Posts Tagged ‘volunteering’

Traveling With A Purpose: The Happy Nomad Tour
Monday, May 30th, 2011

Adam Pervez in JapanAdam Pervez is no stranger to traveling. He’s been to 47 countries and has lived in six. “I am a master at hit and run travel. I arrive, run around like a madman for three days, see the museums and monuments, and leave feeling like I know the place. Yet I often don’t get a chance to talk to a local person!”

“After college I took a job with an oil services company in the Middle East that allowed me to travel extensively. I then did an MBA in Spain and ‘redeemed’ myself by working for a wind power company in Denmark. By all accounts, it was the perfect job in the happiest country in the world. It really was exactly what I thought I wanted – a comfortable life with stability and nothing to worry about. But it didn’t take long for me to start questioning, well, everything!”

“My job was a good post-MBA position, but I felt utterly purposeless. I get no satisfaction from making PowerPoint presentations or Excel spreadsheets. In business school we talked ad nauseam about creating value. I was creating value for my company, but I felt that as a person I was losing value every day I went to the office.”

That’s about to change as he is in the process of transitioning from corporate tool to nomadic fool and heading out on his The Happy Nomad Tour in August.

How I Developed The Happiness Plunge

I realized I was not alone and many of my friends and colleagues felt the same way. Many feel trapped by debt, societal/family pressures, or other reasons that prevent us from pursuing the life we actually want. Such desires for change are dismissed as fleeting thoughts since you can’t change the system – but you can create your own system!

I started at the most basic level and asked myself what my goals are in life and what my passions are. I found it sad, yet telling, that I had never had such an important conversation with myself before!

I “discovered” my passions are writing, traveling, learning and teaching, telling stories, and helping others. I let this ferment in my mind for a few days and then I started preparing for my Happiness Plunge into a life I designed to give me the fulfillment, challenge, and purpose no corporate job ever could. The Happy Nomad Tour was born.

Adam Pervez in Morocco

The Happy Nomad Tour

I will backpack throughout Central and South America, Southeast and South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa staying off the beaten path living in rural, traditional communities. I won’t be traveling only to discover myself. My main purpose for the trip is to understand happiness among the world’s underprivileged and share these ideas, philosophies, and lessons learned with the wealthy West. I will act as a bridge between these two worlds since I believe that many of the solutions to this rampant dissatisfaction with modern life are found in simpler, traditional lifestyles.

I know the hospitality and generosity I will encounter during my trip will far outweigh what I can offer, but I plan to volunteer at local organizations everywhere I go. I will also draw upon my engineering and MBA background to look for ways to sustainably improve quality of life in these communities.

I will share my story at local schools and universities along the way, impressing upon the students the importance of pursuing their passions, and show them that it’s ok to take the path less traveled.



This is the easy part. I’m not doing much preparation at all! When I lived in the Middle East I would often get vacation time without prior notice due to unexpected problems on the oil rig. I am used to arriving in a city or country knowing nothing about it and figuring everything out from scratch. And I prefer that, to be honest. The more you prepare for a trip, the less room there is for the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings to really impact you and create an impression.

Instead, I will do something I have not been good at – going with the flow. I have friends in many countries thanks to graduate school and my work experience, so when possible I will rely on them for advice, opportunities, and a couch for a night or two. I’ll also use CouchSurfing forums to ask locals where I could volunteer and stay in upcoming destinations.

The Case Study

I don’t advocate anyone take the same plunge I am, but I do advocate the process I went through to find your passions in life and to design the life right for you. I’m my own guinea pig for the theory, so let’s see how it goes. But one thing is for sure – I’m in for the challenge and experience of a lifetime!

You can follow Adam’s tour on his blog, Happiness Plunge, and on Twitter @HappinessPlunge.

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?

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.


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.


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…


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:

Want to see your photo here? Join our Facebook Fan Page and upload your career break photo onto our Wall. Add a brief description & we may choose to feature it here!

Family Ties
Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Family Culture

Etidal and myself - watching sunset on the West Bank

I’ve quickly learned that the Conversation Corps is not really what I would call a volunteer program. Instead, my experience has been completely about cultural exchange; a massive dose of cultural exchange that can knock even the most experienced traveler on their ass. Yes, I’ve had to adjust, adapt, and accept throughout this process. But I feel you are unable to get experiences like this when you are simply traveling. It’s good to stop for a while and really dig in to a culture and get a little uncomfortable.

Whenever you have the opportunity to live with a family 24/7, you can’t help but exchange cultural oddities, joys, and frustrations. This month in Jordan has been one of my most complicated and amazing months of travel thanks to close living quarters and a vastly different culture than what I’m used to. I’ve had to adapt to ‘real life’ in this foreign world.

What’s it really like to be a part of a family in Jordan?

The first and most important thing to realize is you aren’t going anywhere until you have a ring on your finger. Kids live at home until they get married. I tried to push a little on this topic, asking “Really, if I had grown up in Jordan are you telling me I’d still be living at home at 40 years old?” The answer was pretty much always yes. It didn’t matter what religion or gender you were; this was Arabic culture, not religious culture. I actually found this cultural distinction really important in the Middle East. I think I had always thought about religious culture driving the Middle East, but Arabic culture is the one thing that actually ties the region together.

The household I lived in had 3 of the 4 kids still living there; and they were all over 18 years old (28, 23, and 18 to be exact). The other daughter, Rawan, was married and of course living outside the family home. This creates some really different dynamics; just imagine for a second if you were still living with your siblings at 28 years old…not to mention your parents! The one thing that seems to hold true is you’ll still fight with your parents and you’ll still fight with your siblings as long as you are under the same roof. Not just verbal…but petty little things that can turn into playful nudging matches between siblings. Stealing each other’s cell phones, borrowing a car but not filling it with gas when you bring it back, teasing over things that you wear; I felt as if I had stepped back in time about 25 years and my brother was back driving me insane.

But on the flip side of that, you will become closer than ever with them too. No one will know you better than your family. I was absolutely touched when 2 of the kids were leaving on a road trip to Lebanon for a 3 day weekend and the family reacted as if they were leaving for a 6 months overseas trip…there were multiple good byes, kisses, and hugs. Then, when they arrived home from the weekend, it was an event too. They returned and the whole family greeted them with hugs and kisses. Then they all sat down together to eat a feast at 10:30PM and discuss all aspects of the 3 day trip. My US family only gathers like this on special holidays, certainly not for a weekend trip. In general, you spend the majority of time with the family.  Even Rawan and her husband would stop by practically daily and simply hang out in the family room for hours.  You never seem to stray far from home in Jordan.

Family Culture

Etidal cooking away in the kitchen

Living at home also means you have a mother taking care of you until you get married. Cooking, cleaning, doing laundry…I was in awe of the amount of work Etidal did in a day to take care of adult children. She woke up every morning and made sure they had tea and breakfast. She also made them sandwiches to take to work for lunch. Next, it was laundry and cooking so the kids had something to eat when they arrived home from work. It was constant; as soon as she finished one meal and got it all cleaned up, she would be pealing potatoes for the tomorrow’s meal! I felt a bit uncomfortable having someone wait on me and take care of me to such a degree at times. I’ve lived the past 23 years completely on my own so it certainly was a cultural adjustment to make. Granted, I helped out whenever she would let me, but often times I was told to simply sit and relax as she did all the work.

Living with parents also means you have a curfew! I was actually out one evening at 1AM and I suddenly panicked as I thought of Etidal sitting on the couch waiting up for me and upset that I’m still out after ‘curfew’. I had seen this happen many times before with the other kids; but now it was me! I absolutely had never considered the fact that at 40 years old I’d be panicking about missing curfew!

With these close living quarters, you might wonder how in the world you ever meet a significant other. I was fascinated to learn about dating in Jordan. Much of the time your family sets you up to meet potential mates. Dating really wasn’t something you did for years and years; certainly not in public. I learned there are sly ways around the ‘cultural rules’, but it all still seemed completely tame to me and my independent western ways. Boyfriends and girlfriends would normally only meet within groups or sometimes within the formal living room of the house to sit and talk. Talk?! There seemed to be little alone time for couples – at least on the surface of what I witnessed.

Family Culture

A typical weekend family dinner gathering

The hardest thing for me to get used to was it wasn’t simply about a closeness with the family – but it was the whole extended family. When you live in a household in Jordan, you become part of the family…the whole family. Weekends are spent visiting the extended family; I found myself at family dinners on Friday afternoons for hours. One of the other GeoVisions Conversation Corps participants was obliged to go to a funeral because he was ‘part of the family’. Family obligations are strong; and certainly nothing like how I grew up. It actually made me really admire the culture as I think Americans have lost this family connection and it’s a shame.

Cultural adaption isn’t easy; but it helps you grow and it keeps you stimulated. It helps you build skills of patience, listening, communication, and adaptability. I was consistently impressed with the family ties in Jordan and among my host family. It left me longing for those types of relationships in my life. Sure, it was hard at times to be waited on, have a curfew, and share a bedroom; but it’s all part of the experience. I can safely say that I haven’t laughed that much in a family situation in my life. It was fun loving, it was passionate, it was energetic, it was infuriating; it was my family.

Imagine Volunteering at Feynan EcoLodge
Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

landscape jordan

A massive landscape awaits you

Calling all stressed out, blackburied, overdigitized, social network-a-holics…I’ve found the perfect career break for you!

Imagine a place you can go to simply have silence; perfect, peaceful silence. Imagine if there was absolutely no way for you to plug in…literally – there are no outlets. Imagine being surrounded by the soft glow of candlelight every night. Imagine seeing the milky way before you go to bed each night. Imagine interacting with some of the most generous and hospitable people the world has to offer. Imagine if you could help them; teach them; provide them a more secure future. Imagine hiking, mountain biking, and seeing remnants of ancient civilizations in your free time. Imagine eating scrumptious vegetarian meals prepared by a cooking staff. Imagine reading books by the fireside every night and interacting with travelers from around the world. Imagine how great this would look as part of your career break or sabbatical. But most importantly, imagine how good you’d feel if this was your life for a month.

It’s a Fenyan cleanse for your over-worked and stressed mind, body, and soul.


Lighting the candles for the evening...a nightly event

Feynan Ecolodge lies in the Dana Biosphere Reserve, the largest reserve in Jordan covering over 300km of land. Dana is an area of tremendous variety in terms of wildlife, geology and landscape. It is the only reserve in Jordan that encompasses the four different bio-geographical zones of the country: Mediterranean, Irano-Turanian, Saharo-Arabian and Sudanian. The lodge itself is tucked away in a valley surrounded by brown and orange mountains on all sides. You can’t simply drive there, you can get as far as the reception center at a very small village in the desert and then a local Bedouin guide will bring you the rest of the way on a rough dirt road to the remote location.

You will immediately notice all of the Bedouin tents on your drive to the to the lodge. You’ll also drive by camels, goats, children waving frantically, a small mosque, and a large white school. This is a functioning Bedouin community you are entering and they were here long before the Ecolodge showed up. By volunteering here, this Bedouin community becomes your community.


Volunteer Chronicles: Settling In
Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Fuheis Jordan

My host family home in the distance

I’ve volunteered numerous times, and not once have the experiences turned out to be what I was originally expecting! This isn’t due to false advertising; it’s due to my own expectations based on my own culture. The only thing the remains consistent in my volunteering experiences is that it never is as rigid, scheduled, and organized as I originally think they will be. My experience so far in Jordan with Conversation Corps certainly fits that statement.

It’s funny how we read volunteering brochures and paint the images in our mind of what we think it will be like based on our own culture.; after all, that’s all we know. Then we get there and realize that the experience is not exactly like what we thought it would be. Typically it’s less structured, and operates at a much slower pace than what we had imagined. In fact, volunteering constantly reminds me that my own American culture is rather uptight, impatient, and rigid.

The website about Conversation Corps talks about how in exchange for room and board you help your family with conversational English for 2 hrs a day, 5 days a week. When I see the words ‘help with conversation’, I immediately conjure up images of teaching, lesson plans, and organized learning process with a strategy and vision as to where you start and where you want to end up. To be prepared for this before I left the US I tried to put together a little strategy for how I would teach my family.


Career Break Guide Table of Contents

Meet Plan Go