The Economics of Volunteering

Earlier this year I was asked, by the parent of a daughter on the basketball team I coached, why I was going all the way to South America to volunteer when there were plenty of volunteer opportunities at home in Marin County, California. My answer was short and simple: “I can’t afford to do it in Marin.” What I should have asked, but didn't, was, "Who needs help more - a team of 6th grade basketball players or a couple hundred Andean peasants?"

Marin County is one of the most expensive places in the world to live and often requires two six-figure incomes in order to pay the mortgage. In families where only one spouse works and the other stays at home, the working spouse usually spends significant time traveling and working evenings and weekends. Adding on 20 hours a week of volunteering would upset the work-family balance even further.

With this “economic yoke” around our heads, putting in substantial volunteer hours near our home was not in the cards. By renting out our house for a year and covering out costs, we removed the yoke and were able to volunteer anytime and anywhere we pleased.

I did a lot of research on volunteering and NGOs in the months leading up to our sabbatical. I talked to a Canadian family who spent a couple months volunteering in Urubamba, Peru with ProPeru, I spoke with a woman in Washington D.C. who was the U.S. director of Coprodeli, I chatted with a representative from Cross-Cultural Solutions, as well as organizations like Global Crossroads, BUNAC, Personal Overseas Development, I to I, Peru Positive Action, Gap Year, and Global Vision International. With the exception of Coprodeli, these organizations request fees anywhere from $500-1,000 per week for volunteering. In addition to paying to be a volunteer, you must pay for your round trip airfare, as well. In return for these fees, the organization will typically pick you up at the airport, provide your room and board and set you up with a volunteer opportunity. Having travelled quite a bit in developing countries, I know that the actual cost of what they are providing is significantly less than what they are charging. I’m sure that these aid organizations are doing good things in developing countries; I just didn’t feel that spending almost $1,000 per week was necessary.

At this point in my research, I was learning of a new industry called “Volun-Tourism.” This niche travel industry caters to a growing number of people who want to volunteer and help somewhere in the third world, but don’t have the time, language ability or inclination to arrange a volunteer opportunity on their own. The perfect client has only a week or two of vacation, doesn’t speak the local language and needs someone to arrange it for them. Some of the organizations do a lot of good but some are nothing more than the volunteer equivalent of a photo op. (“Here’s a photo of me building a house in Peru”)

After spending a lot of time researching the different aid organizations, I did find several that facilitated meaningful volunteer matches (, Fairplay, etc.) in Latin America and, understandably, they did require a longer commitment and at least an intermediate level of Spanish. From these organizations I was able to narrow down my list of potential employers and make my choice.


Breaking the Language Barrier with Google (Part 3): The First Day at the Office

I knew I was in trouble on my first day of work at the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC) when I sat down for a meeting and the program director walked in, looked at me and asked “Un ratito?” As I wondered how a small rat would come in handy at a business meeting, the director noticed my confusion and gave me a patronizing look normally reserved for someone who’s discovered they’re dealing with a moron: “Oh…he has no idea what I'm saying.” While the Director smiled uneasily and walked out of the room, I quickly Googled “ratito” on my laptop and learned that it did not mean small rat (una rata) but was an expression meaning “just a minute”.

When she returned, she and I along with the head of the Center’s Education Department sat down to my first-ever business meeting in Spanish. I knew nothing more than we would be talking about a budget for an event that was to take place the following year. We proceeded to review a proposal that was provided by a Peruvian business consultant. She guided us through the proposal while I nodded pensively; I understood about 25% of what I read and heard. The proposal contained many business terms that I was unfamiliar with. The program director finished outlining the proposal and the two of them paused, looked at me and said "Puedes hacerlo?" (“Can you do this?”)

I took a long pause to glance at the proposal in order to give the impression of measured thought, while I asked myself: “What was I thinking? How in the world am I going to do this?”

Over the next few weeks I was to learn more about the project. The Center for Traditional Textiles in Cusco plans to host a Pan-American event called Encuentro de los Tejadores de las Americas. (Meeting of the Weavers of the Americas) in October of 2010. They will invite weavers from many countries from the Western Hemisphere to come to Cusco and share knowledge, weaving techniques, marketing tips on the art and commerce of weaving.

As I continued to peruse the proposal, I weighed my options…I could fake it: “Sure, It’ll be on your desk tomorrow morning” or I could try honesty “Look, I have no idea what you guys are talking about”. I decided to try to buy time: “Let me see all the related documents and I’ll get back to you tomorrow.”

Later that day, after I’d gathered all the relevant documents, I cut and pasted them into Google Translate, fixed the inevitable machine-translation errors, and absorbed the information. I read the English translation of all 15 documents and was starting to get a general idea of what they were planning. In addition, I was quickly learning a lot of Spanish-language business terminology. I made an English-language list of all the activities that entailed an expense, dropped them into Google translate and arranged the English-language results into logical groups in an excel spreadsheet. After cleaning it up a bit and adding columns for soles and dollars, I had a first pass at Spanish-Language budget.

When I came into work the next morning I took my colleagues through my budget model. Not only were they impressed with the model, they were impressed with my newly-acquired business Spanish vocabulary. Based on this, they decided they did not need the Peruvian consultant whose proposal we reviewed the previous day; I now had my first project to work on.


Breaking the Language Barrier with Google (Part 2): Renting an Apartment

While walking through Cusco’s San Blas neighborhood, looking for an apartment to rent, it occurred to me that I might have not one, but two language barriers while obtaining housing: Spanish and Legalese. Once again, I was to rely on my capable assistant: Google.

Our stay with a Peruvian family had been great, but with four of us it was apparent that we needed more space and a home closer to the city center. In addition to canvassing the desired neighborhoods, I searched through the local “Rueda de Negocios” newspaper for the first two weeks but did not find anything to suit us. I found a large apartment for $1,000 per month (outrageous by Cusco standards) and a horrendous little adobe shack on a steep hill for $100 per month, but nothing that would work for us. The third week I was referred to Miguel, who told me that he was building a new apartment above his house. It was advertised as a two-bedroom, unfurnished apartment but when I said that I needed a three-bedroom, furnished apartment, with utilities included, he said that would be “no problemo” and would get back to me with a price.

Miguel came back with a $1,000 quote; after my audible gasp, we agreed to talk about the price the next day. After a negotiating session with Miguel and his father and brother as well as the architect, we got the price down to a bit more than half that amount. This was done by pulling out my calculator and a sheet of paper and adding up all costs involved. Several times we had to stop as Miguel’s brother ran to the other room to pull various receipts: the previous month’s water bill, the last property tax bill, the receipt for the sofa and beds, etc.

The day after we agreed on the price, Miguel emailed me a three-page legal document in Spanish. This was where the fun began. Not only was the formal Spanish language unfamiliar, there were plenty of legal terms that I had not seen before. It was time for Google.

First, I cut and pasted the Spanish language document into Google translate. Once I cleaned up the obvious errors, I analyzed the document and felt I had a pretty good understanding of its meaning. I then did a Google search for Spanish-language rental and lease agreement templates on the web to see if there were any glaring omissions in the document they sent me. One important omission was that I was dealing with Miguel when actually his father was the legal owner of the building. I’m not a lawyer, but I do know that a rental contract with a person that does not own the property is not valid. I pointed this out in the response that I was formulating in English. When my response was done, I cut and pasted it into Google translate, cleaned up the glaring errors and cut and pasted it into an email. After two and a half hours, I had my Spanish-language response crafted.

After two more iterations, we were getting closer, but with my laborious translation process, we were using a lot of time and I wanted to have something pinned down soon. On a Saturday evening, after a day of river rafting, I sat down with Miguel’s dad and we chatted about his work. He crafts intricate wood carvings like altars, headboards, cabinets, and tables and his work is amazing. He has done commissions for carved altars for several Cusco churches. After 45 minutes of amiable chatting, we hammered out the remaining details in less than a minute and we had a deal.


Breaking the Language Barrier with Google (Part 1): Finding a Swim Team

I’d love to take full credit for getting our kids onto the Cusco Swim Team but the truth is I subcontracted most of the job to company in Mountain View, California. Yes, I’m talking about Google.

In the latter half of 2008, I was working for a client that had purchased a bankrupt retailer and I was helping to integrate and move operations from San Francisco to San Diego. Since this transition went pretty smoothly, by November there was less and less for me to do, so I spent part of my time searching for a Peruvian swim team for my kids to join. With very few people speaking English in Peru and the fact that I hadn't spoken my intermediate-level Spanish for the previous four years, it was bound to be a challenge.

I began to spend a few hours a week Googling search terms like “swimming”, “team” and “pool”, along with “Peru”…all to no avail. Using Google Translate I looked up the same words in Spanish (“natación”, “equipo”, “piscina”) and googled them, but was unable to find the results I was looking for. I looked though many websites: a Chicago personal trainer who swam competitively for a Peruvian college, a Princeton water polo player who did some volunteer work in Cusco, an American volunteer who was a high school swimmer in Trujillo, etc, etc.

Frustrated with my results, I loaded Google Earth onto my work computer and started systematically scanning the satellite photos of Cusco, Ayacucho and Arequipa – the three towns that we were targeting. While virtually soaring above the Cusco city center one afternoon, I spotted a light-blue, opaque rectangle not far from a train station. Was that a pool? Was that an indoor pool?

I quickly typed in the name of the street and district into the Google search bar along with “piscina” and “natación”. The results quickly came up and displayed a news article and accompanying video newscast about what was indeed a pool. As I slowly read the article and watched the video, I was struck by simultaneous feelings of horror and elation: horror as I read about 17 kids rushed to the hospital for inhaling excessive amounts of chlorine and elation as the newscast showed clips of a beautiful, indoor heated pool in the middle of the Andes. I justified the chlorine accident as something that could happen anywhere and gave in to the elation of finding a pool. More Googling failed to turn up a swim team of any kind, however. I decided to check out the pool during my planned Peru visit in February 2009.

By February, we had narrowed our sights on Cusco and I went there for 10 days to set things up for our family. In addition to checking out Spanish schools, jobs and housing, I thought I’d take a look at the pool I’d found. On my second afternoon in Cusco, I went there and asked if there was a swim team and the woman working there gave me a definitive “no”. On the third day, I returned in the morning and a different woman told me there was a “Swimming Academy” and that I should come back at 2:00 pm in the afternoon. At 2:00 pm I talked to yet another woman who said the Swimming Academy meets early in the mornings and that I should return the next morning at 7:00 am.

Thinking that by now I should probably give up, I walked over at 7:00 am the next morning and asked again. This time, the same woman told me to wait while she brought over the coach, whose name was Cristian. I told Cristian what I was looking for and he seemed mildly interested. In colloquial and rapid-fire Spanish, he talked about practice times, swim meets and the twice-yearly TransAndean Youth Games. He asked the kids’ ages and when we would be back in Cusco and we exchanged email addresses.

In my numerous Spanish-language conversations while setting us up in Cusco, I’ve sometimes had exchanges like this that have gone nowhere. I’ve found that if people have something to gain from an interchange (i.e, shopkeeper, innkeeper, tour guide) the motivation and politeness displayed in the initial face-to-face conversation is more likely to be sustained when following up via email or telephone. With Cristian, I just didn’t know if he felt he had something to gain by our relationship.

With this in mind, I sent him an email with some apprehension once I returned home. I used Google Translate to craft a letter that clearly detailed information about us as well as the many questions we had. I decided to send the kids’ best times from the previous season to hopefully add some incentive.

A few days passed -- with me eyeing my email multiple times per day – with no response. Finally, five days after getting back to California, I received a response with an enthusiastic “hola!” in the subject line. Cristian was indeed motivated to make it happen. We exchanged emails frequently in the weeks leading up to our departure, such that the swim team became a large part of our plans in Cusco.


Setting the Scene: Cusco, Peru

Cusco, Peru is our chosen home for the remainder of the year. Cusco was once the principal city of the South American Inca Empire and is now the undisputed archaeological capital of the Americas, as well as the continent’s oldest continuously inhabited city. It is known as the gateway to Machu Picchu and its location makes it accessible to the Andean Highlands, Lake Titicaca and Bolivia as well as the Peruvian Amazon.

Since our family meeting in April 2008, much has been done to get us unplugged from Marin County, California and plugged into Cusco. Almost all of what we envisioned has come to fruition.

I work at CTTC, the Centro Textiles Tradionales de Cusco, an NGO whose mission is to preserve and promote indigenous Andean weaving traditions. The center was started in 1996 by Nilda Callañaupa, an indigenous woman from the local village of Chinchero, who has organized collectives in nine towns, which support about 400 weavers, and helps to market their work for a fair price. Most days I tap away on my laptop while Indian women, who smell like they’ve slept in a cornfield, simultaneously weave and care for their babies. The second weekend after my arrival, everyone from the center went to a local shrine to have a priest “bless” the Center’s new SUV. Afterwards we had a picnic and played volleyball.

My wife will teach English at one of the many language schools here in Cusco. She recently acquired her CELTA certificate and should have no problem finding a job teaching English as a second language.

The kids are studying at Amauta Spanish Language School and are taking one-on-one Spanish lessons four hours per day. We chose Amauta because of the breadth of services they offered for families: Spanish school, volunteer placement, host family placement, travel agency, free salsa dancing lessons, cultural talks and tours, as well as satellite schools in Buenos Aires (Argentina), the Sacred Valley and the Manu Biosphere. The kids will volunteer at Colibrí, an afternoon program run by the Cusco Police Department that helps keep street kids entertained and out of trouble.

The kids are on the Cusco Swim Team, which holds nightly practices at the Piscina Municipal, next to one of the main train stations. Their coach is Cristian Ancari and the team has monthly swim meets in various Peruvian cities. Twice a year, the best swimmers from Peru, Bolivia, Argentian and Chile compete in the Transandina Youth Games. The next games are in Argentina in November and both kids hope to qualify.

Currently we are staying with a host family in the Santa Monica district of Cusco. Zulma and Alfredo Chavez have been wonderful hosts and we feel like part of their family. My daughter and I went to their corn farm in the Sacred Valley a few weeks ago and helped them with the corn harvest and Alfredo and his son took me to the cockfights one Sunday afternoon.

Last week I signed a rental agreement for a furnished apartment bordering the San Blas district and we will move there within 10 days. Once this is done, we will be completely settled in Cusco.


Stimulus Package for the Suburban Family

In late 2008 Congress passed what is commonly referred to as the Fiscal Stimulus Package. I haven’t read the act, but I believe that there is nothing in it that provides stimulus for the sagging spirit of the suburban American family.

There are swift and decisive actions in the Stimulus Package to reinvigorate a stale economy, but none to reinvigorate the day-in, day-out staleness of suburban life. There is plenty in the act to address the global financial crisis, but there’s nothing that addresses mid-life crisis. There are measures to get investors excited again about the American economy, but none to put more excitement in the lives of a suburban family from Marin County, California.

Just as the aforementioned legislation is geared to get the economy moving, our family decided to get moving…initially to Peru. Immediately following a family congress in April of 2008 we decided on the cornerstones of the first part of our Stimulus Package: volunteer, work and put down new “roots” in South America. We would later decide on the second half of this trip: a grand tour of the Mediterranean to traces the origins of western civilization.

Our principal goal was to find a sense of community in a completely foreign locale. We decided to try to find work and volunteer opportunities somewhere in the Peruvian Andes and have our two kids become proficient in Spanish. Since both kids are pretty good swimmers, we would also try to find them a swim team, to help build their language skills in a familiar environment and contribute further to a sense of community.

Certainly, the timing was right for an extended sabbatical. The economy hadn’t been this bad in decades and both my spouse and I work in cyclical industries (real estate and retail, respectively). With both of us professionally independent there was a good chance that we might not earn 6 months worth of income in the upcoming year. Some quick math showed us that continuing to toil in this manner left us financially worse off than renting out our house, volunteering and spending the next 12 months traveling the world.

This was easier said than done. Our strategy required renting out the house, home-schooling, or “road-schooling” the kids, finding a home for our dog, selling the car, canceling the cell phones and taking care of the myriad of details that go with an entrenched suburban life. We immediately launched into the planning phase and started ticking things off our list.

Although admittedly not the centerpiece of our Stimulus Package, we started to focus, like virtually every U.S. bank, on selling “troubled assets”. For example, we used Craig’s List to sell the lawnmower that hadn’t been used for 10 years, as well as the dust-covered wicker chairs that were purchased at a Williams-Sonoma sample sale 15 years ago. The government’s Stimulus Package was designed to utilize idle resources; the idea behind our Suburban Stimulus Package was to become more idle -- and less rushed -- in order to enjoy life.

This online journal will record how we made it happen and will document our progress.