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.
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My spring break volunteering for Habitat For Humanity | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Sara Fry

Today’s guest post comes from Sara Fry of Bungee-coasting.com. Sara and I started chatting in the months before we ever met IRL, so by time we were actually at Bloggers in Sin City in May, it felt like old friends reuniting rather than meeting for the first time. She has been a solid voice of reason for me and I’m grateful for her friendship. I admire her for spending her college spring break volunteering to help a stranger.

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When I’m looking back on my life, it is split into various geographical buckets. There’s the time I spent at this place and that one, in this house and the other one. I lived here, here, and here, I say.

And then I define my current life by where I am. Literally.

When I’m telling stories about my life, I like to tell stories about the different places I’ve lived. I like to talk about moving and adjusting and my various homes. I tell stories about how I can remember my old phone numbers and addresses.

The stories of my life are centered on physical locations. Those are the defining moments.

So it’s odd, then, that when I’m telling stories about my life, I usually forget about the time I built a house.

It was my senior year of college and I couldn’t afford to go on a wild, tequila-fueled spring break trip. There would be no Cancun for me or any of my friends, but we still wanted to do something. So we signed up for the Habitat For Humanity Spring Break Trip. It cost $100 to volunteer a week of our time, including the 11-hour drive from Gettysburg, PA to outside Atlanta, GA.

Looking back, I like to think that we started the trip with the noblest of intentions. The truth is, the four of us fully expected to half-ass our way through the construction part of the trip and booze our way through the nights. We’d make it the crazy spring break we thought we wanted, no matter what.

Turns out, it was a crazy spring break, but not the way we expected.

Each morning started at 7am as we set out with tool belts and hard hats and pounded nail after nail into hundreds of planks of wood. On day one, there was a cement foundation and a pile of lumber. Seven days later and the entire structure was completed.

Habitat For Humanity doesn’t just give houses to people who need them, which is easy to assume about an organization that constructs houses for people who need them. Whoever is receiving the house has to help out a certain number of hours – and then pay a mortgage – which meant that I got to interact with the woman who would eventually tell her own story about that time she helped build her very own house.

I think I forget about this story because it isn’t a defining moment in my life. It was just one week among hundreds of others, albeit one week I feel particularly proud of. But I didn’t volunteer my time that week to have some life-altering experience for myself.

I volunteered my time to contribute to someone else’s.

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Bio: Sara is a recent transplant from NY to LA. She blogs at Bungee-Coasting and Tweets as @sarafrita. 

The one where I stop making excuses and decide to make shit happen.

“If you could do or be anything you want, what would do?” For as long as I can remember, my answer has always been the same.  I want to give back and help others. I want to start my own charity and volunteer in a less developed country. Ultimately, I want to make a difference in someone’s life.

Then reality struck. I got a job, settled down and prepared for my life as it seemed to be going. My dreams of volunteering and making a difference took a back seat to the hustle bustle of everyday life. I brushed it off as “just a dream” because it just didn’t seem practical or good timing. Then in January, everything I knew got turned upside down and I began to reevaluate my life, who I am (or am not) doing and I declared 2012 The Year Of Caryn.  

Some of my goals for The Year Of Caryn include actually making time to do the things that I’ve always wanted to do but managed to make excuses for as well as focusing on me. Those excuses stopped the second I put up that post. I realized if I really wanted something to change or to do something different, I had to do something about it. No more just sitting on the couch waiting for change. I had to go out and make that shit happen.

So I am done dreaming, done waiting for things to happen to me, done making excuses. I am on a positive path of self improvement and I am making my dreams a reality. So, in September, I am going to Africa! That’s right, I am spending 4 weeks  (FOUR!!!) volunteering in Tanzania! There are three volunteer programs to choose from: Caregiving (caring for kids in orphanages and daycares), Teaching English, (schools are overcrowded and there is a shortage of teachers and resources), or Community Development (women empowerment or helping AIDS patients). Because I have always felt that I was meant to do something big in this world, to give back, to make a difference in someone’s life, I want to be a role model and help educate the children. I want to immerse myself in the culture and make an impact on their lives. I am going with an international volunteer organization called Cross Cultural Solutions.  I am shaking with excitement, I cannot wait!

People ask why Africa? Because it just feels right. Ever since I was little, I have always envisioned myself volunteering in Africa so I want to follow that gut feeling. There is something to be said about following your intuition. Plus, one of my biggest Life List goals is to go on an African Safari. So why not kill two birds with one stone?

I originally planned to go in April but as April is almost over, you can deduce that it didn’t work out. As it turns out, it is rainy season now and it just didn’t give me enough time to prepare. My program runs 9/22 – 10/20 and I’m hoping to catch the return of the Serengeti migration and avoid the second rainy season. The best part? I don’t have to quit my job! I am extremely lucky that my company is supportive of my volunteer dreams and is letting me take this 4 week sabbatical. I have been itching to share this but had to go through proper HR protocol first. I am so excited I want to scream it from the rooftops!

Currently, I am trying to figure out the best flight path to get there that is the most cost efficient/shortest possible route. Looks like it will be 18-24 hours of traveling with a stop in Europe. If I can have my pit stop in Rome, and get to visit Africa and Italy in one trip, I might just be the happiest person on earth. But first, in order to be allowed into the country, I need to apply for a work permit and visa as well as clear all medical requirements. It is a good thing I am not scared of shots because I have a laundry list of shots I need to have done before I leave.

It isn’t required to have the Hep A/B shot series 100% completed before you leave, but because I am a planner like that and am aware of my travel plans so far in advance, I’d rather have everything completed before I leave. There is a lot to be done and anxieties to be calmed which could mean a lot of room for making excuses. But I won’t let happen. This dream will be checked off my list.

Shots I cleared 6 months out: My doctor did a blood test to check for evidence of previous childhood vaccinations. I am all about saving money and not repeating tests. They found remnants of Hep B, mumps, and Rubella in my blood.

Yellow Fever * (March 13) Yellow fever is spread through the bite of an infected mosquito and is not transferable by direct contact. I asked my Dr. of all the shots “I need, which will be the worst?” And the Dr. smiled and said “This one!” as she stabbed the back of my arm with the vaccine. It felt like she was holding the needle in place in my arm even after it had long been removed. It didn’t hurt though, just stung/burned/tingled for about 30 seconds. It has a reputation of being one of the worst shots and often gets people sick with flu-like symptoms and/or swelling at the site of the injection. I luckily didn’t get sick. In fact, I had such a mild reaction, if it weren’t for the stinging, I would have wondered if I actually received the correct shot. It only made my jaw and joints feel stiff that afternoon. I woke up the next day with a pretty bad hangover-like-headache without having had any alcohol the night before. If that was the worst shot, bring on Africa!

Polio (March 13) – done, check!

Hep A(March 27) 2 shot series if not combined with Hep B – 3 shot series if it is. One shot down – one to go! Easy enough, just your average shot.

Hep B booster – (March 27) I had already  have remnants in my blood from when I was child, so the Dr. said a one time shot of Hep B would suffice.

In July I return for the Meningitis, Typhoid and Measles shots and then the week before I leave I finish my Hep A series and pick up my Malaria pills.  These pills supposedly can make you hallucinate, so we’ll see how that goes.

*my mom keeps saying “she got yellow fever” and this cracks me up. I got the yellow fever shot, not the disease, thanks! Oh, semantics.

 

I know there are risks to going to Africa. If I don’t go now, when will I?  I’ve always believed actions speak louder than words. I am putting my words to action and making my dreams come true. I AM GOING TO AFRICA!! NBD. JK. OMG! BFD!

What dreams can you make a reality?

** UPDATE: as of 7/27 all shots complete. I can’t believe how time has gone so quickly.

Typhoid – no big deal. Just your average shot. You have a choice of taking a one time shot that requires a booster dose every two years for those who remain at risk or taking live vaccine pills. I chose the shot as it’s easy. One shot and your done. You just need to get it at least two weeks before travel to allow the vaccine time to work. The other option, taking oral pills, is more complicated. You need to take four doses which are given two days apart for each dose. The last dose needs to be taken at least one week before traveling. The bonus to the pills is that the booster dose is needed every five years for people who continue to travel. I prefer one and done.

MMR (Measles Mumps Rubella) or Meningitis – I don’t know which was which but NO WONDER KIDS CRY when they get shots. I am a pro at shots. They rarely phase me. But this one sucked. It was worse than the Yellow Fever vaccine for sure. I was advised to take advil or that it might swell, neither of which applied to me but it was a beast of a shot.