Coming Full Circle

Nepal

After travelling the world in 2013, I hardly expected that my travels would bring me back to Nepal. But I’ve learned travel, like life, is like that. Sometimes you end up where you least expect and that can be a really good thing. It’s not always about the destination. It’s about the journey and the amazing people you meet along the way.  I think I’ve ended up exactly where I was meant to be.

So how did I get here? A lifetime of “should-ing” myself into decisions led me to finally take my sister’s advice: “What you should do is what you want to do”.  The truth was, I always knew exactly what I wanted to do.  I wanted to travel and volunteer.  I wanted to give back, lose myself in the service of others and hopefully in the process, change my life. So, in December 2012, I left Canada with a plan.  A plan that was created after years of dreaming, many months of saving, endless hours of Internet research, help from my friendly Merit Travel agent, Elke Hinson, and loads of love and support from my family and friends.  My plan was to travel and volunteer in sixteen countries across five continents in eleven months.  However, through a few twists of fate, hard work and some luck, I ended up travelling to twenty-four countries across six continents in eleven months.  Here’s a quick list of the twenty-four countries I visited in 2013: New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, India, Nepal, France, Sweden, Norway, England, Morocco, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Costa Rica, Canada, Panama, Ecuador (including the Galapagos Islands), Peru and Bolivia.

 


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I started to live the life I had only dreamed about.  I challenged myself to go beyond my comfort zone and face my fears by bungee jumping in New Zealand and surfing in Bali.  I witnessed the intensity, spirituality and chaos in India and the stunning beauty of Paris in the pouring rain.  I raised my arms for the first time on a roller coaster in Sweden and stood in awe of the giant Viking ships on display in museums in Norway.  I even managed to drink a few pints with two good friends in England.  I slept under a million stars on a camel trek through the Sahara in Morocco.  I was as excited as a five-year-old at Christmas when I saw a leopard in the wild for the first time on safari in South Africa.  I laughed uncontrollably while comparing my bicep muscles to those of a Maasai warrior in Kenya and smiled until my face hurt while exploring the vastness of the Serengeti in an extremely bumpy overland truck.  I woke up in the company of two zebras on top of the Ngorongoro crater while camping in Tanzania and stared in amazement at a family of mountain gorillas in Uganda.  I swam in the ocean the pouring rain and danced the night away in Panama.  I worked hard in the blazing sun farming with locals at two homestays in Ecuador, which included two unforgettable visits from tarantulas at night.  I soaked up the sun, experienced life on a boat and snorkeled with giant green sea turtles, sharks and sea lions in the Galapagos.  I hiked the majestic Inca trail in Peru to Machu Picchu and ate exotic local dishes such as guinea pig in Bolivia.

While my bucket-list world tour was filled with excitement and adventure, it turned into an amazing opportunity to give back and change the lives of others.  The three and a half months I spent volunteering were by far the most rewarding of all my experiences last year.

 


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Spent one month working as an outreach department volunteer at New Hope Cambodia, where I assisted local outreach staff by writing profiles of families desperately in need of sponsorships and delivering critical care items such as food and clothing to young children and families. I struggled with my emotions and became overwhelmed almost to the point of becoming numb while I was there. The poverty was so extreme it was hard to witness.  When I had almost lost hope, I finally opened my eyes.  It happened on “rice drop day”, the one day each month that New Hope Cambodia invites sponsored families to the organization to receive their monthly food rations.  On rice drop day, I delivered a large bag of rice to a grandmother and her two granddaughters.  When I bent down to say hello to the two little girls, they reached out their arms and hugged me as hard as they could.  In that moment, the numbness in my heart instantly disappeared and tears stained my sweaty cheeks.  It dawned on me that despite their situation, these little girls were happy and their grandmother was beaming as well.  They were so grateful that their overseas sponsor, someone they will likely never meet, cares enough to provide food for them each month.  Also, the fact that I showed up and was trying to make a difference really mattered to them.  They mattered.  It gave me hope that these amazing, resilient people will survive because I care and other people care too.

Taught English and French at a women’s organization, Association Koulouna Maane, for one month in Morocco as well. I was a bit nervous to live in a predominately Muslim country as a foreign woman, but my fears were completely forgotten the moment I met my host family.  I was immediately taken in as one more daughter in their large family.  Their hospitality, kindness and generosity never ceased to amaze me.  I’ll never forget an “interesting” experience I had in a local hammam or what it felt like to fast for Ramadan in the blazing July sun.  However, what I’ll most remember is the smiles on the women and their children’s faces when I showed up to teach each day.  With no teaching experience and only Intermediate French fluency, it was a big challenge for me to teach English and French!  The women sewed while I taught in a makeshift classroom among the sewing machines with only a small white board, a few markers and an English/French dictionary that my host family bought me at a local shop.  The students were mostly young girls, along with a few women and the odd, curious teenage boy. It turned out not only to be rewarding, but completely engaging and fun.

I also spent six weeks volunteering for an amazing grassroots organization in Nepal called Samrakshak Samuha Nepal (SASANE). SASANE is an organization dedicated to empowering women human trafficking survivors by training them to become certified paralegals. SASANE’s paralegals provide access to justice, completely free of charge, for other women who are survivors of trafficking and gender-based violence in twenty-five police stations across Kathmandu and six police stations in Pokhara.  SASANE’s paralegals also conduct informal education and awareness training in remote villages and sixty government schools in Nepal to combat human trafficking and gender-based violence at its sources.

While volunteering at SASANE, I received an e-mail newsletter from G Adventures advertising The G Project.  It was an online contest soliciting world-changing ideas where the top prize was $25,000 in funding to make your idea come true.  It was fate.  I had been searching for ways to make SASANE’s paralegal training program sustainable without relying on grants and donations. I knew this was it.  My idea, entitled the Sisterhood of Survivors, was to empower women human trafficking survivors by training them to become tour guides and hospitality staff.  This new program would support women who aren’t qualified to become certified paralegals in Nepal because they don’t have the equivalent of a high school diploma.  They are among the most vulnerable to re-trafficking and gender-based violence.  The profits from the tourism and hospitality program would support these vulnerable survivors by offering them education and job skills and also be reinvested to support and expand SASANE’s paralegal training program.

Approximately three hundred and fifty world-changing ideas were submitted and over thirty-five thousand votes were cast from one hundred and twenty countries worldwide to narrow the ideas down to sixteen semi-finalists.  SASANE and I were thrilled to make the short list.  Our fate as one of four finalists was determined by a prestigious panel of judges, including Jane Goodall, and we couldn’t have been more ecstatic when we learned my idea made the top four. I flew to Costa Rica to attend the inaugural “Summit in the Jungle”, where one presentation stood between me and my goal, to win $25,000 in funding for SASANE.  I’ll admit I was feeling the pressure.  I’ve never wanted to win anything more in my entire life.

 


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I desperately wanted to make the judges understand that by supporting survivors through education (English lessons and job skills training), they can finally have employment opportunities.  The chance to become economically independent is a chance for these women to take back their lives and stand on their own two feet, many for the first time.  They would not only be earning an income to support themselves and their families, but also gaining the confidence and self-esteem that was stolen from them, giving them hope and perhaps healing as well.  By investing the profits from the Sisterhood of Survivors program back into SASANE’s paralegal training program, the women would also continue to help other survivors get justice as well.  As you might imagine, I was thrilled to tears when the announcement was made that my idea won!  I couldn’t be more proud or excited to be part of such a fantastic project.So, I’ve finally come full circle.  I’m back in Kathmandu working as a consultant for Planeterra Foundation to implement my G Project idea at SASANE.  It’s amazing how things work out, isn’t it?!  I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else right now.  If you’re thinking of making a change in your life or want to give back, I would encourage you to volunteer.  Fantastic grassroots organizations all over the world (and perhaps even in your own backyard) desperately need your donations, but they also need you.  You might find it’s the most rewarding thing you’ve ever done.

If you’d like to learn more about SASANE and potential volunteer opportunities, please visit the organization’s website at www.sasane.org.np. If you would like to make a donation to the Sisterhood of Survivors program, please visit Planeterra Foundation’s website at https://planeterra.org/what-we-do/our-projects/sisterhood-of-survivors/ (as G Adventures also contributes $30,000 per year in matching funds made through individual online donations to Planeterra Foundation’s website).

For more trips ideas, thoughts or insights before booking your next vacation, talk to a Merit Travel Consultant first.

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