Do yourself a favor and travel with purpose
Deep inside you, somewhere in between you heart and your gut, lies your calling.
It’s not necessarily what your parents, society or bank account want you to do, but what makes your entire being and your surroundings vibrate higher when you talk about it.
At least that’s how people would describe when I blasted about permaculture, regenerative farming, systems thinking, holistic health; organic everything. They could feel I loved it. Some of them, to my utter delight and for Earth’s sake, would start loving it too.
When I then decided to follow an opportunity and spend a long while in South East Asia, nothing made more sense:
I would direct my energies and my choices toward discovering traditional and modern sustainable farming while also exploring what that part of the world had to offer. Travelling became learning; I was doing it with a purpose.
I had heaps of time and not heaps of money, the perfect condition for a specific kind of learning: the precious role of a volunteer.
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The precious role of a volunteer
Think about it, it’s a beautiful exchange. You’re giving weeks of your life and the helpfulness of your muscles, while the other part teaches what they know and provide you with roof and food (the fact that many projects charge a daily fee is a bit of a polemic.
You, as a volunteer, help in what is necessary, not in what your ego thinks it’s dignified. You hear more than you speak, you share rooms, you wake up when they wake up, you take turns in the kitchen and cold-water dish- washing (and showers!), you weep the floor and feed the animals.
You also get to become a local, camp in the forest, witness breath-taking sunsets, feast like royalty, meet life-long friends, and a long list of experiences full of awe and joy, but it won’t mean too much if philosophically you’re not opened and honest and humble.
Recover the lost art of apprentices and masters! Dive into an environment and a relation made of the small-giant pleasures of simplicity and generosity.
Put your beliefs and comfort zones into question, happily accept what others have to offer, contribute in any way you can, and do a good service to Earth and to others. If it’s in your vein, you’ll feel great. You’ll feel alive.
The issue of charging money to volunteers
Factors I think are relevant:
– The country: based on what I’ve heard, generally speaking, European and Australian farms don’t charge volunteers, while most projects in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia did (Vietnam is a bit of an exception, the permaculture scene there is still more for locals than foreigners). Still,
– Auto-sufficiency vs. easiness: Many projects argue that they need money to buy food. If you don’t grow, you’ve got to buy food. But it’s also harder to grow consistently if volunteers are mostly amateurs short-term, or also it may not be the season. But again, if there’s such a high offer of volunteers willing to pay, it’s just easy to go, do groceries and fall into that capitalist comfort zone.
– Profit: I have no proof whatsoever, but when I look at a project charging over $30 (no kidding) for a day to be a volunteer in Thailand, my eyebrows can’t help but raise. In my head, if the given reason behind it to “provide volunteer with adequate learning and pay our workers”, then it’s a long course, not volunteering. Prices like $10 in Thailand or $12 in Vietnam per day already surpass what I want to afford – I’ve denied volunteerings for money reasons, I accepted max $6 – and I wonder once again if that money is going for the living costs of the volunteer or to support the whole project. If it is the last case, why not make it clear? Half volunteering, half donating
What does volunteer in farms means?
Now, of course you ain’t no mindless slave. When I felt that the task was not the priority or could be better performed, I simply talked to the farmer and made suggestions.
Most are actually happy to hear what volunteers have to say and will easily adjust. It’s much less rigid than it sounds, and overall the atmosphere was quite chill.
After all, you’re only supposed to work 4-5 hours a day, and it’s not hard-sweating work everyday. Plus, there are different kinds of jobs and you can argue as to what suits you best.
That said, it’s quite surprising what first-timers that were afraid of a hoe can do when they put the effort!
Talking of which, the question I’ve heard multiple times from travellers when they came to know my life was about volunteering in farms: what actually do you do?
Well, nothing out of normal: preparing seedlings, plowing veggie beds, carrying manure, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, feeding chickens, fixing irrigation systems, building mud-houses, cooking.
What I loved the most, though, were the secrets and peculiarities behind normal farm duties, like finding out about medicinal or cosmetic local plants, using pee to water plants, cooking with that spice, and all the genius moves that permaculture brings, integrating systems and making more feasible a better future for all.
The power of volunteering
At the end of almost seven months by myself, I volunteered for a total of 19 weeks in ten projects in Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam (sadly no time left for Cambodia!), visited three projects in between, and travelled as a more regular tourist for six weeks, with another two just for resting.
If I spent too long in farms I’d miss being a tourist, but the other way round was even more tiring, specially in Vietnam – I was craving farming. ‘Cause that’s the deal, if you want it to, it becomes part of you, part of how you see the world and relate to others.
Conventional travelling, with all its fun and people-meeting and touristy spots, don’t last long for me. Let’s say that, for me, I better take it in small doses.
For the rest of the time, I really enjoy the vibe and authenticity of countryside volunteering.
That made my South East Asian trip more full of knowledge and more affordable.
Websites that help you volunteer:
- Facebook: surprisingly, I found all the farms here. I looked for “Permaculture [name of country]” and checked out who were posting. Send a bold message and bingo, they had a volunteering program.
- Workaway: the platform most people I met used. Paid, but you can look up many different kinds of volunteering. Gotta admit, I checked it even without having an account just to have an idea of what was listed.
Farms I volunteered or visited:
– SRI Lovely (6 weeks)
– Tantai Farm (2 weeks)
– Raksa Garden (1 week)
– Plant Thai/Banana family (2 weeks)
– Gaia Ashram (3 weeks)
– Permaculture Children’s House (1 day)
– Pun Pun and Panya (visit: 2 days),
– Sahainan (2 weeks)
– Mekong Eden Farm (1 week)
– An Nhiem (visit: 1 day)
– Cai Farmstay (5 days)
– Kiwi No (1 week)
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