So, you will never be rich?

Here’s how it happened, on the 10 minute Uber ride from the hotel to the airport.

Kenneth picked me up and as usual when I take an Uber, we struck up some conversation.  Why waste 10 minutes in a foreign country in silence rather than learning something?

We exchanged pleasantries and I told him I had been in South Africa only 2 nights, but had arrived after spending 3 weeks in Mozambique.  He was intrigued – because why would you spend 3 weeks in Mozambique?  I explained that I was volunteering with All Hands and Hearts building schools in rural areas which were destroyed in the cyclone last year.  He asked me why I would take such work.  I said I don’t get paid, I quit my “regular” job and now travel and volunteer because I enjoy helping others.

Then the thoughtful pause…

“So, you will never be rich?”

“No.  Well, maybe.  I don’t know.  I feel rich in my heart.”

This prompted an amazing conversation about how we view possessions vs. experiences.  How we can define “rich” in so many ways.  How society places value on things when that may not actually be the be-all end-all goal. How people are really just people no matter their life circumstances – we have more in common than we realize. He shared words of wisdom passed down from his father. I did too. We enjoyed a special moment.

Yes, it this happened over only 5 minutes and it was with an Uber driver that I will never meet again.  But these are the conversations that color our perspective and cause us to reflect, become better people, appreciate things in a  way which we might not otherwise. We are not so different. Who’s to say who is born into privilege vs poverty. It’s not what we were given, it’s what we make of it.

So I can ask you – are you rich?  Life is too short, don’t miss out on all that it has to offer. 

A Layover in Doha

Have you ever been to Qatar? 🙂  I know….but that’s OK!  I didn’t really know where it was before I planned a 48 hour layover either.  This country occupies the Qatar peninsula on the Arabian peninsula…does that help?  There are nearly 3 million people living here, 80% of whom are expats.   

It’s actually a great layover location – as long as you’re not travelling in June-August when temperatures routinely top 45 oC!  American citizens do not require a visa and Qatar Airways has a fantastic transit program that allows you to book a room in a 4* or 5* hotel for as little as $23USD/night.  Come on…..why choose two consecutive red eye flights instead of sleeping in a comfy bed for a bit?!

Although I knew little about this place, it took only a few internet searches to determine that Souq Waqif was the place to be.  It’s centrally located in the heart of the touristic area – perfect for wandering about in a jet lagged stupor.  I booked a room at the Souq Waqif Boutique Hotels – a conglomeration of 9 small hotels spread thoughout the Souq – and ended up in the Najd building.  It’s new, clean and can I mention has a super comfy bed? 🙂

In an attempt to stay up longer than 4pm, I headed out for some dinner and to get my bearings.  Souq Waqif is bustling at night with lots of people enjoying the evening – complete with street music!.  A delicious meal at Al Shurfa Arabic Lounge (try the Al Shurfa mocktail!) with amazing views of the Doha skyline was a perfect way to end the night.

In the morning, the Souq was (mostly) empty and I had time to check out one of Doha’s more unique sites.  Named “Le Pouce”, this is a statue of a….giant thumb.  Yes.  A giant thumb.  I’ve seen it, read about it, and still can’t explain it but it gets 2 thumbs up from me!

Next, it was time for a three hour tour booked through Discover Qatar.  Our guide took us all around the city to see the major sites.  At each stop we got “5 minutes to take pictures”.  Call it a “Doha Sampler”.  Perfect.

Our first stop was the National Museum of Qatar.  No time to go inside, haha, but it was definitely worth a stop for pictures!  The innovative design is meant to bring together the past, present and future and compliments the collections of the museum which focus on the culture, heritage and future of Qatar.  A longer stop will be on my list for “next time”.

Our next stop was the Museum of Islamic Art.  Another stunning building set right on the water.  You guessed it – snap snap snap and we were back in the van.

We cruised down the Corniche, a fabulous waterfront promenade…

…past the dhow harbor on our way to the Katara Cultural Village.  The Village was pretty deserted, so we made a short stop to view the new masjid and pigeon towers, which are typically used to house thousands of pigeons and collect droppings for fertilizer.

On the way out, we swung by one of Doha’s many high end malls.  No one was ready to open their wallets, but the interesting thing about this place is that it has air conditioning – outside!  Those grates on the sidewalk blow cold air when the temperatures rise.  Clever?  Seems like a good way to encourage spending.  I have no comment at this time about the waste….I mean, “utilization”(!)….of energy and resources.

We next crossed the bridge to visit the West Bay area of Doha.  This is where the business of life happens – in very tall skyscrapers!  People (and, thankfully, traffic) were scarce but we can assume they were upstairs chained to their desks while we were gallivanting about having fun…. 

We were on our way to our last stop of the tour – The Pearl.  This is an artificial island created in Doha, where foreigners can buy condos starting from the low low price of $6000USD/m2.  It reminded me very much of the gated communities in Florida.  Perhaps not surprising, since the project is a collaboration between a developer in the US and the people of Qatar. We got a sense of the project at the Welcome Center, where they have a model of the area, and then had a few minutes to enjoy the sunshine.

Throughout the day, I was intrigued by the signs I saw.  The next time you take your “normal” for granted, think about this! 🙂

After 3 hours I was more than ready to exit the vehicle, and took one more walk through the Souq before calling an end to the sightseeing.  I was particularly excited to visit the Falcon Souq!  Collecting falcons is a national pastime in Qatar.  Read more about this hobby (and sport) here.

I returned to what had become my favorite viewpoint in the city to enjoy a cold juice, take in the skyline views and people watch. 

What a pleasant surprise when we were treated to an impromptu airshow.  I do love a good flyover!  These jets are preparing for the celebration of Qatar National Day on December 18.  Maybe that’s a good time for a visit to Doha? 🙂

We are Waiting for you at Home

Nope….not at my actual home….welcome to Bolivia! I arrived here via blue skies with views of the most beautiful water I’ve seen from the air in a long time. I mean, come on. 🙂

And now, I’m excited to be volunteering with Habitat for Humanity Bolivia outside Santa Cruz de la Sierra in support of their special project, “We are Waiting for You at Home.”. This project supports families with children suffer from chronic diseases and/or disabilities. The goal is to expand and improve existing homes in order to provide a safe, healthy environment for the children to recover and thrive once they return home from the hospital. How could this not be amazing?!

We have just met our partner family. Jassmin is 15 years old but has already had 4 surgeries for retinoblastoma. She also suffers from hyperthyroidism, a speech impediment and an intellectual disability which leaves her with the mental age of a 6 year old. The good news is that she is an amazing, happy, funny, kind, giving kid AND her cancer is in remission, woohoo! The bad news is that in order to achieve this success, Jassimin’s eye was removed. When doctors attempted to place an artificial eye, her body rejected it and it too had to be removed. They hope to try again in the future – more surgery to come.

In the mean time, Jassmin lives with her mom and her two sisters, age 16 and 18 in a one crowded room with limited ventilation. Here they are during our introductions. Cute (Jassmin on the left). 🙂

These girls have had a difficult life. When their mom, Ana Maria, took Jassmin to Argentina for treatment, she had to abruptly return home when she received news that her neighbors were attempting to steal her land. And in an extremely unfair twist, their mom, Ana Maria, is also undergoing treatment for skin cancer. And just this week she was diagnosed with lung cancer. You would never know it to talk with her, this is a strong woman who loves her family fiercely and is so excited for this opportunity to improve her home.

We’ll be working side by side with this family for a week to help them achieve their dream of home ownership. I can’t wait to get to know them better and become a part of their family. <3

In April, I’ll be returning to Bolivia to again work on the “We are Waiting for you at Home” project! I’m currently recruiting teams for La Paz and Cochabamba. If you’re interested in providing financial support for families such as those of Ana Maria, please use the links here and here. Every dollar counts, ¡muchas gracias!

**Information included in this post was provided by Habitat for Humanity Bolivia. Their support is much appreciated.

Another “First”

When I began volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in 2012, it was a fun way to help others, travel, meet new people and get away from the stresses of work. I never could have imagined just how it would change my life! Since that first trip to Eldama Ravine, Kenya SO many volunteering “firsts” have happened for me. Some were significant (like the first time I witnessed and appreciated the real, true, tangible impact of safe, durable shelter on a families life*), some I prefer to forget (the first time I shared an outhouse with 300+ cockroaches!) and some were just plain unexpected (the first time I was offered a mouse kabob). 🙂

It’s now time for another “first” – next week is the first time I’ll be volunteering with a team comprised solely of people to whom I’m related! While I call them all “my cousins”, technically only one of them falls under that title…but it’s close enough to describe how special they all are to me. We are setting off for Sonsonate, El Salvador where we’ll be working as Global Village volunteers for one week with Habitat for Humanity El Salvador.

During the week, we’ll be assisting a family of 3 to build their own home. Carlos has been the owner of a bakery for 4 years. His wife Wendy is in charge of the baking, and Carlos goes out in the area around the community where they live to sell it each day. They are currently renting a house where they live with their 6 year old son Jonathan. We’re going to meet them in a few days and I can’t wait! Here is their photo with their parents.

I’m so grateful for all of the “firsts” that I’ve had the opportunity to experience as a result of volunteering. Thank you for your support and for sharing the joy with me!

* Follow this link to learn about how safe shelter changes lives.

Same same but different…

In just a month, I’ll be doing one of my favorite things with a couple of new twists.  I’ll be leading a team of Habitat for Humanity Global Village volunteers – this time in Asheville, NC!  That’s right.  A sweet journey of less than 5 hours with only one 45 minute layover will bring me to my next project.  Haha, a far cry from the 16 hour flights I’ve found myself on recently.  No passport required.  No money exchange.  No bungling a foreign language.  I can brush my teeth with water from the sink and eat whatever is offered!  Oh what a relief.  🙂

It seems like a sign that I’ll be taking on this project at a time when the US is sparring with the UN over their recent report that levels of poverty are increasing here at home.  The report – and our response to it – bring their own controversy.  But what rings true in my mind is that our status as a “wealthy, developed nation” does not negate the fact that many of us are in need of assistance.  Yes, I said “us”.  We are in this together.

And eleven of “us” will soon be giving our all to help families in Asheville achieve their dream of home ownership.

This trip has been in the works for more than a year and is special to me for many reasons.  I’m excited to engage with the Ware Institute for Civic Engagement and the Office of Alumni Relations at Franklin & Marshall College to team up with Habitat for Humanity and offer this experience to students, alumni and staff for the first time!  I am passionate about the work of this organization and have wanted to become more involved with my alma mater for quite some time.  I’m thrilled that these things are all coming together!  I’ve also never led a domestic volunteer team and am looking forward to a new experience – including challenging my own assumptions about what “need” looks like.

The Asheville Area Habitat for Humanity (AAHFH) does amazing work around Buncombe County, NC.  They’ve worked on more than 450 homes, serving over 1,300 individuals, since they were founded in 1983.  That’s right – we’re talking about Asheville, North Carolina, United States of America.  A hip, vibrant community set amidst the Blue Ridge Mountains which is home to the Biltmore Estate.  A place where you might want to retire someday.  AAHFH builds 20 houses per year here for families in need.  And they can barely scratch the surface.

There is a lack of affordable housing in the area due largely to the fact that many people who live here with their families are employed in jobs which depend on the highly seasonal tourist industry.  The discrepancy between the wages of hospitality workers and the cost of living in the area is becoming insurmountable for many.  Of the top 20 occupations in Buncombe County, 9 are insufficient to afford appropriate, fair market rental housing.  In 2016, 23.3% of children in Buncombe County lived below the poverty line.

Our team will be working with several families, since AAHFH usually has about 6 projects ongoing simultaneously.  We have information on two of those families and when reading their stories, the reality of the situation becomes obvious.  Shaketia is a teacher and has two children.  When her lease was due for renewal, she was unable to afford the significant increase in rent and was forced to move in with her mother.  She now shares a twin bed with her daughter while her son sleeps on the floor.  Mary has been driving a school bus for 10 years and has four children.  Her landlord decided to sell affordable rental home they had been living in for 8 years and she was forced to find a new home for her family.  Her only option was to lease a small 3 bedroom apartment for the 5 of them.

Stories like those of Shaketia and Mary are far too common. Many of us may be fortunate enough to have not experienced this type of hardship, but we only need look to see those important qualities that we share.  They are good people, hard working, striving to support their families and raise their children as best they can.  When times got tough, they did what they had to and kept a positive outlook.  Sounds familiar?  Yes, to me too.

Our work in Asheville will be a time of learning, sharing, hard work and, yes, love.  The lives of these families will be changed forever and I’m lucky to be able to be a part of this experience.  I’m excited for the journey.

*If you would like to make a financial contribution toward the work of Habitat for Humanity and help families like those of Shaketia and Mary, please use this link.  Every dollar counts!

**This post contains statements and images provided by AAHFH.  Their collaboration and support is appreciated.