I’ve been in Greece for two weeks now and have so so SO much to say.  Every day I collect little anecdotes or observations that I want to share — about Greece, about living in a house full of 15 Europeans, and, of course, about working with refugees from all over the world.  I decided it would be best to give an overview of the camps and my work in each one as my first Grecian Summer post.

I live in Mytilini, the largest city on Lesvos/Lesbos island.  The island is in the northeastern Aegean, much closer to Turkey than to mainland Greece.  In fact, we can see the shores of Turkey from the beaches here (it’s only about 10 miles away), so it’s understandable why this island is one of the major gateways to enter Europe from Turkey.


That’s Turkey in the distance.


There are 3 camps I’m working with, circled on the map below: one outside Mytilini (Kara Tepe camp), one outside Moria (Moria Camp), and one outside Mantamados (Caritas Hotel).   All three sites are managed by the Greek government and/or police, and further supported by several non-governmental organizations.


Caritas Hotel

The best living conditions are in Caritas Hotel.  This was an abandoned hotel that now houses around 40 people, mostly families with young children.  It’s located on a seaside cliff, with beautiful views of the sea.  This site has the most normal home-like conditions, with access to the main kitchen, transportation into Mytilini, and a calm, neighborly feel of an apartment building.  The downside is that the hotel isn’t near anything except the sea, and the closest village is quite small, so there isn’t a whole lot to do here.   A few NGOs organize activities here (including my NGO, which offers twice weekly adult English classes, children activities, and doctor visits).

Only very vulnerable families are placed here.  I haven’t gotten a clear answer on what makes a refugee very vulnerable, but I can give a few examples.  There are currently 3 or 4 families with newborn babies living here (I met a Syrian woman and her 7-day old daughter during my first visit to the hotel).  An Ethiopian woman in my English class brings her adorable 3-month-old to lessons.  And a 52-year-old Syrian woman in my class, who never married and never had kids, told me that her father died in Moria Camp (she then started crying – I didn’t know what to say other than “I’m sorry.”).  I’m not sure if she has other relatives in the hotel/Greece with her, but I do know she has a sister in Sweden and is hoping to reunite with her there.

Kara Tepe Camp

The Lesvos municipal government manages Kara Tepe, and the head manager insists on referring to it as a village, not a camp.  It does indeed have a small town neighborhood feel.  Families with kids are placed here, and there are constantly groups of children running around playing together.  There’s a small astroturf soccer field, an outdoor foosball table, and a couple playgrounds with jungle gyms and swing sets.  There’s a community building where they hold movie nights and dance parties.  Around a dozen NGOs work in this camp, preparing snacks to give out during the day, distributing donated clothes, organizing games and activities for children and adults, teaching English and Greek, giving guitar lessons, and more.

Families live in Isoboxes, which are kind of like large shipping containers that are turned into cabins. Around 700 people live here.  It’s right next to a large supermarket, on the outskirts of Mytilini city, with regular buses into town.  I work on three different activities here.  Art and board games for adults happens 8-10 pm every evening, and tends to attract teenagers.  There’s a group of Afghani boys and a few Kurdish girls that regularly show up to braid bracelets, play chess, flirt, and listen to music.  They’re amusing and I enjoy chatting with them.  The toughest part about this activity is keeping the younger kids out of our cabin.  More on this in a bit…

Greece. New accommodation for refugees in Lesvos

Isobox cabins in Kara Tepe Camp. I can’t take photos in the camps, but I can swipe some pics from the interwebs.

The other two activities I help with are for children.  I’m not a kid person and I would probably be overwhelmed assisting in a well-run U.S. elementary school.  But here?  Where most of the kids have never attended school? Have no regular schedule?  Have lived through traumatic experiences?  Can’t easily communicate with everyone they’re surrounded by?  And have inattentive and distracted parents?  It’s a madhouse.  Some of the kiddos are super sweet and very well behaved, but many of them have never learned to take turns or share or wait in line or follow directions.  They can be moody.  Sometimes they burst into tears when they’re frustrated or hit each other (or me).  It tries my patience and completely drains me, but there are some bright spots when they proudly complete a craft project or run up to me and hug my legs or climb up on my lap or grab my hand to go for a walk.

When we volunteers walk into Kara Tepe, wearing our navy blue Boat Refugee Program shirts and carrying supplies for various activities, children inevitably shout “For small?” They want to know if the activity we’re about to start is for children or for adults/teens.  If we answer “Yes” they follow us to our cabin to see what games or crafts we have for them. If we answer “For big” some look disappointed and go on playing, but others see it as a challenge to break into our cabin and grab whatever goodies we’ve brought, or just generally disturb us by pounding on the cabin doors and windows. They eventually get bored of this and leave, but it can take awhile.

Movie night is my least favorite activity because it attracts around 70 kids and almost no parents.  They run all over the place, dance in front of the projector, hit and shake the hanging screen, and go in and out and in and out and in and out of the room throughout the entire movie.  I’m grateful that there are always 2 or 3 other volunteers helping with this activity, as well as two Afghani teens who wrangle the kids when they get really unruly.  When the movie ends, we literally have to catch, drag, or carry a few of them out of the room so we can lock up.  It drains me.

Moria Camp

This is the biggest camp with the worst conditions.  It’s supposed to house around 2,500 refugees, but the current population is almost 3,000, mainly single men.  There’s a gated section for single women, another gated section for families with children (although some families with children also live in the main part of the camp), and a third gated section for unaccompanied minors.  There is also a prison here.

This camp is managed by the Greek police and military.  It’s situated on a large hill, surrounded by chain link fence and barbed wire. Refugees are free to come and go as they wish (as is true in all 3 camps), but can only use the main gate to enter and exit.  “Landscaping” at the camp is gravel and concrete, and everything is dusty.  Most refugees stay in shipping container cabins like I described above, but around 20 adults sleep in each one, making them terribly hot when temperatures are regularly in the 90s each day.  Some refugees still live in tents, which used to be what EVERYone had in Moria, including in the winter, when it was cold and snowy.  Volunteers who have worked here before said the living conditions and overcrowding have improved, but it’s still not great.

Around a dozen NGOs also operate here, offering soccer, volleyball, art activities, Greek classes, English classes, movie nights, barber lessons, and more.  My organization is one of the few offering medical services, and the only one keeping doctors onsite overnight.  I sometimes help at the medical cabin doing crowd control.  This means greeting patients, writing down information from their medical card onto our waitlist, and generally keeping a calm and friendly environment outside the medical cabins while they wait to see a doctor.  I really enjoy this work.  In fact, when the volunteers were discussing each other’s defining characteristics and quirks, several Dutch doctors said that I’m the one always laughing.  I like chatting and joking with the refugees, and apparently it shows.


Our old medical cabin. We’ve since moved into a bigger one higher up on the hill.


Sometimes I work the overnight crowd control shift, which means slumbering in the medical cabin from about 2:30 am to 7 am, unless we’re awakened by an emergency.

Another task I sometimes help with is social shift, which happens a few evenings a week from 8-10 pm.  Two volunteers walk through the camp, chatting with anyone who’s out and about.  We ask refugees about their day, show them the schedule of activities happening in the camp (and encourage them to take a photo so they can find things to do), joke around, or just listen.  We aren’t supposed to ask them about their home countries or backgrounds or travels (though I have soooooooo many questions!), but if they bring any of that up we can talk with them about it.  At first I felt funny approaching strangers, but I quickly noticed that most of them are happy to have someone to talk to and pay attention to them.

Finally, my NGO started up more English classes at Moria Camp.  I teach every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon from 4-6 pm.  Around 25 guys have been showing up so far (I’ve had to turn some away because our ISO box gets standing-room-only crowded).  Almost all of them are French speaking Africans in their early 20s.  They’re a fun group and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better.

So, those are the three sites I’m volunteering at for the summer.  In summary:

  • Caritas = hotel/apartments for very vulnerable refugees
  • Kara Tepe = “village” for families
  • Moria = crappiest camp, overfull of single men
  • Stephanie = loving life here, feeling fulfilled, laughing a lot and getting her glow back

With my refugee kitty crowd controller assistant.




I started my summer of 2017 by spending a couple of weeks in Nicaragua studying at a Spanish school.  I opted NOT to do a homestay this time, staying at the school’s hotel instead.  This meant it was more convenient for me to get to and from class (I just had to walk downstairs) and my lodging was more comfortable with a private room and a real shower, but it also meant speaking a lot less Spanish outside of class because my afternoons and evenings were spent surrounded by Americans not interested in practicing their Spanish with me.  You ganar some, you perder some.


Open-air grammar “classroom”

I had two hours of grammar class and two hours of conversation class each morning, then a school-arranged outing each afternoon.  I made some traditional Nicaraguan snacks baked in a wood-fired oven, swam in a volcanic crater lake, visited some nearby towns, peeked inside an active volcano, hiked, went to a beach, and spent a day in Granada.  It was, as the Nicos say, tuani (cool).


Laguna de Apoyo, a large lake in an old volcanic crater. Perfect temperature and gorgeous.


Swimming in Laguna de Apoyo.


Masaya Volcano

I then spent a few days on my own at Isla Ometepe, a volcanic island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.  From my school in the tiny village of San Juan de la Concepcion, I took a minibus to a nearby city, a taxi to the bus terminal there, another minibus to Rivas city in the south, another taxi to the ferry terminal, a ferry to the island, and a final taxi to my garden hotel on the island.  The transportation was amusing, and the destination was gorgeous.  Worth the crowded hot buses.


Beach walk on Isla Ometepe

The thing that really struck me in Nicaragua was the poverty.  I’ve traveled (and lived in) plenty of poor countries, but there was something about Nicaragua that made me see it more.  Maybe it was because I was living in the school with a bunch of Americans who had all traveled extensively (as have I), which made a stark contrast with the locals who worked at the school and lived in the town.  Maybe it was because I talked a lot with my conversation teachers about the lack of job opportunities in Nicaragua, and the amount of Nicaraguans who migrate (to Costa Rica, the U.S., and other places) for work.  Maybe it was seeing the social projects that my school organizes to help kids in the village. Probably it was a combination of all of the above.  It’s a shame, because I found Nicaraguans incredibly approachable and friendly, and the country, full of volcanoes and lakes, absolutely beautiful.

More pics available here!

Brazil Goals Accomplished!

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I like to set goals before moving to a new country.  Spending 5 months in Brazil this year was no different.  Here’s a review of how I did:

1.  Take forró dance lessons.  I did!  I found a school near my apartment and had classes every Tuesday and Thursday night.  This was basically my only dancing outlet and I was sooooo thankful for it!  (And now back to my regularly-scheduled bachata and salsa obsession…)

(This video is from the June Festivals, before I had taken a single class.  One of the university employees offered to show me how to dance forro on the spot and I did NOT know what I was doing.  I got much better after I actually learned the basic steps – ha!)

2.  Visit Lençóis Maranhenses National Park.  I did!  Read about it here.

3.  See Iguassu Falls.  Yep!  Read about it here.

4.  Visit The Pantanal.  Check!  And I saw a few jaguars too!

5.  Enjoy some beach time.  So many beaches.  I went to Sao Luis, Jericoacoara (probably my favorite), Natal/Galinhos, and Joao Pessoa/Pipa.  Northeastern Brazil is known for having great beaches, and they did not disappoint.


6.  See Carol.  Hooray!  When I was in Brasilia for the Braz-TESOL conference, I got to meet up with my friend from grad school.  So fun to catch up with her!

7.  Try cashew fruit.  Not only did I get to try cashew fruits, I also had cashew nuts, cashew juice, and cajuina (like a cider, similar to how apple cider is a stronger version of apple juice).


I think this is the first time that I accomplished all of my goals for a country!  What’s next??

Jaguar Camp

I stayed in Brazil an extra week after my contract, with my goal being to visit the Pantanal. This wetland area in the southwest of Brazil is a good place to see wildlife, especially jaguars.  I booked myself a 4-day stay at a Jaguar Camp, where we spent each morning and afternoon cruising the riverways looking for animals and birds.


We saw jaguars 3 of the 4 days I was there!  One jaguar attacked and killed a large caiman in front of our eyes (super exciting) and on my last day we watched another one stroll and swim along the river bank for over an hour and a half!



We also saw caiman, capybaras, giant river otters, a couple howler monkeys, some deer, a snake, some iguanas and other lizards, and tons of birds.  It was a fun trip.



On my last day in the area, I booked a day hike to visit Chapada dos Guimarães National Park to see several waterfalls and a cave.  It was refreshing and pretty and made my legs ache in a good way.



Such a great final adventure in Brazil!

Notes on Brazil

A somewhat random collection of observations I made during my past 5 months in northeastern Brazil:

  1. Greetings (kisses). I knew that Brazilians, like other Latin Americans, kiss for greetings.  And I got quite comfortable with that in Ecuador.  The problem is that in some parts of Brazil, people kiss on the cheek once.  In other parts, they kiss twice (once on each cheek).  And I’ve heard that in some parts, close friends kiss three times.  Because I never know how many kisses the other person expects, plus the fact that some Brazilians know I’m a foreigner and therefore go for a handshake rather than a kiss, I had a hard time navigating greetings here.
  2. Plastic and packaging. Things here seem sooooo over packaged to me.  Napkins at fast food places come wrapped in plastic (and sometimes the napkins themselves feel like they’re made of plastic!).  Silverware is often wrapped in plastic.  When I get pedicures, my FEET are wrapped in plastic.  There seems to be a concern for sanitization in all of these phenomena.  It just seems to wasteful though.
  3. Relatedly, no eating with hands. I’ve noticed that most people eat an ice cream cone with a small plastic spoon.  Also, pizza places will give you plastic gloves to eat your pizza (this made me laugh and laugh and laugh) if they don’t have knives and forks.  People have explained to me that Brazilians are averse to eating with their hands, because it’s not clean.fullsizerender
  4. Many restaurants have live music. There’s usually a small cover charge included included in your bill.  I will happily pay a couple dollars to listen to talented musicians while enjoying some food or drink.
  5. Farofa is ground cassava (manioc, yucca) flour that’s sautéed in oil/butter.  It is a ubiquitous garnish here. People put it on grilled meats, beans, salads… almost anything.  I find it similar to saw dust – dry and tasteless.  I do NOT understand it’s appeal.
  6. Thumbs up. Brazilians flash a thumbs up for EVERYTHING.  “I understand.”    “I’m happy to hear you like the food.”  “I can fulfill your request.”  “Thanks for stopping at the crosswalk to let me cross the street.”  “I’ll do what I can.”  (I feel like I’m going to return to the U.S. overusing the thumbs up now.)
  7. Post paying phone plans. My cell phone is post-paid at the end of the month, rather than pre-paid at the beginning of the month.  Whaaaaa?!?
  8. The heat. Teresina is the hottest city in Brazil, and I was here during the hottest part of the year (“bro,” which means September, October, and November).  People from the northeast of Brazil, and Teresina in particular, are really proud of surviving the heat, similar to how Minnesotans are proud of being cold-hardy.  Another parallel: people here will start their car to turn on the a/c and cool it down, just like we in the upper Midwest start our cars in the winter to warm them up!  Finally, I am amazed that people wear jeans here.  It’s 100 degrees.  EVERY.  DAY.   Someone explained to me that if they didn’t wear jeans because of the weather, they would never wear jeans.  (My response:  I choose never to wear jeans!)
  9. Left turns are rare. At many (most?) intersections, left turns aren’t allowed.  Drivers need to go around the block, or to a roundabout (common here) to get turned around.
  10. Restaurant service. Brazil does not have a service culture.  Some places charge a 10% service charge, but, by law, you don’t have to pay it.  As a result, service can be incredibly slow.  It’s also acceptable to whistle for a server (I just couldn’t bring myself to do this, even when the service was terribly negligent or slow).
  11. Self-service restaurants. Buffet restaurants are soooooo common here!  Some of them are by weight (that is, you load your plate with whatever you want and pay by the kilo).  Others are “sem balanca,” or all-you-can-eat.  In some of the non-weighed buffets, you can be charged a fine if you take food that you don’t eat (which I think is a marvelous way to cut down on food waste).
  12. Garbage collectors work at night.  In my neighborhood, garbage is collected around 11pm on Fridays.  I find this incredible.
  13. “Recycling.” On campus, there are recycling bins for plastics, glass, paper, etc.  I was told that these were installed to promote the idea of recycling, but the university actually does not have any recycling program.  My apartment building does not have recycling, so once a week or so I carry my plastic and glass bottles across the street to the mall, where they do have recycling bins.  However, I’ve noticed that they are often all filled with garbage, similar to the campus bins.  I have no idea if my efforts to recycle are worth it, but I feel bad if I don’t at least try.
  14. People hold stuff for you on the bus. City buses can get standing-room-only crowded.  If you’re carrying items, it’s even harder to grab a hand hold to maintain your balance while standing on a lurching bus.  I’ve seen several instances where someone sitting in a seat will offer to hold items for a standing passenger.  In fact, people have done this for me a couple times when I was standing.  It’s so nice!
  15. Priority lines. By law, pregnant or nursing women, elderly, disabled, and customers with small children can “cut” in line at banks, post offices, stores, etc.
  16. Brazilians don’t watch where they’re walking. I am constantly on the lookout for others because if I’m not paying attention, no one is.  So many possibilities for collisions here.
  17. Ham and cheese. Croissants, sandwiches, pizzas, pastries, hot pockets… I was not expecting this to be such a prevalent flavor combo here.
  18. Crime is a part of life in Brazil.  Robberies, muggings, hold-ups, house break-ins… they’re very common.  Some businesses (restaurants, cafes, beauty salons, clinics, etc.) lock their doors during working hours to deter thieves.  It’s consequently hard to tell if some places are open or not during the day.  Also, there are armed security guards at many businesses and on my university campus.  During the summer vacation or evening classes, when campus is more deserted, the English coordinator asks the security guards to more regularly patrol hallways where classes are being held.  There have also been English classes that were held up – the thief walked away with everyone’s cell phones.  This is a sad fact of life here in Brazil, and one that I am confident raises everybody’s stress levels on a daily basis.  I’m looking forward to being able to relax more back in the U.S.

Foz do Iguaçu

I took a weekend trip to the gigantic waterfalls that lie on the borders between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay:  Foz do Iguaçu (in Portuguese), or Iguazu/Iguassu Falls (in English).  On the Brazilian side I took my first-ever helicopter ride.


I figured this would be a pretty spectacular view to see from a helicopter.  It was!


Then I walked around the Brazilian side of the park, which is generally agreed to have better landscape views of the falls:


I also took a boat ride under one of the 275 waterfalls.  It was even better than a water park ride!

The next day I visited the Argentina side of the falls, which is awesome because you can get closer to some of the waterfalls – right out on top of one of them.


Seeing and hearing and feeling the power of so much water moving through one place, on either side of the border, was amazing.

Fascinating Planet

In the listening/speaking class I taught last year at the University of Minnesota, our textbook included a unit entitled “Fascinating Planet.”  That chapter featured national parks and protected areas around the world, including Lençóis Maranhenses National Park in Brazil.  I had never heard of this place, but it sounded pretty cool: acres and acres of dazzling white sand dunes, which become dotted with blue and green and turquoise lagoons during the rainy season.


A few months later, when I accepted an English Language Specialist position to work in northeastern Brazil for 5 months, I realized that I would be living about 7 hours from that national park.  A goal was born: visit Lençóis Maranhenses.


And I did!  After presenting at a conference in a nearby town, some friends and I drove to the national park, where we enjoyed hiking up and down the dunes and cooling off in several of the lagoons.

It really is a fascinating planet.