My volunteering project in Sabah, Malaysia

Welcome to Batu Puteh


Before leaving towards my 4 week volunteering project, I experienced a burst of severe stress. I lost my credit card between Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan without noticing it for half a day. Luckily, my credit card wasn’t used by anyone in the time period. I felt like a total jackass. How on Earth could I lose something that important… Anyway, I arrived in the village (at the banks of the mighty Kinabatangan River) the day after. During the month, I stayed in multiple places: 2 jungle camps (the majority of the time) and at families in multiple home stays in Batu Puteh (the minority of the time).

Both experiences where very interesting. The home stays gave me the opportunity to get a really close look of daily life in this village and within a family (in other words: get to know the culture).Some aspects where really interesting (like learning a new language, view the homes from the inside, exchange views about many topics, the hierarchy/size of the family, playing some basic games with the kids like drawing). I even got the rare opportunity to experience a traditional wedding ceremony. As a white person I was an instant celebrity. I got so many requests about singing a Dutch song in public, but I kindly refused all the time.

The less pleasant experiences are also part of the job. Waking up every night at 5 pm by the Mosque and free roaming chickens, having cold scoops of water as a shower at night time and whipping off your ass on a squad toilet with your left hand while u have diarrhea are some of the examples. I really improved my toilet marksman skills in this place… What surprised me the most was the dominance of television in the households I visited. The houses where really basic, but always equipped with a TV. In 15 years time this village went from no electricity to being hooked up on the screen. Misused electronic devices are really disrupting genuine (family) life on a global scale. It’s almost too embarrassing to think about how immature ‘we’ are in using this kind of technology (I will keep that story for another time).


Detachment of electricity


Overall I preferred the jungle camp above the home stay: simple and pure. Lights and cooking was done by gas, at evening we played (Malaysian) board games/had conversations and during the day we worked/went into the jungle. It was simple yet so beautiful. I really loved the camp where I stayed, it’s a natural theme park. It’s no exaggeration to state that this place is exploding with wildlife (I can’t say the same of entire Borneo – large parts are a green desert of palm oil plantations). The wildlife of the Kinabatangan River is on steroid and present everywhere u go. I've seen so many species at day and night, from the jungle and the river, that I simply lost count after a few weeks. From glowing insects, enormous gecko's and big horn bills: You name it and it's here.

At first the jungle can be intimidating at night time, but once I got used to all the sounds (including some incredibly powerful storms with heavy lightning) I really loved it. The same can be said about being on the river on night time. The lightning and starlight gave me the most beautiful boat rides I ever experienced. At daytime the boat rides where very beautiful as well.


Finding my family


I never imagined that my family would be so big. Literally loads of macaques made my stay more interesting, but they are not cute. They stole a small item out of my jungle cabin. And one morning I got a cardiac arrest in my bed. A large group where fighting right above my bed, and in the process they cracked large amount of debris and branches from the trees. It almost sounded like the entire tree was to fall onto my shelter. Thanks for waking me up, cheeky bastards.

Besides of macaques, I saw gibbons, proboscis monkeys and the legendary men of the forest (the Orang-utan) as well. The encounters with the Orang-utans where unforgettable for multiple reasons. At first, I found them with another volunteer) without any guide. We notified the Malaysians that we went out in the jungle together and we took it really slowly. Our patience and tactical sensing paid off. Second, we had direct eye contact with a wild Orang-utan for a quite long moment, which gave us both goose bumps. And last but not least, we accidentally came to close to a very big male who was calling from the jungle floor. We didn't realise it that it was really close until it suddenly started to climb in the tree. He turned towards us and made a very threatening sound. Instinctively we knew this was bad and backed off immediately but slowly while facing the giant. Shit, that was intense!

Later we found out we were not allowed to go without a guide at whatever circumstances. From this point on it was never the same anymore: we did it ourselves, finding a very shy and secretive animal multiple times… So take a guide they said. So guess what happened when we went out with a guide after all of this? We got lost for 30 minutes while the sun was setting (it gets dark in the jungle very quick). The guides where in a rush in other occasions. The irony couldn't be bigger. But especially at the ‘’upstream camp’’, you really need one. So I just accepted reality and adapted with pain in my heart.


Sweet, mud and cuts


I am no tourist here, so let’s get my ass to work. The work I did was really hands on and physical of nature. To name a few jobs: clearing/maintaining jungle trails with a machete, clear a Sylvania-invested jungle lake, making trails with sand and stone, planting trees on reclaimed farm land, transport the harvested Sylvania to Batu Puteh for a home garden and check the camera traps in the jungle. Without any experience as a removal contractor, this work would have totally drained me for sure. The humid climate doesn't really help either. I drank a minimum of 4 litres of water each day and I still felt dehydrated and exhausted. It’s crazy. I gained enormous respect for the people doing these jobs in these circumstances. They don’t look really muscular/Rambo but they pack a punch (reminds me of my tug-of-war I had with Siriya in Sri Lanka). I will never ever call these people lazy anymore.

The jungle (and especially the swampy areas) is a horrible environment to work in. Everything is incredibly sharp, it’s invested with leeches and mosquitoes (I really hate these disgusting creatures) and your sweat just doesn't dry up in wet (long-sleeved) clothing. Working on the lake could only be done when the sun wasn't too powerful. We joined the Sabah-time and took plenty of rest when needed (you really do, believe me).


Side trips and the end of volunteering project


Halfway through the 4 weeks I really wanted to see some sites around this place. I visited a enormous cave full of bats, which was interesting and disgusting at the same time. The floor was totally covered with bat poo (imagine the smell and noise) and cockroaches. And also in one of the jungle camps there is a big cave system with bats as well. One guide found it an excellent idea to clap in his hands in a narrow passage where we had to duck. In no time literally thousands of bats flew near your face. This was really one of the very first times i ever felt really claustrophobic 

Time flies and before I realise it, it is all over before it began. I worked with amazing people who are so friendly. One of the Malaysian guys bought me a soda drink just because he wanted to, and although I kept saying I don't need anything, he still insisted to accept the gift. I know what they earn here (not much) so I felt quite uncomfortable at this situation. At the same time the general attitude is so amazing: positive, thank full and modest. One clear example is that they simply stop working when they earned enough money to fulfil their needs (how different is that with the general 'more more more' mentality that became dominant in the West). They CAN earn more if they really want to but they prefer quality time with family and friends.

Although this is just the begin of my big trip, I already feel very thankful, enriched and happy. Although the volunteering could be hard at some times, it gave me great energy and further growth. Besides of that, it's an great way of getting in touch with the local culture. This experience is yet another piece of the puzzle to the person I want to become. Just in 6 weeks time I already met some amazing people (both foreign as locals), had deep conversations and experienced crazy stuff. I am enjoying every moment of it. I apologise for not contacting you guys for extended period of times, but hopefully you all will understand and forgive me

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