30 August 2010

volunteer travel - do you get what you pay for?

After volunteering in Peru with Karikuy, I started writing a post about how you get what you pay for when it comes to volunteer experiences. Project #3 of The Global Citizen Project with Campamento Tortugeuro Platanitos in Nayarit, Mexico quickly changed my mind.

The more I process my volunteer experience with Karikuy, the less inclined I am to recommend it. I love what founder, Julio Tello is doing to promote responsible tourism within Peru and give back to its impoverished communities, but his volunteer program did not live up to expectations.

My bed at Karikuy
The price seemed right – free accommodations in exchange for 8 hours of volunteer work per day, Monday through Friday. Accommodations are touted as a “Bed and Breakfast,” a term I’d use loosely. Very loosely. Add one cat and a cute, but untrained puppy and Karikuy “B&B” felt a bit like shacking up in a litter box. When American Airlines lost my luggage (they found it the next day), my biggest concern was not having flip flops because there was no way my feet were going to make contact with the bathroom floor. It was nasty, only made nastier by piles of puppy poo. At one point, I sat down on the toilet to pee, and Pisco, the shih tzu puppy sidled up next to me on the floor and squatted. I love puppies as much as the next gal, but that crosses all lines of cuteness. The dorm-style bedroom was the best thing going for the house – a bunk bed, a twin bed and few cabinets for storage. I knew that Lima in July (the dead of winter in Peru) would be cold, but had I known how cold an unheated house would be, I would’ve packed a sleeping bag. Sheets, pillow and a wool blanket were provided, but I still slept in Smart Wool head-to-toe and shivered. (That’s no fault of Karikuy – homes in Peru aren’t heated.)

Puppy poo on the bathroom floor

Volunteers are charged $50 a week for Monday through Saturday meals. The food was simple, sometimes tasty; more often than not, monotonous. Breakfast was typically a roll with fresh cheese and avocado and tea. Lunch and dinner involved a broth based noodle soup with a smattering of vegetables and a mystery chicken part, followed by a mountain of rice, more chicken (sometimes beef), and usually a boiled potato. A gal can only handle so much chicken, rice and potatoes before crying Uncle. Given the option (and if the “B&B” kitchen were functioning and not just a catch-all for trash and recycling), I would’ve been happy to prepare some of my own meals or at least have the option to eat some meals from the abundance of nearby street food vendors. We ended up eating out a few times during the week instead of at the house, which I was more than happy to do, but should be noted, was on the volunteers’ dime and not part of the $50 per week budget. Knowing how well one can eat for cheap in Peru and far a sole stretches, $50 for food costs seems a bit steep. But, can you really complain when housing is free? Still, the soup, rice dish, repeat menu got old pretty quickly.

Pisco, the cute, but very untrained puppy

If you go with Julio on out-of-the-city excursions or take him up on deeply discounted Karikuy tours (like hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu), you do have the opportunity to explore and learn more about Peru. However, such excursions increase the bottom line cost of volunteering and cross into vacation territory. It seems as though these experiences are strongly encouraged, in an effort to create fodder for the Karikuy blog. Personally, if I’m going to explore Peru, I’d prefer to fly solo or in the company of friends, call it what it is (a vacation) and post about it on my own blog. It’s not like it’s all that difficult to explore Peru on the cheap. I did learn quite a bit what day-to-day life is like in a lower income neighborhood in Lima and was able to blog about that for both myself and Karikuy. I also completed a fair bit of research on Peru, its cultural, recent news and responsible tourism, but was it worth the time and price of admission? I’m not so sure.

Work space at Karikuy

A little bit of cleanliness and a whole lot of direction and the Karikuy volunteer program could be a success. As it is now, I don’t think Julio has a clear vision of what he wants to accomplish, and if he does, he doesn’t know how to articulate it and delegate volunteer tasks. I chalked the whole experience up to “You get what you pay for” and nervously awaited my next project, another low budget project.

Campamento Tortuguero Platanitos
Project #3 of The Global Citizen Project at Campamento Tortuguero Platanitos cost $10 a day for housing (with a 10-day minimum). Round-trip airfare from Seattle to Puerto Vallarta ran about $400; bus fare from Puerto Vallarta to Las Varas another $10. Volunteers are also responsible for buying their own food and preparing their own meals. I spent $13 when I arrived in Las Varas, the closest town to Turtle Camp reachable via bus. Thirteen dollars got me rice, cooking oil, vegetables, some spices, cereal, milk, cheese, Fanta and some eggs. I brought peanut butter, jelly and English Muffins along. I dropped another $20 on Day 5 of the project on more edible essentials, including a whole grilled chicken with rice, salad and homemade salsa (about $4.50). Accommodations are rustic – volunteers sleep in one big room, and the guys (Gerardo, the volunteer coordinator, and Hermilo, the biologist) kindly hung a shower curtain to give female volunteers some privacy. The bathroom and shower are in an outhouse a few steps away. We had an ample sized kitchen and a big table to eat at or do work. It’s no Four Seasons Resort, but my bunk bed was actually semi-comfy, the place was swept multiple times daily (and kept relatively sand free) and the kitchen area well-maintained. The best part? I could roll out of bed and dip my toes in the ocean in exactly 73 steps.

Me with an Olive Ridley turtle hatchling
As for the program, it was pretty amazing. My job was to patrol a designated stretch of beach from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. nightly. As a gal, there was always a male presence with me for safety’s sake. We’d sleep late then perform whatever cleaning/maintenance duties are necessary. One afternoon, we cleaned out all the turtle egg collecting bags. In the ocean. That doesn’t suck. Another day, we helped expand the turtle egg incubation/hatchery in the beating mid-day sun. That did suck. Roving the beach in pitch blackness, within steps of the sea, searching for turtle tracks has a meditative quality. I like lots of quiet time for introspection (and get it thanks to my work-at-home, freelancer lifestyle). Plus, I learned a lot about turtles and conservation. I saw countless Olive Ridley turtles emerge from the ocean, make their way up the beach, dig a nest, then lay anywhere from 80 to 150 eggs. The bugs were a bit of a nuisance (okay, they’re a beastly pain in the ass and wherever else they bite you), especially since DEET is not allowed anywhere near the turtle eggs or hatchlings. I managed to hang tough with my eco-friendly bug repellant, although it didn’t really do a damn thing much to deter the mosquitoes (the hundreds of bites all over my body are evidence).

Turtle Camp was my fave project so far – and it’s not prohibitively expensive. It’s a bit of an adventure to get to Campamento Tortuguera Platanitos, but its remoteness is what adds to its beauty and the experience. I volunteered for 10 days – probably three days too long (the heat and bugs became intolerable), but felt like I was able to jump right in and help out with a limited amount of knowledge and absolutely no sea turtle conservation skills. Gerardo and Hermilo, my Turtle Masters were incredible resources for learning and took my safety seriously (much appreciated). The world of sea turtle conservation is lucky to have two such passionate, dedicated and savvy people on its team. And I am grateful that I got to work alongside these men (and a rotating line-up of volunteers) for 10 nights and days. Truly an awesome experience.

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