I must take the opportunity to answer some of the questions that I am asked the most frequently, before beginning to tell about my experiences in the different cultures.
- Where did the idea for this trip come from?
When I talk about these trips, people often ask me why I did these trips, where the idea came from. It all started when I was twelve years old and realised that I wanted to live abroad long-term. So I decided that I would take a gap year when I finished secondary school. I was in touch with a charity that worked with street children all over Latin America, and Bolivia had stood out to me – so I wrote to that charity and asked if I could volunteer for their project for a year, in six years’ time (I come from a very well-organised family…). They put me in touch with another charity who would be able to equip and send me to Bolivia for the year. This was the original plan – and what ended up happening was quite different to what I had grown up expecting!
- How could I afford the trip?
I got in touch with that charity, who sent me some information about the costs of doing a one-year trip to Bolivia – it would be £7,000 plus flights and insurance. I started taking on part-time work that I could do flexibly in evenings, weekends and holidays, and doing any odd jobs that I could in order to collect money together. Later, when I found out from the organisation that the total amount of money I would need for the Bolivia trip was £13,000 – not £7,000 – I began planning and organising fundraising events of various kinds. I enjoyed all this, learnt many life skills (including money-management!) and got a variety of job experience.
- What happened – why did I not go to Bolivia for the full year?
A few months before I was due to fly to Bolivia, after six years of planning, learning Spanish, fundraising, working and researching Bolivian culture, I got a phone call from the organisation who were going to send me to Bolivia. They told me that since I had never before experienced Latin American culture firsthand, they were unable to send me to Bolivia for the full year. They said that since I had been so determined and so organized they had not realized that I had never before visited a Latin American country. The solution that they suggested was to send me to Guatemala for a month with a small team in the Summer, and then send me back to the UK for five or six months to process the experience and think about the next step, and then send me to Bolivia for six months from January if I still wanted to go.
At this point I had a moment of stress, having thought for the past six years that I was going to go to Bolivia for the full year – but I agreed, and was signed up for a month in Guatemala with a small team. I wondered how I would fill the five or six months in between, somewhat disappointed and not particularly wanting to get a full-time job in the UK for that time. I did not want to appear as if I’d given up on my dream to go to Bolivia for the year, and couldn’t bear another six months of sitting around in England waiting to finally get to Bolivia. So I thought and prayed and stressed about what I might do in that five or six months. Within a short time I received various invitations to visit friends and contacts around the world.
- How did I choose which countries to go to?
As a teenager I had done some voluntary work in a retreat centre at weekends and holidays, where I had opportunity to get to know many people from a wide variety of cultures. One of the friends I made there was a girl of about my age from the Czech Republic, who invited me to go and visit her and stay in her country for a month to learn about the culture and volunteer somewhere. She said that all I would need to pay for is flights – that everything else would be covered. I knew very little about the Czech Republic and wanted to see her again, so I agreed to go.
Through Facebook I had been in touch with a Ugandan charity for a few years, following their posts and looking at photos and stories on their page. They were involved in various development work projects including running orphanages and schools, among other things. I was in touch with the leaders of the organisation and would talk with them about things they were doing, inspired by their stories and photos. A number of times they had invited me to come out to Uganda and visit them, and see what they do. Eventually I decided to consider it – especially since I was hoping to visit some friends in Rwanda and so would be in East Africa anyway.
When I was in secondary school I had a rather eccentric head-teacher who seemed to enjoy calling people out of lessons whenever he could come up with a reason. Sometimes prominent Christians (vicars, bishops, evangelists, heads of charities etc.) would visit the school, and on some of those occasions he would call me out of classes to meet them, knowing that I was a Christian and liked meeting people. I found this a little strange – why me? – but I didn’t question it: I was more than happy to have time out of lessons! On one occasion a former student came to visit the school, a lady who had moved to Rwanda to work for a charity there. She was on her annual visit to the UK and had come to my hometown to see family, and happened to drop into the school to visit any of her former teachers who were still around. The head teacher called me to his office to meet her, knowing that I wanted to live abroad and probably do some kind of charity work in future. We kept in touch, and later she invited me to come and stay with her in Rwanda for a while during my five-or-six-month-gap between Guatemala and Bolivia. I gladly accepted her invitation.
Burundi is a country that I had been interested in for some time, because I had heard talks from an English man who had lived and worked in Burundi for several years. I had heard this man speak several times when he visited the UK, and had spoken with him at the end of each of his talks (did I mention that I like to meet people?). I kept in touch with him for a while, and met his wife and children a couple of times, and one day he invited me to come and stay with them in Burundi and visit the projects that he worked for. Since I was planning on visiting East Africa anyway, I agreed, and became quite excited to witness firsthand the work of the organisations that I had heard so much about.
I had read a few stories about Turkey and had heard many fascinating things about the culture. When one of my colleagues in one of my part-time jobs told me that her brother lived in Turkey and worked for a church there, I became very interested and was put in touch with the brother and his family. When I enquired about their work and became increasingly interested in the differences between English and Turkish churches, I was invited to come and visit them and volunteer there for two weeks – so I agreed.
I had volunteered for a local charity in Estonia for a week in my Christmas holidays six months before finishing Sixth Form, and I really loved learning about their culture. One of the guests who had visited the retreat centre where I worked had put in touch with the charity. When that charity invited me to return the following December I jumped at the opportunity.
- Why the heck did my parents allow all this?
I was fortunate in that my parents had always given me a lot of freedom and rarely asked too many questions about what I was doing. They had allowed me to go away visiting friends around the UK at weekends, as long as I paid for the train tickets myself, and twice they even allowed me to run small youth camps in their garden so long as I organised it myself and did not make too much noise. Perhaps he was joking (sometimes I found it hard to tell!), but often in my teenage years when I mentioned my plan to go to Bolivia for a year to work with street children, my Dad would laugh and say that he thought it was a passing craze. I knew that my Mum didn’t really want me to go so far away, and to a seemingly unsafe country, but she was supportive even so – though at the time I interpreted some of her constructive comments as attempts to dissuade me. When push came to shove, though, I think my parents knew that I was far too stubborn to be told ‘no’, and so they let me get on with it, helpfully checking that I had been organised enough to book insurance and such like. I think they found my fairly last-minute round-the-world trip idea a little unnerving, but by this point perhaps they realised that nothing they could say would stop me. I was a bit of a handful, I think! Although they worried about me, they were supportive: my Mum gave me lifts to some of the vaccination appointments, and for my eighteenth birthday gift they gave me money towards one of the flights. I am very fortunate to have such caring and permissive parents, and will always be thankful for the degree of freedom that they gave me!