Mae’s experience in Romania

I was a first-time volunteer and my short but wonderful experience in Romania has made me want to volunteer more — especially with IVHQ. I have always found the idea of volunteering in another country appealing. What stopped me most of the time was my work schedule, safety of the environment, and being comfortable while being in a foreign country. I accidentally found IVHQ’s website while browsing travel websites — the term “volunteer vacations abroad” caught my eye. I looked through the IVHQ website and was interested to see how many programs were available in a number of countries all over the world. I was immediately interested in the programs on agriculture, simply because it was something different from what I usually do. I am a physician by profession, but as I wanted to take a break from work, I did not want to be doing something “medical.” At the same time, I am a surgeon and I am used to and love doing things with my hands. So when I saw agriculture—seeding, weeding, cropping, compost-making, etc., there was no question that I wanted to be in that kind of program. Location was not important for me, apart from choosing a country where I would not need to apply for an extra visa. I was able to find several options in Asia, Europe and the Americas. With what fit the date and time I could be there I was left with two options—Naples and Romania. Between Naples and Romania, I chose Romania because 1.) I have never been there before, 2.) It is not a place a lot of people go to and THAT is ALWAYS interesting to me, and 3.) it was much cheaper than Naples.
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Being a female solo traveler in a new place, I had anxiety of the unknown and concern about being safe in a foreign country was a big factor for me. So, I checked out the reviews, videos, and details of the program in Romania. I loved how everything was explained, from accommodations, to food, to the availability of tours and even WiFi. I knew the basic essentials that I was looking for were being met, and so I submitted  the application. Upon doing the application, it surprised me how professional, organized and legitimate the whole IVHQ system was. The fact that they were asking for a criminal background check and travel insurance made me realize that I was applying to an organization that was highly concerned about doing things properly. Then there were short videos about “what to expect” and the “do’s and don’ts” while being in a foreign country. I remember thinking that these people value the safety of their volunteers and the importance of respect to other cultures. It was so nice having the personal application page on IVHQ because it guided me as to what was still required for my trip. Even without it, I found it very comforting to have immediate contact with a person from IVHQ— Meika (initially) and then Claire. Each one is so friendly and always open to answer all my questions and concerns. I was able to personally meet Meika during my week in Romania and I learned so much more about the goals and vision of IVHQ. I was also introduced to the local team, Care2Travel. Peter, the local head in Romania, sent me more details about the accommodations and my placement, as well as information regarding history, people, culture, and even common words and phrases that would be helpful during my stay. It gave me a picture of what to expect and this kept me at ease as the days to my volunteering approached. Like Meika and Claire, Peter (and later Orsi) were super nice and readily available for any concerns I had. To be honest, I usually expect answers to emails in about 2 or 3 days and was surprised that I received a response within the day or immediately the next morning.
image3.jpegSo, the time had come, and I arrived in Romania. To my surprise and additional comfort, I was fetched with another volunteer who arrived at the same time I did. She was coming from the UK and like me was also a first-time volunteer. At that point, I knew I was not alone and it was nice having someone to be with at the very start. We arrived at our accommodations around 6:30 in the morning and it was then that we met up with Peter and he briefed us quickly on what would happen in the next few days and how things work within the accommodation. Although they did send pictures beforehand, the accommodation was not what I expected. I thought it would be cramped, with a general sad feeling to it, but it was not like that at all. It was such a cute, spacious, homey place with high ceilings and adequate lighting from the windows.  The kitchen was complete with basic necessities like coffee, ingredients for cooking, food for sharing, snacks, etc. Storage for food and amenities (like extra towels, blankets, paper towels, laundry items) were available and if anything else was needed grocery shopping was done 2x a week. WhatsApp Image 2019-10-20 at 23.42.58.jpegMy anxiety about spending a lot just to eat out and having a problem with food supply all went away after seeing all that. Bedrooms consisted of bunk beds and separate single beds, housing about 4-8 people in one room. Bunk beds had curtains which was nice because one could have their own privacy when they wanted to. We were assigned a bed and in a decisive way—by age bracket, which I must agree was smart. My roommate and I were early risers and always the first to wake up in the morning. The room given to us was the last bedroom and closest to another door that goes out through the back. It was great to have that separate key because when we wanted to go to the kitchen, we would not need to go through each door of every room. The Sunday that I arrived was also a good time to get to know the other new volunteers as well as the others who were already staying there. I was able to get a feel of the accommodations and it was also an opportunity to go around and explore. Sunday in Miercuria Cuic was very quiet, and rarely did we see a shop that was open or even notice people walking around. Happily, we did find several bakeries, cafes, restaurants (of different kinds), banks, pharmacies, exchange areas, a cozy little park and a grocery all within walking distance to our place. The accommodation was very central to everything and that was a plus for me.
image2.jpegWhen Monday, the official orientation day came, we were met by Jackie, who started Care2Travel. At orientation, we were briefed on the whole organization, how it started, its goals, and how it has grown over the past few years. It also provided a chance to ask more questions about the induction pack that was initially emailed to us, including things about the ins and outs of the city, the Székely people, the history, special days, etc. The meet-up was very casual and I just knew it would be easy for me in the next few days. Orientation to the Hungarian language (which is spoken in this area of Romania), tour information and my placement in sustainable agriculture came the following day. Learning Hungarian from a British lady (that being Jackie) was such a treat. We learned the basics in the simplest of ways and it was a quick learning tool that I could use when speaking with locals. The tour info was bittersweet for me because in the short time of my stay, I would only have an afternoon for a short trip. I do love that these tours were being made available for the other volunteers—definitely part of the term “volunteer vacation” that initially caught my eye. Later came an introduction to my placement. WhatsApp Image 2019-10-20 at 23.44.05.jpegMy placement was within the accommodations but when Peter showed me the area where I would be working, I was surprised to see quite a huge yard out back, with a newly installed greenhouse and several plots with an irrigation system. It was then that I learned about the winter season not being the time for seeding and cropping.  I felt a little bad that I couldn’t do the stuff I thought I could, but I also knew there was still plenty to do. Peter briefed me on the things that needed to be done, explained to me where all the tools were, and from there I was all set for the following days work. The week provided lots of challenges but fun too! I was the only volunteer for sustainable agriculture, which meant I was working alone the whole time in the backyard, with the timely supervision of Peter. I had no problems working by myself and it was nice to pretend that it was my own garden that I was tending to. One challenge I had was handling the tools. I am a small person and the tools were a little heavy to handle, but I found they were easier to carry the more I used them. The cultivator to help with the weeds was another piece that challenged me, but it surely became my friend after I figured it out. At one point, Peter and I worked on the greenhouse to patch things up with new wood. WhatsApp Image 2019-10-20 at 23.42.42.jpegI’ve used a saw before but only to cut very thin wood, and nothing of a carpentry level, so this was another challenge for me. It was definitely the type of volunteering I signed up for—working with my hands. Plus, I learned so much including the simple ways of caring for a vegetable garden: how to hoe the soil to give roots some space to breathe, aligning everything up so planting seeds would be easier next year, and wasting nothing by using appropriate left-over food as compost. I also had the experience of picking something up directly from the soil and eating it fresh. I have never tasted a radish that way before in my life. Those three days felt like a month to me, since there would always be something to do.Placements are usually for 3-5 hours and the rest of the day is free. There were extra-curriculars you could attend. There was a quiz night, the English club (where a specific topic is discussed each week) as well as extra volunteering such as an environmental community clean-up. Those were a good use of time when work is done and a nice way to interact with locals. Also, when needed elsewhere, we could be asked to help around—like when we transferred and carried some wood for construction. image5.jpegThat was such a nice moment for me with the other volunteers, because we had the opportunity of working together on something that wasn’t in our own volunteer placement. There was constant and open communication from Care2Travel about the activities and they make it a point that it wasn’t mandatory to go or attend. Apart from my placement, I had the chance to take the mini city tour as part of the orientation day, a short hike on top of a hill overseeing the whole city, and a major hike of about 1800m high to a place called Lonely Rock. The tour to Lonely Rock was a paid trip and it was surely the best way to end my week. It was such an accomplishment for me to be able to hike that high and it was so beautiful, especially with the sunset. Another event I was able to experience was the local market which celebrated the production of honey. There were dances, music, a mini-play, a parade around the city, and local food and products which were all hand-made. image4.jpegThose were perfect gifts I was able to buy for my family and friends—bringing them a little bit of Miercuria Cuic back home.

I only have high praises for my experience as a first-time volunteer in Romania. If anyone was ever interested in trying to volunteer the first time, you can be assured that the team and programs in Romania will be a good place to start. I certainly had the two things I wanted to do on my 1-week time off from work—-to contribute and give service where there is a need and traveling to a beautiful place I have never been to before. And not a day went by that I did not have fun while I was doing it. The Care2Travel team makes sure you are well-taken care of. I believe that while volunteering in a foreign country I was able to give service to others without compromising safety and well-being—volunteering without all the worries and having fun at the same time. My experience with IVHQ and Care2Travel in Romania gives me much reason to consider volunteering again in the future. Thank you, IVHQ and Care2Travel!

 

 

A volunteers reflections in Romania

The experience that I am about to relate is one that I will cherish forever. It is one of the best things that ever happened to me. So, let’s get started…

It all began at my university, Hull, where I met Jackie, who is one of the founders of Care2Travel. Care2Travel is the name of the volunteering association which aims to support and promote responsible volunteering that will provide a real value within the community in Romania. It also provides tours and extra activities for the volunteers, in order to help them have a better understanding of the world and of the different cultures to which they are exposed to. The organization has all sorts of placement options for the volunteers. My choice was the Special Needs placement, as it is relates to my subject, which is psychology. blog2.jpg

The night before I met Jackie, I had received an email from the university which let me know that an internship fair was taking place the next day. I started looking for all the options presented on that email and I came across the volunteering placement in Romania. I was beyond excited as Romania is my home country and I thought that this could be a fantastic opportunity for me. I remember seeing Jackie at the fair, as she was promoting Care2Travel, and going straight to her desk. It did not take long until I was convinced that I was going to apply for that internship. After I found out that I had been accepted, I could not stop thinking about it and was very impatient to start. 

Time passed and soon I was on the train, off to Miercurea Ciuc, Harghita county, the city where the placement was located. I was very excited because I was about to spend two weeks with volunteers from all over the world, in my home country, talking just in English. It was pretty fascinating, as I have never been to that part of the country before, even though I have lived in Romania until I started university. From the moment I arrived, I knew that I would like it. Two local volunteers, who were very kind and friendly, waited for me at the train station and guided me to the accommodation. When I arrived at the accommodation, most of the other volunteers were already there, so I got to know the majority of them right from the beginning. They were from all over the world, including the U.S.A., Australia, the U.K, Singapore and Colombia.blog3.jpg

Many of them were from Hull University, which was good to hear, as I knew that we would have the chance to meet back in Hull and to see each other quite often. All of them were amazing people with different stories and backgrounds from whom I got learn a lot of new things. They were all eager to contribute to the local community and to experience new ways of life in a different country. I must say it was quite interesting for me to live two weeks with them and to explore Romania on a totally different scale. We managed to break down all the cultural stereotypes and to fully embrace this mix of cultures. Once all the volunteers arrived, we had a proper introduction with Peter, the director of the organization. Throughout the whole internship, he provided us with constant support, information and a very good leadership. He and Jackie were role models for me and I feel privileged that I had the chance to work with them. They have put so much effort into this organization in order for it to work, and I think that they are pretty successful in accomplishing their goals. 

So far, I have been writing about the volunteers and the association. In the next lines, I will describe my experience at the Special Needs placement, which was both challenging and rewarding at the same time. I remember when I first met the people I was supposed to help.  I was so nervous because I did not have a clear idea on how to approach them. They were people with mental disabilities and each one of them was different and special in his or her own way. Even though many of them had the same disability, such as autism, each acted differently and every person was unique. blog4.jpgThe aims of the centre, and therefore my tasks, were to teach those in need how to live independently, to offer support, to boost self-confidence, and to help them  with every day life skills, such as personal hygiene, preparing the table for meals, indoor and outdoor cleaning, and putting clothes on. Overall, I was expected to try to enhance their lives and to make a positive difference.

On my first day at the centre, I was placed to work in the third group (there are three in total). In a short period of time, I got to know all the group’s service users and I became very close to them. I was not the only volunteer there, as another girl was doing the same placement, so there were two of us working together in the same group. The group leader was a very nice lady who supported us during our time there. Some of the tasks that I had to perform included assisting individuals with activities, such as games or puzzles, for their cognitive development. Most of the time help was needed and I was more than willing to show them the right way. When individuals seeking help completed normal tasks, such as tying their shoe laces, they were very proud of themselves. blog5.jpgIt made me think that sometimes I take things for granted, and I forget that some people have to work a lot more than others in order to achieve the same things. All in all, the experience at the centre made me realize that I should appreciate the things in my life more and to be more grateful for what I have, because others have tougher lives and they still manage to smile and to be thankful for any achievement, big or small.

I will treasure these memories I’ve had forever and every service user will remain in my heart.

I have also included photos from our blog6.jpgtrips which took place during our days off. The other volunteers and I explored the picturesque surroundings of Harghita together and I loved every bit of it. As I previously mentioned, even though I am Romanian, I felt like a tourist and I was impressed by those breathtaking surroundings, because until then I had only heard about them. Now, I got the chance to visit these places with people from every corner of the world.blog9.jpg

I will forever be thankful to Care2Travel for giving me this chance. This organization deserves all the respect it receives. I feel like I made a positive difference for both the community and myself, and I am very grateful for all the people that I have met and for all the memories that we made together. It was a fantastic and rewarding experience and I will advise anyone to take this opportunity.

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Written by Oana Mateut
Volunteer in Romania

 

What I Learned from Care2Travel´s Orientation Week – by Corinne Mitchell

When I first read about Care2Travel´s orientation week, I was intrigued. As someone who enjoys traveling it seemed like a great opportunity to be a tourist and see some sites. Even though I was interested, I hesitated to sign-up. Would it be worth the money? Was it better to just devote all the time I had while in Romania to my volunteer experience? In the end, I decided to go for it and it is a decision I am so happy that I made. The orientation week is a wonderful opportunity for learning and immersion. Below describes my top reasons to join the orientation week. 

 

You learn about the city you will be staying in

As you know, you are traveling to Romania to the city of Miercurea Ciuc. But, as you will come to learn, Miercurea Ciuc is in Harghita County which has a large Hungarian population. So, you are actually staying in Csíkszereda (the Hungarian name for the city) and you will be speaking Hungarian when talking to locals. During my orientation week I visited Mikó Castle which houses the Szekler Museum of Csíkszereda (Csíkí Székely Múzeum). 

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The museum has an array of exhibits such as those devoted to early trades and family life, artwork including painting and sculpture, and an ecology exhibit documenting the various flora, fauna, and land types of the area. Of particular interest are exhibits recounting the history of Csíkszereda, the development of the city and social classes, and how the city eventually came to be the capital Harghita county. Did you know that Csíkszereda bares its name from the weekly Wednesday market that used to be held here? (¨Szereda¨ in Hungarian and ¨Miercurea¨ in Romanian mean Wednesday). You will also learn about the city ́s experience under Communism and as land deemed to both Romania and Hungary. These historical occurrences continue to resonate and shape the city to this day.

 

Csíkszereda is in a beautiful geographic region

Csíkszereda is in eastern Transylvania where the Carpathian mountain range loops around the county. The mountains are visible as you walk through town and just a turn in the road or a peek through a window can produce a stunning view. 

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During my orientation week I traveled outside Csíkszereda to the Parajd (Praid) Salt Mines, the village of Korund (Corund) to view local pottery and observe how it was made, and to the Bicaz Gorge and Red Lake (Lacu Rosu in Romanian or Gyilkostó in Hungarian), where the mountain range is on full display during your journey. 

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You will also experience the countryside, passing through various villages. Some villages only appear as a small cluster on the highway, while other times you will pass through to see the town square, shops, and churches. It would not be completely unheard of to run into a group of sheep or cows crossing the road or to see people being transported via horse and carriage.  Farming is still a popular trade in this area, as is logging. I was even brought passed a road where charcoal was made by burning soiled covered wood. During my orientation week, I hiked Csíksomlyó which is about 2km outside the city. Csíksomlyó is the site of a great Catholic pilgrimage each year. It is interesting to walk the same path and imagine what those who are making the pilgrimage may be thinking or feeling. It is also here that countryside, village, and mountains can be seen all from one spot. 

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You get to know various locals

László serves as Care2Travel´s tour guide and he accompanied me around for two days. László is a wonderful guide! He is able to share much information about the stops along the tour, but also about local culture and history as well. Barni was the language teacher for my intensive Hungarian language lesson. He presented the material based on what I thought was most beneficial for me to learn – such as basic phrases, the names of food, and the days of the week. He was very patient with my lack of knowledge of the Hungarian language! During our orientation day tour, three high schoolers from the city served as local guides and indicated points of interest in the town as well as suggestions for places to get a good dinner, go food shopping, or the best places to hang out. In addition to our Csíkszereda tour, two of these guides accompanied me on the hike to Csíksomlyó. Not only did all these guides do an excellent job in teaching me about the city and the area I was visiting, but each person had a different opinion on certain points of interest, tourism, or cultural relations. Over the course of the week, I came to know these people as individuals. That in and of itself was a great way to feel more connected to the place I would call home for the next seven weeks!

 

It is a chance to see the unexpected

When I decided to complete the orientation week, I expected to see the local area and learn more about its history and culture. Yet, I was still presented with unexpected things along the way. For example, nestled high up on a hill in the mountains, is a statue of Jesus. You can see it from various vantage points along the way. Fortunately, I was brought up the hill for an up-close view. 

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If you go climb all the way up, you get an amazing 360 degree view of the landscape below. For those who may not like heights, the view from the base of the statue is beautiful as well! 

When I visited the Parajd (Praid) Salt Mines, I was surprised to learn the mine also housed an amusement park, concession stands, and a church. A few of the walls even had art on display.

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In many ways, it is these little surprises that stuck with me most, more than all of the informational details I gathered over the course of the week. 

 

It can help you with your placement

Regardless of which Care2Travel program you are participating in, having an understanding of history, geography, and the local area and its people can help you to better understand the importance of these programs as well as the people who participate or seek assistance from them. While the other volunteers went to work, I went on my orientation excursions. When we gathered at the end of the day, I would listen to what was happening in each of their placements and I shared with them what I saw or learned on my tour that day. Many times, what I saw or did could help inform or better understand what was happening at the placements. As a result, I came away with a richer understanding of the place I had come to volunteer. I think this will not only make me a better volunteer, but when I leave I will do so having come away with a better understanding, appreciation, and excitement not only for Care2Travel and its work, but for Csíkszereda and the surrounding area as well!

Residential Summer Camp

Perspective from a NGO Project Volunteer…

Transzlvania is a beautiful region, located in the centre of Romania. Care2Travel, situated in Miercurea Ciuc, is surrounded by forest, agriculture, mountains, and impresive architecture. Although the region is rich in resources, poverty is still present. This can be detrimental for the local children who are not offered the opportunities to succeed.

Care2Travel, for the past two weeks, has been busy managing the Residential Summer Camp. In the first week, the children were between 7 and 13 years old, with a total of 25 children. As mentioned before, the children live in low socio-economic circumstances and some are then placed in foster families by Child Social Services. A couple of days before the camp started, the children, local volunteers, international volunteers, and staff moved in. There was a lot of prepping since food, bed frames, and other supplies had to be brought to the camp.

The camp is run from Tuesday to Saturday and to begin, a daily debrief is held in order to ensure that everyone is on the same page. During the week, the children take part in different activities including dodgeball, bingo, arts & crafts, tag, and many more entertaining games. This is a great way for the children to interact with the international volunteers, and practice their English. In order to get a sense of how the summer camp was, I decided to interview Ishti, Emily, and Gyopi.

Ishti:

Ishti is one of the kids who attended the Summer Camp. He is eleven years old and has been participating in the summer camps for the past five years. He really enjoys the interactive games with the international volunteers because he can practice his English. His favourite game is limbo because he always wins! If it weren’t for the summer camps, he would be at home helping his parents or he would go fishing. Therefore, he really appreciates the opportunity he has attending the summer camp. In regards to learning English, he loves learning it at school and sometimes, he even prefers writing things in English rather than in Hungarian!

Emily:

Emily is an international volunteer who was at the summer camp for the first week. She enjoyed exploring Transylvania and getting to know the culture. She enjoyed being with the kids and bringing a small amount of joy into their lives. However, she did face some challenges. Having thought that the summer camp would be a day camp, she had to be flexible and adapt to living with the local volunteers and the children. Her relationship with the local volunteers improved as they were the mediators between the international volunteers and the children. Although she enjoyed her time, she would like to try out another placement as she was limited to childcare this time round.

Gyopi:

Gyopi is a local volunteer who just finished 11th grade. It is her third summer taking part in the summer camps and she will be doing much more during her gap year. She spent a summer in the U.S. where her English improved immensely. She is now a lot more confident and enjoys interacting with the international volunteers. However, it is sometimes difficult to control the children whilst also being the translator. Interestingly, she finds herself thinking in English as most of the pop culture (social media) nowadays is in English. She will continue to participate in the summer camps as she thinks it is a productive way of spending her summers.

In the second week, the children were between the ages of 11 and 15. Similar activities took place, however, some activities such as bowling and paintball took place since the kids are older. I decided to interview a local kid named Heidi in order to gain a different perspective on the camp.

Heidi:

Heidi is 15 years old and has been coming to the summer camps for the past 5 years. She enjoys meeting international and local volunteers. Although she finds it difficult to understand and speak in English, she tries her best to communicate with the international volunteers. She finds it useful that there are local volunteers who speak good English and can help her translate. Also, she has been learning English for the past 4 years. However, it is still a struggle to gain the confidence to speak.

Overall, it was a pleasure interviewing everyone! This camp would not have functioned without the incredible team work of the Care2Travel team, local volunteers, and our international volunteers who have worked hard all summer to set up camps just like this. Thank you to all who have helped out in any way to make such a difference for these children!

 

 

Volunteer Reunion at Care2Travel

The volunteer accommodation has been buzzing with activity these last few weeks.  While some of this can be attributed to the summer rush of new volunteers, another event has been going on.  A reunion of previous Care2Travel volunteers was put together by staff and previous volunteers to give an opportunity for former volunteers to return to Romania.  The idea for this reunion was originally that of a longtime volunteer, Linda Bahr, and was planned with a fellow volunteer, Elizabeth.  After much planning, a group of five volunteers returned for two weeks of excursions and volunteering.

The reunion volunteers have enjoyed a variety of activities over the past two weeks, including hiking a mountain, visiting a brewery for a tasting, and even enjoying a visit from the Pope!  While these and many other activities have been great fun, the real reason volunteers returned was to work on a new project. pic 2.jpgNear the accommodation, there is a garden that has been previously underutilized.  Linda, a former agriculture volunteer, realized the potential of the space and had the idea of building a community garden.  These volunteers worked tirelessly, through pouring rain and hot sun, to create a vegetable and fruit garden that could service international volunteers and locals alike. The garden will provide fresh produce for volunteers and for local families in need.  There would also be plots available for a small fee for locals so they can grow their own produce.  Every day these volunteers put in hours of work, doing everything from pulling weeds to digging trenches, to make this idea a reality.

The project has been moving steadily along, and these reunion volunteers have laid substantial groundwork for future volunteers to build upon.  pic 1Each day has been filled with hard work, but there have also been nights out at the local bar, nights in playing board games, and hours of laughter.  While the garden project and a sense of altruism were the main reason for these volunteers’ returns, it is not hard to imagine why this program is something worthy of a reunion.

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Taking part of IVHQ’s Orientation Week

In 2017 I, Sophie Smith, decided I would do something adventurous and signed up to volunteer in Romania providing NGO support. As part of my volunteering experience I chose to participate in the orientation week offered by Care2Travel and I was not disappointed. I got to see some of the beautiful sights Harghita county has to offer and meet some truly great people. I would definitely recommend partaking in the orientation week if you are interested in learning about the history, culture, and language of Harghita county. If you are unsure of what to expect during the orientation week or are wondering what’s included then hopefully some information about my experience will answer some of your questions.

Day 1- Monday: Language Lesson

An intensive language lesson is included in the orientation week and my first lesson was on Monday. These lessons are so much fun and Hungarian is a really interesting albeit challenging language to learn. At first I was really confused as to why I was learning Hungarian in Romania but once the history was explained it all made sense. Plus it’s pretty cool being in such a bilingual area and it’s really interesting how most of the signs are in both Romanian and Hungarian. Barni, the language teacher, was really nice and extremely patient (also if you ask very nicely he can teach you some funny phrases and tongue twisters). The language lessons are a great way to settle yourself into the area and makes communicating with locals a lot less stressful.

Day 2- Tuesday: The Red Lake and Bicaz Canyon

Tuesday was when the real fun began. I was picked up at the accommodation at 9:00am by my tour guide László. I was very lucky to have László as my tour guide as he was really lovely and very informative. He could answer just about any question that I had (and trust me I had quite a few). Our first stop for the day was the beautiful old fortified church in Csikkarcfalva.

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The church was built in the 15th Century but was completely renovated in 2012. It was so beautiful and offered an amazing view of the village. I was also fortunate enough to meet with the priest, who was so lovely and very friendly. He was very interested in hearing about Australia and why I chose to come to Romania. The village itself was also really interesting as I saw so many traditional horse and carts, which are still commonly used today by farmers throughout Romania.

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After saying goodbye to the priest we made our way to the Red Lake. The Red Lake was so interesting as it was created after a huge landslide and you can still see the stumps of old trees that were swept away in the flood.

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There was not much for me to do there as it was winter and the lake wasn’t quite frozen enough for ice-skating but during the summer there is plenty to do, including boat rides and hiking. There is a hike through the mountains of the Bicaz Canyon included in the summer orientation week for those who are able. For me it was to snowy to go hiking but the drive down the canyon was still absolutely incredible. On the way down we passed through, what the locals call, Hell’s gate then Hell’s porch, and then finally Hell’s throat. The mountains were so impressive and absolutely massive.

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After our drive through the mountains we stopped and had a traditional Hungarian lunch at a beautiful old bed and breakfast. We had a delicious vegetable soup followed by Székely káposzta (Sekler cabbage).

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On the journey home we stopped off in the small village of Szárhegy to see the Franciscan monastery and old castle there. Once a year there is an art festival held at the monastery and artists from all over the world come and create together. Often the artworks, particularly the sculptures, are donated to the village and you can see them at the monastery and in the village park. In summer there is no time to see the Szárhegy because of the hike in the mountains but if you have enough free time I would definitely recommend at least a drive through.

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Day 3- Wednesday: Praid Salt Mines

Once again I met my tour guide László at the volunteer accommodation at 9:00am but instead of stopping off at an old church before heading to the main attraction we went and saw the natural mineral water springs in Homorod. Homorod was a beautiful little ski town built around the natural springs. I was lucky enough to try some of the water and it tasted… interesting. It is definitely an acquired taste but it is very good for you and is full of iron.

After a short stop at the springs we made our way to the Praid (Parajd in Hungarian) Salt Mines. The mines are hundreds of years old and are still operational today. In order to get there you have to catch a bus that takes you through a tunnel to the main entrance.  Once you get through the gate, there is a 200 stair descent into a giant salt cave.

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I have to say I was very surprised once I got to the salt mines as there are cafes, playgrounds, chemists, and even a church. There was also a small museum that provided some information on the history of the mines, which was really interesting. My favourite part however was the old mine shaft. It was really impressive and it’s hard to believe that hundreds of years ago people used to work down there. It was absolutely incredible.

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After the salt mine we visited the town of Szovata to see the salt block and the Medvetó (Bear Lake). The Bear Lake is Europe’s largest heliothermal lake and gets its name from looking like an outstretched bear skin. In the summer it is a very popular swimming destination and is home to some interesting wildlife, the most famous of which is the stork. The salt block was also very interesting and had many intriguing patterns.

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On our way home we stopped in the small village of Korund where we met with some potters who were kind enough to show me their workshop. It was fascinating seeing how all the ceramic products were made and the family was so lovely and talkative. They also had a cute little puppy who sat with them in the workshop. Their shop was closed when we visited as it was winter and there were not a lot of tourists however if you are interested you can buy their handmade vases and plates. They are absolutely beautiful and make fantastic presents to take home for family and friends.

Day 4- Thursday: Sighisoara (Segesvár)

Thursday was my last day meeting with László at 9:00am. Our first stop was the village Máréfalva to see all the old Székely gates. Nearly every house in this little village has a Székely gate and there is a council program that encourages and helps people to maintain their gates. T​hey are intricately decorated and are quite spectacular to see.

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After Máréfalva we went to an old Saxon city, Sighisoara. Despite being a major German speaking community a few hundred years ago, today there are very few Saxons still living in the city. It is, however, a very popular city for German tourists and it is quite common to see many signs in German. Our first tourist attraction was the old clock tower and museum.

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The museum is very interesting with a collection of old building tools and information about guilds that were introduced by the Saxon communities in Romania. The view from the clock tower was incredible. You could see the entire city from there and there were even signs pointing to other famous cities that would tell you approximately how far away the city was. I was particularly excited when I found Sydney.

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Following the museum and clock tower we climbed an old covered staircase, which lead to a small high school and a church with a Saxon cemetery. I couldn’t imagine having to climb those stairs everyday to get to school. It would definitely keep you super fit.

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After a quick look around the high school and the church we slowly made our way through the old city. There were many interesting buildings and statues, I even found a statue of Vlad the Impaler. There are also many different towers, each representing a specific guild.

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There was a schneiderturm (tailor’s tower) and even a tower for the black smiths. All of the buildings were painted in bright colours and there was a great view of the city from the old fortification wall.

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After a satisfying lunch in a gorgeous little restaurant we made our way home. On our way we made a quick stop at an old Saxon church in Saschiz. During the summer orientation week, volunteers are usually taken to see the Jesus statue but it requires a small hike and the weather was a little to cold and snowy for us to make it. So we went to see the church instead. It was a very beautiful church but when we got there it was closed for restoration work. Despite the bit of bad luck at the end of the day, overall my day in Sighisoara was so much fun. I will definitely endeavour to come back and visit during summer.

Day 5- Friday: Language Lesson

On the final day of my orientation week I had one last language lesson with Barni. It was nice to learn more Hungarian after being able to practice what I had learnt during my travels through Harghita county. Barni was once again super patient with me and was even kind enough to teach me a little bit of Romanian. The lessons were a great way to finish off a busy week and once again made communicating with locals less daunting than it already was.

I would definitely recommend participating in the orientation week if you are thinking of doing so. It is a great way to get a feel for the county before you start your volunteer work and you will have so many great experiences to write home about. If I had the chance to do it all over again I would do so in a heart beat.

Care2Travel Animal Care – A Great Venture

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A short time ago I had the opportunity of volunteering at the Care2Travel organization (www.care2travel.org) in the project of Animal Care, during that time I was working closely with a local animal shelter called Pro Animalia Shelter in aiding puppies to be put up for adoption. The shelter helps care for dogs, young and old, and tries to ensure that they reach good homes for a better life through adoption centers primarily in Germany to ensure that they get the best chance had to have a loving home, raising awareness to the current stray dog problem that plagues Romania.

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My volunteer program with Care2Travel was located in Miercurea Ciuc and just a forty minute walk from the town, although in harsh weather conditions the volunteer coordinators always offered to drive me down to the placement. My goal was to try and gain the trust of the puppies and dogs who often didn’t use to human contact and try to get them ready for a life with a loving family. Each day I had three kennels to spend time at, it is recommended that volunteers spend a minimum of fifteen minutes at each kennel, although I found myself staying there for at least thirty to forty-five minutes. As often the staff and workers are busy with their own jobs of upkeep and maintaining the grounds I went about doing my job without bothering them and at the end always tried to ask around to see if there was any help I could do before returning back to my accommodation.

The shelter had a bathroom for use and a room where volunteers could warm up during the colder months or sit down for a break with a tea or coffee. Typically I would arrive at 10:00a.m in the morning, on the first day I was given a brief introduction and orientation to the grounds and was shown which kennels I could enter and which I could not.

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Although I was the only volunteer working at the shelter and therefore didn’t spend much time interacting with other people while I was there, I never felt out of place or lost. I spent three hours each day in the company of dogs, which was some of the best time I spent on the trip! It definitely didn’t feel like I was doing a lot in the beginning, I mean what kind of work involves playing with puppies for three hours a day? But then I realized something, the shy puppies when I started working there who originally wouldn’t let me pat them, let alone go near them soon were sitting by me and wanted attention.

It was eye-opening to realize that without my presence there, it was a real possibility that these puppies, who were shy and afraid of humans, would grow up without a family and stay at the shelter until they were old and unable to be adopted out. It’s impossible to ask that the people who work there day after day give this much time to the dogs, though they always tried to find time in their day to play with them, so volunteers become invaluable.

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This photo was taken from the volunteer accommodation and shows a shot from inside the girls house to the outside where right across you can see the boys volunteer house.

Housing was provided by the team for up to 15 volunteers for girls and 7 for boys.. Heating was throughout the house and a thermostat is in the house to make sure it is always warm. Our accommodation manager would do shopping every Tuesday and Friday and would generally get whatever we wrote down on a list (besides a few items that were expensive due to being out of season) and if anything went wrong in the house that needed repairs he would sort it out. At the end of every week, we would have accommodations meetings to voice any concerns or issues but generally, we just talked with each other.

In fact, our coordinators organized two English Clubs that both volunteers and locals were welcomed to come to during the week, we would discuss a range of topics and see lectures from people, during my stay we saw a lecture by Philip G. Zimbardo, which was paid for by the volunteer coordinator. They are now trying to expand the ethical tourism sector of their organization and provide job opportunities for locals by allowing them to conduct tours and show their culture at the same time. I paid for my volunteer program, for the two weeks I stayed I paid $520 USD.

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If you are looking to volunteer and help out, I’d definitely recommend you volunteer with Care2Travel and their program for Animal Care and hope to one day myself return to Romania and go back to the shelter again.

By: Amy Roberts