After years of working 70 hours a week at jobs I detested, I felt like the proverbial "hole in the donut" - solid on the outside, but empty on the inside. Searching for meaning in my life, I abandoned my successful but unsatisfying career and set out on a six-month solo backpacking trip around the world to pursue my true passions of travel, writing, and photography. My blog features stories about the destinations I visit, people I meet, the crazy things...Read more here....
Sarita was only 13 years old when her parents sold her to the owner of a hotel in Kagbeni, high in the Himalayan Mountains in the Lower Mustang area of Nepal. For the next year, she slaved in the kitchen, preparing meals for the 10-20 men who stayed at the guest house. She was paid 8,000 Nepali rupees for the year, about $91 USD. Sarita hated the work, but without any means to pay for food and lodging, she was trapped. Then one day she met Nicky Chhetri, who along with her two siblings, Dicky and Lucky, had opened Three Sisters Trekking Company in Pokhara, Nepal. Nicky was scouring the mountains for underprivileged girls who would agree to be trained as trekking guides. If Sarita could find her own way to Pokhara, Nicky promised, she would be given food, lodging, education, and specialized training that would allow her to become one of the first female trekking guides in what had, up till then, been an exclusively male profession.
Three Sisters Trekking Company and Hotel
The Chhetri Sisters had seized upon the idea of female guides because many trekkers, especially women, reported feeling unsafe on the trails when accompanied only by male guides and porters. They battled Nepal’s male-dominated society, never giving up on their idea regardless how many times they were told that only men could be licensed as trekking guides. Finally, they gained permission and set up their own school in the top floor of an older building on the north end of Pokhara, using the remainder of the building to house the girls. Continue reading →
The dangerously handsome man sitting at an adjacent table in the Pokhara coffee shop nodded as I wrapped up my interview with two young girls who’s had an abhorrent experience with a local volunteer operator. A jumble of dreadlocks peeked from beneath Hugo Caminero’s rainbow knitted skullcap as he leaned across the aisle and admitted that he’d been eavesdropping. Hugo was also working with children in Nepal, but he’d created his own program rather than pay a firm to arrange a volunteer opportunity. He flashed a seductive smile through his two-day stubble. Would I like to accompany him the following day to see for myself?
Hugo, drummer for the popular Spanish cover band RETO 999, was inspired by the philanthropic works of Carlinhos Brown, a Brazilian percussionist who was born in Candeal Pequeno, a small neighborhood in the Brotas area of Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. As a child, Brown played in dirt streets where human waste flowed; when it rained, excrement and mud washed into the homes. Yet it was the rhythm and percussion sounds from these same rough streets that brought him fame. Hoping to give back, Brown opened a music school in Candeal and formed the musical group Timbalada, recruiting more than 100 percussionists and singers called “timbaleiros,” the majority of them young kids from the streets of Candeal. Timbalada eventually recorded eight albums and toured various countries around the world. Today, largely through the efforts of Brown and Pracatum Social Action Association community action organization also set up by the drummer, the streets of Candeal are paved and free from sewage.
Taking his cue from Brown, Hugo bought a dozen drums, flew to Pokhara, and began looking for an orphanage where he could put his skills to use. One day he knocked on the door of the Protection and Rehabilitation Centre for Street Children and soon he was tutoring kids for an hour or so each afternoon in simple rhythms they were sure to master. At a jam session in a local bar one night he met Kim Jinuk, a Korean guitarist, and Pablo Etayo, an amateur musician from Basque Spain who had studied music therapy. And then there were three.
The next afternoon, Hugo led me through a maze of Pokhara’s dirt back streets on a shortcut to the highway, where the inconspicuous centre concealed itself behind a low concrete wall. A door cracked open we were ushered inside, where raggedy urchins immediately latched onto our legs, our clothes, whatever they could grasp. They bickered and pummeled one another; one young boy performed backflips from a nearby bench hoping to win our attention. Utter chaos reigned until Hugo broke out the drums.
Forming an orderly circle in the center of the courtyard, the children focused on Hugo as he drilled them on their respective parts.
“Ick, dui, tin, char!” One, two three, four.
Within minutes the undisciplined mob was transformed into a cohesive unit, automatically working together for the good of the group. It was quite remarkable to witness and it wouldn’t surprise me to see these kids performing in a major parade someday, featured as one of the world’s great rags to riches stories.
My life changed for the better when I deserted corporate America to pursue my true passions of travel, writing and photography but over the past few years I’ve often felt there was still a piece of the puzzle missing. There was something more I was meant to do; I just wasn’t sure what it was. And then I arrived in Nepal.
As my three week visit stretched to three months, I became acutely aware that behind the veneer of beauty lay excruciating poverty. Here was a place where I could do some good, I thought. I began researching NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) and learned it was quite simple to create and register one in Nepal. Combining an NGO with a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in the U.S., which would allow people to make tax deductible donations, seemed the perfect way to help Nepal and satisfy my desire to give back.
As I toured the country I broached the subject of NGO’s and volunteering with everyone I met. My first inkling that all was not as it seemed came from a guide in Chitwan National Park. Morally opposed to riding elephants, I instead opted for a walk through a nearby village to learn more about the local Tharu people. My guide, who lived in the village, warned, “Maybe 75% of orphanages are not real.”
He told me about a group of Polish tourists that had established an online relationship with an orphanage prior to traveling to Nepal. Upon arrival, they hired my guide to help purchase bulk food and supplies, in addition to a cash donation they planned to make. Although he warned of potential fraud, the Poles insisted that this particular orphanage was legitimate. Several weeks later, long after the donors had returned home, my guide stuffed his pockets with chocolates and returned to the orphanage. As the children clamored around him, fighting for candy, he quizzed them. What had they been given to eat over the past few weeks? Had they received new clothes? School supplies? None of the children had new clothes or supplies and they had been fed only dahl bhat (rice and lentil bean stew), as usual. He later learned that all the fresh foodstuffs and a good deal of the bulk non-perishables had been sold off, with the cash distributed among the orphanage owners.
My guide explained that many orphanages solicit funds through websites that feature photos of destitute children and inspiring stories of rescues made possible by donations. Yet in truth, many of these same orphanages are non-existent. In the rare instance that donors travel to Nepal to meet their sponsor children, the owners of the “orphanage” collect children and put them on display for a night or two in a local home.
At this point in our walking tour he pointed to a decrepit house next to a brand new three-story concrete building painted in a trio of turquoise hues. The sign on the chain link fence surrounding the two structures declared that a new orphanage would soon open.
“I assume that’s one of the good ones?” I asked.
“No, the owner built the orphanage with money from donations but now that it is finished, he is turning it into a hotel.”
Two days later I boarded a bus with a slew of Brits who had come to Nepal to volunteer. After a weekend tour of Chitwan, they were headed back to Pokhara, where they were helping out at local orphanages and teaching English in government schools. After extensive research on the Internet, each of them had booked their trip through Personal Overseas Development (POD), a UK firm that facilitates volunteering opportunities around the world. Valerie Jamiason of Newcastle paid 750 British Pounds ($1087 U.S. dollars at the time) for an eight-week stint. Her package included pick-up at the Kathmandu airport ( I was picked up for free by my hotel), one night’s stay at a Kathmandu budget hotel (~$10), her bus ticket to Pokhara (~$6), and eight weeks stay at the Castle Guest House in Pokhara at what Val was told was POD’s special rate of $6 per night, for a total of $352.
Val reinforcing prepositions with the students
Volunteer Michael Anfield reviews homework
POD does not require volunteers to have any prior teaching experience and they are given no orientation upon arrival. With no formal turnover process, fresh arrivals have no idea what the children have been taught previously and each new group is left to decide for themselves what to teach their classes. Tom, who had opted for a summer of volunteering prior to entering university as a pre-med student, focused on teaching his students how to tell time.
Two of my volunteer friends invited me to visit Annapurna Primary School with them one day. As I wedged into a miniature desk at the rear of the classroom, Val established a modicum of order among the raucous pack and began drilling the students. She placed a chalkboard eraser on the floor and in her thick Newcastle brogue instructed:
“Repeat after me. The duster (DOH stah) is next to the desk.”
“The duster is on the desk.”
“The duster is in the desk.”
“The duster is under the desk.”
Meanwhile, Michael reviewed homework assignments, explaining errors in his very proper Londoner accent.
Volunteer Val Jamiason drills English prepositions
Though the raggedly clad kids had level one English workbooks, the school administrator told me in broken English that they were lacking even the most essential supplies: pencils, erasers, and lined pads were all in short supply and since there were no funds for lunches, the students went hungry. As for assistance from POD, I was told that only the teachers were provided. With Continue reading →
Now, you might think that I’ve chosen it because the authors, Michaela Potter and Sherry Ott, recently published a feature article about me. And indeed, my initial introduction to BriefcaseToBackpacker occurred when Michaela contacted me about an interview. But from the moment I began surfing around it, I was hooked.
From left to right: Michael Bontempi (who accompanied Michaela on her career break), Michaela Potter, and Sherry Ott
The concept for Briefcase To Backpacker evolved as a result of Michaela and Sherry’s career breaks. Having worked for many years in the corporate world, Michaela needed a change. She left her job, strapped on a backpack, and hit the road for nine weeks. At the time, Sherry was well into her 16-month backpacking trip around the world. She, too, had grown tired of her corporate career and a fast-paced life in New York and hit the road. Then, fate intervened. During her travels, Sherry taught English for a month in India through the volunteer organization, Cross-Cultural Solutions. As a Program Manager at CCS, Michaela was made aware of Sherryâ€™s trip and followed along on her travel blog.
Although their individual trips were different in many ways, they came away with similar realizations. They met people from a wide variety of countries and backgrounds, but very few Americans. In turn, most people were surprised that Continue reading →