Diwali in Philadelphia

International House Philadelphia is hosting a Diwali celebration on October 11 featuring Indian food and sweets, traditional music and dance, and activities including henna, diyas, rangoli, games, and firecrackers.

Diwali is the “Festival of Lights” — the ancient Hindu festival signifying the victory of good over evil by commemorating the return of Lord Rama from his 14-year exile and his vanquishing of the demon-king Ravana. 

International House Philadelphia is the region’s international center for arts, culture, educational and residential activities. Their overall mission is to encourage understanding, respect, and cooperation among the people of all nations.

Diwali Celebration
Wednesday, October 11, 2017 – 7:00pm
International House Philadelphia, 3701 Chestnut St.
Tel 215-387-5125 or www.ihousephilly.org
Tickets are $15

Toni Hagen Nepal Documentary

As the world gets smaller, it’s rarer and rarer today to find true explorers, those who are the first to visit and map out foreign lands and cultures.

For Nepal, that explorer was Toni Hagen. He was a Swiss geologist who first set foot in Nepal in 1950 as a member of a Swiss foreign aid mission.

These days of course, Nepal and its Himalayas are very popular on the trekking circuit for world travelers. But before Toni and other select early visitors arrived in Nepal in the 1950’s, the country was still “forbidden” to outsiders.

Toni obtained the first trekking permit ever issued to a foreigner traveling in Nepal. Think about that when you receive your own trekking permit there. Amazing.

Altogether, Toni spent over a dozen years in Nepal, walking 14,000 miles, enduring everything from icy blizzards to torrential monsoon rains, while carrying out the first geographical and geological surveys of the country for the Nepalese government and for the United Nations.

Toni plotted sites for hydropower projects like Kulekhani and the Karnali Bend, proposed a east-west electric train artery, ropeways for mountain transport, and advocated rural eco-tourism.

His most famous quote about Nepal though indicates what really impressed him the most about Nepal: “I found the people more important than the rocks.”

Toni, who died in 2003 at the age of 85, documented his work and experiences.

His 1961 book Nepal is still valuable to modern travelers. 

He also filmed a documentary on Nepal between 1950 and 1958.

Toni did narrate one version in English, but that version is hard to find online.

The version I am posting below has a narrator speaking Nepali. Still, the images and scenes from Nepal in the 1950s make it well worth watching.

Motorbiking at Sea Turtle Conservation in Guatemala

I rode on the back of a motorbike in Guatemala this past summer.

Don’t try that at home. Or anywhere abroad!

I wasn’t exactly hitchhiking. But I WAS walking on the side of the road — going from the small town of Hawaii back to beach town of Monterrico, Guatemala.

I had just visited our sea turtle conservation project with ARCAS in Hawaii, Guatemala on June 16, 2017.

A nice guy (pictured above) stopped and asked if I wanted a ride. I hopped right on the motorbike and away we went.

15 minutes later we arrived in Monterrico and I got off the bike. I thanked him and offered to pay him something. He politely declined. How about a cool drink or lunch? Again, no gracias.

He did agree to let me take his photo — for posterity. Then we went our separate ways.

When Volunteering Abroad Does More Harm Than Good

Canada-based Ayushi Patel wrote recently in her article “When Volunteering Abroad Does More Harm Than Good” that:

While volunteering abroad can dramatically change the quality of life in communities in underdeveloped nations for the better; sometimes, these individuals are the target of exploitation and harm.

She attributes the rise of the voluntourism industry to the effects of the Civil War in Cambodia, which took place from 1967 — 1975. 

The Cambodian Genocide carried out by Khmer Rouge party leader “Pol Pot” resulted in the gradual devastation of over 25% of the country’s population.

The worldwide outrage led to an influx of tourists into Cambodia who wanted to help the survivors of the war, especially children.

Most of the local Cambodian organizations did tremendous work, with the best intentions.

Others organizations though, writes Patel, “…resorted to the exploitation of Cambodian children in order to gain sympathy from outsiders for profit-incentive purposes.”

This led to the creation of orphanages, Patel continues, many of which were organized solely to draw foreigners to visit the orphanages and donate cash.

Patel offers no data or research to back up the claims about voluntourism’s origin story. But the point she make in the story is valuable — tourists volunteering at orphanages is a bad thing.

Fortunately, there have been international efforts to close all orphanages in Cambodia. There are also major international institutions collecting data on orphanages and other “residential care institutions”.

Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health recently conducted the first research of its kind assessing the literacy and health of children living outside of family care in Cambodia.

The study estimated a total of 48,775 children – close to one percent of all children in Cambodia – were living in residential care institutions.

Lindsay Stark, DrPH, associate professor of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School of Public Health, led the research.

“Our goal was more than a simple head count,” noted Dr. Stark, who is also director of research at the CPC Learning Network. “We also assessed literacy and health and looked at the reasons why children entered residential care, whether or not they had parents, and if they did, whether their parents lived nearby,” she says.

Here is a video from the project:

One of the viable ways to end such institutionalization of children in developing countries is to educate foreigners on the situation, so that they avoid visiting and volunteering at orphanages abroad. 

Journalist like Patel and institutions like Columbia University are certainly doing their part and I applaud them.

I have written recently about the efforts by organizations like Stahili who are working to end orphanage tourism.

The word is spreading globally that no one should volunteer at an orphanage.

As Patel writes:

If you find yourself volunteering in South Africa for one week playing with the children, you are simply not doing meaningful work that will improve the living standards of the community. It is much more meaningful to work on long-term, sustainable projects such as building resources that will provide the community with clean water.

Ask The Pilot in Ghana

American pilot Patrick Smith, who wrote the popular aviation column “Ask The Pilot”, wrote about his fascinating experience flying domestically in Ghana in West Africa.

Patrick has always been one of my favorite reads, and his piece on co-piloting a domestic flight in Ghana is no exception.

I would never recommend that anyone take a domestic flight in Ghana. Yes road safety is horrendous there, no question. But at least you have a chance in a vehicle.

Anyway, here is an excerpt from Patrick’s piece on Ghana, as he flew from Kumasi to Accra:

The drive to Kumasi’s airport takes about 45 minutes. That’s five minutes of actual travel time and 40 minutes of idling in gridlock amid mufflerless trucks, overpacked tro-tros, ambling goats, and gangs of adolescent hawkers going car to car peddling everything from cellphones to wallets to burlap sacks of that staple of Ghanaian subsistence, the cassava root.

The terminal [in Kumasi] is spartan and cheerless, but a pleasant enough place, all things considered. It’s a single-story block with windows facing the runway. The arrival and departure zones are basically the same room, separated by a corridor of offices and a small waiting area cooled by ceiling fans. I’d describe the décor as “Soviet tropical.” The Antrak ticket counter, if we can call it such, is a claustrophobic room on the arrivals side.

Inside, two women are seated behind a small desk. Like almost everybody in Ghana, the women are remarkably friendly. They recognize me from the earlier phone call and extend a warm greeting.

“Is the flight to Accra on time?” I ask.

“Yes, of course!”

The women tick our names from the reservations list, then politely ask us to pay.

“Sure.” I nod toward Julia, who has already pulled out the Visa card and placed it on the desk.

With this, one of the women opens her eyes wide and makes a moaning sound. The other makes a tsk-tsk noise and shakes her head. They appear startled, eyeing the credit card as if it were a rotten cassava.

“Oh, I’m sorry. We don’t take credit cards.”

“But … you mean?”

“Cash only, please!”


Now, maybe I’m not as well traveled as I think I am, because who ever heard of an airline, particularly one with resources enough to operate a $9 million ATR turboprop on scheduled services, that doesn’t accept credit cards? I’m either too jaded, or too naive, but I think to myself: This isn’t Congo or Mali, for heck’s sake, it’s Ghana!

The problem is, we’re out of money. The nearest ATM is back downtown, and departure is only half an hour away. There are no more flights until tomorrow.

“But this is all we have.”

Read the rest of No ticket? No problem. Hitching a ride in West Africa, the world’s most “dangerous” place to fly.

5 Thing NOT to Pack when Volunteering Abroad

When preparing for your volunteering trip abroad, it may be tempting to pack as much as possible.

After all, you’ve probably never been to the host country, and you want to make sure you have absolutely everything you need for the trip.

The truth however is that less-is-more when it comes to packing when going abroad.

Here are five things you should NOT Pack when volunteering abroad:

1. Adapters

Do not bring adapters for electric outlets abroad. For example when you need to charge your tablet at your host family, the plug that came with the tablet may not fit into the wall outlet. In this case you would need an adapter. Buy an adapter in the host country. It cost about $1 USD and will definitely be compatible with local outlets.

2. Guide Books

Don’t get me wrong — I love travel guide books. I just don’t see much use for them DURING the trip.

They do generally have good maps (especially Lonely Planet). My favorite part of every travel guide book is the section on local scams and dangers. The books of course also have great practical information on topics like visas and currency, as well as crash courses on the country’s history and culture.

The problem with guide books? Burying your head in one.

Some travelers actually end up spending more time reading the guide book in their bedrooms abroad that actually walking outside and experiencing the country first-hand! I walked through Trafalgar Square once and saw a guy sitting down reading a Lonely Planet book. An hour later, I walked by the same guy — and he still had his head buried in the book! Not good, man.

Here’s some advice on how to step away from the guidebook.

3. Neck Wallet

If you’ve done any international traveling, you’ve probably seen travelers wearing neck wallets. The idea is to keep valuables like your passport, cash and credit cards safe and secure when traveling — by wearing them in a wallet around your neck.

Know what though? Leave the neck wallets at home! They look corny, and they’re an easy, visible target for pickpockets. Money belts are no better either.

I told a teen volunteer in Guatemala this summer — If I have to carry large amounts of cash on a given day (say over $100), I put the cash in my sock, in case I get robbed. He thought it was gross. It is of course, but it gives me peace of mind. (I still haven’t been robbed abroad after 17 years of travel though.)

4. Cell Phone

Yes, bring your smart phone from home. But use it mostly to take photos and to stay in touch with family back home for urgent issues (like plane delays or health emergencies).  

Better to buy a local cell phone to use as your primary way to talk and text with locals like your host family, coordinator and friends. Why? A local cell phone will be guaranteed to work; it will cost you no more than $30; and you will not have to worry about your expensive smart phone from home getting lost / stolen / damaged. Smart phone use is also an easy and tempting way to isolate yourself from local life — which is a bad thing on volunteering trips abroad.

5. Santa Clause Gifts

Bringing gifts and treats from home for people abroad may seem like a no-brainer good idea. But like with so many other aspects of volunteering abroad, things are much more complicated.

Foreigners showing up in poorer communities on a regular basis with “stuff” creates a Santa Claus mentality, where locals come to expect the same from future volunteers. It encourages kids to beg. Plus sweet treats like candy are bad for kids’ teeth.

If you must donate, we suggest donating cash — discreetly — to local projects that truly help locals and have a proven track record. And make sure you are present when the cash is being spent (on school supplies, food stuffs tuition, etc.).

Philadelphia Idealist Grad Fair 2017

For our former volunteers and anyone else in the Philadelphia region who might be interested in a graduate school fair with a non-profit and international focus:

The Philadelphia Idealist Grad Fair is on September 26 from 5:00 – 8:00 PM at Temple University. Admission is free.

Learn about admissions requirements and application deadlines for graduate programs in social work, public policy, nonprofit management, international affairs, public interest law, social entrepreneurship, and many more.

Speak with graduate admissions advisors from local, national and international universities
The fair is free and open to anyone considering graduate school.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017
5:00 PM – 8:00 PM EDT

Temple University
Mitten Hall
1913 North Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122

Any questions? Email gradfairs@idealist.org.

Idealist.org is one of the most well-known websites for the non-profit world. Their website lists over 120,000 organizations and has 1.4 million monthly visitors. Idealist “helps people move from intention to action all over the world.”

Watch these two short videos to see why you should attend the fair and what it looks like:

5 Ideas That Westerners Are Stealing

Westerners are slowly but surely stealing ideas from the developing world on how to live.

I’ve been noticing it since my first trip to the developing world (in 2000).

Why is it happening? 

That’s a whole different article. But the short version’s gotta be something like:

We as humans are copycats. We see others doing something we like it; we adopt it; and then usually try to make it even better (and make money off it).

And the copycatting is only going to grow. The influences of the Internet, TV, and global travel on cross-cultural awareness are a seemingly unstoppable force.

So, what ideas are we westerners stealing?

Cuisine is an obvious one. Cinema too.

Our bathroom business? Yep — We’re starting to crap like Indians too.

Yuck. But, let’s set aside the left-hand swipe until the end of this post.

Here are 5 ideas that Westerners are stealing from developing countries:

1. Cuisine

As kids in the 1970’s we rode rode our bicycles on the empty lanes of Main Street in Manayunk on Saturday evenings, cruising past factories and churches and rowhomes.

Who could have imagined that decades later that same street would become one of the trendiest streets on the East Coast, with upscale boutiques and world-class restaurants of Korean, Japanese, Indian, Thai, Mexican, Jamaican, and Greek food.

Back then, “thai” in Manayunk was something dad wore around his neck to the office; now it means yummy flat noodles, peanut sauces and curries.

Chabaa Thai Manayunk

Even just 5 years ago perhaps, you probably never had Vietnamese food. If you wanted it in the Philadelphia area, you had to go to either Chinatown or the Washington Avenue area.

Now, Vietnamese “Pho” noodle shops are in most city neighborhoods and even suburban strip malls. Some even think pho may compete someday with pizza in terms of popularity.

It’s the same for African, Indian, and Indonesian food in the States.

We Americans still like our Big Macs and pizza. But sales at McDonald’s continue to decline.

Where are fast-food chain sales growing? Developing countries. Of course.

2. Mobile Banking

Still not setup to wave your smart phone at the store register to pay your bill?

How about using your mobile to send money to your friend?

Pew Trusts says 46% of Americans already use some form of mobile banking.

Chase Bank, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and other banks operating in America recently announced their new mobile payment app called Zelle.  

That’s progress in America in money management for sure.

But it’s light years behind Kenya.

In Kenya, mobile banking is close to 100%. Kenyans started mobile banking even before the iPhone was introduced. Not with smart phones neither.

Kenyans started mobile money management with the legendary Nokie 3310. And while smart phones are getting more popular in Africa, brick phones are still common there.

(Nokia has just released an updated version of the 3310. We’re copycatting those Kenyans again! It seems simplicity, reliability and nostalgia are still big factors for some consumers here.)

Check out CNN’s story on the  10-year anniversary of Kenya’s M-Pesa mobile banking system:

3. Yoga

How about the small armies of incredibly fit young women walking the streets these days with yoga mats on their backs?

I know it’s my imagination, but they seem so smug and superior. Maybe I’m just jealous of their suppleness.

And I do yoga too! I’m on their side. So are a lot of others:

There are now over 36 million Americans doing yoga, up from 20 million in 2012. Annual spending on yoga classes and clothing / equipment is over $16 billion, up from $10 billion over the past four years. That’s astonishing growth.

I’m very committed to my own yoga practice. My back and my mental health cannot imagine a life without the yoga.

But even after doing Ashtanga Yoga 3-4 times a week for 5 years now — I occasionally glance in the mirror and see a guy with the flexibility of someone who just spent a month locked in a suitcase.

(Speaking of foods from other cultures: How did I reach my 40’s without ever hearing of turmeric. Now, at age 48, I take organic turmeric powder daily with black pepper and hot water. Turmeric is anti-inflammatory — among other things — which helps my hips, lower joints and back feel good after 30+ years of jogging and basketball.)

I had a couple of free Hot Yoga sessions about 15 years ago. Felt great, loose as heck walking out of the studio. But now, the 100+ F temperatures of the Hot Yoga rooms scare me a bit in terms of heart stress.

For now, I’ll continue revealing the ugliness of my yoga poses only to my personal yoga instructor Kino, in the safety of my living room:

4. Plastic Bags

Banning plastic bags is another idea we’re adopting from the developing world. It’s happening a lot slower than the other ideas, but I think it’s coming.

Last month, Kenya decided to ban plastic bags. Manufacturers and importers of plastic bags there now face fines of $19,000 to $38,000 or four-year-jail terms. Retailers can no longer sell plastic garbage bags.

Kenya is following a bunch of its African neighbors who have already banned plastic bags — Eritrea, Mauritania, Morocco, Rwanda and Tanzania.

These countries all know what scientists have been reporting for years now:

Plastic waste is causing catastrophic problems in the environment. It’s everywhere too: Plastic bags, Styrofoam, synthetic textiles, paints and tires, you name it. 

Scientists just reported that micro-plastics are finding their way into our drinking water. I’ve been drinking unfiltered tap water here in Philadelphia all my life; brutal.

It’s been known for years that plastic bags kill marine life like turtles, dolphins, whales.

Plastic grocery bags in America were introduced in America in 1979. Grocery chains Kroger and Safeway then picked them up in 1982. By the 1990’s they were ubiquitous; they still are in most stores.

The good news — the West is getting better with the plastic bag crisis: 

The first town in America to ban plastic bags was Nantucket (in 1990).

Hawaii has effectively banned plastic bags statewide.

Toronto did the same a few years ago. Montreal too.

The pace seems glacial though. Why? We’re so used to the darn things. And lobbyists of course.

It took until 2014 for the first state to ban plastic bags — California.

In 2016 Minnesota passed an ordinance banning plastic bags. But the day before the ban start, Governor Dayton signed a budget bill with a provision prohibiting cities from banning *any* type of bag

New York’s best effort so far to ban plastic bags has resulted only in a new task force to come up with legislation. They better hurry. New Yorkers use 23 billion plastic bags annually.

Still, I bet that a total ban on plastic bags will happen someday in the US.

5. Toilets

I thought Al Bundy was really onto something in the late 1980’s with his Ferguson, the “Stradivarius of Toilets”:

But many doctors are saying these days that squatting is better than sitting for doing number 2:

Squatting widens the anorectal angle even more to allow a clearer and straighter passage for stools to pass through the anal canal.

Most of the Western world still sits like Al to defecate, but squatting is favored in the developing world. 

Squatting means less abdominal straining and faster bowel movements — both of which can prevent bleeding from anal fissures. (Uncle John and Mom won’t be happy about less bathroom time but the Squatty Potty company will). 

Don’t forget that toilet tissue is bad for the environment AND it’s not the best way to clean yourself. It’s only been around a little over 100 years, so we’ll be able to give it up someday.

The pipes and sewage systems in most developing countries cannot process toilet tissue. So in Guatemala, with its western toilets, people place used toilet tissue in trash cans — not in the toilet. 

In countries like India and Nepal, the squat toilet rules — with no pipes OR toilet tissue. Here’s my toilet from my rural homestay in Nepal in 2000:

Nepal Toilet

So how do Indians and other countries clean up without toilet paper?

The left-hand swipe.

After eliminating, they spray or splash water at the dirty areas, while using the left hand to help clean the area. Gross to most Westerners. But it cleans much better than toilet paper. Just wash those hands thoroughly!

I clean up Indian style as much as possible even in the US, and always so when in a developing country. In Guatemala in June 2017, I carried a small cup into my host family’s bathroom each morning; sat on the western toilet to do number 2; then cleaned my bottom with the water method above.

(How about for emergencies away from my host family’s place? I’m as regular as a Swiss watch, so on that trip it wasn’t a problem!)

So, there you have it, full circle. From cuisine to its eventual journey into the toilet. Five ideas we westerners are stealing from the developing world.

Philadelphia Women’s Journal

From our archives: The Philadelphia Women’s Journal published a story on Cosmic Volunteers in October 2008:

Travel with a Conscience

As an alternative to scratching travel plans, people of all ages are increasingly finding value in affordable, international volunteer programs.

For a safe, all-inclusive, well-prepared journey, travelers turn to Cosmic Volunteers for an enriching, life-changing experience. Spending time immersed in communities abroad allows volunteers to participate in humanitarian and environmental projects.

Volunteers benefit from experiencing diverse cultures, taking part in important social and ecological work, and having an experience increasingly important to businesses that like to see such initiatives on employee’s resumes.

Cosmic Volunteers is a US-based non-profit organization that offers volunteer and internship programs abroad in China, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Nepal, the Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, Peru and Vietnam.

The business sets itself apart from other organizations by offering a unique combination of affordable program fees, trustworthy staff and advisors, and diverse programs.

With home offices in Philadelphia, Cosmic Volunteers sends hundreds of volunteers abroad each year to volunteer and intern at schools, hospitals, newspapers, orphanages, HIV/AIDS clinics, women’s groups, and other organizations who ask for assistance.

Cosmic Volunteers was founded in 2000 in Philadelphia by Scott Burke who volunteered as a teacher in rural Nepal. Cosmic Volunteers began by offering programs in Nepal but has since established ongoing programs on several continents.

Volunteers are mostly from the US, Canada, and Europe, and come from all walks of life, ranging in age from high school to retirees. Most programs do not require special skills or experience, just an open mind and a desire to reach out to those in need in non-western countries.

The program fees cover volunteers’ meals, accommodations, orientation, most in-country transport, and 24/7 guidance and support provided by program coordinators in each host country. The program fee also covers the continuing costs of recruiting volunteers, producing literature, answering phone calls and e-mails, developing the Web site, and preparing volunteers for their trips.

The program’s staff has been on-the-ground in all program countries, as volunteers, students, and interns, so they can answer pre-trip questions, provide in-country support with confidence, and be with the volunteers every step of the way.

After graduating with a B.A. in Literature from Franklin & Marshall College, Philadelphia native Burke spent more than 10 years working in the information technology field. He started Cosmic Volunteers after volunteering for three months as a teacher in rural Nepal in 2000.

Since that Nepal trip, Burke has visited most of the countries where he now offers programs. He has met with local coordinators, visited project sites, stayed with host families,and done volunteer work, all the while gathering as much firsthand knowledge as possible about the cultures and living experiences for future volunteers.

Sample Host Countries:

Cosmic Volunteers’ most popular host country is Ghana. Volunteer programs in Ghana include teaching English, working at orphanages, volunteering at hospitals and clinics, HIV/AIDS volunteering, coaching sports, journalism, and the new “Two Week Winter Break Program.” Free time is spent learning about the local community’s elaborate festivals, crafts, contemporary arts, music and dances, unique architectural styles, and natural and herbal medicine. Ghana is an extremely safe country, free of any political strife and hassle-free for foreigners, with local people who are very friendly and welcoming to foreign visitors. There are even direct flights from New York and London.

Guatemala offers volunteers the special opportunity to help local communities while becoming immersed in the culture of Latin America. Volunteer programs in Guatemala include teaching English, ecology projects, and environmental education. The rural area of San Andres is an ideal environment to learn and practice Spanish as well.

Volunteering programs in Kenya immerse volunteers into the rich and varied culture of Kenya. In Nairobi volunteers live and work in one of Africa’s largest cities. In the Rift Valley, volunteers live and work in Maasai tribe communities — a truly African experience. Programs also take place in Ngong Hills outside of Nairobi and Kakamega in western Kenya. In both locations, volunteers experience life in rural Africa while doing orphanage, teaching, and HIV/AIDS volunteer work.

Cosmic Volunteers is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization, with all program fees tax-deductible for US taxpayers. It is not affiliated with any government or religious organization and receives 100% of funding from the program fees.

Cosmic Volunteers is headquartered at 3502 Scott’s Lane, Sherman Properties in Philadelphia.

Call toll free at 1-888-717-0721 or visit online at www.cosmicvolunteers.org.