We spent the last two weeks volunteering at the Baiyue Tea House in Ha Giang Province. It’s been our most authentic experience so far, but also the most challenging as I had a seizure half way through our time there.
We had a unique opportunity to immerse ourselves in the local culture well off the tourist trail (the food, the corn wine, the tea, the pushy mothers!).
The tea house is a social enterprise run by Shan, who belongs to the Tay tribe. His ambition is to create a successful tea business which pays local tribes-people a fair price for the tea they pick from the wild tea trees that have grown in the mountains of this region for centuries. The profits from selling on the processed tea are re-invested into the community, improving their prospects and enabling them to keep their tribal traditions alive, rather than having to move to the city for work.
We stayed in a slightly eerie and grotty but comfortable-enough hotel a-joining the tea house itself. A group of students in their 20s who also stay there cooked communal meals for us all, mainly consisting of rice in various forms with meat and/or vegetables (and that includes breakfast). The student we got to know the best was Chau, a really ambitious 22 year-old with excellent english who acted as tour guide and friend. Occasionally Shan would produce ‘special vegetables from the mountain’ which included ferns fried up with garlic, and a ‘bitter egg’ which is said to have medicinal properties but I can’t see how fermented rancid grey egg can be good for anyone.
Although our hotel was on a main road in a fairly built-up village, a short walk or drive down a side track and you would find yourself in the most beautiful tribal village of the Red Tsao tribe. We had some time to explore this more traditional way of life on a few occasions when we were welcomed into people’s houses to drink tea, cooked lunch, and then went out to pick tea from wild trees or swim in a waterfall. The village houses are very basic – a simple wooden structure on stilts with one large room for living and sleeping and another smaller one off the side with an open fire to cook on. There was very little in the way of furniture and bags of rice stored to last the year. Animals are kept under the house which will also provide food when their time comes. The landscape is absolutely gorgeous – lush green hills covered in rice terraces.
There are plenty more photos where these came from, but here is a taster…
We weren’t totally clear on how we could be useful on weekdays but we really earned our keep at the weekends when around 15 local children arrived for a packed schedule of english lessons. We knew the arrangement might involve some teaching but weren’t quite prepared to be planning and leading formal classes with very little in the way of resources. Rich jumped in at the deep end with the teenagers and seemed to discover a hidden talent, while I had the arguably easier task of teaching basic vocabulary to the little ones, Vi and Iyen. Thankfully I had a highly skilled assistant in Rhian (a fellow volunteer, aged 12) who knew which games the kids understood. We discovered with time that the children’s parents are so keen for them to learn English that they would go out their way to arrange for them to spend time with us. We were very kindly invited for dinner with the family where we sang karaoke (a Vietnamese obsession) and were force-fed spring rolls, noodles and tofu until we exploded. As we headed back to the hotel after the party, the kids were send in the taxi with us to spend the night, whether or not we agreed to it! Jewish mothers have nothing on Vietnamese mothers!
Our fellow volunteers were also absolutely lovely and it felt like we’d become a little family by the end of our time there. Coincidentally, the first people we got to know where the Brown family who have just moved from Ludlow, in Shropshire, to Ireland and are taking a year out to see the world. Catherine and Roger are so kind and helpful and their kids, Owen (10) and Rhian (12) were a breath of fresh air. Lisa, and architect from France was lovely and there were several other volunteers who came and went during our time there, including Bjorn from Germany who decided seeing a girl back in Hanoi was a better option than volunteering after only 2 nights with us.
A couple of days into our time at the tea house, Rich and the majority of the volunteers were struck down by some form of stomach bug or food poisoning. However, not wanting to be beaten, I one-upped him the following week.
On Sunday, in the middle of a game of ‘Simon Says’, something didn’t feel right in my left leg – my worst fears for this trip had become a reality… I was having a seizure. I asked Rhian to take the kids to another room and called for Catherine and Rich. The came running and sat with me on the cold hard floor for 3 hours while my left side convulsed. This was the longest seizure I have had to-date. I did my best to stay calm, but got so tired as time went on. Eventually they sat me up on a chair and carried me through to the bedroom where I stayed for the next 3 days. I continued to have smaller seizures every hour or so for the next 30 hours, and then lay in bed for further days as the paralysis from my left side slowly edged away. I’ll spare you some of the gory details, but trust me, it was thoroughly miserable. Eventually I was able to sit outside in the hotel complex, to join the others for dinner, and thankfully, was well enough on our penultimate day to go for dinner with the local families, but an entire week of activity was written-off. It is now 8 days later and I am out and about back in Hanoi, but my left leg still feels a little weak and I have had a really disorienting dizziness which I hope will be sorted by some medication we got from a doctor this morning. Rich and the other volunteers, particularly Catherine, were absolutely wonderful the whole time. The kept me calm, made me smile, helped me out and brought me food.
I knew there was a significant risk of having a seizure while I was away, but I have been doing everything I can to reduce the risk – getting enough sleep, avoiding alcohol (mostly), staying out the sun. What no one told me however is that asian food, and Vietnamese in particular, is packed full of MSG and MSG is linked to all kinds conditions including seizures in people with epilepsy or brain injury. Although I can’t be sure, I’m almost certain the added MSG in my diet recently contributed to such a prolonged seizure. For now I eating only in placed which are advertised as no-MSG and praying that its not so prevalent in our next stop, The Philippines.
I’d like to reflect a little on how having a benign brain tumour makes me feel emotionally, but bear with me as it’s hard to recognise my own emotions about it, let along put them into words which make sense to other people. It’s a strange condition as it doesn’t fit neatly in a box – often I have no symptoms at all and function completely normally, but when I have a seizure the symptoms are incredibly physical, although caused by a problem in my brain, not my leg. When I do feel a twinge or numbness it may not be noticeable from the outside, but it sends me off into my anxious mind, reminding me of the inevitable difficulties which lie ahead as I face further seizures and probable invasive treatment. The challenge is to control both my physical condition with medication and healthy living, but also to stay positive mentally, enjoying the moment and not limiting myself unnecessarily. It can be exhausting.
I am grateful that I have such a supportive parter as Rich. He sees it as ‘our problem’ not ‘my problem’ and has been by my side every step of the way. When I felt like throwing in the towel and coming home he talked sense into me and now we can both see the light at the end of the tunnel, things feel much more positive.
At one point last week when there was no end in sight we were thinking through who we could call for advice. It was 5am at home and the only person we could think of that would be around was BrainsTrust. Rich called their hotline and were reassured by Helen on the end of the phone who explained that what I was experiencing was not unusual, and that there are drugs available to put an end to seizures which go on too long – something we were not aware of. I have been in touch with BrainsTrust previously at home when I was feeling low and intended to so some sort of trek to raise money for them during this trip. Unfortunately due to my health it doesn’t look like that will happen, but I would still like to do what I can to raise money for them. Please do donate what you can to help give back to those who have helped me. As far as brain tumours go, mine is one of the better ones, but there are so many people out there with similar and even more difficult struggles going on.