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  • Writer's pictureJoanna

Fancy a Cuppa? I'm Spillin' the Tea | Toxic Volunteering | Laos

Updated: Feb 7

Volunteerings and Spillin' the Toxic TraTea...


If there is one thing that I’m finding rather difficult to comprehend here in Laos, it’s the restaurant service.  As someone who has spent the majority of my adult life working in the hospitality industry, it’s bizarre to see everything I have been trained to know and do and believe, so utterly deserted.


Out the window. Entirely OUT the window.|


It's tough to wrap my head around the disregard of service. Actually... I shouldn’t say disregard.  It’s more like oblivion. How do I explain this? Absolutely everyone has a restaurant… there are millions of them… but there is no service.


its of

When you enter an establishment here, there is often no direction as to whether you should take a seat & wait for a menu... or if you should go order at the counter.  I've been left waiting for over 20 minutes... and it doesn't matter where you go, there never seems to be a rush to get to me or to offer an apology or an explanation for the delay. Menus are either abandoned on your table for the duration of your time there or ripped out of your hands before you’re finished ordering because there aren’t enough to go around.  I’ve often had to pull them back, “Um... I’m not finished!”


Meals tend to arrive in a random order, sometimes 20-30 minutes between each other.  Often the drinks don’t appear until the end of the meal.  Sometimes though, they arrive so quickly, you’re completely finished slurping them back by the time your meal arrives. Or... worst case scenario... they don't arrive at all.


~ There is no upselling.

~ There are no menu recommendations.

~ Features? Bwahahaha….

~ They don’t do quality checks. Not once have I seen this in practice.

~ There is absolutely no camaraderie at the tables... though tips are expected and appreciated.

~ Everyone drags their feet. Literally. There is no scramble or sense of urgency for anything. They just shuffle along at a snail's pace, with their slippers or flip flops on...


Mama Alex's Restaurant in Nong Khiaw
Mama Alex's Restaurant in Nong Khiaw

It’s strange because they don’t promote themselves in any way. AT ALL. In any capacity. Any great reviews are due to the food... and very rarely ever to exceptional service or wait time.  If you want anything, you have to ask for it.  Really… you have to GET UP and go find someone. Soya sauce, napkins, salt, a knife, dessert, another drink… the bill...


Napkins... lol... you NEVER get napkins!


There is no clearing of the plates unless you leave… and even then, that's debatable. I’ve seen dirty tables sitting for hours. There just doesn’t seem to be any organization, time management or flow. Nothing.


Either they don’t know… or they just don’t care. You order. They cook it. They bring it to you. Done ✔️


That is the extent of the customer experience.


So... onto another topic altogether...


This brings me to a trip we all recently did to Na Luang.  I'm going to jump around a bit... so buckle up! Forgive me as I dissolve into a bit of a rant... but please know that I have spent much time on this particular tirade, carefully crafting a perplexing personality into words for your better understanding.


Please allow me this rant... and I promise to come out the other side, fully refreshed and unloaded.


We had trekked into the village of Na Luang in my first week in Nong Khiaw. We went there to see and admire the building of a new water tank NK Seeds had recently funded.  Due to this benevolent act, the entire community wanted to honour Mélissa (owner), as well as the entire organization.


Mélissa had arrived in Nong Khiaw the day prior with an entourage of her family and friends. This troop included her grandma, as well as her partner, who had broken her food and was limping around with a cast and crutches. Together, we were all heading into Na Luang for an honorary ceremony and a celebrational feast. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for a traveler like me, to be a part of such a festive formality... but it was an awkward day.


Why?


Well… it all began the evening before...


Anyone who has read my most recent blogs, must be aware of my ever increasing frustration with Tea, the arrogant, ignorant and egotistic leader of the NK Seeds organization in Nong Khiaw. Tea, very much, considers himself far above the rest of us and frequently stops to either hint at or directly tell us all how important he is, how busy he is or how organized he is.


Although I only listed off only three of his self-proclaimed accolades there, his recognition of his own achievements were vast and frequently mentioned... by him.



Unfortunately… or fortunately (depending on how you view the situation), I was not someone who ticked any of the boxes necessarily to be worthy of his courtesy, respect or time. I wasn’t slim, fit, overly active or young… so I kinda got the short end of his shitty stick.  When he wasn’t being judgemental or condescending, he blatantly disregarded me, ignoring any and almost all of my questions, comments, suggestions and texts. I rarely got a clear or proper explanation about scheduling or requirements. He never allowed me to take the reins on any projects... and often just assigned me odd, extraneous jobs... in an attempt to just get rid of me.


At one point. I was confused about the order of things we were going to be doing and instead of explaining the logic behind his reasoning, he cupped his mouth with his hands like a microphone and started yelling the itinerary at me.


Wow.

Very rude.


I was completely taken aback by his insulting behaviour and it was right then, that I really started to piece this guy together for what he really was. Tea wasn't particularly fond of work, nor do I think he grew up with much in the way of a work ethic. He definitely gave the impression of hard work so that people would admire him. Everything he said and did had the sole purpose of feeding his own ego. On more than one occasion, he let it slip out that he only wanted volunteers to join the NK crew that were interested in kayaking with him, hiking with him, camping with him... and worshiping him.


I really did put forth quite an effort for a while.  I tried to pepper him with false praise and phony baloney. My façade didn't last too long though and was way too sporadic to be genuine.  It was merely a feeble attempt to elevate the crumbling relationship into something tolerable. I failed. I have a very short fuse, hardly any patience and I don’t suffer fools gladly. The combination of all of those traits mixed with attempting to communicate properly with someone who wasn’t firing with all cylinders and had the annoying mannerism of circular speaking, was, to put it bluntly, anightmare.


I’d grown tired of hearing about how much he worked with 'authority,' how essential he was to the non-profit, how active he was, how much he worked out, how fit he was, how high his metabolism was, how many supplements he could take in order to do more cardio, how much he ate in a day, how intelligent he was, how organized he was, how punctual he was, how good he was at his job, or what a significant contribution he made to life each and every day.


The narcissistic jerk himself
Any chance to take off his shirt

It was nauseating.


I started calling him Nike. Just do it. I think he thought it was a term of endearment, because he was so active, but it was anything but. I actually had quite a few nicknames for him. None so kind.


His lies were relentless... and circuitous. As soon as one lie came out, it was covered up with another one until the entire conversation was nothing but a labyrinth of twisted tales. Trying to have a conversation with Tea was like banging your head against a brick wall, while riding a contorted tilt-a-whirl of bizarre. Nothing made sense. You got nowhere and were left dizzy and dazed. 


It got to the point where I couldn’t even stand to listen to him anymore.  I started to comment on his vanity, his bullshit and his incessant lies. Remaining calm and composed, I kept all my comments brief, but I knew he was not liking the challenge.

"What does that even mean?"

"That doesn't make any sense."

"Do you really need validation for that?"

"That's not really something we say in English."

"That's not what you said yesterday."


The beauty of Nong Khiaw
The beauty of Nong Khiaw

Perhaps I could have stretched my tolerance slightly further, had he, at any time during the three weeks I was there, asked me ONE thing about myself… but he did not. It's difficult to have a lovely chat with someone who's main intention is to top you on everything you mention. 


I was done.


Done.


It's unfortunate because Georgia (the other volunteer here) is someone who sees the world through rose-tinted glasses. She is young and enthusiastic... and really did want to make a difference with the project. Tea immediately took her under his wing, spending every waking moment with her... and ultimately using her to feed his ego and elate his own self importance. 


Slowly though, the more time she spent with Tea, her spirit began to fade. Georgia began to see him for what he really was. It didn't take long before his lies, circle speaking and egocentric temperament bled through and she began to sink into combative conduct during discussions with him. She retreated more and more each day, detaching herself from his toxic influence.


I was no longer alone here...


NK SEEDS English School in Nong Khiaw
My favourites at the English School

During this entire process, I managed to complete my TEFL certification, Teaching English as a Second Language.


I'm officially a teacher! ... kinda, sorta! Under no false pretenses, I'm officially an online-certified 'teacher' who is qualified to teach English. I really did have my sights set on completing this course prior to arriving in Nong Khiaw for the teaching gig... but life didn't turn out like that.


Although I wasn't technically a teacher... I was still eager to get to the class and utilize my skills, my experience and my somewhat-almost-finished education. That was exactly WHY I accepted the position in Nong Khiaw.  Initially I was worried that my lack of certification might be a make or break... but looking back now, that's nothing but silly talk. As it turned out, I really didn't need the certification, because I hardly taught English at all. Actually... truth be told, I might go as far as to say, the entire time I was in Nong Khiaw, I never taught English. 

In my entire three weeks I was in Nong Khiaw, I attended only FIVE English classes. Actually four... because for one of them, Tea made Georgia set up a movie for them to watch. Despicable Me... fitting...

Despicable Tea.


NK SEEDS English School in Nong Khiaw
Which one is me?

He just kept cancelling classes. For someone who boasted about being the world's hardest worker, he sure took any opportunity to dump responsibilities. If they were going to fix the door - classes were cancelled. If the lights weren't working - classes were cancelled. If the kids wanted more time off - classes were cancelled. Another time, when they were sitting there, waiting to learn... he had the audacity to just dismiss them and tell them to come back next week.


I was flabbergasted. What was going on??


On my first day, Tea confirmed that I was not a REAL teacher. "No," verified, "I do not have a university teaching degree." He was happy about that.


Why?


In so many words, he basically explained that children don't respond well to real teachers, syllabus teaching or curriculum.


What????


That doesn't even make any sense.  They don't respond well to structure, consistency, learning activities and expectations????  His explanation was elaborate and baffling... but to sum it up, it was basically his way or the highway. I got the gist that any past teachers that had arrived to lend a helping hand, had eventually left, citing irreconcilable differences. He made them feel unwanted and didn't pay their profession one ounce of respect. 


I suspect Tea is grasping on to his position with Kung-Fu force, afraid of losing even the smallest iota of his perceived power. It's sad because he's the farthest thing from a suitable English teacher I've ever seen, and it's the kids and the organization that will eventually suffer. They are in desperate need of a real teacher... and an English teacher. Not someone with horrific intonation and irregular stress patterns for both words and sentences. Unfortunately, under his control, someone who might be a better fit, or have new ideas is simply competition and will be removed immediately. 


His lack of gratitude was evident each time we came up with suggestions or new ideas, made something special for the project or bascially contributed anything at all. There was never a thank you. All we received in return was how he'd once done that... and done it better.



We are talking about someone who couldn't grasp the concept of 'THIS' Friday and 'NEXT' Friday… and actually argued with us that we were trying to confuse him on purpose. 


Seriously. I can't make this shit up.


This is someone who is absolutely convinced that native English speakers use 'so-so' on a regular basis... and use the term 'T-Junction' as a major part of our directional conversation.


This is a man who argued that the mnemonic "righty-tighty, lefty-loosey" was wrong. Wrong because even though loosening most standard fasteners was to turn them counterclockwise... your hand was turning right... and vice versa. This absurd dispute went on for almost an hour. It was another moment (of many) I had to get up and leave the premises because I couldn't listen to his indignant, nonsensical reasoning anymore.


Whenever I expressed my dissatisfaction with the lack of classes, Tea told me that it didn't really matter because "teaching English was the least important thing that he and Mélissa were doing with NK SEEDS."


LEAST IMPORTANT???

I couldn't believe it?


NK SEEDS English School Students
NK SEEDS English School Students

Like... why the f**k am I even here???


Seems a gnarled thing to say... considering that ALL the marketing, promotional material, social media and website list learning English as one of their top priorities. I would hazard a guess that it's definitely the TOP priority for having volunteers join. 


I immediately retorted with "What's more important then?"


Missions.


"Ok! Then let's do more missions!"


I was desperate for something to do. I needed to contribute. I needed to be a part of something. I needed to feel like I was there for a reason. I didn't want to just be fanning about Nong Khiaw for a month with nothing to do.


Then I got a full on lecture about how we didn’t have enough volunteers. I had an answer ready for all his gobbledygook.

"Ok… then let's get some more volunteers."


There was lots of room at the house and certainly no shortage of backpackers around. Pretty much every kid out there was willing and able to give a little bit of their time for a good cause. To that, I got a convoluted commentary about how backpackers only came to Nong Khiaw to do activities and wouldn't put too much effort into volunteering.  Rich... coming from an ignoramus who frequently mentioned that he only wanted volunteers here to do activities with him.


Then he proceeded into a gigantic rant about how volunteers only want to meet other travellers and drink & get high. Sounds like someone's been dissed...


"Then bring on older volunteers that aren't into the party scene."


Of course, he couldn't do that because he was so busy working with authority.


It didn't stop. Nothing he ever said added up to anything that could or would or should possibly make any sense, whatsoever. It was actually ludacris to try and even make sense of it because as soon as you grasped onto one thing, in a heartbeat, his entire narrative would change.   


For someone who fancied himself very important and busy, I hardly saw him do anything except write notes in his little book, play guitar, eat, drink coffee or work out.  Nothing else.


The girls that would always come say hi to me!
My "Hi' Gang

I highly suspect that one day, in the near future, Méllisa will have to take drastic measures to remove herself from him and his involvement in her organization. 


Anyway…

Back to the evening before the ceremony in Na Luang.


We had all gone out for something to eat and discuss the logistics of the following day. When we arrived back at the volunteer house, Tea made an off-the-cuff comment about how he didn't want Mélissa to walk back alone from the village the next day. It was a strange thing to say, because he hadn't said anything to her when she initially said it. I'd even offered to walk with her. 


We'd done it before.

We could do it again.

Right?


Well... not really, apparently.


Georgia asked why he didn't want her walking alone. What ensued started with something so trivial and ultimately escalated into an enormous blow out, due to a build up of so much toxicity. His reasoning must have changed a million times, as he justified why he'd have to change his plans (of camping at the village) and accompany Mélissa back to Nong Khiaw.


He was concerned about her.

She wasn’t allowed to walk alone. He had to protect her from everything.

One time, a volunteer had her bum touched and he wasn’t there to prevent it.

The police would come looking for him if they found out he’d let Mélissa walk alone.

The business was all in his name and it would be shut down if Mélissa walked alone.

He's responsible for all volunteers, and has to be with them wherever they go. He's in charge and Mélissa has to listen to him.


In the back of the truck, heading to Na Luang for the ceremony
On the way to Na Luang

The list went on and on... and every single thing he said had "I’m the hero" written all over it. Had he calmly and simply explained that he was concerned about her and he didn't think it was a good idea for her to be walking alone, everything would have been fine. Instead, he came off as a controlling fraud. The fact that he kept changing the reason, pissed everyone off.


I ended up leaving because I couldn’t handle the round-a-bout wrangling or the hollering anymore. His manner of speaking was arrogant and patronizing, and he wouldn’t stop for a mere second to realize the gravity of his discourse, nor would he listen to what anybody was saying.


He kept yelling “You do whatever you want and I’ll do whatever I want.”

Ok... weirdo.


As I mentioned, I left. It was freezing out, but anything was better than being in that house. I probably shouldn't have left Georgia alone, but escape seemed the advisable option at the time. I found a little bar and sat outside, sipping on Soju. It wasn't long before I was joined by Georgia... and then Mélissa. They talked it all out, but Georgia was visibly shaken from the encounter.


Two things were decided...


  1. We would continue to accompany them to the ceremony the following day.

  2. We would both be leaving. As soon as possible. Our experience here was officially over.


We probably should have opted out of the ceremony, and gone on our merry way... but we didn't. Opting out would have been the wise decision.


I had already decided I was leaving. Sunday was to be my leaving day. I had written Tea a very professional text, explaining that I just wasn't happy and I felt that my time here was being wasted. Three weeks of both being his in-class puppet and cutting up pieces of plastic. That's it. Besides the first few days of missions, that's all I did. I threw in a bit of a jab by saying that I figured there would be more teaching, but I guess January wasn't very organized.


He wrote back the usual jargon about how much he had to work with authority, which only made me give my phone the bird.


I remembered our first time visiting Na Luang. We were preparing to head out on a trek and I was positive that he didn’t think I was going to be able to make it. Every time I asked him how long of a walk it was going to be, he responded with something preposterous like, "I could run the whole way and back in 30 minutes."



Typical.

*insert eye roll...


Finally I just stopped asking, tired of his self validation. While we were getting ready to go, he came up to me and shouted, "Do you have a hat?"


It was more like an accusation of poor self care, rather than friendly concern. It was a particularly sunny day and I knew immediately that he was implying I should wear a hat. I chose to follow up on another route though, as to throw him off course.


"Yes. Do you need one? Would you like to borrow it?"


It was definitely not the response he was expecting. Thank you, Tea, but I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself. 



That morning, we all piled into the back of a tractor and hit the road. With grandma and the girl with the cast, we didn't have to make the trek on foot again.  Tea didn't speak to Georgia or I at all... and actually left the house early, without saying a word. The treacherous truck ride took approximately 40 minutes. Dealing with numerous bumps & bounces and dips & dives, whilst hanging on for dear life... in the back of an old truck... without proper seating... and bad knees...

Not good.


I regretted my decision to tag along immediately. I was doomed.


By the time we reached the village, the celebration preparation was in full swing. They had set up tarps as make-shift party tents and all the tables were set out, for everyone in the village to participate in the feast. One long row of tables was for the males, one long row of tables was for the females and one large, circular table in the middle was for the guests of honour, us.


The kids were obsessed with Laura, who had the broken foot. They gathered around her, poking and proding at her cast... following her around like she was a real, live transformer. They all even started imitating her, by limping around her for most of the day. It almost became a game, this imitation of awe and admiration.


Tea put on quite the show for Mélissa’s family and friends, running around, playing with the children, giving guidance, assisting wherever he could squeeze himself in.

The actual ceremony was fairly short, apart from this one man that spoke incessantly. As I don't speak Laos, I really have no idea what he was rambling on about... but when Tea got up to translate, all he basically did was speak about how much he had to help with the construction of the water tank and the pipes.


All about him.


Many of the villagers sat in a circle, on the ground, cutting up the buffalo meat, tenderizing it and dividing it into different bowls and piles. The dogs were chained up so that they wouldn't scavenge, but the flies were swarming, taking each and every opportunity to land and spread their disease.  Apparently part of the festivities had included us being a part of the buffalo killing ritual, but thankfully someone had talked them out of that. The mere spectacle of the preparation was enough to turn me back into a vegetarian.



The day was full of food... though not so much eating, from any of us. I felt slightly rude not over indulging in the culinary offerings, but... I just couldn't.


There was boiled bamboo, sticky rice, beans, mashed ferns, whole chickens, coconut covered banana, and even salad. The salad wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I heard the word salad. It was Larb, considered to be the national dish of Lao. Larb isn't really a traditional salad in western terminology, but more of a minced meat salad. I was looking it over... contemplating having a small sample... all the while, trying to decipher what exactly was in it. There were these long, iridescent wedges... with an almost pickle-looking appearance... in the dish. 


"Are those pickles?" I asked.


No.


It was BUFFALO SKIN.


So... ya... I didn't have any salad.


I had to draw a line...


The Dogs of Na Luang
The Dogs of Na Luang

There were so many hungry dogs in the village, I was tempted to put down an entire plate of buffalo skin salad to feed them. It was tough to watch them starving and treated so cruelly. A few of us snuck chicken and beans into our pockets and would drop the food to the dogs sparingly, careful that no one saw. There were eyes on us the entire time. It would have been horrendously disrespectful to have been caught feeding the dogs with the food that they had prepared especially for us.


There was one dog in the village that made my eyes flood with tears. It was such a tragedy to see him stumbling around, desperate to find even the tiniest morsel of food, without anyone giving the slightest bit of concern to his obvious health issues. I had to turn away to avoid looking at him. He was so bony and gaunt, and a devastating skin disease had almost engulfed his entire body. All that was left were bones, scabs and a few tuffs of hair. He was obviously suffering... and so hungry.


The dancing part was the best time for us to sneak snacks to the dogs, as everyone else was preoccupied with members of the community and girls in traditional costume, strolling slowly around a pole, flipping their hands upwards and downwards in no particular order. Many of us were encouraged to join in, which we did... reluctantly, but enthusiastically.


After we had finished eating and the beers were handed out, the elders in the village circled around our table and worked their way clockwise, tying small white threads around our wrists. This was the Baci ceremony and is an ethnic Lao ritual. The threads are meant to wish us good luck and they represent the ties of family and community. Apparently you are supposed to keep them on for a minimum of three days, but although I was desperate for a smidge of good luck, I had to remove them. I probably had on over fifty and my arms resembled more of a rug than anything else. 



The day finally came to an end and I am really happy that I participated... but I was thrilled to get back to the house. As Tea was camping there for the evening, Georgia and I had our own little celebration with the house to ourselves.


The following morning, I decided enough was enough and I booked a local hotel room.  I was desperate for a warm shower and a normal toilet... and some semblance of traveling normality. My personal hygiene had hit an all-time low. It's been awful and toxic and I'm so happy that we are away, despite my sadness at leaving the kids... and the dogs. It was our final day of teaching and Tea, fed up with the both of us, agreed to let us do whatever we wanted in the class. Finally! We both came up with fun vocabulary games that involved everyone's creativity and participation... encouraging the children with cookies and so much praise.


They responded tremendously. They LOVED the class. 

But... that was it.

At least we went out on a high note.


As much as I admire the work done by Mélissa, I now have to wash my hands of the entire organization. This man ruined it for myself... and for Georgia. I know that she will bounce back in time. As someone who traveled extensively in my youth, I encouraged her to get out there, make loads of friends, get into some fun trouble and make hilarious memories... so hopefully that is what she's heading towards...


We are finally FREE from the terrifying Tea.


How do I feel?


Well... I feel like I've reached the T-Junction and I'm lefty-loosey... and I'm WAY better than so-so...

So... So... So... much better than so-so.


Ok... rant over.


Thanks for listening.




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