Running in the Scottish Highlands

The rain is slashing down, the wind is howling causing massive waves to crash against the heathered shores of the usually tranquil loch and anything that is remotely loose is slating viciously, adding to the cacophony of sound that awakens me before my pre-set alarm goes off.  This is a signal enough to encourage a roll over and a deep snuggle under the blankets – there will be no early morning run that day. It was not meant to be.

Since my return back to the highlands after 2 months of lazy summer days around pool sides sipping never ending cocktails, I had decided to optimistically check the weather report each evening to gauge the likelihood of being able to get my endorphin fix the next morning.  And this morning the Highlands turned out in full force and put on a magical majestic show.

As I was jogging up the road, my only wish was to be able to capture the atmosphere and bottle it, Obviously, this was impossible so my blog started to form in my mind.

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It is cold, with the high crags of Quinag covered with winter snow, the air is crisp and clear after the lashings of rain from the day before, and the sun is just starting to shed a few rays of light over the silhouetted mountains. Not a soul in sight.  A seagull swoops overhead and calls, diving into the glass topped loch to catch an early breakfast. Up ahead a small flock of woolly sheep, with red and blue painted crosses on their backs, idly graze and amble without a worry in the world across the road to find slightly greener pastures. As I get closer, they keep their distance and watch me warily.

I look up and get a start, as there standing silently watching from a rocky outcrop are a herd of reindeer horned deer, they do not move knowing they are safe.  My heart feels full. It is at times like this that I wish I could carry a better camera with me as my phone just does not do the scene justice.

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Its is only my breathing in my ears and the footfall of my feet that seem to break the total silence that surrounds me. I stop to just breathe in the stillness and take in the majestic beauty around me, and to listen.  The sounds of the gently chewing sheep, the occasional call of a far-off seagull and in the distance, the sound of waterfalls which can be seen like never ending silver snakes meandering against the darkness of the surrounding rocks, finding their way into the cold waters of the loch below. Here the water shimmers and offers up mirror like reflections of the lightening sky above.

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I can almost feel the history of the area in my soul and my imagination starts going off on a tangent of its own, with images of Vikings and similar movie scenes from Braveheart and can now understand why my father yearned to come back to his homeland.

My musings are broken as I am forced to jump off the lonely empty road as a car comes careening around the bend, “why would anyone want to be in such a hurry when surrounded by so much beauty?” This is a sign that the normal world is awakening and time to head back home.  And I feel I am home.  I am content.

When you feel guilty even though you know you have done nothing wrong

I am not sure if it is just human nature and if everyone feels the same way or not, but what is that whenever I go through customs, airport security or even going through a speed trap I feel guilty, even though I know that I have done nothing wrong.  That feeling in the pit of your stomach when you get pulled over by the traffic cops.  It can’t be conscience as I have done nothing wrong and anally obey all the road rules.

But it is at the airport that this feeling really rears its ugly head – Every! Single! Time!  I consider myself a seasoned traveller and know exactly what I can or can’t take on board with me, the size and weight allowance of my hand luggage. Maybe it is that I have been profiled (not exactly sure what for) a few times on international flights and have been pulled aside to get searched more thoroughly, my hands dusted for reside of who knows what and all my electronic devices scanned under infra red lights – searching for residue again of who knows what.  I don’t think I look like a user or a drug mule of any type.  But my heart goes into my mouth each time – but I know that no one else has packed my bags for me and I am innocent.  So what am I scared they will find??

Also going through customs, I am legally allowed to travel on 2 passports (thank heavens – or actually thank you dad), but I have this sense of guilt when I swap my passports out after clearing SA customs.  Is it the inbred catholic upbringing and schooling where you are taught the wrath of god will come down on you for stepping out of line in any way?  Do others feel the same way?

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When you can’t see the wood for the trees

Wow – 2020 certainly has started off in everyone’s faces.

The pope slapping a believer, Trump starting WWIII, Australia is burning, another attack in Paris, mysterious disease in China killing hundreds, manhunt in Johannesburg for Melville killers and the swear word on South Africa “load shedding” taking place and it is only the 6th day of the year.

After having spent a few days with family on holiday where my brother-in-law is a conspiracy theorist – it got me thinking.  Are we all being fed news based on what big brother considers to be click bait for our own individual likes and dislikes. How do we get to see the wood through the trees. And ….. “Who is big brother?”  Around the dinner table with lots of friendly banter and frivolous conversation taking place, siri decided to have her two pennies worth with an answer to a question – without being asked!!!!. My phone had not been used or touched when she gave her opinion.  So who is listening and why?   and how? ……….

For me personally it doesn’t really bother me as my life is an open book and if someone wants to know where I am or what I am doing, it is really not that important in the bigger scheme of things as I have nothing to hide.  But how much of this information is being used to persuade us to think and behave in certain ways.  I remember many years back hearing how Coca Cola had paid to have nano second flashes of adverts in the middle of shows to subliminally persuade us to buy their product – whether this was true or not I don’t know. So what can we believe in the media that is force fed to us on a daily basis – what is true, what is not, who is telling the truth, who is lying.  How do we sort out the wood from the trees.

There is so much outrage at everything, so much anger, it seems that mankind is hell bent on destroying each other.  Me being the eternal optimist have believed that at the end of the day 95% of people, just want to have a roof over their head, food to eat, warm bed and a happy family. Which means that it is the 5% left that controls the world and all its oneupmanship, negativity and hatred. And “they” ( we always refer to them and they) are the ones who have an ulterior motive.

I want to tune out of this vicious cycle of negative news and energy. Driving in Johannesburg and complaining about the ever increasing number of potholes and the hazards it causes, my daughter commented, “at least our country is not on fire and our president hasn’t opened up a pandoras box in the Middle East, we can live with a few potholes”, which is true and I love her sentiment,  but what is happening in the world has an impact on all of us. I want to be able to see through all the bullshit, read between the lines. Working hard at trying to see the wood through the trees!

“…and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”
― Herman Melville – Moby Dick 

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Hello my name is Cathy and I am a people watcher ………

Hello Cathy ………

After being on granny duty for the past 4 days, I find myself really appreciating and jealously protecting my time of once again being a free agent.  (Our maker – who ever/whatever he/she/it may be,  knew what they were doing by ensuring that women over a certain age could no longer bear children.) Don’t get me wrong, I love spending time with my grandchildren, but to be able to partake in a meal over a glass of wine, without having to jointly colour in, make numerous trips to the bathroom or only choose establishments with child friendly play areas is pure bliss.

And this is exactly where I find my self on an early evening after a last bit of Christmas shopping at the local shopping mall. Acting civilised, quietly sipping a chilled glass of Chardonnay whilst partaking in my favourite pastime as a solo traveller of this planet of ours – people watching.

The bench seat next to me plumps up almost dramatically as a weary shopper sits himself down, saying with a loud, slightly effeminate voice with an Afrikaans accent – “Ahh it feels so good to sit down – I’ve done more than 10 000 steps shopping today – this feels soooo good”.  Any fellow South African will be able to hear the exact tone.  Joining him are 3 delightful African ladies prattling away in Afrikaans. This is not meant to be condescending in any way, and is just a reflection of the amazing rainbow nation that South Africa is. They then resort to English and banter with the waitress about their likes and dislikes on the menu. She smiles patiently and nods with acquiescence. The obligatory selfie is taken and my attention moves to others.

A tall gentleman walks in looking for a table, with quiet dignity. He is guided to a table and asks for 2 menus.  Ahh he is meeting someone – I try and imagine who – note the wedding ring on his finger – and think the dutiful husband waiting while his wife is shopping. He orders himself a coffee and muffin and bingo – I hit the jackpot. His wife arrives, slightly harassed, shopping bags in tow. She greets him abruptly, promptly places her order, takes her cell phone out her handbag and from then onwards sits engrossed in the small screen in her hand, while he sits and watches her. No conversation, no communication. It makes me sad.

At the next table can only be described as posers, with their branded gear.  Two young men, one wearing full on black and white Adidas branded gear from his shoes to the “man” bag hanging over the back of his chair and the other sporting Lacoste.  Neither of them are sitting upright in their chairs, but look almost boneless with legs outstretched and lounging trying to look as cool as possible. Full marks to them though for not having any devices and are engaged in what seems like a lively debate.

My attention moves upwards to the passing trade.  People of all shapes and sizes, ethnicity and apparel, all with seemingly one goal in mind – shopping for that perfect gift.  A young mother walks past with a little one in a pram and granny accompanying  holding tightly onto the hand of an over tired demanding youngster and I quietly sip my wine thinking “been there, done that and still earning the t-shirt”.

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Mind the gap!

“Mind the gap” says the rather disconnected voice over the PA system which announces the arrival of a draft of icy cold air as the automatic doors of the under ground train swoosh open, which is quite welcome as the press of bodies on this Piccadilly line to Heathrow is making the atmosphere rather claustrophobic.  I also think the fact that all the passengers are wearing thick winter coats, scarves and woollen beanies, a necessity in the middle of a UK winter, adds to the thickness of the air.

As a South African, the idea of hopping on and off these spaghetti junction trains to get to your destination is still a novelty, and realise that for those that this pastime forms the drudgery of their daily lives, it would be hard to find any joy in the activity.

One thing I have noticed and read about is the noticeable lack of eye contact.  It seems that no one dares make eye contact. If by chance, god forbid, your eyes meet, the immediate eye movement in the opposite direction would alarm many an optometrist.

I find myself reading and rereading the adverts just above my fellow passengers heads, or watching the electronic notice board advising of which station will be next. Or looking down at the feet across directly across from me.  This I decided was the best way to pass the time, to examine the footwear of the people who are my companions for the next whole and try and analyse who they are and what their lives might be like, just from viewing them from the knees down.

To my right, enter female, alone, older, I can tell this by the liver spots on her legs as she is only one in my line of vision wearing a skirt.  It is a tiered rather dated denim skirt which comes down to mid calf length.  She is wearing scuffed red “takkies”. I look up and see she is holding onto her handbag very tightly and her other hand is white knuckled around her suitcase (she is going to Heathrow).  She is also wearing a scarf festooned with giraffes. I decided she is travelling to South Africa for a safari and it is her first time travelling solo, wants to be comfortable walking around hence the shoes that really did not go with her outfit.

To her left are two pairs of shiny metal toed, pointy black boots.  One male and one female. Twins? No just a fashionista couple off maybe for a European trip as they also had matching Louis Vuitton bags. I could take a closer look at them as they were both totally engrossed in their electronic devices.

Quite new hiking boots are next in my peripheral vision. Dark grey chinos, well worn and a little creased, and a walking stick.  An older gentleman, who had sat down rather quickly and inelegantly when the train moved away while he was still making his way to the vacant seat. Out of this ordinariness, one feature stood out and that was the ring on his middle finger, was large and silver with some kind of Nordic god engraved on it.  I did glance up and saw that he sported a large Father Christmas beard – maybe he was travelling on the underground in disguise in a hurry to get back to the North Pole.

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It was the flash of a silver hello kitty wheelie bag that next caught my attention, with the requisite sparkling white platform heeled converse takkies, skinny jeans.  A young Chinese girl returning home.

My own little personal pass the time game was then interrupted with that detached “Mind the Gap – the next station is terminal 2 and 3.” Time to return to my own life story.

Stumpy vs Stompie

This is not an equal comparison as there is absolutely no correlation between the two – with Stumpy being the tame-ish deer that frequents Kylesku and Stompie is the South African term for a fag butt ….. or is there?  The old adage – man vs nature!

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This is Stumpy – quite shy

There is always a lot of controversy surrounding the culling of wild animals and none more so than here in Scotland where it is deemed to be a necessity, with numbers multiplying to levels too many for the natural resources to sustain them all.  These numbers are attributed to the fact that wolves – their natural predators – have disappeared.  On doing a little research I read that if undisturbed a herd of 300 deers can grow to 3000 in a space of 13 years (The guardian.co.uk).

With the lack of sufficient grazing, the health and well being of these animals will deteriorate. So, in order to keep the herds happy and healthy the culling is necessary.  The estate owners determine annually which of the herd are in poor health, or getting too old to be able to nourish themselves and will target these animals when “hunting” season opens – speeding up the natural circle of their lives.  Now as everyone who knows me knows, I am an avid anti-gun champion and deplore the “sport” of hunting, but understand the reasoning behind this.  But if man had not in their supposed wisdom, killed off the wolves in order to protect themselves, this conundrum would not exist.

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The north west of Scotland is opening up massively to tourism, which is welcomed by the locals with the much needed injection of cash into the economy, which also unfortunately brings with it, its own problems, not only for the deer but other wildlife too.  You would think with the easy access to internet, the trend to go green, the massive international anti-pollution drive and just common sense, people would be respectful of the unspoilt places still left on this planet of ours.  Out running in the perfect solitude that this place offers, I came across a Starbucks coffee cup discarded on the road side.  The closest Starbucks is many many miles away, so why would someone wait till they are in the middle of this pristine environment to chuck this out their window! But my biggest dismay was, watching two women, needing to step outside the restaurant to have a cigarette, standing chatting and admiring the spectacular vista that they have come to witness, then casually turning away and both flicking their stompies into the loch! Is it lack of education, stupidity or just total lack of soul?

So why the comparison between Stumpy and stompies? This is Stumpy’s natural hunting ground, he is an old man, who appears to prefer his own company to that of a herd and hangs around the Kylesku Hotel and has become somewhat of a feature and sighting him brings much excitement. His horns are stumpy and are no longer as majestic as they used to be in his prime, with his teeth deteriorating and wearing down so he is not able to get as much nourishment as he needs. But he belongs! He fits! Those human visitors with their gas guzzling 4×4’s, cameras at the ready to show they were here, whilst not truly appreciating the beauty that surrounds them, flicking their stompies which take more than 10 years to decompose, contaminate waterways and soil and harm wildlife – do not!

Stumpy 0 – Stompies 1 – a sad state of affairs.

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Working in the Scottish Highlands

There is a strong easterly, icy wind blowing, I am outdoors, washing windows, my hands are frozen, the salt residue blown by this icy wind off the loch, is encrusted and a little stubborn on the window panes requiring a little more energy to be expended, my favorite song is playing through my ear phones resting snugly in my ears, my body is warm from the repetitive motion of dip, wash, swipe dry, next time I will wear gloves, because there will be a next time and a next …… this place has an energy that has snuck into my soul. I turn and stop – the incredible vista in front of me is enough to take my breath away each time. There is not a soul in sight – they have gone indoors to savour the delicious fare served up by the hotel, warm and cozy next to the ever burning woodfires. I remove my ear phones, a few seagulls are battling against the upward draft and their cries can be heard above the whistling of the wind.  The normally crystal clear water of the loch is a little churned up and is lapping around the slipway as the tide steadily rises.  A cheeky seal does what appears to be a somersault and emerges with a large fish, which the seagulls then investigate to see if he would be willing to share, not this time, he dives back under the deep blue choppy waters with his lunch in tow.  And this is work.

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Fast forward a few hours – I am now indoors – getting ready for the dinner rush.  Silver cutlery is all polished. No need for gloves here as it is lovely and toasty and with the candles now lit on each table, the soft atmosphere is warm and inviting.  The sun has set, but there is still a gentle light outside.  The wind has abated and the loch is like a mirror with it almost impossible to tell where the sky starts and where it ends with the perfect reflections of the surroundings in these still waters.  The seagulls have retired to bed and the only sound which can be heard above the crackle of the fires and the mellow background music playing in the restaurant is the low hum of the local fishing boat coming back after a day out at sea, lights glowing brightly in the early evening, bearing their catch of the day. Dinner guests start arriving and there is the hum of conversations as tales of their adventures of the day unfold. Inside the kitchen as the night progresses, tables are being called, food orders being served in an almost regimental fashion where the customer’s needs are catered for diligently, the movement of the swing doors in and out of the kitchen could create enough energy on their own to power the entire village. On really busy nights my fitbit step counter feels like it goes into overdrive tallying up more than 20000 steps in a day, and that’s not including my magical morning runs. And this is work.

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Other days, doing a housekeeping shift, may not be as picturesque, but the environment somehow still carries the magic with it. Music in my ears, my body being worked hard physically, which in itself is an added bonus, almost like being paid to go to gym without the mundaneness, repetitiveness and sterility of a gym workout, where I can stop in between “repeats” and just absorb my surroundings.  And this is work.

It amazes me daily how in this remote location, everything works and runs like a well-oiled engine. Yes, there are hiccups, but nothing is insurmountable.  Maybe it is coming to work here in the Scottish Highlands, far away from my own beautiful, vibrant, but rather chaotic non law-abiding home country that I see how different life can be. The weekly refuse collectors, arrive in spotless vehicles, at the same time each week, and get invited in for breakfast and coffee before moving onto the next village. Post is collected and delivered daily, with a parcel taking only 2 days to get to its destination. Being so remote, the Royal Bank of Scotland, also make a weekly trip out for anyone needing to do some banking.  The public toilets get cleaned daily by the local council. And so much more.

All I can say is that I must have done something right in my life to have the opportunity to be able to work in this amazing environment, which feeds my soul daily and at the same time be able to make the rather long hop, skip and jump back home to get my family and chaos fix.

When am I going to start writing that book?!

“Creativity takes courage. ”
― Henri Matisse

I have been very remiss in my writing later and feel all the worse for it.  But made a conscious decision this morning to stop procrastinating and get started.

A couple of months back I attended a memoir writing workshop and left all fired up to start and then this fizzled out like a damp squid.  Life seemed to get in the way and motivation went out the window.

I am now fortunate to find myself in what can only be described as a writers dream location, working in the remote Scottish Highlands, where beauty abounds at every turn and which gets the creative juices flowing in abundance. I have all the stories doing their eternal rounds in my head and are crying out to be put down on paper. – But where to start ……  as Julie Andrews sang in the Sound of Music – “Let’s start at the very beginning”.

 

Here in this remote little corner of the globe, where, when you step outside, there are the cries of the seagulls, the occasional local fisherman pulling up at the slipway to offload his precious catch of the day, seals playfully surfing the incoming and outgoing tide as it pushes into the loch, the vista over the loch that one minute displays almost luminous rainbows and the next torrential downpours with side lashing winds and then the gentle sun lights up the hills into a magical soft glow, visitors driving down the dead end lane who can only but fall in love with the peacefulness and tranquility that is now my home.

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So it is here in this perfect location that I intend to start “that” book. And the purpose of this blog today is to put it out there. To commit. I have learnt over the years, that if there is something you are yearning to do and just cant seem to get started – broadcast it. Give yourself that kickstart!

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

So what next …….?

I recently read a post on social media where a mother of a tween was asking for advice for the said tween’s next birthday party.  She had run out of ideas of how to entertain her child and their friends and listed all the parties that she had arranged every year thus far. And this got me thinking – what do these youngsters have to look forward to in life, if by the age of 10 they have already experienced what most people take a lifetime to enjoy.

This past weekend was my granddaughters 7th birthday and they all had a wonderful time at a tree top adventure venue with obstacle courses through trees, zip-lining and big swings. Enough to make the faint-hearted weak at the knees.  Some of the children took to it like ducks to water and others were paralyzed by fear, with parents (and grandparents) egging them on and telling them how brave they were.  The first time I went zip lining was at the ripe old age of 40.  This is not envy and it is great that the youngsters of today have so much more readily available for them to explore, but where to from here – what do they have to look forward to – to challenge themselves later in life.  Won’t this make them all that little more jaded and searching for the next adrenaline rush.

Next weekend, she will be joining her friend (also turning 7) at the local spa, where they will be pampered with mud face masks, manicures and other spa treatments – sorry, but has the world gone mad. What has happened to hide and seek, pass the parcel and pin the tail on the donkey.  Birthday cakes made proudly at home – albeit a bit lopsided – but not having to take out an extra mortgage just to have the perfect cake, which ultimately gets discarded on soggy paper plates. Children of today, in my opinion, are growing up way too fast.  They are exposed daily to indiscriminate propaganda and peer pressure.  I also feel for young parents of today who are pressured into this competitive rat race, where they are judged on their parenting skills, with eyebrows raised if it is perceived that they are not bowing to societies norms, with school report cards compared and social media adding fuel to the fire.

As a parent (in the good old days) you would worry about the cost of a 21st birthday, and not have to max out the credit card for little Johnny from year 1.  From what I have seen, birthday parties now not only entail making sure that the children’s entertainment outdoes the previous occasion and catering for the children, as no longer do children get dropped off with a sigh of relief for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon, as mom and dad (plus siblings) stay for the entirety of the party and have to be catered for as well.

To go back to my original question – “So what next …..?” How is society going to keep the younger generation entertained if they have already done it all before they turn 13?  How can we slow the world down and let them enjoy a simple childhood?  I am really glad I didn’t even know the word “facial” until I was older enough to appreciate it.  Will there be anything left for them to be in awe of, to strive to achieve…… I wish I knew the answer!

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Photo courtesy – Piclick.com

 

Volunteering – Voluntourism

“You are so brave”, “I couldn’t do what you have done/are doing”, “But aren’t you scared?”.  Just a few of comments that I have heard in this vein over the past 5 years.  And it is almost 5 years to the day since I embarked on my first volunteer placement with GVI.

Here I was, at the ripe age of 55, off to travel solo for the first time, to the other side of the world, to a different culture, different language and the anticipation of communal living. (Maybe I was at an advantage here after having survived bringing up 5 children, which in itself is a bit like communal living). Brave – yes, stupid – maybe, spontaneous – yes, getting out of my comfort zone – a big YES.  In the brief from GVI they advise to be flexible when it comes to the living conditions, which they warn in advance will not be to the standard accustomed to in western culture.  I was going with an open mind and advice from a young friend “Cath, just say yes (or “si”) to everything.”  The best advice I have had!

Step so far outside your comfort zone, you forget how to go back.

My first foray into the world of volunteering was to Costa Rica and arriving was exciting, liberating, and a little scary. The back up and support from GVI was excellent and I have subsequently volunteered with them again, twice in Laos and just back from Nepal.  The experience in each of these hubs has each been so different but all life changing and unforgettable.

In Quepos. Costa Rica, with tourism being one of their biggest cash earners, the need for supported English lessons is one area where GVI are able to help, especially in the poorer communities.  Here I got to work in the local communities, to see and experience how Costa Ricans live their daily lives, how they survive and always with a smile on their faces.  On arrival on the capital San Jose, the sign as you enter the arrival hall is “Welcome to the happiest country on earth” and they really live up to this.

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Luang Prabang in Laos, stole my heart. I had the privilege to meet and teach the young novice Buddhist monks, whose humility and thirst for knowledge knew no bounds. This experience has had a huge impact on my life as was being involved in the women’s empowerment project.

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My latest experience in Pokhara, Nepal where I was involved in the childcare programme, has to have been my most challenging to date, and at the same time extremely rewarding.  Seeing the little differences in the attitudes and behaviours of the little ones over the duration, you can only know that you have had a positive impact in their little lives.

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There is a lot of debate about the impact of volunteering and as some say voluntourism.  As with anything in life, what you put in is what you get out.  I have gone to each project with an open, flexible mind and willing to do what ever is asked and the rewards both personally and to the communities I have worked in, I feel are split both ways.  I have grown as a person, pushed my boundaries and made that difference to others.  Yes, I have white water rafted, paraglided, visited far flung temples, jumped off waterfalls and swum in oceans I never would have had a chance to do, so yes I have done all the touristy things, but at the same time, because I lived with the communities, never once did I feel like a tourist, and can say that as discussed with many of the other volunteers, we tended to get annoyed with the average “tourist” who appeared to disregard the cultural differences of the country, which as a volunteer you come to respect.

With all this in mind, you do not need to be brave to volunteer or travel solo, but need to have an open, spontaneous heart and mind and be willing to endure a few discomforts and learn some amazing valuable life lessons whilst having the time of your life.  There are a few disreputable volunteer organisations out there, so do your homework before embarking on an adventure that will change you for ever.  I personally highly recommend Global Vision International (GVI) who offer projects focused on marine and wildlife conservation, child care, animal care, health care and teaching.  Here you will make friends for life, of all ages and nationalities  – all you have to do is say yes.