Jakera is an innovative hybrid voluntour provider, combining Spanish language immersion opportunities for students, along with adventure travel and volunteer projects. Recently, we had a chance to interview Jakera’s founder, Chris Patterson. Originally from Scotland, Chris fell in love with Venezuela and it was there that his dream for an innovative adventure volunteer travel company began.
Could you tell me a little bit about how Jakera got started? How did you develop your mission?
I arrived in Venezuela in the mid 90’s by sailboat, having previously spent a number of years sailing the Carribean islands. I was eager to see the jungle and meet the indigenous peoples of South America that I had heard so much about, so I bought a trip to the Orinoco Delta with my last $200. I was fascinated with what I saw and the Warao people in particular and when I got back to the marina I told the story of my trip to the other sailors in the bar. To my delight they were equally fascinated and eager to go themselves at the earliest opportunity. The guide who took me was not available the following day to make another trip, so I ended up taking a group of French sailors there myself. I charged them the same as I had paid, paid for the lodge and transport and threw in a few cases of beer, and still had some dollars left over ! I had a fantastic time showing these newcomers what I had learned on my last trip and learned a hell of a lot more from our Warao boat driver and guides. I realized that these Warao had a lot of knowledge, and that their ancient way of living harmoniously with their surroundings was something really special and worth showing to the world.
What are some of your signature trips?
That would have to be the ‘Travelling Classroom’. This program brings together everything we do, a full cultural immersion combining Spanish language tuition, real adventure travel delivered in an eco friendly way and community based volunteering. There is a huge interest and demand for volunteer projects but we feel that volunterism works best as a two way process – the Travelling Classroom is front loaded with Spanish language and adventure travel so students get a feel for where they are and understand the issues and context before they start volunteering. By the time the volunteer phase of the program starts, students are ready to ‘put something back’, and are more comfortable and able to interact with local people.
My favorite is a kayaking emersion deep into the Orinoco Delta with Warao guides. The key to this trip is we enter the Delta and see it from the view point of the locals, traveling slowly by kayak, foraging for food, making shelter and surviving in this inhospitable jungle. It’s tough, but so is life for the Warao! We also hike to the top of the highest tepui in the Gran Sabana, MountRoraima, with local Pemon guides, learning about their unique and ancient culture along the way.
What kinds of volunteer experiences do your participants engage in?
We have a whole range of volunteer programs, ranging from working with underprivileged kids and poor communities to reforestation and reef conservation programs. They are all very hands on and we encourage students to give there ideas and input as much as possible. Many of our projects are participant inspired.
Our house ‘Jakera Club’ is based in Playa Colorada. We built a community centre there a few years ago and now pack it with activities – for example, after school activities for local kids such as arts and crafts, sports etc, information sessions and activities for adults. We also have a tree nursery and are planting trees in the surrounding hillside to mitigate against landslides which have caused serious problems in the recent past. We also partner organisations such as Don Bosco (Street Kids project) and Imparque (National Parks). Lots to do!!
I’m curious about how you build relationships with the communities you serve. Do you have guidelines for how that’s done or is it more of an organic case-by-case process?
Organic is best – the most effective and enduring projects require engagement of local communities. It can take time for issues to surface and solutions to emerge. I guess the philosophy is about bringing people together – local people and our student volunteers – a dialogue based on sharing and exchanging. Removing ‘us and them’ distinctions!
It has been a very organic process from the start. We feel that it’s all about sharing experiences and achieving goals together. We try to involve as many locals as possible in our projects, to make them feel part of it and continue the work after we leave. It about sharing, building trust and making friendships.
Have you noticed any emerging trends in the voluntourism industry? What do you imagine the future of voluntourism will look like?
I guess it becoming more and more popular. People these days want to do something good when they travel, get involved and really get to know the people in the country they are visiting, not just see the sights and take some pictures. If this trend continues it can only be positive for the host countries.
I also think – and hope! – that expectations are becoming more realistic. It’s a process and not an overnight one… A paternalistic approach is finally giving way to the realization that we – the volunteer – are getting as much out of the experience as the community we serve. Voluntourism gives travelers the opportunity to get closer to people than ever before – this is a privilege and a responsibility.
What have been “the ripple effects” (or positive lasting effects) that have resulted from Jakera both personally and in general?
We have a base in Playa Colorada, a little fishing village. Over the years we have become a very important part of that community, supporting the school, keeping the beaches and islands clean, hosting community meetings in the community centre that we built… our neighbours come to us on a regular bases now with ideas and requests, or asking for help or advice. I feel that we have a big responsibility now and it would be hard to leave or to move somewhere else. That said, I don’t want us to come across as too worthy. We’re having great fun – as we say in Venezuela – viva la vida!