Backpacking vs volunteering?

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Between us, Bean and Myself (and Bali, mitsles and co) have had many years experience working in the international development sector, running “real” volunteering opportunities for interested internationals, and also, working in the backpacking sector, when it was in the midst of its hey day in the 2000’s.  We got to thinking the other day, how the sector has changed.  Here are our five reasons why Ethical “real” volunteering beats backpacking in South Africa.

1. Affordability: If you wanted to volunteer in South Africa with MozVolunteers for one month, the costs would be far less than if you backpacked around, say with the Baz Bus, or personal hire car.  Volunteering also provides opportunities to travel, in free time, around our province, to Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland and further.  Backpacking is expensive, you have to factor in travel, accommodation, meals and extra activities.  With us, these are all included in your volunteer placement.

2. In-depth travel, and immersion: Many backpackers complain that they try and cover too large an area of the country in too little time, meaning that they spend most time on the road rather than actually making memories.  When you volunteer with us, you get an in-depth experience of our area, and travel opportunities around to locations and destinations that are “off the beaten track”.  This means, best of both worlds, and a real South African experience.

3. Safety: Hands down, volunteering with us is a far safer experience than backpacking around.  We offer reliable and safe accommodation, and provide in-house, expert advice, and support 24/7.  When you are backpacking you can often end up in undesirable places, at the wrong time, and open yourself up to personal risk.

4. Community benefit: Volunteering with us provides an opportunity for the communities that you are visiting to benefit, as a large proportion of your fee goes to them, either directly or indirectly.   You are also given the opportunity to share your skills with others. When backpacking, you are participating in the commercial sector only.

5. Cultural experience: When participating in a volunteer placement, you will spend large amounts of time immersed in a local community and exposed to local culture for a prolonged period of time, giving you a better understanding of the way of life, and hardships of local, previously disadvantaged people.  Backpacking, on the other hand, you may book on a day tour to a cultural village, this is usually set up just for the benefit of the tourists.

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Tragedy of Mozambique

Perhaps you have heard about the recent growing concern about unrest in central Mozambique.  Last week, we heard in the national media that after 21 years of peace, Renamo and Frelimo (the opposition and ruling party respectively) are again at loggerheads and are beginning to involve civilians, tourists and vehicles in transit in their political clashes.  Does this mean that there is going to be a recurrence of civil war? Hopefully not.  Over the past few days it has been reported that two transport vehicles using the corridor road in the north of the country have been held up at gun point with Frelimo soldiers battling to hold onto their life, and worryingly an overland truck heading through the country into Zimbabwe has also been caught up in terrorist activities.  Numerous British owned companies have repatriated their ex-pat workers, and the US has warned its citizens against travel.

Cause for concern?

We ourselves have suspended our operations in Inharrime province, as we are also concerned for the safety of tourists and our own staff. Although the unrest appears to be isolated to the North of the country, with occasional demonstrations in Maputo, the capital, we would rather be safe than sorry.  We’re holding thumbs that this political unrest is a temporary matter, and will be resolved swiftly, perhaps with international mediation.  This should mean that Mozambique will yet again become the peaceful country of palm trees and sunshine that we all know it to be.

What about Ponta D’Ouro?

As Ponta D’Ouro is situated in the South of the country – really, only a 10 minute drive into Mozambique from South Africa, we have no concern about our volunteers here.  All projects are continuing as usual, as there has been no reports at all of any problems in this part of the country.  Don’t forget, that Ponta D’Ouro is highly reliant on South African tourism for income and revenue, and is also isolated from Maputo by the harbour.  This means that it is highly unlikely that any political unrest will be felt in this small village.  This has always been the case in the past.  We will, however, reassess the situation in the new year, but until then it is all systems go in Ponta!

Creepy crawlies and bugs and things

I’m not a person who minds spiders, they have never bothered me, and I know that I can live happily side by side with all sorts of flying bugs, moths, insects and beetles (Bean on the other hand is terrified of spiders, and runs a mile screaming whenever one makes a visit).

One summer in Mozambique, we had just moved house, and after a good spring clean, we doused the outside walls liberally with fendona insecticide (a major necessity in the war against the anopheles mosquito and cerebral malaria). Settling into bed (after the rigmarole of showering in cold water, spraying liberally with peaceful sleep insect repellent, securely tucking mosquito net under sides of bed, cranking the fan up to high power, turning lights out and jumping into bed without disturbing the tenuous arrangement, or getting bitten by a sneaky mosquito in the process), I was about to fall into my usual deep dreamless sleep, when *ouch* I felt a sharp pain on my left shoulder blade, followed by a numbness on the left side of my body. I screamed, jumped a mile in the air, Scott also jumped, but to turn on the light and examined the place of impact. Spider bite. Huge, painful, red, swollen, instantly explosive spider bite.

After a massive dose of antihistamine, some ant-inflammatory and a large glass of wine, I was still numb (probably exacerbated by the wine), just a little sort but fine and even managed to fall back to sleep.

However, a couple of nights later, whilst lying in bed reading (again after the usual bed time rigmarole) Scott looked up at the corner of the door-jamb and immediately turned white (usual reaction to a large creepy crawly). Wedged between the hinge and the wall was the largest spider I have ever seen in my life, at least the size of a large dinner plate, with protruding eyes and fluffy legs. Mesmerised by the arachnid, we sat there for a while, and then in a moment of decision, Scott picked up the bug spray and doused the thing, full spray for at least 5 minutes – he was clearly taking no chances! It may or may not have been the thing that got me previously (doubtful, as smaller spiders usually cause the largest bites), but it definitely got the full force of our truly anti-arachnid feelings!

Luckily (for Bean anyway..!) spiders of that size are less common in South Africa than Mozambique, and I can safely say that we happily left that species well behind us with our move to South Africa.

Recently, however, now that summer is on its way, we are getting the usual increasing snake population here in South Africa. Although most species that reside here in South Africa are harmless and probably just a little curious, sadly, there are a few that can be very dangerous (to animals as well as humans), and although you can keep vigilant, check through your grounds for invaders who are the worst of the species, and never tramp through long grass without shoes, some (poisonous and not) do inevitably slip through the surveillance.

In January this year we had the most fabulous Australian girl volunteering with us. She was lying in bed, finishing writing up her volunteer diary entry for the day, and reached to the lamp at her bedside to turn out the light. As she did so, she noticed a small, grey snake coiled around the lamp’s stem. Very bravely, instead of screaming, or waking Scott or I (we were already sound asleep and oblivious to the maneuvers going on in the next room..!) she picked up the lamp by the shade, and moved it into the lounge. A little later, she realized what had happened (possibly after the adrenaline caused by finding a snake inches away from her head had subsided), and on second thoughts woke us up with the worry that one of the indoor animals may be vulnerable to being hurt by the snake. We removed the snake (luckily a non-poisonous variety) using a golf club, and all trundled back off to bed…

Are you scared of spiders like Bean? Do you not like snakes? Or are you more like me, and only worry about them when they hurt you?

Creepy crawlies and bugs and things often pop into our lives here to say hello, 99% of the time they are perfectly harmless and possibly just curious about what we are doing and who we are. Don’t get scared by them, try and stay calm, and always let someone know if there’s a snake on your lamp, or a spider in your bed -we can quickly set it free (its probably much happier outside anyway!) and carry on with our day or fall back to sleep to the wonderful sounds of the bush, the crickets, frogs and the cicadas: that African lullaby that makes our sleep so peaceful here.