The GVI Marine Conservation in Thailand was a great experience that has changed the way I view volunteering abroad. GVI was well-structured and exciting, as there wasn't a 'typical day'.
There were a range of different activities we were involved in, including traveling to the Similan Islands where we got to swim in the clear waters and see turtles, fish, eels and even an octopus in their natural environment.
A great experience - would definitely recommend to anyone who'd looking to volunteer abroad.
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Global Vision International (GVI)
The GVI Marine Conservation in Thailand was a great experience that has changed the way I view volunteering abroad. GVI was well-structured and exciting, as there wasn't a 'typical day'.
Blog of my one month in the Seychelles:
I've wanted to volunteer in Africa since I was 17 so it was nice to fulfill a life long dream but if I had to do it over again I'd spend two or three months instead of just one. The training and slow dive schedule didn't give me much opportunity to contribute; only one short week of actual survey work. That being said however the rest of it was everything I'd hoped for. Anyone who's been to summer camp will immediately recognize the situation, 20+ strangers thrown into dormitories together and given shared duties of cooking and cleaning tends to make people put their best foot forward and like any closed environment you have a ready made circle of friends, kind of like high school. It helps that everyone there is already like-minded, outgoing and has an altruistic streak; in short the people are genuine and were the best part of the experience even for an introvert like me. The living conditions were better than expected and the early bed/early rise schedule actually worked well for me. I always thought I wasn't a morning person, turns out I just don't go to bed early enough. The food was not always inventive but it generally covered the four food groups and the lack of white bread and processed foods made a big difference in my energy level. I lost ten pounds due to healthier food and increased activity and would have easily lost ten more had I stayed another month. Having been home four days now and pigging out on chicken burgers, croissants and sandwiches I already miss the simpler meals of camp.
Now that I'm trained up on fish survey methodologies I'd be interested in doing another four week program somewhere if they would let me challenge the fish identification exams, do a couple fish spot dives for confirmation and then get right into survey work. Either way though I hope I get to visit with the people I met, either abroad on my own travels or if they come to Canada. I've got a couple of guest bedrooms that any of you guys are welcome to!
Traveling halfway across the world to work with elephants is a dream I never had until I became curious about elephants and research about them. I got more out of this experience that I ever could have imagined. Opening your eyes to the world and problems within it can be one of the most painful things you ever do, but it is more than worth it. I witnessed first-hand some of the troubles Asian Elephants face today, and at the same time I witnessed the behavior and bliss of a select few who got their lives back and were reintroduced into their natural forests. I lived in a Koren Hill Tribe village known as Huay Pakoot with a population around 400 people and 60 homes. The villagers came to Thailand to avoid conflict that was abundant in Burma about 512 years ago. Except for very few Christian families everyone in the village is Animist, Buddhist, or Animist Buddhists. The native language is Pakinyaw and elephants play a huge role in their culture. Elephants are passed down within generations of families and only change families in certain circumstances. Each elephant falls under the same protection act as all other livestock. Each elephant also has a Mahout which is a person who works with and tends to their elephant. There are 6 elephants on GVI contract and 3 with the community conservation that are currently in the forest and not in camps. That is 9 out of the 70 elephants in the village. For the Mahouts whose elephants live in the forest, they live in the village and receive income from a GVI contract. The other elephants and their Mahouts are spread all around northern Thailand in elephant camps and some even on the street. The Mahouts with elephants in the camps get paid from the camps for “renting” their elephants out and they do not live in their native village; they live wherever they can get paid with their elephant. But for Mahouts in the village life is a little different.
GVI has a 10 year stay in the village to help the community conservation group stand on their own and be able to support the elephants and themselves. Being with GV,I I was a part of many things which include teaching English in the school which goes up to 6th grade, helping out in nursery, participating in litter pickups all around, bio diversity studies, and perhaps the most exciting work of all was with the elephants. There are three herds of elephants consisting of 9 individuals. There are typically 3-4 hikes a week where the elephants are observed off their chains. Proximity data is collected and recorded every 5 minutes as well as any touch data; and twice a week health checks are done on each elephant. Newest to the data collection is vocalization. The data collection time spans over 2 hours which can vary from the observation time, often after data collection we would opt to stay and continue watching them. Each of the elephants are truly amazing and watching them in the forest where they should be; eating a healthy natural diet, doing as they please, and witnessing the bonds they each have with their Mahout, was all truly amazing. I am lucky to have found this volunteer opportunity.
Upon my arrival I expanded my vocalization project from health checks only to each of the elephant hikes. The data collected is really interesting and does show some behavioral patterns. I hope in the future to be able to take the ecology and mind of the elephants into context to interpret the cause and meaning of each vocalization. (Note that only audible vocalizations were recorded) Because there are three separate herds I personally could never have collected all the data alone. I really learned to work with others and partially rely on them. Thanks to staff members and other volunteers we were able to collect vocalization data for each elephant hike. Analyzing all the data has been really fun as well. I am learning a lot and have been inspired to do so much more, not just in terms of research but in terms of helping around the world.
My homestay family along with the elephants was a huge part of my experience. I stayed with a woman named Areerat and she was genuinely amazing. She had two daughters, one age 12 living and going to school in a neighboring village, and one named Waneeda age 10 living at home. They do not speak English, so it was great when the three of us and sometimes others all sat down and worked on learning each other’s languages. My family taught me so much and through them I developed such respect and appreciation for them and their culture. Every day of the week they were working in the field, even Waneeda would be working in the field on days when there was no class. The homes in the village were really neat and beautiful. The simplicity of life as well as each aspect of their lives is inspiring. There were no chairs anywhere except at the school, if you wanted to sit you sat, even meals were eaten on the ground. Laundry was washed by hand and hung to dry, most all food was grown in the village, and meat was mainly pork, rarely chicken, and never beef or buffalo. Fresh fruit was also very rare.
All of the villagers are nice, and always try to communicate. They all seem to be so happy and there is no doubt that they all work hard. The children of the village are always out and about! They go to school, help their families, pick flowers for Buddha, and are always playing games. One Saturday we arranged a “kids” day and had a variety of games planed. I have never seen kids so joyful and excited. I have not worked with kids at home so this was really new for me and very rewarding. We taught English in the school twice a week to two classes. We also had nursery for the older kids once or twice a week and for those who wanted to come. We would play games and also teach English. They are tested on English on some of their Country testing. One of the best times is when we go to the nursery for the very young children and give their caretakers a break. These kids are so fun and spontaneous, but also can be very shy. Often when roaming the village I would see a small bunch of kids high up in trees getting mangos or just hanging out. The kids were so great!
As far as animals go, I learned that the euthanasia of animals in Thailand is very illegal. There were a few elephants in the country used in illegal logging on the Burma border that stepped on land mines and were hurt extremely bad…some are doing well now and actually have prosthetic limbs; but even when on their death bed no animal can be euthanized. This is because of the Buddhist beliefs of the people. The belief is that if they kill something or someone they will not be able to be reincarnated.
All of this is just a briefing of the things that I learned while volunteering on this conservation project. Everything that I have learned I hope to be able to share, for the elephants’ sake. I did not go into detail about all the issues they face, but I plan to educate people on the issues involving Asian Elephants. I am happy to share my experience but more than anything with my presentations I would like in some way to help the elephants. I believe I can do this because some of the situations they are in are strictly driven by tourists from all around the world. So by being in the States, I plan to be a voice for Asian Elephants, they deserve all the voices they can get.
Thailand, how do even begin to describe this adventure of a lifetime? I can sum up Thailand in 4 words, "the land of smiles". I can safely say i have never felt so welcomed in any country before. It was a very pleasant surprise to see these little kids sitting outside their houses waving and shouting hello to us.
They would do this whilst you walk down the street to the local shops and restaurants. Overall GVI was very well respected within the community which made for me feeling at home faster than i anticipated.
Initially I was worried about making friends but the people at the GVI base introduce themselves, give you tips and they ask you about yourself. Those GVI volunteers and staff become your family away from home and i can safely say i don't know what i would of done without them.
Onto the programme, I was lucky enough to embark on a 6 week Marine Coastal Expedition where we did everything from clean turtles to teach adults English. I had an extremely varied trip and i was even lucky enough to visit the local orphange and take part in the community centre's weekly sports day!
I would trek into the rainforest and see all manner of beauty in the flora and fauna. So many species so be admired and observed, as well as respect. Taking part in the leadership course also meant i had a days experience being a project leader which was an eye opener to say the least.
Overall i had a trip of a lifetime where i experienced homesickness, actual sickness, pure laughter and some brilliant weekends away. I saw the beauty of local villages and the tourist areas like Krabi each with their own distinct feel and impact.
Since the internet is full of (often unsubstantiated) claims, hearsay and rumours on volunteering I would like to add some facts from my eight-weeks experience with Global Vision International (GVI) at Luang Prabang, Laos, from middle of April to middle of June 2014. During that time I taught English at Xayadeth college (http://www.xayadethcollege.com/) for 6 weeks and at Mekong English Center (MEC, http://www.mec-laos.org/) for two weeks, as well as some mathematics to interested Buddhist novices for 3 weeks, organized by GVI during the summer vacation. Just to explain my background: I got retired at age 65 from life as a research physicist in elementary particle physics (you know, protons, neutrons, pions, quarks etc.). After travelling through South America for half a year in 2011/12 I wanted to revisit Asia. So I decided to spend 4 months in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos and in order to make it a bit more meaningful I thought I would do some English teaching. I signed up with GVI at Luang Prabang, Laos for 8 weeks - on recommendation from a friend who had done the same in 2011. Now, research physics is not exactly highschool English teaching but it also get's you into contact with education problems - on a different
level of course. And after retirement I had actually participated in the Swiss highschool system by helping weaker
students in math classes (on a similar level as the math course I did for Buddhist novices at Luang Prabang). So I do have some idea of teaching and of education standards in the 'west'.
Reading the following you should be aware that what I describe are my specific experiences, it is about my interaction with colleagues, students and fellow travellers and as such may not reflect the general picture, but only my personal 'snapshot' of life as a GVI volunteer at Luang Prabang.
Of course the day of a volunteer teacher is mostly governed by teaching/educational issues, even if I only had 4 h per day (2 classes, but the same level) and at most one hour for preparation.
Teaching is really a fascinating and fun experience, once one has accepted the fundamental facts that (a) the level of knowledge is quite low, compared to 'western' schools, that (b) students have not learned how to go about 'learning' and that (c) the quality of the different schools and local teachers ranges from bad to good. Also, the general level of knowledge and education in Lao society as a whole is lower, mostly because there had not been much of an education system before 1975, nor any other substitute institutions. Once you can accommodate with these boundary conditions teaching in Laos will be great fun.
The introduction about teaching that we received from GVI was good, there was sufficient teaching material and always somebody from GVI staff to discuss with. At Xayadeth I was teaching students who were on average about 23 years old, had passed the normal Lao secondary highschool (including several years of English) and were now working at hotels, restaurants, as accountants etc. or studying law or chemistry aside from 'our' two hours of English per day. There was one Buddhist monk among the 25 students. They were in the third and last year of the three-year English course at Xayadeth (9 h weekly), which is a private college and charges them about 200 USD per year - while the two GVI teachers per class work for free. This immediatedly raises the question of where the money goes to, since for all six classes (two classes per year) there were at least 6 volunteers but only two or three Lao teachers (who would earn something like 200 USD a month). Teaching was done by two GVI teachers per class, none of whom spoke any Lao and the GVI teachers change every 4 weeks on average. In my experience this teaching model is very inefficient and produces students who understand the rough meaning of what you say, but not the details and specifics. Obviously, it is easy to convey the general meaning of 'wonderful' - but how to differentiate between all existing synonyms without knowing the exact wording in Lao? Or how to explain the meaning of 'exciting' without reverting to a dictionary? At the end of the third term we volunteers personally devised, conducted and graded the final exam, the level of which was probably corresponding to the level of 15-year highschool students in the west. Even so, the outcome was very disappointing, the results ranging between 10% and 90% of the full score, with an average around 50%. Nevertheless, each and every student received his diploma (to be fair, this is not a specific Xayadeth problem, but happens in many schools in third-world countries, e.g. in South America). Since the latter is well-known, it also explains the lack of motivation and discipline of many students: only about half of all arrive and that normally 15 minutes late, go out for phone calls, there is no homework and everybody is promoted from one class to the next, irrespective of their performance. One of the main problems is that people don't have role models to see what it really means to study a language or math: that it's not enough to get exposed to new English words or quadratic equations, but one has to exercise and practise until you 'know them in your sleep' - which is hard work and needs investing 'sweat and tears'. But there is very few education role models in traditionally 'carefree' Laos. And - like we all recall from our own experience - even if we are highly motivated for learning something, there is always times when we tend to be a bit lazy. This is where some mild disciplinary structure can assist the student: attendance check at the beginning of class, no phones, homework and promotion criteria. Selected promotion into next class is one of the key factors: I had third year students ranging from those who could not compose one longer sentence to those who could actually express themselves rather well - the reason being that the weak students normally are also those who do not attend class. It is all too human that you do not like to work too hard if the diploma at the end is for free. You see, I really got quite intriqued by the general question of how one acquires knowledge and education in general, what are the necessary requirements to do so and I had many interesting discussions on that topic right at Luang Prabang.
You might expect that the director of this college - who lives on the premises - would publicly address his teachers, give you some background information about the school and the whole education system or even express some appreciation for your volunteering. But nothing like that, which I found rather disappointing.
Now, the great news is, that there is other schools - like MEC (a two-year private school with students of about 17 to 18 years of age who attend normal secondary school), which are modelled much closer to western examples: attendance checks at the beginning of class, no phones, homework and periodic assessments, which are used as the base for granting scholarships and for being promoted to next class. The results are very encouraging and teaching is definitely more fun and gratifying for you as a teacher. And I did it after six weeks at Xayadeth college and the frustrating experience of the exam! Also, the MEC teaching model is much more efficient: there is a 'normal' Lao English teacher who ensures the continuity over the whole year and volunteers who assist and support the Lao teacher. MEC have produced their own course-book (which uses Lao examples and not American or English), which is even computerized and actually used with a projector in every classroom. Fees are about the same as at Xayadeth college (one has to realize that nothing, not even primary school in Laos is free). There were about 5 girls and 5 Buddhist novices in the class of 20 students.
Students - at any school - are lovely, friendly and good fun (once you understand the above) and we were invited to their football matches and petanque drinking bouts. Same with the GVI colleagues with whom I had an excellent time.
My financial input to GVI amounted to 40 USD per day - if you stay less than 8 weeks it's even more. Out of this 10 USD are used for accomodation, 6 USD you get handed out as a 'food allowance' to buy your own food (which is definitely quite below subsistence level since the cheapest meal in a cheap restaurant is 1.9 USD, a beer 1.2 USD and a fruit shake 1 USD), about 10 USD go into scholarships, local charity contributions, contributions to transport costs for students etc. and the rest of about 14 USD never arrives in Laos. Accomodation was at 'Coldriver' guesthouse for all GVI volunteers in single rooms with attached bathroom and fan. It should be stated, that you could get a room with aircon and free coffee/tea/bananas for the same money somewhere else in Luang Prabang.
Is high on the GVI priority list and taken very serious, probably for a good reason, since the majority of volunteers is around 20 years old. There is no swimming in rivers, no motorbiking and no fraternizing with Lao citizens.
And Luang Prabang is a wonderful place to spend 8 weeks, where you meet all kinds of people - I would not like to miss that time. And wherever you explore in town, in the monasteries, in the public library, in coffee shops or in 'Big brother mouse' you will often be addressed by young people, mostly Buddhist novices eager to learn English. English teaching really is in high demand and appreciation, you just have to find/choose your way of doing it. There is quite a lot of volunteer organisations, on the web and outside and it pays off to look around before you get hooked by some exciting-looking poster advertising teaching for Buddhist monks and novices.
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