Croatia Through the Eyes of a Digital Nomad: Giving Back While Gaining New Friends

Total Croatia News

All photos ©2020, Cyndie Burkhardt.
Nothing says “you’re my best friend” like getting inside the cage for big dogs at No Kill shelter Animalis Centrum in Croatia and playing with your buddy.
Nothing says “you’re my best friend” like getting inside the cage for big dogs at No Kill shelter Animalis Centrum in Croatia and playing with your buddy.

December 9, 2020 – Cyndie Burkhardt continues her nomad lifestyle with her experiences in Croatia – this week the digital nomad giving back through volunteering. 

Digital nomads, travelers, and expats are often passionate volunteers in their host countries. On International Volunteer Day, a group of people from different backgrounds and cultures came together to show some love to the Split community. 

Passionate travelers strive to be immersed in the countries they visit by living and working with local people. For many of us, participating in positive impact initiatives is a favorite way to become more involved and to support causes we care about. Volunteers contribute all over the world, often to projects that would not exist without them. The rewards are considerable—help improve a community and bond with some pretty cool people in the process.

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(Volunteers for Make a Miracle home building project near Lima, Peru carry all parts of a prefab house up multiple flights of steep steps to a site on the hillside where the house will be assembled. All hardware and tools follow the same pathway up. At the end of the day a family will have a safe place to live.)

Positive impact

People volunteer for a variety of reasons: to give back, help others, make a difference, feel involved, or use their skills in a productive way. For me, it’s each of these as much as being curious about culture and lifestyle. Volunteering gets you right in the middle of someone else’s reality. Some situations are feel-good and others are a dire wake-up call; all are opportunities to learn. Glimpsing a country through this sort of local experience is a chance to expand your perspective while becoming more conscious of your actions.

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(Groups of friends, old and new, meet up to volunteer for the biggest reforestation project on Mosor Mountain, organized by The Scouts of Croatia Association.)

Safe housing

Last year I joined a home building project in Peru with a nonprofit whose mission is to “bring hope and lasting change” to poor neighborhoods, in part by ensuring that families with children live in safe homes. Scoping the dilapidated surroundings and the rundown shacks that people occupied, it looked like something out of a movie, for as far as my eyes could see. I tried to imagine living there, and worse, having no way out. My heart ached. Us volunteers worked side by side with the organizers, locals, and students. At the end of the day when the designated family was presented with its new home, there were tears, hugs, big smiles, and no better feeling than that of optimism. When you’re used to having a roof over your head you take it for granted. Being immersed in that environment and seeing the status quo of not having one really hit home for me.

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(The Elephant Freedom Project is a camp in Thailand, near Chiang Mai, that rescues abused animals and allows visitors to learn about them and support their efforts. Baby elephants are there with their moms and they learn to interact with humans in a caring environment.)

Elephant freedom

Another time, in Thailand, I spent a day at an ethical elephant sanctuary—a camp that rescues and provides a better life for the animals—where I got to feed and bathe them in nature. Elephants are the beloved national animal and official symbol of Thailand and for that same reason they’re horribly abused in the name of profit. While feeding them, I watched the elephants inspect my hand and turn their trunks to just the right angle to grasp the food. It tickled when they took it. I swear there were moments when I looked in their eyes and I knew they were looking back at me. All day I witnessed, in awe, their sensitivity and intelligence. Of the many things I learned, nothing compared to my feeling of connection with these beings.

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(Forestry rangers instruct volunteers on the proper way to plant new seedlings; the reforestation project goals are to plant over 30,000 new trees to replace those lost in the massive 2017 fire.)

Split causes

Here in Split, lots of organizations coax volunteers to support their cause. A recent meet-up was held to introduce a few of them, including animal rescue, a women’s shelter, and environmental groups. Animal shelters are dangerous for me, I love dogs and I want to take them all home. But that didn’t stop me from spending time at NO KILL animal shelter Animalis Centrum. Hiking and being in the great outdoors are other passions of mine. I quickly said yes to volunteering for a reforestation project on Mosor Mountain organized by the Croatian Scouts Association. It feels good to circulate in the community and experience the camaraderie of real people doing real things. In other words—it’s time to get off the computer!

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(Paola Palavecino is a spit ball of energy and she enthusiastically inspires her team to give their best effort and have fun.)

Beach cleaners

On International Volunteer Day, December 5, an independent crew led by Paola Palavecino descended on Kašjuni beach with trash bags, gloves, face masks, and determination to clean up the litter. For this lifelong beach kid, the assignment was a no-brainer. The seashore is my special place and it drives me mad to see trash discarded on the beach and washed up at the water’s edge. Who wants to lay their body down with that crap or swim through it? Given Croatia’s hunger for tourism, its heavy promotion of seaside/island pleasure, and its pride in the stunning natural landscape, immaculate beaches would be expected.

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(Discarded plastics are a common sight on Split’s beaches and even isolated spots like Kašjuni beach can’t avoid them.)

It was the first dry day after a week of slamming rain and thankfully the storm clouds held off. In a matter of hours, we hauled construction waste, filled large garbage bags, and stuffed smaller bags with cigarette butts.

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(Cigarette butts cause insidious harm through the release of heavy metals and other toxic chemicals. Statistics show that trillions of them are recklessly discarded, making them the world’s most littered plastic pollution.)

Public Service Announcement

Pardon this interruption for a brief PSA: That last item may seem inconsequential because cancer sticks are so widespread here, but the facts are disturbing. Littered cigarette butts leach toxic chemicals—arsenic, lead, nicotine—into the environment and they can contaminate water. The toxic exposure can poison fish as well as animals that eat them. What remains is literally the world’s most littered plastic pollution—trillions of those filtered tips are carelessly dumped into the environment annually. Whoa.

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(A new garbage product is popping up everywhere, the protective face mask.)

People’s consciousness

While I was cleaning one particularly trash-ridden part of the beach, a local was watching me go back and forth. Eventually he asked what was happening and I explained our effort and who we were. He didn’t understand why foreigners cared about cleaning the beach but he was impressed nonetheless. Contemplating this and looking at my trash bags filling up he said, “I think this says something about the consciousness of the people.” I said I agreed and then he walked away before a conversation could ensue. Boy did I want to talk with him and ask some questions. Perhaps he felt embarrassed, or maybe guilty, about what that consciousness actually says.

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(Volunteer Roxana Jamett is no stranger to environmental projects and sustainability. With her blog she shows people what’s possible to reduce plastics and live in healthier, cleaner world).

Travelers’ mistress

Travelers do care, deeply. The world is our mistress and we gush with enthusiasm at every opportunity to engage with her. The benefits we reap through exposure to people and places and new possibilities are priceless. 

In fact, the beach cleaning group was born from this mindset. An American traveler inquired on Facebook about cleaning Split’s beaches. Paola, a Chilean expat, read the post and recognized the need. Seeing that nothing was organized, she said “why not” and confidently rose up to lead it. The group that convened represented the additional countries of Australia, Croatia, Italy, and the UK.

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(Picking up refuse is tedious and backbreaking, but the toxicity from cigarette butts and their damage to people and the environment is worse.)

International Volunteer Day

International Volunteer Day is a mandate of the United Nations General Assembly since 1985. It promotes volunteerism; recognizes volunteer contributions to local, national, and global communities; and celebrates all facets of volunteer impact. It was an honor and a source of pride to be with such a proactive group on a day that stands for caring and giving.

Top 5 Reasons

For anyone who’s curious about the joy of volunteering and hasn’t yet raised their hand, here are some things to consider.

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(The product 2 Taktol is motor oil and this particular plastic bottle, found on Kašjuni, is a design from last century, it’s over 20-years old.)

1. Volunteering abroad is an opportunity of a lifetime to make a difference in a particular region; experiences and memories will stay with you for the rest of your life. You will truly become a traveler and not just a tourist.

2. Volunteers gain new perspectives and often return home with a better understanding and appreciation for different cultures and people.

3. Meet new people and make friends for life with like-minded folks who face problems head-on and in doing so become part of the solution.

4. Contribute to something bigger than yourself and boost your career. People who volunteer abroad demonstrate innovation, creativity, selflessness, and willingness to “get their hands dirty.” Wouldn’t you want to hire or work with someone like that?

5. Give back by helping communities, environments, people, and animals who are endangered or unable to take care of themselves. It’s about realizing that we are all connected through a greater humanity.

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(The Kašjuni beach cleaning volunteers are proud of a strong effort to give back and help make a difference.)

Learn more at TCN’s Digital Nomads channel. 

Story and photographs ©2020, Cyndie Burkhardt.

For more of Cyndie’s experiences, check out her Croatia Through the Eyes of a Digital Nomad column.  


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