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Experiences and Insights of Individual Volunteers

Individual Volunteer at Salud y Paz, Guatemala
Andy Henson at pharmacy of Salud y Paz clinic in Guatemala

We invite you to read the following writings that have come from many different individual volunteers. We hope that these excerpts will help you get an insight into their experiences, and will be an inspiration for you.  - Walt and Betty Whitehurst (Consultants for Individual Volunteers, 1999-2004)

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Part 1: Financial Support - Travel - Importance of Learning the Language - Cultural Sensitivity - Cross-Cultural Communication

Financial Support


My visa expires in August, but I may try to get it extended a bit longer - maybe a month or two, maybe longer... I'm totally amazed that my church has continued to send donations to me (about $750 since I arrived), so I may be able to afford a little longer mission service (here or elsewhere). They have shown incredible generosity toward me.



When I took my ticket to the airline counter, the agent asked I was traveling alone. When I said yes, he asked, "Do you have relatives there you will stay with?"

"No, I'm going to work as a volunteer with the United Methodist Committee on Relief."

He said, "I don't think you should do that, young lady. I want you to go over there and sit down and think about this before you go. It is very dangerous for you to be there alone."

After praying to God to give me direction, I decided to call some people to ask for their advice. If any of them said it was not a good idea for me to go, I would cancel my trip. I called about 20 people, and none of them were at home. Finally, I went back to the ticket counter and told the man I was going. He said, "Well, all right, then. But I'm going to put you in first class."

In Switzerland, where I had to change planes, I went to the ladies' restroom and saw one of my former English as a Second Language students. She and her mother and sister were on their way to Bosnia to visit relatives there. They took me into their family group for the rest of the trip, so I didn't have to travel alone after all.


This month I climbed for five hours, 20 minutes straight up a mountain to a mission hospital. We had driven for five hours to the base of the mountain in a jeep. My expat friends were taking bets that I'd have to be carried part of the way or take 10 hours as did the last woman of only 48 years of age. [The volunteer who wrote this is 65.] In contrast, my Nepali friends sought another way to handle my risk-taking. They actually prayed that I would not fall off the mountain. Even a Hindu friend told me, "Aamaa, I did what I think you Christians call `pray'."

All supplies for the hospital or anything else must be carried the same route up. Sick and injured people in hammocks slung over the shoulders of 2-4 men and/or women arrive each day. This is the local "ambulance." Some have been carried for days. When traffic seems bad on your local expressway or you must pause to let an ambulance pass, silently say a prayer for the Nepali who is seriously ill or has a broken bone and is being jostled up the mountain to a hospital.

A 58-year-old woman from England and I returned down the mountain on foot where we met the local bus and rode for two of the five hours back to Kathmandu on top of the bus - no rails - in the winter wind. The first hour we were joined "cozily" by 30 Nepali men on top and 60+ people inside the bus.


There is a whole system of little three-wheeled vehicles that run along with the buses, the tuk tuks. They are supposed to hold 12 people in a space smaller than a minivan, almost half that size. Well what to do when a big foreigner gets in one!! [The volunteer who wrote this is a small North American woman.] I had to learn to duck, the first time I took one I bumped my head hard on the roof going in and out. One day I wanted to take one to language class. Well, I got on, found a seat and sat down beside a Nepali man... Of course, my legs are a good two inches longer and four inches rounder than all the Nepali men's legs are. There is always a young boy who rides the back step, collecting money and signaling to the driver with a fist bang on the side when it is time to go or stop. He started yelling "didi" (older sister) to me and motioning for me to move over. He put another man in a space that was five inches wide. I was tempted to ask the guy if he wanted to sit on my lap but since it is not acceptable to look a man in the eye, let alone talk to them, I thought I better not. Soon it was my stop and I banged on the roof to signal the driver I wanted out. Then I crawled out over 10 sets of knees through a non-existent space. What an adventure.


At some airports, passengers deem it necessary to orderly queue-up; here they orderly half-circle with fellow passengers ahead and behind, to the left and right... So, I'm almost to the point where I'll be funneled through to the customs agent. The guy to my left looks like he's ready to jostle into my position. He also looks surly. So I, not wanting an international incident, gesture him ahead of me with the sweep of my hand. No, No, No, he insists smiling, and says he was on the same JFK flight, lives in Philadelphia, and has come home to visit his family. He's just tired. Like me...

I exit customs and am "greeted" by a throng of people -- hundreds of them. I now am undaunted. My new friend points to his family, all jumping up, waving, smiling at him. And me. Then I see a hand raise above the throng, holding a piece of paperboard with my name written in BIG, BOLD letters. Another friend welcomes me to Vietnam. Doan Quoc Viet is his name. He has come with a Land Cruiser and driver to bring me to Can Tho...

Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City: Take 1/3 of the people out of New York skyscrapers, put 2/3 on bicycles, the rest on Hondas; sprinkle with cars, leaded gas trucks and busses. This is Saigon traffic. Pity the pedestrian.

Ho Chi Minh City to Can Tho: Four hour drive down Highway 1. An impossible number of shades of green... Every square meter under cultivation or fish farmed... Flowering trees, bougainvillea, bananas. We stop for lunch. Rice, steamed veggies, banana for dessert. I hold up the banana and ask Viet, "what do you call this in Vietnamese?" He says, "banana" and smiles. I smile too...

One afternoon Sofia and I took a short, three-hour cruise on several small Mekong Delta canals. For the boat, picture this: about five meters long, less than one and a half wide, cigar-shaped, blunted at the stern, the bow rounded and protected with an old tire and rising above water level. Two means of power, motor and manual oars, or to be precise, woman-ual. I know, I know, manual means by hand. But I can't help myself and the skipper was a she. For the motor part, picture this: take a five-meter long weed whacker, replace the string part with a propeller, and you got it. Extended from the motor end was a 40 cm U-shaped handle. During tight maneuvers control of the motor was mostly by foot while the hands steered with the oars.


Cobija (where we spent last week) is a buzzing community - both literally (motorcycles) and figuratively (the capital of the Pando District and full of people who are eager to improve their community). Surrounded on three sides by the Acre River and Brazil, it is incredibly isolated. Planes fly in from (and out to) La Paz only on Tuesdays and Fridays. Our Friday flight was rescheduled for early Saturday morning. The following Tuesday flight was canceled. The bus station indicates all trips are canceled until further notice (rainy season makes dirt roads impassable). Even when busses run, it is a steady 58-60 hour trip from Cobija to La Paz.


Nov. 6 - The retreat with the church went well... The delegates from the church in Caranavi arrived late Thursday night...The next morning we crammed into the pickup truck and set off for Nuevos Horizontes (a small town between the Colegio and Rurre). We were 16 women, 3 babies, 2 pastors, plus all the food and baggage for the weekend in the bed of the pickup truck. It was packing on a whole new level!

Feb. 14 - In my last e-mail, I was still in Trinidad waiting for a bus to San Borja. How bad could it be? Well, I learned the Bolivians aren't joking around when they say that the roads are impassable. I found the only pickup truck making the trip and a couple of hours into the journey realized what I had gotten myself into. A ten-hour trip ended up lasting three days. I have never seen so much mud in my life! We stripped off our boots (there was really no point), and waded around in mud up to my thighs. There were over 10 people making the trip, so the weight didn't help... It wasn't all bad though. We spent a great night in San Ignacio de Moros, a beautiful little town... Also, the driver was extremely optimistic and kept everyone's spirits up.

April 16 - Since it was Holy Week, we only had classes until Thursday... Since we still had to get the Chimanes' land documents signed, Erasmo and I decided to use Friday to enter a community called Aguas Negras. Neither of us had ever been there but we figured it couldn't be that far. We were wrong! We left a 9:00 on our bikes and finally arrived at 1:00 in the afternoon. The last part didn't even allow bikes so we left them on the path and continued on foot. We had two liters of pineapple soda and six pieces of bread for the journey. About halfway in we stopped and visited with a colona. She lives with her husband and a son and her closest neighbor is an hour away. It takes her two hours to walk to Kilometer 31 and since she doesn't know how to ride a bike, she hardly ever makes the trip. And I thought I was isolated!

Importance of Learning the Language


The biggest adjustment is the language! I have already improved tremendously with my Spanish although it's going to be a long haul.


August 1 - I've also been spending time studying Aymara. All of the professors here come from the Altiplano (the mountains) where they speak Aymara or Quechua. They get a kick out of me, a gringa, speaking Aymara. So far, I can ask someone their name, say my name, count to ten, and list the body parts. It's fun, and Angel (the director) loves to teach me.

May 11 - I'm trying to learn the basics of Chimane before I leave... I picked up bilingual materials from the New Tribes Mission. I've learned some basic sentences but the pronunciation is difficult... I often visit the Chimane to practice and they are helpful but also laugh at me quite a bit.


You were right - my greatest wish so far is that I might know more Spanish... Though limited, my basic knowledge of Spanish has been a great help... I will continue to work on my Spanish, because it will make my work easier and it will make my stay much more enjoyable. To have come to Bolivia without knowing any Spanish would have been a disaster.


We knew before we came that few people in Bolivia speak English, so we began studying Spanish last summer - first with a tutor, then in classes at the technical college... We continue to spend an hour or two each day studying Spanish here, but we make progress slowly. The most difficult task for us is understanding sermons and large group discussions. In more personal conversations, one can ask questions and use gestures until we understand. With the help of our pocket dictionaries, we are able to shop and get photocopies made... We can get around in cabs and on buses... We will continue our study of Spanish when we return home... We want to be able to have "real conversations" on future trips... We had not realized how important the relationship between teacher and students is and how difficult it is to establish that relationship through an interpreter, especially if that interpreter editorializes and even gets into her own debates with the students.


My time here has definitely been different from my experience last year, largely because of my increased ability to communicate.

Cultural Sensitivity


Immediately got a haircut. I showed up here with pretty long hair and I could tell it made a poor impression, so on day two I cut it.

Cross-Cultural Communication

South Africa

We had a jumble sale (bazaar/garage sale) on Thursday. We basically sold clothes to some of the poor people in the city, for very low cost. Maria and I were manning the sale. One time, when the crowd inside started to die down, she got three items of clothing on the table and said to me, "I'll be right back." I thought she was going on break or to get some food. She walks out onto the street and yells loudly (and she's African, mind you), "Five Bup, Five Bup, Five Bup" and holds out the clothes and claps her hands. This is a common thing for African people here to do to get people to come into their stores. "Five Bup" means "50 cents." And, a whole crowd just rushed into the place. We sold quite a bit then. After about 30 minutes, it started to die down again. So, she went out again, saying "Five Bup, Five Bup, Five Bup," and more people came in again. So, then she left on break. And the crowd started to die down. So I went out with a sweater and a skirt in my hand and said, "Five Bup, Five Bup, Five Bup," clapping my hands. Some of the African men stood still in wonder (it's rare to see white people here speaking an African language, or doing African things, especially those with American accents.) Nevertheless a lot of people flooded the place. And after it died down, I did it again.


This past weekend, I took part in a Student Leadership Retreat. We took 43 students down into a Christian Retreat Center in Dehra Dun (about 21 miles DOWN the mountain - the bus trip down and up was an adventure in itself)... I and another fellow took 14 students to the Shady Side School. That was all I knew until I got to the front gate, which read: SHADY SIDE SCHOOL FOR BLIND GIRLS. A fascinating and moving experience. One of the important factors to understand is the role of females in most of Indian society. The birth of a female is not always celebrated. As the director told me, most of these girls would have been abandoned, if even permitted to live, if not for this institution. Here they will be taught how to read Braille and skills to survive in the larger world. At first our students were very hesitant. I remember especially one young girl from Australia who was just standing around after most of the others had gone off with some of the blind children. I went over to her and asked what made her feel most uncomfortable - the cultural differences or their blindness. She said, "I don't speak Hindi, so what can I say or do that would mean anything?" In the meantime, there was a blind girl just standing by herself looking very lost. I encouraged the Aussie to try. Reluctantly she approached the blind girl and took her hand. The smile on the face of the blind girl, just by the human touch, I will never forget. Language became not necessary for these two girls. I did get one of our Hindi-speaking girls to come and translate between the two girls for a few minutes. By the end of our stay, these twos freighted humans, who could not verbally communicate, had forged a meaningful relationship. God's grace was there.


Ke game. (What to do? For those of you who are new to Notes from Nepal - it is a favorite Nepali phrase used for all the things that don't go according to plan here.)