The Giving Trip

Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy is the latest outfitter to specialize in "voluntourism," that sometimes contrived marriage of far-flung travel and community service. MIKE KESSLER checked out one of their new cycling trips in Vietnam. Initially, he was skeptical. Now? He works for the company.

    Photo: Photo by Michael Freeman

The thought echoes in my head like a command from a bureaucrat's megaphone: It is the duty of the honorable bicyclist to maintain a safe speed and proper distance from comrades while riding in group formation. There are 11 of us, descending an unnamed pass in the northwestern corner of Vietnam at 20 miles per hour. The diesel-dank city of Lai Chau is a few miles back; the valley village of Pa Tan is about 30 miles ahead. It's day four of our trip, and by now, after several days of dodging tiny minivans and flatulent motorbikes and Chinese dump trucks, we've learned that bikes are at the bottom of the vehicular food chain.

So why haven't we heeded our guide's warning and slowed down? Before I can convey this thought to the group, Kim, a 39-year-old Bay Area software marketer riding just ahead of me, realizes she's going too fast, jams on her front brake in a state of pre-hairpin panic, crosses up her mountain bike's front wheel, launches over the handlebars, and face-plants. Hard.

I dismount, yell "Rider down!" and rush over to help. Kim's fair complexion has turned green. Her eyes are closed, lids fluttering, and she's moaning like Beavis coming down from a sugar high. Luckily, she manages to walk away with only a few cuts and bruises. The next day, she'll feel good enough to ride.

We're in Vietnam with Roadmonkey Adventure Philanthropy, a startup travel outfitter owned and operated by Paul von Zielbauer, who lives in Brooklyn and, until recently, was a full-time reporter for The New York Times. Roadmonkey's mission can be summed up like so: Lead a group of paying clients on a killer outdoor trip that also involves several days of Peace Corps–style do-gooderism. This is Roadmonkey's inaugural outing, a nine-day, van-supported 300-mile bicycle tour, followed by four days building a playground at an orphanage where the majority of the children have HIV.

I'll come right out and say it: I had misgivings about this trip. I'd looked into pay-to-volunteer vacations in the past, not just as a client but for a possible career move. "Voluntourism," as it's often called, sounded like a meaningful way to travel and, perhaps, a half-decent way to make a living, at least compared with the one I've eked out as a freelance writer. But I wasn't quite convinced. Volunteer vacations seemed like an excuse for Westerners to catch an adrenaline rush, safely slum it in some beautiful but poverty-stricken corner of the world, and then preen with false humility over syrah and tapenade back home. What could I accomplish that a low-wage Vietnamese laborer couldn't, besides letting others know that I'm an up-with-people kind of guy?

For starters, I could raise money through my own social networks, as each of my fellow tripmates was expected to do. That money would go to one of the Vietnamese orphanage's primary backers, the New Jersey–based nonprofit Worldwide Orphans Foundation (WWO). One e-mail blast, one Facebook posting, and four days later, I'd raised about $800, much of it from people I hadn't spoken to in a decade. Then I caught a flight to Hanoi to see for myself if Roadmonkey's brand of voluntourism was a noble niche within the travel business or a form of philanthro-washing that would leave me feeling unfulfilled.

MAN, THESE KIDS are cute—especially this one little dude, Lanh. (Because Lanh is a minor under government care, I've changed his name.) I first meet him in the kids' sleeping quarters at the orphanage, near the city of Ba Vi, about an hour west of Hanoi. The orphanage, essentially a courtyard with several rooms on its perimeter, was once the health center of the adjacent Ba Vi prison, a low-security facility for drug offenders and prostitutes about 100 yards away. Lanh has been at Ba Vi for about two years. Like all but a few of the 60 HIV-positive kids here, he appears surprisingly healthy. Because he is.

"With the right treatment, there's no reason children born with HIV can't live a full life," says Linh Do, the 34-year-old Vietnamese American who runs WWO's operations in the country. As she explains, institutions like the orphanage are essential to providing rural health care in Vietnam. Of the country's 63 provinces, only a handful are fully equipped to handle pediatric HIV, and the few communities that can aren't always tolerant of the disease. In some cases, she says, "we get kids who come from good, loving families in villages that are too far from good treatment. Ba Vi is their only choice."

Within moments of being introduced, 13-year-old Lanh is teaching me elementary Vietnamese and practicing the old my-name-your-name fist bump. I bump from the top and say his name: "Lanh." He does the same: "Mike." When we bump knuckles, all he can do is shout with glee: "Yaaah!"

Our time here will go like this: Today, we get acquainted. Tomorrow and the next day, we'll pour cement for a walkway and a support platform for a massive, 20-by-20-foot steel-and-fiberglass jungle gym. Finally, we'll spend a day playing with the little grommets on their enormous new toy.

Besides von Zielbauer and Do, our group consists of six clients between the ages of 31 and 46. In addition to Kim and me, there's Vanessa (bankruptcy lawyer), Lauri (HR specialist), Conrad (photographer/flight attendant), and David (tax attorney). There's also a small crew of drivers, a translator, a photographer, and two of von Zielbauer's friends, who are here to provide tactical and moral support.

To my relief, no one is self-righteous or preachy about their motives. No one had the car accident or the ayahuasca journey and decided that this trip would be the first day of the rest of his or her life. We're here to help and to come away with a sense of personal enrichment, yes. But make no mistake: We're also here to ride. And by now we've logged plenty of hours in the saddle.

We've already spent more than a week together. We've ridden 30 to 40 miles per day, up and down steep passes featuring 1,200-foot elevation gains and through undulating and jungle-dense valley bottoms. We've shared prodigious amounts of Tiger beer. We've engaged in the kind of semiconfessional one-on-ones that never fail to occur during lengthy outdoor pursuits.

The only real hiccup, in fact, has been Kim's crash. Otherwise, the past week has been a verdant and vine-tangled blur of intricately terraced hillsides; trouserless babies in shabby but colorful wool sweaters, waving as we pass; billboards sprinkled with communist agitprop; and curbside vendors selling everything from pig snout to dog tail.

We're getting to see the real Vietnam. While a commercial hotbed like Hanoi, where we met up, is bustling with commerce, rural villages seem to have changed little since the days when the Communist Party instilled fear—and loyalty—in its citizens. Shouted through car-mounted megaphones, the morning call to work in northern Vietnam is as ubiquitous as the Muslim call to prayer in Jeddah. "Time to wake up and go to work and make your country great," goes the 5 A.M. loudspeaker announcement. And the people, without fail, do rise—to grow rice, raise livestock, and haul goods on their smoke-belching little motorbikes.

Although there are certainly many bright spots in the Vietnamese economy—it now receives millions of Western tourists each year and, for better or worse, you can buy Gucci handbags in Hanoi—many rural areas are still mired in poverty, and the government is a long way from giving its needy the attention they deserve. For my part, I'm pleased to know that, 72 hours from now, many of these little scamps will see a playground for the first time in their lives. And I'll get to watch them ransack the jungle gym—more than enough payment for two days of work, even if they go to bed that night forgetting we were ever there.

VON ZIELBAUER, 43, HAS TRAVELED a long road to get where he is. Until last September, he was still working full-time as a New York City–based staff reporter for the Times. Six-three and unmistakably Teutonic, the Aurora, Illinois, native has visited more than 40 countries on five continents as a journalist and civilian. He speaks Spanish, German, and Vietnamese. Having seen how much of the world lives, he decided to start Roadmonkey and run a few trips each year in his spare time. When he wasn't filing stories about the U.S. military's justice system or corruption in New York City, he was scouting a route in Vietnam, building a rapport with WWO, creating a Web site, and hosting a few parties in New York and D.C. to find clients.

"I'm looking for people who are physically resilient and intellectually curious," he says. "The kind of people who want to contribute to the places they visit by working with their own hands, in a sustainable way."

While von Zielbauer has his own spin on what adventure philanthropy entails, he's not alone in feeling the urge: He's part of a larger push to donate human energy and resources for the benefit of others. Numbers are hard to come by, but if you believe the latest poll by Travelocity.com, the percentage of people planning to volunteer during vacations in 2007 nearly doubled from 2006, growing from 6 to 11 percent. Companies like outfitter Gap Adventures and volunteer-abroad specialists like I-to-I have seen participation in their philanthropic trips double almost every year since 2005.

Adventure-travel companies aren't the only ones doing their part. Despite the recession, Americans still donate plenty of time and money to others. Cross-Cultural Solutions, a company that specializes in short-term volunteer-abroad programs, started out in 1995 with a single participant; it now places more than 4,000 people a year in 12 countries. Individuals and institutions made $326.1 billion in charitable donations and pledges in 2007, according to the Giving USA Foundation. The 2009 edition of Foundation Giving Trends is equally telling; according to its figures, there was a rise in support for eight major subject areas in 2007. Funding for the environment and animals rose the fastest, up 28.5 percent. International giving also increased. In 2008, nonprofits reported their revenue at just under $2 trillion, an all-time high.

That's the macro view. Zoom in on adventure travel and you'll see that virtually every upscale outfitter now offers some sort of volunteer option or give-back program. Von Zielbauer is aware of the competition yet appears unconcerned about his little outfit's survival. This past June, he led his second trip, a Kilimanjaro climb followed by a clean-water project at a school in Dar es Salaam, and as this issue hits newsstands he'll be finishing up another Vietnam trip. Plus he's making smart alliances. Next year, industry heavyweight Mountain Travel Sobek, in an effort to attract a younger demo­graphic, will start marketing Roadmonkey trips as an alternative to some of its more familiar expeditions.

"Those companies do commendable work," von Zielbauer says of the bigger operations, "but they do group travel." Roadmonkey's goal, he explains, "is to do group travel for people who don't like to travel in groups." That means he doesn't hold hands the way an up-ticket outfit might. He doesn't run around with itineraries and a clipboard—although he does rock an awesome (and massive) fanny pack.

His trip-leading philosophy could best be summed up as "skeleton planning." Each day, we had the option of extending or shortening our ride. We could eat as a group, or not. One night, at the home of a friend of our translator's, we wound up having a traditional Vietnamese feast with a dozen strangers, one of whom (we called him "Murderball") nearly puked on Conrad, and another of whom ("the Captain") developed a considerable man-crush on von Zielbauer. Meanwhile, the days were flexible enough that we could take roadside breaks to ham it up with village kids or converse with locals.

The origins of von Zielbauer's style are evident in the company name. In the late eighties, he and a friend were on a middle-of-the-night train trip in Germany when they started talking about "this archetypal guy we'd seen in all the big European stations—usually a white guy with dreadlocks and a leather jacket, often with a guitar and a small knife on his belt. We were like 'Those guys are serious roadmonkeys.'"

The term stuck. Years later, while on his solo cycling tour of Vietnam, von Zielbauer, on a whim, had a small simian etched into his forearm, with the Vietnamese words CON KHI CHEN DUONG ("road monkey") spelled out beneath it.

IT'S OUR SECOND DAY at the Ba Vi orphanage, 95 degrees and cloudless. Von Zielbauer and I have been chosen to dig a walkway and lay down a brick-lined cement path that will lead to the playground. A few hundred yards away, on a new concrete slab, the rest of the crew is hard at work. David and Vanessa are wiggling a fiberglass slide into place. Lauri and Conrad are installing handrails. Kim, Linh Do, and von Zielbauer's two helper-friends, Brent and Philip, are tightening bolts while rapping to a Public Enemy song blaring through a tiny iPhone speaker.

To help ensure that we get the project done on time, the orphanage has enlisted the help of the prisoners. I've made friends with an inmate, Chinh (not his real name), who's inquiring about my life back in L.A. As Chinh and I tap bricks into place with rubber mallets, Do comes over to translate. Turns out we were both born in 1971, so we share the Chinese zodiac sign of the pig.

"What does it mean to be a pig?" I ask.

"You are lazy and filthy," he says. A few prisoners chuckle.

"Seriously."

"You have many issues," he tells me. "Many, many issues." More chuckles.

Moments later, while digging the next portion of the walkway, I elicit more mirth when I hit a buried rock and snap my pickax handle in half. Whoever hasn't laughed at my expense will do so momentarily, when Chinh informs me that the conical rice-farmer hat on my head is typically worn by women.

Later in the day, and for all of the next, I join the Roadmonkey crew on jungle-gym duty. Using half a dozen wrenches, we hand-tighten hundreds of bolts. Once it's ready to move to its final resting spot on the slab, we gather the prisoners to lend some muscle to the effort. With our 100 or so hands positioned just so, von Zielbauer counts to three in Vietnamese. "Mot, hai, ba, lift!"

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony the following day, the kids are twitchy with anticipation. My little buddy Lanh keeps looking at me from his seat in the middle of a long row of children. He's mouthing my name, doing the fist bump. Somewhere far off, we hear artillery fire from an army base. Columns of farm smoke reach toward a sky washed white by the burning sun. When the children are given the green light to storm the playground, the place erupts into a cloud of chaos and high-pitched elation.

BACK HOME IN L.A., my memories of the kids at Ba Vi are quickly diluted by the intricacies of my personal and professional life. I write a batch of feature stories that are challenging and fun but not exactly lucrative. Now and again, out of financial necessity, I accept assignments that are sorely lacking in substance. I write about six-pack abs. I review a watch that costs $13,000, about 13 times the median family income in Vietnam. I try to reverse the flow of a relationship that's hopelessly circling the drain. But nothing works out. I'm not exactly having a midlife crisis, but a feeling of impending change is rumbling in my gut.

In the meantime, I post my Vietnam photos on Facebook and Snapfish and find myself jabbering on—about the cycling, the orphans, the playground, everything—to anyone who will listen. The feedback is overwhelmingly positive. People aren't annoyed by my enthusiasm; they want to know more.

As I sit down to write an early version of this article, I contemplate the importance of von Zielbauer's work. To my surprise, my inner cynic refuses to reveal itself. Von Zielbauer and the rest of us weren't saving the world, I tell myself, but we did something that was altogether decent. And that's when it hits me: I should work for Roadmonkey.

Von Zielbauer is amenable to the idea. "I like how you travel," he tells me over the phone. "I like how you got along with the group and the locals and the kids. I like how you handled things when Kim went over the handlebars." I know Roadmonkey isn't operating in the black yet, but von Zielbauer tells me that the business is growing. He's going to need help, on upcoming trips and at home.

"Once I'm finished with this assignment and there's no conflict of interest," I say, "I'll be ready to talk about a plan."

But I can't wait. I decide to move forward with Roadmonkey, conflict of interest be damned. Von Zielbauer and I strike a casual agreement for a trial run. He'll pay my expenses, and, between writing assignments, I'll introduce him to my outdoor-industry contacts and also help him plan and then co-lead the next Vietnam biking trip.

A few weeks after talking to von Zielbauer, I find myself at the annual outdoor-gear expo in Salt Lake City, handing out Roadmonkey business cards with my name on them, wrangling sponsors, spreading the word. An acquaintance at GoLite tells me they'll donate several packs. Then, over lunch, I get a commitment from bicycle manufacturer Kona to donate 16 bikes to the school involved with the next Vietnam trip. These are small accomplishments, to be sure, but that doesn't stop me from feeling like I've contributed more to the world than a wristwatch review.

After my lunch with the Kona rep, I hurry to a meeting with the PR director of an energy-food company. She's an old friend, and she's surprised to see me in the context of sales guy rather than journalist. I tell her about my Vietnam trip, my career diversification, some ideas I have about potential partnerships. When I finish, she looks at me like a Jewish grandmother who's just watched her grandchild graduate from med school.

"I'm so happy to see that you're getting involved with something so meaningful," she says, somewhat incredulously. "And all this time people told me you were a cynic."

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