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Four Years Ago Today: How Volunteering Abroad Changed My Life

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Exactly four years ago, I was volunteering in Morocco, surrounded by a group of ridiculously inspirational people and seeing this happy little face every day. I still think about baby Sawaya a lot and wonder if she found a new home with adoptive parents who love her as much as she deserves.

You need a bit of background on Sawaya to understand why she was so special.

On my first day in the orphanage, I didn’t notice her. I didn’t see her or hear her at all. There were thirty hungry babies crying and they all wanted feeding and loving and changing, right now! It wasn’t until half way through the second day that I noticed her – silently sitting in the corner of the massive play pen, facing the wall, rocking slowly. I think she found the noise even more overwhelming than I had on that first morning.

When I waved at her, or touched her arm, or even picked her up, she did nothing. Her eyes didn’t even move or register me at all. She was like a limp little ragdoll, but there was just something about her. Every day, I spent nearly all of my time with Sawaya, playing with her, interacting with her, encouraging her out of her shell bit by bit. At first, she just spent a lot of time sleeping on me, until slowly, we had tiny breakthrough after tiny breakthrough. She found her voice – she was so young that it was just babbles, but it was the first noise I’d heard her make – and couldn’t stop using it! She started actually moving around and taking an interest in things. She learnt how to push herself around in one of those wheelie little baby bouncers. During my final days at the orphanage, she actually pulled herself up using the bars on her crib to greet me each morning, babbling and bouncing up and down to say hello!

It absolutely broke my heart to leave her. It still breaks my heart today.

You see, Sawaya had been written off. Back then, she was a baby, and lots of people came to see the babies. Every day, we’d come in to find another baby gone. “Where’s Ruby?” we’d ask. Adopted, the nurses would say, taken home to a small town in Morocco, or Spain, or even America. But Sawaya clearly had some kind of developmental disorder – a doctor used to see her every day, and she struggled to interact with other people or respond to external stimuli. She was older than the other kids in her room, but they had all started to take shakey first steps while she struggled to move in her wheelie bouncer.

The oldest kids were in other rooms downstairs, without the cheer and without nearly as many visitors or potential new parents dropping by. The older the kids got, the higher the percentage of disabled kids in the room. It’s extremely difficult to adopt a disabled child in Morocco, and these kids don’t go to school. They just sit in orphanages and fester for the rest of their lives. The older ones are the ones who were left after all of the other kids were taken,

I was desperate to stop that happening to Sawaya. I even seriously considered adopting her myself, but I was just nineteen at the time – I knew deep down that wasn’t possible, and wouldn’t have been fair on her either.

My one hope was that she had ‘woken up’ during my time with her. Now, perhaps other volunteers would notice her. I made volunteers staying on after my departure swear to look after her, to tell others who came after them how important it was to keep interacting with her. Maybe if she started making progress, maybe they wouldn’t write her off so quickly. Even if she stayed in the orphanage, maybe, just maybe, she would have a chance to go to school.

It was a slim hope, but it was the only one I had.

I’m still in contact with the volunteer programme coordinators in Morocco. She’d be six or seven now. I could find out what happened to her, if she has a family. But I’m scared of the answer.

It was a very strange feeling to ‘visit’ someone’s life in this way, to pop into it for a month and pop back out again, then go back to your own life as though nothing had changed. But it had.

During that summer, I had the chance to learn just how addictive it is to feel like you’re making a difference in someone’s life, however small. Every life goal I’d ever had changed, and I knew instantly that I wanted to work in charity for the rest of my life, that nothing else would ever make me as happy as this did.

The experience and courage I gained in Morocco led me on a long journey, through Russia, Nepal, America, Canada, and finally here to Korea, all in search of being part of something bigger than myself – in hopes of making a difference. Everything good I will ever do with my life started with this little girl right here.

Thank you, Sawaya. I hope I had even a tenth of the impact on your life that you had on mine.

PSCORE Rock Out Concert – Review

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Last Saturday night, PSCORE supporters turned out in full force for an amazing rock concert to raise awareness and support for North Korean refugees!

2014-07-19 21.25.24Club Freebird 2

The event took place at Club Freebird 2 in Hongdae, a great venue that somewhat resembles an underground cave – in a unconsciously hipster sort of way, if that makes sense. Not being particulary into rock music myself, I honestly wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy the concert, but I ended up having a really good time. When I walked in and heard the opening act, Bluesnake, playing a rock cover of Frozen’s now-infamous Let it Go, I know there would be something there for everyone.

And from a mix of classic covers to obscure rock songs to exciting new material, there really was. The thing that tied these acts together wasn’t so much the rock genre as it was a rockstar style enthusiasm for their performances and for bettering the lives of the North Korean people. It was inspiring to see and made me feel even better about having fun for a good cause.

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I wondered if the songs would be in Korean or English and if either one would end up alienating the audience or pushing potential attendees away – would this be a largely Korean event, inaccessible to foreigners, or would this be an expat only scenario, leaving out the people who should care most about this issue? As it turned out, the concert was mostly in English, though covers of hugely popular and famous songs united the music lovers in the audience regardless of their native languages. There was a good mix of both Koreans and foreigners in the audience, showing that PSCORE is achieving its goal of uniting young people in Korea in the name of this cause.

The concert closed in the early hours of the morning with popular band Angry Bear and PSCORE revealed the next day that the event had raised more than 650,000 won! That money will go to running PSCORE’s essential programmes, specifically to helping North Korean defectors live both normal and fulfilling lives here in South Korea.

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Sometimes we forget that after the massive struggle of surviving life in North Korea and the escape itself, there are still many more struggles to come for North Korean people, who have never been exposed to the crazy technology or huge numbers of cars and people that make up every day life in South Korea, who have learned to distrust authority rather than ask it for help, and who – if they went to school at all – spent their days learning about the double-rainbow lives of the Kim family instead of growing up in the ever-more-competitive academy culture that exhausts kids in South Korea. They have different accents, different clothes, different expectations, and often find it hard to fit in or be accepted. The money raised at PSCORE’s Rock Out concert will go to buying defectors food, clothes, school books and entrance into educational programmes to help them apply their incredible resilience and determination to life in the South.

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And don’t worry if you missed it – PSCORE holds these concerts every two months, so you can definitely catch it next time.

See you there!

Rock Out for Refugees – Introducing PSCORE

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I wrote in my last post that over the coming weeks, I’ll be posting about various different ways to help North Korean refugees/get involved in the North Korea human rights crisis here in Seoul. Over the last two weeks, I’ve made two big commitments to get involved with two of the biggest non-profits working on this issue:

  1. PSCORE – I’ll be volunteering as an ‘SNS Supporter’ for PSCORE, which means I’ll be writing blog posts, posting tweets and taking pictures covering their work and the events they’ll be holding this summer.

  2. Liberty in North Korea – after interning at their US headquarters for a year, LiNK is a charity very close to my heart, so I’m absolutely thrilled that I’m able to volunteer with them once again as part of their English tutoring and cultural exchange programme!

So today, I’ll be writing a little about PSCORE and how you can get involved with them. I have a LOT to say about LiNK, including the story of how I got involved in this issue in the first place, so I’ll leave that for another day!

PSCORE Logo

Started by a North Korean defector back in 2006, PSCORE is charity that works hard on several different aspects of the North Korea crisis – from reunification research to resettlement advice for refugees now living in the South. PSCORE stands for People for Successful Corean Reunification. I know what you’re thinking – that’s not how you spell Korean! That was the first question I had too. Apparently ‘Corean’ reflects an earlier spelling of the word. Staff at the office pronounce it ‘P-S-Core’, presumably to avoid confusion with the Peace Corps!

The most important thing you need to know about PSCORE right now is that they are having a benefit concert in Hongdae TOMORROW NIGHT, Saturday 19th July! Check out the Facebook event here. Rock Out will feature several different rock bands, all playing to support PSCORE and North Korean refugees. It costs 15,000 won on the door and the money will go directly to PSCORE’s programmes, helping North Korean defectors succeed in their new lives. And if you can’t make this one, don’t worry – PSCORE hosts benefit concerts every two months!

Fundraising isn’t the only goal of Rock Out. Regular concerts help to raise awareness of an issue that, even here in South Korea, few people are talking about and even fewer are acting on, and they bring young Koreans together to work this crisis which is largely ignored and misunderstood despite being, literally, so close to home.

PSCORE in Geneva for the UN.

Here is a super quick rundown of PSCORE’s programmes, each of which I’ll cover in a separate post as I check them out this summer:

  1. Education and Culture – PSCORE runs both a one-on-one tutoring programme and a weekly Wednesday evening English class (6.30pm-8pm, Seodaemun Police Station). There are also monthly cultural activities where North Koreans, South Koreans and foreigners can come together to enjoy movies, musicals, museums etc.

  2. Human Rights – as well as regularly working on street campaigns and other awareness efforts like the Rock Out concerts, PSCORE actually goes to the UN, where they hold North Korea accountable and spread awareness in the international community. When North Korean representatives claim there are no political prison camps in their country, for example, PSCORE are there to show the evidence to the contrary.

  3. Reunification – PSCORE pursues strategies for Korean reunification by studying models of other reunified countries, such as Germany.

You can find more information and get involved personally on their website here!

Next time: attending PSCORE’s Rock Out concert and tutoring with LiNK!

*Please note: all pictures are from PSCORE’s website and Facebook page.

The North Korea Issue – How to Get Involved This Week

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The North Korea Issue – How to Get Involved This Week

Are you living in Seoul, interested in finding out more about the North Korea human rights crisis and what you can do to help?

Sometimes it’s hard to remember or even to believe that the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis is happening right now, and so close to us too. If you want to learn more about what’s going on just thirty miles north of us, PSCORE, the People for Successful Corean Reunification (‘Corean’ with a C reflecting the ancient spelling of Korea) are holding a street awareness campaign down along the banks of Cheonggyecheon every day this week! Pop along to learn more about their work and find out how you can help North Korean refugees.

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A map of the Korean Peninsula at the Odusan Unification Observatory. Major cities and political prison camps in the North are marked.

The week may almost be over, but PSCORE will be at the stream again today and tomorrow from 12pm-8pm. See their Facebook page for more information.

Cheonggyecheon was a stream running through Seoul years ago, before the city’s rapid expansion saw it buried under miles of concrete. A $900 million dollar project saw the stream restored in 2005, and it’s now a great public space where tons of Koreans hang out every day. It’s especially nice in this hot weather when you can cool your feet in the water! There’s also usually a great art installation in the water itself – when I first arrived to Korea, the whole stream was covered in brightly-coloured umbrellas and, more recently for the Buddha’s birthday, enormous sculpted paper lanterns in the shape of people. So pick up some leaflets, have a chat, and then take a wander along the stream – it’s a great break from the concrete jungle that is Seoul.

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Lanterns for the Buddha’s birthday in May.

Take line 2 to Euljiro 1-ga Station (exit 2 or 3) or line 1 to Jonggak Station (exit 5). Once you’re outside, just follow the brown signs for Cheonggyecheon – you can’t miss it.

I’m excited to start a series of blog posts on the North Korea issue, how I got involved and how you can help right here in Seoul, so look out for those over the next few weeks!

Bau House Dog Cafe

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It’s been a while since I’ve had any adventures, so naturally it’s been a while since I blogged about my life. But recently, something has changed – I started one of the biggest adventures of my life: moving to South Korea! I’m here to teach English and to stay as involved as possible with an issue that is very close to my heart, the North Korea human rights crisis. And guess what? I started having adventures again, I wanted to write again… and here we are.

Anyway, you really came here to see pictures of cute dogs, so let’s get down to it.

I’m a huge dog lover – I have three beautiful doggies back at home and I miss having them around so much. I’d heard that there were dog cafes floating around here in Korea, so after visiting a cat cafe last weekend and absolutely loving it, I did a bit of googling and headed off to my first dog cafe experience!

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My babies at home.

First Impressions

Bau House is really close to Hapjeong Station (detailed directions below) so it was nice and easy to find. As someone who gets lost pretty easily, that’s a huge plus in my book!

There are two sections to the cafe – the smaller section nearer the door is full of teeny tiny dogs, while the main room has much bigger dogs.

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The dogs really liked this particular table for some reason!

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Although everything looked clean, I was a little surprised by the lack of obvious hygiene – at the cat cafe I’d visited previously, there was tons of hand sanitizer, specific closed-off areas containing the cats’ litter trays, no outside shoes allowed, and even rollers for getting the cat hair off your clothes when you go back outside. By contrast, there was none of that at the dog cafe and there was (as I had expected) a pretty strong smell, even for someone with three dogs! You do soon get used to it though, and although there were a couple of accidents here and there, they were soon cleared up.

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Getting Seated

The process is pretty simple – wait at the first gate to be seated, then go up to the till and order your drink, which also doubles as your entrance fee. Unfortunately for me, things weren’t quite that simple, as I had a bit of drama through being waved on by two women in the kitchen, only to stand around awkwardly at the second gate for a while, wondering what to do as there was no-one obvious to pay and no menus on the tables. When I approached staff, they straight up ignored me, whether I spoke English or (attempted…) Korean, and even shoved past me and shouted to each other over my head. Shrugging, I gave up and pushed through to the main room – only to be reprimanded and sent back to the front door to wait by one of the staff who had ignored me! Lots of customers were waiting around in awkward places, clearly uncertain as to what to do because the staff were so utterly unhelpful and never actually manning the points where customers would be paying/waiting.

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Nap time!

The Menu

I ended up paying 6000 won for a coke and 3500 for some dog treats (not hugely necessary, but definitely helpful for making friends!). Other options included coffee, tea, fruit juices and shakes (up to about 8000 won), as well as a couple of food options such as noodles. Much as I love dogs, I thought it was best to avoid the food! No-one else seemed to be eating either.

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This is probably why.

Doggy Welfare

To be fair to Bau House, once I had actually been acknowledged and served, it was a great experience. They even instantly replaced any drinks that the dogs sampled, free of charge, without customers even asking. I loved having the dogs around me and they were all exceptionally well behaved. There was only one ball to play with but none of them seemed particularly bothered by it – they were mostly concerned with jumping up on the seats to cuddle, getting treats, sleeping on the floor or stealing milkshakes!

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The dogs showing off.

I never felt unsafe or unsure with any of the dogs, and that wasn’t just down to my familiarity with dogs in general – there were quite a few people there who obviously didn’t know how to handle dogs at ALL and had little to no respect for them (picking them up, dragging them around, waking them up while they were sleeping, trying to grab treats back out of their mouths, yanking their tails, petting too roughly etc), which was rather frustrating to see, but it’s a credit to the dogs’ temperaments and training that not once did a dog snap back.

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This dog has given up.

Directions

Come out of exit 3 at Hapjeong Station, line 2/green line. Immediately double back on yourself so you’re walking with the station behind you. Take the first left, a relatively small side street – Bau House is a couple of buildings down on the right hand side.

Return Visits?

I’d definitely go back to Bau House, although it would be for the dogs and definitely not for the overall experience – the staff were a pretty big letdown, although that was made up for by being surrounded by dogs all afternoon! And realistically, if they’re treating the dogs right then that’s the main thing – I was worried about finding depressed, sick or poorly cared for pooches, but it was clear they were all happy and well looked after.

I took a book just in case but didn’t end up touching it – dog cafes are definitely not as relaxing as cat cafes, where I’m pretty sure you could just sit and read with a cat curled up on your lap all afternoon. There was always something to see and always (understandably!) a little bit of chaos. The customers were louder and pretty competitive over dog-hogging, and there was some intense K-Pop music blaring too. I think dog cafes are a must if you’re a little homesick for your pets or even if you’re just a dog person, but if you’re looking for some quality cuddle time or a more traditional cafe environment, I’d definitely go for a cat cafe instead.

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Although my first impression wasn’t necessarily the best one, I actually ended up having a really good time and I’d definitely go back. I’m also really interested in trying out other dog cafes in Seoul to see how the experience might differ. Have you ever been to a dog cafe? What was it like?

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What I Learnt in Nepal – Why A Bad Travel Experience Isn’t The End

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So, I haven’t written here for a long time.

For three months, I was away in Nepal with next to no internet access, which is a good enough excuse.

But I’ve been back in the UK for two months now and I still haven’t written a new blog post. Why not? Surely I’d have hundreds of things to write about after three months on another continent?

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How could I go to a country with this much to offer and have nothing to write about?

Well, the truth is – I didn’t enjoy it.

There. I said it.

It’s hard to admit. Really hard, actually, because not only did I push a lot of other plans aside for this trip, not only was it my “get out of the UK free” card, but it was supposed to be the trip that affirmed to me, once and for all, that I was on the right path. That long-term travel is possible for me. That international development is the right career for me. That not only could I hack it, but that I would actually enjoy it.

And I didn’t.

And honestly, not only did I not like it, but I spent almost every minute fervently wishing I was back in the UK, experiencing that excruciating homesickness that I always used to scoff at in other people. I spent a lot of my time ranting about the inadequacies of the programme and the charity, but in reality, I was shouting because I didn’t want to spend all my time crying.

We first arrived in our designated districts after three weeks of training that had told us absolutely nothing at all. The road journey had been horrific – I’m sure you’re all aware of how bad Nepal’s roads are, but if you’re not, let’s just say that I’m an atheist but even I took to praying. Half of us got off the bus at a dingy-looking guest house full of spiders the size of my head, a rabid looking dog outside and a lovely dirty room in the basement. The other half, including the girls I’d been sharing a room with up until that point, drove away.

We got into our basement room and discovered the horrific spiders, as well as a freaky looking nest of I-don’t-even-know-whats. I wasn’t trying to be a ridiculous western diva, but really, I hate spiders, and I wasn’t going to sleep under them. I went and told one of the charity’s staff in the hope that maybe someone less scared than me could help me shift them. He said, “There are no spiders in Nepal.” Um, yes there are, they’re above my head right now. “There are no spiders in Nepal.”

That sort of denial on the part of the charity became almost emblematic of the entire trip.

All through the training I’d had my doubts, but I’d told myself and told myself that once we got to the district, it’d be OK. So when it wasn’t – when we got there and still had no idea what we were doing – and we went for a walk around in the dark to see our new surroundings, I kept to the back of the group and I just sobbed away to myself for almost an hour.

I know now it was an overreaction, but at the time, I was upset and full of culture shock and something as simple as big ass spiders could set me off. And it’s a pretty big deal to have to admit that, especially when you’re known amongst your friends as the one who likes to travel, especially when you did this for your career. It’s more that admitting you had bad judgement – it makes you feel like a failure.

Let me give you a quick run-down of a few other reasons why, for me, this trip was so bad:

We were in an area where nobody needed us, and where we could make little to no difference. We couldn’t speak the language and had been told beforehand that it wasn’t necessary, so we had next to no input. I felt useless. I was acutely aware that I was there for two reasons and two reasons only: to attract attention, because I am white, and to attract money, because I am white. It was made quite clear to us at the end of the programme that the money the UK government invested in the programme, in return for Nepal taking on UK workers, paid the wages of several of the Nepali staff. They didn’t need me – they needed my government’s money. I spent all day every day being stared at like I wasn’t a person. People screamed at me and interrupted my conversations and crashed their bikes into walls because they were so busy staring (alright, I’d admit that the wall crashing was at least partly funny). I know a lot of people really enjoy this kind of attention, but personally, I felt like I didn’t own myself, like I wasn’t my own person. Over at another placement, two locals got brutally murdered and the staff thought it would cheer the UK volunteers up if they could ‘see the body’. I’m not even joking. The volunteers remained on the placement despite the obvious danger and a strict curfew imposed in the village.

And, although this obviously pales in comparison to murder, we ate nothing but rice, three times a day, every day, for three months.

I don’t think you realise how important food is for your happiness until you’re already unhappy and then eat bad food on top of that. Have you ever vomited rice back up? It all gets stuck in your nose and you end up sneezing rice for days. It’s thoroughly unattractive.

There’s a lot more, but I don’t want this to be a barrage of complaints. Because I did learn a couple of things along the way and I’d like to share them with you.

1). Wishing you could go home and wishing you’d never gone are two entirely different things. Despite being miserable 90% of the time, despite being ashamed of how I dealt with being so miserable, and despite feeling like my work on the programme had no impact whatsoever, I don’t regret going to Nepal. I wish I could have gone to another country with another charity perhaps, but I will never regret having got on that plane and actually gone. Now, whenever anything is hard, I can think, “Shut up Rachel, you got through three months in Nepal; this is nothing”. And I know, deep down, that I had not gone and continued to live here in ignorant bliss, I would have imagined a perfect placement and regretted not going far more than I will ever regret having actually done so.

2). One bad experience should not stop you from achieving your ambitions – whether they are travel ambitions, career ambitions or anything else. I realise now, though it was hard to see at the time, that disliking one international development project does not mean I will dislike them all. Equally, struggling through three months in one country does not mean I would be unable to face a year in another. I know now that if I am passionate about a programme or a country, everything else will fade into the background – but if I’m not, and I’m not really sure why I’m there, then insignificant little details like squat toilets or the heat will become unbearable. It’s just the same at home. My problem was with my charity, not with Nepal itself. Which brings me on to…

3). Don’t blame the country you’re in for the bad times you experience. Honestly, I hated Nepal. I really did. The nature of the people – laid back, no concept of time, never in a rush – combined with the nature of the country – constant strikes, poor transport, poor communication – made the programme I was working on nigh on impossible. But it wasn’t Nepal’s fault, and my anger and misery made it hard for me to enjoy all the wonderful things Nepal had to offer, and that’s something I now regret. I wish I’d be able to push aside my resentment for the programme and just enjoy being somewhere else.

4). Sometimes it takes more courage to give up than to go on. Early on, one of the girls in our group decided she’d had enough and went home. Some people in the group were quite harsh about it, but honestly, I think she was incredibly brave. I didn’t have the courage to stand up and say, “You know what? I’m not enjoying this either.” And because of that, I missed Christmas with my family. I missed my grandfather’s funeral. And I spent three months not only being miserable with my surroundings, but actually hating myself for being so grumpy, for complaining all the time, for bringing other people down with me. Carrying on with that programme wasn’t brave of me. It was cowardly, because I couldn’t face going home and admitting that I had failed. Knowing yourself well enough to know when to call it quits is an important skill to have. Sometimes going back on your words and your plans is the best – and the bravest – thing you can do.

5). It’s OK if you don’t enjoy yourself. I know it’s horrible. I know you don’t want to go home and admit that you were wrong, but really – a bad experience can teach you as much as a good one in the long run. I know now a lot more about the way I like to work, the projects I would like to work on – and the projects I would like to avoid. I know how much I can cope with. And most importantly, I know that I can get through being utterly miserable and come out the other side and actually feel like perhaps I’ve gained something from all of this.

So if you have a bad travel experience, don’t be disheartened. It’s not the end. Travel blogging, travel magazines, holiday competitions – it all makes travel look absolutely fantastic, but sometimes it’s just not. Sometimes you get sick or mugged or simply fed up. Sometimes, there really is no place like home.

If you have a bad experience and it really upsets you, think about why. It’s not just because it’s a bad experience – it’s because you really, really love what you’re doing and you want to do it again. Having a less than stellar time while travelling might shake your faith for a while, but it just means that your next trip will be even more amazing in comparison.

So here’s to that next trip, because God knows I need one.

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EDIT:

I just want to make a couple of things clear due to the attention this post has recently received. I wrote this as a sort of justification to myself – to make myself recognise the fact that I really had learnt something from this experience, that it wasn’t the complete waste of time I thought it was when I first returned home, but it’s since been picked up by a couple of excellent blogs focused on voluntourism as a sort of warning against bad organisations.

While that wasn’t the focus of my post, I’m grateful to those blogs – I have been on two previous voluntourism trips which I enjoyed immensely and I now understand completely the importance of researching before you go. I’d be very happy if this post made a couple of people think before they embark on a journey like mine and do a little research first.

However, the intention of this post is not to name and shame the organisation I went with, and there are several reasons for this:

1). They run many, many programmes in many different countries and I have only heard good things about their other programmes. I also think they work for an excellent cause and have had nothing but good dealings and kindness from their UK staff. The Nepal staff were similarly well-meaning, if a little less well-briefed on the programme aims.

2).  This is about my experience and I don’t wish to speak for other people. Although almost a third of the participants left before the end of the programme, many other people actually enjoyed it and felt like they DID make a difference, however small (and to be fair to the charity, they did start off the interview process for this programme by saying, “You won’t make a difference”, though of course I stupidly didn’t believe them at the time – what else is the point of voluntourism?!). That said, I do believe that the  Nepali volunteers alone (we were all placed with a Nepali counterpart) could have done the job a lot better alone, without having to babysit us. They understood their country, its needs and its language in a way we never could. 

3). This was the programme’s pilot year. Everything I have said above, I have said to UK and Nepal staff, complete with suggestions for improvement. We were very much encouraged to give honest feedback and I am hopeful that it will be listened to.

4). I participated in this programme, despite my severe reservations, because it was free. I didn’t have to spend any money to take part. My flights, visas, injections – it was all covered. The charity I went with are not part of some greedy, money-making scam, but rather a new government scheme in its early days. As such, I don’t feel like I have the right to name and shame an organisation that sent me to the other side of the world free-of-charge, and whose warnings about the lack of difference I would make I simply didn’t heed.

Istanbul’s Mystery – The Basilica Cistern

Deep underground below Istanbul lies the Basilica Cistern, a 1500 year old piece of history and a standing testament to the power of building and engineering before the age of machines. The Cistern was used as a water reserve for the city and its palaces during the Byzantine empire and now, more than a millenia later, it’s still possible for tourists to make the trip underground and see the Cistern for themselves.

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Probably one of the most beautiful and understated attractions in Istanbul.

No-one really knows when the Cistern was first built, but it takes its name from a Basilica that once stood above the ground where it lies. Historians have suggested that the original structure may have been commissioned by Constantine himself, before being expanded to its current size and state by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It’s held up by 336 columns of varying design, all thought to have been brought in from the ruins of even older buildings across the empire, and it is still filled with the very water that emperors once used to drink.

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Although I’m guessing it tastes a bit fishier now than it did back then…

After hugely expensive renovations, the cistern has now been fully unearthed and low-lighted walkways make a path through this massive cavern. Before the 1980s you used to have to get around it by boat, just like James Bond did in From Russia With Love (yeah, not so Russian after all, I guess) – a much more interesting method of transport if you ask me. Bring it back, please, Turkey! For just 10TL, it’s easily one of the cheapest sights in Istanbul and well worth a visit, even if you just use it as an excuse to get away from the blazing sun! Being underground, it’s always wonderfully cool – and being just off Sultanahment Square, you don’t even have to go ten steps from the main attractions to see it.

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The reason I liked the cistern so much was because it was a visible example of Turkish history. Despite its incredible reputation, I felt like Istanbul actually had less history to offer than I had expected, with much of its fame lying in buildings, people and empires that are long dead and gone. Istanbul, for me, was more about the feeling and the stories than the history you could physically reach out and touch – until I visited the Basilica Cistern.

It’s dark, it’s cold and it’s even sort of quiet, with something about its still waters and echoing walls inspiring visitors to talk in whispers. It’s a world away from the Istanbul above the surface (despite the novelty ‘Cistern Cafe’ sitting in a corner under the stairs…), which gives you plenty of time to reflect on all the years that have gone by in the world above it, while the Cistern has simply sat here, unchanged, for a hundred lifetimes. Even though the palaces it served have long since been either vacated or destroyed, the Cistern has never been lost to the world – for years after the end of the empire that created it, local people made holes in the floors of their homes and lowered buckets to pull up the Cistern’s water for their own supply.

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Seriously.

And it’s far more than the rather unflattering name of ‘Cistern’ would have you suspect (I’ve got to be honest – I was expecting some kind of giant toilet at first). This isn’t just a boring underground pit full of water and some pillars – it’s a cathedral-like hall with a high ceiling and ridiculously effective mood lighting. Today, it’s sometimes used for underground concerts and classical music events, the water and the huge, empty space lending itself well to impressive acoustics.

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And here I was thinking mood lighting had to be tacky by default. Well done, Istanbul – you might have been wrong with the cafe, but this was a pretty epic view.

It’s full of intriguing little details, like the single pillar carved with tear drops, possibly a memorial to the many slaves who died in the building of this underground palace (for that’s what it looks like, really – a palace, not just somewhere the city used to dump its water, and its name in Turkish, Yerebatan Sarayi, even means the sunken palace). There’s also the two Medusa heads at the base of two pillars right at the very back of the Cistern, one upside down and one lying on her side. Why? Has Medusa been employed to protect the Cistern – and if so, why place her the wrong way around? One argument is that she simply fits the pillar better that way, but I’m sure a bunch of normal bricks would have done the job just as well if that’s the case.

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The Medusa heads are just the Cistern’s little mystery. What about the biggest mystery of all? Why does it look like an intricately designed palace when no-one would ever have seen it, when its function was hidden from the sight and mind of all in Constantinople? And if you were going to build a giant underground reservoir, why on earth would you make a huge portion of it out of limestone, a rock that dissolves upon contact with water – not only destroying the building’s support structure but also possibly contaminating the water a whole empire relied upon? Why does it need two Medusa heads protecting it from intruders? And how, with its pitted and damaged limestone columns, is it still standing today, 3000 years later, if it really has always been full of water?

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One of the pitted limestone columns.

Nobody knows, and you know what? That’s the best thing about it.

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