Ariana Afghan Restaurant

Ariana Afghan Cuisine is the first Afghan restaurant in Atlanta (or perhaps even the entire state of Georgia). Located just off the highway off 285/ Roswell Road, the first glance doesn’t give much of a curb appeal. But once you step inside, it’s an entirely different experience. The inviting space is decorated with large Oriental rugs and photographs hung on the walls, while the ceiling is laced with original Afghan hand looms that is used to decorate tents. Fresh flowers are placed at every table, covered with white table cloth. Continue reading “Ariana Afghan Restaurant”

Open world program opens homes and forms new friendships

I gave Mariya a Christmas ornament of The Fox Theater from Atlanta

Last week a delegation from Russia came to Atlanta to discuss social issues and healthcare through the Open World Leadership Program. The six delegates were hosted with families who have opened up their homes by being members of the Georgia Council of International Visitors (GCIV).

Mariya Yuryevna Solodunova, a young lady from St Petersburg was assigned to live with us for a week. She is a child psychologist who works in an orphanage providing counseling to children, parents and the care takers. Having volunteered in an orphanage in Yaroslavl in Russia couple of years ago, I was eager to learn more about what she did. Mariya (pronounced Marsha) is absolutely passionate about her work. She told me about how cutting edge her orphanage was and how her team has been on a mission to replicate its model to other places. Basically, they hired mothers to work as care taker with the orphan babies between the age of 0-4, a delicate age when they are most in need of emotional and physical care. This has changed their psychological behavior completely leading them to grow up to be healthy kids. More on that in my next post.

Mariya and I had a wonderful time together. This was her first visit to the US. Even though we live across the world from each other, we found we have a lot of similarities and could converse on practically any subject (even though Mariya said her English was limited which I disagreed with). One evening we had a girl’s day in and cooked pirogues (Russian stuffed bread), drank wine and shared stories. Needless to say I got to learn a lot about Russian traditions. Did you know that Christmas in not celebrated on Dec 25th in Russia? Also, they do not put presents under the tree till Christmas Eve and the children actually have to earn them by doing a performance or a recital.

One thing Mariya shared with me brought about a self awakening. She said that in Russia people are generally cautions about their belongings and their privacy, and would not leave their home open to a complete stranger. The fact that I gave her a key to my home after only a few hours of knowing her surprised her that I would trust someone so much so soon. I explained to her that we humans try to protect our materialistic things and forget that we came into the world with nothing and will leave with nothing. It is only our gestures towards each person leave an everlasting impact on one individual or an entire society. Then why do we give so much importance to the materialistic thing? A Buddhist believer, she found me to be. She said after staying with us, it has opened her heart and she will now be more trusting of people as well. Perhaps she will sign up to be a host family in her city.

GCIV Farewell party

The last evening, all the delegates, host families and GCIV staff members got together for a farewell celebration. We ate, drank and sang Russian songs. One of the ladies from Sibera even sang us a song in Hindi called “I am a disco dancer.” She did not speak English but her Hindi singing was awfully good!

It was wonderful to meet other like minded people who open up their homes to complete strangers and want to share their lives with others. Because of such people, visitors to the US have a warm welcoming feeling and great memories to take back home. Mariya was emotional when she was leaving us. She said she had not met such kind and compassionate people as she did during this entire visit and that she would love to come back soon.

I believe getting to know people from different countries actually teaches you a thing or two about life as well. In addition to learning about the culture, you get to learn more about yourself and your own culture.  I had a similar experience in India last month which I encourage you to read about.

Becoming a host is easy. All you need to provide is boarding, some meals, a friendly spirit and an open minded attitude.

Frequently Asked Questions about volunteering abroad

Recently, I have given a few presentations on volunteer vacations abroad, shares my stories and inspired others to travel. The question I get from my audiences after each presentation is “What do I do next?” So here is the answer to that and other frequently asked questions you may have about volunteering abroad.


How long do I need?

Typically a volunteer vacation program lasts a minimum of 1 week but you can go for as long as you can afford to. Students and retirees take 2-3 months off whereas professionals may only go for 1-2 weeks.

How much does it cost?

Each program is very different. Depending on the country, organization and activities involved, you can pay anywhere from $200-1500/ week. The costs include lodging, meals, airport pickups and some sightseeing activities. You will be responsible for your airfare and weekend trips.

How far in advance do I need to plan?

The further the better, especially if you need to save up or do a fundraiser to sponsor your trip. You need to plan at least a month in advance to arrange for visa, reserve your space, book your tickets, etc. Sometimes last minute spots open up at a discounted price but it’s rare.

What skills do I need?

You don’t necessarily need any particular skills. Most programs are designed so that the common Joe can be helpful and involved. An open mind, patience and respect for other human beings are probably the most important assets you can bring with you. If you have some experience in teaching, working with children or healthcare, it would help too.

What kind of work will I be doing?

Most places I have found have partners with local organization, such as orphanages, hospital, old homes, universities and schools. They send a constant flow of volunteers to do one of the following activities – play with children, do arts and crafts, engage elderly people, teach (English, Computer Science, etc.), or take care of babies.

Do I need to know the language?

All the places I volunteers at did not require me to know the language. There are interpreters if needed and basic English is understood in most countries. In Russia, language was a huge challenge as not many spoke English, but we managed just fine by speaking the language of games, arts and crafts.

Can I make an impact in a short time?

Yes, of course! You will be surprised to learn how much impact you can make on a life of another and on your own. When you bring a smile to a little child face’s who has not received much affection growing up in an orphanages, you would feel like you made an impact. When people see that you have taken the time and effort to travel all the way to their country and are spending your precious time with them, expecting nothing in return, it will stir a different kind of emotion. Undoubtedly, people feel more connected and grateful to each other, which is the entire drive behind the Go Eat Give movement.

What would a typical day be like?

A typical day would start early. Breakfast will be served at 8am, after which you will go to your volunteer workplace. Depending on the assignment, you may be scheduled to work for a couple of hours or half a day. If you are in a school, you can expect to work normal school hours. You would return to your home base for lunch. The afternoons are usually set for organized activities such as lectures, field trips, lessons, etc. (if the organization offers them). Evenings are free to explore the city, interact with other volunteers or catch up with your reading. Dinner is generally served early but you are free to stay up till late.

Is it good to go alone or with someone I know?

I have tried it both ways and see the value in each of them. I had more fun on the weekends since I had a friend to explore other cities with. We could plan our trip ahead of time because we planned sightseeing before and after our program as well. Going alone means you will get to meet people and make new friends. I have seen people pair up or go as a group over the weekend. I think if you are going for a longer period of time, going alone has more benefits. But be assured, you will never find yourself all alone.

If you have any other questions, please feel to reach out to me by leaving a comment below or email me at I personally reply to every message.

Patch unites global humanitarians in Atlanta

This weekend, I attended the Global Health & Humanitarian Summit at Emory University in Atlanta. It was three days of speakers, networking, exhibits and activities. The organizers want to make it into a movement, similar to the Global Economic Summit and it was a great first event. There were hundreds of people from all over the world in attendance.

Speakers included nonprofit organizations, individual humanitarians from different field’s doctors and Emory University students.  There were simultaneous sessions going on throughout the day, so one could move around to specific areas of interest. Rollin McCraty spoke about Heartmath and the Global Coherence Project, which I am a member of already. Andrew Chung, a cardiologist taught us about fat and heart disease. Student groups talked on human rights conditions in North Korea and the Emory China Care group shared their events and activities. I also heard Celeste Koshida educate us about the Women’s Federation for World Peace. A renowned artist from Athens, Georgia, Stan Mullins has built sculptures in Rwanda and Australia. He is commissioned for the Respect project. I also enjoyed Ed Wolkis photographic display of Tibet when he was touring with doctors.

I presented a session on Volunteering Abroad – from a writer’s perspective, where I shared about my volunteer trips to Morocco and Russia.

The highlight of the event was the closing speech by the real Patch Adams (who was played by Robin Williams in the movie about his life). Patch has a larger than life personality and is engaged in many humanitarian efforts. Contrary to his clown act, he is actually very intellectual and well read. He has a deep understanding of spirituality, life and love. Patch shared his personal story of being beaten up as a kid, having his father die in the World War and trying to commit suicide three times as a teenager. After his third attempt, he decided that he would never be unhappy again. He started practicing reaching out to people by riding on the elevators, calling wrong numbers and showing up at events dressed as a clown. He said he has stopped thousands of violent acts by just appearing in his funny distracting outfit.

Patch pays his doctors less than $300/ month but they love working for him. He promotes communal living where expenses are much lower, people support each other and you always have friends. He also gave us some tips and pieces of advice to follow as humanitarians, such as take care of ourselves, not to be led down by disappointments, our job would never be over but we must take time out for ourselves, etc. He showed videos of himself engaging children in a Russian orphanage and in Peru, as part of his humanitarian clown trips. It reminded me of my time in Russia when I was trying really hard to play with this little girl who just wanted to be by herself. She was an adorable four-year old but never smiled or interacted with anyone.

As expected Patch was hilarious during the two-hours that he was on stage! He was dressed as a clown and performed his antics to make the audience (young and old) laugh to their heart’s content. Walking out, I felt invigorated, inspired and determined to make a difference in this world.

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CCS to Russia and Morocco

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.

volunteering in Russia with cross cultural solutions


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.

cross cultural solutions home base in Rabat MoroccoThe 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.

Cultural activities:

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:volunteering in Rabat Morocco

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.

Weekend travel:

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.

Why I volunteer…

I wrote this for my family and friends a few months ago and decided to share it with you too…

I lived in India with my grandmother till the age of 17. She was a professional volunteer social worker for most of her life as her husband did not want her to work for money. As a child, I would accompany her to blind schools, orphanages, Rotary clubs and many other places. Once when I was 10 years old, we were at Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Chandigarh, where I overheard a comment that got tattooed in my brain. The nun who was running the orphanage said that they had about 99 baby girls out of 100 kids at any given time. When my grandmother exclaimed, “Why no boys?” she said the boys get adopted right away but nobody wants the girls. That day I decided that when I am an adult I will come by and adopt a baby girl from an orphanage in India. If not that, at least I would try to impact their lives in whatever way I can.

Did you know that 1 million children get orphaned in India every year, followed by Russia and Africa? This fact alone led me to my journey to Russia in summer of 2009. I found a volunteer program offered by Cross Cultural Solutions that involved an Insight to Russia where one could take a volunteer vacation. The volunteers would be working in orphanages for 4-6 hours a day and get to experience the country in evenings and weekends. Since it was my first time doing something like this, in a far away country, by myself, I signed up for the 1 week program. Closer to my departure, I was told that the placements at Yaroslavl had changed a bit due to the Government interventions. Nevertheless, we would be working with children during our trip.

During my week in Yaroslavl, I went to an orphanage, a boarding school, a woman’s mental hospitals and an elderly ladies facility. I enjoyed playing with the kids, teaching them new crafts, taking their Polaroid photos for them to keep, and bringing ear to ear smiles to their faces. The elderly women were eager to make conversation with me and wanted to know how I like Obama’s new government! The hospital was a grave site to watch. The women had battered beds, got communal showers and got to eat oatmeal for every meal. One thing I recognized from this experience was how similar we humans are in every part of the world. The people I met lived in a far away country, but shared the same aspirations, desires, needs and problems as they do here. I met a 19 year old girl who had a crush on her college professor, another young woman who started drinking heavily after her mother’s death, and a grandmother who kept inviting me to her home where she was thinking she was going to after being released from the psychological facility.

Be it in India, in USA or in Russia, we all share the common thread of humanity. We want to have a good life where we are able to have access to necessities, have good health, peace and happiness, be recognized at work or communities, have someone to share our love with, and be close to our families. Those are the most important things in life!