Volunteering with the Muskoka Foundation

Teaching kids while you travel

Teaching kids while you travelVolunteering overlander sounds like a German word for a regiment of mountain fire fighters. Actually it is what we have become for a couple of weeks in Panama City, doing a photography project with some kids from Casa Esperanza; an experience as positive and rewarding as any that we’ve had in two years on the road. How did this all come about? Read on…

Volunteering as you travel is a well-known form of tourism, from back-packers looking for a more wholesome experience than hanging around the beach to gap-year youths and career-break thirty-somethings. And we always wanted to incorporate a humanitarian angle to our voyage around the world. It wasn’t always so easy to organize anything, though – visa time restrictions, lack of communication and lack of funds always conspired against us doing anything more constructive than hanging out with the local kids, helping out at a farm or clearing the litter from a particularly beautiful park-up. Sure, there is a lot to be said for spontaneous volunteering – though, it kind of boils down to just being nice: We ransacked the internet in search of an opportunity to do good. And we came up with the Muskoka Foundation.

The Muskoka Foundation specializes in putting together overlanders with non-governmental organizations and communities around the planet.  The concept is fairly simple: Most people traveling with their own vehicle are independent – they don’t need feeding, housing or picking up at the bus terminal. Generally overlanders carry some kit around with them, e.g. computers, cameras, or they have the space to accumulate stuff like pens and paper. Also, overlanders are very intelligent with innate skills ready for the changing demands of volunteering in an unfamiliar environment. Well, I can say that overlanders have a passion for the planet and its people – the willingness to share our world and to explore everyone else’s. For all those reasons, we are a uniquely positioned group of traveler-tourists, ready to join the fight against global injustice.

Once you get in contact with the Muskoka Foundation you will soon find yourself communicating with one of their regional coordinators on Skype. I wouldn’t say the conversation was an interview, as such; more a way of getting to know each other, to establish your overland route and timetable  and an opportunity for Muskoka to understand your volunteering ambitions. Alternatively you could come at that with an idea: Muskoka are linked with many organizations around the world already but they are on the lookout for more – if you come across an organization that looks like it could benefit from volunteering overlanders passing by then Muskoka would be very interested in learning more about them. But they are more than just a volunteering dating agency, however, and even though the Muskoka staff are overlanders themselves they are virtually with you all the way.

Learning photography in the tropics Soon after expressing interest to volunteer and confirmation that we’d soon be available in Panama City, we were put in contact with their partner, Casa Esperanza, an organization that campaigns against, and mitigates the effects of, child labor. We were due to start a photography project – 10 hours of tuition with a small group of kids over the course of two weeks – with an extension into website building skills for the more able of them. As an established partner, Muskoka Foundation had already sent a bunch of brand new digital cameras to Casa Esperanza, and we were going to be the first volunteers to use them. This is the strength of Muskoka – every step of the way they had the assets to insure the project would be successful and for the few weeks before we began, we looked at all the example workshop presentations and lesson plans that they had and began to get our heads around the task ahead.

If you’re overlanding around the world, then, and want to contribute to the social development of the communities that you’re visiting, you would do well to contact the Muskoka Foundation. They are not a large organization but they are ambitious – they are maybe more open to ideas and suggestions that a more established volunteering organization might be. There is no signing on fee; there is no daily charge while you’re working and there is no obligation to commit yourself for weeks and weeks. The Muskoka Foundation was an idea born on the road by people just like you; living in a truck and wondering how they could do good wherever they go.

Video: Muskoka Foundation interview at Overland Expo

Earthcircuit exhibition at Los del Patio next week!

Our next event at Los Del Patio, Panama City

Our next event at Los Del Patio, Panama City

Hanging out at one of hostels in Casco Viejo, Panama City and looking for something to do? No? Well be glad for the folk who are because salvation for them is close at hand… We just confirmed the dates and details for our first attempt at an exhibition since the cops shut us down at the Autonomous Mutant Festival nearly a year ago.

We will be opening on Thursday 28th June and will run until the 8th July. That gives  us less than a week, right? And let’s see what the state of our panoramic photos is after a few thousand miles of rainy, bumpy tropical zone… Anyway, yes, I know very few of you are in Panama and even fewer of you are going to come – well, the least you can do is ‘share’, ‘send’, ‘tweet’ and ‘like’ this post because it’s all about promotion at the moment. You see, when we went into to see the guys at Los del Patio yesterday, we saw one of their current photographic exhibitions. Nice A3 photos of moments around Panama kind of thing which would look nice in the study or on the kitchen wall… And there was a price tag – $350. Well, I nearly choked on my lemonade, I can tell you. That equates to half a metric tonne of aluminium cans or 35 pet ID tag PDFs

Against Child Labor

Child Labor


Poverty in Panama City

Tired of working? Fed up with having to get out of bed early every morning when there are so many more interesting things to do? Spare a few moments thought and little energy spreading the awareness for the millions of children who might ask themselves those very same questions. While yesterday was the International Day Against Child Labor, today millions of kids around the world still had to put on hold their universally accepted human rights and go to work instead.

Organization against child laborYou may have come across a few of them, as soon as you left the comfort zone of North America – before we got involved with Casa Esperanza in Panama City, our only moment of contact was during the few seconds at a red light: to rinse the dust from your mouth, you might buy a bottle of water from them; to rinse the dust from your windshield, they might climb onto a tire and wipe it clean. And then the lights change, the traffic roars off and these working children hopefully get to the side of that dirty, dangerous road in one piece to wait for the next opportunity. You might check for their shrinking figure in the side mirror as you build up speed – you might even wonder about the circumstances that put them there, managing other people’s road-dust.

These kids are, of course, just the more visible part of a worldwide phenomenon which just shouldn’t be happening – child labor.  You might not catch sight of kids scurrying around the markets, from store to store. You probably won’t come across the thousands who work on farms throughout Central America. In Panama alone, one of the more developed countries in this region, there are 60,000 child workers.

View from Bella Vista, Panama City

A little backstory: After six months traveling south from the Mexicali border we have reached Panama City where we have decided to wait a few weeks for a new ferry service that will take us to South America. Trying to make light of the situation, I started calling it the ghost ship or fantasy boat because no one knows when it will sail or, even, where the damn thing is and already we’ve seen a dozen overlanders pass us by to load their vehicles onto container ships instead. Apartments close to the Cinco de Mayo Metro Station, Panama City, Panama.The waiting, of course, is all part of our cunning plan – since leaving London, two years ago, we had the ambition to volunteer our time and energy with disadvantaged groups wherever we could – and, now, finally, we’re beginning to do that. Plus, of course, we get to know Panama City – a city of cosmopolitan character and immense variation: Skyscrapers at one end, poverty at the other; rainforest and jungle close by the region’s biggest container port and the engineering wonder of the Panama Canal itself.

Making volunteers out of overlandersSo, thanks to the Muskoka Foundation we have signed up with Casa Esperanza who have worked to provide health and education services to the working youth of Panama for 20 years. We’ll be taking a small group of kids and teaching them some of the basics of digital photography – we’re not sure where it will lead; certainly a small exhibition or website for now – hopefully a long-term interest, hobby or even a career for the future.  But, if our first day is anything to go by, I don’t doubt the determination of the kids themselves:

Casa Esperanza conference

June 12th is International Day Against Child Labor. To mark the occasion, here in Panama City, Casa Esperanza had organized a conference to which they had invited the country’s media and many of their sponsors and affiliated groups, organizations and schools. What the conference wasn’t was a series of speeches from grown-ups, officers and politicians going on about how bad child labor is and what they were doing to fight it – instead we heard some remarkable and inspiring stories from some of the kids themselves.

We heard Eric, aged 15 from Colon, talk about the discrimination a working child faces – even at the precious moments they get at school, they might endure bullying from other kids and, at work, they will be badly treated. His point was that every human being is born free and equal even if, through no fault of the child, this equality is not sustained. From these young speakers, I understood that the problem of child labor is not merely the failure to provide education. Many child workers have some access to education but the poverty they grow up in forces them to work. Or simply, if they do not work, they will not eat. For Eric, choosing to go school instead of work meant that he would be hungry – he had to move away if a fellow student was eating, the smell would be too much – and, although he made that choice, many child workers can’t and eventually abandon their studies

Child LaborRudolfo, 15 years old, had spent many years working in scrap yards, markets and on the street selling matches. We learnt more about the physical dangers of the typical developing-world workplace: for some, it it’s the hot, hot sun baking the fields in the countryside. For others, the immense dangers of an industrial setting or the chances of being hit by a car on the streets. Not simply missing the education that is their human right but also having to suffer the occupational dangers of the adult world.

We also heard from Dalires, aged 12 from Boquete (yes, that posh, ex-pat enclave) where she worked with her father on a small coffee plantation. The rural setting is, in fact, where Casa Esperanza does much of their work – this is where you’ll find much of Panama’s poverty – families that are forced to enlist their children in fight for day-to-day survival even if their schooling suffers. For many, a working child that is sharing the responsibility of feeding the family is a good thing – the fact that they are forced to, however, is always bad and often, when Casa Esperanza try to help, they meet resistance from the parents themselves.  Panama has had a law for many years now; that no child under the age of 14 should be working. I’m sure all the countries in Central America, and around the world, have such a law but the real problem is, of course, poverty – you really have to respect the efforts of Casa Esperanza in addressing this reality gap, and, of course, the children themselves who understand that they have a right to full education.

Conference in support of working children on Panama.




Why do some countries drive left and others right?

Driving on the right in Panama.

Driving left side or right?

If you’ve been studying our website closely you’ll know that our truck, Jigsaw, is right-hand drive and it was designed to drive left. Which means that this entire Earthcircuit is, for us, happening on the wrong side of the road.  “No!” Americans will say, “It is you Brits who drive on the wrong side, just like the Aussies and Japs. Everyone else drives on the right side of the road.” Well, I’m going to explain why, indeed, most of the world drives on the right side even though it is the wrong side – and why a few select countries drive on the left side which is, in fact, the correct side.

For those who can’t be bothered to read this entire article, I’ll sum it up here: Are you right or left handed? I’m guessing right – and that’s why you should be driving on the left – simple, no? But how did we reach the current state of affairs? And does it really matter which side any particular country chooses to organize its traffic?

So let us go back in time, before there were any cars at all but not before there were cities and roads. These ancient metropolises sometimes had worse traffic jams than we have now. Ox carts, horse-drawn carriages, chariots, peasants pushing barrows, slaves carrying their masters and hundreds of street people forcing their way through the mêlée that was the typical scene in any town or city.

The chaos was made worse, of course, since usually there were no enforced traffic regulations of any kind – a situation that persisted right up until the twentieth century even in some European countries. However, more enlightened authorities ruled that traffic must travel on the left side of the road – there is evidence that the Romans practiced this and, too, in the bustling cities of ancient India where the geometries of clockwise motion (up the left side and back down on the right) held religious significance.

Drive on the left side even before there were cars

Before the modern age, you see, there is an important thing to consider: traveling on the left side forces anyone coming towards you to pass on your right side. And for the majority of people this means that they can more easily attack or defend themselves using whatever weapon they are holding in their right hand. Or, if violence is not your thing, moving on the left, means you can more easily shake hands or high-five a person coming towards you with your right hand: Mounting a horse is generally done with the left leg first. To do this safely, standing by the side of the road and not in the middle of the traffic means that the traffic should be moving on the left side of the road (try this with your bike). Sitting on a horse or on a cart behind a horse means that to use a whip (with your right hand) you must be traveling on the left hand side of the road if you don’t want to get caught up with pedestrians as you raise your hand back to strike (try that on your bike, too).

French Empire in early 1800's
Napoleon’s Right Sided Europe

So, originally, we can say that everywhere in the world had a traffic system like the UK does now. Well, what happened then? Basically the French started changing things around. In the eighteenth century, two things happened. First, there was an increase in large wagons being pulled by several horses, designed to carry big loads across this massive country. The driver of such a transport generally sat on the left rear horse so that he could apply his whip (in his right hand) to all the horses in front of him. This meant that he preferred to travel on the right so to check for clearance with oncoming traffic. Secondly, there was the French Revolution. In France, it was the aristocracy who used non-commercial horse-drawn vehicles – and they, in keeping with the natural way, travelled on the left side. It was the peasantry, walking on foot, who passed on the right hand side so that they had a better view of the oncoming travel – much as pedestrians are advised to do all over the world today when there is no safe sidewalk to use. This rightism became a symbol of the revolution, so that everyone was obliged to travel on the right in the same way as a horse-less peasant, including the aristocrats keeping a low profile.  A few years later, along came Napoleon who conquered much of Europe – wherever he went, he pressed the new right-side form of travel into law.  It is thought, too, that, with his massive armies marching up and down all over the continent, traveling on the right would reduce the opportunities for inter-regimental fighting as the columns of soldiers passed each other. Napoleon, too, was left-handed.

So for another hundred years, until the birth of motorized locomotion, the states, and their colonies worldwide, that had been conquered by Napoleon travelled on the right. The others, namely Portugal, Sweden and the British and Austro-Hungarian Empires and their colonies kept to the left.

In the case of the US, while it was still under British control, people generally kept to the left, too, in the busy cities – although in the vast, undeveloped areas, there was little regulation. The introduction of great big wagons pulled by a fleet of horses and controlled from the rear left horse, like France, forced much of the inter-urban traffic to travel on the right. And then, when America won its independence, they made the switch permanent, in a move to severe links with the British, but also partly in response to the many immigrants who were used to right-side travel having come from those Napoleon-conquered states in Europe.

For mainland Europe, Hitler forced Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary to switch to the right where they remained after the Second World War; China and Korea switched to the right, once free from Japanese control (where the custom had, of course, long been to travel on the left.

For the rest of the world we can say that most countries travel on the right in an effort to conform to their neighbors while much of the former British Empire continues on the left. In the case of Pakistan and India (which had been traditionally left-siders before the British arrived), they felt that to change would bring too much disruption, not least to camel trains that often plodded on through the night, on the left side of the road, while their drivers slept. Another notable exception was Myanmar where the superstitious president ordered a change from left to right on the advice of a wizard.

So then, there we are, most of the world now travels on the right, and the roots of that stem from political reasons rather than any practical reasons. And, unfortunately, there could be a price to pay for this disregard of the natural, instinctive norms of a right-handed humanity. There hasn’t been much research done on whether it is safer to be a leftist or a rightist – such an experiment would be enormously difficult to design: where would we find a population who were completely used to driving on both sides in order for genuine comparisons to be made? How could we distill the effect of the side of the road from all the other cultural aspects of driving, the design of roads, the proficiency levels, the efforts of traffic police and deterrence effects of the judicial system between one country and another? We can look at the experiences of Sweden which made the change from left to right in 1967; traffic accidents went down dramatically for a while after the switch but returned to more or less the same levels as before once the public had got used to the new system and were less cautious. But there is not much to learn there, except that it is much more important that you drive with careful attention.

Right-siders reminded to use the left as they enter Kent, UK We can identify a few advantages to driving on the left. The dangerous part of the road is, of course, the center where vehicles pass in opposite directions. The energy of impact is more substantial there – the time necessary to avoid an impact is a fraction of what is available to avoid impacts with people or objects on the side of the road. It might make sense to have your good hand on that side, to be sure – humans also have ocular preference where the majority favors their right eye over their left. This feedback between your eye and your hand on the steering wheel is the crucial moment of safe driving. Consider, then, sitting on the right hand side of your car – you keep your good hand within this feedback loop, while your left is free to operate the gear stick, as you turn a corner, say, or fiddle with the radio. The gears, the buttons on the radio, etc. are generally digital switches – on or off, one, two, three, four, and so on. The point is that the hand remaining on the wheel is in an analogue control mode and should demand much more of your brain power to keep it good than a mere switch. Another point to consider is when you are reversing and you look over your shoulder, through the rear window to see where you are going:. If you sit on the left hand side of your car, your bad hand remains on the steering wheel and is forced to become part of the analogue feedback loop…

Of course, the real world is much more complicated: in cultures with relaxed driving habits, it may well be better to use your right hand for operations around the interior of the vehicle, like finding a radio station, drinking coffee or retrieving a dropped mobile phone. Using your good hand for this may reduce the time that there is only one hand on the steering wheel. One particular nation might extensively employ dual carriageways which separate the traffic directions, while strictly enforcing speed limits on more dangerous single carriageway roads. There are many, many more vehicles with manual gear shifts in Europe than North America, too, for instance. But consider this: The UK, which drives on the left, has consistently fewer road accidents and casualties than the rest of right-driving Europe.


Drive on the left
European Road Casualty Per Million Population

“Visitors are informed that in the United Kingdom traffic drives on the left-hand side of the road. In the interests of safety, you are advised to practise this in your country of origin for a week or two before driving in the UK.”
— United Kingdom Ministry of Transport

Panama Paved With Gold

Balboa and Panama beer cans discarded

Aluminum can recycling in Panama. With the first step I took in Panama I heard a crunch and felt the collapse of an aluminum can under my foot. With the second step I managed to miss a plastic bag with the remains of a polystyrene fast-food container, plastic forks and soggy napkins half inside. I looked around me – we had just driven an hour from the border with Costa Rica to reach Almirante, arriving at the docks where there’s a ferry across to the touristy town of Bocas. There was garbage strewn everywhere; more plastic bags, cans and random junk littering the long grass by the road and, close by the entrance of a boat yard, piles of black trash bags together with broken push chairs, umbrellas, bottles and engine oil containers. Almirante, our first real taste of Panama, was truly a mess.

We crossed to the Isla Colon and stayed just outside the town where the buildings by the sea give way to a proper beach. Just where there is another enormous pile of crap, bags of it, slowly disintegrating under the tropical sun. I couldn’t understand it – of course, I’m familiar with the less than perfect waste disposal and recycling systems that you find in some countries. But this was a gratuitous level of garbage in a nation that should be able to do better.

It was the aluminium that first broke my normally cool restraint: I don’t know, I couldn’t help it – the sight of so many cans just waiting to be picked up and converted into hard cash – the attempt to prove, at least to myself, that there was a point to tidying up a bit, that the cumulative effort of every individual moment of rubbish retrieval meant something – I started to collect every empty, metal beverage container that I could see, crushing them, adding them to a rapidly filling plastic sack. Beginning on the beach, it took me an hour to get a hundred of them.

Two hours worth of work

And then the next night there was a bit of a festival in town – everyone had sunk a few beers, the kids had had soda, and you could see the remains scattered all over the place – I started, almost automatically, going around picking up these small pieces of metal. Of course, people were staring at me, slightly bemused and confused but then a few began to come over and offer me their recently drained can personally, while older people would call me over to point out a few that they had seen hidden in the shadows. And on the slightly wobbly way home, I, Dunia, Melissa and Jackie managed to double my collection. It wasn’t a chore, it wasn’t hard work – it was fun; something, maybe, that echoed an instinct to be attracted to bright, shiny things, to an elemental metal… That crunching noise that I heard the first time I stepped out of the truck onto Panamanian soil; I sure heard it again and again that night.

So the next step was to weigh it all in at a scrap dealer. There wasn’t one in Bocas, that much was obvious – I googled what I could and found out about the sorry state of the recycling situation in Panama. Apparently there is no recycling in Panama. Apart from a few organizations that have put together a neighborhood scheme that seeks to educate and promote greener living, apart from a few charities that accept gifts of profitable waste and apart from crackheads and alcoholics doing their utmost, driven by necessity to earn their next fix and, I assume, happy to be able to combine this service to the environment with their own particular chemical passion; I couldn’t find anyone that might be interested in my sack of aluminium cans. And then after a few days of driving, crossing the continental divide and cruising the beautiful countryside of the Pacific lowlands, the PanAmerican highway heading towards the capital, we happened upon Chitre, a busy town close to the coast.

Weighing up the sack of cans

It had been a smooth journey –at first I had noted every discarded can hidden in the lush, green bushes as we sped along; each discarded item only briefly recalled to importance as I mentally counted them up, knowing that it would be foolish to stop and actually retrieve any one of them. Eventually the tropical heat and the excitement of exploring a new country had driven the whole aluminium story out of my head for a while. But suddenly, as were investigating the possibility that Chitre had a beach, we found instead the town’s landfill site and spotted a scrap dealer who’d had the foresight to hang a great big “Aluminio  – 30/lb” sign by the side of the road. We screeched to a halt and I gave the guy my sack of cans to weigh and pay us its worth. He didn’t seem phazed at all by these foreigners turning up with their horde of metal, in competition with the usual rag and bone types that came his way. To him, scrap was scrap, surely, and he lifted the bag with hardly a word and hung it on his scales. It was weighed at 11.5 lbs., paying me $4.11 at his 30 cents a pound price. I reckon, in British Columbia, say, with a 5 cent deposit on each can, I would have got $15. But, of course, I would never have been able to scavenge so much in just a couple of hours – put a deposit on the cans and everyone recycles, nothing is wastefully thrown away. But, clutching four bucks – enough to buy six cold, cold beers – I had proven, to myself, and now to you, that Panama is paved with gold…

During my short investigation into aluminium recycling I learnt some interesting stuff:

  • Aluminium is found naturally bound up with other chemicals everywhere in the world. It is the third most common element and the most common metal – 8% of the Earth’s solid crust is aluminium, although, until humans started throwing the stuff away, it is never found in a pure state.
  •  However, it is only extracted from bauxite, a mineral that is dug up from otherwise beautiful places in the world such as Suriname and Jamaica in a process that is pretty destructive to the immediate environment.
  • It takes a lot of energy to separate the aluminium from bauxite – 5% of all the electricity in the USA is used in its production – in comparison it takes only a fraction of this energy to recycle it.
  • Aluminium is one of the more profitable materials to recycle – it can easily pay the costs of recycling everything else normally thrown away by the average household.
  • It is very easy to recycle – simply melt the stuff down. It can take as little as six weeks from the moment you put a can in the recycling bin to the moment it reappears on the supermarket shelf.
  • It can be recycled over and over again – much of the aluminium ever produced is still being used.
  • Brazil manages to recycle nearly 90% of its aluminium
  • Aluminium is not very toxic. A hundred people would have to eat half a kilo of aluminium sulfate each for fifty of them to die. However, there are suggestions that regular exposure to pure aluminium can lead to various problems such as Alzheimer’s disease although studies have been inconclusive.