Volunteering Around The World Year and a Half Recap
I began this journey May 1st of 2016, on a mission to volunteer everywhere I went. At the time of this writing I have volunteered with over sixteen different organizations, from soup kitchens to hospice care and many other opportunities to help. Previous to all this I had been an active volunteer in my home community for about seven years – leading projects in Miami-Dade and Broward County.
So over a year and a half ago I started my expedition living in a place I never even thought of visiting – Alaska. I spent about three months living in between Haines and Juneau.
And like any adventure , there were many stories along the way. A friend pulled out a rifle on me and kicked me out of his house over a petty argument. In short – he believed that if someone was his enemy they should be my enemy too. He saw me having a conversation with someone he didn’t like and became enraged. I guess this is where we disagree because my message of love shows no boundaries. I forgive him even though we may never speak again. It’s in the past where it belongs and I wish him the best.
However, this unfortunate incident left me homeless in the tiny town of Haines, Alaska, where no more than 3,000 people live at any given time. If it weren’t for the generosity of my guardian angel, Melanie, who welcomed me into her home for a few days while I figured stuff out, I would have been in a lot of trouble. It all worked out in the end , since I was able to connect with some amazing people in Juneau Alaska and was able to experience Celebration which is one of the largest gatherings of Southeast Alaska Native people.
Life is Adventure !
I have learned so much about myself on this trip as well as the do’s and don’ts of travelling – as far as the way I like to experience travelling is concerned. I’ve accomplished some major goals in my life, including volunteering and being able to deepen my yoga practice by obtaining my teacher training certificate. These things were just a dream a year and a half ago and now I’m happy to say they’re memories that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.
One positive development - during my yoga teacher training, I ate a diet for the first time that was strictly vegetarian. Because of that wonderful experience I am now (mostly) vegetarian . I find that I save a lot of money travelling because of eating this way and in most countries, it’s actually quite easy to be a vegetarian.
Although technically I guess some people would consider me a flexitarian – meaning I’m flexible on diet. 95% of the time I’m veggie but if it’s not an option at the time or I’m presented with non-vegetarian meals because of cultural customs, I’m not going be rude and turn it down. I’m also not going to starve to death because there’s not ideal food available. At any rate, at this point in my life I feel this is a healthier way of living and definitely makes me feel better about my health and the health of the planet.
One thing I hear a lot is, “You must be having so much fun travelling the world.” Yes, of course I am! But it’s not always sunshine and rainbows.
I like to think I’m a positive guy and like to keep smiling. Hence the name of my brand/company/message - #SmilingTimes. However, I’ve faced a fair amount of hardship at times.
In order to keep travelling, I have to produce income and have become a self-proclaimed digital nomad. I’ve mostly worked with marketing companies but one thing I didn’t take into consideration, and thought I would be able to handle while living in Thailand, was the hours. This was a steep learning curve for me. I was able to live abroad for those six months with no issue because the cost of living is so economical. Especially when you’re getting paid American wages.
However, I was working American hours, from about 8 at night until 8 in the morning sometimes. I spent my days sleeping and was finding it difficult to interact with other people outside the bar/club scene. Which may be great for some but isn’t a lifestyle that entices me like it used to.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a drink occasionally like the next guy. You’re not listening to a saint here! But if you had insight into my past and how much I’ve grown, I think you’d understand.
Unlike a lot of other backpacker types, I didn’t travel the world to spend my nights at different clubs. I travel to experience different sides of humanity. To experience human connections. To experience different types of love.
With my night job, I was living in Thailand with little to no free time. I’ll be candid with you, it got very scary for me at times. Yes, I was still finding time to volunteer on a weekly basis but it was exhausting. I was going in after a full night of working and of course, no sleep. It was tough sometimes getting out of bed with my entire schedule backwards. Trying to switch between being awake during the day on weekends was not working either.
I will never again work at a job that requires overnight hours like that. It’s just not for me. More power to the people that do.
I like to plan in advance, however it doesn’t necessarily work out the way we’d like. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have plans and I’m definitely a goal setter. (I already have the second chapter of my world travels planned out). But I now understand that you can have plans BUT YOU HAVE TO BE FLEXIBLE AND WILLING TO ADAPT. Shit happens, as they say.
Some examples: I have broken four phones while travelling and spent money that could’ve gone to travel, on new phones. But I need them to photo document my trip. Also, an airline broke my computer in my bag and shortly after buying a used discounted computer – that one quit on me as well. Or having a delayed flight, making me miss my flight to Thailand and having to pay out of pocket for a whole new flight.
I have learned to relax and understand it’s going to be okay. Everything Always Works Out for Me is my mantra . You have to come to the problem from a sense of calmness and reassurance, telling yourself, “I got this.” You assure yourself that you’ll figure it out – and guess what? You always do!
My original plan was to be in Thailand for a year. I planned on learning the Thai language but discovered that learning, in a school setting at least, I had no interest in. It took me a thousand dollars to figure that one out.
I would still be there if I was stuck on following my original plans but I’m writing this post in the Philippines and having the time of my life. I am volunteering which is what I do best.
A lot of this would’ve never happened if it weren’t for the marketing company I was working for closing down. I had a feeling the company was in some sort of financial trouble so I wasn’t surprised when I lost that source of income. I also felt like I was whoring for them so when it happened I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
During my stay in Thailand I lived in the city of Chiang Mai. One reason is because of the cost of living. It would allow me to live and work comfortably with no issue financially. There are thousands of expats who live there and work online. They have fast, reliable internet there (which is a big issue in a lot of developing countries).
So when I lost my source of income, I came to the realization that I had nothing else keeping me in Thailand. Part of my original plan was to use Chiang Mai as my home base while I visited other countries.
Thankfully, since I saw the possibility of my job coming to a close I had already saved some money. I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t freak out because I didn’t have enough money to survive.
I was grateful I had friends with online companies I could contact for work. I ended up doing some online jobs for friends to get some extra cash flow. After working freelance I realized that working for myself and being my own boss was the way I wanted to make a living. It’s the reason I started Smiling Times, of course.
I wanted to take a break before taking the dive into this next phase of my life. I knew I could focus on Smiling Times while travelling and could postpone any other sources of income for a little while. And since my message is love, I decided to practice what I preach and take my volunteering to the next level.
For the past seven years before leaving home, I had been a weekend warrior volunteer. Doing one or two days of service a week, then going back to my normal life. Which was great for me.
Like I told a good friend of mine in Nepal, Thomas, I wanted to reassure myself. I wanted to know that full-time volunteering is the life I want to live for the rest of my life. Could I really make it my LIFE, not a HOBBY? Not an extra activity I do but actually make it a point every day to volunteer myself in service to others?
When I figured out that I had the availability to travel for a few months with no financial problems, I started looking online for places to volunteer – something I’ve become quite an expert at, if I do say so myself.
I mapped out my plans for three months. I would dedicate my life fully to volunteering and continue to document my travels, but this time being of service was the full-time job.
I started my travels in Nepal, helping to build a school. I love working with my hands and there’s nothing that compares to the sense of accomplishment you get when you see the impact you make building something right in front of your eyes. The feeling you get after a hard day’s work or the rush you get from being outdoors.
After a month of manual labor, I went on to conquer my fears of dealing with the sick and dying. This was a great fear of mine and was a test I put up for myself. Love has no boundaries. If I am going to dedicate my life to being of service, I have to be willing to deal with all of it.
Maybe it’s as simple as helping a kid who needs help with his English lessons. Maybe it’s as difficult as helping people who are living in absolute desperation. I had to learn how strong I could be emotionally.
My first day volunteering at the ThaBarWa Meditation Centre in Myanmar, I cried tears having to clean a lady who was covered in feces and hadn’t bathed in a week because there was simply no one to help her. After finishing with her needs, a young girl a few beds ( I should say wooden boxes) down went into convulsions. I ran to her side to hold her head so she wouldn’t hurt herself. It was a very emotional experience was for me. I’m crying at this moment typing these words, something I will never ever forget.
Thankfully I now know I can handle this but I also know I need to take breaks. Seeing this much pain and suffering got to me around the sixth week of volunteering and I needed a break.
In life you need breaks even if you are doing something kind for humanity. You need time for yourself. Nobody is superhuman.
That experience in Myanmar changed my life , but now I’m ready to handle another experience like it. Now I know to take breaks when I need them.
So I had started the three-month test journey with a physically demanding job in Nepal and moving on to an emotionally draining one in Myanmar.
I spent the last part of this journey in the Philippines spending a couple hours in the morning with school kids – helping them with math and English. And feeding them sugar! Oh boy! How they love their ice cream and I get a kick out of giving it out to them. It’s so simple. These kids who have nothing don’t ask me for toys or money, they ask me for food. And school supplies and coloring books.
I’m ending this chapter in laughter and love – after all, that’s what kids bring to the world. It was the easiest volunteering I have done thus far and the most enjoyable. The kids have so much energy and truly enjoy the volunteers who come to spend time with them.
So… what now? You ask.
I am going home. I miss my friends, family, my niece and my soon to be born nephew. I want to assess everything that happened and recharge my batteries. I also need to repack my backpack. I have carried way too much unnecessary stuff while travelling.
- Books are pointless when carrying a tablet/iPad is so much more convenient.
- One pair of shoes is fine.
- Two pairs of jeans.
- And a couple Smiling Times t-shirts
- Camera / Video Equipment and Computer
…is all I need.
I started travelling with three suitcases and now I’m down to one bag. Again, it’s a learning curve.
Regarding focusing on Smiling Times?
What is most important is how to inspire people to do the same thing I am doing while building an online community. I want to connect volunteers around the world.
My t-shirts are made with a message of love and selling them will support my journey of volunteering. As well as being able to give 10% of my proceeds to the organizations I work for around the world.
So after recharging, I’ll explore my options. The recent hurricanes have affected the Caribbean and my home state of Florida. I have sent a formal request to help out in the affected areas and we’ll see where that takes me.
So what I have planned so far is to start there. However, if it doesn’t materialize, I’ll continue with my original plan which was to head for Central and South America, beginning with Mexico. I want to immerse myself in the culture, work on my Spanish and become fluent once again. Then we’ll see what God/The Universe has in store for me.
I am excited to close this chapter of my life. I’m ready to take the lessons I have learned, pick up the pen, and begin writing the next chapter.
As always, nothing but love and gratitude.
Nelson A. Santos