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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 2: Cultural Adaptation - Dangers Faced by Volunteers - Dealing with Frustrations and Stress - Dealing with Poverty - Shopping

Cultural Adaptation


The Indian culture continues to fascinate me. The expectations, work ethic, and status, for example, are so different from the West... Water and electricity are prime examples. You can't drink or even brush your teeth in the tap water - if you have any on a particular day. It must be highly filtered and/or boiled before use... The electricity often goes out... No electricity equals candles. Overall, the food here continues to be excellent.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

In spite of the uncertainty of life here in Congo, I am planning to open the curtain on a one-act play in mid-June. My 7th-9th graders have proven to be quite the gifted actors, so I'm seeing just what they're capable of. The challenge for me will be finding times for set-building, extra rehearsals, and the like. Two of my students are Indian Muslims, so they pray five times a day and go to the mosque almost every evening. Another pair are Argentinean Seventh-Day Adventists, which means that you can't even go to talk to them between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. And the last student, an American, is more or less southern Baptist, which means we can't do much on Sundays. Thursday and Saturday evenings seem to be about the only times we can all meet together after school. So we'll see how it turns out.


Never washed so many dishes, made so many beds, fed so many people in my life! Mopping, sweeping, everything. Not the most glamorous of jobs, but I've learned to find joy in being a servant of Christ in a new way. Amazing!


Our school is about 20 hours by bus from La Paz. The school is not actually in a city at all. Or even a little village. If you have a map of Bolivia, look slightly northeast of La Paz into the Beni province. This is where the beginning of the Amazon jungle starts that goes on into Brasil. Our school is on the one road that leads up through Brasil to the jungle. It is in between two small "towns": Rurranabaque and Yucumo. Both of these towns have an office where you can make phone calls and they sometimes have electricity. But anything you would NEED to buy you can find there. Like me, you will probably find that your NEEDS change as you grow accustomed to the way of life there.


I have settled in my own apartment in Patan, across the Bagmati River from Kathmandu. My home is nicer than I expected although as it is now winter here and about 35-45 degrees at night, I miss central heating. Layering is the dress of the season, all the turtlenecks and polartec I brought...

My Nepali colleagues patiently put up with all my questions and the strange ways of the bedishas (foreigners). I find the Nepali people to be warm and gracious with great senses of humor and fun. They like to celebrate - lots of holidays and festivals. They love color and the more colors and patterns one can wear the better. They are very curious. This is a country where most people bathe at the public tap and live in very crowded homes so privacy doesn't exist as we know it.


I am settled into my apartment in Tansen... This morning I woke up at 5 a.m. to the sound of hard rain that just became louder as I listened. I think it is safe to say monsoon is officially here. In the bedroom, I have one small window that has a screen, bars, and wooden shutters on the inside so when it is raining I have to close the shutters to avoid a bed bath of rainwater. I have set a small table in the living room to work where I have two windows, also with no glass. But as they face southwest, they don't get rain except in the heaviest storms, so usually I can let the shutters open and get light. The room is probably 8 x 12 so it is full. I live mostly in the living room; it is fine for a single person.

I went to 7:30 a.m. mass with Sr. Pat and Sr. Bernie (Maryknolls). Sr. Pat is vice principal at the nursing school. They go to the service connected to the local elementary school where there are four sisters and a father (priest). This morning there were 14 of us, the biggest crowd they have had, and so they were pleased that their numbers are growing. After service, of course they fed us breakfast, chickpea tarkari (vegetable stew) and big fluffy pancakes that reminded me of Ethiopian bread. The debate on the way home was whether we also had tea or offee. It was very hard to tell, they said it was coffee but mostly it was milk and sugar. (Just for your information, I have bitten the bullet and told Didi that I will drink biscie milk (buffalo milk) this time, she is pleased as Nepalis think it is so much better than powdered milk. So she gets me some fresh and then boils it to pasteurize it for me. One thing for sure, it has a healthy or unhealthy amount of cream. And the cream is very thick and clingy just like biscie fat.)


Hot begins my Vietnam story. Not Africa hot, as I used to think the gauge. Surface of Venus hot is closer to the mark. Humid too. As humid as it can get. I like it.


The sun does not set here, it plops like a frog into a pond. Some of you should forgive my pedantic antics because the vote so far is positive.


I am living with my teacher and his family. I am fortunate that I have a private room with a bath. However, do not think that I am living in luxury. The home I live in is like one, albeit larger, you see in the poorest sections of Houston...

All of you would be aghast at my living conditions and I know some of you would refuse to eat a meal here or lay your head down at night. I, too, was wary and cautious my first few days here. After a few days of cautious living I decided that, quite possibly, living humbly was a lesson I needed to learn.

I am not saying my family lives in filth. They take pride in what they have. I suppose one way of describing it is that bugs, all kinds of bugs, come with the territory here. Bugs are now my dinner companions at the dinner table.tiny insects, big insects, HUGE ANTS (but no cucarachas).

I am also used to dirt. No matter how much you clean, it is impossible to rid your home of it. (Homes are not totally enclosed and blocked from outside.) I decided if ants, gnats, dirt, etc. were in my meal or on my plate or cup, it was not going to kill me if I consumed them along with my meal. Guess what? I have not died yet!!!


August 8 - Food continues to be monotonous, although I've learned a few things. Boiled plátanos are sweet and delicious! . . I've also learned to make relleno quite well (rice with meat, potato, carrots, and onion in the center then fried in dough). I had a ton this weekend but the senior boys discovered I had them in my fridge and finished them off for me. I didn't mind because in my enthusiasm, I cooked way more than I could possibly eat.

September 5 - You'll be interested to know, Mom, that I can eat an entire place of rice and beans and - if not love it - enjoy it!

October 24 - I've been practicing my churango and can now play a couple of hymns. After dinner last night Demetrio, a couple of students, and I sat around the table and sang cuecas (a Bolivian rhythm) for an hour. I love the music here and I want to learn as much as I can before I leave... If I'm depressed or frustrated, singing with the students always snaps me out of my bad mood.

January 25 - Christmas day I invited the Campos family to dinner (a family of seven kids, with very little money).We ended up cooking in the big kitchen and playing basketball all afternoon. It cost me under $10 to buy all the food for over 30 people (I got a little carried away with my invitations). It was nice to spend Christmas among friends, and it kept me from being too homesick.


We have learned the Montero way to shop, cook, clean and take the micro and taxis. We know how to purify water and disinfect fresh fruits and vegetables. We have a sinfully spacious, but sparsely furnished home equipped with a new gas stove and refrigerator... The people we have encountered in Montero are gentle and very polite. Everyone (from age 2-92) greets everyone else - on the sidewalk, at church, wherever. In church gatherings and among friends, a handshake and kiss on the cheek are common upon departure. Though most people are very poor, crime is no more a problem here than in Waukesha, Wisconsin - and perhaps less common. Nevertheless we take reasonable precautions - locking our house whenever we leave, keeping valuables (like cameras) out of sight, traveling with a companion at night whenever possible.

Dangers Faced by Volunteers


This past weekend was kind of rough. There is a festival going on in Copan. It attracts people from the villages in the mountains. Copan is usually safe because of all the tourists. Friday night I left the festival around 9:30 p.m... I did not see, actually I wasn't even paying attention, three men, strangers from the mountains, following me... My teacher saw me leave and saw the men trailing me in the dark streets so he started out after me. Enrique prevented me from being robbed. On Sunday, two men entered a restaurant and ambushed five men. I am not exactly sure why... What I know and saw is four men dead in the restaurant and one man mortally wounded. I now know what a person who is shot in the head about an inch above the eye looks like. So, I suppose at the moment I am feeling a little scared but I am sure that will pass.


We were going up a mountain on the rocky, sandy, unpaved road... The driver has about two inches on either side to not misjudge and have us plunge down the mountainside. Halfway up, bandits were waiting for us in the trees overhead. A loud pop and breaking glass was heard... Glass flew everywhere and we hit the deck. Fortunately, it was large rocks that were hurled at the bus. Luckily, our driver had the sense to keep on moving to a safe place and then check out the damage. The guy sitting across from me was hit with flying broken glass. He is okay. I just got glass on my clothes and a few small cuts on my arm. Both of us were in the line of fire of the glass; fortunately, no one was hit with the rocks.


The van we were riding in had an unfortunate incident occur to it about 2-1/2 hours outside of Tegucigalpa. As we were driving along the Honduran version of a highway, the whole back axle fell off. One wheel rolled down the road. Luckily, we didn't flip or hit any oncoming cars. We were stranded for about 2-1/2 hours as CCD [Christian Committee for Development] brought another vehicle to us. About 10 minutes up the road, we entered the curving roads of the mountain. We counted our blessings and gave thanks to our driver and God, especially as we passed two multiple fatality accidents.


August 24 - There never seems to be a relief from the heat, even at night... With the heat have come more bugs. Now every morning I find those gross abnormally large cockroaches on my floor. I'm careful to always have shoes on! The bats have also gotten a little more courageous as of late and fly around my bed. I know I'm safe with my mosquito net, but it's still a little freaky.

September 8 - It's been well into the 90's the past couple of days. I'm covered with bites and I have a heat rash on my back, but nothing that's stopping me from enjoying life here. I've reached a new record for bites - 53, and that's only on my legs!

October 1 - Last night I found a mouse in my house and being tired, I was not in the mood to deal with it. I got one of the boys to kill it with my machete.

October 24 - One of the bats died and fell down to my floor (yuck!). However (knock on wood), the mosquitoes don't bother me as much anymore.

April 16 - The bugs right now are terrible! Some are saying that it's a different type of mosquito... Whatever it is, the bites are taking forever to heal.

May 11 - In the past month, I've had a very interesting health experience. Two boros entered my legs... The first one healed without much problem and the second one is recently healing... The reason I'm including this is to tell you how they heal them here. Everyone has their own folk cure and opinion but the teacher from the Chimane School used an interesting one. She smoked an unfiltered cigarette and blew the smoke into the palm of her hand. When she had a piece of nicotine large enough to cover the bite, she spread it on my leg and we closed it with a band-aid. Before she covered the boro, she "called it out" by clicking her tongue. I was skeptical, but within three hours, the boro left my leg.

South Africa

I spent from Monday morning until Wednesday morning in the hospital. I had a stomach infection that was quite bad. However, I recovered quickly. (The doctor said I was supposed to be on a liquids only diet, but I convinced a nurse that I should have fish and mashed potatoes - and it was fine. The doctor walked in and saw my meal half eaten and said, "Well, carry on.")

Dealing with Frustrations and Stress


Yesterday, I was feeling very frustrated and inadequate. How am I supposed to teach 15 kids how to read - especially when they range in age from 5-17? I really feel at a loss sometimes, but then I just remind myself to take it one day at a time. They are still shy, but are quickly warming up to me.


This past week has been the most difficult week of my time here... I ran out of purified water. I had to boil water for about five days. Boiling does not take away the foul taste or smell of a sewer or dump. I know the organisms were killed but.I still drank DEAD PARASITES!!!

During the times of frustration, I often felt like going back home where it is cool (with a/c) or telling the folks at the office it was too difficult a place to send me... I think about the trials that I face here on a daily basis yet I am not scared, even with this cholera epidemic that is going around lately. When I think of the "danger, toils, snares" God has seen fit to deliver me from, I fear not... One thing I do know.I am called to be here in Honduras.


I would like to share some of the trials that absolutely took me by surprise.

Minor medical inconveniences in the U.S. turned into big headaches for me in Honduras... I had allergies to the animals, the smoke caused by wood-burning stoves and burning trash, the plant life, sweat, the well water for bathing, and the sun!!!!

The biggest problem I faced, however, was the HEAT. The people at CCD [Christian Commission for Development]... felt that since I was from Houston I would be okay. What they did not realize is that I am never out in the heat in Houston. No one there is. We are outside for the minute or so that it takes us to hop into our cars. The heat was relentless. Because I was in it 24 hours a day, my body was working overtime and I was exhausted.

The last challenge, of course, was one that I was very aware of before I left and that we went over in training. I knew my lack of Spanish would make my first months difficult. Indeed, it was difficult and lonely. Of course, as my Spanish improved, other things improved. My time was emotionally draining in the sense that I felt like an animal in a zoo. I suppose I should feel flattered. Everyone was interested in what I was doing at all times. That was very unnerving for me to have my every move, even from afar, scrutinized and talked about.

In short, my time in Tierras Morenas was the most challenging and most rewarding thing I have ever done. I hope I touched their lives as much as they touched mine.


Jan. 15, 2001 - Everything takes longer here! Preparing meals, finding a shower curtain, purifying drinking water, drying laundry on humid days, traveling from one community to another, preparing lesson plans and translating them into Spanish... Clean water is not generally available. Lack of concern for sanitation disturbs me. Unrefrigerated meat hangs in the market, bags of household trash are pitched over the fence or dropped by the walk at the Colegio Metodista where we live and an old water heater rusts away in our yard.

March 1, 2001 - When we returned to Montero last weekend we found four boxes of Sunday School curriculum waiting for us! (mailed November 3rd). They went by ship to Santiago, Chile, up the western slope of the Andes mountains to La Paz and down the eastern slope to Santa Cruz and Montero. They were a bit damp from humidity, but now are all quite fine...

We were also welcomed home by daily rain, lots of mosquitoes, a mildewed suitcase (we closed the windows in the extra bedroom), a dead mouse in an empty wastebasket, a live tarantula in the middle of our bedroom floor, and free musical entertainment every night from 8:30 p.m.-3:00 a.m. at nearby Carnival celebrations.

Dealing with Poverty


Beggars on the main streets everywhere. Women with children are especially hard to pass or to say "no" to. Church members are able to identify the regulars who are on dope (crack mostly). Several panhandlers have come to the door with good stories. In sharing these stories with colleagues, they say that I was taken in.


For weeks Lydia, our twice a week house girl, had been asking us and the Dunn-Wilsons (English missionary couple)... to come meet her family and have Sunday dinner... So after church... we bumped down the dirt road and arrived about 12:30, parked outside an "entrance," and entered the "compound." What a greeting we received! A smiling Lydia and her husband Julius, and behind them several other family members: Isiah and his pretty wife and baby; Cella, Burt's secretary, several other young adult relatives, and about 25 wide-eyed children who all seemed to be between about two and ten...

This compound is much smaller than the spacious yard surrounding the house which we occupy. I'm guessing there were eight or ten small tin roofed "houses," a small barn, three cows, hens and baby chicks everywhere... Lydia's home was one of the bigger and "fancier" of the houses. We sat in her living room. There was a couch, two chairs, a coffee table, a buffet and three stools. That left about two square feet of open space. The four visitors, Lydia, Cella, Lydia's three children, Cella's two all ate in and around the coffee table. The men ate in the kitchen but joined us for a birthday cake and some simple toys for Lydia's Moses who was five last week. Everyone was so proud to have us there, and we adjourned to the outside and had our pictures taken with, it seemed like, EVERYONE! We went home with two large containers of left-over rice and mashed potatoes and beans to split between us... One of the family chickens had been killed for the occasion - cut in small pieces and not a scrap of that was uneaten.

The downside to this heartwarming visit is that Lydia is the only regularly employed member of her whole family... Fortunately the poor in Kenya don't have many needs - the children have few clothes, and no toys, the grown-ups have an unending patience and willingness to do without... With all those mouths to feed, WE ended up with the leftovers.


Walking up and down the hills on the cobblestone streets was difficult for me, at first. But every time I saw an older woman with three young children at her side and carrying a year-old baby with her arm, and on the other shoulder carrying a large cloth bag full of melons to sell at the market, I realized how very insignificant my silent lament to myself was. Add to this each young child carrying a bag of things to sell... All, mother and children, walking with no shoes.


Last year, as I worked with the very poor children in Tierras Morenas, I came across a boy of 11, Nery. He lives with his mother and two younger sisters. Though all the families in the pueblo are poor, his household would be considered one of the poorest. As I taught Nery and then had him work for me, I saw how intelligent he was. He had a deep desire to continue his studies beyond the 6th grade, which would normally be the end of the road for poor school-children.

My friends, the boy had the potential to do far greater things than to start, at age 11, working as a campesino (peasant farmer) in the fields with his machete. I knew I needed to help; this child. Why? Because years ago, when I had nothing but a sick and tormented soul, one person saw potential in me and extended the hand of friendship. Because of the action of that one person (reminding me of my worth and that I was a child of God and telling me of his love for me and of God's love for me), my life eventually took a different path - a path toward the good. It is my desire to give to others what was given to me so many years ago. I saw potential in Nery - with a lot of hard work and with God's help, he could not only change his life, but be in the position in the future to help his family, his pueblo, and his country.

With my decision to help made by my heart, I then thought my plan through with my head. I soon realized - what a monumental task! I realized that not only did Nery need God's help, I did also, as I tried to come up with different ways to send him to school.

God sent help my way as I communicated the concerns of my heart with various people at St. Paul's. We soon had a plan. It started first with our children during Vacation Bible School as I taught the kids in my mission centers: Club-Can-Do. I taught them about life in Honduras, especially about the life of a certain 11-year-old boy. Those children brought their pennies from home, along with their offerings of all kinds of school supplies. Their "can-do" spirit would help a boy in another country go to school. I then did programs for different groups at church. Several folks donated money to help Nery with school expenses and the Rutabaga children will be doing a fund-raising event.

One of the first things I did after I arrived back in Honduras on December 28th was to travel to Nery's pueblo and let him know that everything was set for him to begin school. As I headed toward Nery's house, he looked up and saw me. We both then grinned and ran toward each other. As we hugged for several minutes, Nery started to cry. After informing Nery and his mother the plans for his living arrangements at the school he would be attending, we gave the family some of the gifts from you all.

After leaving, I shared with Rev. Jose Rodas my experience of Nery crying in my arms. Jose then explained why that had occurred. Many volunteers, whether on a 10-day mission trip with a work team or individual long-term volunteers like myself, with the best of intentions, say things or make promises to people they become close to on mission trips in the poor pueblos. Going home, they have every intention of fulfilling these promises. However, life goes on... family responsibilities, demands from work, making car or house payments... the experience of the mission trip soon becomes a distant memory.

The problem is, the people in the pueblos remember the promises made by representatives from churches. Apparently, even though I gave my word to Nery, soon after I left, the older, more experienced members of Tierras Morenas told the boy to forget about anything I had promised. "She will not be returning." The tears Nery shed that day in my arms were tears of joy; I remembered my promise - Nery would be going to school.


As my friend and I walked in the "tourist" city where I went to provide pastoral care, we passed the tiniest shack made of pieces of tin, some pieces of a cardboard box and a floor of cow dung and mud. A man sat out front pounding metal with a hammer and three ragged children ran to greet us, calling us "my friend" in Nepali - asking for nothing except a friendly greeting. The father clasped his hands, smiling and greeting us with "Namaste." Their shelter was just next door to a 3-story brick house. In fact, theirs was the only one so rickety on the entire road. Later a missionary was with us as we passed again and as he held one little girl, he said, "This is an outcaste family who are Christians and go to our church."


In the Colonia 27 de Febrero the work at the home of the widow, Ana, and her five children drew to a close as Augustín and his cousin, Martín, repaired the roof. This home now has a concrete floor, a new outhouse, a repaired roof (it was collapsing),a paint job on the exterior, and the removal of the old outhouse (it had collapsed). There was enough time to see first hand the difficulties associated with dirt floors. When it is dry, there is always dust or powder in the air. When it rains, it can be damp for up to a week after even a gentle rain. And when it rains, as it did last week (up to 4" in some areas), the home has running water, albeit the undesirable kind.


All along the way were children laughing and waving at us, swimming and laughing and waving or walking on the roads lining the water, laughing and waving. Hello, hello they all said. (Children all the time say hello to me. I'm a foreigner, exotic.)

And I thought, how can these children be so happy in such poverty. I thought of the different poverty I've recently seen: here, in Colombia, in Mexico, at home. In my country, very poor people have dirty faces and lead brutish lives. But not here. Sure, there are beggars but mostly the crippled or maimed; very few people seem to have lost hope or, more importantly, self-respect. I thought about a young boy, maybe ten years old, that Pio and I used to see at a toll booth when we drove between Armenia and Cali. Always in the same place, the same clothes, the same stance: standing erect, eyes glazed, hand extended toward cars pulling away from the toll both. He could have been a statue - was a statue. I thought of another boy I once saw, back turned, facing a fence: glue sniffer. I was told, perhaps the world just then lost a Mozart.


We are wealthy beyond belief to most of our neighbors. Some of them sell food or handicrafts on the street. Men shovel sand from the river bottom into their trucks and sit along the highway in front of the colegio all day waiting to sell it. Whole families of 10 or 12 people live in one or two 12 square foot rooms, sometimes without a bathroom. Some homes have dirt floors and no glass or screens on the windows. The minimum wage is the equivalent of $64 a month. Unemployment is very high - at least 20% -- and underemployment is probably 50%.



Last week I exchanged a couple of hundred dollars in travelers checks for dong, the Vietnam currency. On the way back to the office I needed air in my bike's tires so I got some; the normal cost is 200 or 500 dong, the d200 note (no coins here)being the smallest denomination. Since I had almost three-million dong (the exchange rate is d14,500 to $1) I felt pretty magnanimous, so I offered the attendant two d500 notes. No, no, no, he said and gave one back to me. It made my day.


My tennis shoes finally bit the dust (the soles peeled off and then literally broke in half) so I had to make a special trip to Yucumo to buy some Bolivian sneakers. They are certainly much more reasonable, only $2.50.