[top photo: Alistair Clarke (and Maria) began English conversational classes for the village kids.]
By Leong Siok Hui
Just over six months ago, Alistair Clarke and Maria Browne led the frenzied lifestyles of typical Londoners - long, stressful working hours and little time for anything else.
Then came the economic downturn. The couple shut down their property development business, packed their bags, leased out their home and hit the road for one year. Something they had wanted to do for a long time.
"It's very easy when you travel, to observe the world out of the window of a bus and not get to interact with the locals," says Clarke, 41.
"But we wanted to do some volunteering and understand more about the community. It's nice to be able to give something back."
I met Clarke and Browne in Kg Kipouvo, a Kadazandusun village in Sabah's Ulu Moyog area, about an half-hour drive from Kota Kinabalu. The couple had signed up for a two-week volunteer holiday programme with UK-based Camps International (CI).
Founded in 2002, CI runs community, marine conservation and wildlife ecotourism projects in Kenya, Tanzania and Borneo. The volunteers, who work from two weeks to three months, comprise school groups, the 18-24 gap year community and adults taking a career break.
In Sabah, CI partners with local NGO Pacos Trust to help local communities develop alternative income via ecotourism, for instance, and to increase their living standards.
A small village of about 450 people, Kg Kipouvo depends largely on subsistence farming and rubber tapping whilst a small number of locals work in the civil service.
The average monthly income in Kg Kipouvo ranges from RM200 (S$83) to RM450, according to Pacos. In 1995, under the guidance of Pacos, a group of villagers formed the Kipouvo Socioeconomic Group to set up a sundry shop, sell kuih (local pastries and cakes) and cater for wedding feasts. Profits are ploughed back into a trust fund which doles out interest-free loans to the needy.
Volunteers stay in a guest lodge owned and run by the committee, providing jobs for the cooks and housekeepers. For every volunteer to Kg Kipouvo, CI contributes RM6 per day to Pacos for their development fund.
Guests help out with simple chores and projects like building furniture, painting the community centre and teaching conversational English.
The era of "voluntourism"
Clarke and Browne make up the spate of do-gooders who are searching for a sense of purpose during their travels. As Brian Mullis of Sustainable Travel International says, we're moving from "the age of chequebook philanthropy into participatory philanthropy."
Taking a holiday that includes volunteer work is spawning a whole new industry of tour operators offering all kinds of trips and reaping in huge profits as well.
Building wells in Africa? Check. Teaching English to orphans in India? Check. Tracking snow leopards in Central Asia? Check.
UK-based responsibletravel.com, an on-line booking company that sells ethical holidays worldwide, reports a 30% annual increase in sales of volunteer holidays. One of the world's largest volunteer travel companies, I-to-I, also sees a 40% increase in its sales too.
But this growing trend raises some questions - does it benefit the local community or is it simply a way to make travellers feel good? How does one assess if a project is worthy and how much goes back to the community?
There is no simple answer.
For now, there's no international certification, regulation or checklist to assess a volunteer holiday project. Travellers just have to do some research, check with past volunteers or, best of all, see for themselves, as Clarke and Browne found out on their first volunteer holiday to Nepal.
Maria Browne made friends with the women of Kg Kipouvo in less than two weeks.
"We worked in a village in Pokhara and the project was badly run and organised," says Browne, 41.
"We knew that money wasn't getting to the community and the organisation was profiting from the volunteers."
After the trip, the couple complained to their UK travel agent who booked their programme.
"The difference is, when you're 18 and travelling for the first time, it's all a great experience," explains Clarke.
"But the older you get and the more you travel, you become more discerning. You start to question how things work, you want to know where the money goes and how they benefit people on the ground."
The Kg Kipouvo experience
Clarke and Browne came to Kg Kipouvo with the simple aim of gaining insight into the Kadazandusun way of life.
Clarke built a table for the community centre and painted the walls. Browne mingled with the women, giving them nutrition tips, held some exercise classes and discussed women's issues.
In the evenings, they ran informal English classes for the kids and women. Their stay coincided with some village celebrations - a fishing festival, sports day and the preparations for the ethnic group's largest celebration, the Kaamatan (Harvest Festival).
Clarke learned to tap rubber and got to understand how the commodity helps the local economy.
"Since the volunteer programme was barely one month old, there were some small teething problems," says Browne.
"It was initially projected as a women's project but Alistair didn't want to discuss women's issues. He wanted to use his skills in construction."
After a quick discussion, the women-dominated committee quickly found some chores for Clarke.
"As the week progressed, it just got better and better for us," says Browne smiling.
"Most of the villagers have a reasonable grasp of English. It'll be helpful if we can spend half a day learning their dialect."
What the locals think
In a span of less than two weeks, the couple and the villagers became fast friends. On my visit, the couple's last evening in Kg Kipouvo, Browne and the women were giggling and cooking up a storm in the kitchen.
The villagers taught Browne how to whip up a Sabah specialty called hinava, a raw fish salad with a dressing of lime juice, ginger, bird-eye chillies and shallots.
Clarke and Boy, the unofficial carpenter in Kg Kipouvo, were chatting and knocking back some cold beers in the backyard.
"At first, we were shy to speak English or approach them. But they encouraged us to speak up," says Baitina Joannese, 40, in Bahasa.
"We realised we took our health for granted," Doreen Ogos chips in. "Maria showed us how to eat the right food, stay healthy with exercise and feed our kids nutritious food."
On her first week, Browne noticed the school canteen was serving processed sausages and instant noodles to the children.
Clarke encouraging the talented 'Boy' in carpentry.
"After our talk, Pacos also brought in a nutritionist to the village," says Browne.
"Here, we're so laid-back but they're so fast and efficient," grins Doreen, 41. "We learned to take work seriously and not laze around."
Through the partnership with CI, Pacos' objective is for the villagers to learn how to set up a community-based tourism project.
"Even if we don't earn money, Kipouvo can be an ecotourism learning centre for us," says Pacos' Ann Lasimbang who also lives in Kg Kipouvo with her family.
"In this short span of time, the women have learned to share their knowledge and solve problems as a group."
They have also cultivated a herb garden.
"The villagers need to appreciate what they have, to be confident with their knowledge and culture," says Ann. "Once they have internalised that and share their pride with others, I think this project can be deemed as successful!"
A volunteer holiday could be as much about how it changed the travellers as it did the local community.
"What has really shone through is the kindness and open-heartedness of people here," says Browne.
"They are so different from the way the British are, private and reserved, especially in the city," adds Clarke who admits he takes time to open up to people.
In this tranquil village far from their London life, Browne and Clarke learned to "exist for the moment".
"It's taught me some good lessons - to lead a simple life and to spend time getting to know people. It has opened me up as a person and made me think how I want to live my life when I go back to the UK," says Browne.
"It's all about the heart and not always about the head. In these two weeks, we have built a very close bond with these people."
On the couple's last day, tears rolled down the women's cheeks as they hugged and said their good-byes. As the car pulled away, Browne waved and wiped away her tears while Clarke gave her a warm squeeze.
RETHINK Travel is a series of articles on responsible tourism in collaboration with Wild Asia, a Kuala Lumpur-based conservation group. Hopefully we can help promote sustainable practices in Asian travel destinations and challenge common perceptions and ideas on travel. Click on www.wildasia.net for resources on responsible travel.
-The Star/Asia News Network