On Being a Big Sister | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Nora

Bringing in the caboose of the Travel & Volunteer Guest Post Series is the wonderful Nora of Walkingwithnora. The internet is an amazing place that brings people into our lives that we otherwise never would have met and they often impact us without ever even meeting IRL.  Nora is one of those people for me and just like the internet, volunteering brings people into our lives too, and impacts us in unexpected ways. This last post reminds us of some very important lessons that we can learn from giving of ourselves and helping others.
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Years ago I found myself in a rut. My boyfriend had dumped me on New Years on our way home from Chicago, which of course meant an awkard five hour car ride. I was living with a friend who wasn’t really a friend at all. I had just started my job and made less than $24,000 a year. I was about a year post-undergrad and totally clueless as to what to do with my life or where to go from there.
So I did what I did best at the time: I wallowed. I mixed in work and working out as those two things made me happy, but I knew I needed something more.
One day I realized that I really, really, really disliked this version of myself. I was tired of being wallow-y and depressing. I wanted to put some pep back in my step so I did two things.
1. I started researching graduate schools and
2. Applied to be a Big Sister with the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of St. Louis
Both were hugely instrumental in my road to self-recovery but being a Big Sister? It lead to me so many amazing experiences I never thought I would have.
After filling out tons of paperwork (which has since been automated online), agreeing to a background check, and answering questions in a very interesting interview (the get personal with the questions, as well they should, since they are trusting us with the lives of our littles!), I was matched. My little was seven when we began our friendship, and we remained matched for almost two years, at which point she outgrew the program and sadly my time was then occupied by graduate school.
My little taught me things like how to dance, do braids in pigtails, what the latest school lingo was, and that there is nothing sweeter than a little person wanting to hold your hand! She helped me to conquer my fear of roller coasters (although I kept my eyes closed, my mouth open and I squeezed her hand hard) that go upside down, and I got her over her fear of snakes.
We made matching Build A Bears for the St. Louis Cardinals, saw cute kid movies that I wasn’t brave enough to see by myself, we had sleepovers where we made s’mores, went swimming and had “girl talk,” which usually meant she would blush and not tell me about the boys she had a crush on. We went to a circus, I saw her band performances, and we talked on the phone once a week.
On top of being a “Big,” I got involved in community services projects through BBBSMO including a habitat for humanity type group. The premise started out simple: we would help a struggling family with kids in the program to clean out and up their home. It turned into much more than that as we got electricians and plumbers donated, we had an army of 50 people who literally redid their home: everything from cleaning to painting, to getting furniture donated, to rewiring their house, to updating their plumbing, getting computers and internet for the kids to do their homework from and so much more. That project was the longest weekend (yes, one weekend!) of my life, but at the end I collapsed into bed out of sheer happiness. We helped so many people in this program and I was proud of it! I learned to be more thankful for what I do have rather than stressing about what I don’t; I learned that my heartache over my ex wasn’t nearly as serious as those children whose parents were gone due to illness or by choice; I learned that people can do good in the world and that it all it takes sometimes is a kind heart and a smile.
I’ve sinced moved on from working with BBBSMO and now do community charity work and projects via our local Rotary Chapter throughout the year for groups like Nurses for Newborns, the USO and local high schools in need. Volunteering has shown me two things:  the inherent good nature of people, no matter their circumstance and that no matter what I should always be thankful for what has been bestowed upon me so far.
What’s your favorite group to volunteer/work with? How has volunteering helped you?
Bio: Engaged to Knight. Bonus Momma to 2 girls; Dog Momma to Jack. Loves wine, books, rain, Mexican food, her family and friends. Blogs at WalkingwithNora
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My Getaway | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Megan Stanley

Today’s guest post is from the beautiful Megan Stanley of Well That’s Awkward. I wish she didn’t live so far away, it would be amazing to see her more often. Whether you need a vacation or not, this is bound to make you want to click over to Expedia and book your next getaway immediately. You can find her tweeting at @meganstanley.

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Some travel experiences are filled with adventures in faraway places, stepping out of one’s comfort zone, trying new foods and exploring new cultures, learning something new at each and every turn.

My trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was NOT like that.

I KNOW. There are so many great things to do in Puerto Vallarta, so many zip-lines and gorgeous viewpoints, so much hiking and snorkeling to do, so much Mexican food to eat, and a whole city to explore. But when I went there in early 2011, after a really rough 2010 and a job search that deemed me either un- or over-qualified for every single opening I applied for, all I really wanted was to relax.

We spent four days at an all-inclusive resort on the southern end of the city, about an hour’s drive from the airport, and from the moment we pulled up to the front door, I was in heaven. We were greeted with champagne at the front desk, and when we arrived at our room we found a plate full of fresh fruit and three different kinds of tequila. From our balcony, we overlooked the pool, with its hot tubs, waterfalls and palm trees, and then beyond that to the Banderas Bay, where cliffs, lined with beautiful houses, dropped down into the water along the white sand beach.

Our vacation package included three meals at any one of the a la carte restaurants at the resort, and for all of our other meals, we had access to an all-you-can-eat buffet. We also had free room service. We did not go hungry.

On our first day there, we decided that we wanted to do nothing except lay around in the sun at the pool, drinking unlimited free mojitos, people-watching and enjoying our break from the rainy Portland winter and the difficult ten months or so we’d just finished, with nothing else on our agenda. We’d leave the resort another day, maybe go zip-lining or wander around the city, or hit up that taco joint right up the hill that the bellhop told us about and that would undoubtedly be fantastic. 

The next day, we decided the same thing. We still had another day, after all. We still had so much more relaxing to do. There would be plenty of time for exploring Puerto Vallarta.

On our third and final day, we woke up and wanted nothing but our pool chairs, a good book, and the attention of the poolside servers who would bring us whatever food and drink we wanted. Anything that required more energy just seemed so… unnecessary. 

HERE AS EVIDENCE THAT I WAS A RAGING ALCOHOLIC ON THIS TRIP

On the day we left, we purchased souvenirs and reluctantly turned in our wristbands and keycards, took some photos around the resort, and settled into our taxi for the hour-long trip back to the airport. As we drove around the winding curves of the road along the bay, I caught my last few glimpses of the blue-green water, wishing we didn’t have to leave. And on our trip through the city, it occurred to me that we had wasted the opportunity to explore a completely new place, to find something we would never find in Portland, and to do something completely new. And while, even a year and a half later, I still somewhat regret not taking advantage of that opportunity, I also know that the vacation we had was exactly what we needed – no agenda, no obligation to do something we didn’t really feel like doing just to say we had done it, no one to answer to except ourselves and our own impulses.

There are many ways to travel. Sure, it can be very rewarding to fill a vacation with activities, to truly experience a new place, a new culture, or even just a new city. But sometimes, it’s enough to just get away. 

Volunteering Can Be Fulfilling (But Not For Me) | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Treavioli

I had the great pleasure of meeting Treavioli in Vegas at BiSC. You meet in him person and just want to be his friend and hug him. This story cracks me up because while he was terrified, I would have done anything to have been sitting in his seat. Literally. Let’s just hope my experience on Safari isn’t anything like that man’s! 

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I was on my first flight out of the US, bound for Costa Rica. Nerves and excitement fueled my body and kept me awake, which was unfortunate because I had only slept 2 hours that morning before my red eye shuttle came to carry me off to DFW International. After connecting in Houston and Miami I was well on my way to seeing baby sloths and other cute animals in the lush tropical forests of Arenal and Monteverde.

It was a long flight so I occupied myself with my Nintendo DS (yes, I am 14 years old in maturity) and the tunes on my iPod. Towards the end when the pilot appeared on the speaker letting us know we were beginning to descend I had no choice but to come out of my self-contained world of 8-bit pixels and forested mixtape of tunes. It was then that I actually realized I was sitting next to 2 middle-aged women, who appeared to be traveling together. During a lull in their conversation, I interjected with something light and unimportant, but it led to me realizing that they were kickass, traveling women. They had been on all 7 continents, set foot in several countries, and had many adventures as a wildlife biologist and a middle school teacher!

I was particularly interested in what type of animals the biologist took care of and studied. She told me thewild kind. And I was skeptical looking at her, she was an older Caucasian lady, about 55-years old with a short and grey hairdo. How wild could they be. I mean, she wasn’t frail looking but she wasn’t a Hulk either. She went on to tell me about an incident that involved an over-zealous photographer and a leopard.

“We warned him not to get too close,” she said as a matter of fact. “But he got closer and closer to the fence.”

I winced a little, bracing myself and remembering the scene in Jurassic Park when T-Rex rose up with bloody goat strips slipping out of his mouth.

“He got too close and that leopard grabbed his arm, took a bite out of it and wouldn’t let go.”

“Did anybody do anything,” I asked, clinging to hope for the guy.

“Nope,” the biologist said. The school teacher laughed, and I looked at her like she was insane. She didn’t have compassion for idiots. “We raced him to the doctor, and the doctor asked where the arm was. I said, ‘Duh, the leopard has it!'” And we all laughed, but I felt bad for the guy.

She went on to say, “So yeah, I’m connected with some African wildlife conservation reserves. If you ever want to volunteer, let me know.”

I thought to myself, Volunteer to be some lion’s meal? Uh no. She’s probably in cahoots with a killer sea turtles, too. I gave her my business card anyway. Gratefully she hasn’t called, or worse, shown up on my doorstep with one of her furry wildlife friends.

Treavioli (treh-vee-oh-lee) is a Dallas-based traveler, who curates a YouTube channel and his blog,Endeavors, where he writes about self-improvement and travel.

Outside of My Bubble | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Jenna Britton

Today’s guest post is none other than the very lovely and talented writer, Jenna Britton of Splendid Really. This fellow BiSCuit has such a sweet and charming demeanor that you can’t help but want to be her friend. I enjoyed this post because it was fascinating to see someone else’s perspective on travel and volunteering as one unit. She is such a simple and articulate writer and I am excited to share her post with you. Enjoy!

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I have been lucky enough to travel quite a bit in my short life. I have been to the UK, Hawaii, Italy, Tennesse, Cabo San Lucas, North and South Carolina, Australia, Oregon and New Zealand, amongst other lovely places, since I first traveled outside Southern California many years ago. I have also volunteered a great deal. I’ve built houses in Tijuana, spent my mornings teaching elementary school children how to read, spent weekends as a College Writing Coach for high school students from underprivileged communities, and spent two years serving as an advisor for the YMCA’s Youth & Government program. But travel and volunteering have never coincided for me, and it wasn’t until recently – when I spoke with Caryn about writing a guest post for her blog – that I even considered why.

Travel and volunteerism are both very important aspects of my life. I feel lacking, self-seeking, and truly left in a funk without them both. But it seems that they each bring a different kind of joy to my life, they fulfill entirely different needs, and I think that’s why I’ve often kept them so separate.

Traveling is, of course, an escape for me, but it is also an opportunity to learn. I learn about new countries (or states), I learn about different cultures or languages or accents, I learn histories that often vary significantly from what I was taught growing up, and I learn my own threshold for patience and perseverance in the face of unexpected twists and spontaneous adventures. Travel is an opportunity for me to sit back and observe, while understanding that I am just one small, fairly insignificant part of a very big, beautiful world. When traveling, I am the one being filled by the knowledge and allure of a world entirely different from my own.

Volunteering, on the other hand, is my opportunity to teach and to give. It is my opportunity to take all that I have been given and, hopefully, share it well with those who haven’t been as fortunate as me. Volunteering gives me the perspective to realize that I have been blessed beyond measure and that, no matter how hard I’ve worked in my life, I have been given opportunities other people only dream of just because of where I was born and who I was born to. It allows me to be grateful for what I’ve been given – whether it’s come easily or not – and to give some of that back to people who deserve it just as much as I do, if not more.

But as I thought more about each of these very important parts of my life – as I began to write this blog post – I realized how deeply connected the benefits of travel and volunteerism actually are for me. Each experience opens my eyes to the lives of others, each experience gets me out of my own solipsistic bubble and offers me perspective and growth, and each experience highlights the importance of being connected with the wide world. And, no matter what I previously thought, each experience is actually a give and take – I learn and teach through both.

So why haven’t I yet combined the two? Well, it takes a lot of guts and a lot of self-sacrifice to do what Caryn is doing – to spend time in an exotic, faraway place helping others instead of simply enjoying it herself. But I can’t imagine she won’t benefit from this experience, as well. I can’t imagine she won’t come home from Kilimanjaro-Tanzania feeling enriched, fulfilled, and as if she learned more than she ever thought possible, even if it’s some of the hardest work she’s done in her life. And I suppose I haven’t yet tried to combine these two experiences, because I never fully realized that they were not mutually exclusive exercises for me; that I could both learn and teach, observe and present, give and take by simply integrating them together. It is possible to get so much from an experience where your main goal is to give back. Maybe that’s still selfish. Or maybe it’s the best motivation.

Maybe it’s time to take another trip.

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Jenna Britton is a copywriter and public relations professional, living in Los Angeles. She is also an avid reader and writer, particularly of personal essays. Most recently, her work was published on Salon.com. You can follow Jenna on Twitter at @jennanicole or find her occasionally musing at SplendidReally.com.

The Little Country That Could [Overwhelm Me] | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Jen Johnson

Today’s guest post comes from another awesome BiSCuit, Jen Johnson.  She blogs over at Connecting the Black Dots, so be sure to check her out! She likes languages, poker, dirty martinis, colorful pens, waterfalls and postcards. She shares with us a very unique and fascinating first-hand experience of volunteering in Russia. 

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When I was volunteering in the Republic of Georgia in 2011, I stayed with a host family in a tiny village three hours away from the big city. In fact, the closest next “town” was over an hour away and lays right smack on the Azerbaijan/Georgian border.

“This street Georgia, next street Azerbaijan!” my co-teacher proudly told me.

As my village used to be an Ossetian village, half of the houses were burnt down. You may remember in 2008 Russia invaded a little-known country called Georgia. I think my first reaction upon hearing that was “why are the Russians attacking the United States? And Georgia of all places?”

Well, turns out they were attacking Georgia – the Republic of – to gain control of a region called South Ossetia (and another region called Abkhazia). My village was just outside of this (still occupied) zone. The Georgians in the village were afraid that the Russians would invade their area too, if there were Ossetians living there so they literally burnt their Ossetian neighbors houses to the ground.  
 
What a great, welcoming story to hear upon arrival!
 
Never mind the fact that no one in my village spoke English, even my co-teachers could hardly understand me. And they were the ones supposedly teaching the kids English! I knew it was going to be a difficult semester.
 
Have you ever tried to learn a new language? I speak French fluently, and Spanish fairly well but Georgian was nowhere even close to either of those languages. In fact, the root of Georgian is…Georgian (Kartvelian). The only known similar languages are the ones spoken in the Caucasus Mountains. If you spoke Russian, you could at least communicate with most people – after all, Russia has been a huge influence on this area of the world. As for me, my French and Spanish got me nowhere. Georgian lessons it was.
 
Don’t get me wrong, I loved learning Georgian – the letters fascinate me and my attempts at the guttural noises were a source of laughter for many a Georgian. But I would be lying if I said it was easy. Now I know how those poor kids I taught felt.
 
It also made for some sticky situations. For example, I didn’t realize the extent of limited hot water at my host-house. So of course, one morning I wanted to shower before school. I came downstairs with all my washing needs, flicked the electric heater on and hopped in the (freezing cold) shower. After about 10 minutes of waiting, teeth chattering, I got dressed and went to ask my host father what was up with the water situation.
 
His English was limited to three things: “baby”, “sit down”, and “hello”.
Super helpful.
I managed to get it across to him that the shower was freezing (repeating “me gaq’inva c’q’ali” while using spider fingers above my head to indicate shower – this roughly translates to “I freeze water” What? That’s the limited vocabulary I had to work with!) He finally managed to explain that it takes two hours to heat the water. TWO HOURS!
 
Needless to say, I did not get my shower that day. In fact, I wore more head scarves, headbands and ponytails in those few months than I have in my entire life. Showering was not a priority in the small villages. In fact, my house was one of the only ones that actually even had hot water.
 
There was also the problem of traffic jams. No, not of the vehicular kind. I’m talking cows, ox, goats, pigs, chickens – even a horse or two. Most of the animals just ran around doing as they pleased. It was not unusual, on my way to school, for me to pass a few pigs grazing in the street, while a horse trotted by, narrowly missing the flock of chickens stationed by a spewing water spout, while a man on a goat-driven cart shouted Georgian obscenities at the herd of cows blocking his route. And the problems that arose when more than one cart was on the dirt roads – vy may!  

I learned a lot in those months; about Eastern Europe, about the Caucasus region, about culture shock, about learning, about friendship, about gutting rabbits and eating them for dinner (seriously), about traveling, about adapting, and most importantly, about myself.

 I mean, I was a vegetarian for like 10 years and I managed to eat an animal that I had seen alive earlier that day. If that’s not learning, I don’t know what is. 
BIO: Jen grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, among polar bears and dog sleds (although she has yet to see either in the wild). In late 2009 she quit her job in the petroleum industry to pursue her dreams of travel and adventure. Obtaining the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) came in handy as she travelled through Central America – volunteering at several small elementary schools along the way, before settling in Costa Rica. After that stint was up, she travelled across the globe to teach in  Georgia – yes, it was random. Jen has an unnatural affinity for semi-colons, postcards, waterfalls and colourful pens. She is fluent in English and French, speaks Spanish, some American Sign Language and dubious amount of Georgian. Returning to school in the fall scares her more than a walk in Tegucigalpa at night. Okay, maybe not that much, but close. She blogs at Connecting the Black Dots.