Work Away: Everest English Centre
We found Everest through workaway, an amazing website that connects travelers seeking work with organisations around the world in need of volunteers. At Everest we are paid in accommodation and food to teach English in various suburban nurseries and schools. The classes we've had so far have varied from 30 cheeky 3 year olds experiencing their very first taste of language education, to just 2 lads in their 20s taking a final exam to complete their course. We are almost 2 weeks into our time here and are settling into our temporary home and job very well, so here are the 3 main components that have made up our experience of volunteering at Everest so far...
Having only worked with children a handful of times I was fairly nervous to begin teaching. I'm not the most confident speaker, and the thought of asserting authority over a large group panics me to death. But there's nothing quite like facing your fears to overcome them! After my first few classes the fear had evaporated and been replaced by new found appreciation for full-time teachers. Keeping a group of 20-30 children engaged for an entire lesson is much harder than I anticipated, let alone doing it for 6 hours a day 5 days a week. I'm getting quite good at the 'Simon says be quiet' thing now, which is bringing back vivid memories of my primary school experience! Back to Everest. We are given our timetable for the week on a Sunday, and so far we've had roughly 1 or 2 lessons a day. Our time table will tell us the class name and which number lesson they are on (the courses seem to be roughly 40-50 lessons long). Rough plans have been put together for most lessons but we are free to design our own around the content if desired. This is actually fairly tough to do as the resources are so limited and the classrooms are very basic. Most students seem to have a pen and pencil but nothing more. The lessons therefore rely heavily on flashcards, singing and games. For every class we are with a Vietnamese teaching assistant whose main role is to aid students with translation as and when needed. They are also there to keep them in check; Vietnamese children are not afraid to mess around during lesson time! As much as there are similarities to schooling environments back home, there are obvious differences too. The strangest thing that's happened so far is a 3 year old girl walking across the classroom mid lesson to hand me a clove of garlic. My TA explained that parents give their children garlic to keep in their pockets during school-time because it is believed to keep the spirits away, and this girl apparently felt I was vulnerable and more in need of a spirit shield than her! It was my very first lesson, so perhaps she could sense my nerves.
Back at the ranch
The Everest hub is based in Mê Linh, a suburban town on the outskirts of Hanoi. All current volunteers live together in shared rooms on the top floor of the three story centre, the middle floor has a kitchen and basic work space, and the ground floor is set up as half admin office half social area. One of the best parts of volunteering here is that we all sit and eat lunch and dinner together. At 12pm and 7pm a family member of one of the TAs rocks up on his motorbike and drops off a sack full of home cooked traditional Vietnamese food. There's always rice and a selection of meat, tofu and vegetable dishes. We sit and feast together, talking and learning about each other and our varying cultures. It's always a lovely atmosphere and a such a treat to converse with like-minded and interesting people from all around the world every day. Currently we are English, American, German, French, Tunisian and of course Vietnamese!
My favourite part of working for Everest so far has been the experience of living in a suburban area of Vietnam. I have to admit when we first arrived we were slightly worried about the location of the centre. It's about a 45 minute bus ride from Hanoi town centre, and at a glance there are minimal ways to keep yourself entertained within walking / cycling distance. However, as time has gone on we have come to realise that here we are very much immersed in raw suburban Vietnamese culture. Nothing about Mê Linh is designed to accommodate tourists which means we are able to learn how the Vietnamese truly live day to day. We were lucky enough to experience a local community festival last week, which had a likeness to Mangotsfield Festival but without health and safety. We played 'smash the light bulb', 'catch the live fish' and 'pop the balloon with a dart', all of which had a teddy as their top prize; fair games with a violent twist! When we stopped and sat down to sample some of the food we were bombarded by a group of very excited locals. None of them could speak any English and of course our Vietnamese screeches to a halt after hello, but somehow we managed to sit and communicate for a good half an hour. We had been warned by the other volunteers that the locals like to neck their drinks, what's more they like you to do the same. They would fill up Dod's cup, all take it in turns to cheers him and then insist that he downed it in one in very time. Then came the shots of rice wine, which is absolutely the worst tasting beverage we have ever sampled. Much to the groups disappointment we managed to escape the downing sesh after half an hour or so. If I had been able to drink the beer we would have loved to stay longer, however it gets a little awkward after turning down the 3rd cup. On our cycle home from the festival we stopped to look in a leather shop, as we were leaving the woman ran after us holding out her phone for Dod to take a call. Confused, he answered the phone to someone telling us to wait for them. After a few minutes a young boy came racing down the road on a bike, when he arrived outside the shop he panted excitedly "Hello, please you can come inside for tea". The two women ushered us and the boy inside, sat us down and poured us a cup of the local green tea. The boy who was 13 explained that he had learned English when he was at primary school with Everest's help, but rarely got the chance to practice it. So when his mum and Grandma (the two ladies running the shop) had heard us speaking English they had called him back from playing out with his friends so he could speak with us. They were so excited to watch him put his skills into practice, they would squeal every time he spoke! The gang at Everest were expecting us back for dinner so we thanked him and his family for the hospitality, and just before we said our goodbyes his mother invited us for dinner the following week. Of course we accepted the invitation, and are looking forward to meeting the family again in a few days time! These amazing and memorable encounters would have never happened had we been staying somewhere more central. Aside from walking around and meeting the lovely locals we have visited the local amenities which include a gym, a pool bar and karaoke rooms and the big C - a ginormous supermarket that is strangely interesting to walk around. Paying a visit to any of these places invites a hundred double-takes and "hellooooo"'s which make you feel like a local celebrity!
All in all we are absolutely loving it here at Everest, and already looking at doing more voluntary work through workaway later on in our trip. It seems to be the best way to meet like-minded people, experience raw local culture and gain wonderful new skills.
Cảm ơn people of Everest and Mê Linh!