Critical Voices on Voluntourism and the Classism of Literature

Critical Voices on Voluntourism and the Classism of Literature

I’m chipping away at my manuscript one daunting page at a time, but I’ve also been doing some continued hefty research on the topics it addresses. I’m interested in sharing what I’ve found this week in order to spark your thinking. I encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments so that everyone can benefit from your point of view.

NOTE: If you’ve never considered that voluntourism can have negative effects, the following might be a hard pill to swallow. And if you’ve never considered service abroad to be problematic, I’m very glad you’ve decided to read this post. I wish I would have known about or considered these perspectives decades ago.

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Painting and Playing all day long: Day 45

There's nothing louder and simultaneously as comforting as rain on a tin roof, even during monsoons. This must be what makes the Cape Town area look so clear, clean, and lush. And surely, when we emerged from our rooms that second day in False Bay, the world was dripping and new. Into Masi again, we went into a few creches where children from the township can receive child care and an education while their parents work, in hopes that they will someday be at the same academic level as their peers. The first one was hooked up, resources stacking the shelves in an organized, well-labeled fashion. At our arrival, one volunteer was reading a book in English, and a teacher next to her translated the story in Xhosa, chocked full of clicks and tongue smacks. Activity time commenced with drawing and painting, and we tried getting our hands and minds in there with the kids. I ended up stacking toys with young 5 and 6 year olds, trying to teach them colors and shapes. One teacher came over, asking me if I've been "teaching her children". When the kids nodded their heads, she looked really touched, and I was filled with...dare I say...glee.

The second creche wasn't nearly as organized, discipline-oriented, or effective in making a difference for the kids. These 2 and 3 year olds, as well as babies, pretty much danced around a building erected by previous volunteers and entertained themselves. Part of the process, though, of programs coming in to help various establishments is waiting for an invitation and a genuine intention to progress towards something sustainable. Though this creche had made great leaps towards improving the conditions for the kids, moving them from a flooded and moldy room in the back of the house to a clean, dry, well-lit structure, they didn't have daily routines or enough activities to calm their busy minds and bodies. Luckily the ones at this creche move on to the previous creche and receive the skills that will get them somewhere.

And the women that run these places often don't receive enough donations to function but must work themselves on the weekends and evenings for funds to run their creche. That's some noble, admirable dedication right there.

Our volunteer coordinators, Ally and Isabelle, treated us to a much appreciated meal and took us to our final destination of an orphanage in a colored community. Something Ally informed us of early on is the use of racial terms in accepted speech. In South Africa, people describe others as white, black, or colored. Simply using these words does not imply anything derogatory. The term "colored" differentiates those who have dark skin and other influences of Arabic, Asian, and so on. Anywho, the orphanage is better than many that exist in America today and had been visited by Melinda Gates. They had resources, though an odd stance on nutrition (the meals of custard answered questions about the quite round babies). We played for a bit after a tour of the facilities and returned to our hostel, feeling pretty content from the incredible treatment we received for two days straight.

Thomas Jefferson was a fan of travel: "Travel makes you wiser, but less happy." In a sense, I think he was on target, but global and social awareness can also bring a feeling of hope and enlightenment that can empower and please. I didn't feel happy seeing children and adults living hard lives that I observed as a cushy tourist. But I loved being witness to their strong characters and seeing the moments of success that emerge from the hardships. You can hear about the problems in South Africa and easily forget about them. You can see the problems in South Africa and remember them well. You can do something for the struggles, learn about the solutions, and interact with South Africans and understand viscerally until the end of your days. For this reason, I volunteer, because I don't ever want these hard realities to be easy to forget.

No need to cry, kitty...there's TEARS

The barking from TEARS reverberates across the entirety of Masiphumalele daily, but what's represented by those sounds make the annoyance of constant dog yelping kinda comforting. The Emma Animal Rescue Society takes stray animals as well as domestic pets from the local communities for vaccinations, fixing, and disease treatment at a price that no one can argue with: free. Instead of putting down pups with horrifying skin diseases, they do what they can to ensure that every animal gets a chance at survival and adoption. And when they wander across a pet cat that hasn't been neutered yet, they create a positive relationship and rapport between TEARS and the owner, gaining respect and trust among people who don't often have the money to do the right thing for their beloved pets. We took a tour of the facilities to observe feral cats hanging out, sweet and healthy kitties propped on columns ready to be loved, and dogs dancing around their cages eager for chow time. One frisky barker had moves like Spiderman and bounded from the ceiling of his shared cage down to the ground, really darn excited for his Kibble. We gave treats to those that were being especially friendly and then moseyed to the wrestling puppies. There was a whole lotta cuteness going on at TEARS, and I think Chris and I could have entertained ourselves for hours playing with the animals.

The rescue squad, or mobile clinic, or whatever it was called invited us to join a ride through Masi to observe how they find the needy animals and connect with the communities. There was one man living on the very edge of the wetlands who absolutely adored his large, golden canines but couldn't feed them and treat them they way they deserved. TEARS built him a kennel out of the rain water and helped him out with dog food. The man was so grateful, he put his palms together and dipped his head in a sign of extreme and humble thanks.

When we turned a corner and saw a small cat staring at some snacking birds, we paused to laugh, and then the mobile crew took a gander to make sure she was fixed. Nay! TEARS squad members unite! One man spoke in the local language of Xhosa to tell her they could take care of everything and bring back her cat in a few days at no cost to her. One less animal out and about with procreating abilities or susceptibility to bad diseases.

In the next township of Mountain View, we came across a man who adored his massive pitbull, a canine who was quite obviously not fixed. The dog's homemade sweater was connected to the chain around his neck and had felt letters sewn on spelling "I'm so hood". It was just too perfect an ensemble. The owner reeked of booze and had an odd smear of white surrounding his mouth. He insisted that he'd never taken his dog to a fight, but he's killed 13 dogs before. And he took impeccable care to pair his fella with only the most worthy pitbull ladies, spreading the good bloodlines he called it. In this community, it's common that the men keep incredibly virile and dangerous dogs to solidify their own manly image. This was a case that would take weeks for TEARS to work, and they began by talking about dog fight victims to get on this guy's sappy side. We watched from afar at their wicked skills of coercion.

We left them to their jobs of keeping the animal peace and went for a volunteer bbq at the i-to-i house. It involved the kind of good food that puts hair on your chest: beef, sausage, potaters. The volunteers were all young, chatty, and very sweet, and their perspectives on travel, their volunteer projects, and South Africa were refreshing. It looks like more guys need to be made aware of this volunteer program, as they were scarcely represented. Fellas, South Africa + a bunch of ladies and you living under one roof...think about it.

Getting our Backs into it: Day 44

I looked at i-to-i a while back when I was weighing my post-graduation opportunities. My trouble with volunteer projects though is always that I'm not sure whether my presence will be accepted, appreciated, and utilized for the maximum amount of assistance I can provide. Sometimes you show up, and it's pretty obvious a project is just about getting people to donate money and get out. Other times, you've got a very devoted group of people ready to work, but there aren't any resources or guidance to make the developments occur. i-to-i had all these issues figured out, and we could see and feel there was a need for volunteers to be there. We drove from Cape Town around the mountains to False Bay during the brilliance of a harbor sunrise. The first stop was a no frills walk around a township called Masiphumalele (which stands for "we will succeed"). Townships areas were set aside during the apartheid era as a place to "put" the colored and black communities that weren't wanted in the residential white zones. Masi, for short, is the only informal community in the Cape Town area that's centered in a "white" zone and is also the township with the highest percentage of people with HIV and AIDS...42%.

Charlotte, a local resident who can only be described as delightful, showed us around the community centers, libraries, relief centers, and even her own home, which is a privilege for visitors. We inquired about the expenses of living in this township and discovered a shack, built with a corrugated tin roof and roughly assembled panels, would go for about $500. Day care for a young child is $10 per month, but since these facilities wouldn't send a child away if the parents failed to pay, often that fee never gets collected. The township also bordered a wetland area, which floods with each heavy rain, and unfortunately it had been pouring the week prior to our arrival. Many children couldn't go to school or day care because they didn't have dry clothes to wear, and parents flocked to the relief centers for blankets to get through the chilly weather.

We walked amongst the kids singing in the street, the dogs roaming and barking hysterically, and the wandering people making their ways to local shops or passing taxis. This is definitely the way to do a township tour. Go with someone from the township, and walk, don't ride. It's also important to make sure your photography isn't about exploiting the people who live there, so this is one of those events that calls for intense sensitivity with clicking the shutter.

We then hit up our lunch stop, which also happened to be an educare center for children of pretty abysmal living situations and histories. Carrying in bags of rolls and deli ham, Chris and I began slathering mayo and folding ham for the kids' lunches. When we walked in, there was earth-rumbling screaming. When we passed out sandwiches, a mouse could have passed gas, and all would have turned their heads to look. And once the children consumed the food before them, it was back to unstoppable energy. The volunteers were personal jungle gyms for some kids, while others found joy in just being held. I attracted some gigglers with the always-reliable crowd pleaser, the tickle monster. Wherever you looked, there was a runny nose and a smile. It was a good scene.

Our expert sandwich assembling abilities came in handy once more when about 20 loaves of bread and flats of peanut butter came into the kitchen. We found ourselves in an efficient assembly line partaking in the relief efforts from recent rains. All those families whose homes hadn't a dry board received PB&Js to curb the devastation just a smidge. It felt good to spend even part of this trip doing something as useful as making cold and hungry families food.

Outside, volunteers stood propped up by rakes and shovels, smoking and chatting, waiting for the top soil and manure to show up for the care center's new garden. This project led by the volunteer program proposes to provide the children with fresh vegetables for stews and make better nutrition possible for very little money. And considering the owner of the establishment spends all her free time working for the funds to run the joint, anything to ease the heavy financial load is ecstatically appreciated. We got our backs into it for a bit and then had to move on to another social improvement project...this time all about the canines and felines.

Why I’m coming back to Fiji

Why I’m coming back to Fiji

Yes, people are wonderful all over the world, and we often forget how helpful and open those we meet in transit can be. But there’s something about the Fijian mindset and attitude that makes your heart long to weave fern mats for your home on stilts and play a muddy game of rugby with your village mates during a golden sunset.

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Last Day with Second Families: Day 10

Daro Danisi

Our final day in the Fijian village had quite a build up. I must have answered the question "What day are you leaving Fiji and the village" about twenty times during my entire stay, unsure as to why they were so anxious to know my departure date. I believe they were just gearing themselves up for the big day when we say our goodbyes and experience one final jolt of the "True Fiji" culture. I took it fairly easy during the day with a writing session and a swim at the waterfall, and when lunchtime finished, I leaned to my side and suddenly passed out cold, as if I had really done any real labor that day. I awoke to a bunch of ladies weaving fern mats around me and giggling as little Pio, my host cousin, took photos of my groggy state.

During my waterfall adventure and delicious nap, my host parents constructed a lovo, or underground oven with firewood, stones to be heated, coconut shells holding various foods, and banana leaves to cover the entire situation. The grub finished with an aromatic uncovering in the dark of evening. Fane dressed me in one of her grand sulus and a flowery lei, and we all walked with food in hands to the party down the path at Chris' house.

A tablecloth stretched the length of the room on the floor, with plates scattered at intervals of various noodles, taro, and lovo goodies. We joined the men watching rugby on the TV (Chris' house was pretty set up) until Moji announced our turn to thank the village formally for the entire week.

"I just want to thank all of you for being a part of this experience. I want to thank my lei and my nau and my new friend and sister, Bui, for their hospitality. I had so much fun doing everything and nothing with you. From the kava sessions to just hanging out, it was incredibly fulfilling. I know you all just be aware of how lucky you are, to live amidst such a wonderful landscape and among such wonderful people. I have to make it back here, THIS YEAR!"

That was the gist of my announcement. Words of appreciation and love exchanged among everyone and clapping commenced after everyone's speeches. And then we went to business on the food for a couple hours.

With two dollars in my hand, I walked in the dark behind Fane to a private area in the village, an open air building where fundraising dances took place. As the pop/island music blasted into the quiet night, we shimmied our leis and sulus, kicking up the dusty soil into a fog. Chris would spontaneously whip out his Ace Ventura dance moves, while I would be challenged by the village ladies to ask multiple men to dance (using my new line "Au nakwati e koko daro danisi" or "I want you to dance with me"). Traveler Tom had moves that would stop Michael Jackson in his tracks, and the entire house was shaking with laughter and hilarity.

Most of the men sat on one side of the building drinking kava and occasionally looked to see what all the fuss was about on the dance floor. It resembled a middle school dance in a sense. My feet were the color of milk chocolate by the dance's end and my body limp from exhaustion. The next morning we would leave, and I couldn't have imagined a better way to bid it adieu...dancing to Akon.

What Little Work and Plentiful Play: Day 9

The Headmaster's Son

Being a “volunteer” in this village of Nakavika seemed to barely have the connotation that any work would be done by you. Given we came on the weekend and had to do no labor, I assumed Monday would crack down on our fun time with some blood, sweat and backaches in the farm. Ah, but the village spokesperson said nothing needed to be tackled that day. So Tuesday came, and I was sure the work would pile on, but the reality of this program became very obvious when our first big job was to dig a 3’ x 3’ plot with three shovels among ten volunteers. They had no need for our lagging Western manual work ethic or inabilities to perform in the equatorial heat. Though we seemed to make some productive use out of our time by finding firewood, so concluded our work portion of the village experience.

What was blatantly evident though was that our purpose for being there: to share, learn, and know they live the good life. A commonly repeated phrase was “the true Fijian life”, uttered by every villager hoping you’re picking up the meaning. They know they are lucky, and so are you for being there among the idyllic and paradisiacal world of Fiji’s interior.

When I walked back from the farm with a vine backpack filled with firewood, the sight of me melting seamlessly into jungle life tickled my host mom, Fane. I turned around and took off for waterfall again, this time with the other travelers for a quick dip. I was one of the few that knew where we were heading, so I led the way into the slick jungle belly towards the watery stairway. There was lots of screaming due to the frigid waters, and I sprawled my body across a fallen log below the falls to rest as the squeals continued.

The kids at the village school have daily activity time once the academics are done, and we travelers decided to join the hilarity by partaking in the schoolyard sports and games. While Chris and the boys took the future rugby stars for games and drills, I went with the ladies to entertain the younger crowd of ruffians.

Deciding to kill two birds with one activity, I turned this time into a work-out for myself and led the kids on obstacle courses, performed gymnastics, and pumped out some push-ups while counting in Fijian. My bones and joints were in shambles by the end of it, as I actually thought I could try and keep up with the kids. I needed a good subsequent rubdown.

That night my host mom told me we were hosting a kava session at our house, which I was always cool with, and to join us were some ladies of the village and about half the traveler crew. As the evening progressed, roughly 20 rowdy men and women squeezed into the kitchen area where the kava bowl sat (an area the size of the Empire State Building elevator). Chewing on mango skins to rid the taste of kava, I bounced my head to the rhymes of Fiji's own Sammy G and told my friend, Weiss, all about real American "gangsta" music, as if I'm a connoisseur.

My night closed with an eventful full moon stroll around the village, where my presence had a strong shadow and my head was covered with stars.

Kava and Waterfalls: Day 7

Kava Mixing

Bui’s knees in my back and adorable, obvious rustling in bed wake me caused a laugh to accompany my first breath of the day.  She had spotted something in my bag that she liked, so I proceeded to pull out the bag-o-tricks from my sister-in-law that included bubbles, a very high-pitched whistle, a hypnotizing hourglass, and a flower for her church-ready hair. Instead of going with Chris and a fellow traveler named Lina to the next village for family time, Abel offered to take me on a little trip to a nearby waterfall. Bui jumped on that bandwagon with a smile that spanned her entire face. And as we walked, more children tagged along, sliding down muddy slopes for the poised camera and pointing out the sensitive fern before cautiously stepping over its little thorns.

The first waterfall was like a natural stairway with cascading clear waters making the descent a little dicier. Some of the kids plummeted into the teal pool with us while others remained on top, shouting down to us and each other, as excited as though this were a candy store shopping spree. The water was as cold as it was wet, but we disregarded this discomfort by trying to balance on a fallen log like American Gladiators.

Across the pool, Abel and I climbed onto some flat rocks shaded by a fantastic tropical canopy to find a second and much more deadly waterfall. Dropping a large rock down, he demonstrated what would happen to our heads if we jumped. Obliteration. We sprawled there for a while, talking about the village and America, while fluorescent spiders walked by our resting chins that overlooked the ledge. The kids on the other waterfall sang and danced for our attention.

When we came back to the village, hair dripping and laughing, my host parents and all their friends were lounging in the yard, drinking kava, sharing a sticky bowl of colorful popcorn, and awaiting my inclusion. The adults and parents posed for photos as enthusiastically as the kids and pulled me into the frame for a few shots.

We moved the party inside my house when the clouds began spitting, and for the next three hours, I witnessed a hilarious evening among lifelong friends that included my serving of tsunami bowls to every man, card tricks, riddles, and childhood games. Sometimes the volume and amount of laughter during certain Fijian games caused me to believe they weren’t so family friendly, at which point I would turn my head left and right asking anyone, “What’s so funny?”.

Abel, while mixing bowl after bowl of kava, asked me to put my camera on video mode while the men harmonized songs of pride and love for their country and countrymen. 15 to 20 men closed their eyes to reach high notes and perfect tones in a concert just for me. My eyes fluttered by lamplight to the tunes of the Highlands, head heavy to my pillow in the middle of the crowded, sleepy room. It was the kind of peace John Lennon would fantasize about.

Hey, That's My Leg You Ran Over: Day 192

Five Guys, One Motorbike. Get Comfy.

On this final night in Cambodia, I adorned my trekking shoes for the first time in weeks and chaperoned an excursion to Phnom Penh's Water Festival near the river. I missed the main events of boating and races during the day, but the locals spoke of crowds that would stop traffic, which I was eager and willing to miss. Instead, I decided to take in the excitement with the older kids by foot in the evening. Evan, Zan (the other volunteer), and I stomped along the mile or two of road in between the orphanage and the riverbank, passing the vehicles alit on the road like we were reenacting Office Space. There was lots of hand holding, and people switched up often to grab my hand or Evan's or their close friend's in front. We were a group stepping in tune with each other and finding joy in being in the others' presences. It was another one of those moments when I was stunned how comfortable I was far away from my home bubble.

The water festival is timed to occur with a full moon, and this moon cast a glow over the city that rivaled the sun. As I write about this evening six months later, I write now knowing every full moon I've seen since reminds me of Cambodia's water festival and the evening amidst the nighttime light.

The streets went from scattered to bustling to impenetrable. We held hands like we were preparing for a round of Crack the Whip, but had we not, we were sure to lose a soul or two.

At one point, I actually had a motorbike advance up the back of my leg, impatient to wait for the hundred or so people standing in his way. I think I tried to give this man a "Hey, pardon me, but you just ran your motor vehicle over my calf" perturbed look but couldn't rotate my body or even head in his direction to make the gaze. I may or may not still have the tire mark on my pants.

We found ourselves within a block of the water but couldn't dare move in that direction for fear of getting our bodies crushed under the pressure of thousands more. Evan and the older boys turned towards the city and led us back the way we had come. Hours of walking got us to the heart of the traffic and nothing more.

We were bummed and opted for rickshaws back to the compound. But such an outing had to include some radical behavior, so we made the way back a ride to remember. I sat with six girls screaming at the top of their lungs to strangers on the road. Easily amused; my kind of people.

The youngins were still up and romping in the near daylight of midnight. I pulled out my camera and let them go to town with their photographic skills. Evan rode a two foot bike around with little girls shrieking in his wake. I sat in constantly shifting human piles of little kids and saw spots from all the camera flashes.

Litho, one of my strongest bonds in Palm Tree, sat cross-legged next to me as I tried to describe where I was going and what I was doing the next day onward. I gave up soon after starting and just focused on laughing at nothing but the sweetness around us. My last hugs were sad as some boys uttered the word "sister" in my direction; it became official, I was returning some day, hopefully soon.

I awoke at roughly 4:30am the next morning to a slowly warming sky and air damp with that morning anticipation I rarely get to witness personally. The cook was already awake and spooning out plates of breakfast, a few girls at her side on their turns to help the kitchen.

I knocked on Evan's door quietly at 5am to say my goodbyes to a guy that will forever be in my mind. I gave him a small sheet of paper with my number, e-mail, and home address, hoping he would be in touch with ground level news of Palm Tree on a regular basis. I also looked forward to a reunion in Chicago upon his return in July of 2009. I handed him my recently completed copy of Shantaram as he exchanged it for Mountains Beyond Mountains.

It was a pleasure to know that kid, and I'm still in shock of his sudden celestial departure. This, of course, was not something I was thinking about while we embraced that final traveler's embrace. I instead was thinking of time's little tricks and wondering when I would next be grasping this same man's shoulders; on what continent, after what amazing accomplishments on both sides have occurred? This bittersweet moment seemed sweet in real time and in hindsight should have been bitter to the last drop.

I found a way to finally get passed the gates of Palm Tree to the street beyond, hopped on a motorbike after an effortless haggle, and zoomed past Thai Chi demonstration after Thai Chi demonstration in the brisk morning air of sunrises. A hand slowly grasped and still continues to hold my arm in the direction of that city and that country; it was a tangible and evocative goodbye to Cambodia.

Chicken and Clams, Partying Khmer Style: Day 191

Palm Tree Hoodlums

Palm Tree Hoodlums

After seeing a film about orphans in northern Uganda, my parents felt moved to donate funds for the kids at Palm Tree. For about two weeks, I asked the administrators, teachers, and Evan what was lacking there or what needed additional funding to occur on the ground level. As the days passed, my interest in their nutrition fed a desire to hook them up with a big ol' feast of protein. I had one of the older kids translate my intentions to the head cook, a sweet lady who seems to do little else but clean dishes and boil more rice. She looked at me with the softest face and hugged me, nearly made me cry.

We soon hopped into a rickshaw with three or four older kids in tow and headed to the local version of a super Kroger. Open air, piles of food lining every walking path and lane, not one foreigner in sight.

The older kids held my hand or hooked elbows, making it a bit difficult to navigate over the trash rivers and around coasting motorbikes. I wasn't sure what compelled them to stay so close, whether a cultural habit, sign of appreciation or friendship, or fear of getting run over. Whatever the reasoning was, I was slowly feeling my American citizenship seep from every sweating and content pore.

Every wet step concerned me with thoughts of the substances now on my feet. Innards hung from the umbrellas in the open market, and I had to watch my head for fear of slapping it into a cow face. The cook decided upon a vendor and began weighing out chickens with their bare hands.

I couldn't bare to watch the food handling methods: grab the yellow skins to be weighed, drop it in a sack, wipe the brow, handle some money, shake hands, grab another chicken and whack its wings off with an effortless cleave. I handed the money to one of the kids and stepped back to avoid the flying bits. I guess I have my limits. What a nancy of a carnivore, I am.

We picked up some oil, seasoning and veggies and found our rickshaw waiting for us on the madhouse of a street. I reminded the cook on our drive back that I wanted all the food to go to the kids and none to reach the volunteer pagoda. This wasn't a meal for us. This obviously hit silent refusal as she was already conjuring an elaborate image in her head of our meal for later. I assume she thought it insulting to not make us food in appreciation, and she surely wanted to express her cooking abilities now that she had something more exciting to work with.

The meal was delicious, and the kids thanked me again with incredible formality. And the we threw that formality out the window.

The administrators pulled out and stacked speakers that reached heights above my head, and the kids began dancing on tables to versions of "Beautiful Girls" dubbed in Khmer. Their moves were awesome: sometimes organic, always repetitive, and often a duplication of a previous volunteer's dance routine.

I, for some reason, didn't feel like dancing much, which was probably because all eyes were on me, ready to mirror my image. I busted a few moves, a quick robot and wave sequence, which stunned some and caused them to practice for the remainder of the evening.

Soon into the event, Evan pulled me aside and brought me to the area of the compound where some teachers and admins live. One of the resident ladies had a baby that week and was now having a welcome home party with family and much of the Palm Tree staff. Tables were littered with beer cans and all the clams one could hope for.

I forget if I spoke much or even what was said around the table. I graciously accepted a little boxed wine from Evan and tried to psych myself out enough to try a marinated clam in front of me. The surrounding men were popping them like Orville Redenbacher.

The Grown-Up Party

And with each cheers, everyone was required to chug whatever drink sat in front of them. Cambodians sure love to drink; unfortunately, not many can hold their alcohol well. This resulted in some hilarious and awkward encounters with men who stared and smiled in my direction for lengths too long to be casual.

I couldn't handle the late hours the kids were willing and ready to reach with their dance party antics. The volume the speakers hit made it very evident there was no neighborly rule or law stating loud noises and music weren't tolerated. The windows and doors in my room reverberated with every bump of the base.

I retired early to finish reading my Shantaram novel and prepare myself for the everyday early wake-up. Within minutes of a full blown dance party, speakers shut off and returned to their storage areas while women and children hung their mosquito nets and fell into deep sleeps on their wooden platform or the cool linoleum floor.

The Cheap Battle Against Scurvy: Day 190

After ten days of teaching in classrooms, drawing cartoons, tutoring English, pushing swings, riding bikes too small for me, picking up from school, playing in the rain and watching TV while intertwined in a human pile, I finally felt comfortable taking my camera out of my room and clicking photographs of the kids I lived with. I guess I had the luxury of time on this leg to experience first and document later, but there were so many moments I wished I had captured digitally up until this point. But that was not the point. With only two days remaining in my Palm Tree experience, my place at the orphanage had solidified as much as it could in that span of time. I prioritized the friendships above the visual memories and even the written records because that was the sole reason for making this detour to Cambodia. It wasn't to be a white knight and put up a barrier between the kids and myself.

I didn't want to muddy my intentions for being at Palm Tree by pulling out my wallet and strutting the streets like Daddy Warbucks. There's no doubt I have enough personally to donate, but the trick is finding the right time and purpose that reflects my heart's place. All this travel made me ultra-sensitive in the act of gift-giving and honoring the dignity of the gift-receiver.

Spending multiple days eating next to these kids, filling up with rice and anchovy-sized fish on occasion, I realized my concern centered on their basic needs, like nutrition. One day, while walking outside the orphanage's salmon walls, I passed a small mart that sold apples. It took a lot of gestures, poor attempts at speaking Khmer, the involvement of passing Palm Tree children, and smiles to make the vendor understand what I wanted: 100 apples at her best price for the kids down the street.

The cost was $12.

I wanted the act of distribution to be as anti-climactic as possible and asked the cook to put them on their dinner plates. Of course, Cambodians cannot help but be grateful, appreciative and polite, and every child approached our little pagoda during dinner to thank me with a bow that displayed a sense of formality so easy and natural to them.

Evan reminded me of a market down the street that would offer a better selection of fruit and possibly better prices. I took three or four little boys with me the next day (and by took, I mean as I walked towards the orphanage gate, they ran up to see if they could tag along on the mini-adventure, skipping and holding my hand the whole way). As I took every step with such care as to avoid mud and piles of trash, the boys romped around without shoes (as they preferred to be) like we were in a field of marshmallows.

A lady with a heaping pile of green oranges caught my eye, and I sent young Vishna to discuss a sale of 100 juicy orbs. After getting a price quote, he came over to ask for roughly $10, and I gave him the equivalent in Cambodian riel. The vendor began packing her massive bag full and a few nearby ladies offered her their hands in the counting.

A few minutes passed, and Vishna came back with three more dollars because she realized she overcharged. One look at the vendor, and I felt this subtle moment of sweetness and good standing in their community. It was an honest view into a seemingly rough city most foreigners can only hope to glimpse.

$7 for 100 oranges. And to think I've bought a cocktail for more than that.