Has life sped up? The days, weeks, and months whip past faster than I can count. I landed in Oaxaca, Mexico in January. Two months later, I’m settled but restless. Does that even make sense? Traveling is a hard habit to break. I bought a coffee cup when I arrived. It was a small concession to settling in one spot for six months. Yet, my mind hums with frenetic energy when I ponder the places I still want to experience. And then I look around and remind myself I’m here. I’m in Oaxaca because I need slow, not frenetic.
Oaxaca’s an easy city. Street food is plentiful. The vegetables are gorgeous. It’s a small enough city that life is accessible. Plus, the old colonial center is all cobbled streets and colorful buildings — you know I’m a sucker for cobblestone! I’ve traveled through swathes of Mexico, and Oaxaca State has a culture all its own. I dig it. This region has the highest concentration of indigenous groups in all Mexico. There are 16 dominant groups, each with unique languages and cultures. Then there’s a whole other subsection of dialects too. It’s this mix of cultures that I find fascinating in a new place. I have fangirled all over Guatemala for years now — another country with an intriguing interplay between the indigenous and hispanic majority. Until now, I hadn’t traveled in Southern Mexico, where a similar dynamic exists.
All this to say, it was a pleasant surprise to find more to learn about Mexico. Before we dive in, many of you have emailed asking for updates and posts via video. I’ve long promised to do more of this, so either read on for the writing, or take a peek at this video. Or both.
On Local Grassroots Tourism
Thanks you to the ALA and Grassroots Volunteering communities for the outpouring of support. I found a wonderful organization here in Oaxaca City. Fundación En Via is a microlending organization working in the Oaxaca Valley. They use tourism to offer interest-free loans to women business-owners. Friends first emailed me about En Via many months ago, when I first floated the idea of basing from Oaxaca. Soon, readers reached out to share their positive experiences with En Via. I had to find out for myself. Now, the more I learn about their work, the more I want to support it.
I wrote a profile of En Via for the WTTC, it shares a bit more about their tourism model and mission. Twice a week, I bus into the indigenous communities in the Valley to photograph the women in the program. I also help in their English language program when they need it. Their network of volunteers help run many aspects of the organization’s many programs and support services. If you’re visiting, or thinking of staying for a bit, I totes recommend their tours and their volunteering opportunities.
Other organizations in town also have some neat projects. In my remaining months, I’ll continue exploring the social enterprises scene. Anyone have any that they’ve visited and loved?
On Work & A Little Adrift
For the first time in many years (a decade?), I have taken a break. I am on a hiatus from the online marketing and SEO work that paid my bills these last years on the road. While some people save up for years to travel, I landed an online job straight out of college. I’ve done that type of work every day since. I took a couple short breaks, once for a Vipassana course, and another to travel through Myanmar. But this is the first time I’m actually taking a sabbatical. Or, a semi-sabbatical. I don’t actually know how to stop working. I told myself I would take a break — I have a small savings that gives me leeway — but I still have one client. And I am still writing a few travel pieces for other outlets.
There are all these articles online about our cult of working; I feel behind when I try to stop. But also, I like my travel work. I like writing.; it’s less like work. My hope though, is to funnel my extra time into career and life projects. With my RSI injury in 2013, I’m careful with my online time. I’m also careful with how I work — this new resource page shares the ergonomic travel system I am using to prevent further injury.
Other things. I took on the task of reading 52 Books in 2016. This page follows that journey with my favorite thoughts and quotes from each book. I’m also committed to spending the spring volunteering as a photographer for En Via. And the final project I hope to accomplish here in Mexico is to expand the site’s helpful resources.
To that end, I’ve launched the first of several ALA-style country guides. These pages will cover places I’ve traveled. They collect all the knowledge and resources you should know before you go. The first handful are up. If you’re planning a trip to Guatemala, Georgia, Thailand, Mexico’s Yucatán, or Cuba, I’d be chuffed if you used them! In addition to basic travel facts, each guide to includes responsible travel ideas and social enterprises to support in that part of the world.
On Current Travels
Balance. This is a struggle and something I’ve written about in the past. One ALA reader gave me an interesting perspective shift when I last wrote about my struggle. I wanted to create a life that includes travel, but also a balance of work, volunteering, and friends. My musings then noted that I was searching for that balance, and for a place where it existed. He reframed it as something I have to create. So I’m trying. It was a good reframe on the situation. Part of my reasons for living in Oaxaca this spring has been to better balance my life. Besides work and volunteering, I’ve loved using Oaxaca as a base to explore more of the area.
My work with En Via takes me out into the villages, but it’s the day trips with friends that are one of the highlights. My friend Jodi is here too. When her mum came to visit, we all hightailed it out to the beautiful Hierve el Agua rock formation. This is day-trippable from Oaxaca and is one of the prettiest spots in Mexico. The calcium carbonate in the rock creates variegated pools of turquoise water. This post from Jodi shares a bit more about the formation of this spot and travel details.
Then there’s the long history of the region, with the beautiful ruins of Monte Alban. These are not Mayan ruins, like those found in so much of southern and eastern Mexico. It was intriguing to compare this site to those I’ve visited in the Yucatán.
On What’s Next
I’m here until summer and I am blocking out next steps. I don’t have a plane ticket yet, just a stamp in my passport with a firm date of exit. Whenever I think of what I’ll do after Mexico, that’s when the frenetic energy creeps into me. I’ve floated the idea of walking the Camino de Santiago in the fall. Should I? Thoughts and advice welcome if you’ve done it. And I’d also love to return to Asia sometime soon. And then there’s this whole issue of creating the balance that I want. As I’ve said before, I recognize immense privilege in the ability to craft my life. I’m grateful for these opportunities. I’m also in a transition out of the style of long-term travel I’ve always done. I don’t know what life looks like when I slow down.
After months in Africa this past spring, which was a tough trip for me, I spent summer on a hiatus from A Little Adrift and instead headed to the beach with my nieces and nephews, hiked a bit in the Pacific Northwest, spoke at convention in Atlanta, dinner-ed with friends in Florida, and lost myself in the streets of New York City. It was a needed break. But now, as hurricane season approaches Florida, the patter of raindrops and cool breezes send me back to my computer. And so, as I finish editing my 6,000+ photos from Africa, I’d like to share the what, why, and how about Grassroots Volunteering, a project I’ve mentioned a few times on A Little Adrift but somehow never formally shared.
I beta-launched Grassroots Volunteering in 2011, three years into my travels, and the has site grown slowly in the background since then. As I traveled and learned more about the humanitarian and volunteering industries, the site’s mission solidified to give travelers tools to connect with local causes and communities all over the world. My trip to Africa expanded my understanding of the effects—both positive and negative—that travelers have on the places they visit and further shifted the way GV supports travelers wanting to be of service on the road.
GV grew into the community we have today because of the people who believed in the idea in the early days, as well as the early adopters using the site on their round the world trips. So before I delve into the specifics of what it is, why it’s important, and how I could use your help, a sincere and heartfelt thanks to those who have helped shape Grassroots Volunteering.
Bridgid and Brian, a husband and wife duo who built and coded the first iteration of the site; they created a dynamic, flexible site designed to grow with the GV community.
Hannah Loaring, the designer who transformed A Little Adrift last summer, donated her skills and created the beautiful, hand-painted logo you see on the GV site today.
National Geographic Traveler, they believed in the site before I was even confident GV was ready for a full launch into the world; they helped grow the community wider and deeper than I could have imagined.
Why is Grassroots Tourism Important?
The global travel and tourism industry is one of largest job creators in the world. This massive industry has the potential to become an equalizer and the greatest redistribution of wealth from developed economies to developing economies as tourists from all over the world put their money directly into local hands rather into the teeming bank accounts of multinational corporations. And yet, this is largely not happening, and is particularly not happening in the countries with the most need. The United Nations Environmental Programme notes that:
Of each US$ 100 spent on a vacation tour by a tourist from a developed country, only around US$ 5 actually stays in a developing-country destination’s economy.
As much as 95% of the money generated by an international trip is not serving the destination, people, or communities you pass through. Much of this comes from the effects of packaged tours and cruises, but travelers at every level often gravitate toward slick marketing and recognizable names when traveling, which are often signs of foreign influence. I saw so many signs of this trend in Africa—the safari companies with the largest marketing budgets receive the bulk of international money, even though small local operators offer boutique experiences just as likely to deliver an incredible trip to the Serengeti.
The alternative to this trend is deceptively simple: let’s shift the conversation to leaving leave more money inside the countries you visit.
It’s not a panacea, but it’s one more step in the right direction.
Let’s make a pledge to use travel as a force for good. Support social enterprises and mom-and-pop businesses offering incredible tourism experiences while also addressing local social issues. The voluntourism industry is seeing astronomical year-on-year growth, yet packaged voluntourism experiences have similar fault-lines to packaged travel—in most cases they miss the point of lasting economic impact. GV’s mission is to decommodify the travel and volunteering industries—we freely offer local organizations a platform to share their social enterprises and long-term volunteering opportunities.
Grassroots Volunteering is a dual database of community-based social enterprises and independent, long-term volunteer opportunities. These two databases form a core knowledge-base from which travelers can pull grassroots travel experiences that fit the needs of their next trip. The volunteering database displays more traditional forms of long-term international volunteering, while the social enterprise database supplements traditional travel—you use your time in a new city to patronize restaurants and organizations with an underlying social mission.
Social Enterprise Database
Not every (not even most) vacations are a good-fit for volunteering overseas, for that reason, the concept of supporting social enterprises is one I am particularly passionate about. Social enterprises are for-profit businesses operating to help address local social issues, usually through skills training and capacity-building, and are often funded by tourism dollars.
GV has the world’s largest geo-located database of social enterprises around the world. This database supports a sustainable tourism model that helps travelers engage in thoughtful, purposeful travel that expands perceptions and immerses them within the community. Travelers also leave their tourism dollars directly with the local communities and people; they give support and aid by exchanging their tourism dollars for locals services and experiences.
Independent Volunteering Database
Over the years, I have shifted and refined GV’s volunteering database to better support organizations relying on long-term skilled volunteers or interns. That being said, there are trips and projects in need of short-term help as well, and so GV’s volunteer database includes a mix of hand-vetted volunteer projects all over the world.
These projects are generally low-cost and take out the middle-man, which means it’s ideal for more confident travelers willing to research their destination and travel without some of the facilitation inherent in the massive voluntourism companies. Though vetted, anyone contacting a volunteer project should ask lots of questions and ensure their trip is a good-fit for what the organizations and communities need from their volunteers.
How Does GV Find Projects?
I funded Grassroots Volunteering myself, and the database is forever free for travelers. Like A Little Adrift, GV is ad-free and organizations cannot pay to be listed. Instead, organizations are hand-vetted before being added to the site. Members of the GV community regularly email me with their successes and the joys they found in supporting one of the listed organizations. Emails like:
“I used your site to support an organization in Guatemala, I’m in Ecuador now and here’s a local organization I found doing good work and in need of support.”
That is the heart of the GV database. One recommendation opened a traveler up to looking at communities in a new light. This network of travelers has vetted projects on-the-ground and added their discoveries into the database, expanding GV’s reach. But there’s more work to be done and I alone cannot map the world.
The GV Ambassadors program launched early this year, and in June seven GV Ambassadors committed to mapping the world as they travel. Ideal Ambassadors are expats and long-term travelers keen to volunteer their time to expand the database to better serve travelers walking the path after them. This is the single most important way to expand GV’s impact and ability to help a range of travelers connect to social causes and communities on their travels.
If you’re interested, I would love your help as a GV Ambassador mapping the world.
How Can You Help?
NatGeo Traveler‘s feature last year gave the project wings sooner than expected and spurred the sites most rapid growth to date. To continue growing, this is a call to arms for all readers who believe in the site’s mission and in the ability for the choices each of us make as we travel to catalyze positive change.
If you like the project, the mission, or even just like me enough to support something I am working on, here are a few ways I could use your help:
Use the site on your next trip. Our database of social enterprises span the globe and we have responsible travel guides for the most popular travel destinations.
Help map the world. If you’re a frequent traveler, expat or planning a round-the-world tripper, dedicate a tiny part of your time to find and vet projects for all the travelers coming after you. There are now seven ambassadors mapping regions of the world, join them.
Spread the word. Help this project and mission spread far and wide. Mention the site to any friends planning their vacation, share GV on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Heck, I’ll even take good vibes. :)
GV is small but mighty to be taking on the multi-nationals in travel and tourism. As more GV Ambassadors join, we are on target to expand manifold and truly become a hub of businesses and organizations all over the world in need of tourism and travel support. I believe in GV’s ability to shift perspectives and encourage a new wave of travelers setting off on their adventures to focus on supporting ethical and sustainable approaches to tourism.
Rain pelted darts of moisture into my skin as we stumbled off the bus into a huddle of quizzical faces. A slice of doubt entered my mind at their complete bafflement, but within moments the bus handler had hurled our luggage under the shelter and sped down the road, leaving Ana, my dad, and me at mile marker 25: Silico Creek.
Barely marked on the maps, Silico Creek is a blip on the tourist radar between Bocas del Toro and Boquete. My dad found this indigenous community while researching interesting things to do in the Chiriquí area and decided that we three would kick off our Panama adventure learning about the origins of chocolate through Urari. This small rural tourism organization is located at Silico Creek, which lies within the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca, a demarcated area similar in function to Native American reservations in the U.S.
From the start, our adventure echoed of the coffee farm Ana and I visited in rural Thailand to learn about fair-trade, sustainable coffee production. If there is one thing that interests me more than coffee, it’d be chocolate, so this journey with my dad and Ana would complete my deep understanding of two of the world’s biggest food commodities. Like coffee, eco-tourism circles bandy about buzz-ish words like “local,” “organic,” and “fair-trade.” Take a trip to the designer chocolate aisle at the grocery store and it’s a veritable test of each company’s ability to find marketable synonyms of these words. But I wanted to know the human story behind the chocolate, behind Urari’s small tourism organization, which was self-started and runs entirely by the community. It seemed like the perfect place to delve into my two great loves: supporting social enterprises and consuming chocolate.
In short, our weekend held promise. We were all intrigued by the chance to live within one of Panama’s indigenous communities … but first, I had to find the place.
I hesitantly questioned the group in Spanish. Smiles bloomed on their faces as they gave encouraging gestures toward the gravel path behind us, nodding as we set off into the drizzling rain.
Two hours later, we had settled into modest wooden hilltop bungalows, consumed hot chocolate, and found ourselves surrounded by members of the community—everyone asking and answering questions in tandem.
Building Sustainability Within the Silico Creek Community
Right away, our biggest hurdle was language … only a few members of the community speak basic English. As guides and members of the community learned that each of us had varying levels of Spanish, mine being passable to communicate, we defaulted to Spanish and spent three days in full immersion, with me acting as translator for Ana and my dad.
Immersion was the name of the game for this trip, so we immediately learned of the community’s history. Silico Creek is a settlement of indigenous people who moved to a fertile northeastern region of the Ngäbe-Buglé Comarca in the 1960s. That first family expanded and the 500-person village now includes all the children, grandchildren, and extended relatives.
Urari, I learned, is primarily designed as the community’s homegrown solution to a lack of tourism and income. Much like reservations in the United States, indigenous peoples are given land and the right to operate freely, but in contrast to reservations in the U.S., demarcated regions of Panama are given almost full autonomy and therefore lack government support. This was not always the case though, and after years (decades … centuries) of politics and land issues, modern tourism and the development of a thriving economy is tough for rural communities. Many indigenous peoples operate on a barter system—an internal economy within the community. But the world encroaches on the edges of the reservation land, and land and money within the demarcation has become a commodity for the Ngäbe-Buglé.
As we learned more, I related it back to my time in Thailand studying coffee. Many issues surrounding the global production of coffee are similarly present in Silico Creek’s cacao plantations. Cacao is the primary crop grown by nearly every family, but they sell their beans to a nearby cooperative that, while paying “fairly,” does not generate enough income to support the community. In short, the current avenues for selling cacao outside of the reservation don’t offer livable wages even within their communal living system.
Hence a new focus on tourism.
And in this case, Ana, my dad, and I took part in homegrown tourism at Silico Creek, which means the locals shaped the interactions and the amount of their culture they would offer up to tourists like us. They formed Urari to run tours and overnight stays for foreigners interested in learning more about the Ngäbe-Buglé culture, as well as organic agriculture and cacao production.
Finding Grassroots Tourism in Panama
The largest initiative at Silico Creek of interest to outsiders is organic farming and the production of cacao—the plant at the beginning of all the world’s delicious chocolate.
We spent our first afternoon at Urari learning about the culture and people within the settlement, and just getting situated. As dark settled over the hilltop bungalows, however, we locals offered a cheery wave as the community descended to their homes just below, navigating with cell phones as flashlights since the community does not have electricity.
And then we spent an hour on small pleasures—my dad and I talked on our dark balcony, looking out at moonwashed treetops and discussed the day. Ana hunkered under the mosquito net and read a book inside. At least, she read until I ousted her at top speed to see a flickering tapestry of fireflies breaking up the dark near our bungalows. Until traveling, I had never seen a firefly, so I knew that was Ana’s fate as well. It was magical. Ana and I did a lively rendition of Owl City’s “Firefly” before we all turned in for an early nights sleep.
We woke to the chatter of birds the next morning and the smiling faces of Eduardo and his family as they laid out a full breakfast spread—traditional bread, eggs, and fruit. The meal was hearty enough to get us through the strenuous waterfall hike on the docket for the day.
And boy did we earn that breakfast! The hike was muddy but fun and gave us the chance to chat with Arnoldo—our guide and brother to Eduardo—about the backstory of the Ngäbe-Buglé people, the community’s ultimate goals for Urari, and the impact of Panama’s varied political past on future of Panama’s indigenous peoples.
Oh yes, and we admired gorgeous untouched forests, small villages, rushing rivers, and a beautiful waterfall too. :)
Our second day with the Silico Creek community ended as had the previous day: Many members of the community came to our hilltop bungalows to visit and answer questions. And frankly, to look at us. Ana was a minor celebrity with some of the children who had never previously seen a foreign child in person. Urari’s emphasis on fostering a connection between the tourists and the local community meant we always found new friends to chat with throughout the day.
The Humble Origins of Chocolate
A steady rain drummed on our wooden bungalows our last morning at Silico Creek. The wet earth created deep mud through which we would trek to learn about Silico Creek’s primary cash crop: cacao.
Throughout our visit, our meals included two traditional concoctions of this delicious bean—hot chocolate and chocolate coffee. Although this was a treat for us, chocolate represents more than an occasional treat for this community, and more than simply a crop to sell. Cacao has a cultural significance to the Ngäbe-Buglé and it’s embedded in their spiritual ceremonies. It also happens to be a relatively lucrative crop, giving it even more significance to them in today’s cash-based society.
The plight facing Urari again reminded me of the days I spent visiting the Akha Ama coffee collective in Northern Thailand. It’s a tale of farming, and not a particularly unique one. But farmers have a tough road. Growing such trendy commodities as coffee and chocolate mean growers continually strive to meet international standards, keep the crops healthy, and find a fair outlet for their commodity. And while Akha Ama created a collective to directly connect their coffee to consumers, Urari sells the cacao to a cooperative, taking a small cut of the deep profits made from other parts of the the global chocolate trade. Instead of relying on selling their chocolate solely through the cooperative, which they have done since the 1950s, the families of Silico Creek plan to grow their tourism project and create a direct connection to tourists (and thus a win a slice of the $8.9 trillion dollars travel and tourism adds to the global economy).
We slogged through the dense overgrowth in borrowed rain boots and dodged the heavy cacao fruit hanging low from the trees. Arnoldo and a local farmer guided us throughout the plantation, explaining the history of the crop and the core processes and challenges of growing cacao. We even tasted the ripe cacao fruit—it’s syrupy-sweet like candy.
From the farm, we walked back to the village and sheltered in the home of a woman who processes chocolate throughout the day. Most of the community’s adults, children, and artisans collectively run Urari, and 75 percent of Silico Creek families are directly involved in producing and processing chocolate.
Our guides led us through the roasting process, grinding the beans, and finally a taste of the freshly pressed cacao: nose-flinchingly bitter. That liquid is then packed into bars and sold to tourists; anything not sold directly to visitors is instead sold to the nearby cooperative.
Again we saw how tourism was a profitable avenue for Urari. Beyond just tours, Urari planned to diversify the types of chocolate products it produced, creating more opportunities for direct sales to tourists. Their marketing message is soli: Buy high-quality organic chocolate directly from the source and support Panama’s indigenous people. (We bought two bars and my dad and I tried our hand at a delicious raw cacao dessert!)
The Realities of Sustainable Tourism
I often talk about the benefits of local, sustainable tourism, of supporting the communities working to support themselves. Urari is a clear illustration of the concept. Your travels are richer are when you engage responsibly with locals.
That said, my threshold for getting off the beaten path is different from the average tourist because of my years on the road. Those three days at Urari were really my dad’s first venture into rural tourism, so I was interested in his reactions. He came away wowed at how different he now understood Panama—the place he spent all of his childhood. This tourism project gave him a way chance to see an entirely different side to the country.
Silico Creek hopes expand their initiative in the coming years. Right now, school groups from the states visit en masse several times a year to study agriculture and farming, but casual tourism from guidebooks and word of mouth is still in the early stages.
And to an extent, you can tell. The community has bare basic Western amenities. The outdoor bathrooms are spotless, but there is no electricity. Mosquito nets adorn the beds and you basically drop off the face of the earth while you’re staying at Urari—meals and activities are all arranged through the community and there is no easy access to the nearby towns.
It’s truly full immersion.
And it was great. My dad loved the three days. Although he was very glad for the hot shower in Boquete once we left, he loved having such direct access to the locals—a clear venue to ask questions and investigate his curiosity. This is what I have long loved about local-level travel and it was a success with all three generations of us on this trip—my niece (12 years old), me (29), and my dad (late 50s).
When you step off the path while traveling, you gain insights, stories, and interactions simply not possible ensconced in high-end hotels that bubble-wrap the raw and gritty reality of traveling. It’s these off-the-path adventures that shape my most prominent travel memories. In addition to meeting locals at the markets and striking up conversations with strangers in parks, it’s often by finding sustainable social enterprises that I am able to meet people and learn their story. I travel with a specific interest in social enterprise and non-profit work, and by seeking out these conversations I uncover so much more than is offered on the tourist track around a country.
And for those with just a week or two in a region, using grassroots initiatives allows locals to invite tourists into their communities on their terms and share their cultural, language, and customs. Sometimes travel to indigenous communities borders on zoo-like experiences (notably the Karen in Northern Thailand), but the face of modern tourism does not have to look like that. From Kenya to Thailand to Panama, there are indigenous people setting the terms of how they want tourists to learn more about their cultures and customs.
I asked the community the best way they would like support; Arcadio, one of the brothers noted:
Throughout three days of full immersion, we found new friendships, connected on a personal level with a culture so different from our own, and my family and I did it on terms set by the people directly affected by this tourism: the families that make up Silico Creek, Panama. And that, well, that’s the heart of why I love using social enterprises while traveling.
Quick Tips: How to Visit Silico Creek
Where: On the road between David and Changuinola at kilometer 25. Follow the full directions on their site; this project is best visited in conjunction with a Bocas del Toro trip since they are in that region, within the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca.
How: Their website is pretty basic and great for research, but for the smoothest experience book the a bungalow on Booking.com, then reach out to the Urari community directly to pre-arrange tours and such during your stay.
When: Urari is open to tourism throughout the year, though they have limited capacity to house tourists if a school group is in residence. We visited in June, which is off-season because of the rains, but that did not ruin the adventure by any means. Book via email ahead of time and they will arrange your stay, prepare for the activities you want (waterfall hike, cacao tour, cultural dance, farm-stay, etc). We arrived five hours before they expected us, so of note is that they will try to meet you at the bus stop if you tell them of your arrival time.
Why: Urari represents Silico Creek’s self-started initiative to create opportunities and revenue to sustain their community. Grassroots, sustainable projects are a passion of mine and all three of us loved the chance to immerse in the culture, ask questions, and learn more about the people while funneling money directly to the people.
Tips: Accommodation is basic but the wooden bungalows are very clean. The bulk of the reservation does not have electricity (there is a small solar-powered station I heard about but never saw, so don’t count on using it). Pack wisely. Bring flashlights, mosquito repellant, warm clothes, rain gear in the off-season, and a sense of adventure. Only a bit of English is spoken at Silico Creek (the man on the other side of the email address speaks fluent English), so you should have at least basic Spanish language skills.
A fond thanks and warm thoughts to all the members of the Aguilar family who opened their homes and allowed us a glimpse into their lives and their culture.
Writing this book over the past nine months functioned as a perfect mirror for my own personal fears and vulnerabilities—my book about volunteering ended up with so much of me exposed in the process that the thought of publicly launching was overwhelming.
When I left the United States in 2008 on what became my open-ended journey around the world, I had no idea where my travels would take me. I did however, have hopes that traveling would act as a reset button on my life—that I would find a new focus beyond the acting industry I left behind in Los Angeles and the advertising background I studied in college. I had no idea that four years later I would write a book about volunteer travel, but my path has led me here, to announcing my new (and as yet only) book,The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.
Why did I think this book needed writing?
After years of volunteering and supporting local communities in each place I visited, I wanted to work on a project that would help others create positive change as they travel. The more I traveled, I affirmed my belief that there is good that can come when we all focus more on socially conscious travel—acknowledging that everyone cannot give, serve, and volunteer in the same way. Over the years, as A Little Adrift found more growth and success, other travelers emailed me with questions about how they could find ways to connect their travel experiences with small, grassroots organizations and local social enterprises all over the world.
And it felt good. And there was a need for this information in the community.
With those needs, and the countless emails I have received over the years as an impetus, I wrote The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. The book addresses the complicated facets of the international volunteer industry, and delves into the ethical issues related to working in developing communities. Through personal stories, and stories from other travelers and organizations, the book paints a clear picture of the ways people can pair travel and service. Sometimes this means through volunteering, but the book also offers ideas for short-term travelers who are perhaps not able to commit to a full volunteer project. On the whole, I wrote the book to address these core elements:
Foundational ideas about volunteering in developing countries
The interplay of ethics and development work
Identifying your motivations for volunteering
Picking either a volunteer tour, middleman placement company, or an independent organization
How to research and vet organizations to ultimately decide which jive with your personal ethical code
Managing your expectations
Pre-trip cultural research
How to navigate the experience once you’re there
All the nuts and bolts of travel like packing, safety, insurance, and visas
The book is a tapestry of ideas on the voluntourism industry. It weaves stories throughout the text to illustrate practical ways to apply the advice, as well as photos, resources, and ideas.
In essence, I wrote the volunteer guide I wish I had before I left to travel. I made mistakes on my volunteer journey, I supported companies that were not working to better their community, but were instead purely profit driven. And in that same breath, I found wonderful grassroots businesses not listed in any guidebook that needed a hand in a way only I could lend. And I found friends and guidance along the way that shaped my views on development and aid work, the potentially harmful impact of naïve do-goodery, and the simple ways we can affect change.
I have traveled within and throughout communities all over the world, always looking for the simple ways I could lend a hand. My first international volunteer experience took place in Nepal, and since then I taught in Nepal, tutored children in Guatemala, built stoves, supported local causes, and found ways to integrate service into my travels through Southeast Asia with my niece last year. I don’t know everything, far from it, but I learning and understanding have underpinned each moment of my travels over the past four years. And with my meticulous nature, coupled with a lot of research, interviews, and questions, I gathered the information and perspectives I think each travelers need before they head out into developing communities.
This is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I put a very real piece of myself into this book. Across several continents, countless countries, and many months (and while caring for my niece) I spent long hours thinking about the best way, the right way to encourage other people to ethically volunteer. I had a lot of fears about the project—surely there were more books I should have read before writing, or if not that, I was no doubt going to grossly overlook fundamental ideas and challenges in the aid and volunteer industries. The fear monster was on full attack, usually in the dawn hours when no one else was awake; it was just me and the book staring each other down.
Volunteering is the easy word for this book, but really the subject touches on development and international aid policies, the ethics of “developing” these countries in the model of the west, and the tangible value and harm volunteers can bring to international projects. I care so much about doing the subject justice, with all of its nuances and hotly debated opinions, and for a time, this made it a struggle for me to overcome my fears.
That struggle, though, made it better. The concern made me ask more questions, interview more people, and ask for guidance from a diverse range of opinions within the realms of sustainable tourism, international development, and, ultimately, volunteering.
Actually, as Neil Gaiman noted in his keynote speech (that my friend Mike so graciously pointed me to in my moments of angst) the launch of my book is like standing naked in front of my entire community and baring a part of my heart and my soul because there is risk, there is potential failure and I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t admit that failure is a scary prospect.
But as I noted above, I felt the book needed to be written. And that overrode the fears.
I think the sum total of this book can create positive change. I believe this is the truth. And I believe this is an immediate core focus for my life and my personal journey, to spread this positive message. I also think any new traveler, veteran traveler, and even arm-chair-occasional-two-week travelers will find value in the message—will find a way to use this information to travel with a more grassroots mentality of supporting local communities.
It took many months and many people (editors, designers, my partners in the book collective, family, and friends) to complete the project and hone the message down to its core components. But it says everything I want it to say. And now I’ve said nearly everything I want to say; I am happy with the results and there were are no words to do justice to the feeling of looking down at the cover and seeing my name in print for the first time.
Thank you! (And now I need your help)
I believe in the change we can create with the right information and the right focus, and I am so happy/excited/terrified to launch my new book into the world. The book is for sale at all major online outlets, and if you or someone you know is interested in this prism through which they can see the world—through local level service and volunteering, I would love for you to pass on the book, share it on Facebook or Twitter (the volunteer book’s permanent landing page is here).
And if you buy it (thanks!), let me know what you think. There are likely things I overlooked, or ideas that will morph and change over the coming months and years and I am eager and open to feedback. Further, I would love to hear your story if you have your own experience volunteering or serving communities anywhere in the world; share it with the community in the comments, or send me an email.
Since I launched this site in 2008, I have grown to deeply value and appreciate the community of travelers who find their way here. I could not have made it to this point in my journey without the support of fellow travelers, readers, and friends. To all of those I have met along the way, for you feedback, guidance, shared stories, and encouragement, simply, thank you.
There is a textbook definition of the word “journey”: an act or instance of traveling from one place to another. Within the framework of our collective consciousness as people, however, the true meaning of a journey lies within ourselves. The word can imply the growth of very specific ideas and understanding within a set time frame; or perhaps a long and hard-earned internal challenge, met through overcoming emotional obstacles and hurdles. There is always a change on a journey. More than the simple act of moving from one place to another, the journey morphs the journeyer throughout that move into a different place—either mental or physical, and occasionally both.
Two years ago I met Lee, a coffee shop owner living in Chiang Mai, Thailand but originally from a small hill-tribe village about four hours away. Lee is on a long journey, but it’s not a voyage of distance. He runs Akha Ama Coffee, a fair trade coffee shop. It wasn’t until I met Lee, and went on a Coffee Journey with him that I came to a deeper understanding of what it means when something is sustainably produced with a mind toward fair prices paid to the people producing the coffee, ie., fair trade.
Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world.
Words like “organic” and “sustainable” are buzz-ish and trendy today, plastered liberally on our foods, clothes and consumables. Regardless of how much they actually understand these labels, people tend to feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world. That’s the assumption, right? I use these words in my blogging and with regards to my volunteering, and have heretofore felt confident in my apt usage and understanding of the concepts. During my travels I looked for ways to support social enterprises, or rather for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission: businesses like Lee’s. On the trade winds of my physical journey, I gained a deeper, more profound understanding of what these catchphrases mean—both literally and to the people affected by the “fair” part of “fair trade.”
Through my friendship with Lee over the past two years, I began to look more closely at how Westerners perceive the impact of our actions when we consume something innocuously labeled as sustainable and fair trade. What does that mean? As a writer who has ever emphasized the need for each traveler to begin understanding how intrinsically linked we are on this planet, I found myself humbled by where I myself was apparently situated on that continuum.
In 2011, I first came to Chiang Mai, Thailand and took up residence as a nomadic expat—I lived there, but for just five months. I landed in Chiang Mai knowing other travelers and expats living in the city, but I was acquainted with few locals. After finding a place to live and dispensing with other practical matters, my first order of business in any new place is tracking down a decent coffee shop—not only because locating caffeine and fast wi-fi are integral parts of me feathering my nest, but because I’ve found with experience that this is the best way to meet new people.
This is how I initially found myself at Lee’s Akha Ama coffee shop. His name is known in the local expat community, and with good reason: he is young, charming, and the kind of character who seems to attract a bevy of fast friends. To no surprise, I bonded quickly with Lee. Getting to know him better, and experiencing that gradual break with sonder that tends to happen in new acquaintanceship, however, was how I discovered that Lee’s story—the unspoken history underpinning his actions—is what really makes his personal journey stand out.
Lee is the face of Akha Ama Coffee, and organizes a biannual trip that takes a dozen people to his family’s remote village, where the coffee Lee sells and markets at his shop is grown. Lee calls these trips a “coffee journey.” That’s not hubris, either—the technical basics of making coffee are rather simple and can be covered with a quick overview (such as the two-hour trip through the Finca Filidefia plantation in Guatemala I took a few years ago). Lee’s trip, on the other hand, is a three-day journey toward understanding just what goes into a cup of sustainably grown coffee. It’s about the journey his village is taking toward operating as a sustainable, fair trade farming cooperative, and the human story and struggles behind each cup of coffee.
I took my first Coffee Journey with Lee during those initial five months I lived in Chiang Mai. Having cherished the experience and come to call Lee a friend, I returned with my niece Ana in tow to again make the journey over New Year’s weekend as we welcomed 2012. Ana knew Lee only as the nice guy from the coffee shop at that point. I shared with her his powerful story, and by the time we departed, she knew that Lee not only sold coffee, but was the front-end funnel for a community coffee production collective.
The Akha Ama Coffee Collective represents 14 families from the Maejantai village area that have joined together under one brand to increase their ability to control, market, and command fair prices for the coffee they grow. They formed the collective so each family could bring in more money and thus assure themselves fair wages with which to obtain education for their children and modern conveniences.
The coffee journey to Maejantai village is not a cushy, high-end tour, nor is it intended to be. Participants sleep in homes graciously offered by one of the 14 families, and they eat family-style meals replete with hand-picked greens grown on the surrounding farms. For Ana, I knew this trip would be unlike anything else she’s experienced. Going into it, I hoped her existing friendship with Lee would give her a unique window through which she could view and understand the paths and choices people make to change their lives when they are given far different circumstances than the ones Ana experienced in her suburban American life.
Our journey began in Chiang Mai, early on a Friday morning during coffee harvesting season. Participants arrived at the coffee shop with enough gear for a weekend, and piled into the back of the yellow songthaews (covered pickup trucks). With our thighs squished tight and shoulders wedged against one another, sheer proximity made a surprisingly effective safety harness against the bumpy ride outside of town and eventually into the mountains surrounding Chiang Rai. Hours later, with just a quarter-mile of jolting progress up the mountain remaining, children from Lee’s village began chasing after our truck. Seeing Ana’s young(er) face among the coffee journey participants excited and fascinated the kids, and their huge smiles and waves were our first welcome to Maejantai.
Shaking the pervasive red dust from my hair, face, teeth and eyes, I trooped upstairs with Ana to introduce Lee’s mother, the business’s namesake. (Lee belongs to the Akha people. In the Akha language, “ama” means mother.) Lee’s mother reserved a special hug for me, one of the few participants making a repeat journey. It touched me that she remembered my face from last year.
Lee’s Back Story
Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture.
As his mother welcomed us and prepared tea for the group, Lee launched into his back story: the tale of how Akha Ama came into existence. The Akha people, who share a common language, have nonetheless been scattered throughout Thailand, China, Laos, and Burma (Myanmar) over the past several hundred years as the result of civil wars and demarcation disagreements. These hill-tribe groups have largely been separated from rapid Westernization, owing to both the isolation of the regions in which they’ve settled and the fact that they generally don’t speak the main language of the countries in which they live.
When Lee grew up, his mother urged him to leave his village and gain a formal education in nearby Chiang Rai. He became the first and, to date, only villager to obtain higher education. Lee studied Thai and learned English from passing tourists. Gradually, as he discovered the value in community-sourced projects, he began plotting a way to help the Akha farmers and villages in his region. Lee’s mother supported his idea and was the catalyst in bringing together the 14 families that today make up the Akha Ama collective.
There is always strength in numbers, but the collective succeeds also because the 14 families are working together toward sustainable agriculture that not only produces an organic crop, but avoids the use of expensive, harmful pesticides as well. New methods of crop rotation are the key to sustaining these eco-friendly products in the long-term, and the collective has implemented processes that will take years to fully bear out. This is the foundation on which the families formed Akha Ama, and out of necessity, it is a gross simplification of Lee’s story.
Before the farmers in Maejantai village formed the collective, they had only one means of making money—sell their coffee beans at the going rate to whomever was buying. Lee forged a unique link between the village and mainstream Thai culture, however, and at that point Lee and his family saw an opportunity to see the beans completely through the process. Consequently, farmers could see more monetary returns on their time and effort. Political issues and cultural differences have resulted in limited financial advancement opportunities for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap.
Lee’s village may be remote, but the influence of Western culture and advancement has taken root even in Maejantai. Villagers must pay for their children to attend a nearby school, and the demand for conveniences like cell phones have necessitated a move toward a more monetary-based system in the villages. Akha Ama’s goals are both social and economic: to not only grant villagers control over what they produce, but to funnel the money back into the community as well.
The Coffee Process
Understanding the political side of Akha Ama is just one part of the Coffee Journey. Hands-on participation in the labor-intensive process of making coffee is just as much a component of the experience, and was no small part of why I wanted to bring Ana along. Throughout the three days, Lee took us through each stage of the coffee process—from picking the beans out in the fields all day, to drying, husking, processing, bagging, storing, and transporting them. Once Lee is back in Chiang Mai, he roasts the beans, packages them, and sells them through Akha Ama and a handful of other coffee shops in Thailand.
On the second day of our Coffee Journey, Ana and I walked for 45 minutes to Lee’s family’s coffee fields, where he explained how the plants are grown and harvested. Then he handed us each baskets and instructed us on how to properly twist and pluck the ripe coffee cherries. Ana enthusiastically joined in the picking, and by lunchtime our baskets were filled with shining red and yellow cherries.
At lunchtime, we ate a plentiful lunch on huge banana leaves. Right after, we headed back into fields for round two. It’s hard to say at which point, for Ana, that the fun of plucking and twisting gave way to an understanding and appreciation of the work that it really is. As our baskets filled, Lee and other villagers eagerly replaced them and encouraged us to continue picking. After several hours, my hands and arms cramped with the small, repetitive tasks. Ana continued to work respectfully, but it was clear that the “game” aspect of this all was gone.
Mind you, none of this was exactly miserable—far from it, since the weather was a perfect mix of cool breeze and warm sunshine. The reality of the task, however, of picking all day for your survival and livelihood, had sunk in for our rag-tag group of 20 or so participants. While we worked, Lee’s family gathered vegetables and prepared dinner for our group. Feeding twenty ravenous people is no small task, either!
And as it happened, on this second Coffee Journey, at the end of our long day in the fields, Ana and I joined the group around a large bonfire under a sky filled with more stars than Ana had ever seen in her life and welcomed in the New Year with new friends, new realizations, and perspective shifts on what it takes to live and enjoy life.
The realities of processing coffee continued unabated the next day as we watched Lee’s sister sort through the coffee berries, discarding the under-ripe berries we unknowingly plucked. A machine then separated the beans from the husks, after which the families took these wet coffee beans to huge tarp-covered pallets so to dry out in the cool mountain air.
Dry beans are then bagged and stored until they are ready for the journey to Chiang Mai, where Lee roasts the beans, bags them, and either sells them or grinds them for coffee.
The Realities of Sustainable Crops
At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process — the community growing your coffee, chocolate, cotton — have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay.
Lee’s village is beautiful. The people and smiles were open and welcoming from the moment our feet hit the compact, dusty red earth. Our welcome was genuine and each villager we met was willing to open up to a group of strangers in the hopes that we would take away an understanding of all that lies behind the Akha Ama brand.
There are people behind that logo. A community of children, mothers, and fathers exist behind each package of coffee Lee sells in his shop. The money from each sale is a tangible investment in a remote community living on a faraway hill-side. Ana watched the young children in Maejantai play games around her, using their imaginations to fuel epic staged battles between good and evil that echoed the games her little brother regularly plays back home. I didn’t have to point out the similarities. Anyone can see that they exist—our common humanity is as clear as day.
Our Coffee Journey lasted three days; Lee’s coffee journey is ongoing. As the face and front-end of Akha Ama, Lee is actively working to promote the brand as a sustainable, fair trade, organic coffee brand. Only through talking with Lee and then visiting his village’s collective did I realize the lengthy and expensive process that goes into legally using many of these buzzwords. When he conceived of Akha Ama, Lee embarked on a process that could secure the future of his village for generations. Beyond farming, there are few viable economic opportunities for such a remote community. In recent years, the lure of modernization has taken much of the youth out of the village and into the big cities. But with money, an operation, and something to back and believe in, Akha Ama is changing opportunities for each family of the Maejantai collective.
Over the years, news stories have indicted the idea of fair trade as flawed and unable to substantiate on a large-scale. We hear discouraging stories like the scandal that came out of Victoria’s Secret in late 2011 when one of their suppliers of certified fair trade cotton in Burkina Faso used child labor to pick and plant, contravening established fair trade rules. It’s easy to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and give up on the whole idea, given the negative press.
Through meeting Lee, and visiting Akha Ama, however, I was able to put a face and an experience on the entire process. At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process—the community growing your coffee/chocolate/cotton—have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay. Too often, that means selling below costs just for the sake of having some money in pocket.
This is not to say that the process is without flaws; far from it, actually. At the end of the line, we consumers remain completely removed from the true back story and from the people and lives involved in the products we buy and use. But Akha Ama’s story, with Lee as the charismatic and affable face of this operation, is but one example of social enterprises and fair businesses operating around the world so communities can better themselves—create a future for their children. It may not be perfect, but it’s a whole lot better than the alternative.
Further, Lee’s story opened my eyes to the human effect our purchasing habits have on the entire global community. By lifting the common consciousness, by seeking out the simple ways to support and give back in everyday life, we will be able begin lifting up the global community. It’s usually a small thing to tweak our buying habits. For myself, a habitual purchaser of coffee and chocolate, my new-found awareness has led me to seek the chance to support companies making an extra effort. I will spend more to ensure that the root communities behind our goods are treated with respect. Stemming from my physical journey to understand coffee came a new journey to match my actions to my belief in our shared humanity and the common good.
To Lee, thank you. The Akha Ama Coffee shop was my refuge in Chiang Mai, and the community of expats and locals you have assembled in the coffee shop are a testament to the goodness and possibilities that are out there if you look for them.
This post blends time and space and represents the sum of the two Coffee Journeys I took with Akha Ama; the photos from each journey are interspersed. For more photos, enjoy the additional photo gallery and Quick Tips information.
Quick Tips for Visiting Akha Ama Coffee
Where: 9/1 Mata Apartment, Hassadhisawee Rd, Soi 3. The coffee shop is in the Santitham are, just off the Northwest corner of the moat in Chiang Mai, Thailand: directions.
When: The Coffee Journeys take place twice annually and sell out months in advance. Lee is open with his story, however, and you can support Akha Ama Coffee by visiting the shop, buying coffee as souvenirs for family, and supporting their efforts to grow the Akha Ama brand.
Why: Because Akha Ama is a social enterprise (a for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission) worth supporting–it’s a community grown initiative and empowers the Akha villagers to support themselves and their families for years to come.
Our pickup truck bumped and jostled down the unpaved path, the driver weaving around the deep pits and pot-holes by rote, each piece of this desert clearly as familiar to him as the lines on his darkly tanned hands. For twenty-five minutes we plodded a slow path through stark and open plains, the raw and honest surrounding beauty of Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve.
With a minimum of movements, our Bedouin driver gestured deep into the Feynan Valley and with squinted eyes I was able to make out a desert colored structure sitting at the base of the valley and blending in naturally with the miles of pale orange sands surrounding our truck.
The smell of burning wood hit me first as I ducked through the entrance of the small house – ducking saved my head from earning yet another gash and also put me right at eye level with the beaming smile from the Guatemalan woman nervously wringing her hands in the center of the room. As I stood up tall on the other side of the doorway I abruptly found myself in the center of her house.
She was eager to show off her functioning stove and welcomed our requests to snap a few photos –she was proud. I was one of several volunteers who had hiked to a rural town outside of Xela, Guatemala to help with a stove building project in the region.
Two weeks ago I was playing around on Facebook as a way to procrastinate the real work I should have been doing when a chat window popped up – from a sweet young woman I met at the orphanage in Cambodia where I volunteered more than a year and a half ago.
Many of the older girls at the orphanage asked for my email and Facebook details at the time and we have very sporadically kept in touch, talking every month or so, mostly just quick hellos and messages from them imploring me to come back for a visit.
But the tone of this chat was different right off the bat. She seemed sad. And that’s saying a whole lot because the girls from the FLOW orphanage are eternally sunshiney and happy during our conversations, upbeat and enthusiastic about their studies and their life goals.
She had left the orphanage about a year ago to start her second year of college and take on a full time job. That meant this was her first year out of the control and protection of the orphanage environment and she was confused and overwhelmed, having a hard time balancing the need to make money and feed herself and her fierce desire for an education.
I listened to her, offered advice and encouragement – gave all of the support I could from the other side of the world to a woman who has experienced a life so far removed and different from my own.
Then days later an email arrived from Varanasi, India. Lucky was one of the most promising students I taught at the monastery in Nepal and I helped him prep for his University entrance exam while I was there. He got into the University and writes me regularly of his life, studies, and thoughts.
As I’m reading his email a different FLOW student chat messages me – she doesn’t understand the meaning of non-verbal communication, can I please explain. Twenty minutes later we’re still brainstorming fun situations that use non-verbal behavior.
Then another email. A different student needing advice.
The calls for mentoring rained down on me this past week.
Sometimes I feel so inept and useless. They are struggling with situations and rising up from situations I can’t even fathom. If I could afford to sponsor each and every one of them through college I would. But maybe that wouldn’t even be helpful.
So instead I give these kids the only thing I can, support and love. They’ve overcome so much; they dream of being doctors and lawyers, international translators, businessmen and politicians.
And I listen to their dreams and encourage. I am so thankful I chose to share a few weeks of my life and time with these students when I volunteered last year. They inspire me on a daily basis to look at life with a little bit more gratitude and thankfulness. Their passion and perseverance to achieve their goals is a monthly reminder to take stock of those things I take for granted and work a little harder to make a difference in my life and the world.