VESA (volunteer eco students abroad) South East Asia – Kristen Pearson

During the Summer 2016 I was lucky enough to travel to Laos for two weeks with VESA (volunteer eco students abroad). This particular project was based around a remote elephant sanctuary and the surrounding community. It meant that I was able to spend time getting to know the people who live there and spend time working alongside and looking after their gentle giants!

Once I had booked my place, I had a lot of preparation ahead of me. I researched where I was going and made a list of essentials e.g. vaccinations, equipment, flights and appropriate clothing. It felt like a big hurdle going to the airport alone as I did not know anybody else on the trip and my first step that day was to find others on my trip and introduce myself.

After what felt like days of travelling we arrived in Vientiane and it was so hot I felt like I couldn’t breathe. We were met by the VESA staff members here and taken to a nearby hostel where we would spend our first night. The next day we travelled by mini bus for 8 hours to the middle of the jungle with our final destination being Sayaboury Elephant Conservation Centre. During our week here we had four main activities.

  1. Conservation of the local school. There were a number of different projects here and those that I was involved in was ensuring the ground was ready for cementing in the new classrooms built by previous volunteers and knocking down ceilings ready for the renovation of old classrooms, along with bits of painting, inside and out.

 

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  1. One of the VESA group leaders was a qualified teacher back home in Canada and therefore took on the role of teacher at a local school during their summer time. She was assisted by a native speaking teacher whom translated when needed. Our roles took that of a teaching assistant by which we sat with the children and helped them with their work, gave explanations and became members of their teams in class games.

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  1. Meeting elephants. We were introduced to all of the elephants and their Mahouts on the conservation. We watched the elephants in their natural environments from afar, observed their bath time, hand fed them, watched how those who work there look after their health with regular checks at the elephant hospital and even go to hug them.
  1. Conservation of camp. Each group completed different stages of construction, our group were involved with the last steps in preparing the ground work for a water tank. This included transporting bricks from the road to the construction area, sawing wood panels, laying bricks and cementing.

 

During the second week, we travelled to Luang Prabang where we visited temples, traditional rice plantations, exotic waterfalls and local markets. We took a scenic bike ride through the countryside and Kayaked down the Mekong river. We then travelled to Vang Vieng, our final destination. Whilst here we climbed to Pou Kham Cave where we went zip lining amongst the trees and went swimming in the blue lagoon. We also visited two of the caves, however due to the weather we did not stay long or compete the tubing.

How you feel you benefited from your experience

As I began this journey without knowing anyone, I was extremely nervous introducing myself and meeting so many new people. However, as I was not the only one travelling either alone or in a couple, everyone was extremely friendly and we had organised to meet up at the airport before our initial flight through our Facebook group. This experience has helped me with my confidence tremendously as well as helping me gain friends for life.

How the people you worked with benefited

During our time on the elephant conservation camp we worked closely with the locals and those who work on the camp. Our presence their helps keep the elephant sanctuary going by providing safer working environments and continuous renovations. Not only are we helping with the re-building of the camp and local school, we learnt a great deal about the struggles and discrimination Asian elephants face. We all left Laos knowing how important it is to educate others about all of the harmful things elephants are exposed to e.g. being used as modes of transport, logging activities, or a tourism attraction (elephant rides, zoos circuses). The Elephant Conservation Centre currently have saved and prevented this happening to many elephants however they currently have two elephants in danger of being bought and taken back into a life time of suffering as their mahouts, after 30 years of caring for the mother and child, can do so no longer and in order to keep the elephants the centre must raise $60,000. Our time here spent with the mahouts and carers for the animals in this centre means that we now have the opportunity to help spread the word, educate others and share their plea for help. I have included a link below for more information.

https://www.generosity.com/animal-pet-fundraising/elephant-rescue-mother-and-calf

The difference in cultures and how you adapted to your new environment

The major difference in cultures is that Laos predominant religion is Buddhism. This did not affect us to a great deal apart from how we dressed. When visiting temples, we were asked to cover our shoulders and knees as a sign of respect as well as when working with the mahouts and during teaching times.

What you enjoyed and any challenges you faced

I thoroughly enjoyed all of time spent in Laos. I enjoyed making friends, meeting the locals, spending time with elephants, assisting with teaching, visiting local temples, going to the night markets, relaxing at pool parties and even the longs journeys spent with new friends singing along to George Ezra!!
The main challenge I faced was adapting to a different way of life in the jungle. It was extremely hot with tropical storms hindering our work some days. Our work days started with breakfast at 7am, returning to camp between 4 and 5. The work we were undertaking was extremely physically and sometimes emotionally demanding.

I would like to take this time to thank the Eleanor Peel Funding for contributing a great deal towards this life enhancing experience. By this time next year I will hopefully be in my first job as a Primary Teacher and I have now been fortunate enough to work alongside children in three continents – Africa, (World Challenge Trip), Europe and Asia and these experiences have boosted my confidence to engage children in a wide variety of learning opportunities, wherever I meet them.

Kristen Pearson.

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Volunteering in South Africa by Abbey Joyce: 6 weeks (15/07/16 – 28/08/16)

This summer I travelled to Port Elizabeth in South Africa, where I volunteered in two junior schools and a crèche. My purpose was to support children academically and to care for the younger children. To say the experience was an eye opener is an understatement. I noticed that segregation is still very apparent in the area where I was working. A stark contrast was the shacks on the same road as substantially built houses. The shacks where most of the school children lived had no running water or lavatories. To work with such underprivileged children made me realise what opportunities there are within England. The company I was with strived to scout outstanding sports abilities and academic excellence. Those children are then funded and attend former model C schools which are formally all white schools. It was humbling to give back to a community exposed to such impoverished situations. It taught me a lot about myself, becoming extremely valuable life experience. The children taught me to appreciate the chances I have, at times taken for granted. On a personal level, I was also able to fulfil once in a lifetime activities such as shark cage diving and going on safari. 

How the people you worked with benefited?

The children I worked with always had a smile on their faces, despite their personal circumstances. Some children only had one meal a day which was provided by the school or crèche. Others were orphans living with their extended family be it aunts, uncles, cousins etc. Even at the more privileged schools children had miles to walk back to their homes. It was interesting to see their intrigue at white people being amongst them, yet they accepted us with open arms. Some of the children could not communicate in English, in this case we improvised. Either through play or singing, as young as 2 the children in the crèche learnt numbers 1-50 and songs such as twinkle twinkle little star. The lady who ran the crèche lived next to the shack where the children were cared for, she wanted to make a difference in her community for these children where parents would succumb to drug and alcohol abuse and the children sometimes left overnight or at risk of sexual abuse (As suggested by the owner of the crèche). This lady was remarkable, she had a local lady working for her and whilst looking after her grandchildren, she extended her home to others. She was so grateful for the help we offered in enriching the children’s lives.

The difference in cultures and how you adapted to your new environment?

Although it was daunting travelling solo to a different country, I couldn’t have felt more welcome. The company I stayed with was called United through Sport (UTS), the majority of volunteers were sports coaches. I focused on childcare and teaching working in two schools and a crèche. I was able to explore new cultures and meet new people from a variety of backgrounds. There were 43 volunteers in total living in the same vicinity for 5 weeks but we became a family with everyone playing a role. Most of the volunteers were British or European however we worked alongside many South African people. It was great to live and work amongst such a diverse group of people. Whilst volunteering and travelling, I visited townships which were deprived communities. We were always with a guide or local to ensure our safety and to communicate with people if they didn’t speak English. I tried many new things in South Africa including local food such as chicken feet and Kudu.

What you learnt?

This was a trip that allowed me to expand my knowledge of the country, the many languages that were spoken and their traditions. I learnt how there were 9 states, 5 different species of tiger and 11 languages. Two languages that I learnt words and phrases from were Xhosa and Afrikaans. This was helpful with those younger children who couldn’t communicate in English. In one particular school the children had scarce resources, therefore they sang and played clapping games in their beak time. We as volunteers were included and I showed them high-low jack-a-low. I also learnt a lot about myself as a person, for instance what I can achieve. I was proud to be a part of making a difference to the lives of others. It seemed that all the children really wanted was for someone to spend time with them. I was lucky enough to travel during my time in South Africa including educational trips such as Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars.

What you enjoyed and any challenges you faced?

As much as I enjoyed my trip it wasn’t without its challenges, although I was able to overcome those I did encounter. In one particular school the children were left without a teacher for numerous hours thus impacting on their academic levels and ultimately their futures. There were times when we would play games with classes if they were scheduled to learn Afrikaans. Unfortunately both schools I volunteered at were underfunded and understaffed. We were also warned that schools used severe punishment in comparison to our home countries.  I didn’t witness this until my last week where it was apparent that children were being hit with a long stick. This occurred in both schools and it came as quite a shock. It was difficult to witness this but I ended my time in a positive way, giving the children stickers, chocolate, stationary and toys. Another challenge was living with 42 other volunteers as there was no downtime to yourself. There was a large drinking culture and complaining about meals amongst my group, they had to occasionally be reminded why they were there. I am extremely grateful for this experience and feel it has enriched not only the lives of others but my own.