Louise Rowen’s experience on the Nepal project in 2008 influenced not only her decision to volunteer on the Ecuador project the following year, but also her career. Now working in the humanitarian aid sector, read on to find out how Louise’s experiences volunteering with InterVol shaped her future.
In the first term of my first year at the University of Birmingham I signed up to join the InterVol Nepal team who were working with a local NGO called PSD Nepal and heading to a village called Batuli Pokhari for the summer. The project aimed to build a community centre in the village where the Park Ranger could base his efforts to protect the endangered one-horned Rhino and stop illegal poaching. Whilst there we also volunteered in the local primary school, took part in village festivals and giggled our way through some rather eccentric morning yoga. Protecting the local rhino population was of huge importance to the village as years of poaching which had gone unchecked during the civil war had reduced the population to only 375 rhinos in 2005.
We went out in 2008 during a time when there was a nationwide push for conservation, part of that strategy was to foster close links with communities to ensure they receive around a third of the revenues derived from tourism for development projects. The latest figures from 2015 show that the population now stands at 645, the highest since the early 1950s, showing that the decades of conservation efforts are showing progress.
This was my first experience of volunteering overseas, and although I was nervous and a little unsure when I first arrived in Nepal, I soon found myself settling into life in the village and with the rest of the team. We were being hosted by a local family and were joined by Goma, who translated for us. Through Goma and the family we learnt about Nepali culture, customs, food and history. On our days off we explored the area by cycling along the narrow paths between paddy fields, and one afternoon the park ranger offered to take us into the jungle to track the elusive rhino. Although we didn’t see any rhinos, I did learn that leeches don’t think I’m tasty… My team-members, however, seemed to be the leech equivalent of cheesecake!
Preserving the local Rhino population was very important to the village, and the new centre would also be used for village functions and a place for people to come together. After six weeks we left Nepal, exhausted, exhilarated, happy and a little more confident than before.
In the first term of my second year of university I was once again queuing up in the Guild to find out about other InterVol projects. This time the wild rainforest of Ecuador captured my interest. That summer I boarded a plane with three other students and spent five weeks in the Amazon working at Merazonia, an animal rescue and rehabilitation centre which had just opened.
Animal trafficking is a big problem in Ecuador, and Merazonia works with local law enforcement to receive confiscated animals and help with their rehabilitation and eventual release back into the wild. Whilst there the team released an agouti, received a Capuchin monkey, introduced a baby tamarin monkey to a wild troop and the day after we left received a sloth which they re-homed in a nice, fresh, remote tree.
With each project I felt my confidence growing; InterVol was great for encouraging adaptability and a willingness to learn new skills, because let’s face it, no one is going to do well the first time they have to squeeze into a grumpy macaw’s enclosure to clean the food trays! Over the weeks I learnt how to catch an agouti (think large guinea-pig but faster, more agile and with claws!) which had got loose in the bird avery, and how to hand-feed a baby tamarin monkey…guess which job was my favourite!
Back at uni in my final year I swamped myself with revision, cramming and late night tea-breaks to get through the mountain of journals I needed to reference. When it was all over I found myself in a retail job wondering what to do with my life. My time with Intervol had been the most exciting part of university and yet it wasn’t until months after graduation that it dawned on me that there might be a career doing something similar…..turns out there is! I came across Humanitarian aid work and, as clear as a kick to the shins, I knew that this was my career. Since that moment I’ve gone on to study Humanitarianism and Conflict Response, and worked in India on a health, water and sanitation project.
Fast forward to 2015 and I am walking across the tarmac at Juba airport in South Sudan towards a World Food Programme helicopter which was going to fly me to the remote, flat, swampy north of the country. It’s the middle of an 18 month stint in South Sudan during the conflict; I am working for Save the Children and heading north to run a training session for some colleagues. The utter excitement of my first helicopter ride was mixed with nerves about heading off alone into the unknown, but it was ok, I’d done it before.
Each trip with Intervol was a trip into the unknown, into the hot humid paddy fields of Nepal or the misty rainforests of the Amazon and I knew the best way to handle it is to launch in headlong with a positive, open attitude, a sense of humour and willingness to get stuck in. My trips with Intervol were very important in giving me the confidence to step into the unknown and to get along with new people but also in taking my first steps in a career in the humanitarian sector. It showed employers that I had the ability to adapt and live in new countries, to work with people from different cultures and to overcome language barriers. What was two incredible summers volunteering at university has become my life and my career.
So what’s next? I am currently on the roster for an emergency relief organisation ready to be deployed to anywhere in the world, whether it’s to a conflict zone, responding to a natural disaster or working in a chronic emergency. And one day, someone might look at me and say “hey, you look like a person who knows how to catch an Agouti, mind giving us a hand?” and my life will be complete.