Lewis is a “moderate adventurer”; by which he means he seeks to travel to nooks and crannies of the globe, find a nice quiet spot and have a warm brew. Which is why he’s living in Seoul for the year, a place where he can simultaneously feel daring, lost and at home. He’s a third year Politics student, trying to understand a new culture – a one man crusade against Orientalism – using ‘studying’ as a front while he plans the reunification of Korea. He feels blessed to be there and hopes to learn about and travel Asia throughout the year.
I’ll start by outlining four ‘good things’ that have happened to me so far on my exchange year in Korea:
- Korea is located in Asia, a continent full of exciting places to explore. Sure.
- The Christmas holidays in Korea last from mid-December to the beginning of March. Okay, good.
- My flights to and from Korea were paid for by the British Council without reason. Wow, okay, very good.
- My accommodation at Hanyang is free. *Vomits all over the floor*.
These ‘good things’ meant that I was fortunate enough to have a great deal more money than I might have had and lots of time with which to spend it recklessly.
Therefore I went backpacking in Vietnam with Charlotte, my incredible girlfriend, who had flown all the way from England to visit me in Seoul, and then I spent a further three weeks backpacking through Laos alone.
Some highlights include spending New Years Eve in Hoi An, Vietnam, the most hypnotically beautiful town I’ve ever seen, plus a 3-day motorbike trip across the Bolaven Plateau of southern Laos, participating in a sort of ‘waterfall crawl’ which, in many ways, is Laos’ answer to the Otley Run. Only instead of stumbling past the fat blokes screaming football chants outside the Original Oak before swimming in the Roger Stevens fountain, you might zoom through the endless green of rolling hills and coffee plantations before swimming in the ice-cold fresh water that crashes down from the mountains. Still, essentially the same sort of day out.
However, I feel as though we’ve all read enough backpacker-blogs, you know, the ones that say: “Omg the scenery was amazing, and omg then we saw some poor people, but it was like weird cos they weren’t even that sad, but omg guys we are just so lucky you know.” And honestly that sums it all up so perfectly and eloquently that there’s no need to further detail my own experiences.
Instead, I should describe the two weeks I spent WWOOFing in the Philippines. WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms and it is very easy to set up a trip using their website. It works simply by exchanging free labour for accommodation and food, so it’s a great way to travel cheaply. It also is a way of volunteering on the terms of those you want to help rather than volunteering in communities that don’t necessarily need nor want you. Therefore you’re under no pretence that you’re doing anything noble (especially if, like me, you spend an awful lot of time sifting through poo – to find worms – to throw back into poo), but it’s reassuring to know that your tourism is doing as little damage as possible to the local culture and environment.
I worked with three other volunteers at the Layog Country Farm, high up in the mountains of Luzon, a thirty-minute drive from the nearest internet connection and a ninety minute walk from the nearest shop.
In amongst some of the vegetable beds in a valley there was a simple yet comfortable cottage for us to stay in, which was actually shamefully luxurious when compared to the corrugated-iron houses belonging to those living around us. The view from the cottage stretched through the mountains along the river and at sunset we’d witness the clouds becoming thick and dark so that shining beams of orange sunlight would forcibly tear themselves through, illuminating fragments of the horizon.
We worked five-hour days in a variety of different areas, from preparing vegetable beds, tending to coffee plants, or feeding the goats and rabbits.
Some jobs, like walking the risky paths along the steep valley slopes that would crumble underfoot, cradling a bamboo seedling so that we might find a spot to give it a chance of life, could leave one feeling rather heroic and self-important.
Others, like spending hours shovelling soil from one side of a road to another for seemingly little reason under the baking sun, felt a little like the sort of work you might be asked to do in hell.
But, whatever the work, at the end of a hard day you could look down at your cuts and blisters with an immense sense of self-satisfaction. Similar, I imagine, to how a fire-fighter feels after saving a family from a burning house, or perhaps how Jesus feels after turning water into wine.
A special treat was being able to cook for ourselves in the cottage and we used it expertly by making eggy-bread for almost every meal. But often Ciara, who looked after me like a parent during my stay, would teach me how to cook Filipino meals, and I was unable to stop her from cleaning up afterwards. She was unsatisfied until I had eaten at least five large meals each day, I’d still be digesting breakfast when snack time came around and I’d have to politely force down some egg-fried-aubergine to make her happy.
All of the farmers were incredibly warm and hospitable, even those who spoke little English, and when it was a volunteer’s last night, all the farmers would throw us a party, with free-flowing gin and rice-wine, and plenty of Christian country music belted out on guitar.
It wasn’t just workers on the farm either, on one of my days off, the local councilman Fred treated me to a trip to the provincial capital of Bontoc a few hours bus ride away. He taught me all about the area and the history of the minorities, all while being hungover, which is just an indication of the level of hospitality I received.
Too often, local peoples and cultures seem like a novelty, so it was really special to build meaningful relationships with so many people and feel such a sense of belonging in a completely different world.
I’ll end with humble gratitude at all the good things that have happened to me so far on this year in Korea, and keep my fingers crossed that there are many more to come.
P.S. Farming is cool.
Images courtesy of Lewis Decker