Today we carry on the next chapter in our Intrepid Journeys series. Where we cover inspirational travel writers that have taken the plunge to discover horizons new.
This week we speak with Emily, the travel writer behind I Should Tend To My Sunburn. Emily has taken a path less travelled with her volunteer work in Sudan, teaching English at a University in Khartoum, Sudan. For those of you wishing to explore the opportunities that volunteer work provides, this interview should inspire you to take the plunge!
Ō Emily! So, tell us a bit about yourself and your travel blog ‘I Should Tend To My Sunburn'..
Well I am 23, a recent Cambridge graduate and a frequent international traveller and volunteer. I've always loved to travel as much as possible and a few months ago, I realised that I could splurge forth all my travel-related thoughts through the wonders of the internet. So I made a website. It's called I Should Tend To My Sunburn due to the fact that wherever I go, even if it's freezing, I always seem to get sunburnt.
You are currently volunteering in Sudan, as part of the SVP (Sudan Volunteer Programme), how did that come about?
I was looking for my next adventure, and wanted to do longer-term volunteering in a developing country than I had done so far. As with anything else in life, I didn't want to spend too much on it, especially as I would be giving up my time for free. I found the SVP website after a quick search for volunteering placements, and it really appealed to me as it gives people the chance to visit a country few westerners ever visit, and they ensure that you are paid a small monthly stipend so that you can actually survive out there.
As someone who quite likes useful things like food and electricity/water, this seemed like a promising offer, especially as getting a job at home at the moment is pretty difficult. Also, I think my parents have had enough of ‘investing in my career'. So I applied, had an interview in London, and a few weeks later I booked my flights to Khartoum.
It sounds like this isn't your first time volunteering abroad. What's been your history of volunteer work?
My first taste of volunteering was during something called World Challenge (a two year fundraising project culminating in a month long expedition to a developing country), when I was 17. My team-mates and I built a netball school for a South African primary school, which was a good mixture of hard work and good fun. At University, I volunteered in two international development student societies, and then spent the summer before my final year volunteering. This involved a month's teaching high school students in South Korea and then a month of conservation work for a small NGO on an island in Honduras.
It was a pretty great summer all in all, and it completely reaffirmed that I want to travel as much as possible, in a way that will hopefully benefit myself and my destinations in some way. Fingers crossed.
The volunteer work you have previously been involved with sounds exciting! So, tell us how the programme in Sudan is going, what's been involved so far?
Regardless of experience, the programme provides two days of training for all volunteers once they have arrived in Sudan, settled in, and a placement has been arranged for them. It covers the basics of how to engage with Sudanese students and how to put together good lessons, with an emphasis on planning properly. It isn't taxing at all, and is actually quite interesting as they explain the history of teaching English in Sudan to you, and make you feel that you are there doing an important job. I did my training a few weeks ago now, and have been teaching at a university in Khartoum for two weeks or so. The training has certainly helped, but I still have lots of freedom to plan and run lessons as I want to, which makes things a little more fun.
Volunteer work can be a very rewarding experience. What would you say has been the most rewarding experience for you, and for the communities you're working with?
I think the most rewarding thing for me is that I get to escape the UK for a while and spend a decent amount of time in a country that is so completely different from my own. I know that can be said of many places but Sudan seems especially different because it's just so unused to having western visitors. Every day strangers come up to me to welcome me to their country, to introduce themselves and to offer their help with anything I might need, whether that's just a cup of tea or a lift somewhere really out of their way.
Teaching itself is also incredibly rewarding as it gives me the chance to really get to know some young Sudanese people and learn about how they feel about their country. I'm hoping being here will be good for my career too, as I'm interesting in working in international development and/or travel writing. In both cases, I think having lived and worked in Sudan will help in terms of showing that I can cope with all the dramas and challenges that come with spending a long time in a developing country.
As for the communities I'm working with, I think they really appreciate having native English speakers around, as so many people here want to improve their English, but hardly any Sudanese get the opportunity to hear how a native speaker actually talks. Similarly, I think it is helpful for them to see how some westerners actually behave, and perhaps break down some of the stereotypes that they may have. This absolutely goes for me and the other volunteers as well – Sudan is full of surprises! I also hope that it will be good for the future of Sudan to have western visitors come here and realise that there is more to the country than just the violence in Darfur and South Sudan, and that actually there are many positives here, the generosity and kindness of the people standing out most.
What was involved with signing up for the Sudan Volunteer Programme? Were there costs associated on your side, and do you get a small income to help with basic costs over there?
Getting involved with SVP was very easy. I filled in an application form online (and can be found here) and went to London for an interview (skype interviews are also possible) a few days later. As for costs, it is made clear from the start that you will have to pay for your own flights, your own personal effects, and that you should take some money to cover your living costs for the first month or so while your placement is being arranged. They also ask that you pay an £80 contribution for insurance. If you have your own travel insurance, you can let them know and then you won't have to pay it, though I have heard that some policies won't cover Sudan because the Foreign Office doesn't recommend going there.
SVP arranges visas for its volunteers for free – all you have to do is send them your passport, and they will get the visa sorted for you and send it back. There is no monthly fee to pay once you're in Sudan – in fact, the volunteer actually gets paid! We receive 1,000 SDG a month, which is just enough to live on if you live modestly.
It's a good idea to take some extra with you if you want to do some travelling in the country in your spare time, but you'll find that many people will give you food, accommodation and lifts for free. It's also worth pointing out that there is a high demand for English teaching here, so it's easy to find private work if you want to supplement your monthly stipend.
Sudan is a little bit of an unknown place geographically, a path very much less travelled by westerners! What's it like in Sudan and the city of Khartoum that you are living in currently?
Sudan is a really interesting mix of African and Arabic culture. I was expecting it to be quite like Egypt, but really it has its own thing going on entirely. In some ways, it feels primarily Arabic, with mosques dotted about everywhere and the vast majority of women walking around in headscarves. But equally, the markets and social events often feel very African. Everywhere you go, you can see the influences of other countries, for example, I have met people from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Eritrea here among others, and we frequently go to Syrian and Ethiopian restaurants. As I've said already, the majority of people are just so friendly, and plenty of them will go out of their way to show it. Strangers will often pay for our bus fare or buy us a drink, and nothing is ever expected in return, except for perhaps a bit of conversation. I've never experienced anything like it anywhere else. Sometimes, it would be nice to be a bit more anonymous and not have every third person yelling greetings at me in the street, but then I think about being at home and how strangers go out of their way to avoid contact with one another, and then Sudan feels so much nicer by comparison.
Khartoum itself isn't exactly pretty (ok, it's really not pretty) but finding things to do and getting to know it is all part of the fun. When you first get here, it all seems pretty hectic downtown but it's not difficult to learn your way around, especially once you've discovered how to use the bus system – which involves a lot of hand gesturing, finger-snapping and hissing. Then you can go exploring and do things like visit the museums, go for a walk around Tuti Island and drink tea with friends overlooking the Nile. As for security, I actually feel safer here than I do in Britain most of the time. You rarely hear of anything being stolen, and I have felt safe enough to accept lifts with strangers at night (albeit always with a friend) on several occasions, which I would never do at home. That said, it was brought to my attention a few days ago just how quickly a situation can change here, when a student was killed at a protest at the University of Khartoum. I'd walked around there just a few weeks ago and some of my friends were in the area at the time, which was scary. I think generally if you avoid crowds, keep yourself updated on the latest security information, and don't make a target of yourself, you should be alright.
As for living conditions, when I first arrived, I shared a little guest house near the centre with some other volunteers which was very clean and comfortable and even had a little garden. After a few weeks, I moved into a flat with two American girls in Khartoum North, which was essentially like a flat you might find anywhere at home, although everything gets covered in dust very quickly here, and there may have been one or two cockroaches in the kitchen… Currently, I'm sharing a house with another volunteer, and several frogs, to the south of Khartoum. It's lovely – we have a big kitchen, a living room, three outside areas, and the electricity/water only occasionally go off. SVP volunteers find themselves in a lot of different places, but as far as I have seen, they are all fairly decent.
Tell us a little about Audrey, who has been travelling with you as a ‘mascot'
Audrey is a palm-sized stuffed turtle that some friends and I collectively bought from Berlin Zoo last summer. We decided that she's in her late 30s, has had a bit of a rough life (for which she mainly blames her taste in men) and could really do with some adventure, which is why I was graciously permitted to bring her along on my travels.
I'm hoping she'll get out of the house more soon, and start giving me the turtle's perspective on all things Sudanese, but she's not very good in the heat so it will take some coaxing. She's also notoriously bad in warzones, which is why I'm avoiding anywhere like Darfur or South Sudan, which I'm sure my mother is very pleased to hear about.
What has attracted you to volunteering in Sudan, over other places abroad?
I wasn't really fussed which country I went to next – as long as it was a developing country that I hadn't been before. Sudan itself was appealing as I knew almost nothing about it, meaning I would learn a lot, and I think visiting now, just a few years after the secession with South Sudan, makes it a particularly interesting time to visit.
For me, it also meant going back to Africa, which has become a bit of a horcrux for me (apologies to anyone who hasn't ready Harry Potter), as I used to live in Gabon when I was younger.
Tell us about your favourite place, you've come across on your travels in Sudan, so far?
So far, my favourite place has been Kassala, which is a town to the east of Sudan on the border with Eritrea. We were lucky to stay with the family of a Sudanese friend there, and they were just such lovely hosts. They cooked us gorgeous meals every day, tolerated our stumbling Arabic, and one great aunt sat me down and braided my hair like I was her own family. We spent the days walking in fruit gardens, scrambling up mountains and drinking water with farmers we encountered on our way. It's well worth a visit, especially for the welcome break it gives from the traffic and rubbish of Khartoum.
What's been your strangest moment so far in Sudan?
There have been so many strange moments in this place! Where do I start… A few weeks after I arrived, a few of us went to a party at the American Embassy and ended up driving around one of the fancy districts at 2am, passed a bunch of guys casually waving AK-47s around, and ended up at the gigantic house of a guy in the military who made me hold a plate he said was several million years old. That was weird. There was also the time a man stopped his car and came over offering to buy me a phone so we could be friends. My most recent strange moment was going for a blood test (a government requirement for visitors here), and waking up on the floor after fainting, to the sight of a Sudanese woman thumping on my chest to bring me round again. All good fun.
What is Sudanese food like? Have you found some favourites over there?
In Kassala, we had this dish called fa'ta every night, which is basically a big bowl of sauce (I wish I knew what was in it), with lots of ripped up chunks of bread in it, all covered in cheese. You share one bowl between a bunch of you, and eat it with your hands. It's delicious and a nice way to eat with friends, although I think it grosses some westerners out a bit. A lot of the food here is eaten like that, or in some sort of variety of sandwich. If you like sandwiches, you'll like Sudan.
What are your current plans for when your volunteer programme ends in July?
While I'm out here, I will be doing the standard grad things and applying for internships and jobs to do with international development and travel writing, so I will hopefully have something to come home to, in July. Other than that, I will be spending a lot of time catching up with friends and family, and then planning my next adventure, wherever that may be. Haven't been to Asia in a while…hmmm……
Thanks to Emily for taking the time to share her experiences with volunteering in Sudan. If you are interested to read more of Emily's adventures, make sure to visit her travel blog.
About ‘I Should Tend To My Sunburn':
Self-indulgent travel-related nonsense from a girl who never wears enough suncream! Emily Brewster is a British travel writer, volunteer and adventurer.
‘I Should Tend To My Sunburn' features everything from buying guidebooks, packing, booking flights and hostels, to riding elephants, ‘rescuing' sea-life and teaching English to foreign students abroad, I love everything about travelling. Check out my blog to follow my many adventures.
Check out Emily's blog: www.ishouldtendtomysunburn.com
Follow Emily on Twitter: twitter.com/sunburntemily