Foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong

How a Hong Kong domestic helper is training to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for charity

Intrepid hiker Liza Avelino, 46, will scale the Tanzanian mountain in a latest test of her fitness and spirit

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 July, 2017, 4:07pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 August, 2017, 11:06am

A Filipino domestic helper in Hong Kong is hoping to scale the dizzying heights of Mount Kilimanjaro to raise HK$150,000 for a local charity.

Fitness fanatic Liza Avelino, 46, who has worked in the city for more than 20 years, will leave Hong Kong on August 1, before embarking on her expedition 5,895 metres up the mountain from August 4 to 12.

Speaking to the Post ahead of her departure, Avelino said she will raise funds for non-profit group HELP for Domestic Workers (Help, Empowerment and Legal Protection) and also motivate other domestic helpers to achieve their life goals.

“It is not easy; it is not an ordinary dream,” she said. “I am confident that I can do it. I think the height is okay, but I will just try to do it slowly. I am excited because I have never been to Africa.”

Avelino, originally from Davao City in southern Philippines, is an avid hiker who has climbed more than 10 major mountains across Asia – in the Philippines, Japan and South Korea.

She has also taken part in the 100km Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker in 2010 and 2011, finishing in under 35 hours each time.

In April 2015, she fell 600 metres short of a target to scale the 6,198-metre Island Peak in Nepal, a Himalayan mountain neighbouring Everest, after suffering from the extremely cold temperatures. Then on April 25, as Avelino and her team were due to leave Nepal, the country was hit by a huge earthquake which killed more than 9,000 people and injured about 22,000 others.

Despite the harrowing experience, which Avelino said, taught her to “appreciate life”, her hike still successfully raised more than HK$15,000 for Hong Kong non-governmental organisation Enrich.

But after a second trip to the Everest base camp in 2016, she said she felt inspired to attempt a different mountain this year, and was recommended to try Kilimanjaro by one of her guides from Nepal.

She said most people she met in Hong Kong and abroad continue to be surprised by her incredible fitness and adventurous spirit, particularly given the demanding nature of her job.

“There are a lot of people who are quite surprised by what I do,” she said. “They say: ‘Are you really a domestic worker?’ They are surprised I can afford to travel to do these trips.”

But as well as dedicating hours every week to training, Avelino said she has to save about half of her salary each month in order to pay for sports gear and her annual hiking adventures.

“I will do overtime if necessary,” she said. “You have to make hiking a priority and say no to other things. But I tell myself that this is my time to do something for myself.”

Avelino became estranged from the father of her children shortly after leaving the Philippines in 1996, when her children were aged four. She has not returned to her home town since but has sent money regularly to her family.

She first took up hiking in 2004 after reading Patricia Lim’s Discovering Hong Kong’s Cultural Heritage at Central Library and was inspired to explore the city’s guided walks. She subsequently joined hiking group Hong Kong Trampers in 2006 and became a hike leader.

Domestic helpers clean up Hong Kong’s countryside on their days off, one trail at a time

When she is not working for her employers, British psychologists Phil Smith and Julia Aufenast in Discovery Bay, Lantau, she trains hard by carrying a 15kg backpack on five-hour hikes on some of Hong Kong’s trails.

She also walks up and down the steps in her 21-storey residential building every other day, and does 45 minutes of bodyweight workouts three times a week.

She said her employers were very understanding towards her training schedule, and have even allowed her to carry their children on hikes as part of her strength training.

“My boss said that I might as well do this trip now, while I can,” she said. “I am lucky that Hong Kong has lots of trails with loads of stairs. I really enjoy hiking on Lantau, or over The Twins from Central to Stanley, even though it is tough on your legs.”

Avelino was recently featured in local film The Helper Documentary by British director Joanna Bowers, which chronicled diverse stories from Hong Kong’s domestic helper community.

Despite her success and degree of fame within the local community, she remains humble about her achievements and her power to inspire other domestic workers.

“I am happy that others feel motivated to go out and hike,” she said. “It is much more common now to see them going out on the trails. It feels good to know that people are inspired to do that, and are not just sitting out in public squares in their spare time.”