Another year over and a new one just begun! 2019 is upon us and I’m overjoyed to see what this year will bring–visits to new places, reuniting with friends, and spending time with family are all on my horizon. Of course, there will be a continuation of my journey into sustainable living and tourism.
2018 brought out the monthly Responsible Travel Challenges that presented ways to become more ethical in your globetrotting. For 2019, I’ve been inspired to share more personal stories from the road of impact travel experiences I’ve had by Better Places Travel. BPT is dedicated to raising awareness about the positive impact travel can have on travelers and locals and I couldn’t be more thrilled to support this movement. As they say, better places for people to live in makes for better places for people to visit.
There are so many ways to maximize the positive impact of your travels–many of which were covered in the Responsible Travel Challenge series such as respecting local culture, minimizing waste and single-use plastics, preserving nature, being mindful about accommodations, and flying directly as non-stop flights without a layover reduce CO2 emissions by up to 50%. Even as we travel we can work towards the Sustainable Development Goals.
I recently experienced how powerfully positive impact travel can be. I spent a month in Siem Reap and was deeply disturbed by how many travelers with good intentions get caught up in do-gooder experiences. Many travelers end up going to an orphanage for the day which really has no lasting impact and can be very detrimental for the children. Voluntourism has turned into such a nasty word but there are ways to give back while you’re traveling that aren’t exploitative.
I understand the need to want to make a positive change for someone else while traveling–for many travelers Siem Reap may be their first confrontation with life under the poverty line. When you first witness ways of life that are different than your own it is normal to feel helpless and a desire to contribute. I was in search of a positive impact travel experience that I could recommend to people as an alternative to visiting orphanages that benefits marginalized children in Siem Reap.
I learned about the Touch*A*Life project which was founded by Mavis Ching who was inspired by Mr. T.S. Narain who has distributed food to the poor in Surabaya, Indonesia for three decades. Ching returned to Indonesia where she began to cook meals for 120 people in need in Yogyakarta. 2 years later natural disaster struck Ching’s adoptive home when Mt. Merapi erupted and caused earthquakes and a tsunami. She jumped into action and provided emergency relief by providing meals to over 6,000 people who were displaced during the disaster.
“I felt really useful and I think that’s what we’re looking for–to be useful,” says Ching. She continues explaining that she “had a rumbling inside, an unease, knowing something that something was impending and was missing in my 40s.” She went on to operate a food service program that ran for 3 years in Melaka, Malaysia.
Since June 2008, Touch*A*Life has been providing meals free-of-charge to the poorest communities in Siem Reap. What started as 52 eggs sandwiches has grown into a grassroots project that serves more than 6,000 meals each month. Ching has also introduced need-based programs to support education cost for several children in the village and medical costs for those who need assistance. Each family is assessed individually to determine what their immediate needs are.
The food program is intended to be a stepping stone for families that are struggling to put food on the table. Many families only participate for a few months while they’re in need as Khmer people are very proud and don’t like to ask for help. Touch*A*Life makes it possible for them to maintain their dignity while ensuring their children don’t go hungry. Assistance is always provided pro bono regardless of religion, gender, or ethnicity.
“We used to have ladies come here who pick up the trash on the streets in drove. One day, one of them said to me “You may not know what this means to us, but every time we eat here we’re saving some money and we can use that money to send our kids to school.” It was such a moving moment,” Ching says.
Local Khmer women cooking the meals.
Touch*A*Life welcomes the helping hands of volunteers who want to make a positive impact during their travels. Volunteers can join the cooking efforts daily–I suggest going on Saturday to get the most immersive and impactful experience. Touch*A*Life offers a volunteer day that is a hands-off experience–you’ll provide a need without directly getting involved with the child’s life and then disappearing the next day.
Volunteers are needed to help prepare the meals as all of the funds raised by Touch*A*Life are allocated to buying the ingredients for the meals and employing 2 permanent paid staff who cook the food. There are also many volunteers from the community who assist with the food preparation to give back to the organization that helped them in their time of need.
To prepare nearly 800 meals in a matter of hours is no easy task but the ambiance when I stroll into the Touch*A*Life house turned kitchen production line feels more like a family BBQ. Groups of volunteers from around the world–New Zealand, Iraq, England, France, Jordan–work side by side a few local volunteers. Most of the foreigners are expats in the area who work for tour companies or own their own restaurants. All have made it a habit to give back as often as they can by donating their time and efforts at Touch*A*Life. I felt fortunate to join them and be temporarily welcomed into their community.
In the outdoor kitchen, we we’re all hard at work with a particular task–mostly slicing and dicing veggies. The meals are vegetarian in order to provide the most nutrients possible to those who may not be having another wholesome meal throughout the week. The meals cost between 30-45 cents per meal to make, to buy a meal of this quality would cost much more. Many living in the communities that are served survive off of meals of rice, fish paste, and any seeds and stem they can forage.
The onion slicing warrior!
A volunteer who is a farmer at home was extremely uptight about the method of cutting the vegetables, I cracked some jokes and he loosened up a bit. We all want to help out and each process our feelings about the importance of feeding the hungry in our own ways–micromanagement being one of them. Eventually, he lets up, and we went back to chopping in whichever way we’re most comfortable with as we prep carrots, potatoes, beans, and a never-ending a pile of white onions for massive barrels of green curry. Classic rock was playing in the background and we partook in a morphed version of Karaoke and Master Chef.
Local and foreign volunteers prepare food for the meals.
Once the veggies are sorted we move on to create a rice line. Each packet must be the exact same weight which has been tactically determined. I volunteered to measure out the rice. I made a game out of it with my fellow volunteers who were much slower at the process and laugh at my swiftness. We made jokes about channeling strength into the serving of rice as we packed it tightly. When one of the men keeps staring off we teased him and ask if he’s meditating good fortune into the rice. The lighthearted teasing helps us pass the time. Four people making nearly 800 packets of rice is seriously sweat-inducing work but I enjoyed every second of it.
We prepared the meals from 8 AM to 3 PM. That’s 7 hours in the Cambodian heat. It’s not glamorous or an Instagrammable moment. You’re doing something out of the goodness of your heart to make an impact in a place that you’re fortunate enough to visit. The labor was tiring but our work had barely begun.
Several volunteers had left and the few of us that remain pack the food into a truck bed and sit around it. A doctor from France was with us on the food run and consulted with villagers who had ailments. We drove in the direction of Angkor Wat towards the villages to start making deliveries. Swanky hotels and paved roads quickly transformed into red mud roads and wooden huts. Even the animals are thin here.
Distributing meals in the village.
The beneficiaries know the schedule of the delivery and are lined up waiting to collect food for their families. I was initially shocked to see that it’s almost all scores of children who are waiting to gather the donations–most seem to be between 2-5 years old. They’re excited and energetic but manage to wait in line in a somewhat organized manner. When it’s their turn to collect food I’m amazed that such young minds can recall their family name and how many people they need to feed.
One toddler with a bloated stomach collects 12 meals. He can hardly carry the bounty as he walks towards home. I can’t help but wonder where his parents are and hope that their absence means they’re working somewhere but Ching tells me gambling has become a major problem for the adults here. She thinks some of the parents may also be too embarrassed to come to collect the food.
The children carry reusable bags that had been previously distributed to them by Touch*A*Life. After they received the foods they’d fold their hands in prayer position and sincerely thank us shyly in English. I stood outside the truck to fill up the bags and asked each child how they were, what their name is, give them a high five, or react to however they want to interact. Treating these at-risk children just as you would any other child is critical in order to help them maintain their dignity. Although life here is dire there’s a lot of energy and smiling going around.
We served everyone from the heart–extra meals were brought for those who haven’t registered. “Doing this program is great, we’ve got people going out to people who need it but the fringe benefit that I never anticipated is having wonderful people around me all the time–people who are offering their help. It’s become a family tree of volunteers. People go home and tell their friends about how they felt volunteering at Touch*A*Life. It’s about how you feel when you’re doing it,” says Ching.
When we arrived at the last drop-off point and finished handing out the meals, something magical happened. I started picking up trash as we waited for more community members to arrive to collect food. A few volunteers joined me and soon we’d nearly filled up an entire bin full of discarded plastic cups, straws, bottles, bags, and more. The children who’d hung around and were playing with a soccer ball slowly started to copy our actions.
One of the local children who helped us pick up trash in his village.
I had to blink back tears as a few toddlers trailed me and picked up trash. Each time they added a new piece to our pile I gave them a high five and told them they were doing a good job. These children probably thought it was a game and just wanted some attention but I like to be hopeful that the positive encouragement might have made an impression. About five children had helped us in our village clean up efforts and within an hour the street looked brand new. A few adults came out of their houses and watched us.
When I met with Mavis a few weeks later I told her this story and she laughed and said “Oh! That was you!” Ever since that day they’ve been bringing trash bags to the village on Saturday and cleaning up whatever they can–and the villagers have been eager to help. I was moved to tears to hear that I’d influenced such positive change. A simple action that I tend to do wherever I go had a ripple effect and could change the pollution of one small village. Humans are impressionable, especially children, and we must always lead by example.
Like Ching, I believe in the “interconnectedness of all life” and that we’re all of equal importance. As you travel, especially in remote areas, it can be shocking to see poverty that you may not have encountered before. It’s natural to feel heartbroken and wonder why life is so hard for some people who struggle to provide basic needs for their families. Rather than gawking, taking poverty porn photos, or partaking in dangerous tourism experiences such as externally led slum tours or orphanage visits you can give back and make an impact by helping grassroots organizations that provide aid to these communities.
Will you join me in ringing in the new year and commit to traveling in 2019 with a positive impact?
This article was made possible due to a collaboration with Better Places Travel. All opinions and photos are my own. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.