Friday, November 16, 2007

By Elizabeth Sung, Consultant for CCF-Chad

N'djamena, Chad is where my adventure began and now where it ends. After spending twelve weeks in Chad, meeting wonderful people, discovering different lifestyles, adapting to a culture and carrying out a study that I would never have dreamed of. Twelve weeks can seem like a lifetime at one moment, and next, I wonder where all the time has gone.

I spent my short time in N'djamena catching up with my CCF colleagues at the office and learning more about the progress of the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration program that reintegrates former soldiers back into communities, this is an amazing program, rapidly gaining momentum, and expanding to help others.

My dear readers, it has been an absolute pleasure sharing my experience with you. I hope that you were able to learn more about life in Eastern Chad, CCF's work with Chad, and the populations CCF impacts.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

By Elizabeth Sung, Consultant for CCF-Chad

My chapter in Chad is already coming to an end. Yesterday, even though I could have spent more time working in the office, I went to Iridimi Refugee Camp for the last time to meet with my group of survey interviewers. Among the three camps, I spent the most time with them.
I believe that this group represented the best and brightest in the camp. Among them were community educators, teachers, mothers, fathers, students, and the director of primary schools.

As part of my role in doing this survey, I have a number of responsibilities to my interviewers. This includes sharing results and taking account their response into my report. In discussing some of the results, we debated about the utility of the rights of a child in the refugee situation. We also conversed about rights of a refugee, and the urgent needs related to water, food and education.

I was inspired and once again reminded about their strength, resilience, and their ultimate desire to improve their quality of life and their communities. It is so easy to forget that they have been living in the camps for three to four years, forced from their homes because of conflict, leaving behind their homes, their liberty to move about and make independent choices. Yet, here they were, doing their best to survive, and for many, improving the quality of their lives, enriching their communities, and providing for their families.

It was extremely difficult to say good-bye to my interviewers. There was Elham, a quiet young lady, educated at the university in El Fasher, and a teacher at one of the primary schools. Though she hardly said a word to me the entire time, her quiet presence, her flawless work, and her smile always reassured me. Mahamat Ahmat Jaffoun, one of the primary school directors, sported a wool scarf wrapped around his head and tied around his chin. He never failed to make me laugh with his practical jokes. Hassan Mahamat Djouma, a teacher for CCF's literacy program for women, bowed his head respectfully towards me each time we met. Then there were my two favorite assistants, Hamid and Aladin, each fourteen years of age. Their extreme intelligence always threw me off. They were fluent in Arabic, and were well on their way with both French and English. These people, with their unique personalities that are impossible to capture in a few sentences, are the ones who I will miss, who I will advocate for, and who are the catalysts for progressive thinking—they are the movers and shakers of the community. To say the very least, I think we had all learned from the process of the interviews, from the results, and from each other.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

Arriving in the southern city of Bangalore, India, you have the sense that you have been transported back 100 years to the time of British colonialism. Unlike northern India with its marble palaces and red sandstone forts, Bangalore appears to the visitor to be a colonial town that you might see in southern England-- not India. With tree-lined street and bountiful parks, the Gothic-like churches and government buildings are designed and built of solid granite blocks with traffic policemen in crisp khaki uniforms and pith helmets adorn with large flowing feathers. Ye gads, you would think the Queen’s Regiment was going to come marching down the street at any moment!

Everything is orderly and yet totally disorderly in Bangalore. Yes, I am reminded that this is India where reality is seen through a slanted prism that never gives you the true picture of what you are observing. First, the residents of this proper town do not call it Bangalore-- it is now called Bangalooru! This changing of names of cities has become quite a fad in India as it struggle to shed its’ British colonial history by returning to its true heritage before the Brits decided that the ‘sun never sets on the’... well, you know, blah, blah, blah. So we now have Mumbai instead of Bombay, Chennai instead of Madras, and Bangalooru instead of Bangalore. Still, the residents of Bangalooru have retained some very good traits from this era of commercial British imperialism and incorporated them into their culture and norms. Just listen to the cadence and structure of the spoken English-- close your eyes and you will swear that you are listening to an elegant lecture at Oxford. Bangalooruians or whatever they choose to call themselves, have a love for parks, gardens, statues, and tea time. Ah, tea time, we Americans could never understand the true value and personal enhancement of an engaging afternoon tea time, but the people of Bangalore relish their tea and pleasant conversation.

Our study tour group of sponsors are transfixed in a time warp as we explore this wonderful city of old and new. You can almost hear the sounds of carriages on cobblestone streets although visually all you see are thousands of cars going in all directions like ants in panic mode. There is new construction everywhere in Bangalooru as this city becomes a mecca for the high-tech industry of Asia. In less than 15 years, the population of this city has doubled along with the need for housing, transportation and medical care. International technology companies have established very modern ‘corporate campuses’ attracting well-educated and trained population of professionals. You have probably talked to some of them who are employed by call centers serving such companies as Sears, CitiBank, Home Depot, and Lands End. So when you call to complain about your Black and Decker drill that will not work properly, “Jimmy" will calmly handle your questions as if he where just down the street from your house. He has practiced his ‘American accent' and can correct the problem you are experiencing-- from 9,000 miles away! Quite a feat for this little city that was originally called ‘Pot of Beans’ by the original inhabitants. It is quite remarkable to see how technology businesses have changed the demographics as well as the culture of this city. Our sponsors see the real ‘promise’ and hope the growing Indian economy in the faces of these young professionals who are reshaping customer service and technology innovation throughout the world.

We are going to stay three days in this city and our sponsors are going to be very surprised by what they see and hear from our CCF hosts in India. More about all these activities later, it is now ‘tea time’ for me at my office in Richmond, Va., and I brought back a few packets of strong black tea from southern Indian. A touch of milk to your steaming cup of eyelash-curling tea and you’re all set to relax and reflect on the day. Cheers!

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Monday, November 12, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

Impressionable India

When I last left you, we had rumbled, stumbled, and wrestled our way into the ancient city of Jaipur after a test of endurance and shaky nerves on the small road from Agra. We had left one roadside ‘rest stop’ with endless impressions of hungry foreigners devouring everything in their small store and passing out gaudy beads to anyone with enough courage to approach our alien group of vagabonds.

I can imagine the stories their children and grandchildren will hear for generations of the day strange ravenous Americans suddenly invaded their small village and ate and drank everything in sight while energetically taking photos of cows, camels, and pigs. US-India relations could have been dealt a serious blow by the manifestation of cultural weirdness displayed by our road-beaten gaggle of galloping CCF sponsors, but somehow I feel that everything came out on positive note as evident by the entire village quickly assembling to see us off on our tiny bus from another world. They smiled and waved furiously as we left this village, probably with a sense of relief and reverence that the Hindu god Vishnu had intervened to save them from these wacky American tourists.

Now I must mentioned that after a long day of travel, arrival in Jaipur presented another unexpected obstacle-- getting into the city through a narrow hilly roadway lined with gigantic block walls constructed by some Moghul chief about 500 years ago to protect his palaces and treasures from competing chieftains. Okay, many years ago, arriving by horseback up this trail would have presented no problem, but now there are hundreds of cars, buses, motorcycles, auto rickshaws and trucks of all sizes trying to enter this city through a passageway built for horses!! Gridlock supreme is the normal order and everyone seems to think if they honked their horns loud enough, the stone walls will come crashing down and a new HOV super-sized-asphalt lane will suddenly appear to relieve their frustration.

Just what’s up with all this horn honking in India? Everyone seems to do it all the time with no fear of offending the other drivers or the expectation that anyone will actually respond to their incessant honking of horns. Of course, the larger trucks don’t just honk…they bugle!...they play musical notes!....they snort and snarl with ear-piercing blasts from their air horns. Still, the Indian people do not seem to mind…in fact, they encourage this head-banging behavior by actually posting signs on the back of their vehicles that read. “Honk, please.” This nation has gone looney-tunes with this hapless honking behavior and some of our sponsors have astutely suggested the implementation of a ‘honking code’ where each variation of honking indicates a command or obscenity hurled at the opposing vehicle. Thus, one short honk may mean ‘please’ followed by three long blasts of the horn which would call reference to some obscenity. Seems like a rational plan to me!

Jaipur was a lovely city full of treasures and traps. We visited several ancient forts and palaces, rode elephants, raced in auto-rickshaws through downtown traffic, ate lots of spicy food, watched a block-printing demonstration, saw carpet weavers, listened to Indian music, bought souvenirs-- including marble elephants, camel-hide purses, and assorted batik wall hangings-- exchanged money, and ended our day with an unplanned encounter on the street with a shabbily dressed 12-year-old called The Magnificent Magic Boy!… well, okay, he just called himself ‘Magic Boy’ but he truly was a magnificent magician! His street act included making things disappear from your hands, coughing up large rocks, and making coins fall out of various orifices of your body… you HAD to be there to see it, but this kid was really good. The sponsors loved him and he earned some sizable tips that afternoon for his entertaining efforts. Ah, the unexpected and unplanned delights of a study tour!

Jaipur had become one of my favorite places to visit… ancient, historic, and awesome, but with a whimsical flair and the vibrant, friendly population who sincerely welcomed visitors to their city. It is Kipling’s India on steroids and stimulants encased in a rich foundation of history and hysteria. I hated to leave this land of ‘Magic Boy’ but Bangalore was calling and we had an early-morning plane to catch to the visit the “Garden City of the South.” Booming Bangalore beckoned our weary travelers with remnants of British colonialism and the futuristic enticements of a technology explosion!

(Although Gary returned to the United States on Tuesday, he will continue to document the travels of this Study Tour group through their adventures in Bangalore, Goa, and Mumbai.)

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Monday, November 5, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

Awesome Agra!

After arriving in Agra, we visited the stunning Taj Mahal. We had to wait in long lines for entrance to the grounds of this national monument and security was very tight. Apparently, there are several groups who would like to blow up the Taj Mahal in an apparent and misguided way to call attention to their theology, ideology, or lunatic mission. Of course, this is India and getting to the entrance gate is a challenge of passing through aggressive 'hawkers'. hungry monkeys, tribal vendors who want to take you on a camel ride, and various vendors of knock-off Taj Mahal replicas made of soap, stone, plaster, mud, concrete, and Formica. Ahhh, the power of capitalism when combined with tourism!

No matter how well traveled you may be or cynical and staid, you will not be prepared for your first sighting of the Taj Mahal. As you walk through a tall marble arch erected over 500 years ago, you are immobilized by your first view of the Taj-- it shines, sparkles and almost hypnotizes you with its indescribable beauty. The grounds and gardens only add to its brilliance and majectic presence. Our sponsors are almost mute as they stand gazing at this monument of love and devotion... one man who wanted to honor his wife after she died was committed to construct the most beautiful mausoleum in the world... along with over 20,000 skilled stone carvers, artists, and craftsmen who toiled almost 30 years to complete this historic place. The gentleman may have been in love, but he also imprisoned his father for eight years at a nearby fort, killed several of his rival brothers, and reportedly ordered that the hands and fingers to be cut off of the most skilled artisans after they finished their work... he certainly did not want his monument duplicated by anyone!

Sunset at the Taj Mahal is almost a spiritual experience and our sponsor group was overwhelmed by their experience and visit. Later at the hotel, everyone was talking about the Taj during our delicious Indian buffet dinner-- Indian breads are the best in the world! They also like to serve an assortment of sweet desserts with each meal which certainly made most of us fatter and happier. Of course, on any study tour, there is a core group of serious shoppers! Despite the long day, several of us ventured from the hotel late that evening to seek trinkets and treasures of India. We stumbled onto a little store that was about to close... but the foreigners were welcomed guests of this family-run business and we kept them there until almost midnight. They were gracious and helpful, and we returned their hospitality in greenbacks and left with gifts for friends and families back home.

Our guide urged the group to get up a 5:00 a.m. the next day and see the Taj Mahal in the sunrise. We all looked like rejects from an endless marathon. During dinner I doubted that many would want to get up early and return to this monument. Wrong again! By 4:45 a.m. there were 15 sponsors in the hotel lobby the next morning ready to see the Taj Mahal one more time. Our irrational nocturnal behaviour was rewarded with one of the most beautiful sights you would ever want to see at sunrise. I neglected to say that the Taj Mahal has emerald, rubies and other precious stones embedded in the translucent marble walls and dome. When the rays of the sun reaches this monument, it actually sparkles as if hundreds of tiny blinking lights have been activated, unforgettable, and photos do not do it justice.

We also visited the Agra Fort that day which would make any 10-year-old boy delirious with delight-- the fort, complete with moat, covers over 200 acres and was constructed with colossal slabs of red sandstone. There are huge wooden gates, lots of dark passages, tunnels galore, lofty turrets, battle ramps, and magnificent gardens inside the walls. Harry Potter-- eat your heart out! THIS is a real castle for fun and exploration. You can only imagine how grand a life could be lived behind these gigantic walls.

Leaving Agra and heading southeast to the ancient city of Jaipur, we were to endure six endless hours of bumpy roads, traffic jams, and dueling trucks and buses trying to play 'chicken' on a highway of barely one lane. Halfway on our journey that day, we made a rest stop at a small, remote gasoline/snack bar place not normally frequented by foreign tourists. Of course, it was like the aliens from Jupiter had arrived and we were stared at, touched, and laughed at by the locals who came out to see the foreigners from space. Service was quick and friendly at the snack bar and we completely wiped out their supply of sandwiches, cookies, cold drinks, coffee, tea and almost every other available item that could be consumed by these hungry foreign invaders. I am sure the owners of this establishment will never forget the day that the ravenous white people from another country completely wiped out their supply of goodies. Biggest sales day in the last 500 years for this place! :)

Let me also add that we were always treated with friendliness and courtesy wherever we went that day and the children especially liked sponsors who would take photos of them on digital cameras... and show them the photos. One sponsor had brought what I can only described as Madri Gra beads-- and the kids, the parents, the snack bar workers, and everyone else loved them, I can now proudly state that there are probably at least 50 people who live near this rest stop now wearing these colorful beads!

We arrived at the historic city of Jaipur that evening. It would be an adventurous visit with elephant riding, auto-rickshaw racing, rug buying, sari-selling bonanzas only topped by the sudden appearance on the street of a poor, tattered 12-year-old youngster named Magic Boy who amazed our CCF sponsors with his skill, friendliness, and acts that defy explanation. More on Jaipur in my next report.

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Saturday, November 3, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

Great Saturday morning in Bangalore, India... one of the most unique cities in all of India. Before I tell you a little about our visit to Bangalore, let me catch you up on our travels during the last week. This study tour is becoming one of the most educational and challenging tours we have ever implemented for sponsors.

Leaving Delhi almost a week ago, we slowly-- I stress slowly, made our way to Agra-- site of the Taj Mahal. As you inch your way through the traffic in Delhi, you realize that traffic in Los Angeles or Washington, DC, is really not that bad! At every traffic light, our bus is approached by what the locals call 'hawkers' with their variety of wares including colorful purses, snakes, peacock fans, food items, and other things you can not do without in your daily life. Of course, our sponsors are fascinated by this eager display of street entreprenurial activity and buy everything that is thrust toward them... while snapping photos as if this will be the only place we encounter these spirited sales people.

Normally, it should be easy to drive to Agra in less than two hours, but this is India were few things are easy. There is constant honking of horns, trucks using all lanes and even sidewalks to manuever their rigs, hundreds of people in the streets, enormous potholes everywhere, and a weird zoo-like assortment of camels, dogs, cattle, monkeys and even a few elephants in the road, make travel a magical and maddening adventure in India.

Of course, we must make the customary rest stop half-way to Agra where clean bathrooms for the foreigners and a host of every gaudy souvenir items are displayed before you actually can reach the snack counter to order a cool drink with biscuits (cookies). Remarkably, all of this chaos and confusion becomes normal, the longer you travel in India the longer all your senses become attuned to expect the unexpected and enjoy it!

Finally, we arrive in Agra, a city that must have been designed by a city planner having a bad day. There are winding streets that go in circles, intersections that are constantly grid-locked, and in the midst of hundreds of cars and trucks, you find a lonely, but sharply-dressed uniformed traffic officer trying to do his best in the worst of situations. Again, when all hope is dimmed, traffic begins to move and the impossible becomes the possible in India!

India is full of forts and palaces, and Agra is home to one of the most beautiful monuments in the world-- the stunning and peaceful Taj Mahal! More about our sunset and sunrise (ugh!) visit to the Taj in my next dispatch.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Arrival in India

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

Our study tour to India will be one of our most challenging trips this year. Twenty-four sponsors and staff gathered at the Newark International Airport from throughout the United States on Thursday night for our 14-hour flight to Delhi. They were an excited group of sponsors with determination to fly to India, travel constantly over the next 11 days by bus, plane, and auto-rickshaw, eat exotic food, see some of the most beautiful monuments in the world, visit urban and rural CCF projects and meet their sponsored children.

International airline flights have become the enemy of many road warriors, but Continental Airlines should receive 5 stars for their excellent service, knowledgeable and courteous staff, and better-than-average airline food-- plus getting us to Delhi 15 minutes ahead of schedule with all of our luggage arriving on time to the baggage carousels within fifteen minutes. Clearing customs in India was efficient and without problems. Soon, we were out of the airport and on our 'coach' as they say in India and on our way to the hotel. It is now almost 10 p.m. on Friday night in Delhi and the streets are crammed with cars, taxis, bicycles, motorcycles, dog, pigs, cows, and a long line of nomadic tribe people riding ox carts in the middle of the street. Somehow, all of this seemed natural and quite orderly in this fascinating country of paradoxes and quagmires. Welcome to India!

Keep in mind that India is 9 and one-half hours ahead of EDT-- it is an interesting story how India adopted the half-hour time zone... but just blame it on astronomers and those wacky Brits in colonial times that wanted all the trains in India to run on the same time zone. Nothing makes sense in this wonderful country, but everything seems to work just the same. After checking into the hotel at 10:30 p.m., we had dinner....yes, it is quite common in India to eat at this hour and the food at our hotel was outstanding. I was surprised that almost all our sponsors came down to the dining room for dinner at this hour and seemed to enjoy it immensely. Not a complaint in the group!

After a short overnight rest, we were up on Saturday and ready to tour the heart of the historic parts of New and Old Delhi. The first lesson in Delhi when riding a bus is to close your eyes and realize that there are accidents, but very few considering the demolition derby that goes on constantly on India's street and highways. Of course, air pollution is a major problem in Delhi and please do not plan to go 'quickly' anywhere in this town. A trip of eight miles could easy take an hour or more. We have excellent local guides who know the nuances of India and can translate to foreign guests with humor and clarity. Nothing is as it appears in India!

On Saturday afternoon, we went to an orphanage which is supported by CCF-India. It is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods of this immense city and administered by an order of the Clarist nuns. There are over 100 children assisted by this wonderful orphanage and I knew our CCF sponsors would be overwhelmed by the warmth and sincerity of the welcome given to them by the children and nuns. There were speeches and dances, smiles and hugs, and hundreds of photos were taken by our group. The positive spirit and commitment of the staff at St. Anthony's Orphanage was infectious and soon everyone in our group were on an emotional roller coaster... it was actually hard for me to get the group to leave the orphanage and return to the hotel.

It is now Sunday morning and we are preparing for our first day of meeting sponsored children. Because India is such a large country, we will have a 'Child Sponsorship Day' in northern India and another in Bangalore for sponsored children who live in southern India. This is always a very special day for everyone... it is a day, from my experience in assisting Study Tours, that I can accurately predict that there will be tears from sponsors, children, parents of children, and CCF staff as everyone comes together for this emotional international family reunion. Many of these youngsters have traveled with their parents for hours, even days, to be here in Delhi and now finally meet their American sponsor. In our Study Tour group, we have sponsors who have been sponsoring children throughout the world for over 25 years, and, yet, today is the first time they have ever met one of their sponsored children in person. Everyone is excited, nervous, and almost giddy at times in anticipation of this meeting.


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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Off to India!

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

In less than 10 hours, CCF sponsors and staff will be leaving a chilly Newark International Airport for the hot, humid 98-degree weather of New Delhi. This trip will be our second study tour to one of the most diverse and fascinating countries in the world. Where else could you encounter a country that speaks 17 languages and over 800 dialects? India is a country that is rooted in democratic and religious tradition, but is rapidly developing into one of the most robust economies and advanced technological nations in the world.

This study tour will challenge our sponsors both mentally and physically. We will travel from Delhi to Agra by bus, and then on to the ancient city of Jaipur. No need to unpack luggage, because we will keep moving on to Mumbai for a quick look and then down to Bangalore-- the location of the national office of CCF in India. Our trip will end in the coastal city region of Goa-- which more resembles a Portuguese village than an Indian community. Along the way, we will be visiting CCF programs in both Delhi and Bangalore as well as giving our sponsors a chance to actually meet their sponsored children.

Our sponsors on this trip are from Oregon to Florida, and many of them have traveled with us before on other study tours. For the newcomers, they will learn that we are 'travelers', not 'tourists' and they will return to the United States with a profound knowledge and understanding of the old and new India. They will also have a greater comprehension of how their sponsorship gifts impact the lives of thousands of poor children and families throughout India. I can guarantee you that our sponsors will be different people when they return from this trip and we hope the newcomers will appreciate how special this experience can be in their lives. For the old-timers that have traveled with us many times, they know how educational, fun, and life-expanding these trips can be. We are all from different backgrounds and experiences, yet united in our commitment to helping children-- to give them a chance just like someone may have given you a chance in your life.

Throughout the next 10 days, I will attempt to give you the good, the bad, and the ugly of our experiences in India. Right now, everyone is excited and happy to be on this study tour and ready to depart on our 14-hour flight from Newark to New Delhi. Likewise, in India, much planning has gone in to this study tour by our Indian colleagues and they eagerly await our arrival. We are on a journey of discovery and self-education with unlimited opportunities to see and do things never experience by most tourists traveling to India. I hope you will join us on this trip through this travel blog and maybe experience a little of our adventures and visits to these regions in India through my writing.

gary d.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

By Elizabeth Sung, Consultant for CCF-Chad

A long line of white land cruisers makes its way along sand tire tracks, through the dry brush, and passes by the teems of camels and donkeys drinking from the ouaddis. Each trip to the camp begins like that with the levels of adrenaline rising each time the car's wheel hits a crux in the route. At the camp entry, we pause to sign in at security, then we drive to CCF's Child Centered Spaces to drop our staff off, and continue on to our meeting space for the training.

Today, I made my way to Iridimi to finalize some details for my survey which is in its last stages of execution. I spent part of my day at one of the CCF trainings held for the refugee volunteers. They discussed the concept of vulnerability of children, how to recognize the signs of child abuse, and how to refer the child to the appropriate resources. The discussion was animated, and we even discussed the similarities and differences between American culture and Sudanese culture. It is during this time when I feel most inspired and vibrant, when we learn how we cope with problems in society, in the camp, and in our families. Even when the language and culture seem like great obstacles to overcome-- we are linked by our concern to protect those in our community, to progress beyond the norms, and to improve our quality of life. Our staff is doing amazing work, and I only wish everyone could see it!

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Monday, October 15, 2007

By Elizabeth Sung, Consultant for CCF-Chad

It has been over a month since I arrived in Iriba. I have seen the moon waxing slowly until I didn't need a flashlight to walk home from another NGO's base. Now, the moon is waning. It seems like the moon is peeking out of a hat that sits on an angle. The radio handset crackles with static, crickets chirp without taking a breath, groups of donkeys snort loudly, and come 4:30 a.m., I hear the first of the hourly wake-up calls from the rooster.

"Ca va?" My neighbor's little boy and girl call out sweetly, waving their hands to me. Last month they would hide behind others when I approached, not responding to me, but now when I sit on the mat next to them, they offer their hands in greeting. I have been trying to teach them to slap a five or ten… that's coming along each day.

By now, I have trained my staff about survey administration. In Iridimi, a three-day training was held for twenty refugee volunteers about survey administration. See the above photo of Aziza and Deye demonstrating to the prospective interviewers how an interview is conducted. The survey will roll out in the next week in the three camps of Iridimi, Touloum and Am Nabak… here's to hoping that everything goes well!

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

By Elizabeth Sung, Consultant for CCF-Chad

Dear Readers:

The clouds have amassed in the sky, the guards' radio sings faintly in the background while our hens cluck in the yard. It has been a productive day at the office, as we have been planning activities for the next month with the program supervisors.
I have the good fortune of working closely with my colleague TchiTchaou, the supervisor of Sexual and Gender Based Violence activities, who is very passionate about these issues, and who has provided me with a lot of insight as to how the program works and how it should progress in the future. Tomorrow, we will visit Am Nabak Refugee Camp to make formal introductions to the camp leaders before CCF begins programs there.

Yesterday, Caroline, the Child Protection Coordinator (pictured above), Adolf, the Program Manager, and I joined the staff who work in Iridimi Refugee Camp (est. 2004, population over 17,000). This involved squeezing into our Landcruiser and joining the convoy of NGO Landcruisers (accompanied by the local police) for the drive to Iridimi to insure our safety. This was the first time for Adolf and myself to visit the camps, so it was very exciting for both of us.

We went to visit the child-centered spaces in the camps. Many of the children rushed over to us to shake hands and meet the new visitors. Though most speak an arabic dialect, a few sang out in falsetto tones: "Ca va-ah-ah?" (In French: How are you?) Some of the children played with lego sets, a young boy teased me with his teddy bear, and a few children waited for their turn for a brief washing. I watched as one boy poured a stream of water from a plastic teapot into the outstretched hands of another boy squatting near the ground. His eyes were squeezed shut, his face and hair covered with white soap bubbles, and as the water gathered into his cupped hands, he splashed the water onto his face and washed the bubbles away. When the bubbles were washed off, I showed him the photo that I had taken, he stared, then grinned widely as other boys clambered for a closer look at the camera screen.

In camp, it was the first day for monthly food distribution in the camp. We stopped by the food distribution center to observe. At first glance, the colorful rainbow of head coverings contrasted drastically with the drab desert-like environment of the camp. Women waited in different lines, their distribution card in hand (which stated how many people lived in the household). Inside one room, women waited in line to have their new (Save80) stoves checked for loose parts. At another side of the building, some women and children carried their boxes of soap on their heads, women dragged their sacks of grain to the weigh station. Jerry cans full of vegetable oil sat in piles on the ground. Outside of the roped area, men waited next to their donkeys for hire to carry the burdensome sacks and cans of foodstuffs home for the women.

It was so amazing to visit the camps after weeks of anticipation. Exhilarating, fatiguing, inspiring and encouraging all at once. There is so much potential for collaboration with different organizations and the refugee population so to improve the quality of life in the camps. During the next couple weeks, I will be holding focus group discussions with camp leaders in all three camps to assess the effects of CCF interventions and find out how CCF and partner organizations can work together. This is definitely a very exciting time to be working in Eastern Chad!

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

By Elizabeth Sung, Consultant for CCF-Chad

I send my best wishes from N’djamena, Chad!

I went into town yesterday with the DDR program coordinator, Sandra, to help with distribution. CCF’s newest program in Chad is the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of child soldiers in transit centers. In general, the youth are 11 to 17 years of age. At the transit centers, they receive education and health services among other interventions for approximately three months while CCF collaborates with relevant local and international organizations to arrange for reunification with the boys’ families.

As you can imagine, the former child soldiers have witnessed and may have even caused violence. Working with this population is extremely challenging since many are severely traumatized and some are accustomed to the ways of the military.

Since many of the youth arrive at CCF centers without any clothing and possessions, we helped to distribute basic hygiene items, clothing and shoes to the boys. First the boys were organized into groups according to general size. Then each boy was called up to receive his new possessions. “Présent!” each boy called out as he quickly walked up to the front. As each walked back to his group, he proudly examined his new shoes.

The youngest group of boys sat quietly apart from the rest of the groups, under the shade of the classroom, neatly folding their clothing on the ground, and placing their new possessions into their bags. They contrasted from the older boys who took the clothing, examined it, threw it into their bags, and chattered amongst themselves.

As the boys tried on shoes to check the fit, one of the staff members would call out, “Un 44!” Then Sandra and I would scramble around checking the shoe sizes to find a size 44.
A couple boys modeled their new shirts and shorts for us, twirling around, as the staff and the crowd clapped their hands and laughed.

The boys loved looking at themselves in the photos when I showed the camera screen to them. They pointed to the faces and grinned to themselves. I think that is one reason why we continue to work so hard—they remember how to smile and enjoy themselves. It is a strong sign of their resilience and, hopefully, their ability to reintegrate into society.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

By Elizabeth Sung, Consultant for CCF-Chad

Dear readers:
From the CCF office in N’djamena to wherever you are, I send warm greetings and hope you are well. It’s presently raining giving us relief from the humid warm weather, though the rain also means that the side roads will be swamped.

Last Saturday, I arrived in N’djamena from New York (stopped in Richmond, DC and Paris on the way). As I stepped off the cold airplane, a wall of heat struck me. The scent of burning woodchips enveloped me, and I recognized that I had finally reached Chad, my final destination.

A brief introduction about myself: I am consulting for CCF-Chad during the next three months, conducting a Knowledge, Attitudes, and Practice study (KAP, for short). Until recently, I lived in New York City where I studied social work and international public health. I love traveling, writing, photography and crunchy peanut butter.

Over the next three months, the KAP study will be my primary focus. A KAP study is a very common means of assessing how people think and live.

Here are examples of questions:

Knowledge question: Name one way that HIV is transmitted.
Attitude question: What do you think about girls going to school?
Practice question: How often do you go to school?

In Eastern Chad, CCF implements Child Protection and Gender-Based Violence programs in refugee camps. In regards to child protection, issues in the East include access to education, health services, and reduction of trauma. As for Gender-based violence, relevant topics include female circumcision, early marriage, and forced pregnancy. These are the main topics that will be covered in the KAP survey.

The staff has been wonderful as I make the transition to the new environment. Over the next few days, I will be collaborating with the staff to plan my work. I am very excited, and I can’t wait to fly out east!

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By Nicole Duciaume, Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer

Santa Cruz, Bolivia
Today is Monday and I have not been able to write for a few days, principally because of traveling but also because I am now on a borrowed computer in the lobby of a quaint hotel in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. The weather is surprisingly dreary, cold and wet…which is unexpected for a town known for its warm, sunny and pleasant weather nearly year round. According to my very knowledgeable taxi driver, the weather should be less than ideal up through Wednesday, coincidentally the same day I am scheduled to return to the US. So I continue to wrap my alpaca shawl tightly around my shoulders and continue on.

Santa Cruz, Bolivia
As far as an update is concerned, Friday was spent in La Paz at the National Office giving a briefing on the events of the week and the objectives going forward. It was a very fruitful conversation and it lasted until late evening. I think between the US delegation offering support and the Bolivia team’s knowledge and experience, the programs in the new area will thrive. The day ended with hand shakes, hugs and promises to remain in contact throughout the process.

Saturday was quite a treat. We left La Paz and within two hours we were at Tiahuanacu, the ancient ruins of a civilization that gave birth to modern day indigenous cultures throughout Bolivia (and into several neighboring countries as well). The culture predates the Aztec, Mayans and Incas that we have all studied throughout our schooling years. The ruins are incredible and yet mostly still hidden beneath the surface. According to our guide, Benedito, only 10% of the structures have been unearthed thus far. There is something very surreal about walking on sacred ground, taking photos and learning the ins-and-outs of this vast culture while anthropologists are literally over your shoulder still uncovering the treasures and keys to the past.

Sunday morning was dedicated to another trip to the Witches Market to pick up a few remaining gifts and then lunching with a friend from my previous trip to Bolivia. The early afternoon comprised solely of trying to fit all my purchases into my previously already full suitcase. I truly should have had more restraint when it came to the market deals. I am not sure if was the thrill of the bargain or just my dedication to helping the local economy, but my suitcase is now officially stuffed to the brim. Sunday evening I left for the airport to start the final leg of my trip. We landed in rain-drenched Santa Cruz at about 10pm and I quickly settled into my hotel room and drifted off to sleep.

Today I visited three projects in the outer rings of Santa Cruz. The city is a set of concentric circles which begin in the city square and then the poverty increases as you ripple out into the outskirts of the town. The areas in which we work are part urban and part rural and yet entirely comprised of smiling children who are in need. In the afternoon and evening I participated in enrollment trainings and small group discussions with members of the communities. We explained the general criteria for enrollment and then helped the communities define the specifics for their individual circumstances. For example, it is a CCF guideline that we enroll the neediest, the most vulnerable, the most excluded, so we had the communities define what is the base level and then how to reach the children and families who fall below that line. This participatory approach is a cornerstone of CCF’s partnership with the communities.

As I am on the only internet-connected computer in the hotel lobby and a small line is forming, I will bid you a fond adieu from Santa Cruz.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

By Nicole Duciaume, Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer

Oruro, Bolivia
It is a three hour drive southeast of La Paz to Oruro, the once prominent mining town and capital of the district. It is known for its Carnival, folkloric dances and deeply rooted indigenous customs. With Mount Illimani (Aymara for “golden eagle”) disappearing in the rear view mirror reminding us of our departure from La Paz, the drive to Oruro passes through the Altiplano, a desolate area scattered with small clay houses, grazing lands and wind storms. At this time of year, it was surprisingly agreeable, though perhaps we had finally acclimated to the altitude and temperatures. The major highway from La Paz, crowded with large trucks, is flanked by both water and gas pipes and is actually a smooth ride with occasional views of some of the most spectacular mountainous skylines.

Upon arriving in the city we went straight to a CCF sponsored cultural center that serves as an after-school (or in some cases, a before-school) center for children of all ages. The activities ranged form art, music, computer training and gymnastics to library access, educational videos and early childhood development. We also were informed about CCF Bolivia’s participation in a state-run nutrition program. We met with a small group of guide mothers who are part of a pilot program involving individual home visits for children under 2 years of age to assess development and nutritional development. They train parents to encourage early stimulation and growth by using a scale developed and promoted by CCF which charts height/weight, age/height and age/weight along with developmental stages. They also refer families to local health posts for specialty care. We had an informal lunch with them, they were able to share their own individual stories. The ones with whom I spoke to each had children of their own but felt that the program was a very valuable tool for the community and was a complete success.

We went to a specific project where CCF works through a school that not only focuses on the academic achievements of the children but also in their artistic cultivation as well as social development and child protection. The school also offers programs for parents to learn valuable skills such as weaving, confectionary skills (primarily focusing on baking/decorating/marketing cakes and pastries) and tailoring so that after completing the course, they will be able to hopefully have better access to the formal economy. Each of these programs charges a nominal enlistment fee that lasts for approximately six months and concludes with the presentation of a certificate of completion. For so many of these classes the skills learned goes beyond the mechanics of the craft and focuses on creativity. Parents are welcome to take as many classes as they like while their children are attending school on the same campus. It is CCF’s hope and expectation that these income generating activities will have a positive impact on the lives of their children. A block or two away is a newly constructed multi-sport complex for youth. The complex offers youth opportunities to join various teams such as basketball, volley and indoor soccer. The goal of the complex is to channel youth energy away from destructive behaviors such as drugs, violence, early pregnancies etc. This complex is also used for community assemblies and meetings.

Meandering through the crowded streets, avoiding the rogue dog, passing over a garbage-strewn stream and eventually leaving the paved roads behind, we head to the fringes of the town. We first stopped at a school that uses sports for the children to come and train for soccer but also receive classes, art lessons and additional tutoring as needed. There we also spoke with some parents who expressed their overwhelming thanks for what CCF has done in the community, but also brought to us their concerns such as expanding potable water sources out to the fringes of the various communities. They spoke of the needs for their children, themselves and for the community as a whole. They asked for additional help and expressed their desire to continue working with us, the local government and the community organizations as well.

After speaking with the parents, we went out to the area where these children live. The homes, no more than 8 feet by 10 feet, were mostly constructed of a combination of brick, mud and straw. There were hundreds of them packed together without a tree in sight. Families, some as many as five, lived together in these one-room abodes, though most cooking and sanitation activities were attended to outside of the house. Some houses doubled as classrooms during the day since there were no formal schools in this newly constructed area. The children, with smiles from ear to ear, asked for us to share with them and jumped in front of every picture. They giggled and squealed when I turned the camera to display to them their own reflections.

We concluded our visit to Oruro by visiting a nearby project that was also helping parents and older youth acquire marketable skills including silk screening and bead work. One room, with 4 sewing machines, was paid for in full by contributions from the Gifts of Love and Hope catalogue. The parents and staff talked to us about the importance of giving the parents a way to make an honest income to not only provide for the children but also to set a good example as well.

Next to the parents’ training room was the early childhood center with more photo opportunities than I could resist.

Here it is common to hear people say “paso-a-paso” (step-by-step), and though we wish there were quick fixes, the reality is that these programs take time, resources and technical skills to implement. CCF is committed to these communities, parents and children and is investing in the area and its people. We left Oruro on the same road we entered, Illimani this time appearing on our right as we reached La Paz. We had seen a sampling of the support CCF has provided and we also had a better understanding of how much more there is to be done.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

By Nicole Duciaume, Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer

El Alto, Bolivia
I spoke yesterday about the incredible cultural bond that unites the residents of El Alto. There are three very basic rules, in the indigenous community in Bolivia: Amu Sua - Don't Steal; Amu Llulla - Don't Lie, and Ama Quella - Don’t Be Lazy. As part of this core ethos, there is a strong commitment to each other and to the communal good.

This commitment manifests itself in community oversight boards. These boards are comprised of representatives from each neighborhood and they look after the representation of the neighborhood and district as well as the well-being of each individual family resident within the neighborhood. These are voluntary positions and are often appointed by the communities themselves. So in the case of District 5 where CCF will be working, there are 49 neighborhoods and each one has its own particular board (with a president). The president of the neighborhood boards all sit on a general oversight or vigilance committee made of 49 people. Then they elect 12 members to represent them all (an executive board). This group of 49 neighborhood presidents elects one person to be the representative to the sub-Mayor’s office. In fact, these committees have some power in electing the sub-Mayor (which is an annual term). The sub-Mayors (one from each district) report to the Mayor of El Alto and determine government policies, spending and priorities.

This traditional structure is very old. This structure, gives the neighborhood communities access to annual city planning. It allows them a voice, something that they have been denied for too long.

The youth now want a similar structure to voice their opinions as well. These youth groups want a structure that will allow them to affect youth and child specific policies, and services. Youth in El Alto are generally considered to be between 19 and 26 years old, though they occasionally allow members younger than that to participate as well.

During our stay in El Alto, we met with the Municipal Youth Council. This group is comprised of 36 youth who represent the ten districts within El Alto. Each district sends four representatives to the council: one who attends university; one who attends high school; one who represents a youth association; and one from a church youth group. Amongst themselves, they elect a President, 2 Vice Presidents (one representing the northern districts and one representing the southern districts) and one general secretary. They also have commissions such as communication/public relations, health and politics/ethics.

Currently, this Youth Council is working on rights and obligations of youth. They are also working in policy and advocacy issues to bring municipalities in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (and human rights in general as they pertain to the children ad youth in El Alto). Last month, they represented El Alto in Cochabamba during the national encounter of the youth. They are excited about CCF’s commitment to working through the communities and the youth to work as partners in the priorities they set forth. In fact, they said anyone who wants to support kids and youth and can prove their intentions, they want to partner with. They are articulate, passionate and dedicated. As one of them pulled me aside and told me, “I don’t want people to tell me that I am the future…I am the present.”

One young man that we spoke with individually was Daniel(pictured in the above photo seated in the middle of the front row of the group), who is one of the chosen 4 representatives from District 5. He was very happy that CCF will be working in his district and that we had identified the most vulnerable neighborhoods in order to reach the most excluded. He explained that the youth of District 5 just need some space to organize, but also to enjoy. He explained that often people assume that the youth are all united and close, but that isn’t true –- they need organization and to come to together and have space and opportunity.

Although they were serious when speaking about rights and equality, their eyes lit up when a member of our delegation presented them with a soccer ball. It wasn’t much, just a small token of friendship, but it represented our commitment to them and you could tell an impromptu game would be formed shortly after we departed.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

By Nicole Duciaume, Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer

El Alto, Bolivia
As the altitude increased, so did the quickness of our breath because the air was thinner and the oxygen seemed in short supply. You could feel it on your skin, in the back of your throat and in the tightness of your lungs. The scenery was breathtaking, but the altitude actually took our breath away. This was compounded by the cold. The kind of cold that seeps in all the way to your bones. It is the lingering cold that you feel even after you’ve drank your tea and buttoned the top of your coat.

El Alto was generally considered a slum or informal satellite city of La Paz for most of its history. I have even heard it described as the dorm rooms of the capital. For decades it has been the landing place for recent migrants coming in from the various rural areas of Bolivia hoping to have access to a better life, social systems, social services and access to the formal economy. However, all of these hopes and demands have surpassed the capacity of El Alto, it is now home to 800,000 people, mainly indigenous descent, though some estimate the population has topped one million.

In 1988 the city declared its independence from La Paz and became its own individual municipality comprised of 10 districts. It resembles a major urban government and yet it was unplanned, self-built and is comprised primarily of transient population who often are not included in the formal economy. It has intermittent access to basic services (water, electricity, schools etc) intertwined with areas that have rural characteristics (less desired land, dependence on external food sources, strong cultural identity, and lack of proper service for the majority of the inhabitants).

According to statistics in 2007, 60% of the population in El Alto are less than 25 years old. This is evident as you drive through the neighborhoods and see all of the children, only some of whom are wearing school uniforms and the others you can only assume do not attend. Despite the fact that there are so many young people, services for them are not readily available. Nor are there areas for them to play safely. Garbage dumps double as soccer fields and rusted playground equipment springs up from rocky terrain. Children congregate next to polluted water sources or play in dust-filled streets. It is shocking at first, but somehow you become accustomed to the sight.

Because El Alto is so large, CCF will be operating initially in just one of the 10 districts. And in fact, even within the district of over 100,000 inhabitants, CCF will be operating in the 10 northern most neighborhoods, also considered the most vulnerable, poor and marginalized. The district we chose is not currently being supported by any other international organization. The vast majority of the inhabitants are second generation migrants who came from the areas surrounding Lake Titicaca. The cultural ties to the community are so strong that most of them moved together and brought their costumes, heritages, social hierarchies and traditions. The younger generation identifies very closely with traditional culture, but are also linked with the assimilated El Alto culture as well.

These communities have a strong reputation for cultural identity and civil society involvement. They are proud of their ability to unify and speak as a collected voice. They are politically aware and highly motivated. Unlike so many marginalized groups, they demand a voice. The popular call to action is “El Alto De Pie, Nunca De Rodilla”, (El Alto on its feet, never on its knees) meaning that they will stand up for themselves and not be knocked down. I will tell you more about their strength and structure as well as the voice of the youth in my next blog.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

By Nicole Duciaume, Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer

La Paz, Bolivia
CCF-Bolivia National Office is tucked away in an area of La Paz known as Miraflores. I know this only because of neighborhood signs, not because I had any idea of how to navigate around the city. The streets are steep and winding. The drivers are innovative and fast. The buses were on strike today, which left the pedestrians plentiful and quick on their feet. From hotel to office it was no more than 20 minutes, but any hope of finding my way back on my own would have lasted a lot longer.
On the agenda for today were meetings followed by discussions which preceded more meetings. Throughout the day I was impressed with our staff, both those accompanying me on the visit as well as those from the Bolivia National Office. Some of our Bolivian colleagues I knew from my previous trip and was delighted to reconnect with them. Others were new to the organization, or at least new to me. The discussions were thorough, informative and intense. It is often difficult to keep a room full of people focused for a day around the conference table, but all parties truly had a commitment to expansion into the new program area, El Alto.

The National Office shared some staggering statistics: approximately 87% of children suffer from some form of abuse within the home environment; over 800,000 children and youth work; only 17% of the children have access to education; and 600,000 children do not have birth certificates, which leaves them vulnerable to not being recognized by the government which could leave them excluded from basic rights such as schooling. Fortunately there were some uplifting numbers as well. CCF currently works with approximately 98,000 children from 14,024 families in 495 communities in five departments (states). Tomorrow we will learn even more about the situation and statistics in El Alto.

Towards the end of the day I had the opportunity to sit down with one Bolivian colleague to learn more about her position within the organization and the various roles she plays. Her name is Monica and she is the ECD Technician for El Alto. ECD stands for Early Childhood Development and according to the National Office, only 6% of Bolivian children have access to these types of activities and services. As I mentioned, Monica will be based in El Alto and ECD has been identified by the people in the community as one of the most crucial programming needs. Monica has a degree in education. She joined CCF nearly 10 years ago, but just recently turned her focus to ECD. She chose this area of concentration because she believes that they are the most vulnerable group of children in the country. She hopes the day will come when all children in Bolivia have a healthy start in life and not lacking education, nourishment or support.

Monica initially began working with CCF as a consultant doing research and then for seven years she worked in ECD at the project level (an urban project in La Paz). She believes that CCF truly offers the needed tools to work with children in ECD and she is excited to join the team in developing programs in El Alto, where she will be training the communities on what ECD is and what role CCF will play. She described El Alto as the area within Bolivia that has the most need and where strong programs will have the most impact. The idea of helping more children, reaching more families, and having a larger influence are the goals and ideals Monica holds for her career.

Monica was just one of the various colleagues I met with today and will continue to learn from over the remainder of the week. Throughout the day, everyone in the room expressed their commitment to the organization, the programs and the opening of successful partnerships with the municipalities, communities, children, youth and parents in El Alto. Tomorrow we ascend back to El Alto to see the area, receive an orientation of the new office, document the community needs and meet with the aforementioned stakeholders. There is little substitute for seeing an area first hand and speaking directly with the program participants, but personal consultations are what sustain our commitment to CCF, the communities and the children.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

By Nicole Duciaume, Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer

The week before traveling was consumed with trip preparation: flights, shots, altitude medication, luggage packing, arranging dog sitters, paying bills that would become due, reading country materials, attending meetings and preparing questions. The week before a trip seems endlessly long and yet passes before you notice.

I am CCF’s Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer in the Global Program Group. I have been with CCF for a little over two years and this is my second trip to Bolivia.

A small team from both the International and the Americas Regional Offices is traveling in Bolivia to assess program readiness for opening a new community outside of La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Though we currently operate in over 50 communities throughout the country, we are expanding to a new area called El Alto (The Height).

To give you a sense of altitude:
Richmond = 150 feet
La Paz = 11,800 feet
El Alto = 13,451 feet

It is Sunday, August 19th and we arrived last evening. The flights and connections were smooth and thankfully not packed. I was given the grace to sleep through just about anything, including long flights. Today was meant as a day for adjustment --- to the altitude as well as to the language, culture and just being in La Paz again. The altitude leaves you short of breath, a bit dizzy and occasionally with a headache that demands your complete attention. Walking up a few steps can be extremely laborious and lifting your laptop can throw off your balance. Local legend has it that you will adjust within about two days and that chewing on leaves will expedite the process. I chew the leaves and drink the tea, but still turn to my altitude medicine as well.

Resistant to the idea of just staying in the hotel, we walked the streets and did some personal shopping. Then we rested. We took a taxi into the city to explore the Plaza Mayor (photo to the left), the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, the Witches Market (photo at the top), the Church of San Francisco and the Presidential residence. Then we rested. We met for a few hours in the afternoon to brainstorm and prepare for tomorrow. Then, of course, we rested.

These waning hours of rest are our last chance to catch our breath before the week begins in earnest. Tomorrow will be exciting, we are meeting with various members of the National Office to discuss site selection, affiliation process, community preparedness, roles and responsibilities and expectations for the week ahead. There is so much to do in the coming week and I truly am looking forward to learning from my colleagues in the various offices and visiting the communities.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

We have returned from the Galapagos Islands after four days of visiting five islands that are not only remarkable for their isolation, but also the creatures that live here. From pigmy penguins to marine iguanas, the sponsors were fascinated by our daily hikes over volcanic and almost barren islands that fascinated Charles Darwin almost 200 years ago.

Today, we journey north of Quito to the Imbabura Province which is known as the Lake District in Ecuador. It actually reminds me a lot of Austria with huge snow-covered peaks and lush green valleys full of rushing clear-water streams. CCF has numerous programs in this area, working with people whose work is in agricultural and live in dire poverty. We will stay tonight in a colonial hacienda that once hosted Simon Bolivar on numerous occasions (he is the George Washington of South America) and was instrumental in many countries gaining their independence from Spain.

Today is also the day that the Rodriquez family from Miami will get to meet their sponsored child. The Study Tour also marks the first time we have had an intergenerational group traveling with us, Marlen, her 15 year old daughter, and her mother! We also have the youngest person to ever travel on a Study Tour with us in Ecuador----his name is Luc and he is a very inquisitive little boy who many of the sponsors have called “the Energizer bunny” since Luc has boundless energy and personality.

The weather in Ecuador has been wonderful-- sunny, temperatures in the 70´s and little rain! Kudos to our Ecuadorian staff that have shown us tremendous hospitality and kindness throughout this trip. What a country with such gracious people!!!

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

Our Study Tour group to Ecuador arrived in Quito late at night after a long delay in Atlanta. Seems there was more luggage on the plane than identified passengers and airline officials had to match each piece of luggage with each passenger on board the plane---we sat in the hot, humid plane for almost two hours before getting clearance to take off for Ecuador. Almost six hours later, we landed in Quito---a small airport that was built right in the middle of the city and surrounded by multi-story buildings. With the TAM Airline crash in Sao Paulo, Brazil, it is not hard to imagine the same thing could happen here.

Our CCF-Ecuador staff was waiting for us at the airport and we were quickly cleared through customs and on our way to the hotel. Immediately, my body could feel the affects of being in a city that is almost 10,000 ft. above sea level---there would be no climbing stairs tonight! I had urged the sponsors to bring altitude medication and several of them needed it immediately.

On Tuesday, we were welcomed to the CCF-Ecuador National Office by the National Director and staff. They presented an excellent overview of CCF programs in Ecuador and generously answered every question asked by sponsors. We had just finished breakfast an hour before arriving at this office, but coffee, juices, sandwiches, and cakes were waiting for our consumption and digestion. Eating during a Study Tour is an obligation, not an option.

Sponsors were very impressed by the program visits that day to rural communities in the Andes. CCF-Ecuador has very impressive programs in micro-credit, early childhood education, and health-sanitation services. At each stop, we were warmly welcomed by the parents committees that actually administer the programs in a truly rural community development process that allows the community to decide the priorities for their children and village.

Ecuador is the leading grower and exporter of roses in the world, and CCF has been instrumental in help poor farmers start rose and carnation production farms. These local farms have brought new vitality and income to communities that have high unemployment and the consequences of poverty primarily impacts young children. Our sponsor group was very impressed by these programs and wanted to know how they could invest in helping rural families establish more self-help businesses.

We leave this morning for the Galapagos and for more discoveries about the beautiful country of Ecuador.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

No one would ever guess how difficult it is to get a Study Tour group from the States to Ecuador... but we are leaving Atlanta today for a six hour flight to Quito. Let me summarize the details of what it took to get us all in one place for this international departure.

We start working on each Study Tour approximately six months before departure. First, we get clearance from the host country that it is okay to bring a group of sponsors and donors to their country for 7 to 10 days-- hey, it is no easy task hosting a large group with various needs and personalities but all of our CCF national offices do a superb job in making us feel welcome and part of their family.

Betty B and I negotiate the lowest rates, but highest quality, with airlines, hotels, local transportation, in-country restaurants, etc. for each Study Tour. With the Study Tour to Ecuador, we have excellent support from Carlos M. and Zoraya (national staff in Quito) who are busily coordinating trips to CCF program areas; visits to CCF sponsored children and families, tours of local historic and cultural venues, etc.

Despite our best efforts, there are always glitches out of our control (like the US Passport Agency and Embassies that issue tourist visas), but our Richmond staff seems to handle these problematic situations with courtesy and kindness.

Finally— we have done as much planning as possible to make each trip a success and the day arrives for our departure. For the past months, hundreds of emails have been written and countless number of telephone calls have been made to arrange things, answer questions, give reassurance to nervous travelers, and nail down those last-minute travel gremlins that always seem to appear-- like, "I lost my passport, I can't find my ticket, the airline has cancelled my flight to the departure point..." hey, all in a day's work and I am surprised that most situation can be, and are, resolved!

Now is the day of our departure from Atlanta to Quito. Thoughts run through my mind as we sit waiting for everyone to arrive at the world's busiest airport. Please, let the thunderstorm avoid us in this area and everyone arrive safely and find the international gate to Quito in this gigantic airport! I think of the variety of sponsors going on this trip and how great it will be getting to know the new travelers and renewing the friendships with people who have traveled with us before on Study Tours.

Two hours before take-off, we start doing head-counts. Renee and I will be frantically searching the Atlanta airport for anyone who has not appeared at the gate. In five years--remarkably-- I've had only one person miss an international flight and he was stuck in a traffic jam trying to get out of Manhattan to JFK.

I imagine that our CCF-Ecuador staff is feeling anxious at this point knowing that these US sponsors will soon arrive in their country. They are an outstanding staff and have nothing to fear, everything will go perfectly... and if it doesn't, that's just part of the adventure of traveling in a foreign country. Our sponsors are in for a great trip that will be fun, educational, and for many of them, life-changing! We are going to meet our international family for a great reunion and sharing of experiences that make us residents of one world despite different languages, religions, political beliefs or economic backgrounds. CCF sponsorship is a great equalizer of people on Study Tours; we are in for ten days of surprises and companionship.

Vaya con Dios y Adios Compadres!

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

Edging to Equador

In just a few days, we begin another Study Tour with a group of sponsors who will be visiting the beautiful country of Ecuador. Our flight from the mega-busy Atlanta airport will take us almost six hours over numerous Central American countries and two large bodies of water before we land on a short runway in downtown Quito. I started taking my 'altitude medicine' today to ward off severe headaches, sluggishness, and stomach aches that you may encounter in the high Andean altitude. Our hotel will be in view of six inactive volcanoes...although one continues to belch smoke that can be seen almost 50 miles away.

Although our group is smaller than the usual attendance of 20 to 30 sponsors, we have some unique characteristics contained in this group. First, we will have the youngest Study Tour participant in our 5-year history! His name is Luc and he is 7-years-old. We will also have our first intergenerational group, previous Study Tour participant Marlen and her mom and her daughter. They are from Miami and will bring a unique perspective of family traveling to the CCF Study Tours. We will also welcome back multi-Study Tour participants Jack and Cathie from Georgia. They are always a pleasure to have on these trips and generous with their support for youth projects in so many countries. Jack is a 'technology guru' who uses his talents to help poor villages harness the educational power of computers. We have some new travelers from other parts of the USA that we look forward to welcoming to our travel group.

I am fortunate to have CCF employee Renee of New York who will be helping me with the daily tasks of a Study Tour. Kimberly of Oregon is a new CCF employee of just a few weeks, but she will join us on this tour to see projects, meet National Staff in Ecuador, and get a first-hand look at how sponsorship fees and special gifts positively impact the areas where CCF is working in this country.

I look forward to reporting the events of our journey to you. I will also attempt to get sponsors-- even young Luc-- to add to this blog as we travel throughout Ecuador and explore the Galapagos Island....where there is no Internet service except on tiny Baltra Island and the signal is extremely week and sporadic even on clear days!

Hasta luego!

Gary D.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

William Fleming, HIV/AIDS Program Specialist

We arrived to the sound of drums and singing, a traditional greeting song for visitors. I visited the Kinabwe community project in Kenya to learn how we support children and how we link our sponsorship activities with grant supported programs. We sat with the Parents Executive Committee and discussed the activities supported by CCF for their community including; early childhood development, support for quality education, health promotion, improved livelihoods, and HIV prevention and care.

We moved on to visit two families with sponsored children. In the first, we met with 17-year-old Godfrey, caring for his 10-year-old brother Henry, their parents had died two years earlier. Henry is a sponsored child.

They had received two heifers and poultry which they keep on their small farm. In addition they grow coffee for sale with coffee plants they received through sponsorship. Despite being shy, Henry seems to be receiving good care and love from his brother. As evidence, he was third in his class (4th grade) and proudly showed us his high grades on his class notebooks. He also helps prepare food and keeping the house clean.

The care and attention Godfrey showed underlined the heavy responsibility on the young mans shoulders. While discussing his daily routine and the activities he participated in, he noted that with school, farming and care for Henry, he cannot participate in recreational activities with his peers. Both Godfrey and Henry expressed their gratitude for the sponsorship support, and also mentioned the support they get from the community. For example, the neighbors give extra food when they can. It is clear from Godfrey's description of their daily life that he worried about supporting the family and helping Henry succeed.

The second family we visit is a clean compound with several fruit trees growing in the yard. Two children are cared for by their grandparents who farm and sell coffee harvested for the coffee trees, CCF's economic support activities helped them to grow and market. The family shows us around and explains that he is able to support basic needs like school fees and good nutrition with the assistance that the CCF supported community project has provided.

We moved on to visit a school that CCF sponsors have helped in several ways over the last decade, including class room construction, houses for teachers, and teaching materials. Recent efforts have been made to establish fields of maize and vegetables as a means to teach agricultural skills to students and supplement the school lunches. The maize was stood high in the fields surrounding the school grounds. In discussions with the students, they are clearly sharp and engaged. They ask several questions about the US and were very ready to answer our questions about their class work and interests.

We finished with a visit to a vocational training program supported by CCF with funding from Irish AID. We visited with 12 young men who are learning to be welders with support from a local artisan. These youth, previously out of school and out of work, expressed their hope for the future and the change in their outlook that this program has created. When asked about their participation in HIV prevention activities, after first being a bit shy, they spoke of their knowledge about how HIV is spread and prevented. As young men in their late teens, they recognized that the decisions they make now can have important consequences for their future, we encouraged abstinence and safe sex practices. They acknowledged that they are facing challenges but are optimistic about what they are learning and how they will be able to assist their families as they increase their skills.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

William Fleming, HIV/AIDS Program Specialist

Note from William: I am the CCF HIV/AIDS Program Specialist, responsible for supporting our projects, supporting HIV prevention, and affected families. I came to Uganda to learn more about the Australian Partnerships for African Countries (APAC) project and to identify opportunities for developing new programs using effective approaches developed by the APAC project.

Mr. AIDS crawled out across the grass to explain how he was finding his way into homes across Uganda. Snarling from the ground in a wig and scary mask, Mr. AIDS warned the audience against organizations seeking to help them understand and defeat HIV - including CCF and the APAC project. As he crawled away, the peer educators performed a moving song in English and local language explaining how HIV is spread and what can be done to prevent infection.

"Be wise for a better future…" this was the theme of the poem the young man from the Mafubira Youth Resource Center shared with us. During a recent visit to the center, several young people shared poems, songs and skits they use to raise awareness and support behavior change to prevent HIV infection. We had come to learn about the youth center, which was started with technical and financial support from CCF-Uganda with funding from AusAID through ChildFund Australia.

The center is a rectangle room with walls covered with posters addressing topics such as HIV prevention, family planning, and self esteem for young people. There is also a computer for teaching computer skills, a television and VCR showing educational videos, and shelves with books, newspapers and games. Two basketball poles stand in the corner waiting to be installed. Though too small for the number of youth present, the room is welcoming and educational all in one.

I was part of a team including CCF staff from several countries seeking to learn lessons that we could use to strengthen our work to support children affected by AIDS around the world. The APAC project, implemented in Uganda, Kenya and Zambia seeks to improve the care and support provided to vulnerable children. There is a special focus on improving psychosocial support through training parents and key caregivers, such as teachers and helping them to be better able to care for vulnerable children and youth, including those affected by HIV/AIDS. Through a team of peer educators, CCF and Mafubira Youth Center are also involving youth directly in support for vulnerable children.

APAC project successes include a network of youth organizations that span the sub-county, increased behavior change among youth, improved school attendance, and vocational training that helps youth to develop small businesses. Furthermore, the center is expanding income generation that will help it sustain its activities. But perhaps the most remarkable change is the change youth see in themselves. They are emerging as confident, capable leaders, able to speak to adults and community leaders about the needs of children and youth in their communities. Seeing youth grow into their potential and serving their communities is perhaps the most promising and important development of all.

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Cidade Maravilhosa and the Foz!

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

It is still very dark as we leave our hotel in Belo Horizonte at 4:30 a.m. for our flight to Rio de Janiero. We are nearly at the end of this Study Tour, but the energy level of our CCF sponsors remains high and positive. How could you not be positive when you know you are going to visit one of the most beautiful cities in the world and then fly down to the Brazilian/Argentine border to see a spectacular waterfall that makes Niagara Falls look puny? Our excellent guide in Belo Horizonte had arranged a group check-in at the airport and we were soon going to taking off into the sunrise with high expectations for today’s adventure in the cidade maravilhosa!

Just an hour of flight time and several people in the group have already excitedly spotted the Christ the Redeemer statue as our plane banks to the north for landing at Rio’s international airport. Landing in Rio on a clear morning almost takes your breath away… the mountains, the bays, the beaches, and the sweet Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf) just waiting to greet us! There is excitement among the CCF sponsors as we claim our luggage and meet Marcelo-- tour guide par excellance! Marcelo grew up poor in the slums of Rio with a single mom who taught him the value of education--he is now working on his PhD and speaks four languages fluently. Marcelo has a wonderful knowledge of Rio, its’ history, local culture, and politics. He has also been the tour guide for every CCF group since the beginning of Study Tours to Brazil about five years ago.

Boarding our large and comfortable bus, Marcelo remarks that there is a lot of luggage and smiles knowingly that the sponsors have been shopping at every stop over the past 10 days. Although CCF does not have an office or projects in Rio, the city serves as an example of urban explosion and all the problems that go with a city experiencing steady growth, high unemployment, and lack of adequate housing. We leave the airport and Marcelo is very candid in explaining the good, the bad, and the ugly of living—and visiting Rio de Janeiro. Most of the news reports in the United States when we hear about Rio’s crime are exaggerated and taken out of the context of life in a big city. Just ask Brazilians about visiting New York City or Miami, they are terrified of what they read and sincerely fear going to those cities.

From the airport, we pass one of the largest slums (favelas) in Rio and notorious for drugs, robberies, and murders. We are soon passing the old colonial part of downtown Rio de Janeiro with its’ beautiful Portuguese-style churches, the opera house and other stunning municipal buildings. Marcelo remarks that we will be having lunch tomorrow at one of the oldest traditional ‘tea rooms’ in Rio called Colombo. After passing the middle-class apartments and condo communities of Flamenco and Botafogo, we pass through a long tunnel taking us to gorgeous Copacabana Beach. The oohs and aahs from the sponsors when they see the beach is typical for anyone on their first visit to this famous beach. Our hotel on Avenida Atlantica is ready for our arrival as well as a large group of street vendors selling everything from jewelry to license plates, they are not pushy, but a lot of fun which is so typical of the Cariocas, which is what Rio residents are called.

Sponsors are asked to proceed immediately to the rooftop pool area where they are given a registration card to complete, served complimentary ‘caipirinhas’, and welcomed to the hotel by members of the management team. Immediately, the sponsors look over the low wall of the rooftop area to get a breathtaking view of the entirety of Copacabana Beach, the Sugarloaf, and a good view of the Christ the Redeemer statue perched on a mountain behind the hotel. It is as if the sponsors have been physically immobilized by some secret mist for they don’t move and continually murmur words of wonderment at what they are viewing. One sponsor jokingly says, “I plan to stay right here on the rooftop for the next three days! You guys can do whatever you want!”

After a quick trip to our rooms, we meet down in the lobby to leave for a beach pizza party, what a relief from all that meat and fish at the traditional churrascaria restaurants on this trip. I have reserved tables for our group at a nearby sidewalk café facing the ocean that serves delicious pizza Brazilian-style. The views of the ocean and palm trees seem to hypnotize our sponsors as they ‘chill out’ and realize they are really in Rio de Janeiro and eating lunch at Copacabana Beach. Soon the street vendors spot our group and the show is on! I try to manage the street sellers but our sponsors are eager to buy their wares, it is an open-air Macy’s basement sale! Many of the street vendors are eager to share their stories and I do my best to translate what they want our sponsor group to know. They are a poor, but industrious group of sales people with a great sense of humor, their marketing of their products is done with humor, class, and a splendid show of entertainment for their customers. Aiiii, how Carioca and Brazilian is this display, and the sponsors love it.

The afternoon soon arrives and we are off to Sugarloaf Mountain for some awe-inspiring views of the city, rivers, bays, mountains, and then back to the hotel to prepare for our short trip to an excellent restaurant in the Leme section of Copacabana. Marius Restaurant is a happening circus, a bonanza of mirth and laughter, a wonderful place to relax on your first night in Rio. We recognize all of our sponsors for their sponsorship of needy children, but give special recognition and a small gift to four sponsors who have been sponsoring children throughout the world for over 25 years! We also recognize sponsors who sponsor more than one child, including one gentleman from Minnesota who sponsors 17 children! CCF is blessed to have such a loyal base of sponsors who are truly part of our international family! We finish dessert and then back to the hotel-- well, not everyone. There is a great little street market on a section of Copacabana Beach which a group of us must explore. It is a 16 block walk back to the hotel late that night, but no one seems to mind given the beautiful moon over the ocean, the cool breezes through the beachfront palms, and the atmosphere of joviality that integrates the rhythm of this cidade maravilhosa. Boa noite or sweet dreams dear sponsors…..and welcome to Rio de Janeiro!

It is our second day in Rio, and everyone is already for breakfast and eager to leave for our visit to the Christ the Redeemer statue or Corcovado. It stands on a very high peak in the middle of the largest urban rain forest in the world called Tijuca. We have arranged for our CCF sponsors to go on a safari adventure this morning, so there are six open-air Jeep type vehicles waiting for our group. They will transport us through the city until we reach the cog-wheel railway station in the northern part of the Botafogo neighborhood. It is indeed strange to ride around Rio in these safari vehicles and watch the reaction of Cariocas on their way to work when they see us --how strange this group must appear to the residents of this city, but the Cariocas smile and some wave a cheerful good morning to us. So Brazilian!

We arrive at the little train station and immediately see groups of other tourists standing in line for the next trip up the mountain… there are Italians, French, Germans, Brazilians, and some folks from the USA all waiting to climb up the mountain side through Tijuca National Forest until we reach the majestic Christ statue at the top. As we wait, some of our CCF sponsors are off to buy souvenirs and take photos of the surroundings. Soon, we board our little train and start up the mountainside through the forest where little signs note the types of trees and plants we are passing. There are two stops as we go up the mountain to let locals on and off the train, at the first stop, a quintet of samba school players get on the train to play and sing for the tourists. It is a scene out of a Fellini movie as we steeply climb the mountain on a little cog-wheel train while joyful samba music is playing and several people are dancing in the aisle of our bonde car.

As we approach the top of the mountain, there is a sudden break in the thick forest and a giant gush of oohs and aahs is heard from the passengers as they catch a glimpse of the beautiful scene several thousand feet below -- Ipanema, Copacabana, and Lagoa. There is not a cloud in the sky on this beautiful day. From the last stop, we either walk up over 700 steps or take an elevator to the base of the statue. From the top of the mountain, the view is unbelievable; it is no wonder people do not want to leave this almost sacred place of beauty. As one sponsor remarked, “this is almost a spiritual experience for me.” No one could deny the peacefulness and exhilaration of seeing Rio de Janeiro from the base of the Christ statue.

We descend the mountain by bonde train until the first stop and then hopped back into our safari vehicles for an exciting ride down the winding road that goes down the mountain through Tijuca Forest to a section of the city called Santa Teresa --which has become an artist colony and place to live for the noveau rich in Rio. We have the afternoon free until dinner at a great little restaurant called ‘Mio’ in Ipanema. CCF sponsor Steve from California is crowned King of Cheesebread and given a Rio fake license plate that reads ‘Sr. Pao de Queijo’. Back to the night market at Copacabana Beach tonight before returning to the hotel for some last minute packing of luggage for the flight to Foz de Iguassu in the morning.

We are flying south to the border of Brazil and Argentina this morning to spend a few days at one of the largest waterfalls in the world, the Foz de Iguasu or Big Water in the native language of indigenous people who still live in the area. It has been almost 30 years since I last visited the Foz and I remember Iguasu being this small town with no paved streets and you had to pay a fisherman to row you across the river to the Argentine side of the waterfalls. No more! The Foz de Iguasu region is a giant international tourism destination with modern facilities on both sides of the border and a booming eco-tourism business. Our group is staying at the historic Cataratas Hotel which faces a portion of the falls on the Brazilian side. During the next two days, we hike around the falls, walk gingerly along catwalks over a portion of the falls, and take a really fun boat trip to the base of one of the falls, yes, we all were drenched but laughing the entire time. It is really good to see Brazil and Argentina develop a healthy industry of eco-tourism that protects the sub-tropical forests, assures the integrity of the falls, and gives employment to so many local people.

You always know when a study tour is almost completed (besides being tired and sometimes a little cranky.) The sponsors showed an emotional display of complete satisfaction with what they have experienced on the study tour and a little sadness that it is all ending within 24 hours, we have to say our goodbyes and return to our home communities. The bonds of friendship formed during a study tour is indicative of a group that has come to Brazil for a common mission, to learn more about Christian Children’s Fund, to visit CCF projects and sponsored children, and to learn more of the history, culture, music and arts of this vast country called Brazil.

As we wait for our flight connection in Sao Paulo, Brazil, international airport, to get to Miami, I see sponsors talking quietly to one another, laughing at some of their digital photos, and making plans to return to Brazil on a future study tour. They will return to the States more bonded with the mission of CCF and eager to recruit new sponsors in their community. Many of them will raise funds from their churches, business associates or civic groups to fund needed projects in Brazil or perhaps a project they visited during this Study Tour. I look forward to receiving copies of their favorite photos from this trip and perhaps visiting with them this year as I travel throughout the United States. Emails, phone calls, and letters will be exchanged for many years to come. Most of all, we have shared a common experience throughout this trip to Brazil that none of us will forget. We have gained so much knowledge of Brazil and its people.

I will miss this group of unique individuals! CCF is fortunate to have them as sponsors and loyal supporters helping needy children throughout the world. I hope to see them again in the near future on other study tour trips! We will continue our CCF Study Tours this year with a trip to Ecuador in July (sorry sold out!) and a fantastic study tour to India in late October. Next year, we will be going to Zambia, Bolivia, Brazil, and maybe even Thailand. There will be more countries announced later this summer!

Thank you to the sponsors and fellow travelers on this Brazil Study Tour. I will never forget you! gary d.

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