Step out of your comfort zone.

This past November I experienced one of the greatest adventures of my travelling youth. Not one of the greatest distance or adrenaline-pumping thrills, but of the most intimacy in which I experienced a lifestyle so foreign from my own.  I’m talking about a step out of my comfort zone and into the lives of a rural, African community as an international volunteer. The project was only 2-weeks in span but the impact was tremendous, for both the community and volunteers alike.

volunteering abroad in Naro Moru, Kenya

My volunteer team in Naro Moru, Kenya

About a year ago, during a time of my own personal reckoning, I applied to be a team leader with an international volunteer organization. In an impulsive whirlwind I assumed responsibility for building a team of adults, selecting a grassroots project abroad and facilitating the entire experience over the course of a year.

And so the project ensued. I was relieved to have had recruited nine amazing volunteers dedicated to getting their hands dirty digging trenches for a sustainable irrigation system in Naro Moru, Kenya. After plenty of orientation meetings and pre-departure guidance, my team of rookies set out for Kenya on the 8th of November, 2013.

Volunteers walking to work in Kenya

Daily walk to work in Naro Moru

Small happy village boy in Kenya

“Jambo” Each morning

Our destination was a village at the base of Mount Kenya where an existing water system proved no longer sufficient for the growing population. The monetary donation from volunteers made it possible for the community to secure skilled labour and  larger PVC piping to replace the old system, which tapped fresh water from the river to distribute amongst individual farms. Our job in-country was to work under the direction of the community members to achieve a newly functional system, pipe by pipe.

hard-working Kenyan women carrying shovels

Kenyan women on their way to work

Transporting pipes 10 km by hand

Transporting pipes 10 km by hand

mount kenya volunteers walk to jungle

Two-hour walk to our project site in the jungle

Each day Kenyan men and women hiked two hours to the jungle under the blazing sun and at 7,500 ft above sea level. For us volunteers, who admittedly don’t walk two hours in a week, the trek alone proved mighty difficult without the foreign heat and altitude-affected heart rates. One of my volunteers experienced faintness and fatigue so notably that she had to turn back half way accompanied by a Kenyan committee member. This of course was before I was made aware of the wild buffalo that graze the land and meet small groups of people with intense aggression.

Upon descent into the jungle miles of trenches were dug in order to expose the existing pipe.  The new system was propped alongside for replacement when weather permitted, often interrupted by downpours of heavy rain from the mountain’s extreme climate changes.

I have to say the first day was the biggest shock. Things in Kenya operate much differently than North American standards. Time is not of the essence and there is little to no stress when progress is threatened. The concept of ‘hard work’ doesn’t hold impactful meaning because gruelling labour persists everyday without sight of the end, and everybody smiles.

volunteer project irrigation kenya

Digging trenches and replacing pipes

DSC_0122

DSC_0128African man smiling, teeth

Aside from challenging ourselves physically everyday and being put to shame by the Kenyan culture’s tenacity, we had the pleasure of sharing our personal lives with each other through photographs and stories. In Naro Moru we were treated like family from the first day we set foot in the community. We were invited into our new friends’ homes to share meals, meet their children and elderly parents, and learn how they work and what they hope to achieve. Can I say I would treat foreign strangers with the same welcome to my home in Canada? Truthfully, no. As Canadians we pride ourselves on kindness and positive spirit, but I found myself shaking my head with a knowing smile that no one I know encompasses these values more than this community.

DSC_0189

DSC_0201hug a kenyan woman

african women looking at cell phone

Showing our family to theirs


friendly african people in kenya

No amount of mental preparation can ready you for the range of emotions that you will experience in an adventure like this. Some days are tough. You are far from home, far from anything that resembles your normal routine, living conditions aren’t always comfortable, and you may witness scenes that make your heart ache. These are all completely normal and important things to experience. I’d say being uncomfortable is what makes it unforgettable. The important vision I had for my team was to leave a gentle footprint behind. We did not go to change a way of life or push our influence on the community- we were their visitors, an extra pair of hands, and friends to trade stories with.

For information on the company who helped to make this trip possible, visit Developing World Connections here.

kenyan school girls in uniforms

I hope my recount of this experience compels you to take a leap to do something beyond your expectations. There will be moments of  self-doubt, extreme gratitude, apprehension, and love for complete strangers. Your sequence of emotions will differ from another  but I can promise you all the same- you will never forget it. 

Amsterdam

house boats

Not what you’re thinking. Yes, Amsterdam offers many tourist-frequented festivities outlawed in Canada and most parts of the world, but I didn’t partake this time around. Family trip, give me a break.

A total of five days travelling through the Netherlands allowed me only two days in Amsterdam, which left little time for anything other than daytime strolling, frequent café breaks, and a couple bar hops.

Actually, my favorite thing to do in a foreign city (other than eat, and explore the nightlife) is cruise about it’s streets in the daytime and take in the local feel.  Plus it appears I am now big time into Americano coffees, so it works out.

“Take me with you”

Amsterdam houses

The traditional housing blows me away in Amsterdam. I love the tall, narrow structures all unique in style and form, with a layer of windows at every level and each façade a different colour than the next. In Toronto, “urban” housing means shoeboxes within shiny 20-story condos while north of the city you will find identical blocks of developer-built cookie cutter homes. If I’m going to pay upwards of half a mil, give me a historic masterpiece in cobalt blue.

boatandbuildingbridge

The Red Light District is full of many treats for the weary traveller like live sex shows, “window shopping” and plenty of coffeeless cafes. I visited this part of Amsterdam during the day and noticed the occasional bored looking prostitute, but I can imagine the scenery becomes a little more lively come dark. I’m no expert on window shopping for women but I’m pretty sure clipping your toenails isn’t on the job description.

The hyped up stories of debauchery, hookers and pot are a very, very small part of Amsterdam and really only those held up by tourists. The city itself is the jewel, so you should make a point of taking it all in. On my next trip I will be renting a bicycle to get myself completely lost in this maze of streets.

The point where all tunnels align

The above was taken while on a canal tour courtesy of the Dylan Hotel.

Amsterdam canal

Thank-you Amsterdam.