Out of Cash in Outer Mongolia

Foregoing the safety of the backroom office, Debbie Jeremiah, swapped her UK job for expedition life in the wilds of Patagonia and Outer Mongolia. We talk to Debbie about her experiences as expedition accountant for Raleigh International

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Accountant Volunteer in Mongolia

 

Adventure in the mountains of South America and the steppe of Mongolia is not traditionally associated with accountancy. What made you decide to join a Raleigh International Expedition?

My primary reason was to utilise my professional skills in a unique and challenging overseas environment, but one that is slightly outside the normal accounting role.  Working for a youth development charity was an attraction, but I also wanted to have lots of adventure and fun!

After an unusual assessment weekend, which was undertaken in hiking boots, tents and mud, I chose to undertake the Patagonian expedition, located in Southern Chile at the start of 1999, one of the largest expeditions run by Raleigh.

What were you doing up to the point you left the UK?

After qualifying three years ago as a Chartered Accountant I worked in the Thames Valley as a European Corporate Finance Manager for the European HO of a semiconductor distributor.  Six months prior to the expedition I undertook a short term contract as a Business Analyst for a construction plc.

The Chile expedition started in January of this year and lasted for three months, after which time I travelled extensively in South America.  After receiving an offer to act as accountant on another expedition, I flew out to Mongolia at the start of June.  This will finish at the end of September.

Why does Raleigh International need an expedition accountant?

The expedition accountant on Raleigh is a volunteer position, based for 12 weeks at Field Base in the expedition country.  The expedition involved 100 young volunteers known as Venturers and up to 48 Staff.  The primary role of the accountant is to set up, monitor and control the day-to-day expenditure and oversee the financial management of the expedition.  Financial records are maintained on a small account's package and regular financial reports submitted back to the UK Head Office. 

How would you describe a typical day on the expedition?

A typical day begins with a Field Base team meeting at 7.30.  Field Base consists of approximately ten staff, whose specialities help to ensure the smooth running of the expedition.  In Chile, the stunning views from the 'office' helped make the early morning meetings bearable!  In Mongolia we live in traditional 'ger' (white felt tents) with views of post communist Soviet-style high rise apartment blocks and the extended ger suburbs on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar the capital city and the rolling Mongolian hills.

Although there is no such thing as a typical day on expedition, most days are filled with maintaining the financial records, ensuring sufficient funds were available for the logistics team and project managers, monitoring cash flow levels and maintaining budgetary control over expenditure.  Fluctuating currencies require constant monitoring and regular visits to the local banks are necessary to obtain cash, bank traveller's cheques and exchange currency. Daily email contact with the UK Head Office accountants ensured that I have the necessary advice and support required.

Some people may be concerned about their level of fitness; did you have to undergo any special training?

Although primarily located at Field Base, I do get the opportunity to visit the projects and work alongside the Venturers. To get the most from these visits and to fully appreciate the often stunning, wild locations you have to be actively involved and get your hands dirty. High levels of fitness aren't generally required for the expedition accountants; that's the job of the mountain leaders!

During each three-month mission, you must have had some amazing experiences.  What was the most memorable incident on each expedition?

Having the opportunity to spend time on the project sites with a group of volunteers, experiencing what they are experiencing and integrating into the rural Patagonian community is an intensely rewarding experience.

The South American landscape is stunning, especially the Laguna San Rafael, which is part of the Patagonian ice cap that can only be reached by plane or boat.  Being 'marooned' on a small beach opposite the glacier to trap wild cats for radio tracking, with the only entertainment being watching the ice bergs floating past, was an experience that will stick in my memory for a very long time, as will driving the inflatable boats across the Laguna, through the icebergs.

The Mongolian expedition has only just begun, but I'm looking forward to spending time on project sites in the Gobi desert, and three weeks on horseback in the Northern Mongolian forests. 

What do you think you are gaining from your experiences?

There is immense satisfaction on being part of a successful expedition and knowing that the projects have made a contribution to the country and people.  Working together with a team of up to 40 other highly qualified and professional staff members from all walks of life is tremendous fun and being part of the expedition can be a powerful and rewarding experience, as can working in a remote area and gaining insights into different cultures and customs. 

What advice would you give someone who is interested in becoming an expedition accountant?

There are a number of vital skills required, primarily initiative, common sense, teamworking skills, stamina, flexibility, unending patience and a sense of humour.  These are just as important as general bookkeeping ability and a good working knowledge of Word and Excel. Experience in working with foreign currencies would be valuable and a language would be useful, but not essential (as my limited Spanish and Mongolian proves). My advice would be to phone Raleigh, discuss the role and then pick a country!

What are your plans now?  Have you still got itchy feet?

Halfway through my post expedition travels in the Amazonian jungle, the opportunity to be the expedition accountant in Mongolia arose.  Well I couldn't say no, could I?  I flew out mid June 1999.

A normal '9-5' office job doesn't easily compare to expedition life, but I'm looking forward to drawing on and utilising my new experience when I return home to the UK in September.

For more information see Raleigh International's web-site: www.raleigh.org.uk 

Image courtesy David Berkowitz