An extraordinary year in our ordinary life

2022 was an extraordinary year in our ordinary life. It was a year of giving back. Together with my husband, Ed, we volunteered and contributed to social enterprises in three different countries in three different continents.

The inspiration, planning and preparation began a few years before.  The idea of volunteering overseas in local communities was inspired by our daughter from her first volunteer project in Cambodia when she was 16. On her return, learning the impact this experience had for Rachel, together with her sharing that such projects are available for families, inspired us to look into this possibility.

“For the sake of comfort we give up knowing the world” – Anonymous

The planning began in 2020 as Ed was thinking about how to acknowledge his 50th birthday in 2022.  During our discussions, we discovered that our love of adventure and education was ever present and that to combine these two, in service of others, would be the best way to celebrate this milestone birthday. Another intention from these trips was our learning and research for what we hope to develop as our own legacy in relation to generating educational experiences in a community to support younger generations where education is less available for all.  We were keen to visit South America, Africa and South East Asia and to offer our skills in different ways from teaching to physical labour.  With this in mind Ed researched and found relevant volunteer organisations that would also welcome those over 50 years old (given I am a little older!).  Three projects emerged that were of great interest, although some of these countries were still experiencing the impact of COVID and we were unsure whether the opportunities would be available. Nonetheless we applied and were successful in our applications to join all three.

Our 2022 plans were in place. Beginning in April with volunteering in Cusco, Peru supporting a non-profit organisation Qosqo-Maki teaching English as a foreign language.  Later in May, we were to visit Mwandi, North West Province of Zambia, building mud huts for Homes for Aids Orphans charity. In October we were to cycle through Laos from Vientiane to Luang Prabang with Social Cycles visiting nine different social enterprises to learn and contribute to their efforts.

Our preparation began and continued throughout 2021. We both signed up to gain our TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) committing 100 hours of online study with tests and assignments along the way.  Thankfully we both passed and became accredited to teach adults and children in January 2022.

Our preparation for Zambia was simply to be fit enough for the physical labour. Neither of us knew what to expect, nor had experience of building homes. I invest in regular personal training sessions which help to provide me with strength and flexibility. Ed is naturally strong!

We prepared for the 365 km of cycling through Laos with regular cycling and weekend rides, mainly with Glorious Gravel who provided us with some challenging yet hugely rewarding cycling experiences to be ready for what was to come. These UK rides were tough. With punctures, broken chains, locked chains and physical fatigue which I thought would prepare us well for Laos!

Our volunteering adventures were carefully planned across UK public holiday seasons in order to maximise our time on the projects given we both work full time. Our adventures began in April over the Easter break. Later in the year, a new opportunity emerged enabling us to visit Nepal and the Philippines to conclude our travels around the world.

Reflections from an extraordinary year
My overall reflection for the year of 2022 was that it has been a privilege to listen, learn and serve in communities with less than we have access to where we live in the UK. To make new friends and discover the amazing work of inspiring human beings around the world.

The impact of the English language
In Peru, we lived in the town of Cusco with Maria and Adolfo, a local family with whom we spoke Spanish and learned about daily life. There is no central heating in the houses and so as it gets colder through the day, you simply add another layer to keep warm! Maria was an excellent cook treating us with some local special dishes and Adolfo a kind host showing us the way as we navigated the streets walking to work each day.

Each day we attended Spanish lessons to further develop our own language skills. Afterwards we prepared for the lessons we taught – three different groups from 7 -10 year olds, teenagers and adults – for classes from 5.00 – 8.00 pm.

Teaching English at the non-profit Qosqo-Maki with the inspiring Alvaro (leader of the classes) we learned the impact of being able to speak English for those in communities who had less access to English lessons.  Many of the adults were training or already tour guides and being able to connect with tourists through common language was a game changer for them to win business and generate income for their families. Equally several of the younger students had aspirations to follow educational opportunities abroad which was greatly helped by their capacity to speak English. Some of these opportunities were being delivered online and they would gain diplomas in subjects taught in English that were globally recognised. We developed further our adaptability, thinking on our feet and supporting each other as we taught the classes together, not knowing how many students and what their level of English was. Over the two weeks we had some regular students with whom we saw their confidence and skills grow.

We also had the opportunity to visit Lake Titicaca, the highest lake in the world at 3,810 metres above sea level, the floating islands and stay with a local family on the island of Amantani. We were taken care of by a local family hosting us for lunch, overnight and breakfast.  We learned of their celebration of traditions, respect for the land and each other  their resilience with the weather and most of all sense of community. The community that provides strength, companionship and humility to all those living on the island.

The impact of community and education
In May we travelled to Zambia where we lived in Mwandi, a village of 3,000 people, at the centre of  Homes for Aids Orphans pioneered and run by Paula Van Zyl, a most inspiring lady with an incredible story. A true story. It is a story of one woman’s spiritual evolution and reflects on a middle-class childhood, a rebellious adolescence, and an early adulthood of drug smuggling and addictions. She goes on to become a missionary, living a life of service to others. The author reveals the many layers of her past and chronicles the process through which she finds herself. Once you start reading, you’ll not want to put it down. Our work here was to help build a mud hut for a family of seven who had been affected by Aids.

Brighton, a local father of two from the village, joined us every day and taught us the process from mixing the mud to making mud balls to place in a wood structure inside and out of the frame and then another layer of mud before smoothing with a last cover of mud. These homes would last the family 10 years if they took care of them. A simple structure of two rooms providing shelter from the heat in the dry season and from rain in the wet season.

We worked in and with this community each day from 8.00 am, taking a break from 12.00 – 14.00 and then returning once more until 16.00 in the afternoon. The heat was strong and the work was strenuous. Every day children from the neighbouring homes visited and helped us, always smiling, always having fun as we worked together building this home. It was hugely rewarding.

Once more we learned the impact of being in community. Working together fetching water, mixing mud and singing songs so the children could join in and dance! Whilst they did not have electricity and just one water pipe (newly provided), the family worked the land growing vegetables and baking muffins to sell locally.  A simple life for which they were grateful. The children attended the local school in which we taught on our days off from building, also developed and sponsored by Paula from her charity. Providing education enabled the young people to develop their thoughts, ideas and skills preparing them for ongoing education, joining the family business or moving to the city to pursue higher education and entrepreneurship or work with the government.

Beauty, humility and grace
Later in the year, in October, our travels took us to Laos, a country I knew nothing about before we visited.  It is a most beautiful country with people to match. Stunning landscapes, sunrise and sunsets over the Mekong river and the most beautiful temples and places of worship. The Laos people stood out for me as being filled with beauty, humility and grace. A huge part of their land has been decimated by cluster bombs with 30% of them still undetonated dating back to the Vietnam war. With courage and strength they continue to mine the land to make it safe for the locals to farm and begin to make a living for themselves. Many have suffered life changing injuries during this process.

Our experience was to journey through the villages and mountains from the capital Vientiane to Luang Prabang by bicycle. We were a small group of seven including two guides Tom and Mr Put and our driver, Mr Sut. We cycled early in the morning and in the afternoon avoiding the midday sun as the temperatures rose to 32 degrees with high humidity. When the roads were impassable we mounted the bikes on the truck, hopped in the back and Mr Sut navigated us through some tough terrain.  This trip was a personal accomplishment cycling 365 km in 7 days as well as being deeply meaningful.

We visited several different social enterprises along our way. Those involved in providing prosthetic limbs, physical rehabilitation and skills based learning for those injured from the cluster bombs to a conservation establishment rescuing wild animals from captivity From the only buffalo diary providing income and farming skills to local farmers as well as diary products made from the farm to local restaurants to save the bears, a charity rescuing bears from bear bile farms.

Old and new friendships
An opportunity emerged such that we could travel to Nepal and the Philippines in December. Our purpose this time was to connect with old friends and meet new ones.  Ed had taught in a Tibetan refugee high school in Kathmandu 33 years ago and we were keen to revisit from our last trip in 2008. Our experience here was remarkable. We stayed with our dear friend Tsering who has been part of our family since Ed taught him. Tsering arranged for us to meet with the Alumni of the high school which had been set up during the pandemic to support former students in need.  An extraordinary group of individuals coming together to support the school and individuals. We attended the school meeting some of the 300 pupils, several of the teachers and co-headmasters.  The students shared their musical talents with us, their marching band and performed a favourite Tibetan song of Ed’s. They welcomed us with warmth and kindness. Ed shared a message of encouragement with the students and I presented the head teachers with my books and card decks as they were keen to learn more about the impact of listening skills, recognising it was not something they taught specifically and yet were eager to do so.

Our travels concluded with a visit to the Philippines, a first for us both.  This was to meet with a former sailor colleague of Ed’s when he was at sea for a year in the merchant navy with his Dad, the captain.  It was a moving experience. It had been 33 years since they had met and joyous to see the reunion of Ed and Pablo.  We met and were hosted by Pablo’s wonderful family. We discovered the extraordinary beauty of the islands as well as the hospitality of the local people.

Learnings from our travels
From all of our trips we continued to learn about the impact of education, availability and access to resources, being in community and friendship. The strength, resourcefulness and creativity that emerges from being and working together. The kindness, grace and simplicity that emerges from working with what we have, respecting elders and their wisdom and encouraging the young minds with their creativity and desire to learn more about the world.

As I reflect on our experiences and returned to the UK, it seems that we can over complicate our lives. Some of us become paralysed in our decisions because of so much choice, others seek to conform to the many and lose their way of bringing their unique gifts to the world. Some are fraught and exhausted with competition and others narrow their worldview and assume they are right based on a singular perspective.  We have the opportunity to learn and grow from this experience. To focus on what matters most, to simplify where things are over complicated, to reduce where there is excess, to continue developing our perspectives, open mindedness and willingness to adapt in service of others.

We have been fortunate to listen, learn and develop an updated worldview as well as an opportunity to share our skills and experiences with others in service of them. We learned so much from living in local communities, developing new skills, strengthening others, deepening our listening and communication. We deepened our connection with our friends, made new friends who we remain in touch with today as well as being closely connected with the social enterprises we were fortunate to work for and connect with.

It was, an extraordinary year in our ordinary life.

Thank you for listening!

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