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What to Ask an Organization Before Volunteering Abroad

Close up view of traditional Andean weaving seen as part of an Awamaki organization tour.
Organizations like Awamaki in Peru support and empower rural women. Photo © McKay Savage, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

As important as knowing your own expectations is understanding how a volunteer opportunity is structured and what the organization is offering. The following are questions to ask an organization as you consider their volunteer opportunities.

What is the impact of this project?

Who determined the need for it: Was it a community request, or was it decided by the organization? If the latter, on what basis did they come to this decision? If it is a construction project such as a school or hospital, are there others in the area? If the project provides medical care, what other options do community members have? Does the local community support this project? (If so, how? If not, why not?)

What does the program fee cover?

[pullquote align=”right”]For larger fees, ask for a breakdown of where the money goes – the organization you volunteer with should be transparent and should be able to provide this information.[/pullquote]A fee is not a bad thing in and of itself, and a small fee may simply cover the administrative cost of the placement. If any portion of the fee is deemed a contribution to the project, ask how much. For larger fees, ask for a breakdown of where the money goes – the organization you volunteer with should be transparent and should be able to provide this information. While placement agencies and international organizations have administrative costs (covering staff time, advertising, and having an office), comparing this between organizations will help give you an idea of what is a reasonable expense and what might be extravagant.

What level of language skills do I need to really enjoy this project?

If your Spanish (or Portuguese) skills are little to none, read between the lines in their response. Will there be any translator nearby? On the other hand, if one of your goals is to improve your language skills, does the volunteer experience provide ample opportunity to do so?

What resources are there in-country for volunteers?

Is there a number you can call 24/7 if you need assistance with anything? If traveling with an international organization, do they have a contact person based in-country as well?

You may want to ask about the average age of their volunteers. This is also the time to ask if the organization can accommodate any special needs, such as a vegetarian diet or physical limitations.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America.

Dolphin Swims and Whale-Watching Trips in Kona

Many of the kayaking and snorkeling trips offer dolphin options (both viewing and swimming with dolphins), since Kealakekua Bay has it all and the majority of boat trips will state that whale viewing is available during the winter season. Listed here are outfitters and excursions that are fully dedicated to dolphin and/or whale swims and watches. If you want to swim with the dolphins it’s best to join an organized trip so that you have some instruction and assistance with this undertaking.

[pullquote align=right][One Love One Spirit] is all about communing with spinner dolphins in the most respectful manner possible.[/pullquote]Dan McSweeney loves whales and wants you to love them too. At Dan McSweeney’s Whale Watching Learning Adventures (Honokohau Harbor off Hwy. 19, 888/942-5376, Dec.-Mar. only, $90 adults, $80 children), he personally conducts each tour and guarantees that you will see whales. If you’re interested in learning about whales, this tour is for you. There is no open bar on the boat. Morning and afternoon departures are available and the tour lasts three hours.

A pod of spinner dolphins photographed underwater.
You can swim with spinner dolphins in Hawaii. Photo © Marty Wakat/123rf.

One Love One Spirit (808/987-0359, 4-hour tour $185 plus tax per person)—the name gives it away (doesn’t it?). Phillipa, the company owner, runs morning tours, mini-retreats, and week-long retreats training visitors how to connect with the dolphins. This company is all about communing with spinner dolphins in the most respectful manner possible—but this is a good thing. Hang up your hangups about connecting with another living being and by the time you’re done with this swim, you’ll really get dolphins.

Sunlight on Water (Honokohau Harbor off Hwy. 19, 808/896-2480) offers whale-watching tours (afternoons daily during winter, $75 per person), a three-hour tour to swim with spinner dolphins (mornings daily, $110 per person if booked online, includes snorkel gear) and manta ray swims (nightly, $71 per person if booked online). The good deal here is that they will offer you a discount if you book more than one trip with them. They are highly recommended for the dolphin swim since that is their real passion, but other companies might be better for whale-watching and manta ray trips.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.

Planning Your Time When Vacationing in Havana

A classic convertible taxi driving down Havana, Cuba's malecon.
A taxi on the malécon. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Havana is so large and the sights to be seen so many, that one week is the bare minimum needed. Metropolitan Havana sprawls over 740 square kilometers (286 square miles) and incorporates 15 municipios (municipalities). Havana is a collection of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct character. Since the city is so spread out, it is best to explore Havana in sections, concentrating your time on the three main districts of touristic interest—Habana Vieja, Vedado, and Miramar—in that order.

[pullquote align=right]Despite Havana’s great size, most sights of interest are highly concentrated, and most exploring is best done on foot.[/pullquote]If you have only one or two days in Havana, book a get-your-bearings trip by HabanaBusTour or hop on an organized city tour offered by Havanatur or a similar agency. This will provide an overview of the major sites. Concentrate the balance of your time around Parque Central, Plaza de la Catedral, and Plaza de Armas. Your checklist of must-sees should include the Capitolio Nacional, Museo de la Revolución, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Catedral de la Habana, Museo de la Ciudad de la Habana, and Parque Histórico Militar Morro-Cabaña, featuring two restored castles attended by soldiers in period costume.

Habana Vieja, the original colonial city within the 17th-century city walls (now demolished), will require at least three days to fully explore. You can base yourself in one of the charming historic hotel conversions close to the main sights of interest.

In Habana Vieja, an impressive cathedral overlooks a square filled with tables shaded by umbrellas.
Plaza de la Catedral, Habana Vieja. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Centro Habana has many casas particulares but few sites of interest, and its rubble-strewn, dimly lit streets aren’t the safest. Skip Centro for Vedado, the modern heart of the city that evolved in the early 20th century, with many ornate mansions in beaux-arts and art nouveau style. Its leafy streets make for great walking. Many of the city’s best casas particulares are here, as are most businesses, paladares, and nightclubs. The Hotel Nacional, Universidad de la Habana, Cementerio Colón, and Plaza de la Revolución are sights not to miss.

If you’re interested in beaux-arts or art deco architecture, then the once-glamorous Miramar, Cubanacán, and Siboney regions, west of Vedado, are worth exploring. Miramar also has excellent restaurants, deluxe hotels, and some of my favorite nightspots.

[pullquote align=”right”]About 15 kilometers east of the city, long, white-sand beaches—the Playas del Este—prove tempting on hot summer days.[/pullquote]Most other sections of Havana are run-down residential districts of little interest to tourists. A few exceptions lie on the east side of Havana harbor. Regla and neighboring Guanabacoa are together a center of Santería and Afro-Cuban music. The 18th-century fishing village of Cojímar has Hemingway associations, and the nearby community of San Miguel de Padrón is where the great author lived for 20 years. A visit to his home, Finca Vigía, today the Museo Ernest Hemingway, is de rigueur. Combine it with a visit to the exquisite colonial Iglesia de Santa María del Rosario. About 15 kilometers east of the city, long, white-sand beaches—the Playas del Este—prove tempting on hot summer days.

In the suburban district of Boyeros, to the south, the Santuario de San Lázaro is an important pilgrimage site. A visit here can be combined with the nearby Mausoleo Antonio Maceo, where the hero general of the independence wars is buried outside the village of Santiago de las Vegas. A short distance east, the Arroyo Naranjo district has Parque Lenin, a vast park with an amusement park, horseback rides, boating, and more. Enthusiasts of botany can visit the botanical garden, Jardín Botánico Nacional.

Despite Havana’s great size, most sights of interest are highly concentrated, and most exploring is best done on foot.

Travel map of Downtown Havana, Cuba
Downtown Havana

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Cuba.

The Walled City

The Walled City

By Ryan Graudin

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Curriculum Subjects: Adventure: General, Social Studies: Europe/Asia/Africa, Teen Life: Gangs/Substance Abuse/Family/Relationships/Sexuality

Grade: 9-12


[button link=””]Educator Guide[/button]

There are three rules in the Walled City: Run fast. Trust no one. Always carry your knife. Right now, my life depends completely on the first. Run, run, run.


DAI, trying to escape a haunting past, traffics drugs for the most ruthless kingpin in the Walled City. But in order to find the key to his freedom, he needs help from someone with the power to be invisible….


JIN hides under the radar, afraid the wild street gangs will discover her biggest secret: Jin passes as a boy to stay safe. Still, every chance she gets, she searches for her lost sister….


MEI YEE has been trapped in a brothel for the past two years, dreaming of getting out while watching the girls who try fail one by one. She’s about to give up, when one day she sees an unexpected face at her window….


In this innovative and adrenaline-fueled novel, they all come together in a desperate attempt to escape a lawless labyrinth before the clock runs out.



“Readers, rapt, will duck for cover until the very last page.”— Kirkus Reviews 


“Graudin is gifted at employing simile and other literary devices to describe the gritty surroundings and Hak Nam’s criminal inhabitants…The result is three stories deftly entwined into a fast-paced, striking tale….” — Publishers Weekly


“This dark and gritty thriller doesn’t pull any punches, taking readers into a world of fear, danger, and deprivation.”— School Library Journal


The Walled City grabbed me by the throat from page one. From the very first chapter to the last, my heart loved and feared for these characters. Brilliantly and beautifully written — a true triumph.” — Beth Revis, bestselling author of the Across the Universe series


The Walled City is dark and grim and intensely compelling. It is a book you cannot easily forget, a book you will want to read again and again.”— Ellen Oh, author of Prophecy



Torn Away

Torn Away
By Jennifer Brown

Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Curriculum Subjects: Family Life: Grandparents and Extended Family, Personal Development: Loss, Teen Life: Family

Grade: 7-17


[button link=””]Download Educator Guide[/button]


Born and raised in the Midwest, Jersey Cameron knows all about tornadoes. Or so she thinks. When her town is devastated by a twister, Jersey survives — but loses her mother, her young sister, and her home. As she struggles to overcome her grief, she’s sent to live with her only surviving relatives: first her biological father, then her estranged grandparents.

In an unfamiliar place, Jersey faces a reality she’s never considered before — one in which her mother wasn’t perfect, and neither were her grandparents, but they all loved her just the same. Together, they create a new definition of family. And that’s something no tornado can touch.



* “Vivid and emotional…Torn Away is a superb read.” –VOYA, starred review

“This is a gut-wrenching and poignant look at the aftermath of natural disaster and the secrets that families keep, written with raw honesty and deep emotion.” –Booklist

“Brown gives readers a true sense of the horror wrought by the storm and the agony of its aftermath; her ability to create rich, complex characters is once again in evidence.” –Publishers Weekly

“Brown depicts Jersey’s reaction to a frightening, life-altering situation expertly, and the protagonist’s voice is authentic…Overall, this is a wrenching story of the will to survive at any cost.” –SLJ

“This is a satisfying book that explores an intriguing situation: what happens to a girl who loses everything that meant anything, and who learns that there may be more love left in the world.” –Library Media Connection

“Will have appeal far beyond the tornado-prone Midwest.” –The Bulletin

Diving and Snorkeling the Kona Coast

Underwater view of a manta ray swimming amongst a group of divers in Kona, Hawaii.
A manta ray checks out divers along the Kona Coast. Photo © Renee V. , licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Kona’s coastline presents ideal snorkeling conditions given how close the reef is to the shoreline; however, some areas are harder to access due to the rocky coast. Beginners can easily start at Two Step or Pu‘uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park. The best spots are Kealakekua Bay and Pawai Bay during the day and Keauhou Bay at night for the manta ray sightings. While almost every kayak trip or boating trip includes snorkeling, if you’re simply looking to rent gear on your own, there are several longstanding shops in the area. Here’s our rundown on services, prices, extras, and advice on picking the right outfitter for your needs.

Big Island Divers (74-5467 Kaiwi St., 808/329-6068) offers a similar deal to other providers in the area. A two-tank guided tour ($130 per person or $80 for snorkeling includes lunch) is offered most days (8am-1:30pm), and most nights they offer manta ray night dives and snorkeling trips ($100-135 per person diving or $80-90 snorkeling) with several different combinations of options, from one tank to two tanks and depending on the length of trip. The best thing about this company is that it offers discounts for the more you dive—so if you think you’ll go out at least twice, Big Island Divers is a good deal for you.

Body Glove Cruises (75-5629 Kuakini Hwy., check in at Kailua Pier, 800/551-8911) is one of the larger companies with a big boat. The 4.5-hour deluxe snorkel and dolphin-viewing tour ($120 adults, $78 children 6-17) is a full-service excursion with breakfast, lunch, snacks, cash bar, snorkel gear, and instruction. However, given the immense amount of time that you’re eating and drinking, the water time is only about half the time that you’re on the boat. The same goes for the non-deluxe shorter three-hour excursion ($78 adults, $58 children 6-17); only half the time is in the water and the other half is spent snacking and drinking.

Captain Zodiac (Honokohau Harbor, 808/329-3199) offers a four-hour snorkel and dolphin-watching tour, but does it from a Zodiac boat and leaves from the harbor near Kailua, although the tour travels to Kealakekua Bay ($104 per adult, $84 per child with online discount). This is an extremely professional and dedicated company that truly values customer service. Also, Zodiacs are a good option if you don’t want to paddle around yourself but still want to be close to the dolphin and snorkeling action.

Fair Wind (78-7130 Kaleiopapa St., Keauhou Bay, 808/322-2788, snorkel and dive tour $165 plus tax per person, manta ray diving $89 per person, discount if booked online) is your first-class deluxe option for snorkeling and diving tours. Fair Wind offers a five-hour morning snorkel and dive that includes breakfast and lunch. The boat, the Hula Kai, is comfortable, and staff is undoubtedly there to meet your every need. The manta ray night snorkel 6:30-8:30pm includes all gear and a snack. Other places offer manta ray night tours, but Fair Wind’s service sets them apart. A manta ray expert on board films the entire experience for purchase after the trip.

A longtime favorite of locals, Jack’s Diving Locker (75-5813 Ali‘i Dr., 808/329-7585) offers two-tank morning dives (8:30am, $125 per person plus gear rental or $55 for snorkeling; all prices include lunch) and manta ray night trips ($145 per person plus gear rental and $95 per person for snorkeling, not offered Sun. or Tues.). A four-day open-water PADI certification course ($550, minimum two students) is also available.

Kona Honu Divers (74-5583 Luhia St., 808/324-4668) is another outfitter with a good reputation for service and luxury, and this one really specializes in diving (not just snorkeling). They offer a few different types of tours, from a manta ray night dive ($95 for one tank and $130 for two tanks) to manta ray night snorkeling ($80 per person) to two-tank daytime dives for beginners to advanced divers ($130-170 per person). On Wednesday they have a black-water night dive that occurs after the manta ray dive for those who really want to experience the ocean by night ($150 just for the dive or $230 plus tax with the manta ray dive).

Kona Boys (79-7539 Mamalahoa Hwy./Hwy. 11, 808/328-1234) rents snorkeling gear and offers discounts if you rent for several days.

Sandwich Isle Divers (75-5729 Ali‘i Dr., 808/329-9188, daily 8am-6pm) is a reputable company that offers a slew of services, from rentals to charters (two tanks, two locations runs $120-165 per person depending on level of instruction and equipment needed). In addition to their daily dives and manta ray night dives, they also offer a four-day open-water PADI certification course ($550).

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.

Waipi‘o Valley: Then and Now

Aerial view of the Waipi‘o Valley on the Big Island of Hawaii.
Waipi‘o Valley on the Big Island. Photo © SF Brit, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

When Captain Cook came to Hawaii, 4,000 natives lived in Waipi‘o; a century later only 600 remained. At the turn of the 20th century many Chinese and Japanese moved to Waipi‘o and began raising rice and taro. There were schools, stores, a post office, churches, and a strong community spirit. Waipi‘o was painstakingly tended. The undergrowth was kept trimmed and you could see clearly from the back of the valley all the way to the sea. In the 1940s, many people were lured away by a changing lifestyle and a desire for modernity. The tsunami in 1946 swept away most of the homes that remained; the majority of the residents pulled up stakes and moved away. For 25 years the valley was abandoned. The Peace Corps considered it a perfect place to build a compound to train volunteers headed for Southeast Asia. This too was later abandoned. Then in the late 1960s and early 1970s a few “back to nature” hippies started trickling in. Most only played Tarzan and Jane for a while and moved on.

[pullquote align=right]A few families with real commitment have stayed on and continue to revitalize Waipi‘o.[/pullquote]Waipi‘o is still unpredictable. In a three-week period from late March to early April of 1989, 47 inches of rain drenched the valley. Roads were turned to quagmires, houses washed away, and more people left. Part of the problem is the imported trees in Waipi‘o. Until the 1940s, the valley was a manicured garden, but now it’s heavily forested. All of the trees you will see are new; the oldest are mangroves and coconuts. The trees are both a boon and a blight. They give shade and fruit, but when there are floods, they fall into the river, creating logjams that increase the flooding dramatically. Waipi‘o takes care of itself best when humans do not interfere. Taro farmers, too, have had problems because the irrigation system for their crops was washed away in the last flood.

The 1450 foot high Hi’ilawe waterfall cascades down the wall of the Waipi‘o Valley.
The spectacular Hi‘ilawe waterfall in Waipi’o Valley. Photo © Les Williams, licensed Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike.

Nowadays, those who live in the valley learned to accept life in Waipi‘o and genuinely love the valley. A few families with real commitment have stayed on and continue to revitalize Waipi‘o. The valley now supports perhaps 40 residents. More people live topside but come down to Waipi‘o to tend their gardens.

[pullquote]If the sign says Kapu (which means “forbidden”) or Keep Out, believe it.[/pullquote]In the summer of 1992, the Bishop Museum requested an environmental impact survey on Waipi‘o Valley because the frequency of visitors to the valley had increased tremendously. Old-time residents complained not only about the overuse of the valley but about the loss of their secluded lifestyle. As a result of the impact study, commercial tours are not allowed to go to the beach area on the far side of the stream, which is now open to foot traffic only.

The socio-ethnic battle for the valley continues. Some long-term residents, mostly but not exclusively of Hawaiian descent, have largely withdrawn the spirit of aloha from visitors. Their dissatisfaction is not wholly without basis: Some who have come to the valley have been disrespectful, trespassing on private property, threatening to sue landowners for injuries they themselves caused, or finding themselves stuck in a river that no one in their right mind would try to cross. Many wonderful, open, and loving people still live in the valley. Be respectful and stay on public property. If the sign says Kapu (which means “forbidden”) or Keep Out, believe it. It is everyone’s right to walk along the beach, the switchback that goes to Waimanu, and waterways. These are traditional free lands in Hawaii open to all people, and they remain so. With proper behavior from visitors, Waipi‘o’s aloha will return.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Hawaiian Islands.

Why You Should Travel to Havana, Cuba

Havana (pop. 2.2 million), political, cultural, and industrial heart of the nation, lies 150 kilometers (93 miles) due south of Florida on Cuba’s northwest coast. It is built on the west side of a sweeping bay—Bahía de la Habana—and extends west 12 kilometers to the Río Jaimanitas and south for an equal distance.

[pullquote align=right]Havana is the only place in Cuba where you can dine well every night of the week.[/pullquote]Countless writers have commented on the exhilarating sensation that engulfs visitors to this most beautiful and beguiling of Caribbean cities. Set foot one time in Havana and you can only succumb to its enigmatic allure. It is impossible to resist the city’s mysteries and contradictions.

Aerial view of Havana with a spectacular look at the Hotel Riviera and the waterfront.
The highrise Hotel Riviera in Havana, Cuba. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

Havana has a flavor all its own, a merging of colonialism, capitalism, and Communism into one. One of the great historical cities of the New World, Havana is a far cry from the Caribbean backwaters that call themselves capitals elsewhere in the Antilles. Havana is a city, notes architect Jorge Rigau, “upholstered in columns, cushioned by colonnaded arcades.” The buildings come in a spectacular amalgam of styles—from the academic classicism of aristocratic homes, rococo residential exteriors, Moorish interiors, and art deco and art nouveau to stunning exemplars of 1950s moderne.

At the heart of the city is enchanting Habana Vieja (Old Havana), a living museum inhabited by 60,000 people and containing perhaps the finest collection of Spanish-colonial buildings in all the Americas. Baroque churches, convents, and castles that could have been transposed from Madrid or Cádiz still reign majestically over squares embraced by the former palaces of Cuba’s ruling gentry and cobbled streets still haunted by Ernest Hemingway’s ghost. Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigía, is one of dozens of museums dedicated to the memory of great men and women. And although older monuments of politically incorrect heroes were pulled down, they were replaced by dozens of monuments to those on the correct side of history.

A conductor leads a small group of musicians performing in an alcove of the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis in Havana.
A concert at Basílica de San Francisco de Asís in Habana Veija. Photo © Christopher P. Baker.

The heart of Habana Vieja has been restored, and most of the important structures have been given facelifts, or better. Some have even metamorphosed into boutique hotels. Nor is there a shortage of 1950s-era modernist hotels steeped in Mafia associations. And hundreds of casas particulares provide an opportunity to live life alongside the habaneros themselves. As for food, Havana is the only place in Cuba where you can dine well every night of the week. There’s a dynamic new breed of paladar (private restaurant) owner in town and they’re now offering world-class cuisine in wow! settings. Make no bones—these are exciting times!

Then there’s the arts scene, perhaps unrivaled in Latin America. The city offers first-rate museums and galleries. Not only formal galleries, but informal ones where contemporary artists produce unique works of amazing profundity and appeal. There are tremendous crafts markets and boutique stores. Afro-Caribbean music is everywhere, quite literally on the streets. Lovers of sizzling salsa have dozens of venues from which to choose. Havana even has a hot jazz scene. Classical music and ballet are world class. And neither Las Vegas nor Rio de Janeiro can compare with Havana for sexy cabarets, with top billing now, as back in the day, being the Tropicana.

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Cuba.

Where to See Wildlife in Montana and Wyoming

A baby mountain goat stands amongst wildflowers in Glacier National Park.
Between them, Wyoming and Montana have 22 national wildlife refuges offering prime habitat to any number of species. Photo © Sherry Yates/123rf.

Appreciating wildlife is as much a part of the culture as mountains are part of the landscape. The most obvious choice for prime wildlife viewing is Yellowstone National Park, where animals have the right of way; just try telling a herd of rutting bison that you have to be somewhere.

Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks are also great bets, although the restricted roads and dense forests can limit visibility. Both states are packed with public lands and refuges (Wyoming has 7 national wildlife refuges, and Montana has 15) that offer prime habitat to any number of species.

Wildlife Viewing in Montana

  • Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge is in fact two wildlife refuges and a wetland management district that host more birds than you could ever imagine.
  • Located in Moiese between the Flathead and Missoula, the National Bison Range is home to 350-500 bison, along with white-tailed and mule deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and elk.
  • About 30 miles south of Missoula in Stevensville, the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for migratory birds including ospreys, eagles, and hawks as well as larger animals including wolves, coyotes, black bears, and badgers.
  • Near Lima, the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge hosts more than 230 species of birds—including the once-endangered trumpeter swan—and other wildlife including bears, wolves, and moose.

Wildlife Viewing in Wyoming

  • Just outside Jackson, the National Elk Refuge is home to more than 7,000 elk throughout the winter months.
  • In Dubois, the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center offers winter tours of the nearby Whiskey Mountain Habitat Area. Self-guided tours take visitors into prime sheep country, where waterfowl, raptors, and moose can often be seen as well.
  • North of Green River, the wetland habitat of the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge hosts some 200 bird species, including Canada geese, great blue herons, and swans.
  • Just north of Rock Springs, the White Mountains are home to 800-1,000 wild mustangs. Pronghorn, sage grouse, coyotes, and eagles also frequent the region.

Excerpted from the Second Edition of Moon Montana & Wyoming.

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