No time like the present
Having spent eight years living in Westport, Donegal native Tracy Bonner is now seeking a new challenge on the other side of the planet
TRACY Bonner has become a familiar face around Westport over the last number of years. Having moved to the town nearly eight years ago from her native Donegal, she has immersed herself in the tourism industry and become a leading figure in the promotion of the town.
The marketing executive at the Harbour Mill Apartments at The Quay fell in love with the town while working for a summer in Westport House, so her decision to uproot and make ‘a leap of faith’ by committing to a stint of volunteer work in Mongolia and Vietnam wasn’t taken lightly. In fact, Tracy just felt it was something she had to do.
“I think the timing was right and I felt if I did not take a leap of faith and do something I always wanted to do, then I’d probably end up regretting it at some stage. So on September 4, I’m leaving Westport and by September 9 I’ll be 5,000 miles away teaching English to children in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.”
Rather than committing herself to a long stretch of voluntary work, Tracy has decided to ‘dip her toe in the water first’ by organising two months in two separate countries.
First off will be a month in the most sparsely-populated country in the world, Mongolia, and then its on to Hanoi in Vietnam, where she has committed to working in an orphanage for a month, working in the most part with street children. After that, who knows?
“I haven’t ruled out an extension of my time yet but initially I’m going to see how I get on in Mongolia and Vietnam. Who knows, I might be back to Ireland in the middle of the recession looking for a job but this is something I always wanted to do and really it was now or never. I’m just going to run with it now, it will probably be completely different to what I imagined – but hopefully it’s something that will stick with me forever.”
Although helping the less privileged in the world has always been on Tracy’s agenda, it wasn’t until a visit to Kenya on holiday last year that she ultimately decided to start making concrete plans.
“I suppose the seeds were sown when I went on a holiday to Kenya, and as part of the trip we went to a Massi village and there I saw extreme poverty up close, and it really opened my eyes. During the last few weeks here in Westport, everyone – including myself – has done nothing but complain about the weather, when really in comparison to the extremes experienced in other countries, we are quite lucky.”
So, when someone decides they want to volunteer and help the deprived in a less well-off country, where is the starting point?
Tracy, having heard about Voluntary Service International, decided to contact them.
Voluntary Service International (VSI) is the Irish branch of Service Civil International, a worldwide peace movement started in 1920 in the aftermath of the First World War. VSI itself was founded in 1965 and has since undertaken a wide variety of voluntary and community work throughout Ireland and has sent volunteers to similar projects in over 70 countries worldwide. So, with so many destinations to choose from, and so many people to help, how did Tracy end up in Mongolia of all places?
“After contacting VSI they were directing me to a lot of African projects like in Tanzania and other places but most of those projects were for three to six months and initially I was looking for something a little shorter. So Mongolia was mentioned to me and, to be honest, I was fascinated with thoughts of travelling there straight away. And it’s kinda strange, since I decided to travel there there have been loads of articles in the papers about Mongolia which have only heightened my anticipation.”
Tracy will be based in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, a city roughly the same size as Dublin, but famous for being ‘the coldest capital city in the world’. However, luckily for Tracy, weather conditions for September will be pretty similar to here as the subarctic climate which leads to temperatures of -30 degrees Celsius does not kick in until much later in the year.
“Initially I probably won’t be faced with that much poverty as I will be teaching English to children in a secondary school. But one-third of the country’s population lives below the poverty line so I have braced myself for a life far from luxury. There certainly won’t be any need for the hair straightener or the fake tan anyway. I suppose one of the main things I have been getting slagged about from my friends is the fact that most of the diet in Mongolia is based around meat – and I’m a vegetarian.”
After one month in Mongolia, it’s on to Vietnam’s Hanoi, one of the most manic cities in the world, home to six million people.
“It will be much different in Vietnam as the orphanage where I will be working, which was built by the French, houses a lot of children with disabilities. A lot of the street children who live there actually work during the day and it is during the evening that they come in and try to get some education.”
While it’s easy to sense the anticipation in Tracy’s voice as she is about to embark on her adventure, there is also a genuine sense of sadness at leaving her friends in the Harbour Mill and in Westport.
“It was a really hard decision to make because I really love my job here in the Harbour Mill; everyone in here is like a member of my family, and I do really love Westport too.”
Having been involved at the coal-face of tourism in Westport through her work with Destination Westport and as Chairperson of Westport Tourism Organisation, Tracy is well-positioned to evaluate where the town can go from here. By all accounts, 2008 has been a tough year due to the economic downturn and the terrible summer weather, but Tracy sees no reason for Westport to worry about its long-term involvement in the tourism industry.
“Westport, in my opinion, will always be able to adapt, primarily because Westport has such a strong sense of community and both community groups and individual businesses pull together for the good of the town. They are able to see the bigger picture, which is something a lot of towns don’t do,” she remarks.
“Of course there are major challenges ahead, people are now much, much wiser with their money, they are looking for a bargain all of the time and as a result they book their breaks much later and for shorter periods. Hardly any families or couples take two weeks’ holidays in the one town anymore.
“But I think Westport will most certainly hold its own. If you have the beautiful heritage and structure of Westport coupled with a great community ethos – and the support of a lot of key people in the town – then it’s easier to come through the bad times.”
A native of Culdaff village on the Inishowen Peninsula, just a few short miles from Malin Head, Tracy remembers the first day she came to Westport.
“It was a really, really sunny day and I remember the girls in the Sacred Heart having this fancy tartan uniform, and I thought this must be a very fashionable town altogether.
“Once I decided to settle here and live in the town, I found it easy to blend in and be part of the community, which is not always the case in a lot of other towns, and it’s easy to become part of organisations and get really involved; people don’t see you as an outsider.”
Tracy admits that it may be impossible not to be an outsider in Ulaanbaater, for the first few days at least. She is the only Irish person travelling to Mongolia, with the group likely to be made up of mostly Koreans and Canadians, and while she admits to being nervous, excitement too has kicked in.
“I have started to get nervous, there were still 13 weeks to go when I handed in my notice at work but now that it is just around the corner, I find myself reading the Lonely Planet about Mongolia, and learning that in the winter the kids keep their feet warm by standing in cowpats! It most certainly will be a change of scenery, but I’m ready for the challenge.”