Monday, 28 January 2008

Losing the plot - the story so far (part two)

September 2007

The deadline for making solid plans draws in. Having decided where I want to go, I realise quite how difficult it is to find a legitimate and cost effective means to volunteer abroad.

There are dozens of organisations to choose from, with exciting websites full of reassuring details and inspiring testemonials, but many of the 'expeditions' cost thousands or pounds for just a few weeks 'volunteering'. I am sceptical about how much of this money ever makes it to the destination country or project, and how much is redirected to 'administration fees'.

I also wonder about the true value of the volunteer work that is available, much of which seems to be more of an adventure holiday nature than necessary work. A lot of this seems like an ethical form of tourism, in that the traveller is not actively detrimental to the host country, and may do some worthy and enlightening activities. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, I think, but for my purposes I want to find a project that comes as less of a 'package'. Researching the options is a confusing and financially worrying process.

I find an organisation that seems to liaise between projects on reasonable terms. There are still admin fees, but they have an explanation for these on the website, and it seems like the best option. Then, I remember that an American friend of mine, Jo, was listed in facebook as being based in Ecuador a while back.

I haven't spoken to her in a while, but I send her a message telling her that I plan to go, and asking if she has any tips. She messages me right back, and warns me not to go with any of these sorts of organisation, that my suspicions were right. She says that she was in Ecuador doing conservation work for a project called Jatun Sacha, and that a lot of the volunteers there had been very frustrated to find out that very little to none of their fees had gone towards the project. She gave me the details of the Jatun Sacha Foundation, and said that it was possible to volunteer directly with them.

I take her recommendation, and email Jatun Sacha for more information about the projects they are working on.

Six months should be enough time to plan, and save, and get my life in order. I set myself a departure deadline of March.

October 2007

Once I recieve the document listing the seven various projects Jatun Sacha are working on around Ecuador I spend a week of evenings assessing what might work for me. There are various aspects of each project that appeal in particular, although there are obviously common themes of sustainability and conservation and agricultural work in them all.

I am very pleased with the way they describe their work. They are ongoing projects, combined with biological research. They work with, and not for, the indigenous community, and explain the background for the projects. They are unpatronising, but serious in their work. There are still fees, but these are nominal and are to cover my accommodation and food costs, and so although I will naturally still have to do some serious saving, I think I can just about do it.

I think I will be happy working with them, and feel that there is also a potenital for me to gain new skills and knowledge that I might bring back with me. I am most excited about learning about fair trade processes, sustainable agriculture, and working in the medicinal plant gardens. I decide that the final project that I would like to work on, and for the longest time, should be one that has a specific focus on these.

The application to volunteer with Jatun Sacha requires a doctor's note and a fee deposit of $60. This has to be sent by cheque in the post, and so I go to the bank and ask for it. Applying for this dollar cheque to be made incurs a bank fee, of course (what in the world doesn't?), and the woman in the bank clearly thinks I am an idiot for wanting it in the first place.

The cheque takes over three weeks to arrive. Time is seriously ticking by, and I worry that if it has got lost and I have to order another cheque, it will delay other important arrangements that need to be made. The doctor's letter costs £15. Finally, the cheque arrives, and I get the application sent in the post as soon as possible. There is confusion at the post office about whether I am allowed to send a cheque in the post. the cashier says it contravenes customs regulations. He has to be kidding! I go back to the bank, they don't think this is right, so I go back to the post office and this time they don't ask, and I don't mention the cheque.

It is a big relief now that I have sent the application. I imagine it will take a week or so to arrive, as the Ecuadorian postal system might be a problem and there have been strikes at this end as well. And so I wait.

No comments: