Honeymooning at the top of the world (part 2)

Continued from part 1…

We start our second day crossing the Dudh Kosi (Milk River) on a steel suspension bridge about 50 metres (165ft) above the river – it’s a thrilling feeling with mountains on each side and the roaring river below. As we cross, the wind pushes us to one side and you feel slightly unbalanced and we both have butterflies in our stomachs.

Crossing one of many suspension bridges

The last 3 hours of the day’s trek is a steep ascent – more than 1000 meters – just up, up, up…until we finally reach Namche Bazaar at 3,440 metres (11,286 ft). This was definitely physically the hardest day of the whole trek but the next day is a rest day to give our bodies more time to acclimatize to the altitude. Well, “rest day” – the term is a bit misleading and sounds better than what it is. The point of a rest day is to climb above the altitude you are sleeping at, spend a couple of hours and then descend. This will help the body acclimatize faster. So we climb 350 metres (1150ft) uphill, have a break while watching recreational planes land and take off. The attraction is the highest located hotel with a view of Mt. Everest at 3880m (12,730 ft). So if you are rich enough you can fly directly to this hotel spare yourself the walking, see Everest and fly back. In the afternoon we watch the movie Into Thin Air based on Jon Krakauer’s account of the fatal summit attempts in 1996.

For days we walk along narrow trails that wind around cliffs, go down to the bottom so that we can cross the river that runs through, then it’s back up the mountain, around the mountain, ascending, descending, ascending…We walk through valleys surrounded by beautiful blankets of autumn colors. The smell of pine forests remind me of walks with my mom back in Denmark where I grew up. But Denmark is one of the flattest countries on earth and Nepal one of the highest. The contrast could almost not be bigger.

It gets colder in the mornings and the landscape becomes more barren and unforgiving. At Tengboche (4,360 m/14,300 ft) we spend our second rest day. There is not much to do; the village seems to only exist for the trekkers passing through except the monastery (which must be the highest located monastery in the world!) which is now said to be home to 60 monks, reflecting its financial prosperity. However, it is also said that fewer and fewer young boys join as monks as they prefer to work in mountaineering or trekking-related activities.

It was my first experience inside a Buddhist monastery – the humming sound of about 40 monks chanting prayers was slightly hypnotic and calming and because I didn’t really understand what was going on it became all the more exotic and mysterious.

Monks chanting prayers at Tengboche Monastery

Nowhere in the world is a trek more spectacular than in the Everest region. It’s where four of the world’s six tallest peaks Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Cho Oyu rise above everything else, crowning the towering ridges that straddle the Himalaya.

Mountains make you feel small and insignificant – in a good way – it makes you see yourself in a different perspective. While walking you have time to reflect on so many things that you might not normally do in your everyday life. It makes trekking therapeutic experience both mentally and physically.

We are starting to feel the altitude; slight headaches and short-of-breath-ness. Our guide assures us that eating loads of garlic will cure our symptoms, so we eat cloves of raw uncooked garlic. I’m sure our breaths must have smelled really well…

Late morning on day 9 we reach Gorak Shep – a 3 hour trek from Lobuche. We are now at (5170 m/16,961ft) After an early lunch we take the trail to Everest Base Camp through the once vast Gorak Shep Lake. It’s strange to see sand and sea shells at this altitude. After a couple of hours we reach the Khumbu Icefall which is regarded as one of the most dangerous stages of the South Col route to Everest’s summit. Climbing through the icefall can be an extremely dangerous adventure as the icefall is continually moving, sometimes as much as two to three feet in an hour, and I’m happy that we are not doing that. We have reached the goal of our trek. We are standing at the foot of the tallest mountain above sea level! It’s incredible!

My husband and I at Mount Everest Base Camp.

When we arrive back at Gorak Shep, my husband is not feeling well. He is nauseous and has a headache – clear symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and that your body has not acclimatized well. We go to our room to take a rest before dinner – he is still not feeling well after an hour and I’m starting to get a little cold. Like most lodges along the way, this one also consists of 4 wooden walls, no insulation and a little window. I go downstairs to order a hot drink and to inform our guide that my husband is not feeling so good. Our guide jumps to his feet and runs up to our room to check on my husband. Within 3 minutes he is back downstairs to inform me that we are leaving NOW! We have to pack and leave NOW – immediately. I’m too focused on leaving instantly that I don’t have time to be nervous about my husband, and I trust that we are in safe hands.

It’s 5.30pm and the sun has just set over the Himalaya and we are about to walk on a small stony path – IN THE DARK! Now that’s scary! Luckily, we have a full moon so the landscape is slightly lit up and this merciless place corresponds to what I imagine it must be like to be walking on the moon. There are no sounds in the night – only our footsteps on rocks can be heard – it’s absolutely silent, like we’re wrapped in an invisible blanket. It’s so beautiful and unreal – this moon landscape at the top of the world; it’s rough and poetic at the same time.

We finally get down to an altitude of about 4280 m (14,070 ft) and we will stop here for the night. Thank goodness the decent seems to have helped my husband’s condition; he says he feels better. Or maybe he’s just too exhausted to feel sick. I’m exhausted – it’s been a long day with a 7am start and it’s now 9pm. Last time we ate was 10 hours ago. My husband goes straight to bed and the guide and I eat a small bowl of noodle soup.

We backtrack down to Lukla over the next couple of days and it feels good to be finishingour trek. It was an amazing experience – an experience you could never have predicted. It’s definitely a honeymoon to remember – but I’m sure most honeymoon couples will tell you that. It almost feels like this was a symbolic trip of what is in store for us in our future life together – sometimes life is uphill and you’re out of breath, but after that it’s downhill and life is effortless and sometimes you don’t feel well, but by supporting each other we will make it. We started this journey together and we are going to finish it together.

~ By guest blogger, Ann Wilson. Ann is founder and CEO of Friends of VIN. She lives in Netherlands with her husband and travels to Nepal every chance she gets. To support Friends of VIN, visit www.friendsofvin.nl

Honeymooning at the top of the world (part 1)

First I would like to kindly thank Sucheta for letting me write a guest entry on her blog! I recently met Sucheta in Nepal where I was re-visiting VIN (Volunteers Initiative Nepal) whom I worked for last year. This year I set up a partner foundation called Friends of VIN (visit our newly launched website Friends of VIN) and I was in Nepal to catch up with VIN’s founder Bhupendra Ghimire and to check out our new project location in a remote area and rural area of Nepal; Okhaldunga.

But let’s briefly rewind to 2008 – it was a leap year…and the reason I remember so clearly is that this was the year where, on February 29, I proposed to my then boyfriend. Only 2 weeks prior had I heard about this old tradition of women being “allowed” to propose on this day. It’s believed to originate from Ireland in the 5th century when St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait so long for a man to propose. Tradition has it that in case the woman’s proposal was rejected, she would receive 12 pairs of gloves – so I thought: what the heck – I have nothing to lose!

Two and a half years later – July 2010 – we got married on a boat in Amsterdam– and it was a fantastic day!

We discussed a couple of options for our honeymoon – We wanted something out of the ordinary – not the Maldives or any other luxury beach holiday. So we came up with the South Pole on an old Russian expedition ship or trekking in Nepal…and since my husband knows how much Nepal means to me and since our very first conversation included Nepal, he wanted to experience it with me. And there was an extra bonus for me – my lifelong dream of working in Nepal as a volunteer would also come true.

We were greeted at the airport by Raju Shrestha – co-owner of the travel agency Himalayan Rejoice with whom we had booked our trip. The first days involved sightseeing of many of the famous sights in Kathmandu; the Swayambhunath Temple (also called the Monkey Temple – guess why…), the Boudhanath Stupa, the Kumari’s (Nepal’s living Goddess) Palace, and Durbar Square.

We rose early to go to the airport as we were on the first flight to Lukla. The airport terminal for domestic flights was quite chaotic compared to European standards…a lot of shouting and waving of tickets in the air – there was no check-in line; it was sort of just a lot of trekking tourists with sleepy looks in their eyes huddled in pairs or groups while their trekking guides were trying to get all the luggage checked in.

Finally we were on the plane – but ended up waiting outside on the tarmac as we couldn’t take off due to the mist in the valley. This is quite a common phenomenon in Nepal – and it means that many flights are delayed or cancelled. So if you are planning on going trekking in the Everest region and want to fly in to Lukla, you should give yourself a couple of days at each end of the trek to allow for changes to your flight schedule. Or maybe you don’t want to fly into the world’s most dangerous airport, but will opt for a 7-10 hour bus ride to Jiri and then start walking…In the beginning of November this year, around 3,000 trekkers were stranded in Lukla because no planes could leave or arrive for the matter due to bad weather.

Seemingly randomly, our guide found a porter that he already knew – among hundreds of men. It’s amazing how that worked. Our porter works independently meaning not through a travel agency and doesn’t own a mobile phone, so I guess we were lucky that he wasn’t on another job…

Hundreds of porters waiting for a job at our arrival at Lukla airport.

And then…After a hearty breakfast of potatoes and chili we take the first steps of the first meters of many thousands. It is like we have landed somewhere in the 1700s; cows, chicken, yaks and dogs are running among the many children who are chasing the animals with wooden sticks or playing in the shade. Men are carrying heavy loads of everything ranging from firewood to dirt to bags of rice on their backs. Women are busy tending to their farms and household chores, washing the dishes at the public water pipe or taking a shower – also at the public water pipe. A stark contrast to our urban lives back home in Amsterdam.

The route takes us through beautiful greenery and sounds of people and animals. Every now and again we come face to face with a yak train – which of course has the right of way. You can always hear them coming by the sound of the bells dangling from their necks and it’s important to go towards the mountain so that you don’t get pushed off the cliff accidentally…the yaks are carrying goods to the villages higher up as well as trekkers’ backpacks.

We pass many shrines and stupas which you must always walk around clockwise. We also pass many Buddhist prayer wheels and you are encouraged to spin them as you pass. In this way, the prayers are spun out to the universe and will save you from chanting them. In the distance we see lush forest rising high up until they eventually meet the raw grey and brown mountains with their snow-capped peaks which will dot our horizon over the next couple of weeks.

Hills, mountains and rivers make up the landscape on our way to Everest Base Camp

As you would expect we meet our first ascent of many and for about an hour our legs (and lungs) are given a good work-out – far better than any gym can offer. And the views are just stunning, the fresh air sweet and soothing, so much better than the Kathmandu smog and dust.

More coming…

~ By guest blogger, Ann Wilson. Ann is founder and CEO of Friends of VIN. She lives in Netherlands with her husband and travels to Nepal every chance she gets. To support Friends of VIN, visit www.friendsofvin.nl

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.  

Gluten-free travels

The best thing to do when you or a travel companion are gluten-free is to plan ahead.  While you have a free internet connection at home, research gluten-free restaurants, write down their addresses, and keep them in your purse. That way, you can look forward to dining out, instead of sticking to basic foods, like grilled chicken and grilled vegetables. My favorite restaurants serve gluten-free pizzas, gluten-free dinner rolls, and rice pasta dishes, so you don’t feel deprived of the other diners entrée choices.  I also recommend printing out free dining cards ($5 donation recommended) at Celiac Travel’s website.  You hand these cards to the chef when you visit a restaurant, and the chef will know how to prepare your food.  The cards are available in many foreign languages for international travel.

For airplane snacks and exotic travel locations, I pack gluten-free bars, like Lara bars or Nicole’s nutty goodness bars.  Both bars are made from fruit and nuts, and are actually tasty! Lara bars makes an apple pie flavor that tastes yummy! Nicole’s nutty goodness bars are available in expresso, which tastes just like a chocolate chip granola bar and keeps quite well. They are both available at Whole Foods, and having a few bars on hand helps when you’re hungry on the airplane, or are in a place with limited snack options.  Sometimes, while eating meals with clients or business associates, I try to downplay my food allergies by asking for grilled chicken or fish cooked over aluminum foil.  This is a good way for gluten-free business travelers to avoid the cross-contamination issues that happen when gluten items have also been cooked on the grill.

Gluten-free travelers will be thrilled to know some Italian restaurants have gluten-free menus, since a small percentage of their population developed gluten allergies.  These days, as long as you plan ahead, gluten-free travel can be a fun and enjoyable!

~ Guest blogger, Ivy Haverkampf

Gluten-free travel websites:

CeliacChicks
German Coeliac Society
Italian Celiac Society
CeliacTravel

Ivy is the founder of theIdeaGenerators.com and FutureGlobetrotter.com. She loves helping fellow working women reach their career potential and can be found on Twitter at @FutGlobetrotter.

Retired couple discover homestays in India

My wife Mary and I made our first trip to India last September on a tour which included Agra, Jaipur and New Delhi, known as the Golden Triangle.

While we enjoyed the comfort and convenience of guided tours, we arrived in New Delhi early for two homestays to be able to connect with some of the people of India – not possible on standard tours.

We had read about a non-profit organization which serves as a clearing house for hosts who take pride in showing foreigners aspects of India that regular travelers don’t experience. Mahindra Homestays offers insights into the real India in homes located across the country in major cities as well as rural areas.

We selected a New Delhi B&B homestay with Chandrakant and Lakshmi Singh who’ve been hosting for more than two decades. Chandra wrote us: “I think we are going to enjoy your visit a lot. It may interest you to know that the village in which our housing estate has been developed is named after Lillian Carter and is called Carterpuri. She had stayed here as a Peace Corp worker in the 1960s and visited again during Carter’s presidency when the village was renamed in her honor!”

We arrived in New Delhi at the beginning of the Commonwealth Games, which attracts tens of thousands of participants and spectators. While Chandra was an official on the steering committee, he still found time to provide unique tours, including a personally guided stroll through the National Museum, the biggest Museum of India which holds more than two million works of exquisite art covering more than five thousand years of India’s cultural heritage.

A remarkable part of this tour was that we had this immense Museum to ourselves! We spent several hours there with Chandra on a Monday when the Museum is closed. But he does volunteer work there and had entry.  So we can definitely concur in the observation that “You would be hard pushed to find a more informed, articulate and animated guide than Chandra Kant and his tours are about getting a feel for the city rather than just trailing round monuments.” And Lakshmi is a wonderful cook who provided examples of some of the best local food.

Another homestay was with retired Indian Army Colonel Surindar Singh who provides free overnight hospitality through Servas. It’s a non-profit membership organization that “fosters understanding of cultural diversity through a global, person-to-person network promoting a more just and peaceful world”. (There are more than 700 hosts in India.) Rusty and I have stayed with more than 80 hosts around the world and are hosts in our Macon, Ga., home. I was on the board of US Servas and am now an interviewer.

Two decades ago, after I retired, Mary and I rented our house and traveled for more than three years, visiting many of the exchange students we hosted for 11 consecutive years. We agree with Miriam Beard: “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”

~ By guest blogger Richard (Dick) George

The vegetarian traveler

It’s not easy to be a vegetarian while on the road. I know that because my husband used to be a traveling consultant. 100% travel, eating out all the time, fly out on Monday mornings and return on Thursday nights, jet lag, one hotel room after another… it is a tough drill. If your client is based in San Francisco or Austin, you have no reason to worry, at least as far as food is concerned! But if your travel takes you to places as remote as Leon, IA or San Angelo, TX, then it won’t be as easy.

Fast Food is of no use…

  • McDonalds does not serve vegetarian burgers in the United States. It’s an interesting situation: you can get veggie burgers at McDonalds in India, UK, Berlin. Also, the fast food giant serves far better fare in those countries than it does in the USA. But isn’t the quality of food meant to be the same regardless of location? Or do local factors make a difference? Unfortunately, I don’t know the answers to those questions.
  • Subway is a great option (at least you have fresh vegetables to pick from), although I would steer clear of the vegetable patty. For one, most likely, it is not fresh and secondly, I am positive that egg is used as a binder.

 Thank God for protein bars…

  •  Stock up on Lara Bars! These fruit and nut bars contain just that: dried fruit and nuts. No additives, no proteins, no supplements, none of the *energy* ingredients – good old-fashioned fruit and nuts. Many a time, I will have one of these for breakfast and it tides me over until lunch.
  • Odwalla offers a good selection of fruit-vegetable juices. Odwalla’s Superfood may look (and feel) like the vilest green object you have encountered but it packs much energy and nutrients (and taste) into a small bottle. There are also other selections: Strawberry C Monster, Soy Vanilla Protein Shake, etc. As always, check the ingredient list and if you find any ingredient that makes you uncomfortable, look for other options.

Snacks to the rescue…

  • Fresh fruit may not suffice for lunch but it sure fills the tummy when hunger strikes at 3:30 pm.
  • Fruit yogurt is a filling snack especially when you add fresh/dried fruit to it. As always, check the ingredient list; some brands contain gelatin and a host of unpronounceable ingredients.

Looking for the lunch box…

  •  Finally, it may be worthwhile to pack yourself some couscous salad from home. Cook couscous as per directions, add some chopped peppers, tomatoes, cucumber, toasted pine nuts, drizzle a simple dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and fresh/dried herbs, toss it all together. Tastes good when warm, and even better when cold!

 Happy Travels!

– By Guest blogger, Lakshmi Jagad. Laxshmi is a writer, photographer and social media consultant based in Atlanta. She writes about her encounters with food on her blog, The Rich Vegetarian.

One guy’s quest to flush away the world’s sanitation problems

It all started a couple years ago when I went on Wikipedia to search for international holidays, as I was very interested in learn about more than just the well-known ones like Halloween and Valentine’s Day. As I came across a holiday called World Toilet Day, I researched it and read about an agency called World Toilet Organization.

I was inspired by WTO’s cause, as it builds toilets in other countries, including Cambodia and Indonesia. The organization is located in Singapore and I made the decision that I wanted to establish a similar charity in America, as here in the United States, we aren’t used to the fact that a toilet is considered a luxury in many developing nations. So I thought about what kind of title I’d want to use and I decided that Flush Campaign would be very catchy. Then I chose to research the process of starting a nonprofit.

I found that starting a nonprofit takes a lot of money and paper work, and I wanted to find a solution that would allow me to bypass the bureaucracy of establishing one. So I learned about fiscal sponsorships, which involves sharing nonprofit status with groups that already have tax exempt status. My goal was to look for a compatible agency that would be willing to be a fiscal sponsor. But one of the things I realized was that it would be very difficult to get local support for such an initiative, as it would be very expensive to not only build all the toilets in various countries, but also do all the traveling to find locations in which these toilets would be built. For a cause like this, financial contributions would be one of the only ways to get involved, as it would be challenging to get volunteers and in-kind donations.

After reading about charities such as the Global Soap Project, which collects soap for refugee camps worldwide, as well as remembering about my past involvement in homeless shelters and acknowledging the need for personal hygiene items in such settings, I chose to broaden the scope. I came to the conclusion that I wanted the Flush Campaign to promote sanitation as whole and not just toilets. If you take a look here, you’ll see how the invention of toilet seats on bidets have helped make a difference in terms of hygiene within the home. Toilet seats are there for a reason, so everyone might as well use it to their advantage. It is pretty simple. Once you are done using the toilet, put the seat back down. When it comes to your health and hygiene, it is important to make this your top priority, as no illness is worth doing something as simple and placing the toilet seat down. In addition, I felt that it would be better to partner with already existing groups than to create a new one, inspired by Bill Gates focus on creating software for computers instead of developing the computers themselves). In other words, instead of starting a new organization that collects hygiene supplies for people in need, I decided to start an initiative that helps established nonprofits gain these items. Thus, the Flush Campaign was born. The Flush Campaign is a grassroots effort to advocate for organizations that locally and globally address the issue of sanitation and build healthier communities in the process.

The reason why I want to focus on hygiene items is because many illnesses and even deaths around the world, as well as locally, are due to poor hygiene. The goal would be to “flush way” the problems of poor sanitation in homeless shelters, refugee centers, and other types of nonprofits. Currently I have collected soap from Homewood Suites to give to the Global Soap Project, benefiting refugees in Uganda, Kenya, and Swaziland. Additionally, I have gathered shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, and other similar products for the Task Force for the Homeless.

My plan is to emphasize on in-kind donations for similar charities, as in-kind giving has gone up during the recession. I don’t intend on collecting any products unless a specific charity request them and I base my work on the wish lists of these organizations. While my main focus will be global charities, I will also be emphasizing on local organizations.

~ By guest blogger Gaurav Bhatia, founder of the Flush Campaign

Touched by a Mongolian smile

On a trip to Ulan Bator, Mongolia, where I lived for three months, I spent my last day visiting Verbist Orphanage, in the countryside.  Mongolia is a one-city nation, with the vast surrounding land composed of the Gobi desert or barren land.  The extreme temperatures from their minus 40 degrees to 40 degrees Celsius, harbors a harsh environment for the few scraggly plants to try and persist despite the desert clime. It’s not an inviting place, yet I boarded the plane with my ticket in hand for a country few people have ever heard of or want to visit willingly.

volunteering in Mongolia

My travels have been my biggest learning experiences in my life.  They have taught me to be stronger, to adapt to unusual and uncomfortable circumstance, and to survive in some of the hardest situations I’ve dealt with physically and emotionally.  As an orphan given a second life with my parents’ gracious love from America, I was taken out of the scenario I was walking straight into.

volunteering in MongoliaThe children’s faces were confused at first, when my group arrived to the orphanage.  I had gone with a group of Mongolian students learning English.  One of the students had befriended me with her kind heart and shared interest in journalism.  She invited me on this excursion, and I jumped at the chance to visit an orphanage.

We boarded a bus that navigated the country terrain bravely to our destination.  Outside of the city, there are no paved roads in Mongolia.  There is nothing but open fields of nomadic families living off the land and their horses’ back. This is no terrain to take a public transportation bus through.

Upon arriving to the compound, we found the orphanage surrounded by a six foot wall decorated with colorful murals painted by previous visitors.  It was strange to see this compound in the middle of the dessert.  We had not encountered another living person or any sign of civilization for hours.  Our last gas stop to fuel up was more than two hours ago.  There were no buildings out this far from Ulan Bator.

It appeared like a mirage in the desert, but was firm to the touch when I reached for the gate handle.  Children, as young as five-years-old, were chopping wood with an axe by the entrance.  I winced in default as I stopped myself from taking the axe away from them.  This was their life; the way they had to live to survive.   They seemed unsure and scared of us – people from the city with our clean clothes and washed hands.  Many gesticulations later, the children were swarming us with warmth and laughter once the barrier was broken.  I had the toughest time since I couldn’t speak but a handful of words in Mongolian, most of which were nonsensical and useless in my current situation.

“San ban o.”  I said hello and smiled a lot to befriend the children, but they played with me with no inhibitions.  Two Belgium graduate students were spending a couple months living in a Ger in the orphanage compound.  They were teaching them English and writing their thesis on the orphanage; therefore, I gave the children a great outlet to use the handful of words they knew.  Most could say hello, but few were brave enough to venture more conversation.

We played basketball and random games they created on the spot.  We had brought toys and some books to give to them, which brought the biggest smile and a touch of civilization to their orphanage.  There was no electricity or running water.  Non-governmental organizations fund Verbist, just enough for the bare essentials.  I may never see their faces again or hear how their futures turn out, but I know they have touched my life.  Volunteering has a way of helping the volunteers out more than those they seek to help.  It is a gift to lend your hand and time to others, and it is always rewarded with gratitude and a memory you’ll always deeply cherish.

Read more of my trip to Verbist Orphanage.

~ By guest blogger Kate Greer