Things I learned at summercamp

My last two weeks have been filled with many laughs and loud screaming, sugary-sweet drinks, sponge fights in the pool and arguments at bed time. Assisting with two summer holiday camps at Amani Development Centre near Windhoek has been a fulltime (workaway) job, but a rewarding one. I taught Dannika how to swim, discovered Petris talent for Macrame, distracted Nena and Enyo more than once when they were homesick and got a lot of smiles, hugs and compliments from the children. And while the first week was a relatively easy start with just eight children and five volunteers to keep them busy and watch over them – taking care of 30 children has been chaotic and challenging to say the least. Planning activities, pulling splinters out of tiny hand and feet, keeping track of everyone during walks in the nature, dealing with poo-stained sleeping bags and becoming a team with the other volunteers I learned a thing or two about children, Namibia and myself:

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Braai (bbq) with the Amani workers, family, neighbours and kids

  • It’s sad yet funny how religious Namibian children are. “EVERYONE believes in god!” – “No. I don’t.”, shocking looks all around me. The shock was on my side though when I found out even the 14 year old children didn’t “believe” in evolution. And even the pope endorses evolution nowadays. I also learned that rainbows are gods way of showing us he will not flood the world again – when I had always believed it was gods way of showing us he’s queer. Luckily I was not the only one amused by this and all of us volunteers had to hold back our laughter when a 6-year-old proclaimed in a serious voice: “Let’s pray, like we used to do”
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Getting ready for the brick-bridge challenge

  • Children are a lot of work. Of course I knew this but I am not sure I realized the full extent of it. How my grandma didn’t go insane with seven children in her home I will probably never know. I really like children and gladly they seem to like me too, but I was still happy when they went back to their parents.
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Every day we shared a big watermelon – and Pitie would not rest until the last bite was gone

  • Childrens abilities to learn languages are insane. Remember when I described how Namibia was as German as socks in sandals? Last week I met about 20 Namibian-German children with cliché names like Walter, Hagen, Kevin, Nena and Alexander and to my surprise their first language really was German. And while it was funny to hear so much German, there were also about 10 other children with either Afrikaans or English as their mother tongue. How do you communicate with so many languages? The answer is in whatever of these three languages you want to communicate, because most of the children speak at least two (if not all three) of these languages. Just a few of the small ones who were still in Kindergarden struggled, but there were six year olds flawlessly switching back and forth between the three languages. Wow.
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Painting stones with the children for the Amani walk of fame

  • Namibian parents have a very different perception of what is dangerous or appropriate for children. When we took down the swings before the childrens arrival because they were “too dangerous” I thought Namibian parents must be over-protective, but then Ben took the children for a ride on the back of his pickup truck and with no seatbelts or even seats and I think my mum would have classified this as more dangerous than a swing. Food and drinks were also something that surprised me, because first thing in the morning the children were each given a cup of coffe. Yes, real coffe, followed up by sweet drinks which probably contained more sugar per glass that a bar of chocolate. No wonder these children had so much energy. What a lot of these (white as milk) children didn’t have though was a hat or suncream, which in Namibia at this time of the year guarantees sunburn. And finally the Namibian parenting style seemed to me a bit like it might have been 50 years ago in Germany: rather strict and not very focussed on feelings, emotions and explanations (e.g. why is something forbidden).
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Getting silly with the French volunteers and some of the kids

  • I might be older than I thought. Lately a lot of things have made me realize that even though according to some I have the face of a 22-year-old and am travelling in a way that is mostly popular with 18-year-old highschool graduates I am in a very different phase and mindset. When caring for the children I couldn’t help but think I was old enough to be the mom of many of those little people and I did not dare to take my eyes off the pool when the small ones were swimming because I was concerned someone might drown (some had just learned how to swim). And while us volunteers got along great, some conversations made me feel even older. When the others (18, 20 and 21) were talking about school memories, mine seemed ancient and it even turned out some of my best friends were the age of their parents. Now, I still don’t think I’m old and I am certainly not complaining, but I am getting more close to 30 than to 20 by both age and mentality. I am glad I can still get along great with people aged 18 but I might have to start dealing with the fact that I am kind of an adult now.
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Every evening we enjoyed beautiful sunsets like this

If you would like to read some more about our time at the camp, Joscha also wrote a blogpost from his perspective. Also many thanks to Bastien for letting me use some of his pictures  (picture 1, 2, 3 and 5).

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Things I hate about Workaway

A lot has been written about the amazing possibilities and upsides of workaway: you get to see the world almost without spending any money, can learn a lot of new skills, share your knowledge and meet the locals and their culture. But there are a lot of things about workaway that most travellers, blogs and of course workaway itself fail to mention. After I left my last workaway host early following a very mixed experience I decided to write about exactly these downsides. The things I hate about workaway. After five hosts in four countries I might not be the most experienced workawayer, but I think I have seen enough to speak my mind about a few things.

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A lovely workaway place in Bolivia where I had lots of fun – but did’t find the community I was looking for

Firstly the profiles rarely draw an accurate picture of the place, people and work that await you. I was told I would work and live in a hostel with a restaurant when really neither my accommodation nor work were in that hostel. An eco-community turned out to only have one member and the eco farm I was expecting was neither eco, nor a real farm. A lot of these inaccuracies came down to outdated profiles and of course it is always difficult to describe a place you are attached to, but it is annoying to find out that something you particularly liked about a profile is not true. For example I picked one of my hosts because I was looking to experience communal living. In another occasion I was hoping to learn more about sustainable farming in Namibia and ended up with hosts that not only worked in a lodge, not a farm, but thought it was fine to pour old paint into the nature where noone could see it.

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Playing soccer in front of the restaurant (not hostel) where I volunteered in Peru

Not seldom the basic premises of workaway are violated, sometimes without any mention on the profile or in the e-mails before arrival. So free food and board for 25h of volunteering per week is not always guaranteed with workaway. Two of my hosts told me beforehand that they could not provide food and as both of them were beautiful non-profit community projects I was fine with that – but when my last hosts told me upon arrival  that they really expected me to work a 50h week and had many rules they didn’t mention in several e-mails we exchanged beforehand I was very disappointed to say the least. I would have liked to know this before my arrival to make a decision if it was ok for me. In the end it was not the work or the amount of hours that made me leave, but the aggressive communication and stressful environment, but it lead to an unfortunate first impression.

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Painting a roof in the hot sun at my first Namibian workaway

It is especially important to know the details of each workaway agreement, because spontaneously leaving is not always easy. Depending on many circumstances you might be very dependent on your host. If your host lives very rural you might rely on them to get to the next village, bus stop, or even road. In a country like Namibia many farmers  own thousands of hectares of land far away from main roads – so hitchhiking is not an option everywhere. In cheap countries with lots of hosts it might be easy to come up with a plan B and I am lucky to travel with enough savings so I can leave everywhere if I feel I am being  mistreated – but I have met at least a handful of travellers who could’t afford to leave before they found a new host and this is not a situation I wish upon anyone.

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I found my host in the Bolivian Amazon by just asking around – and a boat was the only way to reach the amazing jungle camp

Of course some people will argue that you can avoid bad experiences simply by reading the feedback other travellers have left, but the truth is that workaways feedback system is very flawed. It has been written about before, but I am not sure most people realise that in the rare case that feedback has been left, it could have been left by anyone. There are no reminders or double-blind system in place and even worse, negative feedback won’t be posted by workaway. Yes you have read right – if you have an experience you’d like to tell future volunteers about don’t select the negative smiley because it will be posted without your written feedback. Not only does this system actively withhold important information from other workawayers, it also makes every host look good.

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Painting stones at a childrens summercamp – my second Namibian workaway

So will I stop using workaway and advise others to do the same? Definitely not! A lot of hosts are amazing and there is a reason travellers rave about this page, but there are a few measures I will be taking from now on, even if I am looking for a host last minute and I would advise others to do the same. Firstly and most importantly ask many questions before your arrival (even if the profile seems to answer them) and also get across what is important to you! If there is feedback which raises questions there is sometimes the possibility to contact former volunteers who left that feedback and I think it’s great chance to get more information. It also helps to get information on the exact location of your host and the surroundings like nearby hostels and alternative hosts, just in case. And lastly I would personally never do workaway without the funds to at least pay for transport and a few nights of cheap accommodation. I really don’t want to scare anyone away from volunteering or travelling and think it is great to arrive everywhere with a an open heart and mind,  but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared…

Just in case anyone was wondering: I have never used helpx or other similar sites and this is the only reason this post focusses on workaway. I have no clue is the other pages work better, worse or the same and therefore they are not mentioned. 

Workaway at Amani

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Watching the sunset with the other volunteers on a hill near the lodge

Although I’ve already talked about some of the quirks and surprises Namibia offers, most of you probably have no clue where I am and what I’m doing at the moment. After leaving my first Workaway host early (something I’ll probably write about more later) I am now at the Amani Development Center near Windhoek helping with two summer camps for children. I have to admit that while the camp is fun the 30 children are keeping us quite busy, but if you’d like to see and read more of Amani and our time here check out Joschas blog.

Four things that surprised me about Namibia

It’s been over a month since I have landed in Windhoek, the modern capital of this dusty country and so many things have happened since then that I barely know where to start. I went on an insane road trip with my family, spent some lovely days couchsurfing in the capital, lived through a turbulent week at my fist workaway host and moved on to another place where I now help to keep the kids of a summer holiday camp busy. I could tell you a lot about the adventures with my family, my workaway trouble or the fun we are having at the camp, but I think I’ll save that for later.

Because when I came to Namibia I didn’t know too much about the country and though I read up a bit about its nature and climate, history and current state my image of the country was very blurry and there were many thing that turned out to be different than expected. So here are four of the things that surprised me quite a bit:

How sparsely it is populated

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No car coming anyways…

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The vastness of Namibia is impressive

Have you ever wanted to put your name on a map? Fancy founding a village all by yourself? Move to Namibia to make your dream come true! Although I knew before that Namibia only had 2.3 million inhabitance I really didn’t realize what that meant for a country this size. From travelling in South America I am already used to bus rides of many hours without seeing any trace of human life, but in Nalibia this was taken to a whole other level. Driving with my parents we would look on the tourist map (scale 1:2 000 000) thinking the next village would be of a decent size – why else would its name be printed bold and underlined? Furthermore is was marked to have a gas station and shops. Well. Turns out a gas station (with a tiny shop inside) is pretty much what makes a village in Namibia.

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Village shop in Damaraland

Add a lodge or a house for the workers and there you have your village. Maybe the closest farms and lodges officially belong to this village, but in reality they are probably quite far away. Just to give you an idea, my first workaway host owned 17 000 hectare land – and this is normal outside of cities and villages. In Peru and Bolivia you will find small shops and markets that sell you almost anything in the middle of nowhere, but in Namibia a lot of people have to drive more than 100km to do their weekly grocery shopping – on roads that only allow you to drive about 50km per hour. So yes – Namibia is about as vast and unpopulated as it gets.

How many animals you can see

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A small antelope watching us in Etosha

Naturally I expected to see some game – it’s Namibia after all, but I totally underestimated the amount of animals you see on a regular basis here. Just driving along any road you may spot oryx, springbock, zebras, giraffes, monkeys and many other mamals. One evening when we were having dinner a desert fox walked up and watched us for a long time – probably hoping to get some of our grilled meat. Another day I had to learn the hard way not to leave my shoes outside when a wild cat bit my trekking sandals in two while I was sleeping. It definitely adds a whole new aspect to camping (exciting and slightly scary) to know that wild animals might walk past your tent at night! And in the national parks wildlife reaches a whole different level: we spotted elephants, rhinos, buffalos, lions and even a cheetah with her baby. In Etosha there are so many animals that after a few days you almost start looking at herds of zebra with the same indifference as cows. If there is one thing the guidebooks are right about it’s that this country is incredible to spot wildlife!

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Two of about a million zebras we saw on our way through Namibia

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Sometimes small animals are just as impressive as big ones

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We were lucky enough to spot the lion king in Etosha

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These two Elephants were taking their time at the Okaukuejo water hole

How much land is fenced off

One of my favorite things to do when travelling is to explore cities, villages and especially nature by foot. Taking short walks or watching the sunset on top of a hill you just climbed. On long bus journeys in south America I often felt the urge to stop on the way and go explore and I was looking forward to do exactly that with our rental car. What I didn’t take into account were all the fences! Of course this partly has to do with people trying to keep animals and wild game on their land, but having a fence on both sides of the road definitely takes a bit of fun out of a road trip. From what I have seen so far it seems like most of the land is privately owned or managed as a national park. Of course once you’re on private land you don’t notice all the fences because single people own insane amounts of land, but when you drive from one place to another fences are omnipresent – hindering spontaneous explorations, picturesque lunchbreaks and good pictures of nearby game. So even though Namibia has hardly any inhabitance and a lot of incredible nature it is difficult to explore by yourself or get off the beaten path.

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Look at these beautiful mountains and the lovely fence in the front

How popular cycling is

In one of the driest countries in the world, where temperatures over 40 degrees are an almost daily occurrence, distances between villages are long and natural shade is basically non existent there is one thing I didn’t expect to see often: bicycles. Surprisingly though cycling is  super popular in Namibia. During the time with my family I counted five people travelling on their bikes – about the same amount I saw in 5 months in Southamerica. There were also countless locals cycling in full gear on dusty roads in the middle of nowhere. Cycling definitely is more of a sport than a means of transport here – but a popular one. A few days ago my Workaway host Ben took the summer camp children, other volunteers and me to see thousands of cyclists pass by on the two day FNB Desert Dash from Windhoek to Swakopmund. Crazy!

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Some of the crazy cyclists – don’t be fooled by the clouds, it was a super hot day!