Spots of Time

October 28, 2003

The Dark Side Of Volunteerism

Working without pay. Giving back to those less fortunate. A gesture of unselfish kindness. These are all things I associated with organized volunteerism. But, expectations and reality don't always speak the same language, as I would soon find out during a two-week work camp in northern Thailand.

I personally didn't have too much experience with volunteering and had always look admirably on those who did volunteer work - thinking that somehow those people were better than I - more kind, more benevolent, more altruistic. So, as part of my RTW adventure and in order to "better" myself, I knew I wanted to include volunteer work in my total experience - a way of giving something back to the countries in which I was luck enough to be traveling.

I found my work camp through Volunteers for Peace (, a Web database of hundreds of volunteer camps around the world. I chose VFP because they were the least expensive of the options I found in my online research.

If you have a notion that international volunteerism is a cheap way to have a vacation - think again. Of all the dozens of organizations I found, all required that the volunteer PAY - anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars - often for as little as a week-long experience.

VFP seemed like a bargain at only $200 per two-week work camp, plus an additional "onsite fee" that varied with each local organization. The Web site stated that the $200 would be used to pay for my room and board during the experience. Fair enough, I thought - I wasn't out to make money on this experience - I just wanted to help.

I should come clean now and admit that my motivation for volunteering was not completely selfless. I knew that volunteering was a good way to meet people. I knew it would allow me to experience things I was curious about but would not normally get a chance to do. And, in some cases, I knew it would provide me with skills that might be beneficial once I returned to a working life. But, I also genuinely felt that my contribution, however small or limited, would also be helpful - and needed. That it would mean something to someone.

After much debate I chose the Chiang Rai camp - working with Akha hill tribe people to help promote and preserve their way of life. As I mentioned in my last column, the Akha are a minority group that live around the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). As a whole they are underprivileged and often exploited by the governments of the countries in which they reside. They are a people "without country" and gain what little money they possess through farming - usually rice and peanuts - though some also resort to opium.

I arrived at the work camp full of energy, optimism and ready to learn - about the Akha, about what they were like, what they needed and how I could help them. However, four days later I was still waiting - as were the rest of the short-term volunteers (two Americans, one Danish, one Dutch, and one Aussie).

First, the two long-term volunteers, trained (and I use that term loosely) by Greenway, knew less about the Akha people than I did - and my information was limited to what I had read in Lonely Planet and through a quick visit to the Hill Tribe Museum in Chiang Rai. Despite the fact that the work camp had been going on for nearly a year, there wasn't one book about the Akha people, their culture or their language anywhere in the house. The only "dictionary" was a photocopied one created by a previous long-term volunteer - even though at least one major guidebook company had a published Hill Tribe phrasebook.

Second, no one in the work camp spoke a word of Akha or a word of Thai. To say that made communication difficult is an understatement. Sure, you can get by on gestures and single vocabulary works for things like food, accommodation, and bus schedules while traveling - but when you are trying to understand and assist a people to grow into a changing and modernizing society - you need more than sign language and caveman speak.

Finally, the long-term volunteers had done little more than set up house and continue the previous volunteers commitment to teaching two weekly one-hour sessions of English at the local school. They had been in the village for three weeks and still neither of them knew the head man's name. They had almost no plan for keeping a steady stream of short-term volunteers busy and neither of them was jumping forward to be the leader - in fact they were backing away from it as much as possible. As one of them said on our first day: "This is your camp - you can do what you want - as little or as much. If you just want to make a vacation, that is ok too."

Excuse me? I thought I had signed up for a WORK camp? Where was the well that needed digging? Where was the house that needed building? Where was the road that needed paving? Where was the field that needed plowing?

Where was the NEED?

The truth was, there was no need - at least not one that a group of baby-faced volunteers with no real skill except good intentions could provide them - especially when no one spoke the same language. The villagers were fed, clothed, housed and appeared to be happy. Some were materialistically better off than others, but as a whole, the only real problem I saw was the tendency for the men to indulge a bit too much in some homebrew whiskey and leave a disproportionate amount of work to the women. Still, that was no reason to set up an ill-equipped work camp in a mostly contented village - especially when the money wasn't even going to the village.

Most of the other volunteers were as disillusioned as I, but we decided to move forward with the home stay portion of our experience - if for nothing else, to ensure that SOME of the extra money we had paid actually went to the families. You see, each of us had paid $150 dollars upon arrival. We were all under the assumption that the majority of the money would be used to somehow help the Akha people. After a lot of questioning, the money breakdown appeared to be as follows: $100 was sent to the Greenway office in Bangkok. The remaining $50 was used "for the camp" - to buy food and supplies - and to pay for the home stay. The home stay fee was $4 per person, per night. Which means a grand total of $8 per person went to the village - and only if you were lucky enough to host a foreigner. The long-term volunteers lacked detailed information about where the majority of our money was going - and suspicions were rising.

After the home stay, by all accounts amazing, all of us become a little protective of these kind, wonderful people we'd just gotten to know. By staying in their homes, we had broken down the barrier separating the volunteers from the villagers. Finding out that Greenway was planning to form a for-profit organization called "GreenStay" - which would offer these home stays to the average tourist - made all of us shudder. Why? Because if Greenway was successful, we knew exactly what the future would hold for this village. It had already happened to countless others.

We'd all read about and seen the tourist office advertisements for "AUTHENTIC HILL TRIBE EXPERIENCE - FOUR VILLAGES IN TWO DAYS!" They were all billed as authentic - but how authentic could it really be? I'd heard the stories about these camps - and that was one reason I had chosen this volunteers experience instead. I wanted no part of a voyeuristic camera-touting group photographing villagers while tribal women stood in front of their homes - now converted into storefronts - and children ran to visitors like they were movie stars, slapping a bracelet on their wrists and holding out their hands saying, "10 baht! 10 baht!" All led by a Thai guide that often offered up opium and weed like, not thinking of the future negative influence left on the children of the village.

Yet, what could we do? It was only a matter of time before the road to this village was paved and bus loads of tourists came into the village. During one brainstorming session I had proposed that Greenway could still help - by educating the people about what could happen if tourism became their only source of income. By showing them other Akha villages that were shells of what they once were. By convincing the village elders that maintaining their traditions, stories, handicrafts, and language were vital. And, that while limited tourism might be a good supplementary income for the village - that the fields still needed to be planted and harvested - because there was no guarantee that the tourism would last. But my idea died, with dozens of others that were equally good - because our hands were tied. We were two week volunteers brainstorming 52 week ideas.

The day before I left the camp (4 days ahead of schedule and not the first one to leave), I looked through the report book - a sort of diary of the volunteer experiences in the Akha village over the past year. There, in black and white on page one, stood these words: "The village doesn't appear to know why we are here or what we are doing." The date was nearly a year ago, and as I read those words I thought - hmmm, not much has changed. Further reading found that prior to Greenway's arrival, adventurous travelers had already found their way to the village and had paid to stay there - no middleman or English lessons required - somehow the villagers had managed without us. And, on page two was a list of the important villagers and their names - headman included.

Before I left the camp, one of the volunteers told me that this experience confirmed her belief that the only effective place to do volunteer work was within your home country. I left the camp disappointed, disillusioned, helpless - and thinking that she just might be right.


Postscript: It's been three weeks since I left the Akha village. Five of the six volunteers left early and wrote long emails to Greenway detailing their disappointment and frustration with the camp and inquiring about a breakdown of where our money was spent. To date, no one has heard from Greenway. VFP, on the other hand, was quick to respond to all of us, and even refunded 100% of our initial fee (a shock to everyone as refunds are almost non-existent). VFP has also suspended all volunteers to this particular camp (they had apparently received complaints before) and is questioning Greenway regarding the remaining camps run by the organization.

Most of my fellow volunteers are unsure if they will ever do organized international volunteer work again. The consensus upon leaving the camp was that we were far better off just showing up somewhere we thought we could help - a school, a hospital, an orphanage, a temple. In fact, less than a week later, our Aussie volunteer did just that. He's currently helping a grassroots AIDS organization in Chiang Mai deliver meals and help people affected by the disease - helping where help is needed.

As for me, the discussions held among the volunteers while in the camp - and the communication I have received from VFP - has opened my eyes to the reality of volunteer work - both good and bad. It has made me realize that there IS a place for international volunteerism - but you have to do your homework. From now on, I hope to approach my volunteer work like I approach finding a job - doing all the background necessary to ensure that I am getting involved with an organization I can stand behind - even if it is only for a few weeks.

October 21, 2003

The Akha Way

I probably ate dog. If so, I’m certain to have said it was delicious. Delicious was one of only about three Akha words that I had memorized and at my disposal. The other two were Good Morning/Good Afternoon/Good Evening ("Udutoma") and Thank you ("Gruhuma"). So, in an effort to keep the "conversation" going, I complimented all food served to me with a big smile and the same word – "Yoku!"

In order to better understand the "Akha Way," all short-term volunteers at the work camp I was participating in were sent to live with different Akha families in our little village – for two days and two nights. We were paired off with another volunteer and armed with little more than a photocopied Akha phrasebook - created by a previous long-term volunteer. We had a general understanding that we were going to help the families in the fields.

The work camp had not been at all what we had expected to that point, and there was much dissent in the ranks of volunteers. Some of the volunteers weren't even sure that they would go to the homestay. However, knowing that the families would be paid for hosting us made us feel a little better, and in an effort to really give it a chance, the six of us decided to go. None of us would regret it.

Upon arrival at our new home, Maria (the volunteer I was paired with) and i were taken out to the family's fields by the grandmother and seven-year old granddaughter. The journey took a full hour - a distance the family put in nearly every day. The mother was already there, and had been working for several hours. Instead of putting us to work, however, she indicated we were to sit down and rest under a bamboo and banana leaf covered shelter. The little girl kept us company, offering us sunflower seeds and making faces, until lunchtime. When the mother got back, we ate the lunch she prepared over an open fire and then, following the woman's gestures, started back toward the village.

We were just beginning to wonder if we were going to work at all, when we stopped. The mother began pulling huge clumps of peanut plants out of the ground and tossing them into a pile. Our job was to separate the peanuts from the roots and dirt and place them on a plastic sheet she had spread on the ground. The work was not hard, but it was hot and the sun kept creeping into the shaded spot where we were sitting.

After a couple of hours, we started back toward the village. The woman carried all the peanuts (a considerable amount), some corn, a machetee, and god knows what else in a basket on her back. We offered to help but were shooed away. She was not a tall or especially large woman, but built strong. I later found out she was only 27 years old.

Back home we showered (scooping water our of a large metal drum and pouring it over ourselves) and then sat down to eat our first family meal – grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, and two daughters (the 9 year old had returned from school). We were sitting on a woven mat on the wooden floor of the family’s house, around a small round bamboo "table" filled with small bowls of food. The only furniture in the house were two beds - one for the grandfather and one for the grandmother. There were no chairs, no dressers, no tables, nothing. Maria and I had been handed individual bowls filled with rice, along with a spoon and chopsticks. Looking around we saw the family take their chopsticks or spoon, pick up mouthfuls of food from the center bowls, and transfer it to their own bowl or directly to their mouth.

Meals were always rice based, with a lot of vegetables and usually only one or two small bowls that contained some kind of meat. Peanuts were a frequent addition. Our family, like most of the others in the village, were farmers and corn, peanuts and rice were the main crops. The Akha are frequently accused of growing opium, and while this may still be in the case in some villages, it was not in ours. The drug of choice seemed to be whiskey, and only the men participated.

After dinner the family asked us if we were ready for bed. Both of us were exhausted and agreed. We crawled under our mosquito nets and onto our mats. Once "tucked in" we realized it was only 8:30 p.m.! We both laughed - neither of us had been to bed that early since we were children. While we slept, the family stayed up, watching television and talking quietly. Our bedroom was also the living room, dining room, television room, as well as the family's sleeping quarters.

The light was turned on at 5 a.m., but the cocks crowing woke me up hours earlier - whoever said they crow with the sun was mistaken! While Maria turned over and tried to get back to sleep, I sat up and was immediately sighted by the two kids. The mom and the kids motioned for me to come with them, so grabbing my glasses and my shoes, I followed them out of the house and into the darkness outside. The littlest girl held my hand while the older one held a flashlight.

We walked a short distance to a neighbor’s house, where the women stood chatting in front of this huge tree stump. Upon closer inspection I saw that it was hollowed out inside and filled with a sticky white substance. One of the women was using a huge log to repeatedly pound the mixture in the tree stump – picture a giant mortar and pestle made of wood and you’ll get the idea.

I wanted to watch and to help but was ushered inside the home where the children and most of the men sat watching a color television with DVD player. On the television was what can only be described as hill tribe music/karaoke videos. A man dressed in various ethnic costumes would sing different songs while the words flashed at the bottom of the screen. At one point the father of my family said that the particular song we were listening to was Akha - though the man himself was not Akha. Apparently, this was a compilation of different hill tribes and the man was singing in a variety of languages.

After about 30 minutes, I wandered back outside, as the light was breaking and I was more curious about what the women were doing. The mother in our family had just finished her pounding and was using a thin bamboo "string" to scrape the sticky goo from the mortar. She piled it high on a bamboo tray lined with some kind of seeds or grain, and we walked back to the house. Looking back I saw another woman empty the contents of a pot into the tree trunk – hot rice – and start pounding.

Maria had just gotten up and sat with us as the grandmother took the sticky goo and made balls of it wrapped in grain. We were each given one and the kids started eating right away. Dipped in sugar it was delicious. The rest of the morning Maria and I followed the mother around the village, visiting sisters (she had several) and friends. We returned to the house for lunch, and were joined by several friends and family members – all women. After lunch, eaten on the front porch, we stayed, some women talking, some sleeping, some nursing their babies and some working on handicrafts.

At this point Maria asked if she could take a picture of the mother working on her handicrafts. She said yes. Up until now, I had not taken out my camera, for fear of further "westernizing" this village. However, after seeing the DVD player that morning, and noticing the satellite dish in another yard, I decided my little digital camera was not going to corrupt them more than they had already been "corrupted."

The fun began when I showed them the picture I had taken – immediately the little kids were enthralled and I could see that even the mother and grandmother were having fun looking at their pictures. I had not seen any pictures in the house, and wasn’t sure if the family even had photographs of themselves. At this point the grandmother offered to let us try on her traditional Akha clothing. Most of the villagers don’t wear the traditional clothes except on special occasions (we'd only see a few of the older women wearing them) so we were thrilled.

Ten minutes later Maria was dressed from head to waist in traditional Akha fashion and was posing for a picture. Then came my turn. Then the little kids wanted to try on their grandmother’s headdress. Then the mother asked if I would take her picture. Then the grandmother. The entire afternoon was spent playing dress up – but instead of dolls we were dressing up each other - even the neighbors took part. After each picture everyone would crowd around the camera to see what the pictures looked like – laughing and joking. I promised to send copies of the pictures back to them.

The next morning, after breakfast, we packed out bags to leave. The mother gave us each a bracelet and a necklace, and as we walked out the door, a hard boiled egg. We were perplexed by the egg but thanked her profusely for it.

Upon arrival back at the volunteer clubhouse, we excitedly exchanged stories with the other volunteers. All of us had wonderful homestay experiences – and all were completely varied - one couple had even gone to a village meeting. The homestay was a breath of fresh air for the group and we were all renewed with energy to try and turn the program around - actually DO something for our last week. Though we asked around, no one else received eggs, so Maria and I are still unsure if the gift was symbol or just "food for the road."

That weekend the volunteers took a trip to the city of Chiang Rai, and so I was able to get the pictures printed right away. We wanted to give them to the family in person, instead of mailing them later. The night before we left the village, Maria and I dropped by the house and gave them the pictures. For a good 10 minutes, we were invisible as the whole family crowded around the pictures, laughing and pointing. We said our goodbyes and as best as we could expressed that we were leaving. They asked if we were coming back and I told them as honestly as I could that I didn't know - but that I hoped so. Even though the volunteer experience was a bit of a disaster (more on that later) the homestay was easily the best part of the two weeks - and I truely hope that one day I would be able to come back and visit again.

October 14, 2003

American Citizenship And Other Dubious Distinctions**

The year was 1997 and I was on a bus bound for the town of San Agustin, Colombia. Sitting next to me was a young Colombian mother with the fattest baby I have ever seen. As the trip was 6 hours long on dirt roads, we had plenty of time to get acquainted. Her baby's name was Arnold - not your typical Latino name. "I named him after the American actor - Arnold Schwarzenegger," she said proudly.

The year is 2003 and I am sitting in an Internet cafe after 10 days in a remote hill tribe village in Thailand. The Danish girl next to me draws my attention to the headline of her country's newspaper. Though I can't read Danish, the photograph accompanying the story says more than enough. Arnold Schwarzenegger, regally staring ahead, with a Mona Lisa smile on his lips and the American flag flying proudly behind him.

I am not proud to be an American.

I am not saying this because the Terminator is the new governor of the state I called home for five years. I am not saying this to start a fight - though almost every other time I have made this statement an intensive debate has followed (in which I was the minority). I am saying this because it's true - and because I can.

The fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines "proud" as "feeling pleasurable satisfaction over an act, possession, quality, or relationship by which one measures one's stature or self-worth." I do not feel "pleasurable satisfaction" for my American citizenship - nor do I measure my self-worth or stature on the fact that I was lucky enough to be born in a country that is currently the most powerful country in the world.

The United States of America is arguably the only superpower left in the world. Its influence is spread far and wide - from McDonald's and KFC chains worldwide, to Betty Boop T-shirts in remote Akha villages. Despite the fact that I don’t usually follow the news in the United States while traveling, I am always informed of what is going on - usually from fellow travelers, all of them from nations other than the United States. Most of them are more aware and better educated on US foreign policy than my fellow Americans. I guess they have to be - they never know when it will affect them. Someone told me that the United States presidential elections are the only such elections in the world that are internationally broadcast (and viewed). I had no idea.

The United States gives millions of dollars in aid to poor African countries, pressures Asian countries to outlaw the cultivation of drug crops such as opium, and brokers Middle East peace agreements. We are first in line to give aid to warn-torn nations, and to criticize governments with records of human rights abuses.

The United States also holds hundreds of orphaned refugee children in detention centers, starts wars with smaller, weaker countries despite popular opinion and international pressure to the contrary, funds rebels groups one day (in the name of democracy) and says they are the "axis of evil" the next day (in the name of peace). We are the sole market for 50% of the heroin produced worldwide. We help overthrows governments for fear of Communism and bombs countries in "secret" wars - stories that never get included in newspapers, much less the history books.

God Bless America.

I know what you are saying. No country is perfect. What country doesn't have some skeletons in their closet? Sure, maybe the US does some bad things, but don’t the good things outweigh the bad ones? Corruption is far and wide in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe. Why single out the United States?

Because I can. Because I hold the United States up to a higher standard and I think others should as well. Because a country with so much power, and so much influence, has got to be BETTER. Has got to try HARDER. Because I was born there and I think we can do more. Know we can. And, if we don't set a higher standard - who will?

I admit that several months ago I read Michael Moore's "Stupid White Men." But all his book did was provide some facts and dates and figures for thoughts that have been running around in my head for a while now. His opinions and his views are clearly colored by his experiences, his past history and his current ideology - I have no illusion that he is trying to be unbiased. Still, I congratulate him for putting his ideas down - for saying his mind and giving us some facts to back up the opinion. And, for managing to get the book published.

Don't get me wrong. I count my blessings regularly that I was LUCKY enough to be born an American citizen. I can stand on any street corner and wax prophetic on any topic I like - from what really goes into a McDonald's hamburger to conspiracy theories about the bombings in NYC to the contents of George W. Bush's underwear drawer - without worry that someone is going to haul me off to jail or worse. I can groan audibly whenever anyone asks me if I voted for George W. Bush - and patiently explain, AGAIN, that in the United States it is possible for a man to receive less than the majority of votes and STILL manage to be President. A former roommate of mine can keep a gun under her bed - just in case. An ex-pat friend of mine can actively try to avoid returning to the United States - while still keeping his citizenship. Michael Moore can write a book that bashes the United States political system, highlighting corruption normally saved for Hollywood movies about third world nations - and make it to the best seller list. And, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former Mr. Universe, born in Austria to a father who may or may not have been a Nazi-sympathizer, can become the Governor of California, a state who's economy ranks 5th in the WORLD.

America is an amazing place. A place of miracles and slights of hand. A place where people can not vote, yet feel they have the right to complain at will about anything they don't like - even write books about it. Maybe you aren't proud that Arnold Schwarzenegger is now a political figure and running one of the largest states in the country. Maybe you aren't proud to be an American. But I don’t think anyone can challenge me when I say, you should consider yourself lucky to be born there. Somewhere, in a remote town in Colombia, a Colombian mother is proud of her decision to name her little boy Arnold - a name that, to her, stood for something special. Because maybe, just maybe - he will be as lucky as the big Arnold - and grow from immigrant roots to become an internationally known name - even if it is practically impossible to spell. Weirder things have happened.

As for the newly elected Governor Arnold, I say "congratulations" and "my condolences" in the same breath. He's got a tough job in front of him - and a tough electorate to answer to if he can't keep his promises. In truth though, I really can't imagine he will do much worse than anyone else. But, if you aren't in favor of his governorship, don't worry too much. Console yourself with this nugget. His political aspirations can't get any bigger. I believe the Constitution still states that only people born in the United States can grow up to be President. Someone might want to tell George W. I'm guessing he was beginning to sweat a bit about re-election.