“I felt useful, different and I grew as a woman and a human being.”


UBELONG Snapshot
Name: Mariana Santos
Age: 22
Hometown: Braga
Nationality: Portugal
University: Universidade Nova De Lisboa
Degree: Strategic Communication
Languages spoken: Portuguese, English (fluent), Spanish (advanced), German (beginner)
Past travel experience: Moderate
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for Disabled Children in Hanoi, Vietnam
Duration: 3 weeks
Start month: August, 2014
Claim to fame: Won a competition and traveled to Cape Verde to write reports on the country, their culture and their people.

Why did you decide to become a UBELONG Volunteer?
I joined this program, due to two different reasons. I wanted to go on an adventure of this kind long ago, especially to volunteer. It was an experience I wanted to have for personal satisfaction. Always wanted to see what the world was like out there, a new culture, new people, new customs, new cities, new smells, new sights. The other side of the journey was the volunteering. I’ve always wanted to go out there and help children, people who live in a poverty that we can’t even imagine, unless we face that reality. I wanted to feel useful, to feel different, to grow as a woman and as a human being, and the goal was met.

What is your favorite memory?
One of the moments that most fascinated me was when we went to spend the last weekend in Mai Châu and we hosted at a family house that welcomed tourists. The landscapes are gorgeous, the atmosphere is calm, all that green conveys peace. An unrivaled green, which I had never seen before. Fields of single crops and rice in which we see that there is an immense dedication, rivers and small waterfalls where children get lost in play, small souvenir shops with handmade products, local products and small details. We took long walks into the village on foot, by motorbike and bike, with a guy who was our guide and spoke perfect English. The meals were typical, as everywhere in Vietnam, and the smells of the food was the same, but breakfast was pretty amazing, very European. Of course the smell of the field was quite distinct from the smell of the city, Hanoi. The chaos and the pollution were tidy, when we were in those rice paddies.

I had never slept in a place like this without physical windows, just a few holes in the wall, a house made only of straw and wood, but with ceiling fans (something very interesting). At first it was strange, but soon my friends and I got used to the idea, but the worst was yet to come. I confess that the night was a bit scary, as all possible imaginary insects which were walking over there to haunt our “tent”, and our mosquitos net was full of bugs. I knew people from everywhere – Germany, Miami, England, Belgium – with different experiences, different views and together we were trying to understand and know the Vietnamese culture, dances, festivals, religion, as living people who live there lifetime in the rice fields or even in the middle of ocean. It was an incredible experience, unforgettable and a life lesson. Until today, it was the best experience of my life. But I can’t endure, I also have to say that I have loved my visit to Ha Long Bay, and swimming on that island and to know Hói An village, it is a lovely village and very unique.

Tell me about somebody you met who impressed you?
The person who surprised me the most was Ling. She is one of the girls who attended the volunteer center. She has Down Syndrome, but despite that, she showed me that there are no limitations to her. She is a kind and a loving child, full of life and energy. She devoted herself to everything she was told to do and whenever she had just finished, she insisted on showing me the results, as well as the teachers. Taking into account her capabilities, she has a lot of potential and strength and in the future she would develop a lot. I loved meeting her, she is an adorable child. I loved all the children of the center, all of them were special, all of them were “my children” some how.

In a sentence or less, what was your funniest moment?
The funniest moment was when my friend and I caught a taxi to take us to Pizza Hut and during the drive of 20 minutes, we realized that the taxi driver did not know where we wanted to go and just stopped the taxi in the middle of an expressway and left us there. Like an American doctor used to say “It’s Vietnam!”.

Related post:
Meet Jennifer, a Yale public health student who volunteered in Hanoi, Vietnam with UBELONG on the HIV/AIDS awareness project.