Prior to travelling through Latin America last year, I had flirted with the idea of volunteering, possibly on a farm in Argentina. To me, travelling can be a selfish act and because I was spending so much time away, I thought it would be a good idea give back into a community if I had the opportunity to do so. However, in the end I was so pressed for time as I had given myself a fairly unrealistic goal of getting from Mexico to Chile within the time frame and the speed that I was comfortable with. So in the end, the hope of any sort of volunteering was something that I had to let go of
Before I left for SE Asia, I was determined to make time to volunteer. If I was going to travel through the area properly then I’d have to slow down and spend time in an area to understand the people and issues, rather than what the touristy things there were to do. I had been following Shannon from A Little Adrift’s blog for a while now and have been always drawn to her approach to travel volunteering. She even wrote a book about it. She is also the founder of Grassroots Volunteering, a site that aims to connect people with community based organisations and also social enterprises around the world. This is how I came across Sapa O’Chau.
Sapa O’Chau is a social enterprise that primarily arranges treks within the Sapa region. They also fund a school that aims to improve the literacy levels of the local ethnic minority children, street vendors and tour guides. Many of them don’t have the opportunity at an early age as they end up street selling to make an income for the family and at best, they drop out of school at an early age to work. By improving their literacy skills, the children can re-enter government schools and afterwards, Sapa O’Chau helps with vocational training and employment primarily within the hospitality sector. The organisation was started by Ms Shu Tan who herself is a H’mong native and has built the organisation up from scratch with the help of other specialists and volunteers. I was in Hanoi when I got in touch with them and a few days later I was on the overnight train and my time volunteering in Sapa commenced that same day.
Most volunteers who come to Sapa O’Chau work as teachers. However, with my marketing experience, I spent most of the time in the office. Most of my time was spent helping out with the soon to be launched website, developing additional content for their trekking tours and writing staff biographies including taking staff portrait shots. They also have a partnership with a local hotel so I spent some time photographing the rooms and sub editing marketing material. Towards the end of my stay I also dabbled in some training for the school staff on how to use Google search and Microsoft Excel.
The typical day would start at 8am but it usually took me take an hour to find my feet and get out of the firm bed and be up by nine. I’d then shuffle down to the kitchen where I’d boil up some water for a two minute noodle breakfast. It’s a ten ten minute wander through the neighbourhood back alleys to the office. Some days, it would be nice weather, others days it would be blanketed in a heavy mist. You never know what kind of weather would present itself each day. The office space itself is located above the Sapa O’Chau Cafe. In the cramped office space would be Mr Chau the director, Peter the associate director, Ms Shu the founder, Ms Dung the volunteer manager, Ms Tang the accountant, myself and David the other volunteer who would look after customer enquiries.
I’ll be the first to admit that the work wasn’t as challenging and stressful but I was ok with that though. A times it felt like I was an intern helping out with most of the admin work but in the end, I actually learnt a thing or two about booking systems and what not to do when implementing a complex system like it. Some days we’d take the day off and go exploring around the surrounding towns on scooters. It was the only time that I go to to see the regions further out of town as we lucked it on those occasions with the weather whereas most weekends the weather was pretty lousy.
For most meals, the organisation supplied us with lunch and dinner at our lodging up on the hills of Sapa, so we’d walk back most days at lunch time to be fed. In an orderly line we’d wait for the meals to come out – Rice, vegetables, and protein of some sorts. Sometimes it was chicken, pork and tofu. Amongst the 32 students, they were split into groups who would take turns in the food preparation: Cooking, cleaning and serving. I wouldn’t call it the most spectacular food but free meals go a long way as long as you brought your own bottle of soy sauce as additional flavouring
One day Mr Ban, the lodging manager found out that I liked to cook so asked if I wanted to cook for everybody. Thirty two students and fifteen volunteers = piece of cake right? What’s a dish that they probably have never eaten and that the volunteers would enjoy? Spaghetti Bolognese of course. Those who know me would attest that I make a pretty mean bolognese. It’s usually cheap to make and goes a long way. How wrong would I be though, paying $10 for a 3 litre tin of tomatoes and $1.50 for a packet of dried spaghetti. Needless to say, I went slightly over the $20 budget topped up with my own funds. However, everybody seemed to scoff it down happily and it was amusing seeing the bolognese and rice fusion that the students came up with during serving time.
The benefit of spending extended periods of time in an area is that you get to experience the local customs and rituals. On my first full day in Sapa, I was invited by the organisation to attend a local wedding in the neighbouring H’mong village of Lao Chai. One of the guides was getting married and we were all invited.
In Sapa, it’s not unusual to get married at an early age, most of the time as an arranged marriage. When I say early, some women get married as young as thirteen. Combined with the fact that the indigenous population already naturally look young are short in stature, it can look out of the ordinary for outsiders.
Despite arriving a little late, we made it in time for the wedding reception. We managed to catch the bride on her way out with the wedding party on their way back to the husband’s family’s home. On her way out, she proceed to shed some tears. I asked why she was crying to which I was told were tears of joy, but I couldn’t help think that they were tears of sadness. After having so much contact with foreigner customers who would talk about their families and spouses and also the visible laziness of the local men, I could understand why some wouldn’t be too happy to be married off.
Two homes were utilised for the reception and we still managed to part take in the post wedding celebrations. This mainly involved eating copious amounts of sticky rice with blood sausage, fatty cuts of pork, sautéed vegetables. All washed down many of shots of homemade rice wine that would strip away a thin layer of stomach lining with each shot. As tradition, the father of the bride would come to each table, pay his respects to the guests for their attendance and invite the table to a shot of rice wine. As the father had passed away, the mother was in charge of this responsibility and her match performance was beyond impressive.
I was also privileged enough to be able to tag along on a walk from Sapa to Lao Chai village again with Sua, who worked at the cafe. For three hours she gave us a tour along rice fields and rivers to where she lived and cooked us a lunch of tofu and greens. The simple act of taking foreigners for a visit to your home may seem like a trivial and mundane task for a local, but is a special and differentiating activity that I find myself trying to discover more and more now. It also meant we weren’t followed by many of the local villages who sell their textiles and handicraft to tourists.
The most bizarre local custom I encountered was during a overnight homestay on a trek through the nearby Red Dao villages. After an 18km hike and a dip in a medicinal bath, we were treated to something I’ll never forget. The father of the house had recently been ill and a shaman was called in to perform a blessing. This wasn’t a case of sending in a holy man and saying a few prayers – this was the real deal. For the entire night, the shaman and his assistants would chant, play with trinkets and jump around in a trance like state which I found quite captivating for most of the evening. The night for me ended just after the chicken sacrifice at around midnight but the festivities went well into the early hours of the morning.
By the time my three weeks of volunteering in Sapa were up, I was looking forward to the new adventures ahead but also found it difficult to leave. I felt like by the end of the second week, I was starting to bond with the students and the staff. From a volunteering point of view, its difficult to gauge whether or not I made a difference during my time there. Having mostly worked in the office for three weeks, I kept asking myself what difference is this making? I used to be under the impression that to make a difference you really had to spend a substantial time at a place to make it fair on oneself as well as for the those who you are trying to help. It would also be difficult for them to see so many people go in and out so quickly. By the end though, I think regardless of how long you decide to stay, as long as you show appreciation for learning something new, gratitude for the opportunities, enthusiasm for making own mark on the place and genuinely care then that’s what the people appreciate the most.
Have you ever volunteered or thought about volunteering during your travels?