Elizabeth Tan and Fei Xiang Woon share their penchant for kindness, adventure and the Himalayas with Doyenne.sg.
If their 20 year old self could see them now, Sight to Sky’s co-founders Elizabeth Tan and Fei Xiang Woon would be extremely proud.
“My 20 year old self?” Liz repeats after me. “Wow, that’s pretty cool. I’ve always wanted to make an impact and I’ve done it!” she blurts. “It was hard to find a cause when I was younger,” continues Liz wistfully. “This just happened, and it’s great to be part of a team that makes things happen,” Liz admits with a grateful smile.
Fei echoes her comrade’s sentiments. “My 20 year old self would never expect this,” she begins with slight disbelief. “Back then, I was working and studying part-time,” recalls Fei. “I’ve always wanted to help, so it’s great this happened,” she says plainly.
Now in their thirties, both ladies are familiar with charity work. An entrepreneur and marketing executive respectively, Liz and Fei have combined a strong passion for trekking the Himalayas with an earnest desire to give back to rural communities.
Founded in 2015, Sight to Sky has resolved eye issues like cataracts and UV-related vision problems for hundreds of villagers across Ladakh. Together with a third co-founder, Edwin Lee from Hong Kong, the trio sets aside at least 20 days each year, all for a worthy cause. Volunteering their own efforts, they are committed to bringing mobile eye clinics into Ladakh, the mountainous region inhabited by indigenous people of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent. Most recently in 2017, a long-term educational programme was established. With SGD 25,000, a solar school was built for primary school students to attend during the long winter months.
Based out of pragmatic Singapore, it is hard to imagine that Liz and Fei have acquired a penchant for kindness, adventure and the Himalayas. On the day of our interview, we meet for an early weekday dinner at Mrs Pho, a cosy joint where Vietnamese food is more than just Pho. Walking through the restaurant doors, Liz and Fei are dressed to take work by storm. A loose shirt dress and a well-fitted office ensemble are a far cry from hardy outerwear, fleece jackets and all-weather cargo pants.
Yet, the vivacious duo have no qualms about slogging to make dreams come true at Sight to Sky. “We always set aside time for this,” chimes Liz and Fei in unison. Helping ourselves to the cutlery, we assembled chopsticks, metal spoons and melamine plates. It is evident that Liz and Fei share an effortless chemistry. “No matter how difficult our daily lives become, we still manage to build Sight to Sky,” says Fei.
Soon after easing into our interview, the starters arrive. Crisp mini pancakes and fresh spring rolls whet the appetite. As we tuck into humble and comforting Vietnamese fare, Sight to Sky’s travelogue begins.
Doyenne.sg: Tell us more about the solar school.
Liz: The solar school is warm enough for the long winter months. To overcome architectural challenges, it is built in a rural, sustainable way. No cement is used at all. Traditionally, houses are built from mud and bricks. That’s really important because using concrete in the Himalayas is not good for the local environment.
Fei: We took the risk, put our money first and built it. As school usually shuts down during cold, sub-zero winter temperatures, this solar project keeps students going. We are a private school for 30 students to gain education free of charge. Three teachers are hired to conduct lessons.
D: How do students live on a daily basis?
L: As Ladakh is surrounded by the Himalayas, some valleys are still cut off from the cities, so most locals are self-sufficient.
F: Depending on where you go, there are nomads who live in tents. In other regions, locals stay in mud houses, which are built using materials like grass. Because of the high altitude, water sources come from rivers and glaciers that melt, which are highly susceptible to global warming. Everytime we visit, we see snow caps retreating. As glacier caps retreat, there are less water sources. If we compare photos taken five years ago and now, there are stark differences. It is very obvious.
“Leh is going to be the next Kathmandu, but the locals are mindful of the country’s development.”
D: How do people make a living?
F: They live mainly on subsistence farming, like growing barley, which is used to make flour, bread, beer and drinks. As you get closer to the city Leh, the people from Ladakh are more urbanised. They rely on tourism for a living.
L: Leh is going to be the next Kathmandu, but the locals are mindful of the country’s development. They try not to become another Nepal. Instead, Ladakh looks towards Bhutan for reference. It is still a relatively new, emerging travel destination.
D: What challenges do you face in Ladakh?
L: We’ve been fortunate to have good partners along the way. On the ground, we employ a local team who speaks good English. Many Ladakhis in their twenties return home after university, but can’t find a good job. We try to build an ecosystem that employs them over time. To be sustainable and sensitive towards their culture, we train them to really bring out Ladakh’s unique points, instead of solely adapting Western models.
D: How do these rural communities react to foreign ways of working?
F: They are usually excited. Thanks to the support from our ground team, Sight to Sky is greeted with warm hospitality. The village chiefs are welcoming. They bring out their teas, cookies. Things which are the best in their household. They are also very curious about foreigners, always asking where we come from.
L: Nevertheless, it takes time to change their mindset towards healthcare. At the mobile eye clinics, they are not just here to get free sunglasses, eye drops and check-ups. They have to sit through lectures and learn about healthcare practices. This presents a meaningful cultural exchange for volunteers. When the whole family comes down to the mobile clinic, there are lots of interaction. With no distractions from the internet, TV and electricity, this becomes one of the best ways to know a local community.
“To leave a positive impact, we actually conduct trainings and lectures that help people understand how fragile this region is, ecologically and culturally.”
D: In three words, describe mindful travel.
L: Community. We tend to travel with the mindset that this is not a short-term endeavour. To leave a positive impact, we actually conduct trainings and lectures that help people understand how fragile this region is, ecologically and culturally.
Because this is a remote part of the world that is still quite inaccessible and relatively unknown, we want to learn Ladakh’s way of living, notions of happiness and connection with the place. These are more sustainable than simply viewing beneficiaries as people who need our help to alleviate poverty.
F:Responsible. Mindful travel is about being responsible to our environment, the people around us, and their culture. Mindful travel is also sustainable. One thing that’s really important is projects that sustain for a long period of time, that helps the local community. We should be on a lookout for something that has legs to carry on.
“Sight to Sky has gone beyond a passion project. We choose to make this a commitment.”
D: What do you need most from volunteers?
F: We need people who can raise funds. We also look for medical and non-medical volunteers for Sight to Sky’s annual mobile clinic missions. If they can give us 15 days of their time, we promise an experience you’ve never had before. Sight to Sky has gone beyond a passion project. We choose to make this a commitment. Travelling with like-minded people, this will be a rewarding, truly satisfying trip.
L: Our next expedition happens from 3 to 15 September. Ladakh is like our second home now! There are not many NGOs specialised in mobile eye clinics, are willing to reach such remote areas, and have the logistics to travel this far across Ladakh. With a formula that works for these communities, Sight to Sky is in a sweet spot.
Volunteers can expect beautiful trekking conditions, and be well taken care of by creative ground staff who make pancakes for breakfast, bake a chocolate cake without an oven, even serve soup out of a pumpkin bowl. They will help us see up to 500 patients a day, provide good quality healthcare through mobile clinics, and experience a purpose-driven travel itinerary. Come join us!