Sweet Sunsets, Sensual Sega & Some Spicy Stuff

Hi there! Time for a new update! A few days of interesting Ethnography classes have passed by, but the needed leisure time has also been pretty amazing as well. No surprise right, I’m in Mauritius so…. Let’s inform you about some sweet sunsets, sensual sega and some spicy stuff!

Monday evening was my second evening, and I couldn’t wait to watch the sunset at the beach. And so I went home with my roommates after classes to take out ook little host family sister and walked down the road from the town to the beach. As soon as we sat down there and saw the golden rays of the sun falling down at the ocean, I realized: there is absolutely no other place in the world where I could possibly be feeling more blessed than I am feeling here right now. ❤

The glitter, the sky so bright and just a fluffy cloud, while the night fell slowly on the deserted seashore where we sat down. As I walked down over the rocks, a gentle breeze brushed paste me, while I inhaled and exhaled. No better meditation could help, and this fresh pollution-free air was the best! And then when the sun finally disappeared on the horizon, the moon and her stars appeared. Wouldn’t it be beautiful to live a little bit closer to nature, or appreciate it more than we are currently? I guess Mother Nature showed her power once again, and sunkissed me with her blessings…

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Anyway, we had planned to go for dinner at a Chinese restaurant, but as soon as we arrived home our grandmother seemed to have cooked us dinner. There are really some cultural differences and language barriers which are causing communicational misunderstandings at certain times, but changing plans from one moment to the other, and easily accepting that, helps a lot to overcome these annoyances quite fast. And so we ate at home, saved some money, and enjoyed one of the most terrible dinners so far with leafs from the garden and rice. LOL.

And now that I started to complain: the food is vegetarian (as I mentioned before in the blog), but so it does not really have many proteins in it, and actually more carbs than anything else, so all the rice is not really filling. And so we went to have a cocktail in the bar outside in the evening. Just to fill our stomachs some more and do something nice after dark. It is actually interesting as well to see how life ends here at 6PM when the sun sets. Of course it might be also because it is a little bit dangerous to go out after dark, but in general people wake up here at 6AM and go to bed around 8 or 9 PM, which is absolutely not an option for a night owl night me! 😉

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Barking dogs on the road to Home…

Tuesday it was time for our first ‘real’ class given by Dimitris Xygalatas, our professor. As this course is an introduction in Ethnographic Fieldwork, the session was about “What is ethnography?”. So maybe it’s interesting for you as a reader as well to summarize what is actually is, so you might be able to understand what I am studying here as well.

Ethnography is derived from the Greek words ‘ethnos’ (folk, people, nation) and ‘grapho’ (I write) and it means the study of people and cultures. An ethnographer researches cultural phenomena from an ’emic’ perspective, which is the point of view of the subject of your study. It means that you represent the culture of a group by writing about it, so an ethnographer basically wants to reflect the knowledge and the system of meanings in the lives of his subjects. Ethnography is, in that way, a branch of anthropology and its fieldwork.

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Malinowski was the first and one of the most important 20th century ethnographers. 

During the lunch break I had to go to another village, Triolet, which is the closest village nearby if you need an ATM or supermarkets for example. In my case, I needed to buy a local SIM-card, which I managed to get there. I now also have 3G on my iPhone so I am actually going online all the time, even in my house I can use the internet so I am very happy!!! I also got a very inexpensive package with unlimited Facebook on it so I am even more happy about that! Apparently this social network is extremely popular amongst Mauritians, and I have noticed that because many of them started to add me as a “friend”, even though I have just met them once and I cannot always remember their names…. Anyway, I also managed to go to a supermarket where I got to buy some fruits, and locally produced granola, so my stomach is finally happy as well and this shows off results in my visits at the toilet (you get what I mean, right!?). Rice and bananas haven’t been really succesful the last few days!

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And of course I was late for the afternoon class, because I had to take the bus home and put my stuff in the fridge and walk back to the temple where we have classes and so on… So I guess I am really “going native” when it comes to time management. 😉

The afternoon session was about “Diversity in Mauritius”, with guest lectures by Mauritians. As you might not know, Mauritius has a very diverse population, with religions ranging from Christians to Buddhists to Muslims to Hinduists, so basically a little bit (or actually very much) of everything. It is extremely extraordinary how peaceful cultures and religions live together here on the island. In the street you can see a moslim girl with a scarve on her head, a hindu man with a turban, and at the same time Western girls going to the discotheque, without any problem (and that last one would be us of course).

Only one thing is a real taboo, and that is talking about religion itself at home. You should not discuss religion, and maybe that is exactly the key to this peacefulness? Whether it is all this easy as it seems and is represented, is a question that I ask myself a lot, because what if a Hindu wants to marry a Muslim, or a Christian wants to marry a Buddhist? Would it then all still be easy and OK? These were one of the points discussed in our session.

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A muslim girl talking about religious diversity in Mauritius

After this guest lecture me and some other students felt like hanging around a little bit at the beach, but the weather wasn’t really that great so we decided to go shell collecting, which is a very rewarding activity on the beach here, with many many many beautiful shells and coral stuff to be found.

But you are probably wondering like, what?! Not such a great weather…?? Well, it is “winter” here now, with temperatures around 25°C and sometimes it gets cloudy and sometimes it rains a bit. But it does feel a little bit cold for a tropical island, so believe it or not! Winter exists in paradise as well…

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Anyhow, another proof of the hard life and much work that an anthropologist has to do, I guess. Now you will definetely not believe me anymore! But I did actually talk to some locals that night to discuss my research project, and see how I can get it started, but again… Not for too long, because we were all expected at the Lagoustine Restuarant in the village to have dinner and a Sega Night, a ‘special dance session’ organised by our professor to show us the traditional dance and music of Mauritius.

‘The Sega’ is a typical dance which originated from Madagascar and the mainland of Africa. It is characterized by the ritual music, the sensual dance and the colorful clothing. It is pretty much the musical expression of the Mauritian Way of Life: happiness, smiles, joy and liveliness!

Sega could also be seen as the dance of the poor, because it was originally sung by men and danced by women who had been slaves. They creates this as a form of expression and protest to remain their soul and sensivity to music. Nowadays you can hear many Sega influences in the local pop and reggea music, and Sega itself has become not only a dance which is performed in many hotels, but also a folksong which has integrated itself within the broader framework of Mauritian folklore.

It was a very nice experience, and for me personally a bit comparable to the Garifuna dancing in Central America and the Caribbean where you also have Créoles performing the same kind of cultural dance and music. We continued until the late hours, playing music on the beach and drinking wines and wines and more wines…. 😉

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Créole Mauritians performing Sega Music & Dance

After a short night of sleep it was time for class again. With a cold shower, it was actually not that big problem to wake up so ready was I again for a new class. It was Wednesday when Peter, one of the instructors gave us a session about Ethnographic Research Methods, and participant observation in particularly. I will not go into detail about this, because unless you are an ethnographer/anthropologist this will probably don’t ring a bell at all!

My research topic is starting to get a shape, and my idea was received with much enthousiasm by the professor so I am very motivated to start doing some research and fieldwork. The only big matter will be the lack of time and access to do it all this fast (I am here only for 3 weeks).

After having lunch at the street tent where we are regular customers by now, we also brought our daily visit to the local beach during lunch break, and be back ready for classes at two o’clock. Did I mention already that we have our classes at a local Hindu Temple?! It is a very different and interesting location to have your classes I guess, and it is very hospitable of the villagers to put the temple available for our use, I think. The only compromise we have to make in return, is behave according to the Hindu rules: so no food and drinks in the temple, and always cover your body enough, so no short shorts and short tops… Guess I did pack my suitcase a little bit inappropriate for this trip, but anyway! 😛

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A capture of daily life and Ethnography classes at the temple

In the afternoon a Professor named Satyendra Peerthum of the University of Port Louis (the capital of Mauritius) came to speak to us about slavery and Mauritian history. Or in his own – read: more complicated words – : “Slavery, Maroonage, Indenture and Vagrancy in Colonial Mauritius”. I guess this title explains at once what it was all about, so I don’t have to explain it to you anymore. No, seriously, this was just a few hours about Mauritian history, which is basically the colonization of the Dutch, the French and the British, and some slavery in between. Very interesting, though but if you are interested in the details, read another blog! 😉

After class I went again to the beach – yep, can’t get enough! – but it started to rain quite heavily so we were forced to shelter in the nearby located hotel (Le Récif), so we were like… Okay then, let’s have a drink here and watch sunset while it rains. The prices where eventually not too expensive, just the same as we would pay for a drink in Europe, so it was a nice experience. And the rain was fast forgotten!

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Having an After-Class drink while wathcing the sunset in a fancy hotel

Me, Emily and Francesca (my American roommates) walked back home for dinner at our host family as it was becoming late. When we arrived, our grand mother wanted to teach us how to cook Créole / Hindu food, and so we did! We made something that I would refer to as Indian ‘Naan’-bread for those who know that, but here they call it ‘Faratha’. This is similar to Indian paratha – a flat bread eaten with curry. It has a buttery, doughy but delicious structure. You can find them a lot here at the street stalls as well, but you should not eat them as a Mexican tortilla as I did in the beginning! 😛

“Grandma” (yepp, that’s how we still call her) also prepared some spicy stuff so we could enjoy eating with our hands again, and I must say: her food is getting better everyday. I actually start to like and appreciate her cooking skills very much! Or maybe I am just getting very hungry?!

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Grandma teaching me how to prepare a typical Mauritian dish

But hey, haven’t you noticed something?! I mean… If you take a look at this picture at the bar, and this picture at home. Don’t you think it is EXTREMELY different, with different being an underestimated word to define it. I personally think that Mauritius is one of the few countries that I have seen so far where the diversity between ‘the poor’ and ‘the rich’, ‘the tourist’ and ‘the local’ is so big. You can have the most upscale tourist resort located at just two minutes walking from a ‘normal Mauritian house’, such as the one where my family lives. And nobody seems to be minding a lot about it.

I do actually feel a little bit weird about it, questioning myself whether the locals don’t feel bad because they cannot afford these things, and whether the tourists might be feeling too superior to come out of their hotels, because many of them don’t seem to leave the beach to discover the ‘real’ Mauritius. But then at the same time I guess the locals have a certain spiritual wisdom which is again transcending this ‘culture of materialism’ which is obviously not (the only) key to happiness and success (for them). So again and again: who is most happy? One who paid a lot for a week in paradise but has a ‘poor’ spiritual life, or one who is financially poor but has a big smile on his face everyday and real friends who do not care about him wearing expensive clothes, driving a certain brand of car, and going to a certain destination to spend his holiday.

Maybe for them – our Others – every day is a holiday, as in a Holy Day. And again that teaches me a lesson in life by reflecting it upon myself: MONEY DOES NOT BUY HAPPINESS, LOVE, PEACE NOR SUCCESS. Or something like… If you do what you like, you’ll never work a day in your life. Guess I am heading in the right direction!

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Nanny’s Naan Bread with Spicy Stuff!

And by the way: the result of our cooking night! Don’t you think this 10 rupee dish looks just as amazing as a 500 rupee dish at the hotel, especially overthinking all this? I feel so blessed being here, eating this, being able to smell and taste and experience Mauritius in a way that is not just about having a different experience than tourists most likely have, but in a way that I am out of my comfortzone, feeling confronted with myself by having others as a mirror and being able to wonder about the wonder of my existance, and to philosophize every day again about my personal way of life.

Or as my host family would say:

… Namasté …

x Julie x

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Settling into Mauri…What?!

Waww, I have only been here for a few days and so much has happened already! I feel like a cameleon, adapting smoothly to my environment. So: where to start?!

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It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives.

It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin

Sunday I arrived and I got to know my host mother a bit. She speaks some French but mostly Créole and it is obviously not always obvious what she is trying to say. She is very nice and kind, but also a little bit possessive in her own unique hospitable way, as she is cooking dinner and makes me eat whatever she likes. She made me eat the weirdest things, fortunately she is Hindu so I am not supposed to eat meat (lucky vegetarian I am!).

I was very happy to meet my fellow roommates after a few hours of being drawned into a little culture shock, having no internet, no phone, no toilet, no shower and so on. Emily is an American student who is staying at “grandma’s place” (as she calls it) as well, and Francesca is also an American student who is staying in the house next door, where I go to shower and use the internet. The house next door belongs to the children of ‘Grandma’.

Where I stay there is no bathroom at all, unless you consider the open air sink as a bathroom. So I have to walk through a garden and knock at the other houses door, which is not really a problem actually. But not really a luxury either! :p In the shower I got company of Mom and Daughter Cockroach, so yes… I have already made some friends here, and built up a reputation as murderer!

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Going out to get some streetfood with my roommates

But enough about the house and the weirdest food being served there, I am here for Ethnographic Fieldwork, not for wishing I was at the beach all day! And dear friends, I hope you don’t keep thinking that that is (the only thing) what I am doing here. Anthropologists do have a hard life! 😉

Because as fast as I arrived in the house, so fast was I gone again. After a terrible too sweet and pink drink that I was offered to drink as a way of welcoming me into the family, I was invited at a Knife-Walking ritual in the village of Pointe-aux-Piments. So I did not even have time to put my luggage down and check my room, as my host father and I were already gone again.

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Colorful Hindus in Pointe-aux-Piments

The ritual was exactly what it sounded like: people were literally walking over knifes, while playing music, burning essence sticks, while suffering and so on. I had never seen a ritual like this before – and I am not expecting to see many of these again in my life – and I was also not really understanding much about it either. The only thing that is for sure that is they sacrifice theirselves for their religion (Hinduism). I was told that before the ceremony those people were praying and fasting for several days, and during the ceremony partcipents would then envoken their godess whilst making a sacrifice. Walking over the swords appears to be a very meaningful and extreme ritual for hindus, in which they are seeking to prove their piety by withstanding their pain.

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Walking over Knifes… A quite unsual religious practice in Mauritius!

Monday it was time to go to school at 9AM… Dimitris Xygalatas, the Summer School professor, an anthropologist who is very experienced in doing research on extreme rituals in Mauritius, opened the course by overviewing all practical concerns and reviewing the syllabus. I got to meet all the other students. We are with 18 students, coming from different countries such as Denmark, United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Finland, Peru, Servia and Belgium (which is represented by myself). After introducing ourselves, our field of study (we come from different degrees in social sciences, varying from Bachelors to Masters levels), the instructors also presented themselves. Apart from Dimitris, there are a few other instructors as well, who are basically research assistants or connections of Dimitris who are also researching within Mauritius. So we are a group of +/- 25 persons.

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Having classes at the beach. This is The Life!

So what is this “Ethnographic Field School” all about?

Well, the course will “provide empirical training in ethnographic fieldwork through immersion into the field and engaging in qualitative as well as quantitative field studies involving a variety of methods such as participant-observation, interviews, surveys, and behavioral and biometric measures. The course also examines key methodological, epistemological, and ethical issues pertaining to the study of culture and working with human subjects. Furthermore, it involves a series of field trips and lectures on Mauritius, its diverse culture, and its fascinating history”, as it is mentioned in the syllabus.

So: again, we did not come here for 3 weeks of paradise and sunbathing, but we came to experience “the real Mauritius” (even though you can start questioning that, if you think about being a large group of Western students living closely to each other for the next few weeks).
After that first general session in the morning, we had our first lunch break and everyone was excited to get to know each other better, to overcome to culture shock and make some new friends. We decided to explore the coastal area of Pointe-aux-Piments (the village were we stay), and so we discovered our first beach at only 5 minutes walking from the classroom, which is actually located nearby a fancy hotel: Récif Attitude Hotel*** (about €90 per night for a standard room, which is kind of affordable for a paradise island!)

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Getting to know each other at the beach of Pointe-aux-Piments

Well, I have to admit… It is kind of paradise here, right? And I guess not many of you reading this have lunch breaks as I am having here. So God bless the life I lead, and thank God for this amazing opportunity! But to all good things come to an end, quite fast, because lunch break was “only 2 hours” and then it was time again to return to the afternoon class. The only thing that I could think of, was that this might become an extreme ritual that people must start to practice every day and everywhere, lol.

This session an introduction about Mauritius and its culture was on the schedule, but as smart as Dimitris is (yes, we can actually call our professor here by his first name!), he started with a little quiz to test our knowledge about Mauritius, or in other words: did we read enough, and prepare ourselves well for this course? I spare you the answer to be honest… Woops! 😉

Funny facts you might like to know about Mauritius:

  • Did you know that Mauritius is about the size of Luxemburg?
  • Did you know that Mauritius has no official language? (But English and French are taught at school)
  • Did you know that the tallest mountain on the island is about 800 meters high?
  • Did you know that Charles Darwin has written not only about the Galapagos Islands (which I visited last year), but also about the flora and fauna of Mauritius?
  • Did you know that there is actually a town called Pamplemousses (grapefruit) in Mauritius?

But… maybe most important, do you actually know where in the world Mauritius is located? I bet most of you readers don’t, which is actually not really a problem (because I also did not know it very well before I heard about this course and looked it up). The most important is that you know that it is NOT “one of those French islands in the Caribbean”, but that is actually “one of those islands in the Indian Ocean, near Madagascar and La Réunion”. Or to be more specific… here’s a map:

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Enough educational stuff for today! Unless you really want to know more interesting facts about this island, then you should look at this nicely written article! Tomorrow I’ll write about more interesting facts, but more important: my interesting life and experiences here, a Sega dance night and much more fun!

A big kiss for all of those who are so great to keep following me!

You’re the best! Thank you for all the support!

x x With Love x x

Julie

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Welcome to Mauritius!

Here I am. After all I got what I wanted. I have travelled again to a place far far away, both geographically and psychologically. I might say that I do not need therapy but travel to feed my huger for soul food. And soul food can be understood in much variations.

Let me begin with the beginning. In March 2015 I applied for an etnographic field school. I was not counting on a big chance to be one of the lucky few. But I made it and a few months later I am in Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, known as a honeymoon destination in Belgium, but so much different than perceived, that is obvious after a first few hours here.
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I have been travelling from Antwerp to Brussels, to Paris to Mahé (Seychelles) to Mauritius. The journey took me 27 hours in total, and therefore you can imagine it was itself quite an experience. However, what touches me most is not the distance, but the people. What speaks more for a country to a heart than people? Maybe a landscape, but still… I have had an amazing flight, meeting a French guy who was going to visit his family in Madagascar. Unfortunately in this life our roads have split fast, him flying further to Antanarivo and me going to Port Louis, but time went to fast that I did not even suffer from these long flights! I just remember I could not stand almost crying when the plane left the Seychelles, because I was so touched, and it really looked like a paradise: I cannot describe it!
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View over many amazing islands near Mahé, Seychelles
Arriving in Mauritius was different. It was a bigger island, less paradise and more organised at the airport. The road to Pointe aux Piments was modern, but the infrastructure was mixed: both modern buildings, luxury hotels and poorer houses where observable on the road. After a field of sugarcanes, the road split: left to the Oberoi hotel, and right to the village. And no, this was not the Mauritius from the postcards or from the pictures on Google, this was an untouristic place, untouched by globalisation, so it seemed…
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Entering my Homestay House
My heart beated faster and faster, as I was arriving more closely to my homestay “house” and having to force myself to give up all hope for “destination paradise”. I was not staying at The Oberoi, obviously! My new house was a concrete building in a street without name, barking dogs, no hot water, no internet, no toilet paper and so on… Nothing to fancy for at all! But I surrendered immediately: from the one second to the other… Acceptance is sometimes in life the best way to make things “flow”… And after all, didn’t I just say that it are the people who touch us most, and not the infrastructure or the distance?
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Life With Family “Bissessur”
Some very friendly local people warmly welcomed me into their “house”, and made me (almost) forget the cold of concrete third world buildings and poorness. Isn’t the one who has the biggest smile and the most open heart the richest and most beautiful person on earth? Yes, I have to learn my lessons in life over and over again… And if I long for development, the comfortzone is the first one to leave. Because through development is not in comfortable housing, but in personal development and widening your horizons.
So, yet here I am… Or to end where I started off with: After all I got what I wanted: a new adventure, starting from today in Mauritius, and you will read more about it soon!

The Morning After Cambodia

What happens the morning after? Will we get closer? Or will I just feel like I just made a big mistake? The “morning after” usually refers to what happens after two people have sex. And it usually depends on what happens the night before. In my case, the morning after refers to Cambodia, and to what happened a few months ago. I do not mean that I had sex with the country (of course not), but I do refer to the manner in which I was emotionally overwhelmed, because it was at least as ‘deep’. 😉

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In love with Cambodia @ Koh Rong Samloem

I mean, if you are in love with a country and you have thought about the decision to volunteer, your entire experience can be something turning out dramatically different than your initial expectations if the country – or other (f)actors – do not seem to be on the same line as you are. Volunteering won’t automatically bring you closer, you might probably feel better by doing it initially but if you and the country do not seem to find a solution for the projects you’re working on, you might be asking yourself questions:

  • Why do I (still) want to volunteer?
  • What does voluntourism mean to me?
  • Does voluntourism fit with my values?
  • Is this a short-term thing or do I see this having a long-term benefit?
  • And if we have a relationship, what does connect us?

I never expected myself to raise these questions in my mind, but after working in the volunteer industry in Cambodia, I did ask myself many deep questions about volunteering and tourism (so called ‘voluntourism’).

  • What kinds of projects work?
  • Who will benefit from our projects: the locals, the industry or the volunteer?
  • What will we do if it fails?

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What if voluntourism was like a fake ‘snake’ / sneaky friend?

“Don’t fear the enemy that attacks you but the fake friend that hugs you.”

When I was working in Cambodia this summer, the first weeks I was doing my job great and I traveled around with the volunteers. Only by the time we were finishing our volunteer projects, I started to raise these questions. Some things just weren’t right. Maybe that’s the reason why I stopped blogging? Because I was confused?

I mean… If you are building toilets without offering maintenance or technical support, what does the family then do when the toilet is broken?

I mean… If you are building water pumping wells and you don’t supply the water filters, how can those people then give water to their children?

I mean… If you are teaching English to a class of children, but you only stay for two weeks, how can you get to teach them something worthy?

I mean… If you are going to play with orphans in a so-called orphanage, does it really make these children better if you leave again after two weeks? 

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Volunteering in Sihanoukville (Cambodia), Summer 2014

These are only a couple of questions that raised in my mind, after working as a volunteer group leader in Cambodia… And of course, I have seen many beautiful things too and the volunteering did contribute to many factors too. I am only disappointed that I feel like voluntourism does seem to have more positive impacts on the personal development of the lives of my volunteers, than it does on the country. That is why I talk about a “morning after” effect.

In the mean time, months have passed by that I am back from Cambodia, but I can’t get this questions out of my mind. And as I started my Masters in Anthropology in September, I found that this issue is the appropriate topic for me to write my thesis about. Therefor, I am now researching a lot about Voluntourism and its impacts. And I have found surprisingly much information and articles about it. So much that I am even stuck in finding my own research question to solve in my thesis. 🙂 So if you can help me, comment bellow and help me finding my thesis topic!

No, the real reason why I want to share my feelings about voluntourism in this blogpost, is not about willing to stop the explosion of voluntourism. I still do have a lot of respect for all the volunteers in the world that want to spend time hoping to help a country and its people forward. I believe that they all have the right intentions, but that the problem of voluntourism is somewhere in a layer underneath: somewhere between the intermediaries and the local businesses… And I am afraid I am not powerful (and even not brave) enough to fix that fundamental issue.

to hell with good intentions

What I do hope to send out as a message via this blog post is to be aware that you might be going to hell with good intentions. One of the problems is that “There has always been a nagging inadequacy around the assertion that one cannot sell poverty, but one can sell paradise. Today the tourism industry does sell poverty.” (quote from my Professor Noel Salazar from Tourist Behaviour: A Psychological Perspective)

I am afraid that I cannot give you that much answers yet, but what I can advise you is to be careful when you decide to go abroad volunteering. You can find tips and tricks on http://learningservice.info/ , created by the ‘rethinkers of volunteer travel’. Because I am convinced that we all want to make the most out of volunteering and travels, but we have to do it the right way. And if we – volunteers – are aware of the critical issues in voluntourism, we are one step closer to rethinking and re-creating what used to be a noble random act of kindness.

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And don’t worry, I don’t have the intentions to stop volunteering. I won’t stop before I have the feeling that something has changed, partially through my efforts. Because you have never really lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you. ❤ Share the message if you agree that volunteer travel needs to change. Awareness is the greatest agent for change! ❤

Lots of love

x Julie x

Livin’ the GOOD Life in Cambodia

I’m writing this post during a rainy Saturday evening in Siem Reap. Although it is rainy season, it has only rained for a few hours a day, mostly in the afternoons or evenings. And while I’m sitting here cosy in my bed with the laptop on my lap, I have time to daydream about the past month here in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Actually, it is not a dream – it is real – but the time has gone so fast ever since I arrived here, that I realize I’m already half way through and there are still so many things I would like to do. I guess “time flies when you’re having fun” and you can definetely only regret chances that you didn’t take in life. But before I get too deep in my musing, let me briefly tell you what I experienced the last 4 weeks here…

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Life feels good when you are doing something good… ❤

When I came back from my short field trip to Sihanoukville on a night bus, I was sick. That bus was one of the most horrible experiences in my entire travel life. I had to sleep in a cabin which looked like it was for one person, but I had to share it with two. The journey took also more then 14 hours (19.00-09.00) with no space to stretch your legs/arms and hardly any toilet stop. I had to go home from the office later after that day, and I slept the clock round, taking paracetamols struggling to get my sudden high fever down. I was scared to have catched a tropical disease and was worried about being so sick as the group arrived next day. But surprisingly, I felt a lot better already the next day and God-bless-my-strong-body-and-mind, because ever since the group arrived the 2nd of July, I have been busy for more than 15 hours a day, each day!

Siem Reap Volunteer House

The Volunteer House in Siem Reap

After picking up the group at the airport, I showed them the volunteer house in Siem Reap where they would be staying for 4 weeks, and I took them for a strawl around town. Later at night, we had the welcome dinner and the next morning we did the orientation session about their volunteer projects here. The afternoon was spent getting to know eachother during a visit to the local handicrafts market and the best icecream bar in town (The Blue Pumpkin).

 Siem Reap first drink

First drink with the Leapers in Siem Reap

The day after that, we started our first day on the project sites, which consisted mainly out of introducing them to the work and dividing them in smaller groups. The afternoon teaching project did not seem to be able to offer us the desired work, which caused a lot of extra work for me and the project leading team to find another school. Stressy days!

Siem Reap Projects Self Help

Self Help Community Centre

Then at night, we started of the weekend and I decided to go out for a drink with the girls to socialize and get closer to them. We headed to the famous Pub Street, which is the most famous street in Cambodia, with endless dining, drinking and party options… As pretty much everyone got way too drunk way too fast, I headed back home at a descent hour, sober.

first night out in Siem Reap

First night out in Siem Reap with the volunteers

The next day, Saturday, we planned a full day visit to Angkor Wat, the biggest religious monument in the world, a temple complex for which you need at least two days to visit the main sights only. Spectacular!

Siem Reap & Angkor Wat

Monks around the Temples of Angkor Wat

We also used our free Sunday to visit some more of the temples and I felt a 100% blessed to be able to work in Cambodia for the summer and seeing al these beautiful and unexpected things in the world.

Siem Reap Angkor Wat

+/- 3 million of tourists visit Angkor Wat each year…

After an impressive first weekend, I started a new work week with loads of positive energy. We started to build a water pumping well in a local community in the Puok District, and we were able to find a great little school for the afternoon teaching sessions, with many children in need to learn English. The first teaching experiences were hard as it was difficult to tell their level of English, but the great thing is that while the volunteers are teaching, they learn as least as much theirselves too from the experience itself. It was definetely a great opportunity to do this for a few weeks, and the children obviously loved our presence at the school. They are adorable!

Siem Reap Water pumping well project

Our water pumping well, nearly finished…

By Wednesday we already finished our 2 water pumping wells (each group one) and we moved on to the next water project: building a toilet. We could see that the locals benefit a lot from our help and so our time is very well spent. We are doing such a great job here, which gives a huge feeling of appreciation! However, I had some difficult days on a personal level, maybe because I was tired and adapting to a new life style and a new group in a new country again, but it could not stop me from feeling proud of myself for what I was doing here! And the more the days passed, the more I started to enjoy Cambodia and the group. (of course I would!)

I was enjoying Cambodia and The Leap program more and moer everyday. The work was enjoyable as we moved from the one community to another and it did not feel as tough as the program in Ecuador. It was a luxury to come back every time to the hotel room, having nice food and a shower every day. But I also feel like I’m rather gaining weight than lossing it… So I decided to start a 5 minute workout program daily: 61 sit-ups (the number of days I stay in Cambodia) and 10 squad excercises (with a Youtube clip). The price you pay for having all this luxury and food around you… 😛

dinner night out siem reap

One of the many nice dinners out in Siem Reap

Anyway, after finishing the water pumping well, we started to build 2 toilets for 2 incredibly friendly but poor families in another community. Initially, the project was planned for only 3 days but we ended up staying there 6 days. One of the families had 4 children and they had to walk down the whole street to use a neighbour’s toilet or go in the wilderness. Our toilet was more then welcome so! Their oldest daughter was 17 years old and the only one in the family who could speak some English. In the afternoon she went to school and in the morning she helped her mother with the household. She LOVED having us there and I had many beautiful conversations with her, that in the mean time broke my heart… For example, she asked me about my favourite food, so I said curry and rice (because I thought that might be something she knew) but she didn’t. They only eat rice, leafs, coconuts and other vegetables or fruits they can cultivate there. She never ate a pizza in her life and she did not even know what it looked like.  I took some pictures of her and her mother because they did not have any mirror either to see theirselves, and of course no family pictures either.

Toilet Project Siem Reap

Me with the daughter of 17 years old, she could be my little sister

The family also had a baby pig, which they were growing up to sell later on to get money from. One of their only sources of income… But the pig was the cutest pig ever and became my friend more and more every day. It loved being petted and I took it for a walk a few times because it was too sad seeing it in its small cage. My “Babe” behaved like a dog, was obviously having the best days of its life running down the street, playing in the mud and eating grass in the ricefield. On our last day, I asked the family not to sell the pig for slaughter, but they said they needed the money. So they asked me to help them buying a male pig (this one was a female) so they could make babies and sell those, and have more income. With the money they explained they would build a new house, because the one they had was too old and too small. I realised that indeed one pig extra could change the financial situation of the family drastically. I was convinced and we promised to come back one day with a male pig (costs about $50).

Siem Reap Volunteer piglet

The cutest Piglet I’ve ever seen in my entire life! ❤

I have such a great memories of our time there with these people and piggie! In the afternoons, we went to ELMA School, where my volunteers were teaching better and better every day. The atmosphere there was great and we had also fun with the kids, playing games after the classes. The last day we were thanked with a traditional dance show and an English song, and the volunteers got their certificates of teaching English. Another mission accomplished! 🙂

Elma school

ELMA School : ‘Education – Love – Motivation – Action’

Now we are spending our mornings in Samrong Village near Angkor Wat, where we already made insence sticks (which looks easier then it is), and we plan to do basket weaving for next week.

Insence Sticks

Making Insence Sticks

In the afternoons, we are now going to CDO (Cambodian Development Organisation), where the volunteers spend 2 hours teaching English and Computer classes to orphans and 1 hour of constructing a new orphenage for them each day from Monday to Friday.

There is only one week left at those projects in Siem Reap, so the time definetely goes fast. This weekend we went to the Floating Village and we did a boat trip on Tonle Sap Lake, which used to be the biggest sweet water lake in South East Asia.

Tonle Sap lake floating village

The floating village at Tonle Sap lake

Usually, the girls go out on Friday evenings so they can be hangover on Saturdays, enjoy a brunch in town, have a pedicure/manicure/massage and do some shopping. Then Sundays are reserved for an excursion. The first weekend we went to Angkor Wat (temples), the second weekend we went to Phnom Kulen (waterfall) and this weekend we visited Tonle Sap (Floating Village and Lake). Phnom Kulen was a National Park with some buddhist statues in it and other religious places, but most famous for its giant waterfall. It was nice to cool off and swim there, feeling like Tarzans in the jungle, enjoying a picknick and tanning a bit.

Phnom Kulen waterfall

The waterfall at Phnom Kulen N.P.

During the week everyone goes to bed surprisingly early and the spare time is filled with shopping at the market, going for Indian/Mexican/International food and watching shows like the traditional Apsara dance show. We also got slightly addicted to the fruit shakes that they sell everywhere for only $1: they are frozen and contain fresh fruit! Jummie! 😛

apsara

Apsara traditional dance show at Temple Club, Siem Reap

I think the girls are having the time of their lives and even though I have busy days being with them most of the time AND training my fellow local colleagues in group leading AND writing reports for The Leap AND preparing various documents for the program, I am feeling better and better here because the days go fast and the program is going so well and nice! I’m starting to fall in love with Cambodia’s charming landscapes, laid back way of life and beautiful children. Only one month left to go and I’m back home! Half way through now!

x x x Love x x x

Julie

From Ecuador to Cambodia .with Love.

Quite a lot of things have changed since my last update from Ecuador. I am currently 18.500 km further, literally on the other side of the world, and a lot has happened in the last few weeks and days, wherefore I didn’t manage to structure some nice blog posts. So for all of the ones who cannot follow (I can’t follow myself sometimes anymore), here’s a short update of a long journey to a new life in Cambodia.

I returned from Quito (Ecuador) to Brussels (Belgium) the 20th of June, had a only a full 3 days there to meet up with my family and friends, and left again the 24th of June towards Bangkok (Thailand), from where I would take a long distance bus crossing the border to Siem Reap (Cambodia), my new hometown for the next two months. Taking The Leap again for the Summer Program was the most crazy and impulsive decision I’ve probably made in my entire life, as it meant I would be tour leading again for two months… I was also absolutely NOT prepared for this one (as it would be my first time in Asia!), but I switched OFF the ‘think’-button and ON the ‘do’-button. Trust was the new keyword in my life, after many crazy experiences, and I was sure this would be another great time abroad.

job

I decided to do this job for many reasons: first of all because it was LIVING THE DREAM, an amazing chance I had to take, and travelling for a long time abroad had done something with the person I was and the life I lived… I was questioning all aspects in life: my studies, my job, my home, my boyfriend, my friends, my lifestyle, … In Ecuador I had learned that gap years are all about finding yourself, but when you find yourself, the reality just does not make sense anymore. And I felt like I could use the time to overthink life some more and have a better perspective on things when I would return the end of August.

Every end is a new beginning, and all great changes are proceeded by chaos… With these new quotes I left for a 9 hours flight to Mumbai (India) where I had a stopover for my flight to Bangkok (Thailand). During that time in the airport and on the flight, I got to taste a little of the Indian culture and I can ensure you: this country is on my wishlist even more now: lovely people, a special culture and delicious food! Then I flew another 4 hours further, arriving in Bangkok (Thailand) where I would spend 1 night before crossing the border to Cambodia.

bangkok

Me hanging around the Buddhist temples of Bangkok

It was my first time in Asia, and I expected to have a serious culture shock again, but I guess I was getting used to travelling and getting lost in a new city. I was simply amazed by all the cultural differences: how a city can be so busy and chaotic from the ‘outside’, but as soon as you enter a temple (the ‘inside), you feel Buddha’s everlasting peacefulness… I also loved the fact that they all walked barefoot in temples 😛 Add up the amazing Thai food to that, and you’ll understand why I enjoyed Bangkok so much. Love at first sight, and definetely ready to return in August for another overnight stop before flying back to Belgium!

A few tuk tuk and Sky train rides, and 500 questions about finding my way later, I was on my way to Cambodia. The border crossing experience was “something else” (as Kevin Hart would say it), with the usual chaos and visa procedures, but I kept calm and arrived safe but sweaty in Siem Reap, a 9 hour bus route from Bangkok.

The first thing I noticed was the amazing hospitality of the Cambodian people, who seem to live to serve others. An amazing feeling that sometimes overwhelmes me too much, coming from a rough and tough culture in South America where hospitality is not even mentioned in the Spanish dictionnary… I also felt safe, very very safe, even in all this tuk tuk and motorcycle chaos.

I got a room in ‘Angkor Boutique Villa’, where I met my new boss upon arrival. He was the owner of the hotel and he told me I would stay in this place during my whole time with The Leap in Siem Reap. That ment: airconditioning, a mini-fridge, a hot shower and room cleaning service all the time. This was such a blessing!

Angkor Boutique Hotel

A room at Angkor Boutique Villa, this is HOME.

http://www.angkorboutiquevilla.com/

We also had a 4-course dinner with the group leading team. I felt like I was the only one talking on the table, which made me feel quite stupid. But I immediately realised: these people are just so ZEN and stress is a word that they didn’t seem to know. So frustrating, haha! Who am I going to share my dramaqueen-moments with now?? 😉 No, seriously, the people are shy, open to listen but they obviously think twice before they speak. They are so well mannered that sometimes it feels artificial and as if they studied what they supposed to say. I definetely have culture shock with that part, and have to get used to dealing with the locals in a proper way…

Also, the weather is hot and humid, more than anywhere in Ecuador and I had no idea how I would ever be able to work here. God bless the A/C in my room! The food is nice, less spicy than in Thailand and of course every day twice rice, but they use curries, basil and lemongrass a lot. Hmm, I love Khmer cuisine!

Khmer Amok

Khmer Amok – A typical curry dish

Friday was my first day of work, again it surprised me how relaxed everyone was working (barefoot) in the office. I felt welcomed and they already asked me to stay working after one day for a longer period. Guess they liked me!

I felt quite privileged having my boss, a busy man running 2 travel agencies and 1 hotel, all for myself on a few private tours, introducing me to the volunteer projects around Siem Reap. Honestly, it was all way too overwhelming and too much information to absorb in only two days, but I just went along with it and let it all happen to me. Trying not to stress out was definetely easier with calm people around me. God, I need to learn how to meditate…

It were also very emotional days, going directly to the poorest areas where hundreds of poor kids lived in bad conditions, and on the other hand realizing I really did it. I left Belgium again for 2 months and I started to realize it for real now! But luckily, there was not much time to think…

Siem Reap Projects Volunteer

Mother and child in a local community, Siem Reap (Cambodia)

Saturday evening I had a business dinner with the company I worked for (Indochina Adventures, the local agent for The Leap in Cambodia). I didn’t understand much of the Khmer conversations they were having (and it’s hopeless to start studying this difficult language). Also, I wasn’t prepared with my adventurous backpack clothes to participate in this ‘beau monde’ life. And I had difficulties being served with another 4-course dinner while the same day children on the street were begging me for money and food a few blocks away from that same restaurant. What a shocking contrast!

Siem Reap was one big tourist resort, in my eyes, where one can find every Western product wished for. Made in China, low prices and happy hours everywhere… I could see a Leap group having the time of their lives here soon… Whether I honestly liked it, is something else, because I lacked authenticity and I wasn’t used to having such a big offer in comfort food and products anymore, after living in Ecuador anymore. I missed my ‘back to basics’ life!!!

Early in the morning on Sunday, I left Siem Reap to Pnomh Penh and Sihanouk Ville to visit the volunteer projects there. They bought me first class VIP bus tickets and my gave me $100 cash to pay my hotel and eat 2 days. I felt treathed like a princess, being picked up at the hotel entrance and given a packed breakfast box for on the way. This was too much!! Such a big contrast from where I came from and I wondered why I was being treathed so well here. But I could find a reasonable answer and decided to believe I deserved all of this after 4 months in Ecuador and I would give the best of myself of work, that was the only thing I could do in return and a good motivation to start of with!

Sihanouk Ville

Sunset in Sihanouk Ville

It were 7,5 hours to Pnomh Penh (the capital city of Cambodia) and another 6 hours to Sihanouk Ville (beach alarm!), so it was too much time to think for me on the bus, and arriving in another tourism paradise like this on my own was hard and confrontating. I felt lonely and lost in this paradise, had too much time for myself – being here to work and “change the world” – not to enjoy really, but I kept strong thinking about the great times that would come once the group arrived and then I didn’t have to be lonely anymore, being able to start doing what I loved to do: group leading, volunteer coordinating, working hard on the projects and party even harder. (HELLO GOD? IS THERE A WAY TO SIGN A CONTRACT FOR LIFE TO DO THIS DREAM JOB?)

I just hated this random days before / between a new phase in life, when you don’t know what to do with yourself. You’re preparing and preparing, but in the same time you know you’ll never feel prepared enough, so sometimes in life (no, most of the times in life) you just have to stop thinking and start doing! And that’s exactly what I did when I decided to go from Ecuador to Cambodia, and the reason why good things happen!

Take The Leap, Take The Risk. Take The Chance.

It might be worth it! ❤

Julie

risk care dream expect

 

Ruta del Sol & a YOLO mistake

The last week of the 10 week program with The Leap was pretty intense. Not only did we do the Ruta del Sol (Itinerary of the Sun) – Guayaquil, Montañita, Puerto Lopez – and party hard every night of the week, we also came to the final moment in which we had to say goodbye to each other. Many tears flooded and emotions were strong. We’ve had a great team and nobody wanted this journey ever to end, I guess. Last but not least, I will reveal some YOLO story in this post… So keep reading and find it out!

montanita

The Ruta del Sol could better have been called Ruta del Alcohol, because to be honest we’ve seen more alcohol than sun that week. I do not really have much more to tell in this blog post then that we ate, slept, drank and partied. We started our itinerary in Quito, after returning from Mindo, and woke up at 3AM to catch a bus early in the morning towards Guayaquil.

With almost 4 million people, Guayaquil is the largest and most populous city in Ecuador. Located on the coast, it is as well the nation’s main port. The Malécon 2000 is the symbolic center of the city, with much green and many shops in the area. We only had a few looks from out of the bus, driving along the city to the bus terminal. So we did not spend much time there, just a quick hop to catch the next bus to Montañita, and had lunch in Mc Donalds!!! What a fancy bus terminal they had there!

guayaquil

Malecon 2000, Guayaquil (Ecuador)

We arrived around dinner time in Montañita and enjoyed our first night out partying as it should. Montañita is a small coastal town in the south coast of Ecuador. It is translated as ‘little hill’ because it became famous so slowly. It is a place for surfing and used to be a rustic fishermen town. In 1960, some hippies settled in Montañita and now it is a popular destination for surfers from around the world. Moreover, it is considered one of the best beaches in Ecuador, and it has a great nightlife! We enjoyed the sunset and left for our first party night out!

montanita sunset

Sunset in Montañita

Montañita is one of the few beaches in Ecuador where (European) women frequently go topless, according to Wikipedia. However, I am European but I did not do it… 😉 There was one night in which I wanted to go “skinny-dipping”, but eventually that did not happen. Guess we were not drunk enough… 😛

Another Wikipedia fact is that Montañita is the only place in Ecuador where marijuana is smoked freely. Marijuana is illegal in Ecuador, but you can smell and see it in the Streets every single day.

montanita party night 1

Montañita – Party Night N°1

It is very common to hear reggea and reggeaton music on street corners, to see banners of peace symbols and hippies who hang around. Gay travellers should also very comfortable here, as walking holding hands is freely accepted.

The Streets of Montañita are filled with international bars, restaurants and cafés. Our favourite street was ‘Cocktail Alley’ where cocktails were freshly blended for $4,00 a cup. A cheap and eficient way to get our nights started!

montanita party night 2

Montañita – Party Night N°2

The second day the other Leap group that was travelling through Ecuador in a different sequence, also arrived in this party town and joined our group for the daily celebrations. We had the whole hostel for ourselves, as we were 25 persons in total. The atmosphere was insane! ❤

montanita party night

Montañita – Party Night N°3

I was happy to have the other (Dutch) group leader around for the next days, as most of the group members spent the daytime sleeping… We usually went out with them to party, but came back at a more descent time (as we were still on duty here!! Remember… Group leading IS an actual JOB). So during daylight we enjoyed food, drinks and terraces (paid by the company) and wandered around town… And at night we joined the groups for dinner and pre-drinking games.

montanita last dinner

Montañita – Party Night N°4

The last night we planned a dinner with both groups together in the same restaurant and we bought some huge beertaps for all. Food and drinks were great, as usually here in Montañita, and we went out for a last – and of course even more crazy – night out. I think what happened in Montañita should definetely stay in Montañita, and that Montañita was a YOLO town more then any other place in Ecuador. We all had great fun, crazy memories and an incredible experience!

However, it was pretty hard to wake up all 23 group members to leave to the next ‘Ruta del Sol’ destination the day after. With some pretty sweet hangovers and a big lack of descent sleep, we left by public bus to Puerto Lopez. This is a a small fishing village set in an arched bay on the Pacific coast in the Ecuadorian Manabí Province.

On the streets near the beach you can find restaurants and beach bars with hammocks, while the other streets have some travel agencies where you can book a tour for whalewatching or fishing. Amberjack, dolphins, wahoos, marlins and tunas are many of the different species that you can see just off the coast. Of course, we only did the laid back activities and didn’t go whalewatching due to our time limit.

Puerto Lopez

Puerto Lopez – City views

After a night bus back to Quito, our final day had come. I held a global evaluation session with the group and they filled in a survey. It was an emotional moment, and the results of the questionnaire were amazing. I got to read amazing comments and Yanapuma was very happy with this final results. They gave me 94% for my internship! Some examples of comments:

“Julie was like a friend but also led us really well, always making me feel safe. Did not distance herself from us but joined in with everything we did while still being responsible”

“Julie was brilliant throughout, very laid back but was strict and purposeful in the situations where it was needed. Even though she was our leader, it still felt like she was one of us in the group and that´s definitely a good thing”

“Julie has been an excellent leader. I have absolutely no complaints. She was extremely approachable, and dealt brilliantly when she had to take people to the hospital, for example. Being so close to us in age was imperative”

julie group leader

Survey Result – Thank you, Leapers!!! 

After a very last goodbye dinner, goodbye speech and goodbye breakfast, it was time to say GOODBYE – which was really hard. Of course there were many tears, more then I expected, but after all… It were tears of gratitude. This had been one of the most life changing experiences for each and everyone of us. For me, this had been the biggest carreer jump so far, and even though I had not find myself yet in this whole wide world, I came so much closer to myself, to what I feel as where I am born for. I felt truly blessed for this opportunity, for having such a great group and seeing such a beautiful country. There were no words to describe the feeling!

despedida yanapuma the leap april ecuador

“La despedida” – Goodbye Picture Leap Group B

The YOLO Mistake….

I kept it a secret for quite a long time, but now it’s time to tell it…. Where do I start…

I ended up buying a T-shirt saying “YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, Montañita – Ecuador”. The whole group laughed at my for that, but that was not the YOLO mistake I was planning to reveal. YOLO, in our case was You Only Leap Once. But that’s a mistake: I’m going to Leap twice!!! Yep, you hear it well, I am off this summer to be a Group Leader again. The Leap offered me a job in Cambodia, a country of which I did not even know the capital city before now. But I looked at the program, saw it was great, booked my tickets and gone am I again the end of June. I am super excited for this new experience and I feel this is a perfect kind of synchronity in my life, as I was feeling my life needed a change. Thanks for the opportunities to The Leap, one of the greatest companies I know, just because they believe in young people who are motivated to gain experience and discover new horizons in life! #feelingblessed!

yolo

Hello Cambodia July 2014 ‘Summer Program’