CultureEducationTravel

“Religious workshop, community service, a week of intense physical activity, poverty, culture shock, and sacrifices” were my thoughts before traveling to Villa el Salvador, Peru for a Mission Trip. Coming from a fairly religious family, I expected my trip to consist of seven suns packed with muscle-work and seven moons dimmed by some sort of meditation retreat. I spent the entire week packing and preparing; in other words, trying to resist the temptation of not stuffing my excess clothing into the suitcases that were strictly intended for donation items. My departure was scheduled for Friday afternoon and until then, I crammed my final days with shopping for closed shoes since I was warned of the infamous desert sand that apparently snuck its way into any sneaker. Light and semi-heavy coats that were also essential in the shivering dusk till’ dawn air. My worries were farthest from pondering about what I would actually do during the mission, far from mentally preparing myself for what I was about to see and experience, and far from actually thinking about the skill and understanding I needed when four days later, I was to be named the decision-maker of whether the Salazar family was going to ration their leftover rice again or eat the delicacy of fried meat for dinner that night. My last minute nature insisted I do something about my expired passport 16 hours before my flight. I set my alarm clock for 5:00 a.m. that Friday morning only to stand in a jaw-dropping line in the middle of downtown Miami where you could feel the hundreds of cameras eyeing you; policemen suspiciously glancing at you, and where fingerprint requirements were as common as signing papers.

After miraculously issuing a passport in one day, missing a flight, and rushing to catch another, I was on my way to Peru. Welcomed by an unexpected cup of airport Starbucks coffee and multiple warm hugs from my fabulous friends, the international hub held a façade that was soon unveiled the second the two automatic entrance doors spilled thick, cold, humid air onto my face. The grey sky held dust particles that caused my nose to instinctively scrunch, and the buildings were colorful and shanty. Our driver, Jose, was a short old man dressed in a perfectly ironed button-down shirt with a pair of mismatched pants. He pierced my eyes with his and dismissed all of my insecurities with his inevitably contagious smile. All 19 of us – teenaged, middle aged, and aging – sat crammed in what looked like a real-life version of the miniature Magic School Bus vehicle. Our ice-cold, two-minute, and inedible daily showers were hosted by our own idea of complementary awakening salsa music provided by our iPhone playlists. We, the missioners, grew so attached to one another that some double rooms were left abandoned while others exceeded their maximum capacity as we merged two twin beds together to form one giant bed to squish ourselves into one space as we slept. Our one hour chapel reflection time frame was extended each night as each missioner poured their emotions away into the anonymous dark space, purging away their feelings of shock, guilt, and anger at the socio-economic structure of world.

As instructor of one the religious classes for the teens in one particular parish, I knew the topics we had prepared were going to be unquestionably skewed as there was no way to discuss the so-called “issues” if we did not address the actual dilemmas that the native “students” faced. I realized that they would treat that time preciously, as they found it their only opportunity to discuss their feelings, self-reflect, and consider the direction they were paving for their life. While many classes ended in tears of sorrow, many closed with tears of joy. And while the students, many of whom were my age at the time or a few years younger, believed that my partner and I were the teachers and mentors. I found myself as the student 90% of the time and found myself speechless countless times. “The reason?” you may ask. Well, many of the problems my Peruvian students faced were nothing like the first world problems I faced on a daily basis. These issues ranged from what they had to do in order to acquire up to 30 cents a day or the abuse they had or were undergoing in their personal lives. Their literal survival depended on the choices they made day by day, unlike what I thought were survival problems such as, “I have a flat and haven’t the slightest idea of how to change a tire.” As an obvious result, I “winged” many of my responses due to my growing up in a “bubble,” learned more than I thought possible in a week, and more importantly, the “wake-up call” that was more or less expected, smacked me; tattooing a red mark across my cheek. It was a week of pure catharsis as it had grounded me and centered me in a way no other experience has.

Whether it’s out of the sincerity of your heart, because you are being forced to do so, or for the simple reason of acquiring community service hours, mission trips are the way for you to experience something different and leave that comfort zone you have been clinging onto your entire life. And whether it is traveling to a foreign country or even taking a hike ten miles away from your town, the thought of either can be quite scary due to the expectations that are anticipated. Anything from a language barrier, exposing yourself to another culture, or even not having the slightest idea of what you have just signed up for can make your bones shiver. However, having good support, staying open-minded at all times, and thinking positively is the key to a great experience.

One more thing: expectations will always be blurred and one may never fully know how to prepare emotionally for a mission or volunteer trip. For our mission team, “Mision Manos Hermanas,” we had monthly meetings to give the newcomers an idea of what we were going to face and what was expected of each person. This included testimonials from previous missioners, an infinite amount of raw photos taken previous years, and a detailed presentation of our daily schedule (that, of course, was altered when it needed to be). However, each trip is totally subjective as it depends on what you make of it. The only advice I would ever give anyone would be to let go of any egos, begin to detach yourself of material possessions as soon as possible (including my lifelong illusion that you need makeup), and prepare to be flexible with yourself. In other words, prepare to use your adaptation skills as they are needless to say, vital.

Both of my summers in Peru, the first because my parents implied I had to go and the second because I voluntarily signed up, were educationally enriching, refreshing, and foundational. My friends in Villa el Salvador are unforgettable souls that hold a treasured spot in my heart. As one of the most memorable and humbling experiences of my life, I highly recommend taking a mission trip. “What should I expect?” they ask, to which I will always reply, “Anything.”

 

Skills

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” There is no proof that Mahatma Gandhi ever said these exact words, but either way, you are familiar with this quote. It was used in the valedictorian’s graduation speech, a few of your professors paraphrased it in their lectures, someone retweeted it on Twitter, it was printed across a cute shirt on the bargain rack at the mall, or maybe you’re just the kind of person who likes to collect inspirational quotes.

Whatever your story may be, there is no doubt that you’ve encountered this quote at some point in your life. However, your familiarization isn’t what’s important. This is solely because nine times out of ten people will look at that quote, think it’s inspirational enough to share on social networks, and go on about their day smiling at all of the likes and retweets and favorites they get from their friends and followers.

I’m not saying everyone is like that but how many people do you think will actually be the change that they wish to see? Now, that quote is obviously open to interpretation because we all want to see different things. We all have our own definitions of change and what we’d like to see change. But if there is one thing we all have in common, it’s this: we all live in an imperfect world. It seems like every time I go on the internet or turn on the TV, something horrible is happening. Even if I’m not aware of it, I still know that somewhere in the world someone is living in poverty or trying to survive in a war-torn country.

If you’re reading this article, that means you have access to the internet, which means you have a computer (or a smartphone), and that already makes you a little more privileged than a lot of people around the world. This is not to say that we don’t all have our own life struggles or that we’re all well-off, but I am saying that we have a duty to fulfill. Because while we all might not live in war torn countries or have to deal with poverty, it doesn’t mean that those issues will go away if we don’t think about it. The horrible things in this world aren’t fairies. They won’t disappear just because we say we don’t believe in them or because we aren’t forced to encounter struggles in our everyday lives.

So what is the point of all of this? Well, to put it simply, as young people (it doesn’t matter if you’re in high school or in college), we owe it to future generations to set a good example for them and to be the change. All change is change, so if you wish to see less animal abuse in the world, volunteer at an animal shelter, help fundraise for organizations whose missions are to end animal abuse. Whatever cause you’re interested in, find a way to become a part of it, because chances are there is a way that you can contribute. If you’re not really into joining any causes, you can still volunteer and make a difference in your community.

Look for local chapters of Habitat for Humanity. Put in time helping restore or build a home for a family in need. Pick up trash around the neighborhood, clock in some hours at the community center or an afterschool program or anything your heart desires! I’m not saying that doing any of these things will put an end to all wars or get rid of poverty forever, but as I said before, we live in a world that is imperfect and bad things happen everyday. Why not try to do something good to counteract the bad?

Volunteering is important because not only will it impact your life, but it will ultimately have a positive impact on the lives of others. No act of service is too small or too great. Poverty will not go away in one day and neither will famine or sickness. I don’t expect it to but I do expect to try to work at doing what I can, as a young person, as a college student, to make sure that I do things that honor the change that I not only wish to see but the change I want to see as well.

You have the power to influence others in a positive way. If you start to volunteer for a cause or an organization, one of your peers or family members might be inspired to get involved or to tell other people about it. That’s how movements are started. That’s how change happens.

If you’re like the queen from Alice in Wonderland and you don’t want white roses, paint them the color that you want them to be. In other words, if you don’t like the way things are, do something about it. Paint all of the things that you want to change red!

Also, the next time you come across the quote “be the change you wish to see in the world,” forget about liking it or sharing it or retweeting it; choose to live by it instead.

Image: morguefile

CultureEducationSkillsTravel

Animal rescue shelters have become an increasingly popular destination for travelers looking to “voluntour”. For students or recent graduates, particularly those who are new to backpacking, animal shelter volunteering can offer a rewarding and structured environment from which to begin exploring the globe. The allure of living in close quarters with exotic animals while simultaneously being helpful is certainly strong. However, shelter work often takes both a physical and an emotional toll — before you buy your tickets, it’s best to consider all the aspects of working with shelters.

It’s Not Cheap

If you’re searching for a way to backpack through South America on two dollars a day, shelter volunteering isn’t necessarily the best way to go. Almost all shelters require a “volunteer fee” to cover accommodation, food, and any other amenities they may offer. It’s a simple supply and demand situation — because the idea of working with animals has such a pull over travelers, the most established shelters can ask for a large payment and still have a glut of volunteers at their disposal at all times. However, as with all voyages, there are certainly methods of making the trip more affordable. In my own experience, I found that it was best to seek out smaller, independent shelters. While the accommodations are often more austere, these shelters cost much less and are in dire need of more help.

It’s Hard Work

While many shelters’ websites will often place an emphasis on the opportunities to, for example, play with puppies or help “socialize” baby ocelots, the reality is that working with animals is, to a very large extent, manual labor. Cleaning cages, hauling sacks of food and buckets of water — shelter work is always exhausting and often doesn’t even directly involve the animals themselves. Shelter work is also very, very dirty. Working in a shelter, you will come in contact with more poop than you could ever have imagined. Combined with muddy trails and cold showers, you may end up feeling like you have a permanent layer of grime coating your skin.

It Can Be Isolating

Particularly in shelters that provide food and housing, it is easy to forget that there is a whole fascinating and unexplored world outside the grounds. It’s very important to consciously make decisions that will place you in contact with the people outside of the shelter, even through simple tasks like daily chores. When I worked at Animal AWARE dog shelter in Sumpango, Guatemala, the rural location made the shelter seem very far removed from the vibrant culture of the country. However, with the help of a couple other volunteers, I had experiences that I never could have had in tourist-friendly Antigua — I saw outdoor laundry-washing basins and underground produce markets, and I had some of the best street food of my life.

It Can Seem Futile

If you make the decision to volunteer at a shelter, you are deciding to place yourself in an environment where you encounter animals who are experiencing the lowest, most tragic point of their lives. When I worked at ARCAS, a shelter in Flores that received monkeys and birds rescued from illegal trade operations, I was exposed to the sheer brutality of the exotic animal market when I saw a parakeet whose beak had been broken off. Animals in shelters frequently die, and this is a difficult thing to see, particularly coming from more affluent countries where more resources can be directed toward animal welfare.

Ultimately, I found that the rewards of working in animal shelters stemmed directly from the difficulties. The expense of certain shelters forced me to be creative with my budget and my destination. The difficult and intensive nature of the work gave me a greater sense of accomplishment. Most importantly for me, I became much more equipped to deal with minor daily tragedies that accompany the work, an acceptance that made our victories that much sweeter.

Image: Unsplash