The aroma of rich coconut milk and sweet, juicy mangoes stopped me in my tracks; someone at the Damnoen Saduak floating market was whipping up my favorite Thai dessert. Sniffing the air bloodhound-style, I wandered along the narrow canal hunting for the source of the delicious smell. Like a heat-seeking missile, a Thai boat lady paddled to the edge of the pier and grinned up at me. I may have had a nose for sticky rice and mango, but she smelled an easy mark. There would be no bargaining over this sweet treat.
Deftly balancing in the gently rocking flat-bottomed boat, she leaned forward and scooped a mound of white rice from a steel pot perched on a cross slat, surrounded it with a circle of golden mango slices, drenched it all with some extra coconut syrup, and topped it with a handful of crunchy toasted rice. “Neung roi baht,” she insisted. “One hundred baht.” Helpless, I nodded my assent and dropped a bill into the plastic basket attached to a long wooden pole she thrust at me. Pulling the pole back into her boat, she replaced my bill with the platter and shoved it back over the water toward me. Practically drooling, I dug into my obscenely expensive dessert. The perfectly ripened mangoes melted in my mouth like lumps of brown sugar, while the starchy rice was sweetened with just the right amount of coconut milk. Heavenly! And worth every cent of its $3.50 price.
The sticky rice vendor serenely paddled back into the melee of floating vendors jockeying for position in the narrow khlong (canal), repeating a scene that has occurred daily since the King Rama IV ordered the Damnoenssaduak khlong dug in 1866 to to connect Read More
The Erawan Shrine beckoned me. Following its siren song, I hopped on the Sky Train, which whisked me to Chitlom station in a matter of minutes. I stepped to the edge of the elevated walkway and gazed down on the first site I had ever visited in Bangkok. On this, my fifth trip to Thailand, I seem to be meandering down memory lane and with so much change evident in Bangkok I was gratified to see that worshipers still flock to this historic site to petition the gods for fame, fortune, and success.
As Hindu holy places go, the Erawan Shrine is no more spectacular than hosts of others around Asia, but the back story is fascinating. The shrine, which has as its centerpiece a statue of Phra Phrom, the Thai representation of the Hindu creation god Brahma, was built in 1956 during construction of the government-owned Erawan Hotel. The project was plagued by cost overruns, injuries, and the loss of a shipload of Italian marble intended for use in the construction, thought to be the result of laying the foundations on an inauspicious date. An astrologer advised building the shrine to eliminate this bad karma; once it was in place, hotel construction proceeded without further difficulty, earning it the reputation as a place to pray for good fortune. When the original hotel was demolished in 1987 to make way for the Grand Hyatt Erawan, the Hyatt carefully incorporated the shrine into the design of the new facility.
The best view of the Erawan Shrine is from the elevated Sky Train walkway but nothing compares to joining the crush of supplicants at ground level. Weaving through flower vendors clogging the narrow sidewalks, I passed through the iron gates of the shrine and squeezed through to the front of the seething crowd. Worshipers placed burning incense sticks in sand trays and prostrated three times before Brahma. Others placed flowers, food, and a variety of mementos on the altar, hoping to win favor from the gods. One man, obviously in dire need of celestial help, hefted two giant trash bags through the gates and fought his way through the jostling horde to the altar. From the first bag he extracted an opulent pair of golden sequined headdresses, which an attendant prominently placed on either side of Brahma. The four large wooden elephant carvings he pulled from the second bag were given places of honor on the four sides of the shrine, and as a final offering he handed two bottles of water to the attendant to be placed on the altar, just in case Bramha was thirsty.
I’ve always loved the Humpty Dumpty sidewalks and gaping sewer holes in Bangkok. The rat’s nest of electrical wires atop telephone poles, tuk-tuks belching black smoke, and motorbikes clogging the broad avenues delighted me; not even the acrid odor of rotting trash mingled with fish sauce put me off. And so it was with great excitement that I headed back to one of my favorite cities in the world after a four-year absence.
Changes in my beloved Bangkok were immediately apparent. All the king’s men have put the sidewalks together again and nary an open sewer hole is to be found. Cars now outnumber motorbikes, although ever-present tuk-tuks still scoot through the streets, preying on tourists who don’t yet realize that riding through exhaust-suffused streets in these open-air carriages will leave them breathless and choking. But though the city’s temples are as exotic and gilded as ever, the smiles of its residents seem slightly tarnished.
Perhaps my impression is skewed because I am staying in Siam Square this time, home to a glittering collection of some of the world’s largest shopping centers. In years past I have chosen hotels in the Embassy district or hostels in Khao San Road, more commonly known as Bangkok’s backpacker district. Each has its own peculiar charm: the Embassy district is loaded with great restaurants and is conveniently located just steps from the Sukhumvit line of the BTS Sky Train, while the city’s two most popular temple complexes, The Grand Palace and Wat Po, are an easy stroll from KSR.
But for shopping, Siam Square is the place to be. Getting there is a breeze, since the Sukhumvit and Silom lines of the Sky Train converge at Siam Square, but it was even easier for me, since my hostel was a short two blocks away. After recovering from 36-hours of travel I headed out to get reacquainted with Bangkok. I climbed the stairs to the Sky Train’s elevated walkway for a bird’s eye view of the mega-retail complex. Through a constant stream of pedestrians and posters advertising upcoming concerts by Eric Clapton and The Eagles I spied the mirror-fronted MBK, a seven-story mall famous for its maze of shops and escalators Read More
The dangerously handsome man sitting at an adjacent table in the Pokhara coffee shop nodded as I wrapped up my interview with two young girls who’s had an abhorrent experience with a local volunteer operator. A jumble of dreadlocks peeked from beneath Hugo Caminero’s rainbow knitted skullcap as he leaned across the aisle and admitted that he’d been eavesdropping. Hugo was also working with children, but he’d created his own program rather than pay a firm to arrange for volunteering in Nepal. He flashed a seductive smile through his two-day stubble. Would I like to accompany him the following day to see for myself?
Hugo, drummer for the popular Spanish cover band RETO 999, was inspired by the philanthropic works of Carlinhos Brown, a Brazilian percussionist who was born in Candeal Pequeno, a small neighborhood in the Brotas area of Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. As a child, Brown played in dirt streets where human waste flowed; when it rained, excrement and mud washed into the homes. Yet it was the rhythm and percussion sounds from these same rough streets that brought him fame. Hoping to give back, Brown opened a music school in Candeal and formed the musical group Timbalada, recruiting more than 100 percussionists and singers called “timbaleiros,” the majority of them young kids from the streets of Candeal. Timbalada eventually recorded eight albums and toured various countries around the world. Today, largely through the efforts of Brown and Pracatum Social Action Association community action organization also set up by the drummer, the streets of Candeal are paved and free from sewage.
Taking his cue from Brown, Hugo bought a dozen drums, flew to Pokhara, and began looking for an orphanage where he could put his skills to use. One day he knocked on the door of the Protection and Rehabilitation Centre for Street Children and soon he was tutoring kids for an hour or so each afternoon in simple rhythms they were sure to master. At a jam session in a local bar one night he met Kim Jinuk, a Korean guitarist, and Pablo Etayo, an amateur musician from Basque Spain who had studied music therapy. And then there were three.
The next afternoon, Hugo led me through a maze of Pokhara’s dirt back streets on a shortcut to the highway, where the inconspicuous centre concealed itself behind a low concrete wall. A door cracked open we were ushered inside, where raggedy urchins immediately latched onto our legs, our clothes, whatever they could grasp. They bickered and pummeled one another; one young boy performed backflips from a nearby bench hoping to win our attention. Utter chaos reigned until Hugo broke out the drums.
Forming an orderly circle in the center of the courtyard, the children focused on Hugo as he drilled them on their respective parts.
“Ick, dui, tin, char!” One, two three, four.
Within minutes the undisciplined mob was transformed into a cohesive unit, automatically working together for the good of the group. It was quite remarkable to witness and it wouldn’t surprise me to see these kids performing in a major parade someday, featured as one of the world’s great rags to riches stories.
My life changed for the better when I deserted corporate America to pursue my true passions of travel, writing and photography but over the past few years I’ve often felt there was still a piece of the puzzle missing. There was something more I was meant to do; I just wasn’t sure what it was. And then I arrived in Nepal.
As my three week visit stretched to three months, I became acutely aware that behind the veneer of beauty lay excruciating poverty. Here was a place where I could do some good, I thought. I began researching NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) and learned it was quite simple to create and register one in Nepal. Combining an NGO with a 501(c)3 non-profit organization in the U.S., which would allow people to make tax deductible donations, seemed the perfect way to help Nepal and satisfy my desire to give back.
As I toured the country I broached the subject of NGO’s and volunteering with everyone I met. My first inkling that all was not as it seemed came from a guide in Chitwan National Park. Morally opposed to riding elephants, I instead opted for a walk through a nearby village to learn more about the local Tharu people. My guide, who lived in the village, warned, “Maybe 75% of orphanages are not real.”
He told me about a group of Polish tourists that had established an online relationship with an orphanage prior to traveling to Nepal. Upon arrival, they hired my guide to help purchase bulk food and supplies, in addition to a cash donation they planned to make. Although he warned of potential fraud, the Poles insisted that this particular orphanage was legitimate. Several weeks later, long after the donors had returned home, my guide stuffed his pockets with chocolates and returned to the orphanage. As the children clamored around him, fighting for candy, he quizzed them. What had they been given to eat over the past few weeks? Had they received new clothes? School supplies? None of the children had new clothes or supplies and they had been fed only dahl bhat (rice and lentil bean stew), as usual. He later learned that all the fresh foodstuffs and a good deal of the bulk non-perishables had been sold off, with the cash distributed among the orphanage owners.
My guide explained that many orphanages solicit funds through websites that feature photos of destitute children and inspiring stories of rescues made possible by donations. Yet in truth, many of these same orphanages are non-existent. In the rare instance that donors travel to Nepal to meet their sponsor children, the owners of the “orphanage” collect children and put them on display for a night or two in a local home.
At this point in our walking tour he pointed to a decrepit house next to a brand new three-story concrete building painted in a trio of turquoise hues. The sign on the chain link fence surrounding the two structures declared that a new orphanage would soon open.
“I assume that’s one of the good ones?” I asked.
“No, the owner built the orphanage with money from donations but now that it is finished, he is turning it into a hotel.”
Two days later I boarded a bus with a slew of Brits who had come to Nepal to volunteer. After a weekend tour of Chitwan, they were headed back to Pokhara, where they were helping out at local orphanages and teaching English in government schools. After extensive research on the Internet, each of them had booked their trip through Personal Overseas Development (POD), a UK firm that facilitates volunteering opportunities around the world. Valerie Jamiason of Newcastle paid 750 British Pounds ($1087 U.S. dollars at the time) for an eight-week stint. Her package included pick-up at the Kathmandu airport ( I was picked up for free by my hotel), one night’s stay at a Kathmandu budget hotel (~$10), her bus ticket to Pokhara (~$6), and eight weeks stay at the Castle Guest House in Pokhara at what Val was told was POD’s special rate of $6 per night, for a total of $352.
POD does not require volunteers to have any prior teaching experience and they are given no orientation upon arrival. With no formal turnover process, fresh arrivals have no idea what the children have been taught previously and each new group is left to decide for themselves what to teach their classes. Tom, who had opted for a summer of volunteering prior to entering university as a pre-med student, focused on teaching his students how to tell time.
Two of my volunteer friends invited me to visit Annapurna Primary School with them one day. As I wedged into a miniature desk at the rear of the classroom, Val established a modicum of order among the raucous pack and began drilling the students. She placed a chalkboard eraser on the floor and in her thick Newcastle brogue instructed:
“Repeat after me. The duster (DOH stah) is next to the desk.”
“The duster is on the desk.”
“The duster is in the desk.”
“The duster is under the desk.”
Meanwhile, Michael reviewed homework assignments, explaining errors in his very proper Londoner accent.
Though the raggedly clad kids had level one English workbooks, the school administrator told me in broken English that they were lacking even the most essential supplies: pencils, erasers, and lined pads were all in short supply and since there were no funds for lunches, the students went hungry. As for assistance from POD, I was told that only the teachers were provided; not one cent of the fees they charge volunteers is donated to the schools and orphanages that welcome their volunteers. With no supplies, scant oversight, no training and rapid turnover in teachers who speak in varying accents and don’t even use the same words, it is questionable whether the children are receiving any true benefit from the program.
Yet POD may be the best of the bunch. Erin Elliott of Alberta, Canada and Rebeca Limmer of Tanzania, Australia both signed on with Global Visions International (GVI). The girls discovered GVI while searching the Internet for volunteering opportunities. Erin paid $3,200 in Canadian dollars (about $3,250 USD) for a six-week program billed as an “adventure/volunteering” program that guaranteed four weeks of volunteering activity. She searched the Internet for a tour company because, as an inexperienced solo female traveler, she felt incapable of making arrangements on her own. “My main goal was to volunteer, but when I saw that GVI combined volunteering with a visit to Everest Base Camp it was very attractive.”
To her dismay, she found the program focused more on adventure than philanthropic efforts. Worse, upon arrival in Kathmandu she learned that GVI had turned over the operation of her tour to Himalayan Encounters, a company previously unknown to her; they began by failing to pick her up at the airport as promised. Later in the trip, after trekking in Bandipur, she was dumped on the roadside by her jeep driver, who told her to wait while he transported other participants to Chitwan National Park. Knowing no one and not sure where she was, Erin spent the next three hours in the home of a villager kind enough to take her in.
Although Rebecca was picked up at the airport after only an hour’s wait, she also found the program to be incredibly disorganized. “I got here and really wanted to do volunteer work but the adventure part of the trip kept being extended. My contact was supposed to be a river rafting leader but I could never find him.” Rebecca was ultimately placed at the Trisuli Center in Bandare, a small village halfway between Kathmandu and Pokhara, where she taught in two schools. At one, the wall of a temporary structure collapsed when a student leaned against it. Ten feet away, piles of feces surrounded a “rank, revolting squat toilet that was filled to the brim.” She was given no teaching instructions or lesson plan and took her only cue from departing volunteers who shared what they had been teaching.
Erin taught English to grades three and five at a government school in Bandipur. Initially, she was put up at the Old Inn, which she learned was owned by Himalayan Encounters, for $55 per night. Later she moved to a home stay and paid a more modest 300 Nepali Rupees per night (slightly more than $3 USD). On her first day of school the principal handed her a piece of chalk and commanded, “OK, now teach.” He also issued her a cane for corporal punishment. “One day a man came into my class and gave the most violent pop quiz I’ve ever seen. If a student answered wrong, or too slowly, he got a chop on the head.” Himalayan Encounter’s website states: “We can also truthfully speak of real commitment to carbon-neutral policies within Nepal, to real evidence of ‘responsible tourism,’ sustainable practices and what we describe as ‘Tourism in the Community and the Community in Tourism;’” however if Erin and Rebecca’s experiences are representative, the agencies with which they arrange volunteer opportunities are neither ethical nor responsible, and it might not bee to harsh to call them volunteering scams.
Neither of the girls saw evidence that any of the money they paid GVI had been funneled back into the schools. Textbooks were so old that the currency of France was still shown as Francs and the grammar throughout the books was consistently incorrect. Students did not even have pencils and volunteers were regularly asked to pay for supplies out of their own pockets. Other Himalayan Encounters volunteers told Rebecca they had been encouraged to contact their families and press them to make donations. Yet, Erin pointed out that a good deal of construction was underway at the Old Inn, including installation of a new fireplace.
When Erin pressed Himalayan Encounters to divulge the extent of their charitable donations, she was told that a portion of all fees were donated to Prisoner Assistance Nepal, an organization that helps children whose parents are in jail, but when she contacted PAN they denied having received any such support. Rebecca was told that Himalayan Encounters supports ten disabled people at a time, each for nine months, by providing housing and food while they are taught English and trained in computer skills at their in-house training center in Pokhara.
I popped into Himalayan Encounters’ offices unannounced one afternoon, ostensibly to inquire about volunteering opportunities. I was offered placement as an English teacher at several schools or the opportunity to help out at an orphanage, and for much less money that the typical volunteer was charged, since I would be dealing with them directly rather than booking through GVI. I explained that I had no formal training as a teacher and wasn’t particularly good with children, but had extensive computer skills; could I perhaps teach at their computer training center? The half-dozen PC’s near the entrance were dark and had been so for some time; the program was shut down due to lack of teachers who were willing to make long-term commitments.
Two weeks later I met Anton and Johnny at a Pokhara coffee shop. The two young Frenchmen had volunteered through Service Volunteer International (SVI) and paid a fee to help build facilities for an orphanage in Sarangkot, near Pokhara, but found no organized program when they arrived. Rather than deserting the orphanage, which was desperately in need of assistance, they slept on the floor by night and dug an organic garden by day; they were also convinced that none of the money they paid ever reached the orphanage. (Service Volunteer International should not be confused with Service Volontaire International, which also goes by the acronym SVI and is a non-profit volunteer organization based in Belgium that is working to educate travelers about the scams so prevalent in the burgeoning “voluntouring” industry).
Insisting that charity had become “big business” in Nepal, my Nepali friends repeatedly told me that the majority of orphanages and NGO’s were scams designed to line the pockets of greedy businessmen, however some do seem to be supporting a large number of orphans, including three orphanages in Pokhara: SOS Bahini, Rainbow House, and Namaste Children’s House. In the case of Namaste, which is owned and operated by a local restaurateur, I was told by a trustworthy Nepali that 150 orphans are bussed each day to a private school where they are receiving a quality education. I was also told that the owner has grown rich through donations and drives a brand new SUV, something that is rare in Pokhara.
To some degree, expenditures are necessary. Buses are needed to transport the children back and forth to school, to pick up and deliver supplies; and the end result, helping orphans, is laudable. Having never lived in abject poverty, I am hesitant to judge but it does seem that volunteering, voluntouring, NGO’s and charity organizations are the fast track to wealth for any Nepali who has the resources to set one up. As a result, my initial plan to start an NGO is on hold. I will undoubtedly do something to help in Nepal, but not until I can identify truly worthwhile causes.
Note: The Internet is rife with companies offering volunteering and voluntouring packages, priced from hundreds to thousands of dollars per week. While it is difficult to know which firms are trustworthy, those that disclose specifics about the funds they donate and provide contact information to confirm their charitable works are more likely to be legitimate. Additionally, Kirsty Henderson, who writes the travel blog Nerdy Nomad, another travel blogger who has been volunteering for many years, offers an eBook, The Underground Guide to International Volunteering that includes lists and rankings for various firms, as well as links to websites devoted to oversight of the industry. It is well worth the purchase price of $ 14; I have read and highly recommend it to anyone considering booking a paid volunteering or voluntouring holiday (I do receive a small commission if you click on the above link and purchase this book, but please be assured that I would not recommend it unless I thought it was of very high quality).
To be continued…next, one man who created his own volunteer opportunity without paying a penny: