Why do I travel?

Ah, if only there was a simple answer to this seemingly simple question. My childhood self would’ve said it was to see mysterious places and things like the pyramids. I envisioned fantastical worlds and people from the books that I read. My twenty-something self would’ve said that I travel to escape something, likely a toxic relationship or general angst with life. This is when I traveled for adventure in any form; skydiving, bungy jumping, canyoning, rock climbing. The bigger and scarier, the better.

As I am now starkly in my mid-thirties (eek!), I can see the next evolution in my reasons for travel. My thirty-something self travels to find purpose and, let’s just be real here, to get warm. I live in Minnesota, after all. Now, I don’t mean to be all high-and-mighty here talking about finding purpose. Let me explain. I have had the good fortune to travel extensively – Paris, London, Sydney, Fiji, Venice, Costa Rica and the list goes on. I have checked off many items on most people’s bucket lists and it’s been amazing. However, as I approached my mid-thirties, I realized that while seeing all of these amazing places, I wasn’t connecting with the people. My twenty-something self would say, ‘Why the heck do you care about the people?! Go hang gliding or something!’ So, this is new territory for me but it seemed important for me to pursue.

Google Search Gone Awesome

And so, two years ago, as I was reeling from my recent 35th birthday I started googling about trips to the Galapagos. I was about 40% serious about this search, more daydreaming than anything. The number of options was overwhelming. I clicked on a link about volunteering on one of the islands. Interesting, I thought. So, then I started searching more broadly for what I now knew was called voluntourism and that was when I stumbled upon RAKlife.org. This newly formed non-profit leads guided trips to various destinations to do random acts of kindness. There was a trip just three mon
ths away to Vietnam. Somewhere in the annals of my memory I recalled being told that Vietnam was beautiful and so I somewhat nonchalantly texted my cousins to gauge interest. I was shocked when one of them responded with interest. And so, we went.

RELATED: Organization: RAKLife, A Non-Profit

And So It Begins

On the morning of our first day, we met the group for breakfast at our guesthouse in Hanoi and then started our four hour journey West to the village of Mai Chau. We laid down our bags on the bamboo floor of Xuan’s Guesthouse and went exploring. The scenery was breathtaking – bright green rice patties, misty mountains in the background and colorfully dressed women and men laboring away as the sun sunk lower in the sky. By that night, these strangers didn’t feel so strange as we laid on our sleeping mats in an open room under a mosquito net.

The next day, we drove scooters about thirty kilometers to our volunteering destination of Xom Pung Village. My scooter skills were moderate at best, but factor in the narrow paths and the multitude of obstacles (you know, like water buffalo, cows, and wheel barrows) and the ride became a harrowing game of Gran Turismo. In full transparency, my novice skills resulted in a minor crash. Thankfully nothing was hurt except my ego.

This village was what I would describe as quite remote and the living conditions could only be described as basic. Our project was to build a bathroom, shower and water-basin for a family that currently had a pit toilet. The project, for me as an engineer, started as a task based activity. I noticed other volunteers playing with the children, but didn’t make the connection immediately that we were not just here for the project of building a bathroom. It was probably at the end of the second day that I realized we were here to get to know the people of this village and do what we could to brighten their lives, only part of which was building this bathroom. What an idiot I am.

Image of children playing in Xom Pung Village.

Xom Pung Village Stole My Heart

As it would turn out, my favorite part about the trip, was learning about the lives of the people from Xom Pung. One couple (see feature image) was in their nineties, she was of Thai descent and he was Vietnamese. Years of working in the fields and sleeping on the hard floor had taken it’s toll on their bodies. They told us that the day they were supposed to be married (they couldn’t remember how long ago that had been!) her husband was called away for military duty, so his brother stood in at the wedding for him! Like many old couples, they sort of talked over each other. He would just start playing his bamboo flute for us and she would keep talking and serving us tea. She explained that she had never left her village, even for a day. It was an endearing glimpse into their lives.

On our last day, the family joined us for lunch in their house to say farewell. One of the men got up and explained that they have nothing to offer except their words of thanks and their homemade rice wine. It is cBlurry shot of the volunteers sharing shots with the family in Xom Pung. The blurriness represents how we felt!ustomary for each person to offer a toast of thanks accompanied by a shot. I immediately counted how many shots we had pending and landed on fourteen. Fourteen shots of food grade jet fuel… but we couldn’t say no to the family’s gesture. It was the most heartwarming experience of my life to hear each person’s words of thanks. We laughed, we cried, we danced, and then we passed out on the floor of their home until we were all well enough to ride our scooters back in the rain!

A Thirty-Something Perspective

And so, yes, my thirty-something self would say I travel to find purpose and to connect with people. My experience with RAKlife has opened my eyes to the intimate realities of the lives of these people and has caused me to reflect on my own lifestyle. Do I still want to travel to fantastical places from novels and jump out of perfectly good airplanes? Yes, I’m still that person, just with a new layer of thirty-something perspective. 

RELATED POST: Vietnam: The Faces of Mai Chau and Xom Pung Villages

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Image of the irrigation channels through the rice fields in Mai Chau Village Vietnam.

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