Kasia Beach reflects on her journey traveling through 4 countries in Asia as an IVHQ volunteer…
Unsure of exactly how I landed up on a plane bound for a city in China named Xi’an, which I was pronouncing as EX-eye-an for an embarrassingly long time (it’s said she-an)! For some strange reason I had flung myself head first into a travel adventure I was entirely unprepared for, I contemplated my competency at making ‘sensible’ life decisions, giving up the chance to begin a degree in dentistry, I had abandoned hours of studying, testing and interviews at the last minute, determined I was unready for ‘real life’, ironically the next four months and four destinations would teach me more about real life than I could have gotten anywhere else. As the plane was readying for landing I started becoming aware of what I had done, it had seemed so simple, I looked at the IVHQ programs on the internet, decided they were the most affordable and transparently funded and applied with them, I went through these motions with little notion of what I was actually signing up for. The unconscious desire to experience a new way of life had taken me here; landing in this beautiful foreign continent, unaware of what awaited me.
A few days later I was confidently walking Muslim Street, entombed by locals, and largely Chinese tourists, the mouthwatering smell of all things street food in the air. My new little sister was taking me to the famous dumpling restaurant, and one single bite of them made days of flights totally worth it. My host family became my real family, even grandma and grandpa shared family dumpling recipes; our broken English conversations supplemented with Google translate, it was a match made in heaven.
They took me to the important cultural sights, the giant wild goose pagoda and terracotta warriors, but my favorite nights involved fishing in a concert lake and playing cards. Working at the special needs school involved assisting the teachers, playing with the kids and getting to know them; it’s hard to describe just how much of an impact these kids had on me, tears well in my eyes just thinking about them. Interestingly many kids couldn’t speak due to various disabilities, but I couldn’t speak Chinese either! So it worked perfectly, our communication was subtle understandings of each other. It felt like this was my life forever, I could barely imagine another world existing outside of my Chinese family, friends and work, it had only been 1 month however, and when leaving I cried and cried, vowing I would never find such strong connections again… with despair in my heart I jumped on a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal.
The thing about travelling alone is it allows you a sense of freedom, to immerse yourself fully having no footing or grounding around you to any past conception of yourself or your life back home. Sometimes this can be scary, luckily IVHQ’s orientation helps immensely, schooling you on the customs and culture; also giving you time to socialize with other volunteers before finding yourself in more rural and remote areas with little contact from the western world, which is exactly where I was headed. I stayed in a Monastery in Pokhara for the next month, living alongside Nepalese Monks.
Every morning at 5am I would hear their voices chiming in unison, chanting; it is a soft and humbling way to be woken. Teaching mostly English classes to the young monks and spending our free time playing soccer with both the young and older monks, time passed too quickly. The Monks are insanely good soccer players and not afraid to show you their skills! I took a weekend away here to catch up with volunteers I had met in Kathmandu to see the awe‐inspiring Chitwan National Park. My only regret whilst travelling is not giving myself enough time in each country, I always wanted to stay longer. I would sometimes take a breather on the roof of our little monastery, gazing at the daunting Annapurna ranges that hung down over the town, I felt like they were daring me, mocking me and telling me I hadn’t really seen Nepal until I’ve done some mountain climbing. However now at least I have an excuse to go to Nepal! I would spend my evenings on the balcony here after dinner talking to the principle monk, he would teach me about Buddhism, and I would inundate him with questions about literally everything in the world. I will forever cherish his friendship and knowledge. Needless to say, I cried a lot leaving. I had not learnt from the past, still convinced that the hospitality and connections made here could never be surpassed.
A short flight later and I had landed in another world, Delhi, India. The crash course on culture in the IVHQ orientation was one of my favorite things in India. As a general rule I shy away from any ‘tourist’ attraction, but the Taj Mahal is out of this world, tossed into the harsh Indian world, my new volunteer friends and I decided to immerse ourselves in the culture and wear beautiful saris, this involved waking up at around 4am to dress ourselves (with a lot of help from our host mum!) and then take the long and cold bus ride… we thought we would blend in, turns out white girls in saris at the Taj Mahal attracts a lot more attention than we bargained for! The sunrise, the saris and the emotional story of the Taj Mahal, it was a visceral experience. After our week orientation I left to my new home and family, living in the slum areas of Delhi was not glamorous, but it was rewarding. The schools so badly need help, your efforts are so appreciated and you have the room to really make a difference in the children’s education. Once again I was left wanting more time.
Sitting on the plane just over 3 hours in I looked through the window, and I get my first glimpse of the tear drop shaped island of Sri Lanka, the bright green of plantations and vibrant blue ocean like a pearlescent marble. A friendly lady holding up a sign with my name greets me at the airport; the warm air and laidback vibe is a breath of fresh air from the hectic nature of Delhi. I meet some of the other volunteers waiting to take the bus together and I’m immediately at home here. Us volunteers mostly spend the orientation week in Kandy, having language and culture lessons and sightseeing, then it’s off to the turtle project in a little town in the Southern Province.
The train ride there was an experience, we had a little confusion as to which was our stop, upon asking one local, who asked someone else, whom everyone heard speaking, somehow amounting to our whole carriage becoming involved in deciphering when we should get off the train. Luckily our local entourage figured it out and waved us off the train; feeling extremely touched by just how friendly and kind the Sinhalese are. I felt this respectful, compassionate nature of the Sinhalese people from the moment I set off on this magical island and was always blown away by the lengths locals are willing to go to help anyone.
Like the locals, the turtles had a lot of personality and love to give, odd as it may sound I got to individually know the turtles personalities over the next month and they are the best kind of friends… Not afraid to try and bite you, thankful for food and a clean shell, and always up to splash you when you’re not looking. Releasing baby turtles into the water is hard to describe in words, the somewhat scared maternal instinct that washed over me watching those little guys flip their way into the big scary black ocean in the dark is powerful and heartwarming all at once.
Watching the baby turtles plunge into the vast, turbulent seas made me reflect upon my time volunteering with IVHQ as it was coming to an end, like these little turtles I felt a bit frightened entering these foreign countries alone, but the little turtles had their siblings and my equivalent was the volunteers, IVHQ staff and local staff that became like an international family to me. This initial fear pays off in moments, for the sights, the flavors, the cultural insight, the relationships and everlasting memories one creates on such a journey. I’ve gained insight into myself, the world around me and how much one person can achieve with just good intentions and a willing heart to help. Volunteering is my favorite type of travel, allowing you to immerse yourself in a culture, make lifelong friends with an incredible variety of people and allow you to make a real difference in others lives. Volunteering with IVHQ was truly one of the most amazing and life changing experiences of my life.