“So where are you going after the World Cup?” – I asked Kaushik, a fellow traveler sitting beside me at a street bar on Copacabana Beach. It was a typical question, one I had asked many times during our time in Rio de Janeiro. And it was a question that often garnered a typical response “I’m going to [ insert some country in South America], can’t wait to check out [insert some major tourist sight]”. But Kaushik’s response was far from typical.
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“I’m actually staying in Rio”, he said. “I’ll be spending a month volunteering at a Community Day Care Center in a favela”
He had my attention.
I had just spent a night in Rocinha, the biggest favela in Rio de Janeiro, and got a glimpse of the local life beyond the glitz and glamour of Copacabana Beach. I was curious and I was a tad jealous of Kaushik. I wanted so badly to be in his shoes. I knew he was about to have the most amazing experience of his life. And as it turned out, he did.
Last week, I finally got a chance to catch up with Kaushik and learn more about his time volunteering in Rio de Janeiro. He was excited to share his experience with me and I couldn’t wait to share it with all of you!
Kaushik, can you introduce yourself to Drink Tea and Travel readers?
I’m Kaushik, a 35 year old guy from London. I used to work as an IT Technical Consultant before I decided to resign to travel and volunteer. One of the best decisions I have ever made!
What motivated you to want to stay in Rio after the World Cup and spend a month volunteering, instead of, say, lying around beach and partying like most people do?
A few months before booking my plane tickets to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil I had decided that it would be an opportune time to do some volunteering in Brazil (specifically Rio de Janeiro). There were multiple reasons behind this decision. Firstly, it had always been a regret of mine that I didn’t take a GAP year between school and University and that when I left University I was so focused on repaying debt that I began to work straight away.
Secondly, I had always wanted to do some volunteering, to give back to people who were perhaps less fortunate than me (but by no means less deserving of opportunities). One of my previous employers had a program where employees would be able to go to a local school (once a week) and help teach kids to read. I was fortunate enough to participate in this program for about 6 months and found the experience highly rewarding. I found myself incredibly proud of the progress the boy, I was helping, had made in the six months I was there.
So with this is mind I decided that I would take a career break and spend a month volunteering after travelling around Brazil for the World Cup. I had considered renting an apartment and just spending time in Rio mooching about after the World Cup, but concluded that I would get bored. The desire to volunteer was great but I also wanted to know what it would be like to live in Rio and volunteering seemed like a very good way to do it.
Can you tell us more about your volunteering assignment?
My volunteering assignment was to spend 4 days a week in a children’s day care center called Centro Brasileirinho (a non-profit NGO) in the district of Realengo, Rio de Janeiro helping the teachers with activities for the kids. The age ranges of the kids were between 2 -12 and some cases maybe a little older. In Brazil children only go to school for half a day and therefore projects like these are vital for filling in the education gaps and also keeping them from getting into gangs and subsequent trouble with the law.
The activities at the day care center included teaching English, math, helping them with puzzles, playing sports, capoeira martial arts, and dance classes. In general we were just spending time with the kids, showing them love and affection.
One thing that I would say, is that what you get from the volunteering experience is in correlation to what you put in. If you go to the projects expecting to be told what to do all the time or put no effort into the project then you will not get much from it.
The organisations that run the projects are often under-resourced and a little disorganized at time, so it is necessary for volunteers to have some drive and want to make things happen. The people who run the projects are grateful for the energy and fresh ideas that volunteers bring.
So what did your day-to-day job consist of?
The project was located about 1-1.5hrs away and since we had to be there for a 09:30 start it involved being out of the house every day at 08:30. We traveled there by public transport (which was an adventure every day). Upon arrival, we would jump into classes straight away, helping out the teacher with whatever activity was planned. On more than one occasion however, they would ask us to take the lead in class (this was mainly regarding the teaching English aspects).
We only got to see each group of kids for half a day. At lunchtime the morning set would head off to school and the afternoon group would then come to the project. Within a couple of days we got to know all the kids and their individual personalities, which is a huge amount of fun.
We would get about an hour for lunch, so would head out into the favela where there were few options for food. We would either go to the local convenience store and have crisps and chocolate for lunch washed down with a bottle of coke or water, or we would go to the ice cream store and have Acai ice cream with fresh fruit and granola, which was yummy.
The afternoon session would finish about 16:30 -17:00 and then we would head back to the house which was again an hour long bus journey.
Sounds like a rather unhealthy lunch! Did you get a chance to see more of the favela during the lunch hour?
Having lunch in the favelas was an interesting experience as you got to people watch and see the locals go about their daily business. In time they began to recognize us. They would say hello or just wave to us. Also from time to time the kids from the project would come up to us on the streets, say hello and introduce their parents/sisters/brothers, which was always very nice. Even though there was an obvious language barrier it was nice to connect with the locals, even though they all still thought of us as “gringos”.
You said “we” a couple of time. I assume there was a group of you helping out at the day care center?
Yes. Each project had a couple of people working on it. We were fortunate to have 3 to 4 people working on my project. We had people from many parts of the world: Australia, UK, Norway and Holland.
Our project as Centro Brasileirinho was not the only project that existed. There were many different types of projects in different favelas (Santa Marta, Complexo do Alemão etc) in which my housemates and people from the other volunteer house participated in. Other volunteering opportunities included teaching English, teaching surfing, sports (mainly football with one project helping people run a blind football program), health awareness program, a community gardens project.
Where did you live during that month in Rio?
Iko Poran, the organization that placed me into this volunteer position, ran two volunteer houses, both in Santa Teresa, situated on a hill overlooking the party district of Lapa. Santa Teresa is a nice area with lots of art shops and some pretty good and reasonably priced local restaurants, and some really nice street food vendors.
The house had a really nice atmosphere. There were 26 of us living together. We were fortunate that at the time there were all new volunteers who had started at the same time, so in a short amount of time we became friends.
Evenings were really cool with people genuinely interested in each other’s days and their respective projects. Our evenings were spent cooking dinner (or going out for dinner), catching up with people, relaxing at home or down at the local bar, watching the sun go down over Lapa, or going out in Rio (there is always something going on every night of the week).
There was a commitment to the volunteering experience at the house, as no matter how hard you partied the night before, the next morning people would wake up and go to project. The only reason people would miss a day would be illness.
On our days off we took the opportunity to see the sights of Rio, go to the beach (weather permitting), and walk around the various markets in Rio. Sundays became beach days. Every Sunday, the road alongside Ipanema beach was closed off to traffic and became pedestrianized. There was also a hippy market with local arts and craft, just outside General Osorio station, so we would make our way down there and spend the day on the beach hanging out with people from the other volunteer house and eating street food.
That sounds awesome! What was the highlight of your volunteering experience?
A highlights for me was watching how 26 complete strangers from different parts of the world became friends within just one week. It’s always possible to face personality clashes in situations like these, but we were very fortunate. There was one evening where we planned a barbecue and we all paid into the pot, a couple of people did all the shopping (taking into consideration everybody’s dietary restrictions), and then that evening all us, including some volunteers from the other house, cooked up all the food and just had a good time.
As time went on, people left the house and new people came in and people just got on with one another and some even became firm friends. It was great to get to know so many people and I now have more friends (even though they are from different parts of the world) than I did before I started, which is always a good thing.
However, the main highlight of the experience was spending time with the kids. Within a couple of hours of starting the project on day one, the kids showed an enormous amount of affection. They would come up give us hugs and insisted that we took part in the activities. They asked a lots of questions and laughed at the replies in our terrible Portuguese. But most of all they needed was love, affection, and our time.
For me being around happy laughing children all day was nourishment for the soul. I will never forget that feeling of happiness for the rest of my life. Even now I sometimes think back to my time on the project and I just smile and feel happy. I enjoyed the experience so much that I extended it by a month. I can definitely say that I got much more out of the experience that I thought I would, and probably even more than I put into it, due to the language barriers.
It was also really good to just live in Rio de Janeiro for 2 months, get to experience a different culture, get to know the locals (especially Manuel who owned the local bar) and just spend time away from the rat race of London. Volunteering definitely allowed me to immerse myself more into the city, and therefore my time there was not just an extended holiday.
Where there any bad parts?
For me the worst part was not making the time to learn Portuguese beforehand. This was definitely something I would do differently and I would say, it hindered my efforts to integrate into the city as much as I would’ve liked. It nice to converse with locals, but the conversation was always very basic due to the language barrier, and I wish I had the language skills to get to know some of them better.
The other bad aspect of Rio de Janeiro was crime. The tourist areas of Copacabana, Ipanema and the affluent areas of Leblon, are pretty safe, but, like in all cities, there are good areas and bad areas in Rio.
On our induction day we were advised to never walk out of the door with anything that you cannot bear to lose, and to keep some cash hidden on you, so you could then get home in the event you were robbed while you were out. We were told that if anybody approached us, that we were to to give them what they wanted and they would then leave us alone. This advice turned out to be true for all of the instances bar one. A couple of friends of mine were mugged and thankfully were unharmed, but one was beaten up pretty badly before any demands were even made. Thankfully, he ended up with just cuts and bruises and fully recovered. In general, though, as long as you were sensible, traveled in groups, and didn’t display any jewelry, you were ok.
Glad to hear that your friend ended up being ok after all. Thanks for sharing that, I always find that the bad parts help paint a more realistic picture of any travel experience.
Would you recommend volunteering to others?
Absolutely! It was great experience overall and made me realize just how fortunate I am back home and put a lot of my problems into perspective. It was also just really nice to do something so different to what I would normally do career wise.
I think if you are travelling for a while, volunteering can be a great way to add variety to your journey. It can take away some stress of constant traveling, being on the go, and the monotony that comes with it. There were a couple of people who volunteered at end of their trip throughout South America, some that did it in the middle of the trip (like myself), and some at the beginning.
However, I would caution against as seeing volunteering as an activity. The organisations genuinely need good volunteers, so taking a slot in the program and not actually participating is unfair to the kids and the organizations, and also to other volunteers who maybe couldn’t get a slot in the program. Again the more you put into the experience the more you will get out of it.
If someone wanted to volunteer in Rio how would they go about it?
The organization I worked with was Iko Poran. They ran the volunteer guest houses and had the relationships with the individual projects. There are numerous way to get in touch with them, either directly, or through another agency called International Volunteers HQ. I went through a UK based agency called Working Abroad. They charged £890 for my month long volunteer placement, plus an additional 280 BRL (Brasilian Reais) which works out £66, for every additional week.
On the whole the program was fairly well run from Iko Poran’s perspective (barring a few issues). For the amount paid, I received a place to stay, daily breakfast, wi-fi in the house, and a pick up or drop off to/from the airport. Our house had a maid who cleaned every day, changed bed sheets and towels every week. There was also a laundry service (additional charge of 15 Brasilian Reais per machine load). Each house had a live-in house manager who was available to help you with anything that you need.
Zac Hamlin and Vivi Herrera, our two main contacts at Iko Poran, have since left the organisation to start their own agency Jive Brasil. Given my personal relationship with them, I would reach out to them if I were to do another volunteer assignment in Rio.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your amazing experience with us, Kaushik! It sounds like you really loved your experience in Rio! Any upcoming plans to volunteer anywhere else in the world?
After coming back to the UK, I quickly got the itch to see more of the world and do some more volunteering. A quick glance at IVHQ’s website showed some volunteer opportunities in Fiji, which is something that interests me. So at the moment, I’m thinking about making this work in combination with a trip around Australia. It would be nice again to get beneath the tourist veneer, see the islands and interact with the locals.
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Have you ever volunteered while traveling? What was your experience like?