Many years ago (this website was launched back in 2007) I used to have a section for personal travel stories but when I changed platforms, I had to change the way they were displayed. I’ve reposted the stories here – this is Part II (click here to return to Part I).
Each of these women has gone out on an adventure and pushed her boundaries. It hasn’t always been fun, it’s it is always enlightening.
Two Days in Yangshuo
by Lenore Hirsch (Napa, CA)
Photos of the Li River in Yangshuo, China against a backdrop of karst mountain peaks drew me in. After a week with friends in bustling Hong Kong, I was ready for a rural escape and a solo adventure.
My short flight to Guilin arrived at sunset and a taxi waited to take me to Yangshuo. The driver, a young Chinese woman, chatted constantly on her cell phone. Without a seatbelt, I bounced on the sunken back seat, then breathed a sigh of relief to finally see the peaks of Yangshuo, lit by spotlights in the darkness.
The Venice Hotel sits on Xi Jie, or West Street, a block from the river. The narrow stone street, reserved for pedestrians, vibrated with a party atmosphere. While I marveled at the shops selling everything from Burberry coats to beads made from Tibetan yak bones, the tiny driver lugged my suitcase into the hotel.
After I checked in, the street pulled me back–the loud music from dance clubs and throngs of young Chinese in jeans and tee shirts brought a smile to my face. I felt safe in the jovial crowd. From the Twin Peaks Cafe, I watched the scene from an upstairs balcony while eating fried eggplant and drinking milk tea. Back in my room, I noted the lovely hardwood floor and the bed–almost as hard. Earplugs provided a quiet night’s sleep.
My morning walk led me to a wide street full of speeding motor bikes and women with yokes across their shoulders carrying baskets of just-picked greens. Over breakfast of dumplings and tea at the Riverside Cafe I watched the river–fishermen on skinny bamboo boats and women doing laundry on the shore. A climb up the steps on Bilian Peak allowed me to explore temples and historic calligraphy on the rock walls.
The merchandise displayed on Xi Jie could not be casually observed; just a glance in either direction was enough to unleash non-stop price negotiations. For lunch, Kelly’s served up the local beer chicken with a spicy red sauce of garlic, ginger, celery, and green peppers. Back at the hotel, I booked a boat ride.
The young woman who came to take me to the dock had me follow her to her motor bike. I took a deep breath and climbed on behind her, without a helmet, and held on to her skinny frame for dear life. At the dock she pointed to an open bamboo boat, not much wider than the ones the fishermen used. Just a driver, who knew no English, and me.
My afternoon was full of misty mountains, green trees whose curved branches mimicked the shapes of the mountains behind them, and occasional cattle on the bank. The fishermen’s balancing act on their narrow boats was perfect, until one shifted his attention to me and, grinning from ear to ear, almost fell in.
That night I saw Impressions Liu Sanjie, six hundred performers on the river, viewed from an outdoor amphitheater. Zhang Yimou, known for the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics, created this spectacle of music and brilliantly lit costumed singers and dancers. Row upon row of fishermen on rafts raised and lowered bolts of red cloth as long as a football stadium.
In the morning, Moon Hill, a mountain five miles out of town, promised a hike and mysterious photos. At a taxi stand, I showed the driver the Chinese characters in my guide book, and climbed in. It started to rain, fogging the cab’s windshield. The driver wiped it with a rag. I asked him to pull over and showed him how to work the defroster. He beamed widely, happy to learn something new about his vehicle.
At Moon Hill a tiny shriveled woman greeted me on the path, offering her guide services. No thanks. Only eight hundred steps to the top. I climbed through thick bamboo, pausing to look below at the brown and green checkerboard of land. Alone on the mountain, I finally arrived at a clearing where the peak came into view. Against an overcast sky, the hilltop sported a crescent-shaped hole. This amazing feature began as one of the caves that fill these mountains. In a land where architects build holes into skyscrapers for dragons to pass through, Moon Hill exuded magic.
Invigorated, I made my way back down. Despite taking a spill on the slick steps, I arrived safely at the road and inquired about transportation back to town. A café proprietor dispatched her husband to drive me. As I packed for the return trip to Hong Kong, I reflected on two delightful days in Yangshuo. I had seen few westerners, filled my memory with beautiful landscapes, and explored a new culture–a perfect solo adventure in China.
Solo Travel to Goa: One small trip, one giant leap
by Di (Tathra, NSW, Australia)
It was only a fortnight in Goa but for me, it was a turning point. Most of my friends thought I was crazy to go to Goa on my own. Admittedly, part of me thought I was crazy too to travel solo, but a still small voice from far inside persistently said “face your fears”. My fear was going it alone in life after children. Twins turning 16 and suddenly I realize that they’re not going to be around much longer to hold Mummy’s hand while she pretends to be the big brave traveler!
Why Goa? Just one of those places I’ve always wanted to go to and this trip had to be somewhere I’d never been before. Might as well jump in the deep end!
The journey itself from Melbourne via Kuala Lumpur (where I overnighted) then on to Chennai, Mumbai and finally Goa was smooth and went according to plan. The actual traveling alone has never bothered me, I was much more concerned about what was going to happen once I got there.. Would anyone talk to me? Would I make friends? What if I was lonely, or got lost?
Arriving at Dabolim Airpot I got a taxi to Vagator beach where I was hoping there would be a room for me in a family run pension I had emailed a few weeks before. Goa is busy in January as it is a popular destination for party people and a longstanding reputation for big NYE celebrations.
My first impressions of Goa were of course the smells of spices, cars, cows and people. The noise of honking horns. The traffic jam on leaving the airport the like of which I have only seen at the dodgems! But that all soon gave way to countryside, and dirt roads. With some relief we found the pension I had contacted and more so when the owner said he had a room for me. And so I had arrived. Fortunately there was a small restaurant attached to my accommodation, so after my first real Goan curry and a cold beer I was ready for bed. I felt like a legend. I had made it.. or had I?
I woke the next morning early and was gripped by fear. I didn’t want to leave the room. Where was the beach? Which road would I take? What if got lost and worst of all, what if everyone knew that I wasn’t really brave at all, but in fact just a scared middle-aged woman and a wannabe cool solo traveler? Honestly, I was terrified of making a fool of myself. Well, I was either going to spend a very long boring two weeks at the room and restaurant or I was going to take a deep breath and walk out the door.
There were no sign posts so I just followed my nose and my ears. I found the beach, the fort, a few cafes and shops. Every day I ventured a little further. Three days later I knew where I was but still hadn’t made any friends. The two main reasons for this were that at that time Vagator was mainly visited by Russian tourists and also I had perfected my I’m-so-cool face to the point where I must have looked like I didn’t want or need company. I found when I softened my face and smiled, local people smiled back. A few more days and it was taking me longer and longer to walk to the beach as I stopped and chatted and drank chai with shop keepers along the way.
I started to take motorcycle taxis to visit local markets. These have to be a bonus of solo travel. Cheap, fast, and fun and it was on the back of one such bike that the voice inside that had got me there in the first place spoke up again. I was holding on like grim death, white knuckles, shallow breathing, back seat driving and finding it hard to relax when I heard “just sit into it”. So I did. I stopped trying to control the bike, I trusted that the rider knew what he was doing, and guess what? There was all this amazing scenery around me to enjoy. The sights and sounds and smells of Goa, a feeling of freedom. I sat on that bike ride and I sat into the holiday.
By the time two weeks were up, I didn’t recognize the person I had become but I liked her very much. I did make some friends and enjoyed some fun nights out with them as well as some serene horizon gazing at the sunset over the ocean. On one such evening as the strains of Goa trance wafted down to the beach and the sun dipped toward the sea I was suddenly aware that the sun was quite still and it was the earth with me, a tiny spec on the surface, rotating away from it. So I just sat into it and enjoyed the ride.
Ed. note: Rachel Jones from Hippie in Heels has just published a brand new Guide to India. Click here to find out more!
South Korea: A Historical Afternoon at the House of Sharing
by Rebecca Biage (Suwon, South Korea)
A couple of months ago I spent the afternoon at the House of Sharing learning more about Japan’s use of women during World War II. Located south of Seoul in Gwangju, the House of Sharing is home to several women who were used as sex slaves (“comfort women”). Since the women are elderly now, the House of Sharing provides a roof over their heads, meals and activities for them.
The Japanese government was the ring leader in establishing comfort stations for military personnel. About 200,000 females were sent to many Asian countries, such as Cambodia, China, and Singapore. By sending females to far-flung locales it was easy to sever familial ties. The women were not allowed to speak Korean; thus, forced to learn whatever bits of a new language they could comprehend. In addition, they had to learn a new way of life in an unfamiliar culture.
Roughly 80% of the females brought into Asian countries were Korean. Many females were deceived into believing they would be hired for factory or nursing jobs during the war. (However, the reality they faced upon arrival to their new locations turned out to be worse than they could have imagined.) In addition, females as young as thirteen were hauled off from the safety and comfort of their school environment to serve as comfort women.
At the House of Sharing the elderly women are kindly referred to as halmonis. In Korean, halmoni means “grandmother”. These women are survivors and using such terms as comfort women is considered disrespectful. During the war the phrase “comfort women” was a label used by military personnel as a way to soften the horrific actions forced upon the women.
The tour began with a documentary about the women, particularly focusing on Kim Hak Soon, who was the first woman to publicize her experience as a wartime sex slave. After the documentary our guides led us around the grounds and the museum.
The museum consisted of numerous displays including a World War II timeline, maps of comfort stations in Asia, a room depicting a comfort station, a prayer area and large-scale paintings.
The prayer area’s walls were adorned with homemade items: paintings, colorful scarves, quilts and a map of Korea. Along the floor were vases filled with flowers, candles and porcelain jars. Our tour guide invited each of us to pay our respects to the deceased halmonis by lighting an incense stick and placing it inside the brass incense holder.
The display most poignant was located on the second floor. This floor was devoted to paintings and memorabilia that once belonged to the halmonis. Painting is strongly encouraged at the House of Sharing. For the halmonis it’s a cathartic activity, helping them deal with the tragic events from their past. One painting in particular that stood out illustrated a woman blindfolded and tied to a tree with three revolvers pointing at her from different directions. In the background white doves fluttered around the woman.
Later we were introduced to the halmonis. With the help of translators a few people asked questions about those devastating years. While some of the halmonis spoke calmly about the past, you could sense a lingering frustration that a few of them still have towards Japan. Some admitted to having occasional nightmares to this day.
As I sat listening and observing the frustrated halmonis I could not help but think that even though Japan was largely responsible for establishing the comfort stations, South Korea has failed the women as well. After the war many women returned to Korea with little employment opportunities. Also, at that time seeking out mental health services would have had a social stigma attached to it. Even though they endured more than some of us will ever know (or understand), it was easy to catch a glimpse of an “elderly sparkle” in their eyes whenever they laughed.
Since the end of World War II the Japanese government has repeatedly refused to pay compensation to the women. In 1995 the Asian Women’s Fund was established as a way for the Japanese government to mend the situation. However, contributions to the fund are provided by private donors and not by the Japanese government.
Since January 1992 many halmonis have gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in protest of the Japanese government. In December 2013, to show their support of the halmonis, the South Korean government erected a statue called the Peace Monument. The statue portrays a young girl sitting in a chair and staring across the street at the Japanese Embassy. Perhaps this quiet reminder will eventually lead the Japanese government to stop “saving face” and genuinely acknowledge their past mistakes.
Raise a Glass to Sardinia
by Linda Handiak (Montreal, Quebec)
The church bells pealing in the distance suddenly merge with jangling, fast approaching bells. Confused by the cracking heat, I scan the horizon. Rough granite peaks burst from the ground like a passionate sculptors’ raw work. My path winds through aromatic macchia scrub and trees resounding with bird calls – and bells. I turn toward the source, an oak-shaded bend. My movement triggers an onslaught of unshepherded cows and goats.
I’m in northern Sardinia to learn about an ecological warrior – cork. Cork provides about 60% of the region’s income and is harvested by hand, not by machine. Once stripped, the tree absorbs up to five times more CO2 than before, and the bark grows back.
According to Elizabeth Vargiu, owner of Pausania Inn, near Tempio, cork grown in other countries is watered to encourage faster growth and harvesting. In Sardinia, it is left up to nature. Referred to as a “jewel of biodiversity” by the World Wildlife Fund, the cork forest also shelters several endangered species, such as the booted eagle.
I feel somewhat endangered myself as the animals corral me. After some snuffling, they leave, presumably for home. Where there’s a home, there’s a human who may direct me, so I follow.
A burly farmer in overalls looks bemused as I approach gingerly, on the heels of his animals. I say the magic word, sughero, cork. His eyes light up. I’m on the right path, but he fears I’ll pass out in this heat and offers to drive me by a short cut. If I were back in some North American city, I’d be skeptical. Here, it’s a classic gesture. Whenever I ask for directions, people leave their homes, even their shops, to accompany me.
A turn under the bridge and we find cork trees that have been slit and stripped around the base, leaving an anthropomorphic spectre of smooth torsos sprouting rough, sweater-clad arms. My footsteps produce a satisfying crunch. It’s the loose cork “crumbs”. The cork left on the branches preserves ecosystems that include spiders, geckos and a multitude of birds.
Back at the Inn, Elizabeth arranges for me to visit the vineyard with her father, Mr. Quinto Vargiu. “A good wine deserves a good stopper,” explains Mr. Vargiu. “Respect is important when harvesting cork,” he adds. The first harvest of cork isn’t smooth enough for stoppers and is used for insulation or soundproofing. By the third stripping, cork is compact enough to be considered for stoppers. Depending on the timing of a visit, Mr.Vargiu says that guests can observe a summer harvest in action on the grounds of the Inn.
He shows me vines that produce grapes for Moscato. Many Sardinian agritourismo (country inns) are graced with their own vineyards. These homemade wines are usually very low in sulfites but high in antioxidants, particularly the red Cannanou, believed to promote longevity. This is a blue zone, after all, a country with one of the highest percentages of centenarians.
Another particularity of the region’s wine can be attributed to the granitic soil and rough winds that force the vines to lie low and their roots to dig deep for moisture and minerals. Struggling vines are said to conserve energy by concentrating on fruit rather than leaf production, resulting in more flavourful wine.
An hour later I’m testing the theory on the terrace, enjoying a glass of Moscato reminiscent of tart honey and a plate of grilled vegetables that melt on my tongue. The waiter brings me a note written on the back of a menu. It’s a list of suggested wine pairings, from Mr. Vargiu.
The next morning I ask Elizabeth about the cork plates and traditional cork hats on display in the lobby. Could she suggest some shops in Tempio? Elizabeth goes one better and drops me at the main square.
A stroll behind the bell tower and complex of churches in the Piazza San Pietro takes me to Via Roma, where I find high fashion cork. The Anna Grindi shop showcases cork carpets, clutches, briefcases, shoes and evening wear studded with jewels, even delicate bridal wear interwoven with lace. Ms. Grindi experimented in her kitchen to integrate cork with other supporting materials and created Suberis, a tear-resistant, hypoallergenic product, treated only with natural substances, that retains an autumn palette of colors natural to cork.
Locals at the gelateria suggest that I visit the capital of cork, Calangianus. It’s about twenty minutes away from Tempio by bus, a route that winds past vineyards and stacks of cork planks being “seasoned” in the open air.
Embraced on three sides by mountains, red-roofed Calanginaus is a piccola grande commune (small town, big heritage). The Museo del Sughero (Cork Museum) is housed in a network of elegantly arched eighteenth century buildings that encompass the former Convent of Franciscan Friars and the frescoe-lined Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The museum’s multimedia display traces cork’s journey from extraction to finished product. The guides, wearing traditional dress, engage even the more distractible younger visitors with hands-on demonstrations on real equipment. At the end of the tour, we receive documentation and a souvenir bottle stopper. The guides encourage me to return in September for the Cork Fair.
I spend my last day in Olbia, to be near the airport. After expressing interest in a cork mosaic landscape at B&B Angolo Veneto, I’m introduced to Cecilia, the artist. She invites me to see her other pieces, and to share lunch with “la famiglia”. I come from a place where courtesy means giving other people space and minding your own business. Sardinian hospitality dissolves my barriers. Lunch becomes an animated romp through Sardinian history. I get accidentally baptised with spilled red wine. A good sign, says the family. I tell them I’m moved by the visceral response of Sardinians to their environment.
Cecilia believes, “it’s about respecting nature in your soul, not just in your laws.” So travelers too have the power to make choices that protect forests and communities.
Getting there: For flights from North America, it’s usually cheaper to fly to Italy or France, then take a short flight to Olbia with Volotea or Easy Jet.
Getting around: The comfortable ARST buslines serve this region. Return trips to Olbia can be made to many of the towns mentioned above for under 10 Euros.
Staying: For a more immersive experience that is less expensive, check out course and accommodation packages at the small and friendly Olbia-based Studitalia language school. The school adapted my lessons to my need for environmentally-themed vocabulary.
Frying Empanadas in a Guatemalan Home: An Unexpected Experience
by Nadine Verhoeven (Utrecht, the Netherlands)
My guidebook says there should be a Spanish school in the nearby village: San Andrés.
Perfect, because I need to get out of Flores, the town where I am staying now. To me this town seems like a tourist trap, where hotels and hostels have taken over and tour agencies are trying to sell their Tikal tours at every corner of the street. Besides that, my hostel owner is offering me Spanish lessons after his working hours, while repeatedly asking me for my phone number; thanks but no thanks.
On Sunday I decide to take the bus to San Andrés, which is only one extremely crowded minibus ride away; it is market day, I should have known. At a little corner shop I buy some lunch. They ask if I want to sit down and start to arrange a chair for me in the middle of their kitchen. The food tastes bland, but I tell the ladies it is ‘delicioso’.
I use my tactic: buying something so I can ask questions. ‘Hay escuala de Español aqui?’ A little discussion among the four ladies follows until one says ’Si, abajo, la policia’. I hope they understood me right and don’t send me to the police station instead of a Spanish school, but I start to walk down. There I see it, a police station, and a few meters next to it a school which is definitely closed. Again, I could have known, it is Sunday. I almost turn around to go back, but at last minute I decide to ask the little shop next to the school.
There I go again: ‘Perdon, hay escuela aqui?’. ‘Yes!’, she answers in broken English. ‘Julia can teach you, mira la casa alli, the yellow house, alli está!. Again I consider turning around, the woman pronounced Julia in English, will she be an American? I was looking for a local school. However, I decide to follow my own travelling rule: if in doubt between doing something or not, and as long as that something is free and safe, just do it! So there I go, knocking on the door of the yellow house. ‘Hay escuela aqui?’, I ask for the third time. ‘Si si si, adentro chica!’
Before I know I sit down on the couch in a colorful Guatemalan living room with a hammock hanging in the middle. I immediately get invited to join their daughter’s birthday in the afternoon. Julia tells me the school burned down eight years ago but she can still teach me Spanish, just along the lake or in the nearby park. She will teach me four hours a day, five days a week, for around 125 dollars, including a place to sleep and three meals a day. But, ‘no lavabos tu ropa!’, she jokes, they are not going to wash my clothes.
It seems like a really good deal to me so I tell them I will come back tomorrow. ‘You will only stay for a week?’ they ask. ‘Si’, I say. ‘You are sure you won’t come to the party this afternoon, there will be a big cake and lots of candy.’ ‘Si’, I say, ‘hasta mañana!’ It feels good and I am excited. Besides that, the price is a quarter of what I paid for my eco-school in Nicaragua.
The week that follows is amazing. From the first day on they make me feel part of the family. I get up at six, eat breakfast at seven, talk with Julia and go over some grammar until twelve o’clock. We enjoy a delicious lunch after which I go for a swim in the lake, do homework and read a book. Then we eat, sit around, and tired of the warmth and speaking Spanish I wish everyone ‘Buena niche at nine.
There is one other student, sleeping at the neighbors’ house. He met this family the exact same way, asking around and then being sent to Julia by Goyita, the little shop owner. I am glad he is there to share experiences with, and it feels relaxing to speak English with somebody. Despite our age difference, we bond, just because we are the only gringos (that’s what they call us) in this village. We discuss the crazy stories Julia tells us and talk about how this family seems to laugh everything away.
Julia tells me about how she got her first child at 19, how her husband traveled to the States through Mexico while hanging on the bottom of a truck, and how many years ago a European couple entered their village and kidnapped some children. There is probably a good amount of truth in these stories, though perhaps not everything.
This family likes expressions and repeats them regularly. When I come back from the lake they ask: ‘Estás Fresca?’ When I say ‘si!’, they say: ‘como una lechuga?’. ‘Si, como una lechuga!’ I say and everyone laughs. Fresh like lettuce, from swimming like a mermaid; everything is worth laughing loudly at. ‘Nadinloca’ they call me, just as they call the grandma Carlottaloca and their little niece Hannaloca.
After the first week, I tell them I don’t want four hours of class anymore, but I don’t want to leave either. I share with them that I am interested in teaching English. ‘Oh chica, you can do that here, I know the English teacher at the nearby school, they can always use someone who actually speaks English!’. ‘Todo es posible en San Andrés’, Julia says.
The next day they drop me off at the local high school, where I will be helping a teacher named Victoriano with his three-afternoon classes. Days turn into weeks and weeks turn into a month. I join the family in most of their daily activities: shopping, preparing meals, selling food at the university, and selling cheese on a scooter with Sandra, a dear friend of the family. I get taught how to clean beans, fry empanadas and get my white socks clean by scrubbing them over my hands. They laugh at how clumsy I am, those silly Europeans.
Aunt Milvia cuts my hair (a chair and scissors are the only thing she needs) and when more family comes over we dance around the living room after Sunday lunch. Twice we managed to get up at five o’clock in the morning – just before sunrise – to go for a run along the lake. The English teacher invites me to join the car parade for the contest of the yearly chosen ‘best girl of the school’. This turns out to be a huge party when I go on Friday evening, wearing a skirt they give me which is a little too tight in my opinion, but I guess that’s how Guatemalan girls dress up. The party is a cultural experience to me again; loud music, colorful clothes and speeches that are definitely not written by the girls themselves.
‘Why don’t they write their own speeches?’, I ask the English teacher later. ‘They can’t, he says, ‘teachers need to do that’. Interesting, its seems as if children here are only taught to copy or repeat, instead of to create things themselves. Another interesting cultural insight. However, despite all those little differences I feel at home in this town, greeting the guy from the internet café, the tuktuk driver and the supermarket owner, chatting with the neighbors, watching soccer games, and talking to the two kids fishing fresh pescado to sell at the market.
The Sunday before I leave we have a goodbye lunch for which the grandma slaughters two chickens. I had seen that vendors sell cages of chickens at the market, so when they asked what I wanted for lunch I jokingly said we should buy one. After all, I hadn’t been eating in line with my vegetarian habits that month and I think that when one eats chicken, one should at least be able to see it slaughtered. We did and after grandma twists their necks, I learned how to clean and cook them.
When my time has come to leave I pack my bag, secretly shed a tear in my room, and hug everyone goodbye. Julia, Aunt Milvia, and Grandma Carlotta get up to wave me goodbye at four in the morning. There I go, hoping to return someday, realizing how this experience has given me everything I went traveling for. I lived the Guatemalan life, improved my Spanish, got teaching experience, and the money I spent went to a local family 100%. There was no wealthy director gaining half of the profit, like at most tour agencies and expensive Spanish schools.
During my travels, I figured that often the cheaper the product – whether it is food, a museum, or a hostel – the more locally owned/interesting. After all isn’t that why we all go traveling, to experience local culture? I have seen the opposite happening throughout Central America: tour agencies with shuttles that bring you to touristy places and party hostels popping up everywhere. They tell you local buses are dangerous while their own bus drivers drive extremely crazily. Their expensive tours only pay their guide one-tenth of what they receive. Local museums are hardly visited while backpackers are too busy with their waterfall tours. Tour agents tell me there is nothing to do in a town while there is a free local festival going on. Even a hostel owner got almost mad at me for not participating in his bike tour, say what?!
So where does all the profit from the tourism industry go? I guess a lot of it goes to flight tickets of these European and American do-gooders; after all, they also want to see their family once in a while. This is understandable but prevents the country from earning its fair share of profit. Besides that, their precious land is increasingly in the hands of foreigners. This is why I advise every other traveler to talk to the people on the street, don’t be afraid, and take your time while traveling. Avoid tours, fancy restaurants, shuttles, and party hostels. Stay calm when you are alone and you’ll meet the nicest people. Travel open-minded and unplanned and more realistic experiences will follow.
And lastly, if you ever go to Guatemala; go to San Andrés, knock at the door of the yellow house opposite the police station and ask ‘Hay Pascuala Aqui?’
WWOOFing in Thailand: A First Time
by Megan S. (New York, NY)
In September of last year, I embarked on my first solo traveling adventure. I quit my full-time job, moved out of my apartment in Brooklyn, bought my first backpack and pair of hiking boots, and booked a one-way flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The plan was to volunteer for some local nonprofits, learn the language, and make some professional connections that would enable me to eventually live and work there.
I had fundraised for about a month but hardly saved enough for the amount of time that I wanted to stay. I made arrangements to have my food and accommodations taken care of for three months, but had no idea what I was going to do afterward. I had $400 USD in my wallet.
December was fast approaching, and though I had accomplished what I set out to do (and more), I had no intentions of bringing my traveling to an end, but I was out of money and ideas. My sister suggested that I check out WWOOF.org (an acronym for “Worldwide Organization of Organic Farming”); she had done this in France and while it is difficult to work, the exchange for food and accommodations saves money and allows travelers to be fully immersed in the local culture. I explored the options and decided to try my luck in Thailand.
I searched the hosts, found a few that sparked my interest, and soon enough received a reply from one in Krabi. Trying to figure out the safest, most interesting, and the cheapest route there, a fellow volunteer pointed out that flights to Singapore were only $20 at this time; I bought a ticket, couch-surfed through Singapore and Malaysia for a couple of weeks, and eventually found my way to Krabi, Thailand via bus.
When I finally made it into the town of Krabi, the farmer was already there, waiting with his wife and two children. They were Thai but spoke some English, their six-year-old daughter being the most proficient of them all. Their house was far from the main part of town, but it was on a beautiful plot of isolated land surrounded by palm trees and swamp waters that made me feel as if we were in the middle of a jungle. I stayed in a hut next door to their house—both built by the farmer’s own two hands, made entirely of mud and stone.
Most days were exactly the same. Around 8 am, I awoke, and went to feed the chickens and ducks. Then we spent the next hour or so planting banana trees and sugar cane. He often became frustrated with me because I could not dig a hole as deep as he would like, or could not lift a heavy bag of rice. “This is man’s job,” he would say. Even when I nearly chopped my finger off with a machete while cutting a banana tree, he laughed at my reaction while I gushed blood (luckily, I only nipped my nail). When my body was infested with red ants and termites while planting, he ignored me. Was I overreacting?
As the weeks progressed, my inclusion on the farm lessened. I felt like a burden more than a helpful volunteer. If I accidentally slept in, nobody bothered to wake me. I would work for an hour, more or less, until the farmer asked me to watch the children. But I wanted to farm, not babysit! They were feeding and housing me, so I felt that I couldn’t argue. This arrangement continued for the duration of my time, and I kept quiet. The wife even asked me to accompany her over the holidays to help with the children as they traveled to visit relatives, so I swallowed my pride and took a painstaking 15-hour train ride to Bangkok with them.
Finally, before New Year’s Eve, my time as a WWOOFer was officially over and we went our separate ways. I never complained to the family, or even gave them a poor review. But I often wonder: if I was not a female, would I have been put in the position I was in? If I was male, would I have been treated differently?
— Originally published on 28 February 2018