This episode focuses on voluntourism around the world, and the impact we can collectively make as we travel.
Dr. Vanessa Bezy, Founder & Director of the Wildlife Conservation Association, is a National Geographic Explorer, marine biologist and sea turtle expert who lives in Costa Rica. She shares the remarkable efforts of the Prevented Ocean Plastic program that is reducing the creation of new plastic.
Taylor Jones, Chief Operating Officer, and Executive Director for Bikes for the World, travels the world overseeing his projects, and talks of the importance of bicycles, mainly in third-world countries.
Their personal experiences lead to inspiring memories, including the thrill of witnessing a sea turtle nesting event for the first time. And Lea reflects back on her journey on a volunteer/travel program on a ship.
We also highlight key organizations where you can travel while you make a significant difference. Here are the details:
If you want to work in exotic locations, then check out GO Echoes Marine and Turtle Conservation Program in the Maldives and their Wildlife Animal Sanctuary in Australia. Another amazing program is African Impacts Wildlife Conservation Program at Kruger National Park, where you'll be able to support Africa's iconic big five species.
Through volunteer and work organizations such as International TEFL Academy (ITA) you can get paid to live abroad as a professional English teacher in a country like Spain, Thailand, or Costa Rica. The organization offers TEFL training to get you certified to teach English abroad, then provides job placement services.
Earn your certificate by enrolling in a Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) certification program, which prepares you for ESL job placements around the world.
Maximo Nivel offers impactful and educational placements in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Peru. Volunteer abroad opportunities include construction, conservation, teaching English, working with kids, and working with indigenous communities.
Check out Maximo Nivel’s Spanish Immersion programs. Lastly, if you are interested in studying abroad in Costa Rica, Peru, or Guatemala, you’ll definitely want to look into Maximo Nivel’s University Abroad programs, which are excellent alternative to traditional programs due to their affordability.
You’ll find a ton of medical volunteer opportunities and healthcare internships. Some great volunteer projects include Volunteering Solutions’ wide-range of affordable medical programs (starting at $200), including a healthcare volunteer project in Tanzania, nursing program in Sri Lanka, and a medical volunteer program in Peru!
Vanessa Bezy is Founder & Director of the Wildlife Conservation Association, Vanessa is a National Geographic Explorer, marine biologist and Sea Turtle expert who lives in Costa Rica.
Taylor Jones, is Chief Operating Officer, and Executive Director for Bikes for the World,
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at forbes.com.
On Places I Remember. e like to focus on ways to improve ourselves of the world as we enjoy ourselves. raveling In episode 12, we talked about green travel. In episode 23, studying abroad, and in this episode we're focusing on volunteering, or, as it's known today, voluntourism. There's no shortage of amazing volunteer options abroad: Interning abroad, studying abroad, teaching abroad they're all out there. There are lots of opportunities closer to home that can also help. We'll be talking about some of them, along with far flung destinations where our efforts can make a difference and where travelers don't usually visit. Our guests are Vanessa Bezy, founder and director of the Wildlife Conservation Association. Vanessa is a National Geographic Explorer, marine Biologist and Sea Turtle expert who lives in Costa Rica. Ta owns as chief operating officer and executive director for Bikes for the World And he travels the world overseeing his projects. Welcome both of you to Places I Remember.Taylor Jones:
Thanks, thanks very much.Lea Lane:
Let's start with Vanessa. 17% of the species are affected by the presence of plastic in the ocean. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list of threatened species, plastic pollution is not only harming marine life, but wiping out entire species. Tell us the five ways plastic harms marine life, Vanessa.Vanessa Bezy :
Well, that's a really important question. I think that the one that most people are probably aware of in entanglement entanglement entanglement. Marine life tends to get completely entangled in plastic debris, whether that's getting stuck in a plastic bottle, entangled in fishing line which can sometimes cause pretty serious injuries, including amputations or even death. Marine life also will ingest this plastic and that unfortunately leads to all kinds of issues. It can block their intestinal passage and also lead to death. Plastic also has chemical so toxicity, So there's a lot of toxic chemicals that end up leaching into the water and harming marine life. It also causes habitat destruction, for example, destroying coral and seagrass beds. Overall, it's really disrupting entire food chains and having an effect on an entire ecosystem level.Lea Lane:
What about the disruption of food chain and habitat destruction as a part of the chemical toxicity?Vanessa Bezy :
Yeah, it can also cause the disruption of food chains, because these toxic chemicals actually bio-accumulate and so as we go up the food chain, there's higher concentrations of toxins, and this can also cause really big issues in the tissues of larger predators.Lea Lane:
Is this a problem that's getting worse and worse, or are people aware of it and do you know?Vanessa Bezy :
I would say it's probably getting worse. We have more and more plastic entering the oceans and we're seeing, you know, evidence of more and more animals ingesting plastic. So I would be surprised to hear if anyone said it's not getting worse.Lea Lane:
Yeah on social media you see these terrible videos which I think brings awareness, but it's just awful to see it. How can travelers help?Vanessa Bezy :
When we think about plastics that we really need to stop plastic at the source. Step one is reducing the waste that you produce and avoiding single-use plastic altogether, but it's also really important for us to think. You know, it's hard to avoid plastic altogether. Many of us are trying, and this is why I'm so. I'm provided Ocean Plastics Ambassador and I'm so passionate about their program, which takes recycled plastic from that's discarded on these coastlines and developing countries such as Lake Costa Rica, where that plastic is very likely to end up in the ocean. So you can also target when you are buying plastic, making sure that it is recycled, looking for the prevented ocean plastics logo on there and then also making sure that you recycle that once you are done using it.Lea Lane:
This in general if you see a marine animal in trouble, would you try to help it. What's the best thing to do?Vanessa Bezy :
if Well, certainly, especially if it's not a protected species and if it's safe for you to help it, then that's the best thing to do, whether that cutting the line or removing whatever they're entangled in. But you do need to be very careful. You know, some wildlife can bite and can be harmful, and yet you might not even be legally allowed to manipulate or handle them.Lea Lane:
It's a judgment call. You want to help, of course. Well, tell us about Prevented Ocean Plastic. We can volunteer. What can we do there?Vanessa Bezy :
Prevented Ocean Plastic is a large company that is collecting plastic from these coastlines and creating recycled plastic, which is really important because that cuts out the creation of new plastic, which has a really big carbon footprint. What you can do is that when you're buying any plastic product or look for their logo on the bottom to make sure that you're not buying plastic that was made in new. This is the biggest issue. I always kind of give the comparison of an overflowing bathtub. You wouldn't go and look for the mop before turning off the faucet. And this is what Prevented Ocean Plastic is helping us do, because we still have a dependency on plastic. They are basically stopping the creation of new plastic and making sure that the plastic that is made is all recycled, and this also even has a positive social impact. So you're not only reducing your carbon footprint and the plastic that's in the ocean, but they're also employing people in these coastal communities and developing countries, where jobs are needed.Lea Lane:
Good to know. Well, there are several other organizations where you can volunteer to help animals. Here are a few and we'll have links in the show notes. Check out GO Echoes Wildlife Conservation Projects, which are some of the most popular in the world. If you want to work in exotic locations, then check out GO Echoes Marine and Turtle Conservation Program in the Maldives and their Wildlife Animal Sanctuary in Australia. Another amazing program is African Impacts Wildlife Conservation Program at Kruger National Park, where you'll be able to support Africa's iconic big five species. Now, Vanessa, you live in Costa Rica. I know you work with sea turtles. Tell us a little bit about that.Vanessa Bezy :
Yeah, I'm really privileged to work in one of the most important places in the world for the Oliver and Lucy Turtle. We have a really unique phenomenon that occurs here, where thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of olive reedly turtles are nesting simultaneously on a small stretch of beach here at the Osteo-Nile National Wildlife Refuge. I did my PhD research here studying the mass nesting behavior and now my work is really focused more broadly on looking at the impacts of tourism and development on wildlife in general, but obviously specifically with the intent of protecting this really important nesting site And tourists see this, when should they go and how should they do this? This phenomenon occurs almost every single month of the year, usually between the last quarter and the new moon, and you can come visit. You're required to have a guide and make a reservation before going onto the beach, supervised, obviously, by the guide, but you can certainly go and view this phenomenon. It's a really special opportunity to get to view turtles, because turtles rarely nest during the day, but the olive reedly turtle does nest during the day, so you can even get to see a turtle in the daytime. Which coast is it? It's on the northern Pacific coast of Costa Rica.Lea Lane:
What's the closest town if people you know were staying over?Vanessa Bezy :
The closest town that most people will be staying at is called Nosara, costa Rica. That's where I'm located. Okay, great.Lea Lane:
Sounds extremely interesting. Costa Rica is known for its ecological awareness, and this is special. Okay, let's move from the waters to a land-based problem. That's been solved, one bike at a time. As I've traveled to developing countries, i've noticed through the years how many people trudged along the roads for miles and miles to get to schools or markets or medical care. Now, more and more, i see them on bicycles. Tell us please, taylor, the mission of your organization, bikes for the World.Taylor Jones:
The mission of Bikes for the World. It's really simple. I mean it's basically just to improve people's lives with access to a bike. We know that people can be more productive and have a better, more impactful life with access to a bike. You can get somewhere four times quicker on a bike than you can if you're walking. So that means it's easier for kids to get to school, to stay in school. It allows farmers or other people to take more goods to market so they can be more productive, you know, generate more revenue for themselves to support their family. It also solves the issue of reducing pollution. I mean that's a big push of it too. As opposed to using a motorcycle or scooter or something like that that has two-stroke engine pollution, a bicycle is a one-time, fixed-cost item that doesn't require significant maintenance or upkeep down the road. Another part of our mission is it's not just getting good quality bikes to people to improve their lives, but it is providing secondhand bikes. So what we're doing on our end here in the US is we are collecting donated bikes, bikes that are at the end of their life or the original user or secondary user, whomever it is that donates it to us. Those bikes still have value. We're preventing those bikes from going in the waste stream. We're putting them in the hands of people for whom they can make a really fundamentally positive impact.Lea Lane:
It's skilled employment and bike repair, maintenance. all these things can be done overseas, And I think it's a wonderful thing for young people to know to donate this rather than to throw it away. It's an early lesson. How do they get the bikes to your warehouses? How would they do that? Right there, I guess.Taylor Jones:
Yeah, you know we're based in the Washington DC area and our operational footprint is really just this area. There's multiple streams or ways that folks can donate bikes to us. We partner with a lot of community groups schools, churches, synagogues, civic organizations that host like donation events in their community. We also have a network of bike shops where people can donate bikes year-round, and we've also got relationships with local municipalities because they're also interested in reducing the amount or the volume of waste going into the waste stream. So we've worked with them to set up easy program for their residents to donate bikes at county transfer stations or landfills.Lea Lane:
Good. How do you choose the places that get the bikes?Taylor Jones:
Good question. The partners that we have currently were chosen mainly because they have a track record of really having an impact in the community that they serve, and having a track record being able to demonstrate here's the need, here's the specific target audience and then here's a way that we can measure and show the result. You know the positive impact of these bikes. The vast majority of the partners that we have we've had for a very long time Partners in Central America and Costa Rica and El Salvador for almost 20 years. The program in Ghana we've supported them for almost 20 years. We really want to work with local grassroots NGOs and nonprofits, distributing medicine to people or providing bikes to kids to get to and from school, etc.Lea Lane:
Right, Well, in heading bikes for the world, you've traveled extensively to places most travelers don't get to. Can you tell us a bit about some of them in regard to tourists? Let's start with Ghana, in West Africa. What's wonderful there?Taylor Jones:
Well, yeah, the most recent partner visit was to Village Bicycle Project in Ghana and Sierra Leone And I think the thing to me that was just most amazing there is how warm and genuine the people are. That would be a big appeal to anyone West Africa. There really is a lot to see and it's a really interesting just really interesting and dynamic place. You've got a very young population, especially for what we do. It means that people are pretty open-minded and people want to really change and make their country and their communities better, not just for themselves but for the next generation down the line.Lea Lane:
I know the art and the music are fantastic. That's fantastic.Taylor Jones:
Yeah, absolutely. I mean there's a lot of local handicrafts and textiles. It's also beautiful, absolutely, it's really fantastic And there's huge markets in Accra that have anything and everything and they're bustling all the time, And even outside of Accra, if you go up to Kumasi or Tamale and other parts of the country, those are also big market centers. They have their own specialties as well.Lea Lane:
Many cruise lines are now traveling along the West African coast. That's a big thing now, So more and more people are getting to see it at least for a day, which is good. The word is out Now. How about El Salvador in Central America? Is it safe for tourists?Taylor Jones:
I think you would probably give the same sort of advice that you would give people anywhere common sense. I'm not going to say that it's as eco-minded as a lot of places in Costa Rica are, but there's a lot of interesting eco-focused, conservation-minded things happening in San Salvador.Lea Lane:
Yeah, good to hear. I think El Salvador is one of the countries that I would check ahead of time with the government because there are problems there, but it's a fascinating culture, as most cultures are.Taylor Jones:
And I think for us too, being based in the DC area, we have a really strong connection with the program in El Salvador, because outside of El Salvador, the highest concentration of Salvadorans lived in the DC area. For us, that's a really Yeah, i lived in DC.Lea Lane:
I remember the delicious soup, great food. Well, i lived in the Philippines in the 1980s for a little while. I realized how special it was as far as tensile tourism, but the political climate then and the lack of infrastructure was holding it back. I know you've been there. I know it's fantastic. I mean there's a lot to do and the islands are idyllic. But is it getting tourism or where is it there?Taylor Jones:
I think there's places that are getting tourism for sure. I think, like you said, the infrastructure that's the challenge. It's a country of islands, so getting from place to place is challenging And I think if you're someone who's interested in taking the time to go from island to island in different regions, then you can really get a feel for it. Very beautiful areas, very rugged I mean the places we have visited even with a bike. it's certainly challenging in rural areas. It's quite mountainous on most of the islands.Lea Lane:
Some people love that, i think if you're a pioneer type traveler? Great, sure, okay. So besides your organizations, i want to offer some other ideas if you're interested in volunteering or interning abroad. There are guidebooks, too, about volunteering, all of which will include in the show notes. Since 2015, the Organization Volunteer Forever has compiled the original list of best volunteer abroad programs worldwide using a database of a thousand international volunteer abroad organizations, 6,000 program reviews and 13,000 fundraisers. Here are a few of the top recommended volunteer programs. Teaching English is a great way to do good while earning money and traveling the world. Through volunteer and work organizations such as International TEFL Academy, you can get paid to live abroad as a professional English teacher in a country like Spain, thailand or Costa Rica. The organization offers training to get you certified to teach English abroad, then provides job placement. If you're interested in immersive volunteer abroad trips to Latin America, check out Maximo Neville, which offers impactful and educational placements in Costa Rica, guatemala and Peru. Some of them include construction, conservation, teaching English, working with kids and working with indigenous communities. If you're looking to learn a new language, check out Maximo Neville's Spanish immersion programs, and if you're interested in studying abroad in Costa Rica, peru or Guatemala will definitely want to look into their university abroad programs, which are excellent alternatives to traditional programs due to their affordability. If you're a current or aspiring doctor, nurse, dentist or other healthcare professional, you'll find a ton of medical volunteer opportunities and healthcare internships. Some great volunteer projects include volunteering solutions, wide range of affordable medical programs, including a healthcare volunteer project in Tanzania, nursing program in Sri Lanka and a medical volunteer program in Peru, and these will all be in our show notes. If you're interested in more, just Google volunteering abroad as well. Well, the name of the podcast is places I remember, so let's all share some personal memories of travel and maybe volunteering. I'll start because mine involves volunteerism on a ship and a reality check. I was a passenger on the ship Fathom, coming out of part of a cruise lines in May of 2016. It was very exciting. It was the first of week-long journeys entirely around volunteer work. They called it impact travel and it was to the Dominican Republic, and part of the time we were on the ship, you know, lazing around in the sun, and part of the time we coordinated with local nonprofits And we were sorting cocoa beans in a chocolate factory. We were tutoring children in English in the Puerto Plata region. We were working with water filters. I loved it. I thought it was a great balance. It was educational, environmental, economic development excursions. Yet it was a tough sell. A year later they stopped the program. I just think it's an interesting thing that people weren't willing to mix them. It was either you were a volunteer type or you were a cruise type. I think they're trying to get it back. I thought it was great And I hope they try to do something like this again, maybe with a smaller vessel. We saw a little bit of what it's like to volunteer. It was just a day each, so that's my memories. Okay, who would like to go next? Vanessa, how about you?Vanessa Bezy :
My memory probably no surprise is the first time I ever saw an everybody or the sea turtle phenomenon. I'm a marine biologist, though I had studied turtles and worked with turtles in North Carolina where I went to university, and we have just maybe a handful, maybe up to 50 turtles that nest there over an entire nesting season. So I had never actually really worked that closely with turtles on the beach while they were nesting. Our work primarily just was looking at the beach in the mornings looking for track signs of turtles. Having been there, my first nesting event was very special because I came all the way to Osteonao. At the time It was a lot harder to get here. There were fewer bridges, and so after finally arriving in Osteonao, the whole town was very anxious because the turtles were kind of quote unquote late that month. They hadn't arrived right when we expected them, and so everyone was concerned or the turtle is not coming this month, what's going to happen? And sure enough, finally they arrived And I went out onto the beach at night to help a graduate student who was doing research, and it's pitch black And all I remember is that I'm trying to look down at my feet to follow her and keep up And we're essentially dodging turtles, and I can feel and hear and smell that there's turtles all around me, but I can't see anything, i won't ask that it smells like. It has very reptilian smell. Let's just put it that way. We don't use white lights on the beach because sea turtles are very sensitive to light, so we're using a red light and you cannot see very far or appreciate just how many turtles are on the beach. But we arrived to this river bank where we needed to cross to continue going down the beach, and so, for safety reasons, he quickly grabbed her white light and flashed it across the river so we could see, and it, you know, shone on the entire beach ahead of us And it was I can't think of another way of saying it, but that it was swarming with turtles. The same way, if you imagine looking at a beehive, that's what the beach looked like And my jaw just dropped. I was just astounded And I will never forget that moment of you know, even though I was already on the beach. Just finally seeing all of that was just amazing, really, really special experience to witness so much abundance in nature, especially being someone who studies an endangered species You know we're usually lucky if we get to see and work with one turtle A really special moment and obviously something that changed my life. I decided to stay here and dedicate myself to protecting this place.Lea Lane:
How wonderful. Thank you for sharing that, taylor.Taylor Jones:
Your turn, the thing that really sticks in my mind of connection between bikes and travel was being in Sierra Leone, west Africa, and, i think, within probably an hour of being in the country, already seeing and encountering people who had received bikes from bikes for the world. seeing that real, tangible impact and benefit and being in a place when you're outside of free town. everywhere in Sierra Leone is rural. Very few places have electricity, there's really no transportation of a structure. So really seeing firsthand and understanding Hey, this is why it's so important that people have access to a bike, because it's just such a simple thing but it really does have such a fundamentally positive impact in people's lives. Those sorts of interactions seared into my, into my brain of like, hey, these are the ways that our work can impact someone. just seeing firsthand and being able to spend time with those people and ride bikes with them and see their community from the ground level on a bike, that was super impactful for me.Lea Lane:
Those are both inspirational memories for us. Taylor Jones and Dr Vanessa Be zy, you are kind and you are the role models we need. Thank you very much, not only for coming on our podcast, but for doing good in the world and showing us that we too can do good and often travel as we do it. Thanks again, thanks much.