Mather Travel Award Reports

If you are planning a trip to meet people of other nationalities and cultures, carry out a project somewhere in the world or volunteer to help international or UK communities then consider applying for this award. Read reports from some of the earliest recipients of this new DHSA travel award to inspire your sense of adventure.

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If you are inspired reading these Mather Travel Award success stories and meet the application criteria, you can apply right now!

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Olivia Openshaw

Award recipient Olivia Openshaw (2012) used the Mather Travel Award as part of a career break to travel to Myanmar where she worked for a solar energy social enterprise start up in Yangon, helping set up the accounting system from scratch.

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Olivia Openshaw

Olivia writes:

In March 2020 I worked for a charity based in Myanmar through Accounting for International Development, an organisation which connects charities around the world with volunteer accountants. I had read about this organisation in a National Geographic and thought it would be a good thing to incorporate into part of a ‘career break’ I had been granted from work. The scheme costs a set fee and in return they match your particular skills and available time to charities in an area of the world of your choice. I was offered the following four options: an internal audit of a charity supporting victims of sexual abuse in Vietnam, budgeting and cash flow forecasting for a community based organisation in Nepal, an accounts review for a charity providing for street families in Cambodia or, the one I chose: helping set up the accounting system from scratch for a solar energy social enterprise start up in Yangon.

Mee Panyar was formed in early 2019 with the aim of developing small scale solar systems to bring clean electricity to remote local communities. Their focus is on replacing the current systems which are based on diesel consumption with solar ones, having an impact both on the environment and improving accessibility to reliable and equitable sources of energy in the remote communities.

So far they have progressed very successfully and I went to support them setting up an internal financial system as thus far the accounting had been outsourced. This was my first venture in accounting outside audit at Deloitte and I started to really value my training when I realised how well I understood their company from a review of their finances.

Coronavirus was already beginning to be an issue before I set off but everything was still uncertain at the time and, as there were no cases in Myanmar, they encouraged me to come. Everything went well to begin with and I was a big fan of the two girls running Mee Panyar – both are American, my age (in their mid-twenties) and it was very inspiring to see their ambition and drive and what they’re achieving within a country governed so differently to what they’re familiar with, whilst also not speaking the language (though they are learning!). I spent a lot of time with them outside of work in Yangon and was pleasantly surprised to find many quirky art galleries and events amongst all the crumbling old colonial buildings. I also developed quite a taste for Burmese food – Shan noodles became a bit of a staple.

I had barely been there over a week, however, when the co-working space where we were based was closed with immediate effect due to coronavirus. This was a great shame as it was hugely atmospheric with a stunning view across the Yangon River – especially at sunset! Later that day the government announced that all schools were closing which prompted very chaotic mass stock piling. It was interesting to experience the unfurling of this pandemic in a country run by such a non-transparent government. The closure of schools, for instance, had seemed to be generally interpreted as an indication that the situation was far worse than let on (at this point there were still no confirmed cases in Myanmar), hence all the stockpiling – and not just of food, but also filtered water containers and cash.

It was agreed that in the circumstances I should switch my plans around and bring my travel forward in the hope that by the time I returned, things might have calmed down and the office space would have reopened. I went to Bagan, one of the more untouched and magical big ticket tourist destinations I’ve been to, before heading on to Inle Lake, famed for the traditional fishermen (photo). Despite living in a bubble where all the news was in Burmese, the daily BBC updates made it rapidly clear that things were not about to calm down at all. Whether or not to leave or which countries still had their borders open became big topics in the hostels – and then it became a concern that hub airports might close. It was increasingly obvious that I needed to cut my time short and then I heard that the other three non-Burmese members of the Mee Panyar team were arranging their departures back to their home countries.

I brought my flight forward just as the foreign office changed their guidance to request all nationals abroad to return home. It was only as I left Myanmar that the scale of what was happening elsewhere hit me. I arrived at the airport to find absolute mayhem. My connection from Doha to London had just been cancelled which meant that I wasn’t allowed on the flight to Doha. The solitary airline rep was struggling with the many people in a similar situation and there was a total scramble as we all tried to find alternative ways of getting home. A travel agent friend advised me to get on the first flight I could and was able to secure a ticket for me on a flight via Hong Kong. This wasn’t straight forward either though as the flight left in less than half an hour and as it was so last minute, it wasn’t possible to process a ticket online. However, by this point it was policy to accept any tickets and so the check in staff advised to buy the first that I could (3 days later) and I could travel on that. I ran to the departure desk, checked-in my luggage and then had a 20-minute mad dash through the airport to get on the plane. The most unsettling part of the whole experience, however, was the sea of hazmat suits which greeted me at the Hong Kong transit lounge. It was here where the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic really hit home.

I finished my placement remotely whilst self-isolating at my parents in the UK just as lockdown was announced. I can safely say it was not the experience I had anticipated but arguably it was an even more memorable and treasured one, particularly as the possibility of doing anything similar currently seems far on the horizon. Never have just over two weeks seemed more like months and months! I am extremely grateful for the time I had to support this worthwhile charity and thank the DHSA very much for awarding me the first Mather Travel Award. I hope to keep in contact with the Mee Panyar team and to visit them in the future.