Thursday, December 10, 2009


Francesco, our International Volunteer Programme Co-ordinator, reports on the Post Season Event held from 23rd – Sunday 25th October 2009 in Brighton at the Whitehawk Youth Centre.

Every year it is great to meet up with many Concordia volunteers during the annual Post Season Event: the atmosphere is always extremely friendly and I do enjoy meeting new friends and catching up with old ones. This year there were 20 of us, 3 Concordia staff members and 17 volunteers, and we spent the weekend between volunteering in the local area, games, drinks and cultural activities.

On Friday evening, we had an abundant and delicious meal prepared by Fiona with the help of the volunteers and, following the consolidated tradition of all Concordia’s events, we played a few silly games and then had a few drinks and time to chat.

On Saturday, we woke up to a grey and rainy day…not the best thing to have when you are supposed to do some outdoor volunteering. However, our group wasn’t discouraged at all and managed to work hard and cheerfully for the Moulsecoomb Forest Garden and Wildlife Project. This project is a collection of allotments which was converted in 1994 into an environmental project for the benefit of the local community. The work consisted of building a path and at the end of the day we were very pleased to see the big difference our efforts made.

(In the picture: working at the Moulsecoombe Forest Garden)

(In the picture: our brand new path!!)

We headed back to the accommodation in the late afternoon, had a warm shower, a hot meal and then ready to go out into town to enjoy the Brighton White Night, with lots of music events and clubs open until late at night. A large part of the group ended up in an 80’s and 90’s revival disco, which had everybody dancing until 3 am.

On Sunday we had the great opportunity to meet a group of 11 volunteers from the UK and Barhain in the Middle East who are currently participating in an exchange programme through VSO called GLOBAL EXCHANGE and whom we invited to spend a morning with us. It was great to hear about their experience and Concordia volunteers offered in exchange a drama performance of the highest quality which had as the theme “Volunteering with Concordia!”. It was absolutely great and hilarious! I don’t remember laughing that much in ages… :)

(In the picture above : group from Barhain giving a presentation)

(in the of our great performances!)

So, 3 days went really fast and we had fantastic time together. I would like to thank all the volunteers and staff who attended and helped with the running of the event, with a special thanks to Helen B and Helen P for arranging the volunteer work and the driving.

(Francesco Bonini, International Volunteer Programme Co-ordinator)

Read more about Moulsecoomb Forest Garden and Wildlife Project >>

Read more about Barhain >>

Read more about VSO Global Exchange >>

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Moscow Backwoods – Bitsevsky Park -2009

(In the picture: the volunteers at work!)

Moscow Backwoods is a two-week, environmental project based in Bitsevsky Forest, a Natural Historical park located at the South-western edge of Moscow. This once in a lifetime experience provided an opportunity to better understand conservation and Russian culture. The ability to live with and be shown around Moscow by Muscovites helped the group to gain an insight that we would not have gained had we visited as tourists. Despite it only being a short-term project, I believe that Moscow Backwoods was an excellent life experience.

I have to admit to having some apprehensions before going to Moscow, which were primarily caused by what I had seen on television. So after arriving at the Park, late Thursday evening, after having got lost on the Metro during rush hour (thankfully a female attendant acted out where I should go in front of a crowd of people) I was starting to wonder what I had gotten myself into. However, all my worries disappeared after the warm welcome I received from the people of the Park and by the rest of the group.

During the project we stayed in the gym of a local school that was one stop by metro away from the park. The accommodation was more than adequate as we slept on gym mats and had the use of a shower and warm running water. The volunteers of the camp prepared the food with two people taking it in turn each day as part of the cooking team. This was a great idea as it gave us the chance to experience the national dishes of each other’s countries.

We arrived at the park at 9 a.m. each day to start our conservation work. On the first day we played various games to help get to each other better. The work took place at various locations around the 18 square kilometres of territory that the forest covers. Our main task was to deal with clearing the forest of both litter and areas that had been damaged by fires which are prohibited within the park. Other work was centred around the main administration buildings of the park. This included maintenance on a special nature trail for blind people and helping to design and decorate an open-air classroom. My personal favourite was helping in the planning and execution of the Bicycle rate that is organised every year in the forest for members of the local community. During the two weeks we also had the opportunity to work in another park within Moscow and to visit many others. This gave us all a great overview of the different environmental work that is being carried out in Moscow in order to preserve the city’s natural habitats.

One of the best parts of the project was the large number of excursions that had been organised. There was very little that was not covered, with many tours of the city and visits including the ballet, Moscow Zoo and a local monastery. This was fantastic as it allowed us to see the different elements of Moscow life and experience a bit of what the city has to offer.

(In the picture: Graham with the rest of the group during a night out in Moscow)

When I decided to go to Moscow, probably the last thing that I expected to be doing was to be giving a television interview to Channel 1 Russia, but it happened. The previous day we had been told that a camera crew from a local channel would be waking us up the following morning, as they wanted to film the project and the daily life of us volunteers. This was a big surprise and a very weird experience trying to act normally and not look at the cameras. A few days later we had to do the same thing all over again as the main television channel in Russia came to film us for the day. This trend continued over the two weeks and three television and two newspaper interviews later, I can safely say that we became well accustomed to life in the media.

Despite visiting some of the best sites in Moscow and being on national television, it was often the smaller activities and the free time spent at the school or the park that provided the highlights of the camp. One such highlight was ‘Moscow Families’, where the group split up to spend the evening with a family from Moscow. This was great as it allowed us to meet other people from the Moscow area and get a taste of home life in the Russian capital.

(In the picture: Graham and the group of volunteers)

What truly made the time special was the effort that the Russian host volunteers and theemployees of the park put into welcoming the foreign volunteers. I believe that this was the key factor to the success of the camp as it allowed the group to become great friends in such a short period of time. Their enthusiasm for the project and their willingness to help out with translation and problems faced by the foreigners of the group was incredible. This invaluable contribution to the experience of the international volunteers cannot be overstated.

The project was a very rewarding and authentic experience that went way beyond the work at the park. It allowed the group to make a difference and help the local community. I would recommend the project to anyone.

Graham Haselgrove

Read here more information about Russia >>
See all the pictures from our volunteers in Russia >>

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Joe's arrival to EVS in Austria - 2009

"Doing an EVS really makes you feel part of an international community, and already I feel like I'm making some great friendships through it."

Hello all, my name's Joe and I'm currently doing my EVS project in the town of Klagenfurt, Austria, where I'm working for 12 months in the office of the Landesjugendreferat Kärnten - the youth department of the regional government. I got here at the beginning of September, and was welcomed by Heidi, my boss and mentor, who picked me up from the airport and showed me to my accommodation before taking me out to try some of the local cuisine (which is amazing, I hasten to add!). I'm living in a student hall attached to the university in the town, and my room is basically a small studio flat - bedroom, bathroom and a little cooking area are all included.

At the project so far I'm mainly helping out in and around the office, doing odd admin tasks related to the office's work as the EVS sending organisation for this part of Austria. I'm in the fortunate position of having studied German before, so the language isn't posing too many difficulties - although I am having a bit of trouble getting the hang of the local dialect, which is idiosyncratic to say the least. I've also had the opportunity to take a 3 week language course at the university, which was really useful and has also helped me make friends among the Erasmus students studying here. The hall where I live is very international, full of students from across the world, and it's been really interesting to get to know them all. I've also been attending far too many dodgy student parties, but that's neither here nor there...

I've also managed to do a bit of travelling, with visits to Graz, Salzburg and most recently Vienna for my on-arrival training. The latter especially was really rewarding, as I got to meet volunteers from all over Europe working across Austria. Doing an EVS really makes you feel part of an international community, and already I feel like I'm making some great friendships through it.

Click here for more pictures of projects in Austria

Click here for a country profile of Austria

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The First Three Days in Morocco- Summer 2001

I was about to leave for a year in Russia. I’d been there before, and had memories of endless blocks of concrete boxes, gruff people and knotted bureaucracy at every step. I wanted some sun before I left. I wanted mountains and blue skies, a complete change of scenery and culture, something exciting before the slog! In fact, I got far more than I’d bargained for.

I picked a workcamp in Morocco. It wasn’t my first choice, which was in an isolated village in the Atlas Mountains, but in Chefchaouen, a touristy town in the “Spanish” north where we would be renovating the Casbah. I got hold of guidebooks – and panicked!! The Rough Guide leads the way in painting a terrifying picture of Moroccans and their country. I was expecting constant hassle from taxi drivers, gangs of street-children, shop keepers, men, pick pockets – everybody, in fact! I dug out old baggy clothes that covered me from the neck down, and scarves for my hair just in case. It’s impossible to buy Moroccan dirhams outside the country, and the guidebooks assured me that airport currency exchanges were bound to be shut. My flight would arrive early evening, and I had visions of finding myself in Tangiers (according to the guidebook, the worst introduction to the country), penniless and with nowhere to sleep.

My heart sank as the flight was delayed – we were now due to arrive at midnight. The heat was still radiating from the runaway as we walked to visa control. The queues stretched out of the building, and, sitting on my rucksack during the hour-long wait, I started talking to a young couple who were also heading for Chefchaouen. The boy had been once before, but the town is famous for its hash, and he wanted to show his girlfirend. We got a taxi (later I realised what a luxury it was, only 3 people in one taxi!) and, at 4 o’clock in the morning stopped to ask some men smoking by a fountain for a hotel. Half asleep we followed one of them into the maze of streets of the Medina, or old town, and found ourselves a space on the roof of a tiny hotel. It wasn’t long before I was woken by the call to prayer, and soon the sun was too hot to sleep any longer.

My first glimpse of Morocco was staggering. Somehow, during the night I had been transported from a Gatwick departure lounge to this rooftop-terrace. The town was white – chalky white-washed walls against the folds of stony white hills. The sky was the bright summer blue that we so rarely get in Britain, and the walls were painted to waist-height in the same colour. Looking down I could only see one narrow path – the houses were so close together as to obscure all the rest. There was a sense of calm, and peace and the sounds of a market in the distance. Two women came by, in colourful skirts and red and white head-scarves. It all looked so beautiful that I couldn’t believe this was the same country that the guidebooks were so scathing about!

I wandered down tiny cobbled lanes in the shade of the blue and white houses. They all led down to a wide, open square, with the Casbah on one side, and a row of cafes on the other. In the corner was a mosque, and a woman was white-washing the walls with a brush tied onto a long stick. The couple and I ordered glasses of tea, which came in tall glasses encrusted with sugar and crammed with a handful of mint. I left to explore the market, a bustling crush of people inspecting mounds of vegetables, chickens squawking in coops, baskets piled with spices, pots, clothes and things I could only guess the use of. Every-one was far too busy to pay the slightest attention to me, and I soon completely forgot the warnings of the guidebooks.

The camp wasn’t due to start until the next day, but I decided to go and see if anyone had already arrived at the Casbah. I found an old man poking at rows of beautiful flowerbeds with a hoe. He led me up the sandy steps to the director’s office, where I explained that I was looking for a group of volunteers who would be working with him. He listened politely, and told me it would be very kind of me to come and work. In fact, it would be a very good idea to organise the sort of thing I was talking about, but he would have to speak to his boss to see if it was possible. He had obviously heard nothing at all about the project so, somewhat confused but not unduly worried, I set off to the school where we would be staying.

The school was locked for the summer. The old women sitting in the playground looked at me suspiciously, and definitely hadn’t seen anything resembling a workcamp. I set off to call the emergency number. It was an answer-phone. Still, I wasn’t too worried, as I had all the following day to find the camp. I didn’t find it. The answer-phone was still on. After having searched all the schools I could find, traipsed to the bus station and the taxi halt, and still no hint of a workcamp I decided that, if I couldn’t find it tomorrow, I would ignore the guidebook’s warnings and leave Chefchaouen to explore the rest of the country. If it was anything like this town, it would be a fantastic journey.

The third day. I decided to go to the town hall – somebody must know about this workcamp! An usher in polished uniform led me past queues of men in their long djellabas and yellow pointed-toed babouches. I sat on an ancient carved bench in an upstairs balcony, watching the men milling around the tiled courtyard below. The mayor called me in to his office, - a beautiful, stately traditional room filled with more men in djellabas. They looked at me curiously as I again explained what I was looking for – and suddenly some-one knew where it was! At last – the workcamp was found!

The usher hand-delivered me to a school – 32 people rushing about preparing dinner and playing cards and banging derbouka drums and talking and lying in the sun – this was definitely a workcamp! I leant my rucksack up against the wall, added my shoes to the pile at the edge of the carpet and went to say hello to the nearest person.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but the very first person I met at that camp, I would meet at a camp the following year, and the year after that – and now, I see him every day. We were married in Morocco last October, so it was a good thing I put all that effort into finding the camp!

Click here for a country profile of Morocco

From Russia, With Love - Summer 2001

When I applied last summer for a placement in Russia, the advice given was to be flexible and be prepared for basic living conditions. This was to be my fifth visit to Russia, and my fourth volunteer project, so even before I was on the train to Heathrow in mid-July I knew this to be good advice. After a short stopover in Moscow, I soon found myself with a Dutch and a Swiss volunteer on an overnight train to Ioshkar-Ola, capital of the remote Republic of Marii El, about halfway between Moscow and the Urals. On arrival we met up with our Russian counterparts and together boarded a bus bound for Elektron, a camp hosting up to around 200 children aged 8 to 15. There was no forgetting its past as a Soviet pioneer camp: the children were grouped into detachments and bedtime was known as 'retreat'. Each detachment consisted of up to forty children and was supervised by several counsellors, of which I was one. The 'pioneers' were lined up and almost marched from activity to activity, while those who lagged behind were reprimanded.

For a Western European volunteer, such discipline took some getting used to. Brought up to believe it to be polite to take time over meals, I now found myself in a country where the opposite seemed to be the case, at least as far as camp life was concerned. I had to explain to my Russian friends that in this situation, as in many others, children in our two countries were brought up in different ways. What was acceptable in one country was often unacceptable in the other. I always found it paid off to take the time to explain these differences. Nobody I met at Elektron had ever been to the West, many had never spoken to a foreigner before, so my friends realised that a British perspective would often be very different from a Russian one!

Given the poverty of the region - Marii El is one of Russia's poorest - I never ceased to admire the way in which, with so few resources, children in Elektron were looked after, entertained, and kept busy from morning to night. There were games, sports, competitions, music, drama, stage productions and, for the first week or so, swimming in the beautiful neighbouring Tair Lake. Then of course there was the weekly banya - a kind of glorified sauna - which more than made up for the lack of showers and became one of the many highlights of my stay. Two misfortunes interrupted the swimming. The first was the end of the sweltering temperatures towards the end of July. The second was the outbreak of a dysentery epidemic, caused by polluted lake water. Over several days, convoys of ambulances and medical staff arrived and took around a third of the camp's children to hospital. There was even talk of Elektron being closed, but fortunately outside polluters, not the camp, were proved to be at fault, and those of us still in good health were able to stay. Despite all that had happened, the surprises were not over yet. Within days of the dysentery outbreak, one afternoon a hurricane struck. It may only have lasted about half an hour, but it brought with it hailstones the size of golf balls, and its force tore down power cables and trees. For several hours the camp was plunged into darkness, but when power supplies were finally restored we were just relieved that no-one was hurt. By the end of that season (project), I was the only foreigner left, and was excited at the prospect of staying for the final season which, by comparison, was uneventful!

My first three weeks at Elektron had not exactly gone smoothly, but I was fascinated and full of admiration at how my Russian friends had coped with the adversity. I was convinced that if the same had happened in many other countries, there would have been a knee-jerk response and the camp would have been forced to close. This being Russia, however, only when the causes of the epidemic were fully known was a decision taken on whether the final season should go ahead. What struck me most was the maturity of the children throughout the crisis. They did not understand any more than we did what had caused their friends to be taken to hospital, but knew that life went on and kept themselves busy by playing cards, reading and often talking to me about life in the West.

My first season also included an English summer school, so many of our discussions took place in informal English lessons, where the children also played games and were shown postcards and photographs from my native United Kingdom. Many Russian children do not distinguish between different Western countries, and when occasionally I was introduced as an American, I would point out that Marii El was far closer geographically than the United States to the UK and that these Russians were no less European than I. Their culture is rich, their hospitality unrivalled by any other nationality I have encountered, and their humour and endurance in the face of discomfort and hardship humbling to the outside world. With state salaries and pensions at such a low level, those many Russians who survive only by growing fruit and vegetables in their back gardens would put many Westerners to shame.

I for one would have no hesitation in applying to a Russian volunteer project again. A sense of adventure, a fascination and tolerance of other cultures, and a knowledge of the language are all you need. If that sounds like you, then go for it. Barney Smith, Û

Click here for photos of projects in Russia

Click here for a country profile of Russia

Partying in Denmark! - Summer 2001

I chose to do a workcamp in Denmark last summer as the year before I had worked in Finland and I instantly fell in love with Scandinavia! However, working in Copenhagen was slightly different to living the rural, permanently daylight experience in most northern Lapland.

The workcamp in Denmark was organised by MS, a Danish organisation for international co-operation, and we were to take part in the “Solidarity 2000” week of lectures, seminars, conferences and, of course, parties. We stayed in a converted church in central Copen-hagen, five minute’s walk from the train station, shops, and plenty of pubs and cafes. After the Solidarity 2000 week, we had to prepare for the MS tent at the Roskilde festival. At the festival, we were allocated shifts which comprised giving out flyers and promoting MS, and putting on activities in the tent, but most of the time we were free to go and see the bands.

The whole three weeks were extraordinary. I met some of the best people I have ever met and the memories will stay with me forever. Although it was perhaps untypical in the way that there really wasn’t much work to do (and we spent most of the time partying), the learning experience for me was living and spending time with so many international people, along with all of the Danes involved with Solidarity 2000.

A complete diary of the time we had on the workcamp, written by all of the volunteers (and pictures too!) can be found at:


Click here for a country profile of Denmark

A bit of Information about Slovakia - Summer 2002

My name is Petya and I'm from Bulgaria. I came to the UK to work at Concordia as a medium term volunteer for six months. I also participated in one of the UK projects in Seaford as a co-ordinator and I will participate in one more, which is in Brighton. I've had a great time here in the UK and for me this kind of work is very interesting and gives you opportunities to learn more about different cultures, to travel, to know how to deal with different situations and people.

In my country we also organise a lot of interesting projects, so if you want to have an exciting holiday and in the same time to do something useful you should think about Bulgaria. It is a very beautiful country with a lot of mountains, which offer excellent skiing terrain, and a big part of the Black Sea coasts if you like hot weather and lovely golden sands.

The geographical situation is very interesting; the country is like a crossroad for the Balkan Peninsula. Serbia lies to the West and Macedonia to the Southwest. Greece and Turkey share the southern border, Black Sea is at the East and river Danube is the natural border with Romania on the North.

The country has a Mediterranean climate and the weather is warm for most of the year, but it also can be very cold in the winter especially in the mountains.

Bulgaria has a very old history; it is more of an ancient Slavic nation than Russia. The country was something like a cradle of civilisation and it is national pride that the Cyrillic alphabet which Bulgarian people use has its origins in Bulgaria and should have been exported to Russia and Ukraine.

Bulgarian people are famous with their incredible sense of humour and hospitality. Even in tourist areas curiosity about foreigners is considerable.

Bulgaria has many different and very interesting folk music and customs. In the Rodopi Mountains you can see people playing on pipe as they do it in Scotland and it is very typical for this region. In the middle part of the country, where Sredna Gora is situated there is very interesting custom to dance over embers. It is very beautiful and picturesque to see.

In March there is one special tradition in Bulgaria – all over the country people make a kind of ornaments from white and red strings - a man figure (in white) and woman figure (in red). They are called Pijo and Penda and the whole ornament is called 'martenitca', which comes from Mart - the Bulgarian word for March. It brings health and happiness and people give them to their friends and family.

Curious to know is that Bulgarian people has opposite way for head movements for yes and no, they move their heads from side to side to signify ‘yes’ and up and down for ‘no’.

Bulgaria is moving fast from the previous communist politic situation to a new democratic future. Soon the country will be a member of The European Community and will continue developing easier and faster.

Viktor, a volunteer from INEX Slovakia, who has also co-ordinated our Peak National Park project this year, explains why Slovakia is an appealing destination for all bear - or maybe beer(!) - lovers

First of all, please, forget Yugoslavia!!! Although Slovenia sounds similar, it’s not what I am writing about. Slovakia (or Slovak Republic) is a former sister country of the Czech Republic and those two countries are still very close to each other: common history, similar languages (in Slovakia you might get by with your Czech...) and the love for the beer (where else can you buy a pint for 20 p???)

Slovakia is very favourable for hikers and “nature-lovers" as there are all kinds of landscape ranging from green plains near the river Danube to the exposed peaks of 2500 metres high Tatra mountains. INEX Slovakia is running more than 20 workcamps all around the country, so everybody can find a niche for him/herself. If you do like wine, there is a workcamp in a small village in the middle of the vineyards near the Hungarian boarders, but in case you prefer more action, you might come across a bear (and plenty of beer too....) in the surroundings of the Lom/ Cierny Balog workcamp campsite in mountainous Central Slovakia. Last year I was co-ordinating the latter project and it was a really extraordinary event for everybody. Imagine being daily driven to the worksite by a small forest railway, taking a bath in a fresh stream or cooking in an old military field kitchen....just amazing.

If you feel more like being “urban-type“ you should definitely come and see Bratislava , the capital, where the INEX ‘s office is based ( sorry , but no workcamps run here....). Visiting its two castles, historic centre and experiencing the pedestrian zone atmosphere with plenty of cafes and beer cellars is what you shouldn’ t miss. Besides calling in our office, of course....

Click here for a country profile on Slovakia

Changing Rooms - Summer 2002

This was the first time I had ever really travelled anywhere new on my own and I was so nervous. Emma from the same camp was travelling on the second leg of my flight with me so we were able to meet up for a while. We had to meet in the train station the next day and with both of us staying in different places we split up and met the next morning. The station was like a cattle market with people heading off all over the country on different camps. We were herded into the main square where we met our group leader Povilas and the rest of the people on the camp. I remember realising just how far people had come from to be there, I was one of the closest! Ulrich, from Germany, asked me if I spoke any German and I replied yes, to which he babbled on in German and I panicked thinking what on earth is this bloke talking about!

We travelled about two and a half hours out of the capital Riga to our home for two weeks; the 'Pargauja' orphanage in Valmiera. We were greeted by the adults and children from the orphanage and spent the evening together playing cards and trying to organise ourselves. At that point I remember thinking some of the group were much more confident than I was.

Povilas has asked us to bring photos of home and family to share with each other which was a great start to getting to know one another.

We soon became more involved in the daily running of the orphanage and gradually became experts at mixing paint, painting bedrooms, stripping wallpaper, putting up wallpaper and then catching wallpaper as it fell down! The children helped as we worked in the bedrooms. We totally changed the feel of some of them which was brilliant, all we needed was Carol Smiley and we would have had it all! We managed to find a local hardware shop to buy more things for us to use and by the end we had decorated three bedrooms, the kitchen and done other things like mended tables, fences and cleaned floors in preparation for a party!

Looking back now I can't believe how close we all grew over the two weeks we were there, from not knowing each other at all to being able to insult each other and joke around and we have stayed in contact since the camp. Since coming back from Latvia, I have recommended camps like this to so many people who I think get fed up with me talking about it. I can remember hearing people talk about the travel they had done, the people they had met and the things they had seen. I can also remember not taking much notice - until now! When I am the one talking and doing the convincing! I can't believe what an amazing time we had; I look forward to seeing everyone again!

Matthew Perret

Ecuador - Summer 2002

This project, run by the Fundación Chiriboga, is split into two different sections. The first couple of weeks, we were involved in reforestation work, planting trees in an area damaged by fire, and also creating an orchid garden. We were based in a place called Chiriboga, which is two hours south of Quito and really is in the middle of nowhere. However, the surroundings are absolutely beautiful and it is very peaceful. We were in shared rooms for four people and all our meals were taken in the main house. One person from the group helped in the kitchen to prepare the meals every day but this mainly involved peeling vegetables and washing up as the cooking was all done for us.

We got up early every day but there was no lack of sleep, as the electricity was only on for two hours every evening and it was turned off at nine o’clock. We worked in the morning, stopped for lunch and then worked again before we were then given culture and history classes about Ecuador and there were also Spanish lessons for those that needed them.

During the second part of the project, we were based in a town called Jipijapa, nine hours away from Quito and near the coast. We were teaching English in one of the poorer schools there that had virtually no resources and underprivileged children. I found this part of the project to be incredibly rewarding, although it was certainly a challenge keeping the children entertained!!! After my first day, I didn’t know how I was going to manage there for two weeks; however, at the end I really didn’t want to leave. The children were absolutely adorable and certainly made an impression on me. The work was interesting and trying to find new ways of teaching them was an interesting task in itself, although I think that we found the key with the idea of teaching them the song words to The Beatles!!!

Two sisters, who are the kindest people you could possibly hope to meet, run Proyecto Chiriboga. They were so welcoming to all the volunteers. I arrived in Quito a couple of days before the project started and was given an incredibly warm welcome. I had told them when I would be arriving and they had organised a taxi to pick me up from the airport and were waiting outside for me when I got there, despite the fact that it was absolutely freezing and the middle of the night! I stayed in their family home before the project started and was told when I left that I could go back and stay there whenever I wanted to. They organised trips for us at the weekends, such as taking us to Otavalo market and the centre of the world, and were more than prepared to answer questions about absolutely anything and provide information. They keep an eye on their volunteers even after they have left. I, personally, went travelling after the project and even then they stayed in touch with me over email to check that I was safe and not having any difficulties.

The people that I met on the project were also fantastic. There were eleven of us altogether, English, French, German, Belgian, Australian and Mexican and we all got on very well together. I certainly made friends there that I think I will probably stay in touch with for the rest of my life and I will be making a few trips abroad to go and visit them in their home countries.

In short, all I could say to anyone considering doing this project is “do it!”, I had an amazing time and loved every minute of it. It is a great experience and Ecuador is a fantastic country and I am sure that if you decide to get involved with Proyecto Chiriboga then you won’t regret it for a minute.

Changing Perceptions- Summer 2002

As much as the actual practical work itself, cultural learning is what international volunteer projects have always been about. Part of that entails changing our own perceptions and challenging the stereotypes – be they positive or negative - that we too hold. Here, Emma Cowlard describes how a project working alongside Bulgarian Gypsies did that in more ways than one…

Two Bulgarian girls at a disco in their orphanage, Gutzal 2002.

What comes to mind when you think of Bulgaria? An ex Soviet-bloc with a fairly unstable economic and political climate, probably rather backward and little to offer? Well at least this was my perception before I spent two amazing weeks this summer taking part in a volunteer project in the small town of Rakitovo. Although Bulgaria is evidently not stuck in the Stone Age, equally it is not as developed as the more westernised countries of Europe. In small towns and villages the traditional horse and cart is a common sight, as are huge piles of logs outside people’s homes, since central heating has yet to reach most of the country. However, this all contributes to the Bulgarian charm; although it by no means escapes the glare of western commercialisation, with our favourite Coca Cola logo on almost every shop front, the country remains relatively untouched by tourism, maintaining an almost fairytale allure of untouched beauty.

Since this summer I decided to attempt something a little more adventurous and a lot less superficial than your typical beach holiday in Corfu, I decided to participate in a volunteer project. This meant that I could fuse an exploration of the breathtaking Rhodopi Mountains and forests with a deeply rewarding community project, working alongside Gypsies in the thick of real Bulgarian life. Like every town and city across the world, whether it is in the United States of America or West Africa there are always areas of poverty and where I was working was one such area. Imagine walking through a Gypsy quarter at eleven o’ clock at night, the roads are rubble and covered in mud, dogs run around barking, half built houses stand ominously in the unlit streets and then one by one people begin to line the roadside and fix their eyes upon you and the other volunteers as you walk past. What do you do? Panic? Squeeze tighter to your purse as your heart misses a beat? Certainly this was my initial reaction, but what I interpreted to be hostility, proved to be simply intrigue and enthusiasm. I found the gypsy quarter to be one of the warmest and most welcoming be simply intrigue and enthusiasm. I found the gypsy quarter to be one of the warmest and most welcoming places I have ever visited.

As a university student I am no stranger to night-clubs and bars, but no amount of hi-tech lighting, after shock and elaborate garage mixes can beat the Gypsy night-club. I may have exchanged the city lights for a square concrete room with a Ghetto Blaster in the corner, but it was one of the most amazing nights of my life. People could not do enough to please, one girl and her friends spent the entire evening attempting to teach me to dance and not ancient traditional steps, rather moves that could definitely teach Madonna a thing or two!

Yanko my group leader almost gave me his entire first aid when I sneezed,a girl from one of the Kindergartens we had been working on came and sang to us and an entire church congregation shook our hands whilst attending their Sunday service. Certainly, anyone who interacts with Bulgarian Gypsies will find themselves overwhelmed with generosity and hospitality.

Admittedly, a volunteer project in Bulgaria is not a typical holiday destination, but for me it was definitely a life time experience. Painting kindergartens with children running around with our home made paper hates on, long hikes in the mountains and dancing through the night are just some of the memories, which will stay with me forever!

Emma Cowlard

Click here for pictures of projects in Bulgaria

Click here for a country profile of Bulgaria