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Volunteering Abroad: The Inside Scoop

by Monday, September 14, 2015
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Maddie and Evan with the kids at GoEco day camp in Cape Town, South Africa

Last month my 17-year-old daughter, Maddie,  and her best friend did some volunteer work in South Africa. I was initially super excited to let her have this amazing opportunity, but then was a little worried about her safety and the unknown, having never done volunteer work myself.


I have always wanted to do volunteer work abroad,  and now I would be letting my daughter be a guinea pig (if you will) by experiencing this first.


 

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www.goeco.org

She was determined that this was going to happen and did all the legwork herself. She found an organization called Go Eco (http://www.goeco.org) that had a great reputation and offered a program that spiked her interest.

She chose the Cape Town, South Africa location that would have her working with underprivileged children at a day camp, teaching them life skills through sports, such as surfing. This was the one. She was to go for three weeks and stay at a volunteer house with other volunteers from all over the world.

She went from July 29, 2015 to August 18, 2015.

When she returned, I decided to interview her about her experience, not only for my knowledge, but to share with others who are also interested in volunteering abroad.


 

Here is a little insight on how her volunteer experience was:

Me:Was the GoEco organized with documentation and the transfers/airport pick up?

Maddie: GoEco was very organized. I was a little worried about not being picked up at the airport, but there was no problems at all and it was easier than I thought.

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Maddie and Evan in their shuttle from the airport, heading to their volunteer house for GoEco in Cape Town, South Africa

Me: How were the conditions of the volunteer house?

Maddie: There were 4 connected houses with 8 people in each. They were very basic with no frills at all. There was no television, no radio and each house had one bathroom to share.  

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Go Eco volunteer house in Cape Town, South Africa

Me: How many volunteers were there? And what were the age ranges?

Maddie: There were about 20 volunteers from all around the globe, ranging anywhere from 17-30, but mostly college aged. We were the youngest ones. There were only a couple other 17 year olds there.

Me: Did you feel safe in the area?

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Maddie and Evan with their new friends Alex and Joey from London

Maddie: Yes, we felt extremely safe and anytime we went out in the town, we always stayed in groups.

Me: How was the work? Was it hard?

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Maddie and her new friend Alex from London playing with the kids

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The kids in the classroom, ready to learn

Maddie: It started out with a few days of training and then we worked everyday, all day (usually 8:30 am-4:00 pm). The mornings were in the classroom and afternoons at the beach doing swim lessons with the 12-14 year olds.  It was very intense and harder than I thought, mainly due to the language barrier and keeping the kids paying attention.  After our long day at project, we would often have lesson planning to do for the next day. Our nights and weekends were free to explore the area.

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Maddie and Evan sightseeing in Cape Town on the weekend

Me; How was the food?

Maddie: The food was okay.The breakfast was yogurt and fruits and the lunches and dinners were simple, with a protein, starch and a vegetable. It was very Americanized type food, which I was little disappointed in. I wanted to try some weird foods. I did get to try a traditional South African sandwich called a”gwenya” though, which was like a puffy bread bun with french fries and some red spices. It was so good! 

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A “gwenya” South African sandwich

Me: What did you like best about this experience?

Maddie: Making new friends from around the world and the kids. They were so adorable and full of so much love.  Every time we walked into the class, they would literally jump all over us hugging us nonstop. It felt great to make them so happy.

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Maddie and her new friend David from Sweden making “friendship bracelets”

Me: What did you like least about it?

Maddie: I wish I would have gone in a different season. It was winter season when I was there so it was very cold for surfing and our volunteer house had no heat, so nights got extremely chilly.

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Maddie and Evan hat shopping. Its winter season in August for South Africa

Me: What kinds of things did you do on your free time?

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Maddie and Evan out with their new friend Julia from the Netherlands

Maddie: We went out at night to a local bar and socialized with other volunteers and backpackers staying at a surrounding hostel. It felt kind of crazy being at a bar at 17, but in South Africa, it doesn’t matter. I even ordered a drink (oops). On the weekend we went hiking and shopped in the town and I even went skydiving! (sorry Mom)

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Maddie skydiving!

Me: Would you use Go Eco again to do volunteer work somewhere else?

Maddie: Yes! I plan on doing another one, probably somewhere in South East Asia when I am 18.

Me: Did you learn anything by volunteering abroad?

Maddie: Yes! I learned so much! I learned how to interact with people from diverse backgrounds and found ways to connect with them, other than by just talking (a language barrier was there in many cases). I also learned how to take care of myself and it made me feel more confident that if I can travel across the world at 17 alone, I can pretty much do anything. This experience also taught me to be grateful for everything I have. Seeing these underprivileged children being so happy with absolutely nothing, humbled me in a way that made me want to give back even more.

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Maddie looking down at Cape Town, South Africa from a view point at Lions Head

Me: Do you think everyone should volunteer abroad?

Maddie: Yes! I think this experience is mind-opening and would be beneficial to anyone, no matter how old or young. I feel like volunteering abroad has changed my life in so many positive ways. I can’t wait to do it again!


 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Avoid Tourist Scams While Traveling Abroad

by Monday, June 8, 2015

Traveling abroad is an awesome way to see the world and how people live in other countries. Being a tourist in a foreign land can also put us at prey to scam artists and thieves. These scam artists find tourists an easy target because they are out of their element, they most often don’t know the language, and typically get confused with the currency, making them more vulnerable.  This is just a fact that comes with travel. One that prevents some from wanting to leave their own country because of these fears.

While there is no certain way to prevent such things, there are tips that can possibly put you at less risk. Being informed and educated on what to watch out for can be a great way to not just be a naive tourist, but be a keen world traveler.

There are many scams and cons going on all over the world at tourist destinations. I wanted to share some of the most common ones that I am aware of and give you tips on what you can do to avoid them.

  • GETTING SHORTCHANGED

This one was attempted at every single stop on my last trip, visiting 3 different countries. So, the prevalence was pretty obvious. Luckily I was prepared for it. The best way to avoid this is to try to be familiar with the local currency. Study what things generally cost and try not to carry large sum bills. They tend to count back very slowly to see if you will take your change before they reach the proper amount. I almost every time had to tell them, “keep going, you owe me more” One time they even tried to say I gave them a different denomination. Don’t fall for it and be very persistent and stern.  They usually give up quick, knowing there will be plenty of other, not so observant tourists, right behind that will fall for this.

How to avoid this?: The biggest weapon and saving grace was the currency converter app. It was an absolute life-saver. I used it everywhere I went and it was the most helpful resource when making any purchases.  Just pulling out my iPhone and bringing up the app in front of merchants,  changed their “change” instantly! Iphone Currency Converter App

  • GETTING PICK-POCKETED

This happens everywhere too, especially in busy tourist areas where there is a lot of people and confusion. This also is very common at train stations. If you are in a super populated area, the chances of being pick-pocketed increases dramatically.

 How to avoid this?:  Be constantly aware of your surrounding and to make sure your belongings are tucked away to a place that can’t be easily taken.  Having an undergarment body wallet or money wallet would be the most ideal.  That way all of your cash and credit cards are close to your body and not easily grabbed by thieves. It may sound corny, but fanny packs are very useful in these situations too, you may not be the most stylish person around, but you might just be the smartest? If those don’t fancy you, just make sure you have your wallet, credit cards and passport in a place that is not easier accessed.  Don’t stores these things on the outside of bags or in back pockets because if you are in a crowded area you may have your wallet stolen and not even feel it.  Another tip that I follow is to try to get your passport and large sums of money off you as soon as you reach your destination. f you are staying a hotel, they usually always have a safe. Immediately put your passport, cash, and credit card in the safe. (try to have 2 credit cards if possible-and leave one in the safe as a backup)

  • BEING TOLD A POPULAR TOURIST ATTRACTION IS CLOSED

This scam is big in Bangkok, usually near the popular temples or big attractions. This happened to me in April. I went to visit the Grand Palace and a tuk tuk driver informed me that it was closed.  He was way too helpful, which should send off red flags. He offered an alternate tourist attraction to go visit a temple.  Although the Grand Palace was actually closed that day for a special Buddhist celebration for the locals, I had no backup plan of what we were going to do. I had just boated over to the area to spend the better part of the day at the palace and I thought it might be a good alternative then trying to figure out something else last-minute.  We got in the tuk tuk and drove a while and we reached a parking lot. The tuk tuk driver escorted us out and had us follow him on this long walk to seamlessly nowhere. My daughter and I looked at each other and realized, we were either being scammed or are going to be killed! Either way, we wanted out of there immediately. I told the tuk tuk driver we changed our mind and want to go back. He hesitated a bit and finally agreed. As we walked the narrow road towards the tuk tuk, there were tourist after tourist walking in the opposite direction with other tuk tuk drivers.  We wanted to yell, “go back, its a scam” but for some reason we didn’t.  When we got back to spot in front of the Grand Palace, there where many tourists getting told the same and hopping on their tourist trap to a temple that I’m still not sure even exists. ( I didn’t know about this one before I went to Bangkok, obviously, but on my return I did some research and learned this is very common and  apparently the  tuk tuk drivers get paid a finder’s fee for drumming up business for the  smaller,(less visited ) tourist attractions.  Don’t fall for it. At least he probably wasn’t planning on killing us!

How to avoid this?: Make sure you know the times and hours of opening and closing of the tourist attraction you want to visit. (also taking note of any special holidays/events or closings) This is not only good for avoiding scams, but if you have a limited amount of days at a destination, it could  also help you avoid missing seeing something if you unknowingly planned your visit on a closed day. Many museums have one day a week closed-so do your homework before you leave to help plan your itinerary. 

  •  DISTRACTION SCHEMES

This one is very common. The con is usually done with one or two people. It can be a simple as them trying to help you in some way.  It’s sad that you have to doubt a good Samaritan, but while traveling abroad, it’s unfortunately, a must. There is one scheme that they squirt something on your shirt, and then point it out to you, making you think that it was a bird dropping, while helping you to clean it off.  All the while, as they are allegedly cleaning you up, they are also cleaning out your wallet. Another one is they throw a baby at you (really a doll) and because you’re so stunned by this unexpected action, you freeze, while the second scammer grabs your belongings and run before you even realized what happened.

How to avoid this?:  The harsh answer-don’t trust anyone! If someone is trying to distract you in some way, they might be pulling a scam. It’s better to be overly careful than unguarded while in a foreign land. This may sound a ill-disposed but if you want to stay clear of being a victim, it’s the most practical way to think.

  • TAXI SCAMS

This one is a very popular scam. It even happens in America. The cab driver will try to take a long way to your destination to increase you cab fare.  They also will turn off their meter and then give you an outrageous price at the end of your ride.

How to avoid this?: Know your destination and how long it should take you to arrive. Do some research of the average cab fares from points of interest. Ask your hotel concierge. They usually know the average rate on places you most likely will want to see while visiting the area. Another one that I did was to set a price before even getting into the cab/tuk tuk., whatever.  If you are familiar of the average cost of your trip, you can say you want to go to so-and-so and you would like to pay such and such.  Some will refuse, but many will agree and will bring you to where you are headed for the price you negotiated, with no surprises. It’s especially helpful when you tell them you paid that amount you are suggesting in the reverse direction, letting them be aware that you are knowledgable of what the cost should be. 

  • FAKE POLICE OFFICERS

This scam is also seen more around busy tourist spots. The scam is, a so-called police officer in uniform, tells the tourists that there has been a problem in the area for counterfeit money. They tell you that they need to check your cash to see if you have any. By the time you hand over your wallet, they rummage through, taking some of our money in the process, or taking off with your wallet before you even realize that  you have been scammed.

How to avoid this?: Never hand your wallet or passport to anyone, ever! Even if they look official. If they insist, ask them for their ID number and badge and also be familiar to what the actual uniform looks like in that city. If you are persistent with questions and act as though you know what they are up to, they most likely will leave you alone and go on to the next sucker.  

These are just a few examples of some common tourist scams, but there are many more. By talking with other travelers and their experiences, doing research and educating yourself before you travel, you could not only avoid falling victim to scams, but it may even make you feel empowered, knowing that you are a savvy traveler.

The world at times can seem to be a scary place, full of bad, but when you witness all of the good it has, it makes seeing it, all worth while.

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