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Falling in love with Calcutta!

MARCH 24, 2017 | INDIA - SHANTI

Namaskar dear friends and family!

Greetings from the beautiful, hot, historic city of Calcutta. This past week has been packed full of exploring both the wonderful city as well as the privileges we have all been blessed with.

For the past six days, the group has been volunteering at the Mother Theresa Home for the Destitute. Our typical day starts with breakfast at 7am and then splitting up to travel across the city to the individual homes set up by the Mother House. Some of us worked with children and toddlers in one house, others worked with young girls and women who have been abused, raped, and/or left to fend for themselves, and the rest of us worked with people who have possibly a few months, weeks, or even a few days until death. Most of the people staying in a home provided by the Mother House has some form of mental and/or physical disability. Though we were in different homes, we were all doing similar jobs like hand washing laundry (I think we all have a new appreciation for washers and dryers), feeding people, taking individuals to the bathroom, playing games, as well as changing and helping people with daily activities that they needed for self care. For all of us, the experience was in the beginning overwhelming, and intense, but incredibly humbling.
We experienced through first hand experience the privileges we have such as being able to walk, use the bathroom, create thoughts, and develop ourselves as independent individuals.

Each day by 12 pm we were done with our service and we would have the entire afternoon to explore the city. We all have loved the delicious street food such as Momo’s, Dosa’s, fresh juice, Kathi Rolls, and Samosa’s as well as getting the freedom to be on our own to take the Metro to a different side of the city and experience a new side of Calcutta.

After spending a week in Bodhgaya learning about Buddhism, coming to Calcutta has been an interesting mixture of Catholicism from the Mother House as well as large Muslim influence coming from the culture of the city. On top of the mixtures we feel between religion, we took a visit to the Queen Victoria Memorial where the British spent decades influencing the city with a European vibe. Though we only got to spend an incredible week here, it is clear to us how unique and special Calcutta is compared to the rest of India.

In addition to this exceptional city, we also got the opportunity to take a day trip the Sunderbans, which is a collection of islands leading to the Bay of Bengal. We enjoyed a lovely day riding on a colorful boat and drinking chai, as we looked for the wildlife such as crocodiles and Bengal tigers that inhabit the National Park of Sundarban.

As we have almost reached the half-point of our stay in India, the group is embracing India and its beautiful chaos with open hearts. Next stop is to Delhi for a day and then Rishikesh to stay at an Ashram! We are all looking forward to a break from the noisy cities and to spend some quiet time in nature.

Updates from the AMAZON!

MARCH 22, 2017 | SOUTH AMERICA - INTI 

On Sunday we arrived to the amazon and it was amazing. The water was flowing nice, the amazon house that is owned by Tom had one lounging room that had a dinner table that overlooks the river. Dinner was very special because there was no lights and so its candle-lit throughout the table along with buffet style food served to all 14 of us.

Breakfast at 8, work from 9 to 1, lunch at 1:30, free time, activities 2 to 5, then dinner at 7. Monday we learned about conserving turtles and measuring them and their weight. There was at least 188 (I believe).

Both Monday and Tuesday activities we did tubing through the amazon river for an hour. Tuesday work was moving bags of sand. Wednesday work was taking out bamboo and putting new ones in – building trenches for the bamboo. Wednesday activity was going to a Kiwchwa community and learning how to make chicha and dancing with the little kids. We also tried grub(insect) which was not bad.

Thursday we went to an animal rescue center and learned about monkeys, birds, tucans, snakes, and how these animals were given by people or adopted or found. Friday we hauled sand and our activity was a hike through the forest with a guide name Miguel who gave us facts about the trees and plants that can be use for medicinal use such coco leaves and dragon bloods(tree) and Saturday was a day to pack and get ready. The rain was on and off the whole trip. Thunderstorms were huge. Now we are in Peguche studying Spanish and living with families!

La Choza Chula

MARCH 22, 2017 | CENTRAL AMERICA - MAYA

After two strenuous weeks of language classes at PlQ and la Escuela de la Montaña we took a four hour bus ride to the city of Antigua where we spent one night. The following day we left for the remote town of El Paredon where we have been volunteering with the local non-profit La Choza Chula. We have been learning about sustainable development in small communities. We volunteered with local elementary school kids and taught them about environmental conservation by preforming plays and puppet shows and picking up trash around town. In our free time we soaked up the sun and surfed. We had and amazing week and now we are at Lake Atitlan for a yoga retreat. Check out photos below! 

Mirror Foundation Fun

MARCH 20, 2017 | SOUTHEAST ASIA - SABAI

After arriving at the Mirror Foundation and helping restore some of there rice fields, we got dropped of in the Lahu village. Right away we were greeted by friendly smiles and kids jumping on us already wanting to play football. Abooja, abooja saying hello in Lahu to the friendly people. We get into our home stay and get accustomed to our blankets for beds and the ground for seats around our handmade bamboo table. We start the next couple of days by caring bags of sand and rocks up a steep path to make a road for farmers to get there crops more easily. This will help create income to the village by selling there crops to keep there culture and village alive. After lunch we shovel sand into bags for the next day and then raced to the local waterfall to cool down. We swam with the village kids and they showed off by jumping off the waterfall into the water. We did this for next three days.

After we finished the road to the farming fields we took a day off to learn bamboo skills and get a cultural tour around the village from our guide Sarachai. He taught us how to make bamboo rings, spoons and cups. He showed us where he was born and the local villages surrounding us. That night we partied hard with the Lahu village. We had a proper feast with the entire village and danced around the fire . As a blessing they tied rope around our wrist to ground us to the village. We all enjoyed the last night with the Lahu people.

We said goodbye or Abooja ( it means just about everything in the village) and made our way to Chiang Rai. We got dropped off at the Mirror Foundation Guest House, which was very nice with real beds, real showers and real toilets. We got reacclimatized to modern amenities and then explored some of Chiang Rai including the white temple, a very rare sight in Thailand which is probably why there where so many people there. We also stopped by Baan Dam, a interesting museum with a lot of dead animals. We slept well in our air conditioned rooms before leaving in the morning to Chiang Mai for a couple rest days. The group connected with friends at the Internet cafes, ate good food and relaxed.

This morning we left for our week stay at Pun Pun farm and now I am drinking a smoothie grown from the garden next to me. That’s where this week ends, life is good.

Mufinidi & Fox Farm

MARCH 20, 2017 | EAST AFRICA - KIFARU

The Kifaru crew continues their cultural immersion in the highlands of Southern Tanzania through a two-part program in Igoda province organized by Foxes NGO, a non-profit dedicated to child welfare and regional healthcare. 

The first half of our program was a four-night homestay with farmer families of the Hehe tribe. Here, our Kiswahili and “kulima” (cultivation) skills gained over the past two weeks at Lutheran Junior Seminary and Ohana Amani were put to the test. Jack and I stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Omary Mgovano and had a great time with them and their four boys. Kevin and J.T. lived in the next house up with Baba and Mama Stephano Mgovano, Omary’s brother. At their house, you could find Swahili-dubbed Chinese soap dramas playing 24/7. Across the street from us lived Nanci and Moreh with Baba and Mama Yohab Mgovano, another brother (there are between eight and fifteen brothers depending on who you ask). In this close-knit community we were able to visit each other’s homes frequently and get to know everyone’s “kakas na dadas” (brothers and sisters). With the Mgovanos, it really takes a village to raise a child.

James and Riley, and Nina lived further away (one can only assume their families weren’t Mgovanos). Through the cornstalk, we heard James and Riley had a blast with their family of “ngi” (many), sharing music and cooking skills (including a pasta Alfredo by sous chef Landriau). Nina bravely volunteered to live on her own, and seemed to have replaced our company with that of the local school kids. Us adopted Mgovanos spent our time weeding the cornfields, tossing the frisbee at the Igoda primary school, playing matador with a baby bull cow named Luka, and learning about how our host families lived and worked.
In addition to “kazi shamba” (farm work), the other pillar in the lives of our host families was the church. The Hehes in this corner of Iringa province are all Seven Day Adventists who hold the Sabbath and take Friday as a day of rest and preparation. We “wazungu” (foreigners) were warmly welcomed to Saturday church. Many family members sang or gave sermon during the nearly four hours of communal service.

Having been settled into the area, we moved onto the second-half of our program: five nights at the nearby Igoda Children’s Village, Foxes NGO headquarters. The village was created in 2006 after Mr. Fox, the British owner of the encompassing tree and tea farm, kept getting children looking for work to support themselves or their families. Many of their parents had died from AIDs/HIV. In the province, the infection rate stands at 34%, with 46% of women aged 18-44 infected. Together with westerners Geoff and Jenny, Mr. Fox built the first child housing in 2007. 10 years later, under the stewardship of Geoff and Jenny, the NGO has greatly expanded in scope and size. They currently house 84 kids and support many more through an education system that runs from nursery all the way up to vocational training in sewing and carpentry at the junior college level. They also support the neighboring Mtabula hospital, which focuses in anti-retroviral (ARV) HIV & AIDs treatment.


Foxes has a staff of 60, divided into three departments: vulnerable childcare, healthcare, and education. During our brief stay there we were able to experience the work of each department. Riley, Jack, and I spent our first day sanding and painting two shipping containers that would form the walls of a nursery. Nina, J.T., and Nanci helped out in the kindergarten (a semi-comparable Swahili level), while Moreh, Kevin, James, and Kelsi trekked to the hospital and visited households that rely on ARV treatment. The groups switched tasks everyday, and by the end, we had finished the nursery walls, learned about Tanzanian Montessori education, and found new perspectives in empathy.

We spent our afternoons at the six children houses tutoring, playing football, and on occasion, changing diapers–there was a house with just babies under nine months. All of the children came from abusive or challenging backgrounds of some form, and it was incredibly rewarding to get to share some happy moments with them.

Our last night there ended with a bang as we celebrated St. Patties Day with the staff and kids of the NGO and with our homestay parents. There was live music, a mixed-cuisine buffet, and a 180-degree panorama of far off thunderstorms (in lieu of fireworks). A Foxes staff band, the “Mufindi Misfits”, performed acoustic covers of American/Irish classics, while the freshly formed Kifaru dancers performed “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey (to resounding applause). Moreh even made cinnamon rolls! The party rounded out a special week of service and lasting memories. I only wish we were in Mufindi for longer, but our time there certainly opened the door to a path some embark on in the future.

Next week, Ruaha National Park; ROARRRRRR!

The Mountain School

MARCH 13, 2017 | CENTRAL AMERICA - MAYA

We started our week at La Escuela de Montana, a Spanish school in the middle of the jungle. The staff and teachers were fantastic and everyone’s Spanish has improved exceptionally. Throughout the week different lectures and activities were available such as an early morning hike and history lessons on Mayan culture. For our last day with our teachers, we competed in an intense game of futbol (we practically won). To let off steam after two long weeks of Spanish classes we all worked together and took a trip to a water-park. We drove two hours in the back of the pickup truck, and all had a fantastic time on all the rides. Now we are in Antigua heading to the beach.

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Trekking in Thailand

MARCH 9, 2017 | SOUTHEAST ASIA - SABAI

You may think that Thailand is a very homogeneous population and that everyone living under the Red, White and Blue flag considers themselves Thai. But alas as is the case with everywhere in the world, different populations will not consider themselves the same people. We started our three day trek through the Mei Tang wilderness area past rice fields and hot springs. We stayed the night at a local Karen village where we were greeted with a massive feast of homemade spring rolls and curry. The Karen people are a distinct group in Thailand that lives in villages in the hills of Northern Thailand surrounding Burma and Laos. Many of them have had to flee into Thailand as refugees surrounding the violence that has occurred in Burma. We learned from our guides who were ethnically Karen about the history of the tribe and many of the challenges they still face in coming to Thailand as undocumented refugees.

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We then continued our hike, stopping to take a long solo hike as our OE’s prepared written prompts for us to think about as we hiked alone. Coming across the hike we prepared for lunch as a sunrise that had been teased earlier was finally revealed to us in the form of two hulking grey beasts. We were allowed to feed these domesticated Asian Elephants bananas and pumpkins and washed and climbed on them as they bathed in the nearby river. We then continued walking down the river until we met up with a Lahu village built along the side of a hill. The Lahu are another ethnic group living in Thailand with a distinct culture from both the other hill tribes and mainstream Thai society. We had another gratuitous meeting with the tribe and were able to sit around a fire late into the night telling ghost stories and hearing Karen and Lahu tales.

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In the morning we put the walking aside and hopped on rafts made from bamboo shoots tied together. We cruised down the river passing through light rapids and beautiful vistas that the river runs through. We even had a dog leap onto our raft at the Lahu village and ride with us the entirety of our river trip. We then went back into Chang Mai and enjoyed our one night of rest before we were back on the road, catching a 7 am bus ride to Chang Rai. When we arrived we were greeted by a NGO called the Mirror Association. There we learned about many of the problems plaguing the hill tribes of Thailand, such as the inability for many people who have lived in the country their whole lives to even obtain citizenship. We are staying now in a bamboo house in a Lahu Village where wild children wake us up every morning by yelling in Lahu into our rooms. Where we are spending the afternoons knee deep in mud farming in a rice paddy. It’s quite an amazing experience and I can’t wait for the next sections of our trip.

A week in Baños...

 

MARCH 13, 2017 | SOUTH AMERICA - INTI

Last week we left Finca Mono Verde, a beautiful, lush permaculture farm on the Ecuadorian coast and we arrived in the bustling and breathtaking city of Baños surrounded by mountains and a large active volcano! This week was different for us because we were living in pairs with host families rather than all of us living in one place together. Living with people we never met before, in a city that was unfamiliar to us certainly presented some challenges, but with the support of each other and our new friends in Baños, we were able to experience these challenges as opportunities to learn, grow and become more independent.

Our days in Baños were spent at Raices Spanish School. In the morning, we would learn and improve our Spanish with the help of our teachers and in the afternoons, we got to the fulfill the role of being a teacher, by teaching English to the local children of Baños. After the long rewarding, days we spent our nights thoroughly enjoying ourselves whether it was bathing in the natural hot springs, dancing our hearts out at discotheques or simply exploring the city, it was always fun. Overall, this week in Baños was one of incredible adventures.

Namaste from the Holy City of Varansi

MARCH 10, 2017 | INDIA - SHANTI

Namaste from the Holy City of Varansi! What an experience we’ve been having! It’s crazy to think we’ve been in India less than a month. We’ve already seen and experienced so much.

Varanasi is such a beautiful and intriguing city and there has been absolutely no shortage of things to do. A focus of our time here has been internships with the very talented local artisans, which has included jewelry making, fire dancing, stone carving, painting, cooking, sitar and tabla, yoga and Ayurveda. We’ve all really been enjoying learning new skills and getting creative.

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We’ve also spent our time learning Hindi and exploring the city. The things we’ve done here have been so diverse and incredible. One day we took rickshaws down to a different part of the city (though we could only go so far due to heavy traffic in the lead up to the elections here) and had a lassi and visited the Burning Ghats. The Burning Ghats was one experience I think will stick with me for a long time to come. Death is looked at with completely different eyes here. I walked away from it undetermined about the way I was feeling.

Yesterday we visited the farm and village of one of our lovely contacts here. It was amazing and I believe one of our favourite days so far. The landscape surrounding the village was rocky and steep, and thus gave a feeling of desolation in a way, but there was something very breathtakingly beautiful about it. We explored the farm and village, watched a master potter in his trade, learnt how to weave plates from leaves, ate amazing food off these plates, watched (and later danced with) incredible dancers, rode a camel and gained an insight into life in rural India. Oh and we also played with puppies (Katie’s favourite part) and watched Amber, Kaila, Peter and Liam milk a cow 

We were the first group of foreign travelers to visit this village in recent memory and so were followed by the villagers in large numbers wherever we went. A real highlight yesterday for me was how the people warmed up to us throughout the day. In the morning it wasn’t easy to get a wave back but by sunset we were having a broken Hindi/English conversation with the kids (previously shy but now terrifically outgoing and funny).

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That’s not even close to everything. There’s been so much else, including a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges and a visit to the Guria Office, an amazing organization that is reaching great heights in combating the heartbreaking sex trafficking trade.

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We’re off to Bodhgaya tomorrow very early to study Buddhism which we’re all looking forward to (besides the 5am train haha), though I think we’re definitely going to miss this place and all the lovely people we’ve met.

I hope you all are very well. Until next time, with love,
The Shanti Crew.