Category Archives: Sustainable Travel, Eco-Tourism & Volunteering

Japan, A Year Later

My second visit to Japan has ended, and this trip turned out to be even more incredible and eye-opening than I could have hoped for. Not only did I get to check out amazing places like the Chichu art museum in Naoshima and the massive sand dunes in Tottori, but in addition I was able to volunteer with typhoon relief efforts in Wakayama and see some of the tsunami devastation first-hand in Sendai. Even though this country is filled with so much beauty (and, of course, delicious foods), many people are of course still wary about visiting after last year’s events. While I hope that some of my previous posts about Japan can encourage more people to visit the country, I would also like for my entries to encourage others to further explore what’s happening there today. The beauty of Japan is found in more than its beautiful coastlines, amazing ski slopes, and intricate temples – it’s also found in the resilience of the people that are working everyday to restore their towns for their families and future generations. I was especially impressed with the amount of fundraising that I’ve seen from expats there. One group of JETS living in the Fukushima prefecture are selling Fukushima t-shirts in order to raise money for tsunami relief efforts. My sister, a current JET living in Nara, has already ordered several t-shirts and I am anxiously awaiting for mine to arrive in the mail. If you are interested in ordering shirts internationally you can email Galileo Yuseco at

Back in NYC, I am glad to hear that the conversation is still on-going as well. In February I attended a LucidNYC event where an acclaimed photographer named Kyoko Hamada spoke about her visit to Fukushima and her interactions with the people there. To hear her story and see some of the pictures she took, check out the video clip here. I was also fortunate to help out with another great event this past week hosted by Indiegogo over at Projective Space LES. Jason Wishnow, the filmmaker behind TedTalks, was one of the speakers and shared a new project of his called “We Are All Radioactive.” This online documentary series is about the people living in Motoyoshi, a small surf town 100 miles north of Fukushima, and focuses on their experiences with how their businesses and daily lives have been affected by the concern about radiation. While part of the series was filmed by Wishnow and his team, they also gave out cameras to the locals there so that us viewers can see their story through their eyes. The online series is crowdfunded and new episodes are being “unlocked” as each fundraising goal is hit – to find out more about this project and to donate, visit their site here.

I plan on visiting Japan again within the year and look forward to seeing all of the progress that will be made. Until then, I will have to be content with staying connected online and rationing out my green tea flavored kit kats appropriately.

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On Friday I felt like I was in the arena, and this time the arena was a small island. I crept around quietly like Katniss, taking care not to step on the many tiny pine cones that dotted the ground. I spotted a secluded part of beach that was roped off, and wished that Tim was my tribute partner from the SoCal District so we could hop over the rope and explore anyway. I frowned at the overcast sky and wished if only a Gamemaker could take pity on me and give me some sunshine for an hour…

Clearly I’ve been reading way too much Hunger Games on this trip. ::shakes head::

The  island I was on is Fukuurajima, which is off the coast of Matsushima. Matsushima is about a half hour outside of Sendai, and boasts to have one of the top three scenic views in all of Japan – the other two being Miyajima and Amanohashidate. As someone who loves taking the scenic route, it was only natural that I felt compelled to go. The other main reason being that I was very curious to see what shape Sendai and other areas that were devastated by the tsuami were in. As Friday was my only real chance to go north of Tokyo, I decided to check it out regardless and am happy to say even with the overcast skies I wasn’t disappointed with the beauty of Matsushima. Cute, tiny islands (or large rocks, take your pick) line the coast and would be downright gorgeous on a clear day. The Japanese seem to be pretty fascinated by large rocks, which is lucky for me seeing as I share that same interest. And, as I realized on my previous trip, I really love visiting the quiet parts of Japan over the loud, large cities. I spent the afternoon exploring all the dirt paths and corners of the island. One of the pros of the bad weather was that I had the place mostly to myself, Fukuurajima is only accessible by it’s infamous 252 meter long red bridge and there is an entrance fee of 200yen to go over. I was surprised to find that the island itself seemed to be in good shape after being hit by the tsunami – some other sights in Matsushima got wiped out and even the bridge needed to be repaired.

Godaido Temple

Aside from the occasional eerie tsunami warning signs, during my brief time in Matsushima I didn’t see notice a lot of damage that was done last year (this is most likely because its a very popular tourist spot.) On the other hand, from my train ride up I did notice that Sendai still has a long road ahead with a lot of debris and dried up landscapes. If you’re interested in volunteering in the Miyagi prefecture, check out The Association for the Revitalization of Ishinomaki. Neetha put me in touch with this group, and I know that they are always looking for helping hands.


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Wakayama Typhoon Relief Aid

Wakayama prefecture is a beautiful part of Japan full of rolling hills, giant trees and plum blossoms that bloom around this time of year. It sits next to Nara, the area where my sister is currently living and teaching English. Last September, the area was hit hard by Typhoon Talas which left many parts of Wakayama and Nara devastated – the typhoon caused many trees to fall into the rivers which led to flooding throughout many different towns. Thousands of people were evacuated, many people were injured and some even lost their lives. The area is still recuperating from all of the damage done.

Seeing as I was just in Japan a few months ago and had a lot of time to do the typical sightseeing, I wanted to do something a little different with this visit. My sister got plugged into a relief organization through some of her JET friends and we decided to volunteer to help with some of the work they are doing in Wakayama. Because of the flooding, the rivers moved a lot of trash and debris and many of it has still not been cleaned up due to the sheer amount of it. So on Sunday, a group of seven of us went into the mountains to clear trash from a national park. The park is actually on an island which itself is still very beautiful, but unfortunately now has many broken trees and trash littered all over the area. The island used to be a big attraction for tourist groups that would come to the area, and one of the guys who takes care of the land told us a little about the history of the park. Over 150 years ago there was a great flood which wiped out most of the trees, but the flood brought new seeds from all over and created a whole new diverse (multicultural, if you will) forest. Which explains the random palm tree we saw hanging out in the middle of the island.

We spent about 5 hours clearing as much as possible, whether it was climbing trees to get trash that was stuck in the branches (which showed just how high the water came) or shoveling out debris that had been deeply buried. A surprise find of the day was a monkey skull Neetha came across – it reminded us how much wildlife must have been wiped out as well because of the storm.

In a day’s work we filled over 25 bags of trash, and we only tackled what felt like a small area of the island. It was eye-opening as undoubtedly it will take a lot of time and effort for Japan to fully recover not just from this disaster but from last year’s tsunami as well. That being said, from speaking with the people that live in this area I’ve found that they are optimistic and focused on regrowth, which is a testament to the resilence and beauty of this country.

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The Power of Photography: *March Forth With 100cameras

Photo by Buba, a 14 year old girl at St. Bartholomew’s Orphanage

I know a lot of you travelers out there are obsessed with photography like I am. What is it that draws you in about it? Yes, its great to capture memories from your vacation, and most people don’t travel without one (or three) cameras on hand, but for many of us photography is more than just having pictures from your last trip to show off to your friends. For me, photography got me through a low point in my life a year ago when I was feeling inadequate and very unhappy. I decided to take part in a photography project where you take a photo a day, and soon I found myself seeing the world in a different way. Suddenly the park I walked by on my way home every day was now full of amazing images of children playing, beautiful graffiti art, and bustling NYC city life. It’s going to sound cliche here but seriously, the city felt more alive and beautiful than ever and I was thrilled to be a part of it. More importantly, I found joy and pride in photography and took back a feeling of self-worth that I had started to lose.

When I was at the Eventbrite “Do Right Be Brite” brunch last month, I heard about this fantastic organization called 100cameras. Cameras? Helping out disadvantaged youth in South Sudan? My interest was piqued. 100cameras is a non-profit that provides children with cameras so they can take photographs in their towns and share their story and their own personal viewpoint with the world. 100cameras sells the photos on their website and 100% of the profits goes towards the children’s physical needs and creating sustainable growth in their community. Not only is 100cameras raising funds to assist children in need, but they are also empowering these kids by teaching them new skills, increasing their self-confidence, and helping them create a positive change in their community. Furthermore, its also increasing global awareness and providing an easy (and fun!) way for us to give back and help out these communities. Amazing.

Photo by Kiden, a 16 year old girl at St. Bartholomew’s orphanage

Photo by Josephine, a 14 year old girl at St. Bartholomew's Orphanage

Tots on Pots, photo taken by 100cameras staff

Currently, 100cameras has projects in South Sudan, Cuba and New York. Interested in learning more? Visit the 100cameras website where you can read the bios of each child photographer and see the photos that they’ve taken. They are also always looking for people interested in volunteering their skills, whether it be through event planning, photography, marketing, etc. Feel free to check out the 100cameras Facebook page and find out more about the organization and ways to get plugged in.

Maybe now you’ll look at your camera a little differently.


*March Forth is a campaign where 100 bloggers like yours truly are talking about the awesome work that 100cameras is doing. Get it? March Forth on March 4th? Those clever kids. Get involved and help spread the word!

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Volunteer While You Vacation – A Look at an Eco-Friendly Resort in Vietnam

If you haven’t already read the many travel articles urging you to visit, it turns out Vietnam is the new big hotspot for travel. And why wouldn’t it be, with its beautiful scenery, intriguing culture and insanely delicious food – not to mention the friendly exchange rate! Well, if the urge to visit hasn’t struck you yet, Condé Nast Traveller wrote about one luxury hotel that is giving you an extra incentive to stop by. Last year, Six Senses Resorts in Vietnam offered an eco-volunteerism project to prospective hotels guests: if you were staying with them for 3 days and signed up to volunteer for a few hours a day within their community, the hotel would comp you an additional 3 days. Uhh, 6 days at a fancy hotel for the price of 3, AND you get to do community service in a foreign country? Sounds awesome to me! Apparently the response was good because Six Senses in Ninh Van Bay is continuing this offer during select months in 2012. And lo and behold, it turns out that my good friend Alexis stayed at this resort when she visited back in November. While she was unable to take part in their volunteer project, she did tell me about her fantastic stay as I sat there wide-eyed, adding “oohs” and “aahs” to every amazing detail. Like how the resort is accessible only by boat. And that when they arrived, the entire staff was at the dock to greet them with big smiles on their faces. And how they had to walk 126 steps to get to their hotel room each day (which was the most remote villa there) and felt like they were the only guests there the entire time due to the amazing layout of the resort. Yeah, you wish you were there right now too, don’t you. Check out some of Alexis’ photos from her stay there:

Through the eco-volunteerism project, you would spend 4 hours each day between helping out a local orphanage, doing clean up at a coral reef/beach, and working at an aromatic garden. With the clean up you even have the option to snorkel – wow, even their volunteering is luxurious! I know four-star hotels aren’t usually on a typical backpacker’s itinerary, but for those out there looking to splurge for a week this sounds like a pretty good way to do it. Volunteer vacations (aka voluntourism) with hotels isn’t a new concept – many hotels have always been environmentally aware and take note that guests are interested in giving back as well. If you are interested in this sort of thing but just don’t know when you’ll be in Vietnam next, you may be able to find some closer alternatives. For instance, last year RockResorts in the US/Caribbean had a similar program called “Give & Getaway” that offered discounted room rates as well. Next time you’re looking to book a week stay somewhere, make sure to check out if the hotel you’re staying at offers volunteer opportunities. Or do some research and see if there are any ways to get plugged into local volunteer efforts on your own. You’ll come back with some great stories that extend beyond lazing at the pool, I guarantee that.


Fun Fact (courtesy of Alexis): Six Senses in Ninh Van Bay is so exclusive that it even has its own timezone!

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Step By Step – Working With An Indian Orphanage

During these last two weeks, I’ve been involved in many conversations regarding STEPS, one of the children’s homes that Hope ToRCh is working with. I’ve seen photos of them, heard about the history of the orphanage, met with one of the owners, etc. So on Saturday, I was so excited when Arun asked me if I wanted to stop by STEPS and meet the girls. STEPS is home to sixteen little girls between the ages of 5-8 yrs old. In addition to bringing Diya, we also decided to bring Isabel, Arun’s 8 year old California blonde daughter (their white lab). At first, the children were terrified of Isabel, but after Arun showed them some tricks with Isabel high fiving, crawling, and rolling over they started to become bolder. By the end of the evening, they were running around the yard chasing her while she soaked up all the love and attention. The owner’s brother was visiting and had come from Canada with a small camera crew that he knew in order to get some footage of the orpahange. At first I was excited and I picked up my camera ready to take some photos along side them and try to pick up some tips on lighting and technique… until they quickly burst my bubble and dragged me into the filming with the girls instead. Tara, the founder (and mother of the girls) was also in the video, and the footage was simple enough: holding hands with the girls and chatting with each other while we slowly walked down the road. Isabel, our mascot, was to lead the gang herself. However, imagine trying to get 16 girls and an excited labrador to cooperate with a camera crew — it was a little chaotic to say the least. But regardless, hopefully whatever they filmed will give some good publicity for the orphanage and spread awareness about one of the bigger issues in India.

The girls themselves are fantastic. All very sweet and loving, excited to have guests over to show off their toys and cuddle up next to. One of the younger girls was busy being fascinated by my long hair. These girls are easy to fall in love with, and I hope to visit again. Meeting the girls also gave me a new determination towards finishing some of the fun paperwork that Hope ToRCh is doing for STEP before I leave in two weeks. Volunteering with Hope ToRCh has definitely been a learning experience as I’ve been put hard to work with all of these business plans and agreements.

Next weekend, we are hoping to visit another orphanage that Hope ToRCh is working with – I’m really looking forward to it.


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Hope ToRCh

Last week, I briefly mentioned that my cousins, Arun and his wife Lydia, are in the process of starting up a non-profit organization here in Chennai. Hope ToRCh, which stands for Hope To Reach Children, is a non-profit, project-based organization that seeks to aid existing orphanages in the Chennai area as well as in other parts of India. To give you some background information, many children in India are at risk of being mistreated or abandoned. For one, because the dowry system is still widely used, many people value baby boys over girls, and many baby girls are left without a home. Child trafficking is also still a rampant problem, especially in North India, and children that are rescued from that end up homeless. Other times children come from abusive families or are left at orphanages if their parents cannot afford to take care of them.

Arun and Lydia have been living in Chennai for the last five years and have adopted two beautiful children through India’s adoption system. One of the main reasons they decided to leave Southern California to move here was because they felt strongly compelled to give their time, energy and resources to aiding the children here. Over the years they have made strong ties with several orphanages and they are now in the initial stages with starting their own NGO. Some of the projects they are currently working on with one orphanage in particular include funding for private school tuition (public schools in India are free, but private schools are far better in terms of curriculum and opportunities made available to students) and creating and implementing a monthly newsletter which publicizes the work the orphanage is doing as well as its needs and volunteers opportunities.

When I was deciding what countries to visit during my travels, the main reason I decided to spend a month here in India was so I could contribute however I could to get this organization up and running. The process is long and arduous, and there’s a mountain of paperwork, proposal writing and editing that needs to be done. At best I can hope to make a small dent in the work during these next few weeks. Then again, the more research I do about these orphanages and the more conversations I have with my cousins about their goals for this organization, the more addictive the work becomes. Just by talking to them you can see how passionate they are about the mission of this organization and how invested they are with the orphanages they work with. Even now, at 2:30am on a Saturday night, I am up trying to complete one of the many tasks Arun has set for me. Well, that and blogging about it of course. I will keep you posted on our progress, and will also post more information and photos in the coming weeks. Hopefully within the next few months Hope ToRCh will have ways for you to contribute as well if you would like. Stay tuned.

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