28 September 2010

post-project review: sumak kawsay yachay in salasaca, ecuador

I arrived in Quito for Project #4 of The Global Citizen project without much of a plan, except to make my way to Salasaca, a town of 12,000 people on the road between Ambato and Baños. I knew very little about Ecuador, its capital city and even less about Salasaca and the organization I’d be volunteering with, Sumak Kawsay Yachay. I arrived in Salasaca in the middle of a Friday afternoon and from the minute I jumped into the back of a camioneta and hitched a ride to the bibioteca, I found solace in not knowing what was going to happen next. At the biblioteca, I met David, a dry-witted, 30-something Brit who walked me up a dirt road, lined with agave plants and roaming farm animals of all varieties to Pachamama Hostal, comfortable digs to a dozen or so volunteers.

Pachamama Hostal is a quirky, A-Frame homestead built precariously into the side of a hill. It boasts the most amazing vistas of Salasaca and surrounding villages; many hours were spent on its terrace soaking up the scenery, sunshine and hoots and hollers of nearby soccer (I mean futbol) games. Interesting note: there are 48 organized futbol teams in Salasaca. There’s a main community area where meals are shared, right next to a commercial-style kitchen. The hostel is divided into six rooms and can accommodate around 15 volunteers at a time. Rooms vary from a semi-dank dorm style room to a cozy attic slash alcove sleeping area to a spacious suite for couples.

Sumak Kawsay Yachay is a Kichua phrase that means, “a better/more beautiful life through education.” SKY is run by American expat, Robert Jeffords, who funds the small organization with his pension. Jeffords is one of the most endearing people you will ever meet and even morning-phobic me looked forward to eating porridge (he made daily) with him and the other volunteers promptly at 6:30 a.m. In the evenings, volunteers teamed up in groups of two or three to make dinner for the group as a once a week duty.  Cooking got quite competitive as teams tried to scheme up 3-course menus that cost roughly $1 per person (it was done quite successfully on several occasions during my stay).

Volunteers can get involved with Katitawa Escuela or the biblioteca in a variety of capacities. Longer term volunteers can take the initiative to create their own language and class programs (for example, David started a drum class and other volunteers helped teach local artisans useful phrases for conducting commerce). Volunteers work Monday through Friday, starting at 8 a.m. Classes at Katitawa Escuela go until 2 p.m. and there are opportunities to work later in the day, either teaching language classes or working at the biblioteca. Robert expects volunteers to work a minimum of six hours a day; many work more.

I took the route of “put me to work where you need help” and ended up working with the kindergarten class (which compared to U.S. school systems was preschool). It probably wasn’t the best fit for me, but I diversified my attention to other projects like helping to build a stone wall, covering nighttime biblioteca shifts, moving large amounts of fertilizer to the escuela’s garden and feeding the chickens. I can do pretty much anything for a few weeks – even wrangling short attention spanned preschoolers. And once we implemented a few helpful tricks, like locking the kids in the classroom during class, taking away all sharp edged implements (there was a box cutter incident), and generously using words like “cuidado” and “venga aqui,” things were smooth(er) sailing. (I've learned that I better connect with kids a few years older in age, but that's just a personal preference.)

Volunteering with SKY was hands down my favorite project so far. I loved the project, the place (both Katitawa Escuela and the small town of Salasaca), the other volunteers, the students (well, except for one we nicknamed "Rat Features," anyway) and Robert. I feel so lucky to have crossed paths with this perfect volunteer project storm, and hope to return for a longer period of time once I’m through with this year-long tour de force. I also hope to stay in touch with a lot of the volunteers I worked with. It’s rare to find yourself in a dynamic where everything clicks, and although volunteers worked their butts off Monday-Friday, we found plenty of time to play, explore or relax on the weekends and spend time getting to know one another. It was a very simple, yet satisfying way of living and I’m all for playing rural girl in Salasaca with SKY again.

27 September 2010

volunteer expectations

As I get into my volunteer groove and have the first four projects of The Global Citizen Project under my belt, I’m beginning to figure out what does and doesn’t work for me in a volunteer role. Volunteering is a lot more challenging than I imagined it would be and has repeatedly pushed me past my usual comfort zone. It can be disconcerting and maddening and even scary at times, but every time I accomplish something I didn’t think possible, I am grateful for the opportunity to test my personal limits and proud of myself. Like put a gold star sticker on the fridge proud. I’m guessing every person has their own volunteering style, but here are a few things that I've found helpful:

Spell out on-the-ground directions. Example: When you land at XYZ airport, here’s how you get to us. I want to know the name of the bus line or its number, estimated travel times and costs involved. I am terrible with direction, so having accurate instruction upon arrival alleviates any post-flight logistical panic.

Be clear with expectations. I'm comfortable working about 6-8 hours a day. Much more than that makes me feel like I’m being taken advantage of. Also, I want to get a sense of the local culture, so I prefer five or six day work weeks (like in the real, paid working world). Work the volunteer to death and you can almost guarantee an almost instant decrease in productivity and enthusiasm.

Be honest about living situations and accommodations. Don’t tell me I’ll be staying in a bed and breakfast, when the digs make a beer soaked fraternity house look luxurious. I can deal with no hot water, compostable toilets, paper thin mattresses and non-heated housing, but only if I’m prepared.

Define the volunteer role. If I’ve signed on to assist a preschool class, I don’t expect to come up with lesson plans or take over teaching entirely when the teacher doesn’t feel like showing up. Be specific in what you expect from me and I'll do my best to deliver. I'm not a mind reader, so communication is key.

Give me space. I’m learning how to get along (better) with others and cohabitate in close, often very rustic quarters with a wide variety of personalities. I try to be as respectful as possible and learn from the never-ending rotating roster of global do-gooders I encounter, but definitely need some down time to process what I’m doing and check in with myself. I’ve run into several volunteers who operate on verbal auto-loop of all-about-me stories and have had to respectfully inform them that every single second of time spent together does not need to be filled with conversation.

Give me the tools to do my job. I want to do a good job, really I do, but if you don’t give me the tools to my job (whether it’s information, support or supplies), I can’t be as productive as I’m sure we’d both like.

Volunteers, what else have you found helpful in your efforts to serve? I'm still learning, a lot by trial and error since each of my projects varies so much, and always looking to improve.

26 September 2010

the secret garden in quito, ecuador is looking for volunteers

I didn’t know my ass from my elbow when it came to my first foray traveling in Ecuador. I booked my ticket to Quito to volunteer with Santa Martha Animal Rescue, which in a most unprofessional fashion informed me that it had folded (basically because its founder is a thin-skinned cry baby who couldn’t handle criticism from volunteers). I scrambled in a state of non-refundable airline ticket panic to find a replacement project and stumbled across Sumak Kawsay Yachay (SKY) on the internet. Plan B was in effect!

I'm usually pretty organized with my travel logistics. I do a reasonable amount of pre-travel research and create a project itinerary (partially for my benefit, but also to leave at home in case something bad happens to me). But, when it came to flying into Quito, I really didn’t have a clue. My flight arrived at 6:05 p.m., too late to embark on the 3-hour bus trip to Salasaca (As a rule, I don’t like to arrive in strange destinations after dark), so I needed a hostel. Natch, I turned to my fave word-of-mouth resource, Twitter, and got several recommendations for The Secret Garden in the San Blas neighborhood of Quito.

I shot The Secret Garden an email to make a reservation and arrange for an airport pick-up ($10 USD), which was quickly confirmed. Upon touch down in Quito (a terrifying landing I wasn’t prepared for) I made way through customs and immigration and found a driver holding a “The Secret Garden” sign. We wove up and down hilly streets during rush hour traffic and arrived at the five story hostel a little after dusk.

Check-in was a breeze and I was quickly led to my fourth floor “Orange” dorm room, bunk #5 to be exact. Dorm-style rooms tend to be on the small and cramped size (my room accommodated six people), but they’re clean, beds are reasonably comfy and there are small lockers available to store valuables. For $8.80 a night, it’s a great value. Well maintained bathroom facilities are situated in the hall and shared by several rooms. Hot water was a bit iffy – I’ve found that when it is available in South America, sometimes it helps to turn the water pressure down to the lowest possible trickle to get heat. There’s also free WiFi, three computers you can rent for .50 cents an hour and a terrace with amazing city and mountain views, where daily, three meals are served for a nominal fee. The terrace is also a popular destination to grab a few Pilseners before a night on the town (the terrace closes at 11 p.m.). The hostel can also organize day tours or Spanish classes. Even though I’m a bit older than the usual hostelling age demographic, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at The Secret Garden. So much in fact, that I stayed there again the night before I flew out of Quito.

The Secret Garden runs on volunteers and is always looking for help. In exchange for volunteer hours, the hostel offers free accommodation, food, all drinks, 10 hours of Spanish classes and more. The hostel’s new Cotopaxi location is also looking for volunteers. Click here for more information.

25 September 2010

give thanks to twitter

The first 48-hours of my trip to Ecuador were especially kind to me and I must give thanks to Twitter. I cyber hitchhiked a ride to Westlake Center to grab the light rail to Sea-Tac for my red-eye flight to Miami and Domenic (@DEPagliaro) answered the call. Domenic is a fellow Philadelphia sports fan and we’ve bantered back and forth on Twitter for months. I even lured him into Travelers’ Night In and he’s become a faithful participant (except when he's responding to respond to oil spills, hurricane recovery efforts, and other emergency situations for the oil and gas industry).

Shortly after touchdown at one of my top three least fave domestic airports, Miami International Airport, I was picked up by Raquel (@AiresLibre), one of the folks who donated to The Global Citizen Project, who’s also grown to be one of my fave Twitter friends. We headed to Little Havana for a proper Cuban breakfast of empanadas, pastelitos and croqeutas – all washed down with strong Cuban coffee. Afterwards, we cruised along Ocean Drive before stopping at Lincoln Road Mall where we split a pre-flight bottle of Prosecco. Before noon. Raquel is a girl after my heart who knows bubbly has no time and place boundaries. Amen.

Happy and sated, I breezed through TSA and boarded my flight for Quito. Upon arrival, I hopped in a (prearranged) cab and headed to The Secret Garden hostel in the San Blas section of town ($10 cab fare, pre-arranged via the hostel). I dropped off my bags, quickly freshened up, and met up with Alison (@aliadventures7), a travel blogger based in Atlanta, who was in Quito taking a Spanish immersion course. Over Cuba Libres and Pilseners, we dished about Twitter, the travel personalities of Twitter, and globetrotting in general. As Alison poured herself into a cab to head home, I walked up the hill to The Secret Garden with an ear-to-ear smile on my face. In less than 48-hours, I met three really great people my path probably never would have intersected with without the power of Twitter.

25 things about me

1. I have been intimately involved with (at least) 4 men who are now gay.

2. The only food I really can’t stand is blue cheese. The stinky foot smell is a dealbreaker.

3. At the age of 16, I managed to get into a car accident exactly one hour after I got my driver’s license. Thankfully, I was not the driver at fault.

4. I rarely go to sleep before 3 a.m. Ever. This explains why you’ll almost never receive an email response or Facebook update from me before noon on any given day.

5. One week before my mother passed away at the age of 38, she revealed an end-of-life regret: “I never went to Europe.” I think this single sentence is why I’m driven to write about travel and where I got my insatiable wanderlust from.

6. I don’t have a journalism degree. I got my start at writing while working at the Philadelphia Weekly running the Personals & Promotions department. I made my grand editorial debut with a weekly dating advice column, called Ask Me Anything and things took off from there.

7. I once made three trips to the grocery store and spent more than $100 in ingredients trying to make a Bon Appétit “Ooey Gooey Cinnamon Bun” recipe. The yeast and I couldn’t come to culinary terms and I ended up buying bagels instead. I have not touched a single recipe that involves yeast ever since.

8. The summer of 2005 was rough – I had E.coli (twice), Plesiomonas Shigelloides and Edwardsiella Tarda. If you’re not a Gastrointestinal doc or a water microbiologist, I’ll let you Google all the gory details.

9. When I signed my first book contract, I bought a small pair of diamond stud earrings and a $500 La Perla bra and panty set. I don’t really care much about jewelry, but feel there are some basic essentials every woman should own and a drop-dead sexy pair of skivvies tops the list.

10. I don’t like forced heat. I’d rather build a fire or bundle up than subject myself to electric heat. If I fall asleep in a forced heat environment, it’s pretty much a given that I’ll wake up with a bloody nose.

11. At one point in my career, I was simultaneously authoring children’s books and writing content for an adult website. I’m pretty sure that is some kind of sin, but the money was way too lucrative in the latter field and I didn’t have to use a byline.

12. Until maybe a year or so ago, I would always go to water when I needed clarity in my life or needed to make some sort of big decision. Nowadays, I find solace in the mountains.

13. Like clockwork, I crave an In-N-Out burger (Animal Style, of course) or super-greasy pizza after I’ve been traveling. Since moving (back) to Seattle, my In-N-Out fix has been replaced with burgers at The Counter, King’s Hardware or Hattie’s Hat.

14. I feel strangely comfortable in hardware/home repair stores. Power tools and men that can fix things really turn me on.

15. I am fiercely protective of the people I care about.

16. I’m extremely grateful for my talented circle of writer friends. The constant give and take of ideas, sources, leads, creativity and general support is a never-ending source of inspiration. I’m also lucky to work with a roster of rock star editors.

17. I had a gym membership for over a year in Seattle without every stepping foot into the facility.  I continue to use the parking pass, most recently to get gelato.

18. I adopted my Boxer-mix beast, Gus, from the Stockton SPCA after a big, bad break-up. Some women buy shoes, binge on Ben & Jerry’s or have amazing break-up sex – I took on the responsibility of an abused, 3 month old puppy that was on 24-hour doggy death row.

19. Even though I am a frequent hotel guest, I still get giddy when I spend the first night in a (nice) hotel solo.

20. In everyday life, I’m not the world’s most patient person, but manage to possess massive reserves of patience when travel/meeting new people, especially when trying to find common ground.

21. Kids are great. I just like the flexibility and freedom of my life way too much to go through the process of having any of my own.

22. I swoon for the Rem Koolhaas-designed Central Library in Seattle. The Seattle Public Library system in general is outstanding.

23. I think 99.9% of what is on TV these days is mindless crap.

24. I was born on Easter and my birthday falls on Earth Day.

25. I used to think I was really good at Scrabble – until I met Morgan. We play regularly and I win, on average, maybe one time a year. It’s kind of sad, but I still love the game and I haven’t completely given up hope. Sigh.

photos: project #4 sumak kawsay yachay in salasaca, ecuador

The Global Citizen Project is officially one-third complete and my latest project in Salasaca, Ecudaor was hands down the best one yet.  Check out my photos from my volunteer project with Sumak Kawsay Yachay and Kaititawa Escuela here.

24 September 2010

october project preview: quinta das abelhas in tábua, coimbra, portugal

Where: Tábua is located in central Portugal; it’s essentially a rural region of breeding cattle and producing corn, wine, chestnuts, cork and olive oil.

What: Work varies with the seasons but usually includes digging, weeding, planting and watering in the gardens, harvesting and preserving, mucking out the animals, building work, general maintenance and keeping the place tidy, household chores and childcare.

Significance: Quinta das Abelhas is part of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). WWOOF is a network where in return for volunteer help, WWOOF hosts offer food, accommodation and opportunities to learn about organic lifestyles.

This project coincides with harvest, and as an avid foodie, home chef and Slow Food member, I take great interest in learning about food sources and eating locally and seasonally whenever possible.

07 September 2010

the votes have been tallied, and...

Yay. Yay. Yay. I am over the moon ecstatic. Thanks to your votes, I won a $5,000 voluntourism grant from Travelocity’s Travel for Good® program. I’ve been more than lucky in my 37 years, but this is one of the biggest and bestest honors bestowed upon me. Ever. I’m in awe of how many amazing people I have rooting for me and The Global Citizen Project to succeed. Thank you.

Details are still a bit fuzzy, but I’ll be headed to the Big Apple the week of November 15th for WE tv’s gala award event. This is exactly one week after the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death, so there is a lot personal significance in winning this award beyond its obvious awesomeness. I will also need to pick a voluntourism project from one of Travelocity’s four program partners (tough decision). As if that’s not cool enough, I will also be featured in an upcoming issue of Ladies’ Home Journal and receive a free subscription for my future reading pleasure.

All around, it’s one heckuva win and I am thrilled to accept. I cannot thank you all enough for voting and persevering my incessant reminders to vote. You all rock and I’m so glad you’re on my team. You make me feel like I can do anything.

02 September 2010

we live in public

More than a decade ago, I ran the Personals and Promotions Department at the Philadelphia Weekly. Every week, I’d help hundreds of lonely hearts pen personal ads that would hopefully, land them a love connection (and help fill my 10-page, back-of-the-paper section). In addition to offering up my wordsmithing skills, I’d coordinate singles events on a weekly basis – everything from awkward heterosexual meet and greets at hipster bars to bump and grind gay dance parties to the occasional “Anything Goes” swingers soiree for the dirty birds. I could fill more pages than you can imagine with my experiences, and if you buy me a beer sometime, I may be willing to dish some of the more (ahem) colorful details.

My dating life never sucked more than once I’d started penning the widely popular advice column “Ask Me Anything,” and was deemed the local dating guru. Sure, I was the first point of contact for hundreds of eligible bachelors, and I even dabbled in a few first dates with some of my more charming advertisers, but the most long term commitment I managed to muster up was a stalker who landed himself in jail (and then proceeded to harass me for more than a decade). Since this incident, I’ve been fiercely protective of my identity and whereabouts, going so far as to use pseudonyms in several editorial outlets and use a mailbox service several miles from my residence.

So when the world of social media started to evolve, the idea of sacrificing my privacy gave me serious pause. I’d fought so long to keep a low-profile, but was wooed by Facebook and Twitter and blogging and new possibilities of networking and personal connections that I decided to take a chance when I launched my Kickstarter fundraising campaign last November. I mean, there was no way in the world I could ask strangers to help fund The Global Citizen Project without full disclosure of who I was. I don’t regret my decision for a second.

Since then, I’ve made countless friends via social media networks and have never, ever had a less-than-stellar experience with a cyber someone I’ve met in real life (or IRL in Twitter speak). There’s a long “wish list” of Twitter friends I hope to someday cross paths with, but in the meantime, I practice reasonable cyber caution and welcome the possibility of making acquaintances via avatars, handles and 140 character limits.

Next week, I especially look forward to meeting Raquel Segura (@aireslibre) on a long layover in Miami, then Alison Garland (@AliAdventures7) when I arrive in Quito, Ecuador. When it comes to socializing and making connections, we live in a very different world these days. It's weird and crazy and absolutely fascinating, and I find that if you open yourself up to it, there are some really beautiful connections to be made via social media.

01 September 2010

how to plan your all inclusive getaway

As a travel writer, people pick my brain on an almost daily basis for vacation advice.  It can be daunting to dole out advice to strangers, because everyone has a different travel style.  And when people tread on “Where do you think we should go for our honeymoon?” territory, I tend to get a little nervous.  Hello, this is one of the most important holidays of a couples’ life!  I’m happy to proffer my two cents on pretty much anything travel-related, but hope that my opinion, albeit expert and insightful, is just one piece of information in the grandmaster decision-making process.

Most of the requests I receive are for romantic getaways, adventure travel, dog-friendly destinations, and  lately, last minute all inclusive vacations that won’t break the bank. This past week alone, my inbox fielded several requests for all inclusive suggestions in both the Caribbean and Mexico.

I’ve stayed at a handful of all inclusive hotel properties and my personal experiences have run the gamut from poolside wet tee-shirt contests during spring break at Tesoro Los Cabos Lucas to a luxurious, highly personalized stay at Hacienda Tres Ríos in Riviera Maya that defied all inclusive stereotypes. In both scenarios, the resort packages provided excellent value and convenience coupled with the perfect mix of nightlife, beachfront adventures and laid back moments (the holy trinity of any successful all inclusive stay, in my opinion).

To help make any vacation a success, it's important to consider your leisure time needs when planning.  Here are a few guidelines to think about when hatching your all inclusive getaway plan:

1. Decide where you’d like to go. (Most all inclusive resorts tend to be near beaches.)

2. Decide when you’d like to go. Summer, spring break and Christmas break are peak travel times, while May through November is hurricane season in the Caribbean.

3. Figure out what your travel budget will be.

4. Ask potential resorts about specific amenities that matter to you, such as child care facilities, food and beverage options, number of pools or proximity to the beach.

5. Find out what amenities are included in the all inclusive price. Some resorts may include some activities (like canoeing), but not others (like motorized water sports), or may charge a surcharge for top shelf liquors or super fancy menu upgrades.

If you’re trying to stretch your travel dollars, now is the time to take advantage of off season all inclusive deals, and yes, even start thinking about holiday travel. Happy travels!

This post is supported by Luxury Villas Maui

needed: usb thumb drives

If any of my lovely readers have any spare USB thumb drives lying around, I’d love for you to send them my way.

Here’s what I’m looking for:

Nine 2MG+ thumb drives (for my 9 remaining projects). I’d like to be able to transfer all photos and videos taken during the course of the project to a thumb drive and leave it with the volunteer program host. Everybody likes instant gratification, right? The chances me actually uploading images to a program’s Picasa or Flickr site are pretty slim, and besides, my at-home internet connection doesn’t like it very much when I try to upload large quantities of images.

Many of the programs I’m volunteering with would benefit from any kind of additional virtual storage space, so thumb drives of any size would be appreciated.

If you have extra cyber storage to spare, feel free to drop it in the mail to moi at:

Charyn Pfeuffer
1752 NW Market Street, #432
Seattle, WA 98107

100 thanks in advance.