Want to know a poorly kept secret?

Wells have been installed all over the world by organizations that collected donation money from people just like you. A lot of pictures are sent back home of the big celebration, unveiling of the plaque and congratulatory speeches. This is usually the last we hear of the well. The problem is that the pumps were broken by some local kid and haven’t worked in years.

IMG_2492The first time I saw this kind of thing (and it is not that uncommon) I thought, what is wrong with these people? They have to walk for kilometres for water, often to polluted streams, and this pump is just sitting there at their doorstep – Why don’t they fix it?

That is a fairly obvious question. If someone gives you a gift shouldn’t you keep it up? Is this some sort of moral deficiency or “cultural” issue … I tried to come up with all kinds of explanations. Most of them were weird and sort of racist, but over time I think I am starting to understand why.

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There are Some People You Shouldn’t Take Care Of

We were up a mountain.  Our truck had made the nearly vertical track upwards in low gear We blew a tire, not uncommon, this was a difficult place to travel, the serrated volcanic rock slipped and slashed away at our tires in the attempt to hobble our progress. My host  mentioned that he had just bought a set of new tires for the vehicle and he was lucky to get 3, maybe 4, days of use out of them before he would need to fix another flat.IMG_7461

We weren’t more than a 100 kilometres from the city, but remote is not an odometer reading, remote is all about access, and this was remote.

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5 Secret Skills to Becoming a Travel Virtuoso

What is the difference between a tourist and a traveller? A traveller has learned how to take the stress of travel and make it work for them rather than trying to work against it.

If you want to understand how you can learn this yourself, here are the 5 skills you need to  become a Travel Virtuoso (a person highly skilled in an artistic pursuit)

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The rookie mistake people make when they try to help the poor.

A few years ago I was at a church that wanted to find some poor people to help.  We formed a committee that was focused on local poverty issues and began meeting to discuss what we might do.

Photo Credit: malias via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: malias via Compfight cc

Someone in our group had noticed a local social housing community close to us and we called a meeting to make some plans. People wanted to give and help out. Many gracious and innovative ideas to help out were shared at our meeting. People discussed what skills they had, and what they could bring. We talked about the source of the problems, the demographics and “felt needs” of the community. We came up with awesome solutions.

  • We could help with simple car maintenance for single moms.
  • We could help give people a hand with moving
  • We could put on a health clinic
  • We can give people rides
  • We can give away our used clothes and furniture.

All great suggestions – now the question changed. Where should we begin? Continue reading

The fatal flaw to understanding another culture

A few years ago I was in India and I met a travel writer for Outdoor magazine. We chatted about life, travel, writing. I was a little jealous of his life and work. I had overheard him talking to an Indian guy about his wife and so I asked about his family. He told me that he wasn’t actually married, but in Indian culture it made sense to refer to his partner as wife.

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Indian Women with Headscarves

I understood why he did so. I was also there with my wife Supriya, although at the time she was my girlfriend. We had gone for a walk in Pune one night, we held hands and, looking for a place to buy water, made our way into a roadside pub. Almost immediately Supriya’s cousin Biyah appeared to ask why we were there? It seems we had violated a number of unspoken cultural taboos. Continue reading

89 reasons why you think about poverty the way you do

When I think of living in the country, living rurally, the picture that comes to mind is of “Anne of Green Gables” and “Little House on the Prarie”. Those were the shows I watched as a kid. Sod-busters. Barn-raising. Ice cream socials and square dancing. So when I think of village life I think rustic, hard-working strapping men and women who may be poor, but by using their few resources they pull themselves up by hard work and gumption. If there are any problems, they were solved in about 22 minutes – or 44 if it was a two part episode.

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The first time I walked into an African village my perspective of the quaint village shifted. Some things are similar. Continue reading

How to tell time

We left our guesthouse just after 7 am because our host had told us that the high mountain road was under construction. There was only one way in, and there would only be a couple moments when we could get through. We had to get there before 8 or we would have to wait until after noon.

How to Tell Time
We were cutting it close, but I felt good, we were going to make the deadline. We kept up the pace, until suddenly we rounded the corner to see a long line of parked vehicles in front of us. We stopped for what would turn out to be an unexpected lesson. Continue reading

Don’t choose who to help

An entire village has been burned to ground due to war. You have been working in the region for a few years and have only found two trustworthy families. They work with you and help out whenever you are in the area.

The situation is desperate, but you have a big problem. You have some resources to help people out, but you only have enough to help 5 of the 50 village families, who do you choose to assist?

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This is a normal decision I face whenever I am involved in a sustainable development project overseas. Who do you choose? My answer: Continue reading

How to Tell a Story so People Pay Attention

A number of years ago I met Boday. He was tall, lanky and busy. Always moving. His young sons would run to hang on him whenever he could find his father taking a break, which was not often. Boday knew how to smile. A kind man, he quietly lit up a room.

Boday Sierra Leone
Boday & Sons – Kabala, Sierra Leone

Boday wanted what every good father wants. The best opportunity for his sons to succeed in life.  I don’t know if I really understood that as much as I do today – my two daughters have probably helped me understand this in a new way.

The problem was that we were in Sierra Leone. A country that had just come out of a savage and brutal time. Many people in the community shared the physical scars of the war.

Boday introduced me to a farmer with a missing arm.

Rebels had stopped this particular farmer and asked him a question”Do you want a short sleeve or a long sleeve shirt?Continue reading