The aim was to enrich ourselves and travel more meaningfully as much as it was to show travellers the kinds of experiences that are possible when you stay in a holiday rental instead of a hotel and settle into a place for a while.
We’ve certainly learned how to live like locals and connect with people, we’re travelling sustainably, and we’re doing and learning so much. However, we haven’t been as successful at ‘giving back’ as we would have liked.
Recognizing that not everyone has six weeks, a year or even several years to devote to volunteer experiences, we had envisaged identifying short-term volunteer opportunities in each place we stayed, things we could do in a day, the aim being to promote those to inspire other travellers to do the same, anything from working in a soup kitchen to contributing to a clean-up day.
Our greatest challenge has been finding the actual opportunities in the time we have available: just two weeks in each destination.
But in some places, such as Ceret, those opportunities simply haven’t existed or are few and far between, especially in Europe where we have spent most of the first half of our grand tour.
When I mentioned my disappointment to one local we met, he said “But you’re giving back everyday, by promoting places, by choosing to use local businesses, and when you connect with local people.”
As nice as it was to hear that, that wasn’t enough.
But it got us thinking about the small and unstructured things that people can do when they travel – little things, that might not be an immense investment but can make a big difference to how people live their lives.
And then we arrived in Bali, where we befriended Desak, our villa cook, and Kiki, the villa manager. As we chatted to them during our stay, we asked them questions not only about Bali but also about themselves and their lives, and we were delighted to discover that they each had an inspirational story to tell:
While working as a maid, Kiki met a German family who recognized that she was bright and could do more with her life and persuaded her to return to school and complete her education. As Kiki was the main breadwinner in her family after her father died, the German family offered to not only pay for her school fees and for further tourism education, but they also undertook to support her family until she graduated and found a job.
After the Bali bombing and its devastating impact on the tourism industry, the German family then offered to send Kiki to hospitality school in Switzerland and help her find work in Europe until things improved. Kiki fortunately found a job in Bali that lead to her current position and promotion to manager taking care of a handful of villas, none of which would have been possible without the generosity of her German family.
Keeping in mind that in Indonesia, where half the population lives on less than $2.50 a day, it wouldn’t have cost the family a great deal to help Kiki, but the difference that their support made to her life is incalculable. The rewards were also personal – they are like her second family now and she occasionally visits them in Germany.
Desak, our villa cook, has two sons*, Dewa Pujawan, a teen about to go to college, and a younger boy, Dewa Febio, the cute kid pictured above. As her husband works on cruise ships in Europe, spending just a few months of each year in Bali, Desak is virtually raising the boys alone.
Febio had a skin disease that embarrassed him and greatly reduced his confidence, and poor Desak was distraught for her boy. After countless visits to doctors in Bali and their bank account drained, Desak was told it was incurable. A determined woman, she didn’t give up.
Discussing the problem with a villa guest one day, the man (another German – what generous souls they are), offered to take photos of Febio’s skin and show a doctor friend when he returned to Europe. The doctor recognized the condition and sent medicine to treat it, and the ‘disease’ disappeared – as did Febio’s embarrassment, and Desak’s pain as a helpless parent.
In Desak’s case, her German angel didn’t outlay a great deal of money, he just took an interest and spent a little time, and sometimes that’s all it takes to make a difference to people’s lives.
Terence made a beautiful family portrait of Desak and her two sons which he printed and had two copies framed, one for her home, and one for her husband at sea.