Travel on a budget: short time volunteering

There are many ways of travelling and if you decide to hit the road on a budget you might be lucky enough to come back with more memories and life-changing experiences than those who stay in resorts and go to fancy bars. Before leaving for my trip in southeast asia I shared an article encouraging people to travel while they are young and have few responsabilities; among all the likes a friend commented “it’s easy to do it if you have a bank account with unlimited zeros like yours..“. After telling him my plan and some useful websites to travel cheap with locals and volunteer in organic farming he replied: “It’s disgusting, trusting people and sleeping on their sofas? Working someonelse’s land in exchange of food and accomodation? God bless alienation and the industrial revolution.” OK, it’s fun to be provocative to add some spice to the conversation but if this is your mindset, there is no need for you to read further.

Tips if you pre-arrange your volunteering/stage/internship:

1. Set your goal and what you want to achieve with your hosts beforehand.

2. Ask specific job description “A mix of lodge and farm work” is not good enough

3. Enquire on the size of the project, how many people work there

4. Be Ready to get dirty

Get dirty!
Get dirty!

So here you go, you are about to hit the road and you decide to couchsurf and volunteer. As far as my experience is concerned the more I tried to organize my volunteering the less I got out of it. Probably it’s because I don’t like spending time arranging and I’m good at taking things as they happen. My most rewarding volunteering experience was in Kenya where everything happened by coincidence and the most exciting one was helping a friend in a small scale project during summer (I haven’t told you about this yet).

So here is my story:

During my stay in Malaysia I volunteered for one week in what was meant to be an ‘organic farm’ and ‘permaculture‘  centre. A wonderful place on the Sigar Highlands where people live sustainably with the motto ‘for our childern children’s”. What was advertised on the WWOOFING website was only one part of the project that the owner did some years ago and is now up and running with no need of volunteers’ labor. Most of the work in fact had to be carried out on a one thousand acre forest-farm that grows vegetables in greenhouses using hydroponic , non-organic agriculture. The first few days were boring and felt like a waste of time. A Nepalese guy picked me up from Kampung Raja bus station and took me to the Moonriver Lodge where I met Lalitha, the person I was in touch with. She gave me my room keys and rushed away without giving me any sort of instructions. It was time to rest and when I left my room I wondered around in search of things to do. Nobody could speak English in the lodge and another Nepalese guy took me on top of a hill with his motorbike and left me in a greenhouse cleaning plastic pots with a bunch of Burmense kids that did not speak English either.

4.480 tomatoes in a greenhosue
4.480 tomatoes in a greenhosue

It was funny and awkward at the same time but I kind of liked it. The following day was pretty much the same, I worked for about 7 hours and all I got to do was cleaning pots and attaching small tomato plants to strings hanging from the top of the greenhouse. I started appreciating the job only when I realized what was going on around me and after witnessing the different stages of the growing process. I was impressed by the technology in use in the farm, hydroponics was applied in a simple and extremely cheap way and the whole project wasn’t profitable for the owners only but for the farmers too (not in the same way but hey…) The monthly wage of a farmer was about 1.200MR (£223) and most of it went to the families left behind in Nepal and Myanmar. 1200MR is not a lot compared to western standards but it’s a good income if you think that millions of ‘world poor’ live on less than a dollar a day and that neighboring Cambodians are getting killed by police officers because they are asking a rise in their monthly wage from $80 to $160.

Burmese Brothers
Burmese Brothers

The third day I started to understand how the initial project of sutainable living and permaculture evolved into this kind of farming. Firsthand I was very critical towards the owners (A Chinese couple that only turned up a couple of days and never talked to me) but lately I realized that I had the chance to spend some time in an established and successful project that was promoting development in the country and helping ethnic minorities and the families they left behind. One of the reasons why I like travelling is to see this kind of things and I would have never had the chance to experience it from within if I came to Moonriver Lodge  as a tourist.

Overall experience, not too bad. Not exactly what I expected but I learned a lot about what Malaysia made of ‘development’ in the past years and yet again I was proved that the country’s most successful enterprises are in the hands of the Chinese.

After a few days Tammy got back from Christmas holidays. She runs the lodge and deals with customers, a brilliant Malaysian woman, traveler, woofer, nature-savvy and freelance writer who worked for human rights NGOs. She apologized for not being around and told me that usually she looks after volunteers and the inconvenience of having me there alone shouldn’t have happened. I accept her apologies and on New year’s day she sent me for an amazing jungle trek with two Singaporean couples that were staying at the lodge. It was beautiful, challenging and I had the chance to stick my head in the biggest flower of the world known as Rafflesia. On NYE we had few beers that she smuggled in (no alcohol allowed in the lodge) and lot of avarage Chinese food from cans.

Rafflesia Flower
Rafflesia Flower

After a week couchsurfing, a week volunteering and about 4 days of relax in Georgetown still have 2MR (£0.37) in my pocket left from the 1.000MR (£186) that I withdrew on my arrival. Cheap and better than sunbathing in my opinion.

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