Myanmar: The Buddhist Life

A bell tolls from a nearby temple, welcoming the rising sun as it seeps through the valleys, illuminating one pagoda at a time. Dawn marks the hours of alms for the novices that inhabit the hundreds of monasteries and nunneries of Sagaing, the holy center of Myanmar. I watched through the bamboo thatches of my hut as the novices at the IBEC (International Buddhist Education Center) descended the hill with their bowls, some balanced on their head, others falling into their hands. The younger novices struggled to keep their robes tied properly around their shoulders as they ran to keep up with the monks. They were heading to the town to ask the villagers to contribute “alms”, gifts to the monastery. It is these alms and contributions that the holy centers survive on.

kids at Buddhist monastary in Burma

I had been living and teaching at the IBEC for two weeks now, participating in the daily rituals of the novices and learning about the pillars of Buddhism. As one of two westerners, and the only woman at the monastery, there is a lot to learn quickly. The principal, a highly respected monk, welcomes me and thanks me for coming. When addressing the principal, one must sit lower than him, with their feet tucked in, as a sign of respect. When he walks through the monastery grounds, people bow on the ground to him. Every morning the monks and nuns come to pay their respect from neighboring monasteries. They kneel before him and bow their heads three times.

International Buddhist Education Center in Burma

The IBEC gives free education to children from all over Myanmar. A lot of poorer families will send their children to become monks because it is the only education they can receive. Walking around the monastery, the children hang out of the windows exclaiming, “hello teacher, hello!” The novices range in age from three to eighteen. They wake up every morning at 4am for their morning chants and alms, go to school until 5pm, study from 5-9pm and pray until bedtime. It’s a tight schedule with little playtime. Teachers are highly respected and the young novices are extremely eager to learn. At the end of every class, they repeat, “thank you teacher, see you tomorrow teacher, thank you teacher.” The nuns also attend various classes at the monasteries. These bashful girls always sit in the back of the classroom and are easily identifiable with their bright pink robes and shaved heads. The boys and girls move in and out of the classroom separately. Gender roles become increasingly apparent when you go into town. Only men are seen eating at the restaurants and women are assumed to be home working.

The local teachers are mostly women and eager to practice their English. Each day they rub thanaka on my cheeks, a white paste made from a tree root, used to protect skin from the sun. In town, the villagers welcome the teachers with open arms. During a “food festival”, each house cooks an enormous meal and participants wander from house to house as a way to socialize with the village. When someone shares a meal with the Burmese, they are considered part of the family. I join over 30 families during my time in Myanmar.

volunteering with kids in Burma

The Burmese culture is infamous for their warm smiles and generosity. A once isolated country; its borders have now been opened to businesses and tourists alike. Aside from teaching novices, I help Burmese immigration officers improve their spoken English. They are required by the government to learn English to prepare for the influx of foreigners. At the end of my two weeks there, I am showered with gifts from my students. I leave the center feeling that I had received much more than I had given to them. This is quite common in Buddhist and Burmese culture, that is the spirit of giving more then you receive.

~ By Teresa Murphy of Tess Travels. Murphy spent three weeks living and teaching at a Buddhist monastery in the holy capital of Sagaing, Myanmar.

Read more about volunteering abroad. 

Welcome to The Iguana Station

During my freshman year of college, I spent Spring Break in Utila, Honduras. Utila is one of the Bay Islands located in the Caribbean. It is so small that there is no real airport on the island. Instead, I flew to the nearby island of Roatan. Before I left, an overeager escalator chomped at the airport through the sole of my right sandal. I arrived in Roatan with only a few straps and a bit of rubber under my heel.

volunteer in Honduras

The moment I landed, I knew I was in a completely different place. The airport was small and open, for the breeze to flow through. Flowers and plants were everywhere I looked. I took a bus to the nearby docks to board a catamaran for the trip to Utila along with the other students. Like Roatan, Utila was bright and lively. I soaked in the beauty as we made the short walk from the pier in Utila to the small apartment where we would be staying. After settling in, we were defintely ready for bed.

wishy willy

The next morning, I met the other volunteers at the Iguana Station. We were given a run-down of the daily routine we would follow for the week. In the mornings, we rose early and had breakfast. We then slathered our bodies with a cocktail of baby oil, bug spray, and sunblock to combat the sand flies, mosquitoes and sunburn. When every inch of exposed skin was coated, we walked up the hill to the station. The volunteers split up for volunteer duties, such as cleaning, feeding the iguanas, and running the tour.

Iguana station

The main concern of the station is the endangerment of the swamper iguanas, a rare breed found only on the island. Many locals hunt and eat the iguanas. To combat this, the station workers rescue and breed them. On special field trips, lessons are taught to local schoolchildren about preservation. I was lucky enough to teach this lesson; however, the PowerPoint was in Spanish. Most of the children on the island are bilingual, so I frequently had to ask them to translate the words. I still get a laugh remembering the first time I did this.

I gestured to the screen.
“Can you read what that says out loud for me?”
They dutifully rattled off the words.
Feeling foolish, I amended my request, “Can you read that out loud in English for me?
They giggled but repeated the words, this time in English.

cleaning up Utila

Teaching the lessons was my favorite part of working at the station. Afterwards, I spoke with the children about their lives on the island. They were cheerful and inquisitive, and amused by my constant need for translation and my complaints about the heat, which they said was “not even hot yet.”

At feeding time, I went to the marshes to gather small crabs to feed the iguanas. This was a messy, tedious process which involved kneeling in the mud and poking sticks into the crab holes. When they scrambled out, we would grab them and drop them into buckets. We also chopped up hibiscus flowers to create a “salad” for the iguanas. The iguanas may have preferred the crabs, but I was not a fan.

Iguana lunch

Every evening, after our work was through, we explored the tiny town of Utila. We bought groceries (consisting mostly of beans and rice) and cooked occasionally, often eating out. The local food was plentiful, and there were “imported” restaurants as well. At The Pizza Nut, the owner made pizzas to order. They took a long time to cook, but were delicious. One night, I fell asleep while waiting for my meal. Accustomed to the fast pace of American restaurants, it was strange to wait for over an hour for a meal to arrive. However, every meal I ate in Utila was worth it.

The experiences were worthwhile as well. We climbed a mountain to watch dozens of bats fly out from their cave at dusk. They were so many of them that we had to duck or they would fly into us or get caught in our hair. Somehow, unlike the crabs, I did not mind the bats. During breaks, we also went snorkeling, swimming, and hiking across the island.

beach in Utila

 

The last night in Utila, all of the volunteers went to a local bar to celebrate. I spent most of the night beating the others at the game of Checkers painted onto the bar and trying not to think about having to leave the island.

As the catamaran took us back to Roatan to catch a flight home, a storm rocked the small boat. I was rolled in a tarp (to keep off the pouring rain) under a bench for the entire four hours. When I arrived home many hours later, I was still faintly green. Despite the ruined shoe and seasickness, that week was one of the best experiences of my life. I would recommend Utila to anyone looking for volunteer opportunities, or just a unique vacation spot.

 ~ Anna Sandy is a creative writing major at the University of Memphis. She traveled to Utila in March of 2011 with the College of Charleston’s Alternative Spring Break program. Her passions are books, travel, and any sort of dark chocolate-covered fruit. 

Organic community farming in Havana

One of the projects Go Eat Give supports through international volunteerism is an organic community farm in Cuba. A few miles outside of Havana, a large public housing project was created for people who could not afford to live in the city. In 1997, four agronomist Cubans started an organic urban farm, Vivero Alamar as a way to feed the community and generate employment. Now Vivero Alamar has over 25 acres and employs over 160 people.

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Some facts about Organoponico

The farm has been able to make a huge impact in the lives of Cubans. Up until recently, Cuban diet consisted of rice, beans and meat, but thanks to the produce of Vivero Alamar and other such farms in the area, the locals are now eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Under the direction of Isis Salcines, Vivero Alamar started an outreach program with local schools. Here, children learn to grow vegetables, get a basic understanding of where their food comes from, and discover what makes a healthy diet. By teaching the next generation about organic and sustainable food production, Isis and the staff at Vivero Alamar are ensuring that their methods and philosophy will continue, no matter what happens in Cuba.

Secondly, Vivero Alamar is an innovative cooperative, where all employees share in the profits of what they produce and sell. The employees live, work and participate in Alamar so that they have better working conditions and higher wages than an average Cuban.

The market at the entrance of Vivero Alamar sells produce like cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, green onions, carrots, tomatillos, peppers, beets and bok choy; Cuban staples like rice and black beans; peanuts, sprouts and sunflower seeds; and some prepared foods like tomato puree, mango or guava jam, and sauerkraut. Customers can pick up fresh produce daily and meet the farmers too.

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Go Eat Give volunteers help remove weeds and plant trees.

During our volunteer vacation in Cuba, we spend a day at the farm learning about sustainable organic farming in Cuba, helping out with their projects, giving them donations and enjoying a delicious lunch prepared using all farm grown ingredients! Isis Salcines said, “Go Eat Give is the only organization who has come to Alamar to work alongside the farmers and make them feel important!”

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Go Eat Give’s mango tree at Organoponico

Go Eat Give volunteers took donations of clothes and office supplies for the farm and its workers. Simple items such as paper clips and pens are very expensive and sometimes even hard to find in Cuba, so our offerings were much appreciated!

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Donations were given to the farm’s office and workers

Join us for our next trip to Cuba and volunteer at Organoponico Vivero Alamar yourself.

The Spaniards need us too!

When you think of volunteering internationally, generally Europe doesn’t come to mind. I always thought it is the orphanages and schools in third world countries, or the villages and communities in a disaster hit area that really need us, but I was wrong. Continue reading “The Spaniards need us too!”

Heart of lightness

Plaza Mayor in Lima
Plaza Mayor in Lima

I own it.  I’m a shallow traveler.  When choosing a destination my top criteria are visual drama and cultural civility.  In other words, a beautiful place with a relative absence of war, crime, despots, or other forms of antisocial behavior.  Delicious cuisine and interesting culture or wildlife are also high on the list.  So when I had the opportunity to travel toPeru, it seemed like a great fit on all those dimensions. Plus there was another exciting aspect – I was also going as a Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS) volunteer.  But more on that later.

City of Cusco
City of Cusco

Cusco is a breathtaking little city, both metaphorically and literally.  Situated at an altitude of over 11,000 feet, the air is thin.  One is advised to hydrate and rest upon arrival in order to acclimate to the altitude – advice I promptly ignored in favor of taking photos of the quaint cobblestone streets and surrounding mountains.  For this I was punished with a blazing headache.  This did not stop me from touring the nearby Incan complex Sacsayhuaman, a UNESCO World Heritage designated site with a spectacular view of the valley below.  But as the evening of the first day wore on a merchant took pity on me and gave me an aromatic herb called muna (pronounced “mun-ya).  Her advice was to inhale the aroma of the foliage to alleviate symptoms.  Along with a good night’s sleep, it did the trick.  The next day I was as good as new.

Local musicians
Local musicians

My friends and I ate several times at the same restaurant in Cusco.  We’d randomly picked it out for lunch while walking around the lovely Plaza de Armas our first day out.  It was so good that we went back.  The name is Papillion and it has a great view of the Plaza from the balcony.  What a find!  The quinoa soup was mouthwatering and I spent the rest of the trip stalking the recipe.  Quinoa is a nutritious staple of the Peruvian diet and was considered sacred by pre-Columbian civilizations.  At one point one of my travelling friends also shared a bite of her alpaca.  Tender, mild and nicely prepared.  Our last night there a local band played traditional music as we sipped Pisco sours.  It may have been the effect of the notoriously lethal Pisco, the altitude, or the good company, but it felt pretty magical.

Machu Pichu
Machu Pichu

The legendary Machu Picchu embodies the cliché “pictures do not do it justice.”  The scenery along the way to Aguas Calientes is just a prelude.  It is a lengthy trip (early morning bus ride to the train station) but the time flies with so much see.  Since at all times we were treading the well-worn “Gringo Trail.”, there was of course evidence of this – merchants selling their wares.  But it was not obtrusive.

I found the people of Peruto be approachable and warm.  How many major cities could you ask a police officer in a foreign language to help you flag a cab, and have him drop everything to help?  This happened our last day in downtown Lima.

This leads me to less shallow criteria for choosing a travel destination – historical and cultural significance.  I’m embarrassed to say these criteria are not always high on my list when choosing a destination.   Witnessing the location where someone did something important or where something significant happened  are not in and of themselves what are compelling to me – it’s the ‘whys’ and the implications that are the interesting bits.  And since travel is logistics-heavy by its very nature, more often than not there isn’t the opportunity for deeper reflection.  Which leads to an experience many travelers have shared – the dull, 10 minute guidebook spiel, and then it’s off the next thing.

So I was caught off guard by the sheer poignancy of the historical elements that I experienced in Peru.

Volunteering with CCS

First, there is the small matter of Machu Picchuitself.  The fact that it represents a human feat of such awesome magnitude rendered in such beautiful form that one cannot help but be humbled in its presence and ponder the exceptional characteristics of the civilization that created it, cannot be overstated.

Next was Villa El Salvador.  This is where I volunteered with CCS while inLima.  Travelling as part of CCS was not new to me.  The previous year I’d travelled to Morocco with Sucheta, spending time at a local orphanage in Rabat.  It did not prepare me for what I was about to experience in Peru. Villa ElSalvadoris a marvel of the human spirit’s drive for self-organization and democracy.  The origins of this community as a suburb of Lima are as compelling asAmerica’s fight for independence, and it has gained notoriety internationally for its unique origins and successes. The abuelos, or elders, that I worked with there are as sweet as they are heart breakingly vulnerable.  I was deeply moved by their circumstances.

And finally, an exhibit at the Lima Museum of the Nation has left its mark on my soul.  On the upper floor, isolated from the rest of the museum, is a chilling black and white photography exhibit on the history of The Shining Path.  I wonder how many Americans know about this dark and recent period in Peru’s history – a political insurgency that turned citizen against citizen, government against citizen, and led to the tragic death or disappearance of nearly 70,000 people between 1980 and 2000.

As a destination Peru has it all.  You don’t have to be a “shallow traveler” like me to appreciate its beauty and culture.  And having visited, I’ve come away a bit deeper for the experience.

~ By guest blogger, Cheryl Garin, who traveled with me to Morocco and has become a dear friend and supporter.  

Inspiring global humanitarians to travel

As mentioned in my earlier post about the Global Health & Humanitarin Summit, I presented a session on “Volunteering Abroad – from a writer’s perspective” at the summit. My 20 minutes session focused on trends in volunteer vacationing, my personal experiences from my volunteer trips to Morocco and Russia and a perspective on some things I learned.

Watch the video What I’ve learned from volunteering abroad

I also tried to include some resources and Q&A that people can take back.

The presentation was very well accepted and the audience was very engaged with my stories and pictures. They asked questions and wanted to know how to sign up for their next trip. I had several people come up to me after the event and tell me that I inpsired them to volunteer abroad.

Here are some comments I received by email…

“Thanks you for your EXCELLENT presentation.  It was inspirational and filled with practical tips as well.  Hope to see you next year or on one of our vacations!” – Susanne

“Thanks for your presentation, Sucheta. Your talk was very inspiring.” – Tom

“The Summit was amazing – and so glad that you were a part of it.  Your presentation was very insightful, thought-provoking and left me inspired to check out this opportunity for myself.  LOVE the Go Eat Give Movement!!” – Mitzi