less quite yet.

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I was starting to grow fond of class 10, who I couldn’t care less about two years ago. They have certainly grown up and now actually respond to me a lot more than the used to.

One thing for sure was that they studied WAY too much. I was on their side and expressed my opinion on the matter to them. Yes, it’s great that they are in an immersive learning environment but still their brains needs to rest and let live from time to time. I hammered the teachers about giving them just an hour or two out of the days to do anything but not study but I was hard pressed with hardly any notion of “leisure” time. Aatma was here to prove to Pokhara that his school is the best of the best and can produce high ranking students, even if it means they must study 18 hours out of the day. I couldn’t really argue against it.

It was a frustrating situation for me. These students I once disregarded, I now found myself defending. But I could only hope Aatma gets the result he is looking for and that it is worth the price for cramming these kids heads in books for four months straight.

We shall see.

Everybody Thinks I'm Fijian…and That's a Good Thing

adventure bornn

*My apologies for the lack of photos on this post. I made my most costly travel error ever when I accidentally dropped my iPhone into a waterfall. I’ll explain more about that on a later post.*

I was meant to arrive on Saturday, but was having such a good time at the Beachouse that I emailed The Green Lion, my project coordinators in Suva, letting them know I would arrive at the bus station at 3:00pm on Sunday instead. No problem.

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A group of awesome backpackers I hung around with at the Fiji Beachouse.
I also meant to take the express bus on Sunday morning, but instead Ross and his girlfriend Christie (UK) happily offered to drive me in their rental car. They had to go to Suva anyways. On the way there, we stopped in Pacific Harbor to grab some food and use the ATM. I noticed the time was just a little past 3pm, but no worries, Fiji Time. Just like many places I’ve been to (Africa being the one that pops in my head the most) Fiji runs on what they like to call Fiji Time. Which means, everything and everybody is going to be late. Not too late, but a little late. It’s the whole chilled out island mantra of the island and the perfect excuse as to why anyone in Fiji is late for anything. Fiji Time. I could dig it but it can also be annoying at times particularly when waiting on food that I ordered. In this case, Fiji time would work in my favor because I was already almost a half hour late. The coordinators are probably waiting at the bus station wondering where the heck I am. But I wasn’t overly concerned because of Fiji Time.

Once we arrived at the bus station, I just had Ross drop me off in the center of it. The bus station was a lot bigger than I imagined and a lot more hectic too. I said my farewells to Ross and Christie, put on my bags and simply began to walk around looking for any sign of someone looking for me.

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The Suva Bus Station. Courtesy of Fijibus.com
I’ve done this many times before and each time there is always someone around with a sign that either has my name on it, a yellow smiley face, an IVHQ logo sign, or whatever. I looked and looked. No sign. I did several laps around the entirety of the bus station and no sign of anyone looking for me. Oddly, I wasn’t worried.

I had three options:

  1. Keep walking around looking for somebody.
  2. Go into town and sort out purchasing a SIM for my phone to call Green Lion.
  3. It’s Sunday which means I’m probably not the only new volunteer arriving. I can just wait at the terminal for another foreign volunteer to arrive.

I stuck with option one.

They had to be around here somewhere. There’s no way they would leave the bus station with the possibility of a scared little volunteer all by themselves. I wasn’t scared. This was my fault actually. I told them I’d arrive at 3pm. I didn’t even know if buses actually arrived at three. Then on top of that I was late. I had to figure out a way to make myself look known. Other than my big bags I was carrying, I don’t exactly stick out. Since the day I arrived at the Beachouse, I’ve been mistaken for being a Fijian local by tourists and the locals themselves. Many backpackers assumed I worked at the Beachouse and locals were baffled when I started jabbering in my flat American English.

“Oh I thought you were Fijian!” they would say.

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This is a photo of me at a local village near the Beachouse at a kava ceremony. I blend in quite well right?
I blended in so well that a group of locals invited me to take part in a traditional wedding later in the week (more about that later)!

I never once got bored of the confusion. I was happy that I had potential to coast through Fiji without sticking out like a sore thumb. It will prove useful for when locals want to hassle me. It dawned on me that the coordinators are probably around but probably think I’m some local, easily mistakable among the crowds of actual locals venting in and out of the Suva bus station. Time to change my presence.

I purposely began to appear lost and confused. I walked slowly and would pause occasionally on my tiptoes looking past the crowds with a “what the heck is going on” look on my face. I did this all in the area of where I thought the best place the coordinators would be. I paced slowly, alert.

“Excuse me?” said a Fijian man wearing a tropical blue shirt and what looked like a black skirt for men. I glanced at him and raised my eyebrows letting him know he had my attention.

“Are you looking for someone?”

“Yeah, I’m looking for the Green Lion.”

“Oh, are you Daniel??”

“Yup I’m him!”

He and the woman next to him began to laugh.
“We saw you walk by many times but thought you were a Fijian!” they exclaimed.

This would be the new story of my life.

He introduced himself as Junior and the woman as Seini. Both are coordinators from the Green Lion who were scheduled to pick me up…at three!

“The bus showed up but there were no volunteers that came out, so we were confused,” Junior said with a smile.

I explained my situation but it was no matter. They were just happy to have found me and I was relieved I didn’t have to walk around aimlessly with my bags any longer. They led me to a local bus. About 40 minutes would be my new home for the next six weeks filled with a bunch of other volunteers from all around the world.

This is the part where I usually start to wonder what my housemates will be like, but weirdly I didn’t think much about it. I was concentrating on what kind of restaurants were on the way and IF there was a McDonald’s nearby (there was). I was also taken by the funky island music on blast in the bus. Every volunteer experience I’ve done, the volunteers have always been more than amazing, with a handful being good friends of mine to this very day, so I was sure this experience would be the same.

Once the bus dropped us off, we walked to the Green Lion office where I filled out a bunch of paperwork and then directed across the street to my new home.

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I walked in the house and already there were about a dozen volunteers socializing in the outdoor area. I gave a brief hello and a wave and followed Junior down the hall, downstairs to the boys corridor and to my room. In my room were four bunk beds with someone in each of them except for one, which would be mine.

“Hello,” I said with a stupid smile as I plopped down my bag. “How’s it going?”

One of the boys on the bottom bunk was sprawled out on his side with his right hand supporting his head. “You must be Daniel,” he said in a German accent. “I expected you yesterday.”

He was correct. I was supposed to arrive yesterday. But who is this guy? He introduced himself as Johannes (Germany) but for some reason I kept referring to him as Johannesburg. I got the idea from his chattering that he was the guru of the household. He seemed to know everything about Fiji. The other two in the room were also German. Their names were Timo and Julius, my roommates for the next six weeks. All of them young and all of them experiencing their very first volunteer trip or even solo trip ever! How cute. We made brief small talk before I decided to head upstairs to meet the rest of the crew.

It’s always a bit awkward being the new guy, but turns out that most of the volunteers just arrived hours before me and there were still some coming in later. I introduced myself to about a dozen people and didn’t remember a single name upon the first greet. That usually happens. The same questions follow afterwards: Where are you from? How long are you here for? What placement are you in? Sometimes followed up with: Are you travelling anywhere after Fiji? That last question I chose not to reveal fully just yet. I don’t wanna seem like I’m boasting that I’m currently on a two-year quest to the seven continents. So I just simply would say “Probably Australia.” As a matter of fact, I didn’t have a flight booked anywhere outside of Fiji yet. I wasn’t sure how long I would stick around or where in Australia I would go to first. However, in order to enter Fiji, you need to have proof of a flight departing the country. I found that out at the last minute while I was still in New Zealand. So instead of booking a last minute flight out of Fiji on some random date to some random Australian city, I devised a fake itinerary which worked like magic. (I personally don’t advise this, as it is risky. Go with your gut.) Anyways, back to the subject of my volunteering household.

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Among the group of initial greets, a few standouts were a group of college students from Seattle, Ethan- a southerner from North Carolina, Karen – a laid back gal who hails from Seattle, Annika (Germany) and Sara and Leah, two friends from Chicago. We mingled for awhile as other volunteers made their way into the house. A volunteer who has been there for awhile already, Mychaela, lives ten minutes from my mom in Michigan. Look at that! She’s freakin’ hilarious by the way. The last volunteer to stroll in that night introduced himself as Hamish.

“Hamish?” I thought out loud.”What kind of name is that?” It just kinda came out.

“It’s very common actually,” he responded with a grin. He hails from Sydney and this is also his first major solo romp. He sat down next to me and a couple of others I was chatting with and I could already tell from the words coming out of his mouth that this guy is the most Australian Aussie I’ve ever met in my life and I’ve met tons. I thought I’ve heard all the Aussie slang but it was like he spoke an entirely different language. I wasn’t sure at the time if he was toying with me or if this was legit how he speaks. It was legit how he speaks! If anything, his Aussie slang will help prepare me for my pending trip to Australia.


Most of us new volunteers went out the next night to the only bar in town, called Sports Bar. There was nothing sporty about it. Not even a single television. It was kind of a shit hole and we were the only ones there, but still it was a great way to bond with the group I would be spending most of my time with. And no matter how many times I volunteer, no one group is like the other.

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The IVHQ Fiji volunteer group.
Soon I will begin my placement at one of the local primary schools nearby. Like every country I’ve taught in, I expected it to be challenging in a good way. A new culture, new ideals, and different languages always present a few hurdles to bound. In a way, it’s like deducing a puzzle. It always takes a few days but I eventually get the hang of it.

One thing for sure is that I always grow fond of the students I teach and I’m sure the ones here in Fiji will be just as fond-worthy.

Everybody Thinks I’m Fijian…and That’s a Good Thing

adventure bornn

*My apologies for the lack of photos on this post. I made my most costly travel error ever when I accidentally dropped my iPhone into a waterfall. I’ll explain more about that on a later post.*

I was meant to arrive on Saturday, but was having such a good time at the Beachouse that I emailed The Green Lion, my project coordinators in Suva, letting them know I would arrive at the bus station at 3:00pm on Sunday instead. No problem.

Kayaking at the Fiji Beachouse
A group of awesome backpackers I hung around with at the Fiji Beachouse.
I also meant to take the express bus on Sunday morning, but instead Ross and his girlfriend Christie (UK) happily offered to drive me in their rental car. They had to go to Suva anyways. On the way there, we stopped in Pacific Harbor to grab some food and use the ATM. I noticed the time was just a little past 3pm, but no worries, Fiji Time. Just like many places I’ve been to (Africa being the one that pops in my head the most) Fiji runs on what they like to call Fiji Time. Which means, everything and everybody is going to be late. Not too late, but a little late. It’s the whole chilled out island mantra of the island and the perfect excuse as to why anyone in Fiji is late for anything. Fiji Time. I could dig it but it can also be annoying at times particularly when waiting on food that I ordered. In this case, Fiji time would work in my favor because I was already almost a half hour late. The coordinators are probably waiting at the bus station wondering where the heck I am. But I wasn’t overly concerned because of Fiji Time.

Once we arrived at the bus station, I just had Ross drop me off in the center of it. The bus station was a lot bigger than I imagined and a lot more hectic too. I said my farewells to Ross and Christie, put on my bags and simply began to walk around looking for any sign of someone looking for me.

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The Suva Bus Station. Courtesy of Fijibus.com
I’ve done this many times before and each time there is always someone around with a sign that either has my name on it, a yellow smiley face, an IVHQ logo sign, or whatever. I looked and looked. No sign. I did several laps around the entirety of the bus station and no sign of anyone looking for me. Oddly, I wasn’t worried.

I had three options:

  1. Keep walking around looking for somebody.
  2. Go into town and sort out purchasing a SIM for my phone to call Green Lion.
  3. It’s Sunday which means I’m probably not the only new volunteer arriving. I can just wait at the terminal for another foreign volunteer to arrive.

I stuck with option one.

They had to be around here somewhere. There’s no way they would leave the bus station with the possibility of a scared little volunteer all by themselves. I wasn’t scared. This was my fault actually. I told them I’d arrive at 3pm. I didn’t even know if buses actually arrived at three. Then on top of that I was late. I had to figure out a way to make myself look known. Other than my big bags I was carrying, I don’t exactly stick out. Since the day I arrived at the Beachouse, I’ve been mistaken for being a Fijian local by tourists and the locals themselves. Many backpackers assumed I worked at the Beachouse and locals were baffled when I started jabbering in my flat American English.

“Oh I thought you were Fijian!” they would say.

adventure bornn
This is a photo of me at a local village near the Beachouse at a kava ceremony. I blend in quite well right?
I blended in so well that a group of locals invited me to take part in a traditional wedding later in the week (more about that later)!

I never once got bored of the confusion. I was happy that I had potential to coast through Fiji without sticking out like a sore thumb. It will prove useful for when locals want to hassle me. It dawned on me that the coordinators are probably around but probably think I’m some local, easily mistakable among the crowds of actual locals venting in and out of the Suva bus station. Time to change my presence.

I purposely began to appear lost and confused. I walked slowly and would pause occasionally on my tiptoes looking past the crowds with a “what the heck is going on” look on my face. I did this all in the area of where I thought the best place the coordinators would be. I paced slowly, alert.

“Excuse me?” said a Fijian man wearing a tropical blue shirt and what looked like a black skirt for men. I glanced at him and raised my eyebrows letting him know he had my attention.

“Are you looking for someone?”

“Yeah, I’m looking for the Green Lion.”

“Oh, are you Daniel??”

“Yup I’m him!”

He and the woman next to him began to laugh.
“We saw you walk by many times but thought you were a Fijian!” they exclaimed.

This would be the new story of my life.

He introduced himself as Junior and the woman as Seini. Both are coordinators from the Green Lion who were scheduled to pick me up…at three!

“The bus showed up but there were no volunteers that came out, so we were confused,” Junior said with a smile.

I explained my situation but it was no matter. They were just happy to have found me and I was relieved I didn’t have to walk around aimlessly with my bags any longer. They led me to a local bus. About 40 minutes would be my new home for the next six weeks filled with a bunch of other volunteers from all around the world.

This is the part where I usually start to wonder what my housemates will be like, but weirdly I didn’t think much about it. I was concentrating on what kind of restaurants were on the way and IF there was a McDonald’s nearby (there was). I was also taken by the funky island music on blast in the bus. Every volunteer experience I’ve done, the volunteers have always been more than amazing, with a handful being good friends of mine to this very day, so I was sure this experience would be the same.

Once the bus dropped us off, we walked to the Green Lion office where I filled out a bunch of paperwork and then directed across the street to my new home.

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I walked in the house and already there were about a dozen volunteers socializing in the outdoor area. I gave a brief hello and a wave and followed Junior down the hall, downstairs to the boys corridor and to my room. In my room were four bunk beds with someone in each of them except for one, which would be mine.

“Hello,” I said with a stupid smile as I plopped down my bag. “How’s it going?”

One of the boys on the bottom bunk was sprawled out on his side with his right hand supporting his head. “You must be Daniel,” he said in a German accent. “I expected you yesterday.”

He was correct. I was supposed to arrive yesterday. But who is this guy? He introduced himself as Johannes (Germany) but for some reason I kept referring to him as Johannesburg. I got the idea from his chattering that he was the guru of the household. He seemed to know everything about Fiji. The other two in the room were also German. Their names were Timo and Julius, my roommates for the next six weeks. All of them young and all of them experiencing their very first volunteer trip or even solo trip ever! How cute. We made brief small talk before I decided to head upstairs to meet the rest of the crew.

It’s always a bit awkward being the new guy, but turns out that most of the volunteers just arrived hours before me and there were still some coming in later. I introduced myself to about a dozen people and didn’t remember a single name upon the first greet. That usually happens. The same questions follow afterwards: Where are you from? How long are you here for? What placement are you in? Sometimes followed up with: Are you travelling anywhere after Fiji? That last question I chose not to reveal fully just yet. I don’t wanna seem like I’m boasting that I’m currently on a two-year quest to the seven continents. So I just simply would say “Probably Australia.” As a matter of fact, I didn’t have a flight booked anywhere outside of Fiji yet. I wasn’t sure how long I would stick around or where in Australia I would go to first. However, in order to enter Fiji, you need to have proof of a flight departing the country. I found that out at the last minute while I was still in New Zealand. So instead of booking a last minute flight out of Fiji on some random date to some random Australian city, I devised a fake itinerary which worked like magic. (I personally don’t advise this, as it is risky. Go with your gut.) Anyways, back to the subject of my volunteering household.

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Among the group of initial greets, a few standouts were a group of college students from Seattle, Ethan- a southerner from North Carolina, Karen – a laid back gal who hails from Seattle, Annika (Germany) and Sara and Leah, two friends from Chicago. We mingled for awhile as other volunteers made their way into the house. A volunteer who has been there for awhile already, Mychaela, lives ten minutes from my mom in Michigan. Look at that! She’s freakin’ hilarious by the way. The last volunteer to stroll in that night introduced himself as Hamish.

“Hamish?” I thought out loud.”What kind of name is that?” It just kinda came out.

“It’s very common actually,” he responded with a grin. He hails from Sydney and this is also his first major solo romp. He sat down next to me and a couple of others I was chatting with and I could already tell from the words coming out of his mouth that this guy is the most Australian Aussie I’ve ever met in my life and I’ve met tons. I thought I’ve heard all the Aussie slang but it was like he spoke an entirely different language. I wasn’t sure at the time if he was toying with me or if this was legit how he speaks. It was legit how he speaks! If anything, his Aussie slang will help prepare me for my pending trip to Australia.


Most of us new volunteers went out the next night to the only bar in town, called Sports Bar. There was nothing sporty about it. Not even a single television. It was kind of a shit hole and we were the only ones there, but still it was a great way to bond with the group I would be spending most of my time with. And no matter how many times I volunteer, no one group is like the other.

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The IVHQ Fiji volunteer group.
Soon I will begin my placement at one of the local primary schools nearby. Like every country I’ve taught in, I expected it to be challenging in a good way. A new culture, new ideals, and different languages always present a few hurdles to bound. In a way, it’s like deducing a puzzle. It always takes a few days but I eventually get the hang of it.

One thing for sure is that I always grow fond of the students I teach and I’m sure the ones here in Fiji will be just as fond-worthy.

Spirit Week

I have one more week left here in HCMC. Time flew by too fast! It’s also Elisa and Valentina’s (Munich, Germany) last couple of days in Vietnam. Tom and Sophie went off for the weekend to Halong Bay, so the rest of us decided to go to China Town in District 5 to explore a bit. We started off by visiting a pagoda. Here there were locals praying to Buddha statues and lighting incense sticks as a way of showing respect. The architecture of the pagoda and the idols inside were very elaborate; red walls of statuary flowers and dragons of a gold color. There were statues all over the place! 20130719-103702.jpg20130719-103720.jpg

Just outside this pagoda was a tall yellow dragon that swam out of a pond in the middle of the district. Fascinating! I wanted to climb it and sit on the dragon’s head, but the locals sitting near warned me not to.

 

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After going through the crowded market of China Town, Addie nearly got her purse snatched by a driver on a motorbike! He knocked her down but fortunately he dropped the purse. Here in Vietnam, you have to be careful walking around on the streets. People on motorbikes will see an opportunity to quickly snatch something from unsuspecting tourists. It’s happened to several volunteers in the past, but mostly the girls because of how easy it is to nab a purse. Opportunist thievery. Afterwards, we all went to a Chinese food restaurant nearby and ordered some grub. I didn’t order anything because I was craving hamburgers and fries. I’m horrible. We headed back to the college and chilled out for the remainder of the night. The next morning we said our goodbyes to the two German girls. I told Elisa and Valentina that I will come see them next year for Oktoberfest and they can show me around. So saying goodbye to them was more like a “See you later.” I’ve never been to Germany before and this would be the perfect opportunity to go! They went off to Siem Reap to explore Cambodia, a country that Lucy and I will eventually make our way to in the coming weeks.

On Monday, after all the volunteers returned from their weekend excursions, Quyen invited all of us to the restaurant and taught us how to make spring rolls. Essentially, its green vegetables, rice noodles, meat, and carrots rolled into moist rice paper and then you eat them without being cooked. There were other spring rolls which we deep-fried which tasted much better. Quyen told us that it was her birthday, so after singing happy birthday to her, she announced that it wasn’t actually her birthday and that she just told us that to get us all to come out to spend time with her. We would have came regardless of the reason! Quyen is quite the jokester!

On Tuesday morning, the unexpected happened. I woke up with chest pains. That same morning I had plans to go to Duong’s restaurant at Cuch Bach to teach her staff at the restaurant English. It was a private session and she asked if I would be willing. Of course I would! So that morning, one of Doung’s friends picked me up on a motorbike as we cut through the city to Cuch Bach. We went up to the top floor, a lofty area, which resembled a giant treehouse. This was great because it was a smaller group which meant this could be a little more personable. Duong speaks great English, but she came up with this idea to help tutor her coworkers. She holds private sessions a few times in the morning during the week and I was the first English fluent guest she had. 2013-07-09 10.36.00I helped her for a few hours and during those few hours my chest started to hurt more than when I woke up. I kept on clenching my chest with my hand and had to sit up straight, but sometimes when I moved my body, a sudden strike would go through my spine which stung like no other. I pretended to be fine. Soon enough, class was over and one of Duongs friends motorbiked me back to the college.

Some students I had in a previous class the day before invited me out to karaoke today at noon. My chest was hurting pretty bad still, but I couldn’t turn these guys down. So I met them all up downstairs, a group of about ten, and we walked to Aapple Karaoke just around the corner. I swear all of these students are superb singers! Some even belted out songs in English in which they sounded great! I managed to sing a song in Vietnamese, where I sounded like total garbage, but the students said I sounded really good. 20130719-103902.jpgDuring this whole time, I remained seated because it hurt too much to move. I started to hurt worse than I did at Cuch Bach, where even just moving my neck would send a piercing strike down my spine. What the heck was happening to me? I would clench my chest and some of the students would ask if I’m ok. I remained calm, just a little ache, to not worry them. These guys are so awesome! They wanted to buy me drinks and food, and have me pay no part of it. I would have felt really bad for that to happen so I insisted that I throw in some money, much to their dismay. I had to cut our karaoke time short because my pain was growing worse. They understood and detected something was wrong with me the whole time. I had to go back to the college and lay down.

Upon my return, I went back to the room and I couldn’t even lie down on my bed because it hurt too much. This morning I thought the pain would go away, but it had gotten way worse at this point. So bad that it was becoming difficult to breath and I could barely move the upper torso of my body with lighting bolts of pain shooting through my body. I tried to prolong it, but I needed to go to the hospital. I didn’t know what was happening to me. The only problem was finding a suitable hospital relatively close by, where they spoke English. I didn’t go alone, Will actually came with me but we decided it was best to first find Quyen and ask her where to go. We found Quyen eating at the restaurant downstairs and told her my predicament. She eagerly escorted us to a hospital, about two minutes walk. She came with us, as she would be able to translate everything the doctor was saying. Next thing you know, I had sensor things all over me. Then took an x-ray. Then I had a blood sample taken. The doctors said my heart was fine and that my x-ray looked good, but proposed that I might of just slept in a weird position that morning. I did in fact sleep in a very uncomfortable position. That could be it. 20130719-103748.jpgHe prescribed me with a bunch of pills and gave me a neck brace to wear so I wouldn’t do any further damage. He also told me to come back in the morning to pick up my blood results. The neck brace actually was helping, but I decided to wait until the morning to pick up the subscriptions, just in case I started to feel better on my own later on.

That goofy character to the right is Will.
That goofy character to the right of me is Will.

Expectedly, I received a lot of stares and sad faces as I walked back through the college back to my dorm while wearing the neck brace. Students and teachers would stop and ask me what happened to my neck. I tried to explain that I slept wrong, but seeing as their English wasn’t the greatest, I don’t think most of them understood. So I just started telling everyone that I fell off a motorbike. Easier to comprehend and easier to explain. I was told by the doctor to go on bed rest all day and not do anything crazy. We previously made plans to all go out to karaoke and then to a nightclub tonight, but I had to be the lone horse that stayed behind. It sucked, but I needed my neck and chest to feel normal again or otherwise this “injury” would ruin the rest of my trip.

The next morning, I woke up still in pain, but not as bad as yesterday. I didn’t feel the need to go pick up my prescription just yet, so instead Macu and Bone took me out to a proper Vietnamese breakfast. I asked them to order something for me that they would think I liked. The only request: nothing with seafood in it! Whatever it was that Macu, ordered turned out to do the trick. Later that day, the boys treated me out to the cinema, along with their friend Kid. We saw the movie “Now You See Me” which was in English, but with Vietnamese subtitles, thank goodness! In return, I bought them lunch at KFC and ice cream right after.

Kid, Bone, and Macu
Kid, Bone, and Macu

These guys wanted to pay for everything for me but there was absolutely no way I could let them do that! “You need to save your money for your big trip!” they would say. “I’ll be okay” I would say. These guys always wanted to pay for me, even though they are just students in college, they still wanted to spend their very hard-earned money on me. Every local I have hung out with is that way. And it’s something that I won’t ever take for granted. Sometimes these locals absolutely insist and it might be rude of me to refuse. But in that case, I always makes sure to return the favor in one way or another. The boys took me back to the college soon after ice cream. “Guys, I have two more days until I leave” I told them. “Don’t worry, we will see you before you go.”

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I am one of the only volunteers that teaches English here at the college. Most of the other volunteers work either with disabled children, at the orphanage, or at the hospital. For weeks, I have been raving to everyone how great it is to be teaching the students, so Lucy and Lex decided they would accompany me to one of my class sessions. Today I was in Ms. Chi’s class of aspiring cooks and chefs. The lesson plan that Chi and I went over the previous day, involved me teaching the students about auxillary verbs and using them in a question. The second part involved conversations in advice about relationships. Chi let me be the frontman for the entire class. It was great and time flew by! The students after class would facebook message me telling me that I have a fun, interesting way of teaching, even though at times it was difficult to understand my American accent. I’ll work on my weird accent guys!

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I returned back to the college, wearing my neck brace back to my dorm. I looked at all of my things sprawled out everywhere. “I have to start packing”, I thought to myself. The next day, my final day in Saigon, would turn out to be one of the saddest goodbye’s I’ve ever had overall with any of my many volunteering experiences.

It’s going to be a tear jerker.