Category Archives: Voluntourism

A Response to My Favorite Travel Blogger on Volunteerism

The author prefers to remain anonymous.

When I graduated college, I knew I wanted to spend time volunteering abroad. I had taken classes on sustainable volunteerism, “ugly Americanism”, as well as culture and leadership. Through classes on Semester at Sea, I saw first-hand how orphanage tourism exploits children and often does more harm than good. I learned that volunteering has significant pros and cons and that expansive research is required to aid development in a sustainable way. When I accepted the position to teach English with a nonprofit associated with the Colombian Ministry of National Education, I made sure that I not only planned to stay with my students until they graduated, but that I was qualified to do so.

As someone who is passionate about travel, I like to follow travel bloggers. One of my favorites, Drew Binsky, recently posted a video about someone he met while traveling named Christian Betzmann. Christian is a German citizen who volunteers around the world. He most recently spent time at a home stay in Thailand while teaching English to young children. The video posted to Facebook quickly filled with positive comments. One comment, however, asked Drew to do a video on the pros and cons of volunteerism. A flood of followers posted relevant articles and information. Christian then commented to the criticism saying “WHAT BULLSHIT” which Drew Binsky ‘liked’. A more reassuring comment may have been one highlighting what made him qualified to be a volunteer, such as work experience with young children or a TEFL certification. Drew taught English in South Korea for an extended period of time so it was a disappointing and confusing response from someone I had followed for years.

I do believe that many of these bloggers and volunteers, like Drew and Christian, have the best intentions. But there are many instances where volunteerism does more harm than good. Shannon O’Donnell, a volunteer tourism expert, wrote The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. In an interview with the travel blog Nomadic Matt, she describes five steps on finding ethical volunteer projects. Step one is understanding development and aid. She says that “one of the hardest things for new, eager volunteers to understand is that not all organizations — even nonprofits — are doing good, necessary work that ethically develops the communities and ecosystems where we volunteer our time.”

Even Hostel World, a site frequented by almost any frugal traveler, has a great article on avoiding the “voluntourism trap”. A tip they include is examining the requirements when it comes to volunteering with children.

“When looking at these opportunities you should try to imagine a similar situation in your own country. Would a school near you allow any person to teach, interact or be alone with children? Unlikely. The same applies for volunteering abroad with children – the stricter the requirements are for volunteers, the more likely the organisation operates ethically.”

Almost every resource on ethical volunteerism includes a warning against volunteering in orphanages. In 2012, UNICEF reported that while the number of Cambodian orphans has decreased, the number of orphanages has rapidly increased. A state-run investigation was launched and found that many were orphanages run as businesses profiting from tourism. HostelWorld quotes ReThink Orphanages, a lobbying group of NGOs, saying “in many cases, residential care centres are being created as businesses, designed to generate an income from people willing to volunteer their time and donate their money to support ‘orphan’ children. Children are often deliberately kept in poor conditions in order to elicit sympathy from well-meaning visitors who are then moved to donate. In Nepal, there have been documented cases of residential care centres being linked to child trafficking.” A red flag to identify these types of organizations are “little to no volunteer requirements” and no “relevant skills or knowledge for working with children”. When working with children, volunteers should also avoid the “revolving door” syndrome. Short-term volunteering can have a severe effect on children. The goal is to stay a sustainable amount of time.

Drew Binsky did include two sources at the end of his video; WOOF and WorkAway. While those are two great organizations, it did not address Christian’s expertise or the sustainability of the projects he works with.

No one should be discouraged from volunteering but instead encouraged to find a project that fits their expertise. But first, take a step back and do some research.

The Oh Hey World team recommends a few key resources when researching ethical volunteering:

Oh Hey World

Oh Hey World -- Share your location with the people, communities, and services that matter. Now working on Horizon.

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Peace Corps: Earn a Master’s Degree in Life

When I walked across the stage at my university graduation ceremony and gathered that nicely rolled bachelors degree, I felt like the world was finally my stage.  College was over and now it was my turn to choose what would come next.  There were literally hundreds of options.  So, looking back I find it surprising that I considered graduate school as one of the top possibilities.  But I don’t think I’m the only one to overlook such an opportune time to do something different, either.  Many current students see continuing their education as the “next step,” and fail to considerer the other options that may serve as a less traditional education.  And one in particular deserves thoughtful consideration – the United States Peace Corps.

katherynhaircutIt wasn’t until one of my professors suggested I join the Peace Corps that I began to think seriously about postponing graduate school.  As he explained why he felt so strongly, I pushed back.  “Think of it like a master’s degree in life,” he said.  And that got my attention.

Almost three years later, I’ve successfully completed a Peace Corps service and have once again begun contemplating graduate school.  But what I learned confirmed what Dr. White told me.  What a mater’s degree leaves to the imagination, a Peace Corps service reviews daily.  Compassion and empathy, extreme problem solving, development of a true worldview, flexibility and patience, independence, and travel have no place in a syllabus, but as the days of a Peace Corps service are marked off one by one, the fibers of a degree are being woven.  And indeed, it is a degree with a focus on life’s most important lessons.

A Peace Corps service is two years long.  It requires an arduous application process and an even more demanding commitment to serve through thick and thin.  As a Peace Corps volunteer, I saw personal growth that will influence every job I ever have.  Story after story comes to mind during interviews and networking opportunities that demonstrate this growth.  The following anecdote comes to mind as one that brought the world and its drastic differences across borders into focus: On a day when I was covering creativity with my advanced life skills class we were making “beauty collages.”  Near the end of class I approached a boy at the back and asked him to explain his collage.  “This side is things that scare me.  This side is things that make me happy,” he said, pointing to opposite sides of the poster.  I noticed that on his “scary” side there was a picture of a man with a dog exercising on the beach.  “Why is this scary?” I asked.  He looked at me like I was crazy; Why wouldn’t a dog chasing a man be scary?

katherynkidThe very next day for the very same group of students, I was forced to teach outside under a tree because the school guard had wandered off with our key.  That evening I rewired the electricity in my house because I didn’t have the language skills to explain to my landlady what the problem was.  A few weeks later when summer began, I hiked out to an ancient, remote rock-hewn church and accepted a coffee invitation from a kind priest.  Through the dry season that followed I carried water with my neighbors and while we walked, we discussed their lives and the things that made them happy.  Further along in my service, after witnessing a child succumb to a treatable heart defect, I cried with her family and silently vowed to be grateful forever for the medical treatment I am afforded as a citizen of a developed nation.

This was my job.  This was my education. What I have earned is truly a Master’s Degree in Life.

Whether working towards an MBA, an MD or a MPH, graduate school is the correct choice for many students, but for those of us willing to wait two more years, Peace Corps might just be the answer.   And with those two years of service come a more well-rounded and thorough education that will carry us further than classroom-PowerPoint-group project master’s degree ever could.

Katheryn Hoerster

Katheryn is a lover of travel, culture and adventure. She resides in Llano, Texas, but regularly escapes to the outside world where she chases new experiences and connects with new friends.

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Shannon O’Donnell on Daytime

So happy to see Shannon on Daytime TV today!!

Here’s the clip:

WFLA News Channel 8

Drew Meyers

Drew Meyers is the co-founder of Horizon & Oh Hey World. He worked for Zillow from September of 2005 to January of 2010 on the marketing team managing Zillow’s API program and various online partnerships. Founder of Geek Estate Blog, a multi-author blog focused on real estate technology for real estate professionals, and, a blog devoted to exploring the world of microfinance. As passionate as you get about travel.

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I’m Better Because of You, Ethiopia

[Note from editor: This was originally published on an Aggie in Ethiopia]

The cool wind rustles the fragrant eucalyptus leaves as I slowly make my way down the hill one last time. The kids see my overly full bag and ask where I’m going. When I say America, they ask how long I’ll be gone. “Kisab macherasha,” I say. Forever. A flood of emotion pours over me like a long overdue kerempti rain, taking with it the composure I had hoped to keep. Today I know what bittersweet means. Today I understand what a goodbye truly is.

As the bus pulls away from Atsbi, I think back over the tumultuous past two years. What have I given Ethiopia? What has Ethiopia given me? What has she taken from me and what will I carry away from this experience? Is Ethiopia better off because of me? Quantifying a Peace Corps service is impossible, like avoiding bed bugs in a $2 hotel, but at least I can reflect on my time in this paradox of a country.

My days-long journey home continues with a death defying minibus ride from Wukero to Mekele, and I choose this dangerous hour to ponder what Ethiopia has given me. Where can I possibly even begin? Strangers that welcomed me with open arms who quickly became the best friends I’ve ever known. A warm, heartfelt culture that shaped my worldview and reminded me to wholly appreciate life. Coworkers, students, and neighbors who taught me more than I could ever hope to teach in a lifetime. The highest of highs and the lowest of lows that led to more personal growth than I thought possible. After all, I was never out to “find myself,” but it seems even those of us who think we know ourselves, don’t really. Let me continue my list…parasites, adventure, nightmares about being stuck in Ethiopia forever, the full heart feeling that comes from thinking about the loved ones at home whose support means so much, a safety net of other PCVs who I’ll lean on forever. Before I know it, the terrifying ride is over, but my list is nowhere near complete. It never will be.

Sitting in a dingy hotel room I click through photos of my students and consider what I’ve given them, consider what I’ve given my community, my “village.” Of course there are tangible things, like the wardrobe full of clothes I distributed among several dozen people last week and the million fist bumps I’ve passed out to screaming kids. My friends and family back home gave the school a cow. But these are not the things a PCV wants to leave as a legacy. This question can really only be answered five, ten, thirty years from now. When my girls are sitting in the front of a university lecture hall, answering questions with all the boys. When a farmer’s patience and hard work are rewarded with healthier soil and a brighter future. When my campers walk out their front doors and pick fresh, healthy vegetables to cook for their families.

The wheels of the plane part with hot Mekele asphalt and I worry that Ethiopia will leave me cynical and jaded forever – that I’ll roll my eyes when I hear someone mention foreign aid or that I’ll never regain the trusting demeanor I once possessed. What are the long-term consequences of being sexually harassed every single day for two years? Extreme feminism, to name one. What about poverty? Will I ever take poverty seriously in countries where they have food stamps and homeless shelters?

From Atsbi to Addis Ababa I’ve contemplated these questions, but I don’t think I’ll ever know whether or not Ethiopia is actually a better place because of me. I like to think that in some small, indefinable way, it is. Then again, maybe not. But through the good and the bad, the beautiful and the hideous, the simple and the impossibly difficult, the daily collision of two vastly different cultures, there is one thing I know to be true: I’m better because of you, Ethiopia.

Katheryn Hoerster

Katheryn is a lover of travel, culture and adventure. She resides in Llano, Texas, but regularly escapes to the outside world where she chases new experiences and connects with new friends.

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thailand elephant

An Interview with Diana from Save Elephant Foundation

Today we’re kicking off an interview series on OHW that will ask travelers, tech entrepreneurs, social enterprises, and more to share a bit about the work they are doing and why they’re doing it. Oh Hey World believes in not only the transformative power of travel (that’s definitely a focus of ours), but in the positive changes we can create when we connect with like-minded people (that’s the core of the OHW platform). During my travels in Southeast Asia over the years I began to learn more about the plight of the Asian elephant, conservation efforts in the region, and ways to travel responsibly in Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar . When friend and fellow travel blogger Diana Edelman slowed down her travels and began working for Save Elephant Foundation in Thailand I knew she was just the right person to kick off the interview series. 

thailand elephant

1) Tell me a bit about the work Save Elephant Foundation is doing in Southeast Asia and why it’s needed.

Save Elephant Foundation is working to protect Asian elephants in Thailand and beyond. The foundation, founded by Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, a renowned animal conservationist, not only works to protect the Asian elephant, but also other animals. Elephants in SE Asia are being removed from the wild and the main goal of SEF is to raise awareness about the plight of Asian elephants and how current activities in the tourism industry impact the population of the elephants in the region. Other than the elephants, SEF also works to give people in local communities better lives by providing aid and education — particularly as it relates to elephants mahouts or elephant caretakers who, prior to working with SEF, would have their elephants working.

2) As a traveler yourself, why did you decide to stop traveling and work with the Foundation?

As a traveler, I decided to stop traveling so much and join the Foundation because I believe in what Lek is doing. When I first visited the foundation’s Elephant Nature Park in 2011, I was shocked at how little I knew about animal exploitation and animals working in the tourism industry all over the world. My time as a volunteer there really opened my eyes to the decisions we make as travelers, and the fact that most people who come to this part of the world are not aware that the decisions they make in regards to animal attractions can greatly impact an entire industry and trade. Lek’s unyielding passion and desire to make the world a better place for animals is truly inspiring. Her love knows no bounds and being able to help her raise awareness about her foundation and responsible tourism is a dream fulfilled for me. I’ve always loved to write and do PR, but to be able to use my skills to try to better the world and change people’s ideas of what is responsible tourism … it makes me so happy.

3) What work are you doing at the Foundation right now?

I do the PR and social media for the foundation. I have traveled a bit and done research regarding the human elephant interaction, and also have been a part of two elephant rescues.

4) When I visited the Elephant Nature Park, I noticed visitors could not ride the elephants, which was a new concept for me, can you share the work the Foundation is doing in this regard.

The foundation’s main focus to is to educate tourists and future travelers to this region of how their actions impact the lives of wild and captive Asian elephants. Our hope is that with this information, people will make more informed choices as it relates to the animal activities they choose. The most common mistake people make in SE Asia is not being educated. Ignorance is bliss.

5) How can both short and long-term travelers have the biggest impact in supporting Save Elephant Foundation?

Short and long-term travelers can have the biggest impact by taking what they learn from SEF and their visits to the foundation’s projects and telling others. Education can change the world, and the elephants need people to speak for them.

If you’re keen to connect with Diana on the OHW network, you can follow her check-ins and activity from her OHW profile. Other important links to connect to Save Elephant and Diana include:

Save Elephant on Twitter and Facebook
Diana on Twitter

Shannon O'Donnell

A storyteller and knowledge-seeker captivated by the world. Formally an actress and web-nerd, I left in 2008 to travel solo, volunteer, and hunt down delicious vegetarian eats all over the world. She recently published "The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, and her travel stories and photography are recorded on her world travel blog, A Little Adrift.

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A Little Story… A Journey to Find What Sustainable Coffee Really Means

[Note from editor: This post was originally posted on]

The word journey has a simple dictionary definition: it’s an act or instance of traveling from one place to another. The connotations associated with the word, however, rest far deeper in our collective consciousness. The word can imply the growth of very specific ideas and understanding within a set time frame; or perhaps a long and hard-earned internal challenge, met through overcoming emotional obstacles and hurdles. We use the word to imply a change. It’s more than simply moving from one place to another, it’s morphing throughout that move into a different place—be it mental or physical.

Mountains around Chiang Rai, ThailandPanoramic views from the back of the bumpy pickup truck as we headed to Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Two years ago I met Lee, an affable coffee shop owner living in Chiang Mai, Thailand but originally from a small hill-tribe village about four hours away. Lee is on a long journey, but the distance traveled is not far. Instead, Lee lives in Chiang Mai running Akha Ama Coffee, a fair trade coffee shop in the city. It wasn’t until I met Lee, and went on a Coffee Journey with him, that I came to a deeper understanding of  what it means when something is sustainably produced with a mind toward fair prices paid to the people producing the coffee, ie., fair trade.

akha coffee beansLee’s mother spread the recently husked, wet coffee beans in the sunlight so the beans are thoroughly dry before villagers bag them and truck the beans to Chiang Mai for roasting.

It’s trendy now to bat around these words; when we look at words like “organic” and “sustainable” on our foods, clothes and consumables we feel good about supporting something positive out there in the world. That’s the assumption. And I too use these words in my writing and my volunteering, I emphasize the need for each traveler to begin understanding how intrinsically linked we are on this planet. During my travels I looked for ways to support social enterprises, or rather for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission. Businesses like Akha Ama. And in finding Lee’s I learned to look at what these catch phrases mean.

Fair trade—that word, it means something very real in practice when we are talking about the people affected by this “fairness.” And, through my friendship with Lee over the past two years, I began to look more closely at how we in the West perceive the impact of our actions by picking up something as innocuously labeled as sustainable and fair trade. What does that mean?

coffeeFrom organically grown coffee plants to a hand-brewed cup of coffee, Akha Ama Coffee takes the beans on a sustainable journey the entire way. The image on the coffee is the Akha Ama logo replicated in coffee art!

In 2011, I moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand for the first time and I lived in the city as what can most closely be described as a nomadic expat—I lived there, but for just five months. When I landed in Chiang Mai, I knew other travelers and expats living in the city, but I knew few locals. One of my first tasks when I am settling into a new place is to find a decent coffee shop—one with good coffee, fast wi-fi, and a friendly atmosphere.

Akha Ama Coffee Shop Chiang Mai, Thailand.The Akha Ama Coffee Shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

That’s where Lee’s Akha Ama Coffee shop comes into the picture. Through the local expat community, I met Lee and became fast friends—he is young, too charming for his own good, and quite a character. It’s his story though, the quiet back story that underpins his actions, that makes Lee’s journey stand out.

Lee Akha AmaLee explained more about how they grow the high quality Arabica coffee beans and how the crop-rotation allows them to increase the crop yields without using pesticides.

Lee acts as the face of Akha Ama Coffee, and runs a trip twice a year that takes a dozen people to his family’s remote village, where they grow the coffee Lee sells and markets at his shop. Lee calls these trips a “coffee journey,” because the aim is so much more than seeing how coffee is made—that can be covered rather quickly (I learned the basics of producing coffee in a quick two-hour trip through the Finca Filidefia plantation in Guatemala). But Lee’s trip is instead a three-day journey toward understanding just what goes into a cup of sustainably grown coffee. It’s about the journey his village is taking toward operating as a sustainable, fair trade farming cooperative, and the human story and struggles that underpin each cup of coffee.

The sweet faces of children in the Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

I took my first coffee journey with Lee when I first lived in Chiang Mai for those five months. Then, loving the experience and now calling Lee a friend, my niece Ana and I took the journey together over the New Year’s weekend to welcome in 2012. Lee’s story is powerful, but in the months leading up to visiting Lee’s village, Ana simply knew Lee as a friend. We had talked about his coffee shop, and Ana knew that Lee sold the coffee, but that he was merely the front-end funnel for a community coffee production collective.

Akha Ama Coffee represents 14 families from the Maejantai village area that have joined together under one brand to increase their ability to control, market, and command fair prices for the coffee they grow. They formed the collective so each family could bring in more money and thus assure themselves education for their children, modern conveniences, and fair wages.

Maejantai village.Twilight spreads a pink hue and cool evening air over Maejantai village, high in the mountains.

The coffee journey to Maejantai village is not a cushy, high-end tour, that’s not the point and not something Lee plans to run. Instead, the participants sleep in homes graciously offered by one of the 14 families,  and they eat family style meals filled with hand-picked plants and vegetables grown on the surrounding farms. For Ana, I knew this coffee journey would be unlike anything else I could show her, and I hoped her existing friendship with Lee would give her a unique window through which she could look at the path and choices people make to change their lives when they are given far different circumstances than the ones Ana knew from American suburbia.

Our Coffee Journey begins in Chiang Mai in the early morning hours of a Friday during coffee harvesting season. Participants arrived at the coffee shop with enough gear for a weekend, and we filed into the back of the yellow songthaews, covered pickup trucks. We squeezed into the truck-bed, our thighs squished tight and each person’s shoulders acting as an effective wedging mechanism for the bumpy ride outside of town and eventually into the mountains surrounding Chiang Rai. As we made the last quarter-mile of jolting progress up the mountain, hours after leaving Chiang Mai, children from Lee’s village began chasing after our truck. Ana’s young face among the coffee journey participants fascinated the young children, and huge smiles and energetic waving were our first welcome to Maejantai.

Maejantai akha ama coffeeExcited kids run behind the truck when we arrive at the Akha Ama coffee village.

As I shook the pervasive red dust from my hair, face, teeth and eyes, I trooped upstairs with Ana for the introductions to Lee’s mother, for whom the named the business. Lee’s mother reserved a special hug for me, I was one of the few participants making a repeat journey, and it touched me that she remembered from the previous year.

Lee’s Back Story

Lee is a member of the Akha people, and in the Akha language, Ama means mother. Lee’s mother is sweet and welcoming and oversaw preparing tea for the group as Lee launched into his back story and how Akha Ama came into existence. As a result of civil wars and demarcation disagreements over the past several hundreds years, the Akha people live in hill-tribe communities throughout China and neighboring areas, namely Laos, Thailand, and Burma. All these groups, though spread out across a wide region, speak Akha … a fact that has largely separated these hill-tribes from rapid westernization since they are often in remote regions and they do not share a common language with their own country.

akha ama coffee

Lee’s sister displayed the traditional Akha clothing in the coffee fields nearby.

When Lee was growing up, his mother pushed for him to leave his village and gain a formal education in nearby Chiang Rai. He was the first and only villager to leave and obtain a higher education. Lee studied Thai, learned English from the passing tourists, and began plotting a way to help the Akha farmers and villages in his region when he learned more about the value in community sourced projects. Lee’s mother supported his idea and was a strong catalyst in bringing together the 14 families that make up the Akha Ama collective.

In addition to the strength in numbers, the 14 families are jointly working toward sustainable agriculture and new methods of crop-rotation to ensure they are producing organic, sustainable crops that complement and enhance the coffee crops, all without using expensive, harmful pesticides. This is a long process that will take years, and the farmers are working together to transition their crops into sustainable and eco-friendly products. This is the foundation on which the families formed Akha Ama , and out of necessity, it is a gross simplification of Lee’s story.

akha spiritualityThe sacred entrance to the Lee’s village, a village-wide ritual is held annually to replace the adornments protecting the village and its inhabitants from negative spirits.

Before the farmers in Maejantai village formed Akha Ama Coffee, they had only one avenue to make money from their coffee—sell the coffee beans at the going rate to whoever would take them. But with his unique link between that village and the mainstream Thai culture, Lee and his family saw an opportunity to take the beans completely through the process—from growing the beans to selling them, so that the farmers could see more monetary returns on their time and effort. Political issues and cultural differences have meant disparate opportunities available for hill-tribe communities over the years, but Akha Ama aims to fill that gap.

coffee beans dryingMountain-grown coffee beans laid out to dry, Akha Ama coffee village near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Lee’s village is remote, but the demands of Western culture and advancement have taken root even in Maejantai. Villagers must pay for their children to attend a nearby school and conveniences like cell phones have necessitated a move toward a more monetary based system in the villages. Akha Ama’s goal is to give these villagers control over what they produce and funnel the money back into the community.

The Coffee Process

That is the practical and political side to Akha Ama, but it’s only part of why I brought Ana on the Coffee Journey. Throughout the three days, Lee took us through each stage of the coffee process—from picking the beans out in the fields all day, to drying them, husking, processing, bagging, storing, and transporting them. Then, once Lee is back in Chiang Mai, he roasts the beans, packages, and sells them through Akha Ama, as well as a handful of other coffee shops in Thailand.

The fields we walked to from Lee’s village, it’s about a 45 minute walk at a slow pace and on the last turn the path opens up to this beautiful valley filled with coffee and tea plants.

On the second day of our Coffee Journey, Ana and I walked for 45 minutes to Lee’s family’s coffee fields, where he explained how they grow and harvest the plants. Then, he handed us each baskets and instructed us on how to properly twist and pluck the ripe coffee cherries. Ana gamely joined in on the picking with enthusiasm for the first couple of hours as our basket slowly filling with shining red and yellow ripe cherries.

Ripe red and yellow coffee cherries. A basket full of perfectly ripe red and yellow coffee cherries we spent the day picking.

And as the time passed, the “fun” gave way to understanding. We spent a couple hours in the fields before being called to lunch. We ate a plentiful lunch on huge banana leaves. And then we headed back into the coffee fields for round two.

Serving up rice for the coffee journey participants.

We picked more cherries. And as some baskets began to fill, Lee and other villagers eagerly replaced our baskets and encouraged us to continue picking. After several hours, my hands and arms were cramping, and I could see Ana respectfully continuing to pick since Lee had asked us to continue, but the game aspect of this all was gone.

Ana listens closely as only a child can as Lee explains our task. Maejantai village, Thailand.Picking coffee ripe coffee cherries.How cute is she?! Ana is pretty proud of her basket of bright red coffee cherries from the Akha Ama coffee fields.

It wasn’t miserable mind you, far from it, the weather was a perfect mix of cool breeze and warm, beautiful sunshine, but the reality of the task, of picking for your survival and livelihood sunk in for our rag-tag group of 20 or so participants. As we picked, Lee’s family spent the day picking vegetables and preparing dinner for our group—it’s no easy task to prepare food for 20 hungry people.

akha foodA delicious sampling of the dishes served for dinner on the coffee journey.

And as it happened, on this second coffee journey, at the end of our long day in the fields, Ana and I joined a large bonfire under a sky filled with more stars than Ana had ever seen in her life and welcomed in the New Year with new friends, new realizations, and perspective shifts on what it takes to live and enjoy life.

Lee's sister sorts the coffee cherries.The machine used to remove the soft outer layer from the coffee beans.Lee processing coffee cherries.

The next day, the realities of processing coffee continued as we watched Lee’s sister sort through the coffee beans (picking out the under-ripe cherries our group unknowingly picked), then a machined husked the beans, sort the beans from the husks, and the families then took these wet coffee beans to huge tarp-covered pallets so the beans could then dry out in the cool mountain air.

coffee beans dryingCoffee beans drying in the cool mountain air.

Dry beans are then bagged and stored until they are ready for the journey to Chiang Mai, where Lee roasts the beans, bags them, sells them, and grinds them for coffee.

Brewed coffee was our wake-up call on our last day in Maejantai village.

The Realities of Sustainable Crops

Lee’s village is beautiful, the people and smiles were open and welcoming from the moment our feet hit that compact, dusty red earth. The welcome was genuine and each villager we met was willing to open up to a group of strangers in the hopes that we would learn and take away an understanding of all that lies behind the Akha Ama brand.

The densely packed red earth in Maejantai village and the warm fire that ran throughout the cold morning and evening hours.

There are people behind that logo. A community of children, mothers, and fathers exist behind each package of coffee Lee sells in his shop. And with each sale, the money is a tangible investment in a remote community living on a faraway hill-side. Ana watched the young children in Maejantai play games around her, using their imagination for epic, staged battles between good and evil that echoed the games her little brother regularly plays back home. I didn’t have to point out the similarities for everyone to see they exist, to see our common humanity.

Jenny, Lee’s assistant holding Lee’s young nephew. On my first visit he was the youngest in the village, but by the time I returned he had a newborn sister!

For Lee, his journey continues past our single Coffee Journey. As the front end of Akha Ama, Lee is actively working to promote the brand as a sustainable, fair trade, organic coffee brand. And only through talking with Lee did I realize the lengthy and expensive process that goes into legally using many of these words. As the face of this collective, Lee has embarked on a process that could secure the future of his village. There are few opportunities beyond farming for such a remote community, and the lure of modernization takes much of the youth out of the village and into the big cities. But with money, with an operation and something to back and believe in, Akha Ama is changing opportunities for each family of the 14 families in Maejantai.

Over the years, news stories have challenged the idea of fair trade as flawed and unable to substantiate on a large-scale. Victoria’s Secret had a fair trade scandal in late 2011 when one of their suppliers of certified fair trade cotton in Burkina Faso used child labor to pick and plant, contravening established fair trade rules. And so, it’s easy to look at that and give up on the entire notion.

Motorcycles ferry the heavy bags of coffee cherries back to the village.

But through meeting Lee, I was able to put a face and an experience to the entire process. At its most basic, fair trade means that the people at the beginning of the process—the community growing your coffee/chocolate/cotton—have a shot at fair profits and fair opportunities. Without this equality, the harsh reality is that communities in the developing world are too-often forced to sell their goods for whatever someone will pay, even if that means selling below costs just for the sake of having some money in pocket.

Maejantai village.Baby shoes, drying coffee beans and handicrafts–a snapshot of daily life in the Akha village.

There are flaws, to be sure, in the entire process because as consumers we are completely removed from the true back story, removed from the people and lives involved. But Akha Ama’s story, with Lee as the charming face of this operation, is but on example of social enterprises and fair businesses operating around the world so communities can better themselves—create a future for their children.

Deep among the Akha Ama coffee plants, Ana and I picked coffee cherries for hours and listened to Lee’s stories and explanations about life growing up in Maejantai.

Further, Lee’s story opened my eyes to the human effect our purchasing habits have on the entire global community. By lifting the common consciousness, by seeking out the simple ways to support and give back in everyday life, we are able begin lifting up the global community. It is often just a small thing to tweak our buying habits. For me, coffee and chocolate are two habitual purchases I make … and with an awareness of what is out there, I now seek opportunities to support companies making an extra effort, spending more to ensure that the root communities behind our goods are treated with respect.

Maejantai village–the children and families working toward a lasting future for their community.

To Lee, thank you. The Akha Ama Coffee Shop was my refuge in Chiang Mai and the community of expats and locals you have assembled in the coffee shop are a testament to the goodness and possibilities out there if you look for them.

This post blends time and space and represents the sum of the two Coffee Journeys I took with Akha Ama; the photos from each journey are interspersed. For more of the trip, I took several hundred additional photos of the two coffee journeys.

Quick Tips: Akha Ama Coffee

Where: 9/1 Mata Apartment, Hassadhisawee Rd, Soi 3 The coffee shop is just outside the moat in Chiang Mai, Thailand: directions.
When: The Coffee Journeys take place twice annually and sell out months in advance. Lee is open with his story, however, and you can support Akha Ama Coffee by visiting the shop, buying coffee as souvenirs for family,  and supporting their efforts to grow the Akha Ama brand.
Why:  Because Akha Ama is a social enterprise (a for-profit business operating with an underlying social mission) worth supporting–it’s a community grown initiative and empowers the Akha villagers to support themselves and their families for years to come.

Shannon O'Donnell

A storyteller and knowledge-seeker captivated by the world. Formally an actress and web-nerd, I left in 2008 to travel solo, volunteer, and hunt down delicious vegetarian eats all over the world. She recently published "The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook, and her travel stories and photography are recorded on her world travel blog, A Little Adrift.

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Painting Walls in Kenya

2 years since Dan and I visited Saint Monica’s Children Home (October 2010) to paint walls for 5 days, I finally shared the story of the trip over on the Mothers Fighting for Others blog. Not a month goes by where I don’t think back to all the fond memories from Kenya. The whole entire experience was, well, “surreal”. That’s really the only way I know how to explain Kenya to someone who hasn’t been to Africa. It was truly an entirely new experience that’s hard to put into words. That said, I tried — head over and give it a read.

Drew Meyers

Drew Meyers is the co-founder of Horizon & Oh Hey World. He worked for Zillow from September of 2005 to January of 2010 on the marketing team managing Zillow’s API program and various online partnerships. Founder of Geek Estate Blog, a multi-author blog focused on real estate technology for real estate professionals, and, a blog devoted to exploring the world of microfinance. As passionate as you get about travel.

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