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Jakera offers voluntourism in Venezuela

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.

Jakera adventurers and volunteers

 

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.

 

 kayak

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!!

teaching

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.

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 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.

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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!

volunteers3

 

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Journeys for Good volunteer travels in Cambodia – Part 4

New Year’s Day, 2013.  Today brought the first of our small-scale construction projects.  Dine Tuy, our in-country coordinator, has identified several projects for our group to accomplish during our short visit.  Since Dine has an insider’s knowledge of the locals and their needs, Globe Aware works with him to choose the most beneficial projects.

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Mean Nok with his family at the work site.

We drove to an outlying area, rural and impoverished.  We were there to help the family of Mean Nok, a 22 year old disabled man who had received a wheelchair from another Globe Aware group last year.   We learned that he had become disabled at 8 months old due to tainted polio vaccine.  It is surprising and heartbreaking to learn how many Cambodians were affected in this way. The wheelchair had enabled him to receive training to become an artist so that now he was able to bring income to his family.

Mean lived with his mother and, like many houses in Siem Reap, the home was built on stilts, with the living area up a steep ladder-like staircase.  During the wet season, this type of construction is essential to avoid flooding. But for Mean, the arrangement is very difficult.  In order to go to the bathroom, he must crawl on his hands out into the weedy area behind the house.  In the wet season, he becomes covered in mud and the situation is treacherous and unhealthy.  It was hard to imagine this gentle man withstanding such a hardship as a regular part of his life.

Mean looks on as the project begins.

Mean looks on as the project begins.

We had 2 projects to accomplish during our 1 day visit. First, we were adding a toilet to the ground level for Mean. A previous group has built a small enclosed toilet on a concrete slab and we were there to add concrete to the exterior so that the next group can paint.  This “tag team” approach is what enables Globe Aware volunteers to have an impact over time, each group stepping in where the previous group leaves off.

Previously built bathroom.

Previously built bathroom.

The other part of our project was to add a thatched roof to a previously installed pump well.  Accessing clean water is a huge challenge and this water pump serves the entire village.  Adding the thatch will add shelter and privacy.

Thatch team sets to work.

Thatch team sets to work.

Our group of 14 quickly separated into groups.  Some of the tallest immediately took on the thatching project since their height was a distinct advantage in fastening the palm fronds to the bamboo structure.  Ryan D’Arcy, a strapping Australian contractor, led the cement team, guiding us with his expertise.  We also had a local contractor who had been employed to oversee the project, another benefit of our voluntourism dollars.

Ryan and Stephen load buckets with sand.

Ryan and Stephen load buckets with sand while Australian contractor, Ryan D ‘Arcy oversees their efforts.

We combined large buckets of red sand, water and cement mix, stirring it by hand to the right consistency to apply to the exterior.  We only had 2 shovels and 2 plastic buckets, so we all took turns using them.  Our son Ryan, age 9, and Stephen, a 12 year-old from Austin, Texas, got busy filling the buckets with sand.  Then, the same buckets were used to bring water from the pump over to the mixing area.  Let’s just say that there was absolutely nothing automated about this process.  No machinery aided our efforts in the 90 degree heat.  But by taking turns, we moved forward, each person in the group finding a task and filling in where it was needed.

This is one of my favorite things about voluntourism groups.  Usually, the folks who take these types of trips are drawn from a similar cloth.  Though we all come from different areas of the world and have completely different stories back home, we have all traveled here to help, and to work, and to try to make life a bit better for a few Cambodians.  It’s a bond of purpose that enables us, as strangers, to find a rhythm as we work together.

Success for Team Thatch.

Success for Team Thatch.

The other cool aspect of volunteer work is that you’re not expected to have particular skills.  So, Alexander, an 11 year-old from Australia, is given equal opportunity for troweling the cement onto the exterior as Robert, a 24 year-old Google employee from Chicago. Everyone is needed and every effort is appreciated.  This is rarely the case in the States, where so many safeguards and legalities get in the way of such open participation.   It’s especially terrific for the kids who get to feel the importance of doing “big” work.

Australian contractor, Ryan instructs his assistant, Ryan in evening the concrete.

Australian contractor, Ryan instructs his assistant, Ryan in evening the concrete.

We worked steadily for 5 or 6 hours and accomplished both tasks.  We were dusty, sweaty, hot and blistered, but as we said goodbye to Mean and his family, it felt great to know that we left things a bit better off.  As Ben, a father of two boys, said so eloquently, “This is a step towards giving Mean a bit more dignity in his life, despite his disability.”    It was a nice way to kick off the new year.

Globe Aware volunteers celebrate a job well done.

Globe Aware volunteers celebrate a job well done.

 

 

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Journeys for Good volunteer travels in Cambodia – Part 3

I have to admit I was apprehensive about volunteering at an orphanage.  I’m embarrassed to say that I had images of “Oliver” in my mind, with sad, mistreated little kids pleading, “Please sir, may I have some more?”

Apparently, there is a tremendous amount of controversy surrounding volunteer travel and orphanages. Some question whether the volunteers can have a positive impact in such a short term or if the visits are potentially confusing for the children.  These are big questions and I’m not sure what the right answer is.  What I do know is that Globe Aware is very careful in planning these activities and that the focus is on teaching English.

We drove about 30 minutes, leaving the chaos of Siem Reap behind and traveling into a rural area. The dirt road kicked up red dust and we passed many bicycles and scooters traveling along the same narrow road.  When we arrived, the students were lined up in two columns on either side of the entry.  As we exited the van and walked towards them, they smiled and clapped, welcoming us with ready smiles.

Globe Aware volunteers arrive at the orphanage.

Globe Aware volunteers arrive at the orphanage.

We quickly separated into small groups for a tour of the orphanage.  A beautiful young girl approached me and introduced herself.  Her name was Lang and she was 12 years old.  She began telling me all about her school. I was surprised that her English was very, very good.  She spoke very clearly and we quickly eased into a conversation.  She was also extremely self-possessed and confident.

Lang guided me through the orphanage, showing me the sleeping areas where 2 or 3 children share double-sized beds, about 6 beds in each room.  We walked past the dining hall and classrooms and then down a long dirt path behind the school to the pig pens.  There were 2 pens, 1 filled with 30 or so piglets and another pen with full-sized pigs, probably about a dozen or so.  She explained that they sell the pigs to make money for the school.  She also showed me the extensive gardens behind the school that grow their food.

 

Joanie and her "tour guide" Lang.

Joanie and her “tour guide” Lang.

Lang confided that she wanted to work in the tourism industry as a tour guide.  I told her that she would be wonderful and that I was confident that she would succeed.  I’d only known her about 15 minutes, but I told her that I was impressed with her, and explained to her what that word meant. She smiled, giggled and thanked me.

Steve and Ryan with Lang

Steve and Ryan with Lang

The orphanage cares for about 70 children.   Our guide Dine had explained to us that the children come to the orphanage as a result of various circumstances.  Some have lost their parents to HIV or other diseases. In other situations, the parents give them up because they have too many children and cannot care for them.  Cambodia still has many arranged marriages and Dine also attributed some of the abandoned children to divorce.  It is difficult to fathom from our cultural standpoint, but this is apparently the case.

Globe Aware volunteers meet their "students"

Globe Aware volunteers meet their “students”

We returned to the main area and it was time for the English lesson.  All the boys and girls waited for us in a classroom, seated at long wooden desks with benches.  I sat with a group of 3 young girls and we began with the lesson that had been provided.  We took turns reading the provided practice dialogue between a tourist and shopkeeper.  The tourism industry offers many employment opportunities, so this type of practical conversation makes sense.

We took turns reading the paper and I helped them with their pronunciation. I worked with Kem Hon, a shy young woman who is 14 years old. Though she smiled and giggled freely, she was serious and intent on practicing her English.   I also had 2 other girls, Ishim and Emey, both 12.  We would practice a few lines, work on some of the trickier words and then applaud ourselves when we felt we’d done something well.  It was so free and so silly that it made what might have felt tedious lots of fun. Around me, other groups also erupted into spontaneous laughter or applause.

Cambodians have particular difficulty with “v” words which they tend to mispronounce using a “w” sound.  I demonstrated the placement of my teeth of my lips to make the sound and they repeated after me, “Va va va  voom!”.  They found this completely riotous and after each repetition, we would all burst into giggles once again.   The combination of laughter and learning was actually quite effective and I was pleased that the girls’ pronunciation improved in the short time we worked together.

Joanie with Kem Hom and Emey

Joanie with Kem Hom and Emey

The time flew by and before long it was time to go.  I hugged my new young friends goodbye and climbed back into the van.  On the drive back to town, all of the volunteers marveled at the focus and concentration of the children, most of whom had been up since very early morning.  They were all hungry to learn and grateful for the opportunity to practice English with live tutors (as opposed to learning from television or popular music).  They seemed to genuinely enjoy our company and their sweet sincerity was so refreshing.

As I thought back on the evening with a smile,  I realized how wrong my preconceptions had been.  Though these kids might be lacking parents, they were surrounded by family, brothers and sisters of circumstance that gave them a tremendous sense of community.  It was absolutely a joyous place.  I was already looking forward to the next day, when our group would return for another visit.

Up next…..the volunteers dig in at a local construction project.

 

 

 

 

 

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Journeys for Good volunteer travels in Cambodia with Globe Aware – Part 2

Today was Day 2 of our Cambodia volunteer trip with Globe Aware.  The day began with a visit to the Cambodia Landmine Museum and Relief Center. The center was started by Aki Ra, a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge who wanted to educate tourists about the history of landmines in Cambodia.   In 1997, Aki Ra began clearing landmines wherever he could find them – eventually working with the Cambodia government and starting the museum.  In 2010, he was named one of CNN’s Heroes and, in addition to the museum, the Relief Center cares for dozens of wounded, handicapped, orphaned and destitute children.

Akie Ra

Aki Ra

The visit put into perspective the incredible challenges that Cambodia has faced in its recent history.  From American bombing during the Vietnam War to the terrifying reign and genocide which took place under Pol Pot, to the estimated 3-6 million land mines and ordinates that still litter the countryside today – Cambodia has much to overcome.  Fortunately, tourism is a tremendous boon, offering many Cambodians better job opportunities.  Slowly things are improving, but the museum reminded us of the incredible resiliency of the Cambodia people.

Globe Aware guide Dine Tuy at the Cambodia Landmine Museum.

Globe Aware guide Dine Tuy at the Cambodia Landmine Museum.

When we returned to the hotel, we scrambled to put the finishing touches on our 28 wheelchairs.  We pumped up the tires and made sure that each chair had its own repair kit attached to the back frame.

Volunteers Laura and Roberto put finishing touches on a wheelchair.

Volunteers Laura and Roberto put finishing touches on a wheelchair.

Several large vans and a pickup truck pulled up.  One by one, the disabled were unloaded from the vehicles and placed into the new chairs.  Each volunteer rolled a chair up and assisted in the process.  There was a wide range of recipients, from small children to middle age men and women.  Some had been victims of landmines, with limbs completely missing.  Others had been stricken with polio and had lost the use of their legs.  Dine explained that, during transport out to the rural villages, the vaccines had become tainted and, as a result, many people contracted the disease instead of being immunized.  Some of the smallest children looked to have developmental disabilities and had little control over their tiny bodies.  Seeing so many disabled at one time was a humbling reminder of the gift of our mobility.

Wheelchair recipient.

Ruth, a warm and caring Australian woman who is traveling with her 11 year-old son Alexander remarked, “How beautiful it is to see our able-bodied children helping in this way.”  It was true.  The young boys were all so excited to deliver the wheelchairs and proud that they could help in such a profound way.  As a parent, there is another layer to these trips, seeing your child blossom with the opportunity to do something important.

Globe Aware wheelchair recipients.

We all sat together and, one by one, we introduced ourselves to the group.  Dine explained how these chairs would enable the recipients to dramatically improve their everyday lives.  Without the chairs, many of them were confined to their beds most of the time, “staring at the ceiling” as he described it.  Now, they would be able to visit relatives and get out to the market.  Just as important, the mobility would enable some of the adults to find work.

Ryan delivers his wheelchairs.

Towards the end, Dine handed out black markers and asked each of us to put our names on the back of chairs.  The idea was for the locals to see that we had come from around the world to help.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about taking “ownership”, but I did understand that the idea was for our connection to live on after we had returned home.  Admittedly, it felt good to be able to offer something so tangible, to assist in a way that produces such an direct impact in the lives of these 28 people.  In this case, the sweat equity from the previous day had a clear and immediate payoff and the group felt a deep sense of satisfaction at our achievement.

 

Up next…..the volunteers teach English at a local orphanage.

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Journeys for Good volunteer travels in Cambodia with Globe Aware

We arrived in Siem Reap to begin our volunteer adventure with Globe Aware.  We met our in-country coordinator, Dine Tuy, along with 14 fellow volunteers.  It’s a wonderfully diverse group — a mix of young professionals and families – 14 of us in all.  We’ve traveled from across the US, Australia and Japan.  Our 9 year-old Ryan is in good company with 3 other young boys on the trip ages 11, 12 and 15.

Ryan and Steve with Globe Aware coordinator, Dine Tuy

This morning Dine led us through a rundown of the week’s activities and it’s going to be packed.  The nice thing about Globe Aware is that, in addition to the volunteer projects, they plan activities to help richen our appreciation and understanding of the Cambodian culture.

Today, we visited Senteurs d’Angkor, a cooperative which trains locals to make, package and sell Khmer arts and crafts.  The program is a social enterprise partnership between the Cambodian and French governments.  Its aim is to teach  skills, provide jobs and enable participants to support their families in rural villages.  They weave baskets and make soaps, candles, lotions and spices.  The sales from the gift shop help to put money back into the program. We were all impressed with the quality of the goods for sale and each of us picked up a few items to take home.

Local artisan uses palm leaves to weave baskets used for gift wrap.

Local artisan uses palm leaves to weave baskets used for gift wrap.

After a traditional Khmer lunch of fish and chicken dishes with rice (quite similar to Thai food), we headed over to pick up the assembly kits for our first volunteer project.  We were to make 28 wheelchairs for the disabled.   The kits themselves are donated by Freewheelchairmission.org but the cost of shipping for each wheelchair is $250 US dollars.

Despite the blazing heat, the group kicked into high gear to unload all of the materials – plastic chairs with pre-drilled holes, metal frames, and large boxes loaded with the wheels, hardware and assembly instructions.  The four boys were particularly high energy, each one moving quickly back and forth from the storage area to the van to load them in.  I have to say, I was incredibly proud of my son Ryan’s work ethic. Though only 9, he worked steadily and with incredible focus, even in the incredible heat.

Steve Wynn covers the action as Globe Aware volunteers load up wheelchair assembly kits.

Steve Wynn covers the action as Globe Aware volunteers load up wheelchair assembly kits.

When we arrived back at the hotel, we unloaded everything, cleaned off all of the chairs (which were dirty from storage) and got to work in the cement courtyard.  I don’t consider myself to be mechanically inclined, but even the handy folks didn’t find the assembly intuitive or easy.  Luckily, we had our guide Dine and two other gentlemen as resident experts and assistants.

I struggled through the first one, getting the wheel hardware on backwards before Dine came over to rescue me.  For the second one, I found it easier to let one of the experts get it going as I played assistant – preparing the hardware, handing him parts, tightening up the nuts and putting on the finishing touches.  The man I worked with didn’t speak English, but we worked seamlessly side by side.  He would direct me or say, “No, no” and point me towards the right spot.  There was something so satisfying about getting into a groove with a complete stranger and we quickly assembled 2 additional chairs.

It was incredibly ambitious to try to make 28 wheelchairs.  Dine had figured 2 for each of the 14 volunteers, but there were many mitigating factors.  First of all, many of us couldn’t really accomplish it on our own or we struggled through it extremely slowly.  The younger kids worked alongside adults as they could, but much of what was required was too difficult.  Steve and Frank were shooting for the documentary, so they were “out”.  Lastly, 2 of our volunteers had not yet arrived.  So the goal of 2 per person really boiled down to 3 or 4 per person.  Starting at 3pm, it was going to be a “beat the clock” before the sun set.

Greg and Alexander assemble a wheelchair.

Greg and Alexander assemble a wheelchair.

I looked around and the rest of the group was working steadily, struggling as I had with various aspects of the assembly.  We bent over and sweated over the instructions, quite literally, as the afternoon temperature had climbed above 90 degrees. Everyone started out working solo but before long little clusters had formed of people working together.  Not surprisingly, Greg, a 30 year old Boeing engineer, was particularly adept.  I was also impressed with 15 year-old Quentin, working intently, only stopping occasionally to check the playlist on his iPod.  Quentin’s dad, Ben, also had the knack.  At one point, Ryan stepped over to ask Ben if he could help and Ben kindly welcomed his assistance.  Later, though, he quietly admitted that it was infinitely easier to get the job done without the “extra help”.

Ryan makes a wheelchair.

It started to get dark and there were still a handful of wheelchairs to be made.  This is a defining moment, I thought.  Will we have the right stuff?  We all dug in for the final push.  At that point, Steve and Frank had finished shooting and came in to help for the final drive.  Literally, the last bolts were being tightened in semi-darkness.  It was incredibly satisfying to look over and see those 28 chairs, all lined up along the side of the courtyard.

But beyond the 28 chairs, our group had accomplished something else.  We’d bonded over the struggle and had proven ourselves to one another.  The newness had worn off and we were becoming a cohesive unit.  All this, and it was only the first day of our adventure.

 

Coming up next……Day 2, Delivering the wheelchairs.  Sorry for the delayed initial posting.  The internet connection is slow and the days are incredibly packed, but I will post again as soon as possible.