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.

Saturday, June 30

End Of Volunteering Part

The volunteering part of my trip has ended now. We did loads. On the school we managed to get the walls a good 4 feet high and we cleaned and sorted most of the other classrooms so all the broken furniture was out the back. With the kids we managed to teach them a few things but they were greatful that we had come from afar to amuse them. One could say it has been incredibly fulfilling. Either way it has been a lot of fun and it has been one of the best experiences of a foreign country i´ve ever had.

Now comes the fun part, though. The adventure tour lasts for 2 weeks and is going to be fun. Today we went horseback riding to a waterfall. The waterfall was quite high and was cool but i couldnt help thinking of the plitvice lakes and how it compared. Even so here you can swim in it and there was a small cave behind the fall to explore. My underwater camera is going strong and it takes good pictures.

The hotel we are at now (thank god to be in a hotel) is called tropic bananna and is owned by a french man. The hotel is fairly nice, has a pool, and the rooms have AC. It has all the basics and the food is pretty good, although all the food would seem good after Fusimana where lunch each day was crappy sandwiches. I think the volunteering part makes you appreciate this part more fully.

Tomorrow we´re going to a small island called cayo levantado off the coast of Samana. It should be great fun. Hopefully i can update the blog more often on the tour as there will be mnore net cafes.

Sunday, June 24


These are some kids photos


These are some of the phots from the construction part of the volunteer work.

In the truck on the way there. It takes an hour to get there each day.

1 Week In

Well it's been a week now and we're back at the beach in sosua for a fun day out. We're not going on the beach today because yesterday we went to a place called 27 Waterfalls. About an hour out of puerto plata the place is located at the back of a sugar field. We didn't really know what to expect when we got there and the 20 minute hike to the actual waterfalls made us wonder if it was worth the 10 dollars we paid to do 12 of the 27 waterfalls. It was. The activity consisted of half climbing and half being hoisted up waterfalls by underwater monkey men. The place was beautiful and i took plenty of pictures with my underwater camera as we swan along the deep channels carved over millions of years by the running water. When we got the the top of the 12th waterfall we had to head back. What better way to head back then to jump and slide down all the waterfalls we had just climbed! The Pentax Optio w30 is a really well made waterproof digital camera. These waterfalls were the acid test for this type of camera and it passed with flying colours, not leaking when i lept off a 30 foot cliff into a pool of water with it. I will post the photos when i find an internet cafe that lets me use my memory stick.

The volunteering is ace. The school is already ahead of schedule and on friday we levelled the floor and on monday we will be starting on the walls. The old school we demolished was made out of sticks and tin and came downb really easily. Its hard work but you can always see progress at the end of the day.

Every other day we go and teach some poor spanish kids different things. This is also fun and the kids can be really adorable. We tought them Geography and Ecology last week. I'll write more next time.

Sunday, June 17

More Info

We've had one weekend at the CSA complex now. Its been not that bad. The place is a bit of a hole, but we are volunteering so its not worse than can be expected. Lots of bugs hanging around, there was a cockroach on the wall in my room the other day but it cvanished before bed time.

Ben got his luggage back. Traveller's tip: Dont fly with American Airlines, they seem to have a reputation for losing baggage all over the show for domestic and international flights. Everyone i spoke to got their bags back eventually but its still a bit of hassle that can be avoided.

For our project we are going to be demolishing an old school and building a new one. Well we're not expected to finish the whole thing other groups will come in after us and finish off the job but we're the first there. Hopefully we'll get to the bit of laying the foundations.

We went to the beach for the day today. The place was humming. Isla and I waklked up and down the parade looking for shorts for her to work in. Bartering and Dealing with the locals is a pain in the ass. We were exhausted by the end so settled on some shorts she didnt really like. Lunch was nice though and we got to try some more of the local rum and a pinocolada served in a whole pineapple. Pretty good stuff.

gotta dash


Friday, June 15

Safe Arrival

After several hours of flying, sleeping on the cold, hard floor at JFK international and a ride in a planbe barely bigger than the average bus we have arrive safely in the dominican republic! Its very hot and quite humid but its not too unbearable.
It's not all great, however. For a start Bens luggage got lost and when we got out the airport we didnt know where to go cause an e-mail ISV supposedly sent us never arrived. After some long distance calls to the ISV US office, however, All was saved and we got a taxi to a Hotel where ISV put us up for the night. Hopefully ben will get his bags back when we go to the airport again later today.

Later today we are going to get shipped off to our volunteer project. This is where the 2 weeks of hard work begins. :)



P.S. Took my underwater camera in the sea yesterday and got some piuctures of us. It still works so I guess thats decent.

Wednesday, June 13

Heathrow express

Goose and i on the heathrow express. In 15 minutes we'll be at terminal 3. So far everything is going as planned. Whether adam turns up is a matter of debate. Im sure he will but its funny to imagine he forgot the time. 10 pounds for the heathrow express with a young persons rail card. Good value.

Thursday, June 7

Project Overview

We have finally received our project overviews from ISV. All the mystic details of what we were doing in the DR have finally been revealed.

The volunteering organisation we'll be hooking up with in the DR is called the community Service Alliance (CSA). They have a complex overlooking the mountains in the Puerto Plata region which supposedly overlooks the hills. They have a waterfall and the guy who runs the place is called Father Pepe.

The group of us going with CSA gets split into 2. In the morning one group builds houses and things for the nearby villiages and the other interacts with the local community. After lunch the groups swap round.

The nearest town is a while away so in the first 2 weeks I may only be able to post when we get outings to the local town on Saturday afternoon or Sunday. Hopefully I can then post the best of the pictures I take then.

So with barely over 6 Days until we depart we know what volunteering will be like. Its going to be good fun although I won't be able to drink on my birthday as CSA seems to have a no drinking policy. I'll have to find a way to get around that I think.

Monday, June 4

9 Days

Its just over 9 days 5 Hours and 41 Minutes to go now until we depart on our ISV adventure and we still don't know what we're doing when we get there. I guess it doesn't mater too much but I imagine it will be a lot like one of these videos that have started appearing on youtube:

They use the same volunteering agency and are tagged with international student volunteers and are for this year. This is the first glimpse of what we could be doing very very soon now. I'm sure theres going to be more hard work and less playing with Dominican children than in the video. The weather looks good though, doesn't it.

Sunday, May 27

The Americans Fscked up...

Dear All,

We have been receiving some emails inquiring about the project overviews, that you should have received 30 days before your departure.

The project allocations are been carried out by ISV staff at our headquarters in USA. Due to a system breakdown which has affected the computers and servers at our office in the last week, some of you may have not received your project overview yet.

[...] The project overview contains detailed information about the project you have been allocated to, but none of the information in this document is essential.

Our technical problems are in the process of being fixed, and these overviews will be sent to all students in the next week.

Kind regards,


Still don't know what's happening when I get out there. But things are always more exciting when you don't know what you're doing so I don't really mind.

Only 17 days to go now before getting on a plane. Checked the hand luggage policy the other day and the airline still have restrictions in place. Only one small, clear bag is allowed with 1 personal item like a book, gameboy, etc. Will have to pack wisely.

Tuesday, May 15


Everyone apart from me has their ISV manual delivered through the post now. I'm starting to wonder where mine is although I'm thinking only the postal service is to blame. Either way it means we know, to a certain extent, what we're doing in the DR.
The colourful manual was written in America and some of the bits have been "translated" into British or re-written to be from this side of the pond's perspective. Some bits have slipped through but that only makes it funny. The manual says that on the volunteering people will be sharing 4 to bed. We thought maybe that's what they do out there but apparently its a typo and 4 people share a room.
Anyway on to the meaty bit. What activities have I bought for my hard earned pennies?

  1. Waterfall Rappelling
  2. Surfing Lessons
  3. Snorkelling
  4. Horseback riding to a secluded waterfall
  5. Caving in the "Fun-Fun" caves
  6. Guided Tour of Santo Domingo
  7. Larimar Workshop (basically its jewelry making)
Sounds a bit wet at first. But we all got the optional activity package too for an extra £100. Apparently 95% of participants take the optional activity package. That means 5% are left at the hotel to entertain themselves.
The optional activities are:
  1. White water rafting
  2. Canyoning, rappelling, cliff jumping
  3. Boat excursion to Cayo Levantado
  4. Mountain Biking
  5. Windsurfing
Thats a bit better 12 activity packed days in 2 weeks. Thats a real adventure tour. 29 Days, 9 Hours, 15 Minutes, 41 Seconds to go.

Sunday, May 13

Universal Packing Checklist

Not that its really the best list for packing light it does remind you of some of the basic things that you may forget. Its good to have a starting point for a packing check-list. You don't want to get out there and immediately be searching for something to shave with, now, do you...

Check it out:

Friday, May 11

What camera?

I've been thinking of getting a new camera for use in the Dominican Republic. I really want something better than my phone camera, the 3.2 Mpixel k800i, so that I can make another photo book like I did with my photos from my European travels last summer. I was thinking of getting the canon Digital ixus 70 for a while. The orientation sensor was a great feature which would save rotating the photos once I put them on the computer and the smaller screen than the ixus 75 means extended battery life.

Now i've found the Pentax optio w30 which looks like the camera i've been looking for. Designed to be rugged the camera is waterproof to 3 meters for 2 hours. This alone makes it tonnes more suitable for going adventure touring in the DR. There are drawbacks, of course, the optical zoom is only 3x as it has to use a refraction lens because of the waterproof shell. There is no orientation sensor and the camera is around £175. However it is 7 Mpixels and the sample pictures seem ok. There is a coating on the screen to make it visible in bright sunlight and the underwater pictures will be stunning in the clear Carribean sea. I think these things make up for its downfalls and I can always sell it afterwards to get some of the money back. Who doesn't want a waterproof digital camera?

Wednesday, May 9


I went to get injections today. On the phone I was told I would see the nurse and have all the injections done on that day and everything would be fine. Hah. The nurse I saw was a total hypochondriac. As soon as i walked into the room and said where I was going she started to reel off a large list of diseases and conditions that I would be susceptible to if I didn't have the right course of injections. She said that it was probably best to have the emergency vaccines that give immediate protection as I was so close to the deadline for having the other one. Admittedly I should have insisted that I only wanted the one injection and that she should give it to me now anyway but a person reeling off a long list of diseases can be quite bewildering.

So now I'm scheduled to go back 3 times for 4 injections as she recommended hep A, B, and typhoid. I've also been recommended to start taking malaria tablets ASAP just in case I have an allergic reaction to them (quite rare when used for the prevention of malaria)
but oh well. None of my friends had this much fuss made about going there but I guess the injections are free anyway and I don't really want any of those diseases. I will just have to take lots of insect repellent (although it has to have 50% DEET, mind) and a mosquito net impregnated with DEET or some other such rubbish. I'm sure everywhere I stay will have mosquito nets and I'm sure the Dominicans themselves have to use insect repellent so I imagine all the best supplies will be out there although I'm prepared to be enlightened.

Saturday, May 5

39 Days until departure

Flights booked, insurance bought, jabs on wednesday and all paid up to ISV. Now theres only 9 days to go until we find out what we're doing in the DR. Annoyingly they choose to post the packs to my home rather than term time address. I supose its for the best though. All it means is that I will be having its contents read out over the phone or on webcam or something. Until then I had better keep revising for my end of year exams...