First update from South America at the end of a one-month volunteer placement in Santa Elena de Uairén, Venezuela. Written, miraculously, with the shittiest internet connection I’ve had the misfortune of relying on, August 12th, 2013.
“I’m nearing the close of my first month in South America! It’s been nothing short of an incredible experience so far and this email will surely not do it justice.
“In contrast to my experience in Thailand, I came to South America looking to do a bit more traveling initially and potentially jump back into teaching English only after I’d played tourist for awhile and if I stumbled upon a place I liked well enough to live for awhile. I also thought volunteering would be a good way to better get to know a city/culture, so after a bit of research I settled on Venezuela and an organization called Aldeas de Paz as a good jumping-off point for my travels.
“I applied for a volunteer placement with ADP’s Youth Care and Community program and flew to Caracas direct from Miami on July 17th, after a week getting to know Florida a bit with my good friend Jen. As you probably know, Venezuela and Caracas are not entirely politically stable at the moment following the recent death of Hugo Chavez, however ADP is located as far from Caracas as you can probably get in Venezuela in a border town called Santa Elena de Uairén. The region is known to be drastically safer than most other parts of the country and I feel quite comfortable here.
“I did have my concerns when I arrived in Caracas, as this is the first time I’m doing all my traveling entirely solo, so I arranged for a pick-up service from the airport and was taken directly to a hotel on the coast for one night and then to the Caracas bus terminal the next day to wait for my 22-hour bus to Santa Elena. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of most of the Venezuelans I’ve met so far. After about 7 years of latency my Spanish was rusty to say the least, but I managed to make a few friends in my 4-hour wait in the bus station. The older gentleman taking tickets at the gate kindly watched my giant backpack so I didn’t have to struggle into the bathroom with it; a woman working in one of the cafes gave me my food and coffee for free, taught me the difference between an empanada and a pastelito and the proper way to eat them, and offered to put English subtitles on the movie she was playing so I wouldn’t be bored waiting. Another friendly guy chatted me up about anything and everything and even showed me the larger-than-life and surprisingly accurate portrait of Che Guevara tattooed on his back. Not everyone had such positive experiences at this bus station so maybe I was just due for some good luck.
“I arrived in Santa Elena more-or-less on schedule and was received by ADP’s German founder, Manfred and his half-Venezolana daughter, Nilaya. I was given a tour of the foundation grounds and a brief orientation before we all loaded into the car to jump over the Brazilian border to Pacaraima so people could get money out of the ATMs over there. One of the first things I learned here is that there is a huge black market for any foreign currency…the official exchange rate from a Venezuelan bank will give you around 5 or 6 Bolívares Fuertes (BsF) to one USD, but on the street you can get up to 30. The same is true for Brazilian Real, which makes for regular trips across the border. Petrol is also a hot commodity here; it is Venezuela‘s primary export and costs exactly 100x less in Santa Elena than it does just across the border in Brazil, so trying to fill your car up usually involves waiting in line at the gas station for several hours in lines of 30 or more cars.
“The primary beneficiaries of ADP are the children and families of some of Santa Elena’s more impoverished neighborhoods. They are given classes on a variety of topics and extracurricular activities like sports and horseback riding. I arrived just before the start of a 4-week summer term with about 20 children ranging from 5 to 14 years old. I teach 1-2 hours from Monday to Thursday, usually with another volunteer, and help with the other activities as needed. The classes are mostly in Spanish but we teach them English vocabulary where possible. The kids are very high-energy and have been easy to form relationships with, so I’ve been enjoying myself a lot.
“Outside of volunteer hours, everyone has some daily/weekly tasks to complete (cleaning, cooking, etc), meetings most weekday afternoons and Spanish lessons. On the weekends (weather permitting) we explore the areas around Santa Elena and usually find a cool hike or waterfall. Last weekend, a group of volunteers decided to pay a visit to an indigenous village called Chirikayen, which ADP also works with and usually has at least one volunteer living there with a local family. We got to see a really remote part of the country in the middle of Canaima National Park, and hiked to one of Venezuela‘s famous table mountains (Tepui Chirikayen).
“The summer course will finish this Thursday, and Friday the 16th is the official last day of my volunteer placement. Me and a few others will leave Saturday to make the 6-day trek to Venezuela‘s biggest and most famous tepui, Mount Roraima (fun fact: the Disney movie ‘Up’ was based on Roraima and Angel Falls, also in VZ and the world’s tallest waterfall).
“The plan after Venezuela is to spend a month or more in Colombia- I fly into Cartagena on August 27th and am hoping to meet up with a friend from Berkeley there. Looking forward to some quality beach time on the Caribbean coast and would also like to do some diving, maybe get my advanced open water certification.
“Wellll I think that covers it for now! Missing everyone very much, and even though I’m closer to home this time I feel more homesick than I ever did in Thailand, so please write me and let me know how you’re all doing.”
I probably won’t volunteer again in the future. Have you been a volunteer in a developing country? Was your experience good or bad?