I went to Russia in May 2009 through Cross Cultural Solutions Insight aboard program. I picked Russia because I had heard about their large numbers of orphanages, in par with India where I saw the plight of orphans first hand at Mother Teresa’s homes. Since this was my first time and I was traveling alone, I decided to volunteer for 1 week and sightsee for another. After going for my second volunteer program to Morocco in 2010, I noticed that every experience with CCS tends to be very different. A lot of people have since approached me asking me about the differences in the programs and how I would rate one against the other. Both programs were very unique, and offered different perspectives on life, but here is a basic breakdown of my observations.
The base camp in Russia was in Yaroslavl, about four hours by car from Moscow. The city was relatively small, and everything closed by 5-6pm. The people there did not speak much English either. Even though there was daylight till 11pm (being summer), our evenings were quiet because we weren’t able to do much. Rabat is the political capital of Morocco, and a bustling city any time of the day. There was a lot to do, from shopping, visiting medinas, malls, casbah, beach, museums, monuments, restaurants, etc. I never found any down time while I was in Morocco.
The home base:
We were 22 people at the home base in Rabat, Morocco and only 5 volunteers in Russia, so that made a huge difference. I enjoyed the larger group better because you could always find someone who had common interests or was willing to do an activity at that time of the day. Pretty much any hour of the evening, you will find someone who is going shopping, wanting a Gelato, go running, smoking hookah, playing games, reading, or chatting. On the other hand, having a full house in Rabat, we had bunk beds (for 2-8 people per room) and a few common toilets to share. In Russia, I had a room to myself and shared the toilet with only four other females. The house in Rabat was s stand alone, three-story home with gardens and open spaces. Our home in Russia was in a building. It had many floors but no outdoor space.
In Russia, we went to a different placement each day and worked from 9am-4pm with lunch break at home in between. We went to boarding schools/orphanages, children’s hospital, women’s mental hospital and old person homes. Since we did not speak Russian, our interactions were mainly non-verbal through games, crafts and sports. We engaged the kids and adults in various activities that gave them a break from their daily routines. It gave me an overall perspective on how life was in Russia. I learned a lot, especially from the old home and the women’s hospital. In Morocco, there was a fixed routine and I went to the same placement, a women’s empowerment center to teach English, every day. Other volunteers were placed at a children’s hospital, university, center for street kids and a refuge community college. We only worked during the morning hours and were free after lunch. I felt like I could make a bigger impact by working at the same place each day and was able to connect with the people better.
Both the countries had organized activities for us after work. I felt like there was a more organized schedule in Rabat, than in Yaroslavl. We had cooking lesson, Arabic lessons, talks on Islam, women and Morocco, excursion to the Casbah and pottery village during our stay in Rabat. In Yaroslavl, we had Russian lessons, a visit to the art museum, talk on history, a field trip to Kremlins, ceramic factory and city tours.
Food is an important part of my experience when travelling abroad. Obviously, Russian and Moroccan food differ by night and day, so I can’t really compare. In terms of offerings by the CCS program, I felt that we were served more luxuriously at Yaroslavl as the group was small. Also, the chef had formerly been employed at an upscale restaurant so she prepared some gourmet meals and attended to each of our preferences (one of us was vegetarian). Eggs were made to order in the mornings and there was always a special dessert treat each day. We had set times for breakfast, lunch and dinner and were expected to sit at the table, before meals were served. In Rabat, we were served buffet-style meals. There was a lot of variety to chose from (soup, salads, breads, lot of vegetables, one meat entrée and fruits was dessert). A line would form instantly once the bell rang and the food was generally gone within 15 minutes. We dined at the traditional round tables with low stools ad couches around them.
In Russia, CCS offered a three-day weekend, so volunteers went to St. Petersburg and Moscow, where there is a lot to see. Train was the best way to travel. I also went to neighboring countries, Estonia, Finland, Sweden and Denmark after my trip. In Morocco, I had gone with two friends, so it made weekend travels much more fun. We went to Casablanca and Marrakesh. One weekend, about 12 of the volunteers went for a dessert safari into the Sahara. It was very economical once we split the cost between ourselves and hired a small bus with a guide. My friends and I also did a day trip to Fes, which was a lot of fun. I found that people who didn’t know each other connected during their stay and went for weekend trips together.