Lisa Rueff and crew help orphanages in Haiti

A terrible earthquake struck Haiti in January, 2010, and by May,  Lisa Rueff of Sausalito traveled to this suffering country to provide aid for earthquake victims. She fell in love with the Haitian people and their strength and courage, and felt compelled to visit again. This October, Lisa organized a Yoga and Volunteer Retreat to Haiti. She and 14 Marinites traveled to Haiti where they had a rewarding experience helping orphans and others who were displaced by the earthquake.

Destination

I was headed off to Haiti. In May, I had traveled there to work with the Global volunteer Network in tented cities and orphanages, and in October I decided to go back. I organized a Yoga & Volunteer Retreat to Haiti, which offered my yoga students an opportunity to return with me and experience first-hand the strength, resilience, gratitude, faith and love inherent in the Haitians. I, along with 14 Marin County residents, ventured to Jacmel, a beautiful, tropical seaside town 45 miles south of Port-Au-Prince, once famous for its historic building and artisans, yet heavily hit by the earthquake.

Cause

Before my team departed for Haiti, we held two well-attended fundraisers for the orphanages that we were going to visit. Just five days before we left, my ground contact coordinator in Haiti, who works for a nonprofit international development organization called ACDI/VOCA, asked if we could possibly bring some tools to Haiti.  His organization was just at the onset of a training program for 40 Haitian men and women, ages 18-25, who were displaced from Port-au-Prince during the earthquake. They had each lost their homes and families, and they had no work. An American volunteer construction engineer had just arrived in Jacmel to begin the training to teach them construction skills to introduce seismic retrofits and more earthquake resistant structures/supports.  Unfortunately, the tools they needed for the program were not available. Knowing how valuable this program would be for rebuilding Haiti and creating ongoing employment and aid for the Haitians, we agreed to find as many of these tools as we could in the final few days. My husband, Philip Schneider, spearheaded collecting the tools.  He had to find over 40 tools for 40 Haitian people, including specialized chisels, saws, hammers, and metric tape measures. In the next few days, Philip scrambled to over ten hardware stores to gather the requested materials. Through his determination, we brought over 750 pounds of tools to the Haitians.  Each of the volunteers brought two over-sized suitcases: one filled with the tools, the other filled with items such as clothing, books, crayons, and diapers, which were on the orphanages’ “wish lists.”

We  volunteered with two different orphanages. The Faith and Love Orphanage, run by Marlaine and Daniel Alix, houses 84 children. This orphanage is meticulously run, and all of the kids take care of each other. The older children take care of the younger ones, and the children play beautifully together. Before leaving for Haiti, I spoke with Marlaine at the orphanage, who let me know she was building a dental clinic on her property to make up for the absence of dental care in their area.  My group sent ahead money for supplies to break ground. When we arrived, Marlaine proudly showed us the supplies we helped to purchase. We could not wait to get to work!
Half the members of my team grabbed shovels, and immediately pitched in.  Another part of my group chose to paint the orphanage. The walls of the orphanage were filthy, and in need of quite a few layers of paint.  Our money also went to buying paint, brushes and rollers for the orphanage interior. A few members of my team opted to simply play with the youngest orphans who could not yet attend school. Together they enjoyed arts and crafts activities that we brought over from the states. From anywhere we worked on the orphanage grounds, you could hear the kids having so much fun playing with our team members. Volunteering at Faith and Love was the perfect place to spend the morning. Every hour, the teams rotated duties. Each person spent ample time playing with the kids, painting, or doing construction work with the dental clinic.  We were all elated at the progress we had already made with the different projects.

We also worked with Jacques Africot, who runs an orphanage for 11 children, called Better Future International, whose mission is to create a better future for orphaned and abandoned children with nutritious food, healthcare, education and supportive services in a family environment. They operate a successful orphan home, dedicated to improving the lives of orphaned children by providing the security of a family structure, the opportunity that comes with proper education, and the physical benefits of proper nutrition and medical care. They intend to give each orphan support until graduation with a baccalaureate degree.  They do not place children for adoption, but rather seek to help them live successfully in their native country and culture. We were invited to take part in the after-school program the founder, Jacques, had recently implemented at a local community center. The kids all seemed very happy at their home. Their model of “Raising Global Citizens” seeks to make a difference in both the short-term needs of children and the long-term improvement of disadvantaged communities by raising children as responsible citizens.  He brings the 11 kids from the orphanage together with about 15 more local kids Monday through Friday, from 3pm-5pm. The kids get together for after school tutoring, computer classes, English classes, fun games and activities from 3pm-4pm, and from 4pm-5pm they enjoy a delicious and healthy meal together.
During the afternoons we also worked with Bonite Affriany, a 72-year-old Haitian woman who is the equivalent of a Haitian Mother Theresa. She is so full of love, strength, energy and helps everyone in her community.  She currently feeds over 275 children everyday, at one time, with a nutritious and filling meal. She provides for these 275 children in her community to attend schools, and conducts an adult education program to teach mathematics and reading/writing in Creole and French. The program currently has 11 qualified teachers and three classes with 42 adult students. She began a micro-loan program that lends adults money to purchase groceries and to resell them, enabling them to provide for themselves. She provides clothing for the children and adults in her community, as well as in the neighboring tented cities. On the compound, she has built a church that is divinely spiritual, and offers bible study as well as voice lessons to the children. Bonite works tirelessly to help meet the needs of the people of Jacmel.

Highlights

Every moment of the day was a highlight!  Our time spent in Haiti was so memorable, uplifting and meaningful.

When we first arrived, we were invited to attend the church service at the Faith and Love Orphanage. The kids were so welcoming, and they greeted us with the biggest smiles. Led entirely by the kids, the orphanage church service was filled with the most beautiful sounds. Three of the older girls, in their teens, conducted most of the service with confidence, poise, grace and beauty.  It sounded like angels descending from heaven, their voices harmonizing together so sweetly. Towards the end of the service four young girls, aged about eight to ten years old, shyly got up and sang with the most precious and sweet voices. It was so soulful and spiritual. All of the children in the orphanage sang from their plastic seats, clapped, swayed and got into the music. They loved it. During the service, the founder of the orphanage, Marlaine, spoke for just a few minutes. She personally introduced me to the kids and explained to them I had been to the orphanage before and was so touched by the children that I brought a team back with me. With Marlaine’s encouragement, I then introduced my team to the children. Immediately after the service ended the children hugged, kissed and embraced all of the volunteers, and thanked us for being there. The 84 kids were each so full of love and appreciation, and they made us feel so welcome and delighted to be there. We toured their facility, each child holding our hands and leading us around. The kids all sleep in bunk beds, with their belongings neatly organized. They all seem very healthy, nourished, well-adjusted, and happy. Knowing we were going to be spending the majority of our time helping this particular orphanage felt so special.
Teaching the kids yoga at the different orphanages was a true highlight. Once I laid down the mats and put them in a circle, the kids were so excited, and we had so much fun! I led them through very playful and interactive yoga sessions. We emulated all the animals, with sounds and movements. The children were crawling around on all fours like cats, hopping around like frogs, swaying like elephants with big long trunks,  and slithering around like snakes. We held hands and practiced yoga poses together. Fearless, and full of fun, the kids tried and enjoyed everything! My favorite part of the yoga practice was on the first afternoon, when we sat together in a circle at the end of the practice, with our knees all touching.  I invited the kids to close their eyes and make a big wish, and as the director of the orphanage translated, the kids all closed their eyes and with deep concentration and earnest faces, they made their individual wish.  We then had the kids write out their wish on a colorful flag, and we hung the flags as a string of prayer flags. The kids were so animated and proud of what they wrote down.
Another highlight was feeding the 275 children with Bonite. Spending time with this inspirational woman, who works around the clock and helps so many people, is a sight to behold.  Many of the kids she feeds are  from the nearby tent city that I had volunteered with in May.  When I first entered Bonite’s property,  I was surrounded and hugged by kids who remembered my name from five months prior. With smiling eyes and broken English, they kept thanking me for returning. The Haitian people are full of appreciation, faith, joy, strength and resilience. They may not have much, but they value and appreciate everything they have.  Initially, I went to Haiti to “help” out the Haitian people. Little did I know that by bearing witness to their hardships, and seeing their profound gratitude and open hearts, they cracked my heart open to loving and caring, allowing me to rediscover what is truly important; helping one another, being of service, and giving more than you can take.

Challenges

The greatest challenge was leaving Haiti, a country I had fallen in love with. The children at the orphanages were so full of love, fun and playfulness. The adults that we worked with, including Bonite Affriany, Jacques Africot, and Marlaine Alix, were so inspiring that one could not help but want to stay and continue the good work. We felt that in the short amount of time we were there, we had accomplished so much. The entire group wanted to stay and  continue with the efforts.

Unlike many other travel destinations, safety was a concern, primarily after dark. Perhaps erring on the side of caution, I requested that none of our volunteers leave our hotel after sunset. There were no complaints as I had booked accommodations at two very beautiful and comfortable hotels with delicious restaurants directly on the water.  Both hotels had lovely, enclosed seaside courtyards, spacious enough to practice yoga together as a group. That being said, we felt very safe during the daytime in Haiti and members in our group ventured out alone during the day and never felt at risk.

Getting There

We flew from San Francisco to Miami and, after a short layover, on to Port-au-Prince. Our total air travel time was about seven hours.  Once we arrived in Port-au-Prince and negotiated our way through traffic, we traveled just under three hours through breathtaking countryside, with steep mountainous roads, to get to the seaside town of Jacmel.

Who Would you Recommend this Experience to?

I would recommend this trip to anybody interested in being of service and making a difference. On my team, I had a young woman in her early 20’s, and a woman over the age of 70.  Everyone had exceptional experiences, and expressed the desire to return.  I recommend this to anyone who enjoys playing with kids, meeting extraordinary people, and bearing witness to how people can make the most of a challenging situation. Every evening I led a yoga session as an opportunity to relax, rejuvenate and nurture yourself after a day of intense volunteer work.  Knowing the healing, calming and transformative powers of yoga, this gift was offered to both my team as well as to the Haitian people.  I will be leading yoga and volunteer trips to Haiti and other destinations in the future. For more information about joining upcoming trips, click here.

Julie Kaye Travels to China

It is safe to say that Greenbrae resident Julie Kaye  loves animals. After working as an unpaid employee at Marin Humane Society for 21 years, she decided to lend her dedication to another organization, Animals Asia. Animals Asia has spent the last 12 years helping Moon Bears, and Julie knew that this organization was the right fit for her. Recently, Julie jetted off to China to learn more about this organization, and to see the bears for herself.

Destination

When I decided to join Animals Asia, I met with their US director Alice Ng to discuss what I could do to help the organization. Although Animals Asia has offices around the world, the bears are located in China and Vietnam. We decided that I would benefit from traveling to Chengdu, China to see the bears for myself.

Cause

Animals Asia’s flagship campaign is the Moon Bear Rescue, aimed at bringing the barbaric practice of bear farming and the bile trade to an end. They have
signed agreements with both the Chinese and Vietnamese governments to rescue
700 bears from the torture of bile farms, and bring them to the sanctuaries
to live out their lives in peace and safety. The campaign also involves
reducing the demand of bile consumed in Asia through promoting effective and
cruelty-free alternatives. My role in Animal Asia is fundraising, which is something that I love to do and should greatly benefit the organization.

Highlights

I believed that the cats at MHS had my whole heart. Little did I know that
there was room for the bears. Visiting them in China was amazing… I
was completely taken with their charming personalities. So many of them
behaved like toddlers…the way they play on the swings, splashing in the
ponds, bugging the other bears when they wanted on the swing. When they
were in their beds at night, one of them was laying on her back playing with a
piece of straw…it was adorable.

The second highlight was the clinic. One of their three vets is from Marin, Monica Bando. I worked in the Marin Humane Society Clinic for five years, where the average surgery was done on an eight pound cat. At Animals Asia we did surgery on a 300 pound bear! The logistics of just getting the bear on the surgery table was mind-boggling.  I spent one whole morning watching Monica give a bear  a health check and then remove her gall bladder. I even got to trim her nails…think paws the size of a whole kitten. It was thrilling just being that close to one of these charming bears. The surgery went on for hours but we kept checking back.

Challenges

The biggest challenge was dealing with all of the abuse that the bears were subjected to when they were on the farms, before they were saved by Animals Asia. It is heartbreaking to think of a bear, or anything, caged for over 30 years in an area so tight that they can’t even turn around, being jabbed in the chest daily by a farmer searching for its gall bladder, and suffering from lack of food and water. Even the though of it is horrible.

Getting There

Luckily, getting to Chengdu, China is not too difficult… It just takes a long time. I flew to Hong Kong and then caught a 2 1/2 hour flight from there to
Chengdu.

Who Would You Recommend This Experience To?

This is a fabulous experience for anyone who loves animals. To see them playing, sleeping in their beds, splashing around in the water, or even just laying in the sunshine… it just does something to your heart.

Barry Hoffner – Caravan to Class

Sausalito resident Barry Hoffner was so inspired by his trip to Timbuktu, in the West African nation Mali, that he decided to celebrate his 50th birthday by launching a project, Caravan to Class. He hopes to rebuild the educational infrastructure of Tedeini, a village that he visited. Caravan to Class was formed in January, 2010, and after a couple of months of selecting an NGO (non-Governmental Organization), doing a study on the needs of the village, and putting together a budget, Barry is now in fund-raising mode. He hopes to be able to begin construction/renovation on the school by early Fall, and is looking forward to bringing his family to Mali once construction has begun.

Destination

I simply had a long-time dream of getting to the famed “middle of nowhere” Timbuktu. I was told that if I was going to Timbuktu I should not miss the amazing music event, “Festival au Desert”, in the Southern Sahara Desert, outside of Timbuktu, Mali. So, I used the festival as a reason to fulfill my one of my “bucket-list” objectives.

Cause

While at the festival, I decided to take a guided camel trip to a village not far from where I was camping. My host, the son of the head of the village, told me the interesting story of his people, the Tuareg, and their transition from a nomadic lifestyle to moving to the village of Tedeini. The Tuareg migrated from the Atlas Mountains in the 6th and 11th centuries to escape the Muslim invasions from the north. Today the Tuareg population numbers roughly 5 million centered around the countries that ring the Sahara Desert, mainly AlgeriaLibyaMali and Niger. Due to desertification of former Saharan oasis and national boundary issues, many Tuareg have settled in villages and have given up their nomadic lifestyle, creating the need for permanent schools. I saw that the education of the children was suffering. Many of them were not in school, there was no longer a functioning well at  the school, the teachers were uncertified, and the mud-brick buildings had deteriorated over the years.

Mali ranks in the bottom five countries on the UN Human Development Index and dead last in literacy at 26%. In the villages of the Southern Sahara desert, literacy are even lower, particularly for girls.

Upon returning from my trip to Mali, I launched Caravan to Class to rebuild the school for my friends in Tedeini.

Highlights

Mali is a beautiful place. I loved the diverse mud-brick architecture of the Mosques, the stars at night in the Sahara desert, the mysticism of the animist Dogon people, and most of all the amazing graciousness of the Tuareg, a nomadic people of the Sahara.

I was personally fascinated with how engaging the Tuareg men, women, and children were drinking the ubiquitous cups of sweet/bitten tea, learning how to navigate by the star constellations, and the social customs of their culture.

Challenges

Although my trip was great, it was not without its challenges. In Mali, time is simply not important; there is plenty of it. Every car ride  encountered multiple delays – flat tire, hit goat, over-heated radiator… However, you need to adjust and get used to that or you will simply not enjoy  traveling in Africa.

Getting There

We departed from San Francisco on Air France, headed for Paris. We then went on to Bamako, Mali. It took 4 ½ days from Mali’s capital to reach Timbuktu, including 3 days/nights on a “pinasse” (Malian river boat) on the Niger, Africa’s third longest river. The “pinasse” trip itself was a great adventure, traveling past hundreds of small villages along the banks of the Niger, including the village where Ali Farka Toure, Mali’s most famous musician, lived (and is laid to rest).

Who would you recommend this experience to?

Anyone seeking a real/diverse African (non-animal) adventure. East Africa is great for those who love safaris and wildlife, but West Africa is perfect for anyone interested in the diverse and engaging African cultures.

Peggy Day

Twelve years ago, Sausalito resident Peggy Day helped a very poor community in Tibet build a home for orphaned children.  She has been working and building there ever since and will return there with a small group this summer.  Peggy hopes to interact and inspire the children to seek out new careers so that they can have a successful future.

Destination

My group and I will begin with two days in Beijing to see places such as The Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, and Tienanmen Square. From Beijing, we will fly up to the Tibetan Plateau and arrive in Lhasa, Tibet, at 11,800”.  The sky there is an unbelievable blue and the air is very thin so we will need to move mindfully as we acclimatize.  Our game plan is to have a little food, a little rest and a lot of water as we stroll with our cameras to the Barkor – a sacred pilgrim’s path, a lively marketplace and a social center for Tibetans.

The hotel we will stay in is in the heart center of the Tibetan community, and is full of history.  Once the palatial residence of religious royalty, it is newly refurbished with electricity. modern plumbing, and spacious rooms decorated in a traditional style with Tibetan antiques. The meals are also amazing! We are looking forward to the luxury!

Based out of Lhasa, we will visit the great Drepung Monastery and see two nuns meditating and living in a nearby cave, watch monks debate with hands clapping, foot stomping and beads flying at Sera Monastery, witness the devotion as we circumambulate the great Jokhang Temple with pilgrims from remote areas (it’s a photographer’s dream!), and explore surrounding areas that are unique and off the beaten path.

Cause:

Because of the political history between Tibet and China and our loyalty to the Dalai Lama, some people have taken sides.  We can’t change history but we can make it better for the future.  By visiting Tibet, we show the Tibetan people that we respect what is most precious to them.  Their history, culture and tradition has been built on Buddhism and we will meet people – nuns meditating in caves for years, a doctor from the School of traditional Medicine, a caretaker monk from the Potala Palace-who are still trying to keep that tradition in their lives.  We will also be spending time with 28 orphaned children whom we hope to inspire for their future.  It is a heart-expanding experience.

Your participation in this program is hands-on support for Tibetans in Tibet as well as $150 of the trip cost is $150 tax-deductible donation to Chushul Home through the Sacred Earth Foundation.  We will use that for a shopping trip to Lhasa with the children so you can see how far we can stretch a dollar.

Highlights:

Every day, I will introduce my fellow travelers to some of the very special places that have inspired and empowered me over the last 25 years.   We’ll summit the magnificent Potala Palace, now a world heritage site, and many of the historical places and monuments around and in Lhasa. I also plan to take everyone who would like to join me to sacred spaces that I have discovered.  We plan to travel to these sites by foot, boat, yak or horse.

Challenges:

Arriving at the airport, you are suddenly at 11,800’.  However, thankfully there are ways to minimize discomfort.  You simply have t take it easy and move at your own pace, making sure that you have plenty of food, water, and nutrition to keep your body fueled.

Getting There:

We will be flying non-stop to Beijing, with a layover for two nights to see the sights of the Chinese capitol, before flying up to the Tibetan Plateau.  We will depart through Chengdu for a night so we can visit the Panda Sanctuary before returning home through Beijing.  We may go on a horse trek in Mongolia before meeting the group in Beijing and going on to Tibet and we hope to stop in Hong Kong before returning home.

Who would you recommend this trip to:

Anybody interested in a personal and in-depth introduction to Tibet. I actually own a travel business, Peggy Day Adventures, and I welcome everybody who is interested in inspiring the children of Chushul Home to join me on this trip. This journey is already being given as a high school graduation present and it is wonderful because the interaction between the Tibetan and Western youth is priceless – guitar-playing, break-dancing and becoming fast friends.

Your participation in this program is hands-on support for Tibetans in Tibet as well as $150 of the trip cost is $150 tax-deductible donation to Chushul Home through the Sacred Earth Foundation .  We will use that for a shopping trip to Lhasa with the children so you can see how far we can stretch a dollar.

Coco Hall Travels With Big Purpose

Coco Hall of Sausalito has a passion for helping elephants. Recently, she, along with her son, a former neighbor, and two fellow elephant-lovers, traveled to East Africa to learn more about wild elephants and gorillas and see them for the first time.

Destination

Originally we were headed to Africa, Kenya and Rwanda, with the ultimate goal to see wild elephants and gorillas, however, thanks to lots of travel books, we found out that East Africa offers so much more.  I traveled with an amazing group including my son, Ash Anderson, my former Sausalito neighbor, Andy Upjohn, and our friends Joyce Poole and Petter Granli, the directors of ElephantVoices. Joyce grew up in Kenya and speaks fluent Swahili, and is an elephant expert. She has studied elephants for over 30 years, and has discovered that elephants use powerful calls to communicate over long distances, the ability of elephants to mimic sounds made by other animals and machines,  and the production of calls below the level of human hearing, to name a few.

We stopped at the baby elephant orphanage at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust outside of Nairobi.  If you think puppies and kittens are the cutest, you haven’t seen a herd of baby elephants. We walked right into the pack and were pushed, shoved, slapped, sniffed, and sucked on.  The babies are given a keeper as a surrogate mother, which seems to work.  Almost all of them eventually return to the wild.   I adopted a baby on the spot. You too can adopt a baby elephant online.

Cause

Our mission was to help captive elephants and other African animals. I have been active in trying to help elephants, both captive and wild, for many years. However, the issue of mistreated Elephants is not only present in Africa. With all of America’s circuses and zoos, only 40 of the 500 captive elephants in North America are living descent lives in two sanctuaries (The Elephant Sanctuary and PAWS Ark2000)

There are people all over the planet trying to help captive Elephants, including Joyce and Petter of ElephantVoices.org, whom I was lucky to work with.

Gorillas also need help. According to gorilladoctors.org,  There are only 720 mountain gorillas left in the world today. Of the 300 or so gorillas in Rwanda, only five groups are habituated to humans (the others are not accessible to tourists).  All are remotely watched over by a group of veterinarians who intervene with antibiotics and other medical care only when completely necessary.  Before I decided to go and visit some of the gorillas that can be near humans, I was assured by a gorilla advocate that it did not hurt the gorillas to have visitors, and that the visitors actually help conserve them. In Rwanda, 40 people a day split into groups of 8, visit the 5 gorilla groups for one hour.  Passes are very expensive and must be bought 6 months in advance because they sell out quickly. The money from the passes is used to protect the animals, pay the rangers, and conserve their habitat. Former poachers are employed as porters and paid $10-$20 by the tourists who choose to use them. For more information go to; gorillafund.org or gorilladoctors.org

Highlights

The trip was basically one giant highlight. We particularly enjoyed spending two days off road with Joyce Poole and three hundred elephants in Amboseli. It was also exciting to see wild animals such as hyenas and jackals, and seeing gorillas with my own eyes was unforgettable. We loved simply being in nature; listening to the constant symphony of birds and loud raucous choruses at night, looking down the spectacular Rift Valley

Meeting the people of Africa, such as the Maasai, and seeing and appreciating how they live was very touching. On a walk through a rural “neighborhood” on the edge of the Rift Valley, we came upon a group of a dozen or more children aged 2-14 who were singing. The oldest, a young teenage girl said they were singing because they were happy. They asked us to sing a song for them. The only song that we all knew was a sad Beatles song. They were not impressed. However, I think we did a little bit better singing Mary Had a Little Lamb with a rock beat. The encounter gave us all a feeling of happiness. I guess it can be contagious.

Rwanda was the real surprise of the trip.  I scheduled only three days there thinking it would be scary and unpleasant.  On the contrary, it was clean (they have one day a month where everyone in the country, said our guide, including the president, goes out and cleans the streets and countryside. It appeared to be true.) The roads were good and the terraced farms and houses all neat. I loved the fabric the women walking along the roads wore, and on the way to the airport, we suddenly were in a dusty place with people and scooters packed all around our car.  We said, “where are we?” and were told, “You said you wanted to buy fabric, we’re at the market.” This was not a tourist market, but it was vast, and sold basically everything. There was a building full of spectacular fabric and I spent our allotted 15 minutes bargaining for as much as I could fit in my bag.

However, not everything in Rwanda is beautiful fabric and magnificent marketplaces. If you go to Rwanda, you will not want to miss the Genocide Museum, a beautiful yet sad place where hundreds of thousands of people are buried and you will be told about genocides. Be prepared to cry.

During our trip, we very much enjoyed spending five days on the east coast of Kenya in Lamu, a very early Asian trading city and Unesco Heritage Site.  The Swahili and Arabic cultures merged over the centuries and are now inseparable on this tiny island of no cars, winding streets, 5.a.m..call to prayers, women in burqas and donkeys everywhere The museum and Swahili House Museum are small and unsophisticated and not to be missed.  Lamu is surprisingly unscathed by tourists.  We also went on a boat trip there.  The boat was a refurbished dhow, a traditional Indian ship.

We stayed south of Lamu, a 30-minute walk down the beach, or ten minute ride in a skiff, in Shela at Kitani House.  Absolutely lovely.

Challenges

Although Africa is vey beautiful, parts of it, such as Nairobi, are dangerous. We never went into the city, but even the outskirts are unsafe. Houses have big fences, hedges, and armed guards. Other dangers present throughout Africa include malaria and some of the animals in the parks. However, with the proper precautions for malaria and well-trained, experienced guides in the parks, you should be safe.

We had a bit of a challenge when hiking up a mountain. On the first day we hiked for two hours uphill in six inches of mud, in the rain and mist, surrounded by nettles with umbrella sized leaves and pickers to match. However, we had rain gear including rain pants, jacket and hiking boots, as well as hiking sticks.

Getting There

Getting there is easy but it’s 9,585 miles away.  I flew to Amsterdam on KLM and stayed there for one night.  I had just enough time to go to one museum and have one Indonesian meal.  The next morning we continued on to Nairobi.  We flew in country twice between Nairobi and the parks, and to Lamu.  I enjoyed the drive to Masai Mara from Nairobi but after that, I preferred flying.  We flew to Kigali from Nairobi, and made an unscheduled stop in Burundi. On the return, I flew from Kigali to Nairobi to Amsterdam, and finally ended up at SFO. It took 36 hours from end to end, no problem.

We enjoyed staying at Basecamp Explorer, a super eco-friendly travel company.  Their lodges are completely “green.” They have won the highest awards for their ground breaking ecological approach to travel, and they were Obama’s choice when he went to Kenya.  We stayed where he stayed in Masai Mara. Their Wilderness Basecamp is beautiful and simple, on a special conservation area next to a safari guide school.

In Amboseli we stayed at a gorgeous lodge, Tortillis Camp.We adored their  great food, wonderful people, beautiful views, and comfortable “rooms”.

In Nairobi, we stayed at the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden, which had beautiful rooms, a restaurant, a bar… it’s a “happening” place! We loved sitting with the owner, Dr. Bonnie Dunbar, at dinner. She is amazing, a contraceptive scientist who works with both humans and wild animals.

go-safari.com/Volcans/GovernorsRwanda.htm

gorillasafaris.net/

Who would you recommend this experience to:

This is a peak experience for all animal lovers.  If you go to see the gorillas, definitely buy two permits each and go up at least twice because you never know what the results will be.  For those of us who are mad about elephants and work to help them, especially in captivity, seeing wild elephants is a must. The contrast between even a superficial look at a captive elephant compared to a wild one (or herd) will be a learning experience that will buoy you on through years of often frustrating work.

Orphanage in Cambodia

Chantal and Mick Griffin with children in Cambodia

This post is by Chantal Griffin, who visited an orphanage in Cambodia along with her husband Mick during a Southeast Asia adventure. Through a contact at their hotel in Cambodia, they were directed to a local town market to buy school supplies (pencils, markers, crayons, etc.) to give to the kids. They also purchased 100 pounds of rice, 20 pounds of sugar, 20 pounds of salt, ten liters of cooking oil, soy sauce, fish sauce and cleaning supplies. “It was very satisfying to know that 100 percent of our contribution went directly to the kids whom we met,” Chantal says. For the rest of their story, read on.

Click here for more photos!

Destination

We traveled to both Cambodia and Vietnam to see sights such as the spectacular temples of Angkor, Cambodia. Built in the 12th century and numbering over 100, these stone temples are the single largest religious monument in the world.  Their remarkable scale and architectural ingenuity can only be appreciated from a personal viewing.  Rather than stay at one of the many large resorts that line the main road, we opted for a boutique hotel called the Golden Banana, in the nearby town of Siem Reap.

Cause

Cambodia is a country that has overcome many challenges (centuries of war) and is one of the poorest countries in the world. We found the people to be extremely friendly and approachable, however we also encountered much poverty and despair.

Like many visitors, we struggled to find a way to handle the difference between our own (relative) wealth, coming from more a privileged society, and the poverty around us. While it is easy and tempting to give money to street kids selling beaded bracelets for a dollar, we learned they were kept out of school to “work” the streets. Therefore, we wanted to give in a way that would offer lasting support rather than encourage young kids to stay out of school. Through our hotel, we found an agency in town that referred us to an orphanage where we were able to see what was needed. With a list in hand, we went to a nearby outdoor market to buy these items.

A little goes a long way in Cambodia: $60 buys a pig and food for the pig for one year giving a family a new source of income; $150 supports a child at school for a year; $200 buys a hand water pump for one family; $1000 buys a safe and lasting home for one family. The following agencies work to help the people in Cambodia:

ConCERT

A non-profit Connecting Communities, Environment & Responsible Tourism

This Life Cambodia

A non-profit group focusing on education

For $50, a second hand bicycle can enable a student to attend school

ACODO

Assisting Cambodian Orphans and the Disabled Organization (this is the orphanage that we visited)

Highlights

In addition to Cambodia, we spent two weeks in Vietnam where we visited the north, south and central parts of the country, each offering a diversity of scenery, climate, food and activities.

We started in southern Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) where we toured the sites (through chaotic traffic) on motorcycles driven by locals. We also visited the food markets and many Hindu temples. Through our hotel, The Rex Hotel, we took a half-day cooking class which turned out to be a delicious adventure.

From Hanoi, in the north, we took a side trip to Halong Bay and spent three days and two nights on a Chinese junk boat cruising around the hundreds of pinnacle-shaped, limestone islands (called karsts).  We were able to kayak to secluded beaches, explore grottos and caves with stalactites and stalagmites as well as see the many floating villages that thrive among the karst formations.

Also from Hanoi, we took an overnight train to the mountain village of Sapa which is just a few miles south of the Chinese border. Sapa is home to several minority tribes whose distinctive colorful dress identify the various groups including the Black Hmong, the Red Dao and the Flower Hmong. With a local guide, we spent a glorious day hiking from village to village and were able to see how the locals farm, build their huts, cook, make tools, textiles and clothes.

Vietnam is also a shopper’s paradise.  There are tailors and cobblers on every street corner where custom-made shirts and shoes can be had within 24 hours. Undoubtedly, Hoi An, in Central Vietnam, is the best place to shop.  Hoi An’s riverside location is enchanting and it’s bordered on the east by the South China Sea making it a great beach destination too. This ancient town prohibits motorized vehicles so it’s a walker’s delight and bicycles, which are easy to rent, abound.

Challenges

We had been warned not to travel by car because the roads are bad and the traffic can be terrible and we were happy we took that advice.

Also, we were warned before going and when we were there that the overnight train to Sapa can be a very unpleasant experience due to the condition of the toilets after several hours on windy mountain track. We opted to take the Victoria Express which can only be booked in conjunction with staying at the Victoria Hotel in Sapa.  What could have been a major challenge turned out to be a first class trip.

Finding enough time to see and explore all that Vietnam has to offer was the biggest challenge. We felt that we could have stayed another week to visit the southern beaches and the Mekong Delta.

Getting There

We flew to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) from SFO on Cathay Pacific Airlines. From Saigon, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia on Vietnam Airlines. We traveled by chartered bus to Halong Bay, train to Sapa and flew from Hanoi to Central Vietnam to the city of Hue. From Hue we hired a driver to get to Hoi An and from Hoi An, we flew back to Saigon. Internal flights are very inexpensive and service all of the major destinations.  Of course, motorcycles and cyclos (big three-wheeled bikes with a single passenger seat)
are a MUST.

Who would you recommend this experience to?

Architectural and history buffs would delight in the rich pasts of both countries. Beach lovers, hikers, foodies, shoppers, nightlife-seekers would also find great pleasure in visiting Vietnam. We met travelers of all ages from around the world and with equally diverse budgets. The least expensive room we stayed in was $15 night and the most expensive was $180–so there is truly something for everyone.

Nicaragua

Nicaragua 2009 319The Schumacher Family – Peter, Liz and kids traveled to Nicaragua this summer along with the Tan-Alpers – Jonnie, Liz, kids and extended family to explore a new country and bring soccer ball and school supplies to children in the area, via the Jean Brugger Foundation. Here’s their story.

For lots of fun and photos click here 

Destination

 The beautiful coastal town of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. It’s a small, beach town located on the southern Pacific coast of Nicaragua, just above Costa Rica. Our friend Dhruv Gulati is developing some property there and gave us the name of the hotel, Piedras y Olas which translates to “Rocks and Waves”.  As we were considering whether to go, we found articles in Travel & Leisure and GQ about the “hidden gem” of San Juan del Sur and traveling in Nicaragua which won us over, so we immediately booked our summer trip. piedrasyolas.com // elencantodelsur.com/

 Cause 

 The hotel Piedras y Olas supports a non-profit organization called the Jean Brugger Foundation. The nonprofit foundation is devoted to assisting Nicaragua through education and development of one of the country’s most valuable and treasured resources: its young people. Their mission is to provide critical educational opportunities and vocational training for the residents of San Juan del Sur and surrounding communities.

The people who run the foundation can provide a list of school and sports supplies, local needs and even animal care donations.  The hotel also runs a veterinary clinic that provides a safe-haven for local wildlife and domestic animals.

Through the hotel staff or website, the people who run the foundation can provide a list of school and sports supplies, local needs and even animal care donations.  We packed extra suitcases or bags filled with donation items and handed them over at the front desk.  The Foundation followed up with a thank you note to us.

Highlights

Piedras y Olas is an amazing hotel with large, clean, air-conditioned casitas that can easily house a family of 4-6 people. San Juan del Sur is a special place right now with very few American “tourist” families, mostly surfers and young men and women traveling across Central America. The variety of restaurants and food from around the world surprised us.  There is everything from American and Mediterranean to Chinese, Italian or nuevo-Californian cuisine, and of course the local Nica fare which often consists of fresh fish with gallo pinto (rice and beans). All the restaurants we went to were clean and the water and ice were safe for travelers, and once we got over the apprehension we were able to relax and enjoy the local flavors.

 The Pacific coast of Nicaragua is peppered with beaches and each one is a little different, ranging from the big-wave surfer beach of Madras, to the “family” beach called Coco.  Getting to the beaches can be like Disney’s jungle safari ride if you take the open-air “zebra” bus from the local hostel, Casa Oro.  The beaches were beautiful, and best of all, empty! The water was warm, the waves surprisingly gentle and everyone surfed, or took at least took some lessons

 Sailing trips and zip-lining are also fun ways to pass the time, take a look at our pictures! The zip-line in San Juan del Sur has 17 “jumps” or zips and a couple of them are over 400 feet long! Even the youngest can go attached to one of the guides. The Piedras y Olas hotel has its own large sail boat and crew who whisk you away to remote, deserted beaches!  Whether you’re flying through the jungle canopy or bounding along on the waves, we found the Nicaraguan people to be warm and friendly, always helpful and very proud of their country.

Challenges

Safety-wise we were fine, we had read glowing travel reports, and trusted our friend who was developing the property, but the revolution and Sandinista troubles of the 70s lingered in our minds prior to booking the trip.

 Otherwise, the ‘challenges’ were minor such as, the multiple flights of stairs at the hotel, which kept us in shape but were a bit rough after a full dinner of wine and wonderful food! And deciding between pancakes, eggs Benedict or any of the other full-service breakfast offerings.

 Getting There?

 It was surprisingly easy to get to San Juan del Sur. Each of our families took a different route from SFO to Managua on American Airlines through Miami or on Continental through Houston to Miami, the flying time was about the same either way; two legs of about three hours each. The hotel has a shuttle that will pick up at the Managua airport and take you to San Juan del Sur.  It takes about two hours one way and costs around $100-200 for the van depending on the number of passengers.

 Who would you recommend this experience to?

 This is a trip for families or adults who like a bit of adventure.  The country is poor, there is very little electricity or water amenities outside the city. The people are proud, live very simply and work hard to care for their families. We wanted our kids to see another side of life that they are not often exposed to.

 This is also a trip for young adults as there seems to be plenty of hostel-hoppers. Instead of Europe, they are in Central America. While we may have lived on $400 a day, many of the kids we talked with were living pretty well on less than $40 a day.