Volunteer Chronicles

Travel vs. Cultural Exchange
Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

Sherry OttIn the Volunteer Chronicles, we followed Sherry Ott as she spent the winter of 2011 volunteering in the Middle East with GeoVisions. Reflecting back on that experience, she realizes that it was one of the best opportunities to really learn and understand another culture – a style she now prefers over constantly being on the move.

I walked into yet another dirty, hot guest house in Sri Lanka last month and threw down my bag flopping onto the bed exhausted. I had just negotiated with yet another local to get this lovely (imagine the sarcasm dripping on that last word) room. I relaxed for a moment and then started digging around my bag (which had caught some sort of disorganization virus in the last week) for a clean shirt to change into so I could go to the dining area and get some food. My generic version of Oreos, container of Pringles, and diet coke had long ago disappeared into a junk food vacuum in my stomach; I was starving.

As I sat waiting for my food to arrive sipping on my beer I opened up my guide book and started the next day’s planning with a big sigh. It felt as if I was on this never ending cycle of travel planning in which there was no possible way to get more than two days ahead. Making phone calls, researching Trip Advisor reviews, looking at maps, figuring out transportation, and soon it was time to go to bed to start my cycle all over again.

This is how I traveled for 16 months around the world on my career break in 2006-2007, so you think I would be used to it. It didn’t bother me then, it was all new to me; most importantly it was far away from my corporate cube life. However I’ve been at this a long time now and this winter’s recent travels made me come to a big conclusion.

I don’t like to travel any more.

I spent my winter in Jordan and Lebanon experiencing GeoVisions Conversation Corps and Partners programs. This was the ultimate cultural exchange and in a weird way I have a hard time assigning it the term ‘travel’. I felt as if I lived there. I was part of a family. I ate dinner with them, I met their friends and families, I sat around and watched TV with them, I watched them argue and yell, and I slept in the same bed about every night. Sure, I went off and did site-seeing in these gloriously historic countries, but when I finished my site-seeing I came ‘home’…to my local family, to my bed, to my regular dinner. I ate dinner with them talking about what I saw, asking questions about the history/culture of the sites, and asked them how their days were.

Tea in Jordan

My day to day interactions with my host families weren’t always exciting, but they were real. I didn’t have to pay an entrance fee, or negotiate a room, or hand my laundry over to strangers. My time in the Middle East this winter was probably some of the most intense cultural exchange I’ve done in my travels – and it wasn’t always easy and fun, but it was rewarding. One month was about perfect with each family. I was able to really dig into their lives and surroundings, but was also ready to move on.

I don’t think I fully realized this until I arrived in Sri Lanka in ‘travel’ mode again. A new location every two days, flipping through guidebooks trying to tick off sites, and negotiating absolutely every move I made. After 2 weeks of this I was sitting on the train going to yet another new city full of anticipation, but at the same time full of exhaustion. I looked around the train car and realized; I had hardly learned anything about the real culture of Sri Lanka. I hadn’t met any locals besides the guesthouse owners or tuk tuk drivers – and I was a dollar bill to them.

The conversations were predictable and centered around commerce at all times. I hadn’t made any friends in Sri Lanka besides a few fleeting short-term friendships with other travelers passing through. I didn’t really have a good idea of what Sri Lankans day-to-day life was like. How they treated their families, what they really ate each day, what their beliefs were, and how they looked at relationships. I wasn’t able to sit back and observe daily life because I was a blur in their life…just passing through.

Mongolia - Ger to Ger
This made me think back to my other favorite travel moments since 2006; volunteering/living in Delhi for a month, experiencing the Gobi Desert in Mongolia with Ger to Ger for 3 weeks, living in Saigon for a year, and living in a remote village in Nepal teaching English. It’s no wonder why these countries always top my list of favorites when people ask. All of these places in addition to Jordan and Lebanon have something in common – cultural exchange. These were the places I slowed down and infiltrated the ranks of the locals not as a tourist, but as one of them. This is what I truly love about exploring this globe.

I have to thank my experiences with GeoVisions for this clarity. It was these cultural immersion programs with their host families that actually taught me about myself in addition to the culture and people around me. More than ever I know now what I want out of this crazy nomadic life I live. I want cultural experiences and exchange. This doesn’t mean I’m giving up the type of travel I did in Sri Lanka; it simply means that I know the types of experiences I will try to seek out. As time goes by our travel styles change and evolve, and that’s what I learned this winter.

As you plan out your career break travels, consider this type of slow travel and exchange. I know you all have a lot of sites to cross off your list, but before you get burned out on travel, infuse some cultural exchange into your itinerary. I think it will be the moments you really remember in your career break travels.

Do you prefer to travel or integrate and exchange?

Photo Friday: Beirut, Lebanon
Friday, April 1st, 2011

Religion in Lebanon

In all of the countries I’ve traveled to, Lebanon produced the most contrasts and confusion. Whether you are there to enjoy the beaches of the Mediterranean, the cosmopolitan nightlife and shopping of Beirut, or the beautiful hiking on the Lebanon Hiking Trail – you can’t avoid the religious contrasts that are woven so deeply into this country.

Unlike the rest of the Middle East, all religions are represented, lending way to many scenes like this one where churches and Mosques are placed right next to each other. Even after a month in Lebanon, I still just scratched the surface of history, culture, and understanding.

You can follow more of Sherry’s adventures in the Middle East through her Volunteer Chronicles.

Volunteering: You Will Be Disappointed
Monday, March 28th, 2011

I’m going to make a statement that is rather controversial but I firmly believe. When you volunteer internationally – you will be disappointed.

Things will not be as plain and simple as you expect them to be. It won’t run smoothly, you’ll be confused, frustrated and unhappy. And at some point you’ll probably be left wondering if anyone from the volunteering organization is even talking to the people ‘on the ground’ at your volunteering location.

Different Cultures

This is inevitable when you have two or more organizations from different cultures working together to organize a volunteer experience. This is generally how the majority of volunteer opportunities are set up; a local US company does the marketing and promotion, and a local company from the volunteering country sets up and runs the actual volunteering experiences. I am confident in saying things will get lost in translation and cultural differences. It’s like the telephone game: the more people in the line that you have to repeat the message to, the more it gets messed up. Then the last person, the volunteer, is left wondering what the hell is going on.


Photo Friday: Birthday Guest
Friday, March 25th, 2011

Birthday Guest

In Beirut everything is done with flare – even birthdays. While I was volunteering there I was showered with attention from the Lebanese and their ‘guest culture’.

However, nothing prepared me for the attention I received on my birthday. My host family threw me a party and invited family and friends; people who I had just briefly met in the short time I had been staying in Lebanon via GeoVisions. Not only did they provide fireworks, but each of them gave me presents. It was as if I had known them all for 12 years, not 12 days.

You can follow more of Sherry’s adventures in the Middle East through her Volunteer Chronicles.

Be Our Guest
Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

The first night in Lebanon I mentioned to my host mother, Mira, that I needed to find a place the next day to buy some shampoo and toothpaste. “Ok, no problem.” She said.

Host Family in LebanonThe next morning I woke up, opened my door and went down the hallway to the kitchen to find Mira. She wasn’t in the kitchen; instead she was at the front door where a man was delivering groceries to her. After greeting her with “good morning,” she handed me a bottle of shampoo, conditioner, and toothpaste, saying “these are for you.”

I was a little stunned, as I hadn’t asked her to buy me these products – I just mentioned that I needed to buy them. But she wouldn’t take any money and insisted I take them. This was my first experience of what it was like to be a guest in Lebanon.

Guest culture is a very important piece of Lebanese culture and it took some getting used to as an American. Over the next month I learned that this also took on a traditional form of ‘volunteering’. Lebanese regularly help their relatives, friends, and neighbors without expectation of direct compensation, financial or otherwise. This provides them with a mutual aid network in which they do not necessarily reciprocate help to the person who helped them. Rather, the expectation is to reciprocate by helping others within their network.


Photo Friday: Zahle, Lebanon
Friday, March 18th, 2011

Zahle, Lebanon

Somehow Lebanon feels like it shouldn’t be considered the Middle East – probably because of vista’s like this one. It really goes to show you that you shouldn’t make assumptions…especially when traveling! I traveled high up into the hills to capture this view of the town of Zahle. Zahle is just one of the many fascinating towns near Arcenciel in Taanayel – the organization I wrote about on Wednesday.

While volunteering, you often have time to get out and explore your surroundings. Many times the locals are excited to show you their home and lord knows I never would have found this view on my own. Thanks to my ‘tour guide’ a local while in Zhale who was more than eager to show me around!

In addition to her Volunteer Chronicles on Briefcase to Backpack, Sherry gets more in depth on her personal blog, OttsWorld. Check out updates from this week:

Volunteering Reality: Lebanon
Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

I arrived in Lebanon in order to try out another one of GeoVisions cultural volunteering programs – Conversation Partner. Having spent the last month in Jordan doing the Conversation Corps program, I was excited to try out something new – something that felt a little more like volunteering. Conversation Partner programs vary depending on the country you are in – but the general idea is:

Conversation Partners speak conversational English to tourist police officers, hotel staff, local business professionals, teachers, tour guides and more. You do not need to have teaching experience to be a Conversation Partner. You just need to meet with your group each day (between 15 and 20 hours each week) and converse in English with them. It’s fun and rewarding. You might live with a family, or in a dorm or a hotel. Still, we provide most meals and a safe and comfortable place to stay.


In Lebanon I lived with a family and helped them occasionally with English as they were always curious about certain English idioms and vocabulary; try explaining the term “Soap Opera”! I also enjoyed helping them with their pronunciation and their American accent. However, tutoring the family wasn’t the purpose of my trip, it was to tutor students. I had been told that as part of the Conversation Partner program in Lebanon I would be sharing my language and cultural knowledge up to 20 hours per week Monday to Friday with the students getting ready to travel to the US on a summer work and travel program.

This sounded great in theory…


Photo Friday: Puppy Love in Jordan
Friday, February 25th, 2011

boy and puppy

Everyone lives in Peace...even the animals

This will bring a smile to your Friday!  Who doesn’t love kids and puppies?  This Photo Friday comes from Sherry’s visit to the Schneller School in Amman, Jordan  where they teach “Everyone Lives in Peace” between the different cultures and religions. In addition they even encourage the animals and humans to live in peace together!

The boarding school grounds has an animal ‘farm’ so that the students learn to care for animals and treat them with respect. The young boys were taking care of chickens, donkeys, dogs, and these new puppies as I walked around the campus. They were eager to show me the puppies and of course I was eager to hold the little pup!

In addition to her Volunteer Chronicles on Briefcase to Backpack, Sherry gets more in depth on her personal blog, OttsWorld. Check out updates from this week:

Volunteering Isn’t Just Teaching English
Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

schneller school Jordan

Students at the Schneller School in Amman Jordan

Are you fed up with the fact that most volunteer experiences are for teaching English? Do you have a fear about past participles, adverbs of frequency and conditional phrases? I think most native speakers of English are a bit intimidated to actually teach English and I don’t blame them – we don’t know grammar rules, we just speak!

When I started to look into volunteering opportunities as part of my career break travels I found it frustrating that most of the opportunities seemed to be in the English language area. Yet as a career breaker and a former IT business manager with an MBA – I kept thinking that I could be utilized in a better way than to simply teach English. I hunted for organizations that would actually look at my business experience and work experience and try to put it to use. But alas, there aren’t really many of these types of opportunities and the ones which are available are harder to find.

One of the things that attracted me to GeoVisions was not only the Conversation Corps cultural exchange programs, but also the fact that in some of their destinations they were going beyond teaching English and trying to find other ways to use volunteer’s skills in their Volunteer Abroad Options:

  • Medical/Health work – Cambodia, South Africa, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Argentina
  • Land Conservation – Australia, Costa Rica, New Zealand
  • Wildlife Work – Mozambique, South Africa, Costa Rica
  • Humantarian Work – Brazil, Thailand, Costa Rica, South America (teaching computers, working with orphans and kids)

And in the Middle East, they are just starting to provide a great array of opportunities which have nothing to do with English teaching. I’ve been lucky enough to go visit some of them in Jordan and Lebanon as they start to get off the ground.

One of my recent visits was to the Schneller School in East Amman. The school is essentially a boarding school for orphans, refugee children, or kids with extremely difficult family situations. There are currently about 300 students living on the campus including 15 girls; the addition of girls are relatively new to the program.

The vision and value of the school is clear as you walk throughout the grounds. It’s about bringing people together in peaceful co-existence and respect. They accomplish this by intermixing the kids and religions showing them that differences aren’t a bad thing.

Photo Friday: Schneller School for Orphans
Friday, February 11th, 2011

Schneller School for Orphans

This Photo Friday is from Sherry Ott, who volunteered in Jordan last month with GeoVisions.

New cultures can be hard to decipher when you travel. During my time in the Middle East, I’m constantly challenged with understanding religious culture and Arabic culture. One of the highlights of my time in Jordan was a visit to the Schneller School for Orphans.

Located in East Amman, the school has been in operation since 1959 and is teaching students how to all get along despite cultural differences. This photo is a view of the school’s hallway; they support various religions and most importantly they teach tolerance and understanding. Their motto is “Learning to Live in Peace”.

GeoVisions will be announcing some new, exciting volunteer opportunities with the Schneller school; then you too can have the opportunity to live in this educational environment and be a part of that peace.

In addition to her Volunteer Chronicles on Briefcase to Backpack, Sherry gets more in depth on her personal blog, OttsWorld. Check out updates from this week:

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