Wednesday, January 2

What to pack for Volunteering

If you're going Volunteering in the Dominican Republic this summer, or anywhere, here are some items which i found useful and not so useful. If anything it will help you add stuff to your packing checklist.

Boots. Strong, waterproof, breathable hiking boots. You'll need them on your feet whatever work you're doing and if you decide to go hiking they will be your best friend. You will love your boots. Plus mosquitos cant bite your feet if they're in boots. Also take a pair of sandals and a pair of lightweight trainers that will dry quickly. The sandals are for the beach, and indeed the majority of the time. They keep your feet cool and are the most comfortable to wear. On the other hand they are impractical at certain times and I wouldn't recommend going caving in them. :)

I briefly mentioned this: Mosquito Repellant. Take more than you think you'll need. I found the best type is this Autan Active Stick. It goes on like a deodorant stick and out of all the insect repellents my ISV buddies had the Autan active line seemed to work the best and it doesn't have an unpleasant odour like some insect repellents. Take at least 3. They don't take up much room and you'll hate yourself when you run out. Be prepared to lend it to people and don't forget to put some on your feet if you're wearing sandals.

Towel. This is an important choice. You can get one of those fancy, felt like, "quick dry", fold away, compact, antibacterial towels which supposedly every traveller can't live without. However, personally, even though you may have to wash it, I would prefer a normal Towel. At most places you stay there will be a place you can leave it out to dry for all of the 10 minutes it takes in such a hot country and for me i much prefer the feel of a normal towel. Its like a home comfort that you can so easily take with you. Douglas Adams had it right when he suggested the most important thing when travelling is to have a good towel (and know where it is).

You might think suncream, but i say not really. I mean definitely take some, especially if you're pale but I found i couldn't tan very well with my high SPF cream. I think it must have something to do with the ozone levels above the carribean because no one go sunburnt at all while out there, jus great tans. Then as soon as we got back to England my girlfriend managed to get herself sunburnt. What does this say? Probably just never underestimate the sun wherever you are. Suncream is available everywhere in the DR from one shop or another so don't take too much with you because it will only explode in your case and make a horrible mess.

What about your personal entertainment? Something you can do on a bus for a long time is essential. I can read on the bus (and even in the car) so i read some books for the 6 hour bus ride from one end of the country to the other. iPods are a popular choice. Load up some videos if you have enough space. An iPod touch is a great thing to have as you can email home for free; Most bars in tourist spots have free WiFi for the rich locals (ex pats) and high class tourists. This will let you avoid the high rates and the queues at the internet cafes, plus you can do while sitting on the beach front drinking Pina Colada out of a real pineapple. Don't take iPod speakers, at least 2 other people will have a set.

Take a pair of tweezers and a sewing kit. Splinters can be very annoying and there is quite a high possibility of getting some sea urchin caught in your foot. In fact I would recommend wearing your sandals in the sea.

Don't take too much currency in US Dollars. Honestly just look for a good bank with low or zero costs for getting money out abroad (UK Travellers go to Nationwide Building Society NOW!) and just get your money out in pesos. Even the people who quote their prices in dollars will accept pesos and you'll end up paying less because even the locals have to get their currency converted. Honestly only the most massive hotels only take US Dollars and if you're reading this you aint going to be staying in one of those. Take as much as you can afford. Its really easy to live within your means. Most places will say "You need X amount to have a good time". Well with ISV most of the stuff is paid for you so all you need is stuff for extra food, souvenirs and nights out.

Well that's pretty much the essentials. Apart from clothes and toiletries you wont need much else. Anything you forget you can buy out there anyway (and if you can't then you don't need it!).

Good luck and have fun.

Wednesday, September 12

Review of ISV

International Student Volunteers (ISV) is an international volunteering organisation which is mainly based in the United States. They are a company that organises trips to foreign countries for students with the goal of doing volunteer work in that country and then, depending on the trip, after the volunteering they send you on an adventure tour, run by ISV, that gives the student a reward for their hard work and its a fantastic chance to see the county they've been working in.

My friends heard about ISV through University. They have representatives who visit different universities and tell students about the trips. My Girlfriend and her friend signed up straight away. There is a £200 deposit to pay up front and then they will offer you the opportunity of tacking other services onto the total price later on. About 2 or 3 months before they were due to leave I was invited on the trip as long as I brought a friend along with me. ISV were very accommodating and were more than happy to squeeze us in quite late in the game.

Please bear in mind I'm writing about the ISV volunteering trip to the Dominican Republic. Other trips run by ISV may have similar features to this trip, or they may be completely different. Also this review focuses on my personal experiences of ISV when I went on their Dominican Republic Trip in June/July 2007. Trips before and after may be different, see the ISV website for details on their current trips.

ISV run a group flight to the Dominican Republic which would have cost £660. After much scouting around on the internet we managed to get flights about £200 cheaper. There wouldn't have been much point in the group flight anyway, as most people went out earlier for the spanish lessons and home stay extra (which also cost them extra). The price for getting the cheaper flights was having to spend the night in JFK airport on the way out there, but this experience wouldn't have been so bad if we had realised that there were camp beds set up round the corner in terminal 8. Just take one of the blankets they give you off the plane when the stewards aren't looking and you'll be fine.

ISV collect a lot of information about you when you travel with them. Most of this is to help them give you a better trip. Expect to give them a photocopy of your passport, insurance and flight details. You also have to fill out a lengthy application form, give them details of what kind of project you want to do and if you are going with a friend, they give you the chance to tell them so you are put together (if thats what you want ;) ). Considering they take all this information they don't put it to good use. From what I've learned by talking to people in the organisation it seems to stem from a lack of communication between the American and British travel offices. For example when we got to the airport there was no-one there to meet us and we hadn't been given any information about where to go or who to contact. We managed to find the number for the U.S. ISV office on our paperwork and gave them a (quite expensive) call using my credit card on the credit card long distance payphone. I had to call them back 20 mins later to be told an address to give to the taxi driver. We ended up at a hotel (they had reserved us a room) and had to keep looking out the window to see if we could see anyone who looked like they worked for ISV. While it all worked out it could have gone better.

Its also a good idea to ignore most of what it says in the badly localised ISV volunteering handbook that they give you. With such vital information such as "take care when crossing the road" and "The prices, unlike the U.S. and the U.K. are listed with tax included" (Tax, V.A.T, is included in British prices) mean that any useful information is hard to find.

ISV also say they will give you fund raising advice. Plan to raise your own money, however, as all they give you is a fill-in-the-blanks letter asking people to donate you money. This seemed a bit of a rude way to raise money and I was expecting stuff on how to put on a successful bring and buy sale or something.

Anyway despite all the hassle we had as British ISV participants once you get out there the experience is good value for money. The volunteering, although partly handled by a volunteering organisation called the Community Service Alliance, was well organised and the leaders had a vague plan to follow set out by their office. The construction was planned ok but we completed much more than they had planned for us and had trouble ordering more building materials on time. Even so we completed an amazing amount of work and it really felt worthwhile. After the trip the organisers sent me some photos of the completed school.

The Adventure Tour was solely the responsibility of ISV and it was impeccable. Our tour leader, Adolfo, was a Dominican local with amazing English and a great sense of adventure. You will not find such a wide range of activities available in most package tours. We got bussed around the country from activity to activity and stayed in some really nice places. They also had planned some opportunities to meet the locals, party in local bars and also meet some conservationists who were working on the island.

Overall the ISV experience was great but they need to sort out the kinks in their handling of students before they leave. When asked by our leader on the first day who thought ISV was a scam everyone raised their hands. This can only be down to the fact that they seem so disorganised before you leave, although it is pretty damning. If you wanted to find out if ISV are a scam I would say no, but it will feel like one until you're sitting there in a room with the people who you will be volunteering with. Once you get going, though, you wont remember how bad you thought it was as they really do it right.

Thursday, September 6

The Future of this Blog

Ok so i've been back for ages now and this blog has been pushed to the back of my mind since but there are a few review articles I'm going to write before this blog has finished serving its purpose.

1) A review of ISV, what they do and how they do it.
2) A review of volunteering in the dominican republic
3) A review of the Pentax Optio W30 and why you should get one if you're planning to do something like this
4) Some Pictures of my trip, taken with the aforementioned camera

Should get writing now i have some more spare time. Expect to see the first of these articles in the next few days. :)

Monday, July 16

Santo Domingo

Our Hotel in Santo Domingo, Hostal Nadir. Each room has 2 double beds. We squeezed 9 people into 2 rooms quite comfortably for the low low price of $180 Dollars a night (Divided by nine its not so much, eh?). For our accomodation in Cabarete we are getting a discount at the windsurf resort because our ISV tour leader happened to live in Cabarete and knows the owner (Thanks Adolfo) $60 dollars a night for a room that sleeps 4.

A Funny sign in santo Domingo. Dr Manuel Labour.

"These bags fit in here, no problem!" We had a crampt ride to the Caribe tours bus depot. Caribe tours is one of the best ways to get around the Dominican Republic. They drive massive coaches to most places and it only cost RD$250 (GBP 3.78) for the 5 hour drive from Santo Domingo to Cabarete.
We stayed in hostal nadir for 2 nights as we didn't want to travel all the way up to cabarete on the same day. (we were in bahoruco, 4 hours away from santo domingo). The merengue festival has been moved so now we are just going to be spending our time in cabarete, the windsurf capitol of the carribean. Lots of fun. Santo Domingo was a laugh and a good place to buy all our souvenirs. While bartering in a foreign country can be a hassle and despite tourist traps being everywhere we managed to get good deals. It did take all day but it was worth it.
Just found out about the import restrictions from spirits from outside the E.U. Aparently the 5 litre keg of rum is over the 1 litre import limit. I dont really want to pay tax so my import plans may have to be revised. :(
Things are going well and we're having a lot of fun. The weather is sunny and we're spending this relaxing time to top up the tans and have a blast on the beach. The bars all have to shut at 12pm on weekdays due to the new licencing laws but all this means is that going out starts in the early evening and the party can carry on later at our hotel.

Thursday, July 12

End Of the adventure tour

Well the adventure tour has now ended and we´re going at it alone. Its been great fun and i´m sure i´ll write more about it when i get home as I´m tired and dont have the energy right now. We´re staying in santo domingo for a few days and then going up to cabarete. Going to spend a lot of time on the beach. possibly windsurf again.

Just a side note budget accomodation does exist in the DR, you just have to find it.

Friday, July 6

"Canyon Endurance"

ben balances on an over-water log
Isla dangerwalks over an underwater log

Canyoning should be called "canyon indurance". Or perhaps danger walking. Or valley hiking. All these names convey the arduous task that is canyoning better than its original name. Man we were shattered after the activity today. Still i enjoyed parts of it and we had the guides we all now know and love from white water rafting and rappelling. The 30 minute hike up the side of the canyon was a killer though. Isla didnt enjoy it too much but it was apparently different today. Usually theres more water in the bottom of the canyon but today there was hardly any. This is because it hasnt rained heavily in ages.
Later we're going to book our accomodation in cabarete for when we leave ISV behind. We'll be staying in the same place and our adventure tour leader, Adolfo, reckons he can get us a deal on the price.

Tomorrow we're going wind surfing. Looking forward to this one a lot and the way my hand is healing I should even be able to hold up the sail fore more than 3 seconds. In the afternoon we're heading down to Sosua to go snorkeling. I'll get to see loads of local fish and we get told about the coral reef conservation projects.

Tuesday, July 3

The Adventure Contuinues

Yesterday we all went white water rafting. It was great fun and the guides were mental. We didn't topple over on the rapids but at one point the guide tipped the boat over on purpose. It was great fun. The hotel we're staying at is really fantastic and every night they put on a buffet for all 22 of us. Compared to the first 2 weeks the food is amazing and the luxury, although not much, makes it comparably very comfortable.

Today we went waterfall rappelling. We went down 2 cliff faces next to a waterfall and the views were stunning. The first drop wasn't that big but the second one was supposed to be 65 meters. I managed to get rope burn on my hand from going down too fast though and I'm currently covered in plasters. Everything is ok though and we are all having fun.

We've managed to pick up some Americans to stay the extra week with us and the plan is to go to Cabarete and then Santo Domingo for the meringue festival.