Welcome back to our interview series, The Ripple Effect. The Ripple Effect explores the emotional impact of volunteer travel and its lasting effect on people’s lives. Today we’re speaking with Anna Strahs Watts, blogger, baker and avid traveler. Anna sold the gluten free bakery she built from the ground up to go on a month long volunteer trip to Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Her blog, A Girl and Her Backpack, chronicles her experiences overseas and how they have changed her perspective on the world in which we live. Please check back in tomorrow for part two of our interview with Anna Strahs Watts.
What first got you interested in international volunteering?
I was fortunate enough to be able to travel internationally growing up, so that’s probably where I got the travel bug initially. There are a lot of places in the world where day-to-day life is very different from our own. I know that there are places in America that need volunteers, but the places that I’ve volunteered at internationally are so different from the places that we have here. In Bagamoyo it was hard to believe that we were just a day’s travel away from home. Sometimes it felt like we were on another planet.
I wanted to go somewhere totally outside of my comfort zone, somewhere where the language wasn’t my first, somewhere that would force me to realize, accept, and think about the way that many people on this Earth live. When you’re living a middle-upper class cushy American life it’s hard to remember that life in many places is really a struggle. A genuine struggle – like “I don’t have access to clean water,” and “My kids have only eaten three times this week,” kind of struggle. A real struggle.
How did you choose where to go?
I chose Africa because I originally wanted to go to India, but it’s monsoon season there now. I’ve never been to Africa, and it was winter there (which meant temperatures in the 80s instead of over 100s!), and their rainy season had just ended, so it seemed like a good choice. I ended up in Bagamoyo because it was the most rural location that Cross-Cultural Solutions offered for volunteering in Africa.
I know Cross-Cultural Solutions has a lot of great ongoing projects, but with so many volunteering organizations out there, was there something particular about CCS that attracted you?
I actually did another volunteer trip with Cross-Cultural Solutions in 2008, so I knew that they were a great organization and I felt like I could trust them. From the Guatemala 2008 trip I knew that they were organized, kept a clean home base, and I expected them to have the same great community relationships set up already so that volunteers could just step in and start working. They didn’t let me down!
What attracted me to CCS in the first place was the balance of volunteering and cultural immersion. I knew that I wanted to spend at least half the day working, but I also wanted time to explore the area and get a real understanding for where I was living all month. CCS makes sure to offer cultural immersion activities in the afternoons that help you understand the culture in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to do if you’d just landed there on your own. In Bagamoyo we did batik, beading, we had lessons on Tanzanian norms and education, on HIV and AIDS, we saw a local family do traditional African dancing, stuff like that.
Please visit us tomorrow for part two of Anna’s interview.