Lessons from Volunteering in the Perhentian Islands

As recently as a few years ago, when I went volunteering for the first time in the Perhentian Islands, this was not really a thing for a local Asian. This was the kind of thing white foreigners do when they came to our region. The notion of spending money and vacation time, neither of which are in abundance in the developing world, to essentially work on holiday, was a strange concept.

The result is a less than ideal situation, i.e. NGO-run environmental conservation programmes tended to have lopsided volunteer demographics. Aside from any directly local support services, volunteers tended to be foreign to the local culture, and even if the host country has a strong middle class, their own city folk are absent. The cultural separation then often became a further obstacle. 

It was certainly one that I felt, when I considered the decision to try voluntourism for the first time. 

Give. Give for others out of what you love.

Early in the onset of my Blue Period I went through a time when this verse became a persistent theme in my life. Aside from financial charity, I proceeded to simplify my possessions – well before Marie Kondo was ever a glimmer in pop culture. I jettisoned a great number of hoarded items, mainly via Freecycle KL. Upon the acquisition of a Kindle, this Gen X bookworm even made the sacrifice of yielding the bulk of her beloved library.

I used to have this sense, that I am saving these things for some day in the future when my life would be a certain way. In that life, I would use these things that I kept. As a Xennial, I see that this is the main difference between the worldview in the 20th century regarding possessions, and the 21st. When your memories are in physical items such as handwritten letters, photographs, badges and physical journals, you hold more things for sentimental reasons, and you hold more things in reserve in anticipation of making future memories. This anticipation is largely absent among my new friends from the millennial generation. 

At a personal level, the universe did not seem to permit me to hold on to my allegiances to the Gen X side of my experience. Through this process, it was helping me let go of this expectation – by making me release things that represented it. I get the message that it was holding me back from the life I was really supposed to live. I was always just before my time. And now that time is come, it was where I needed to feel at home. 

It was interesting what this process did to my relationship with things. I ended up only having those things I loved, yet it no longer distressed me to think about losing even these. It changed the way I looked at things. I was made free. 

Petani Beach, Pulau Perhentian Kecil | Perhentian Islands

Petani Beach, Pulau Perhentian Kecil

What about giving the things I love, which are not things?

The experience made me reflect still further. 

Did I still have something I loved, out of which I had not given away? Aside from money and tangible goods, what else of my possessions did I love? And it struck me that there was something left, that I loved very much.

Time. I had my free time.

Here’s the thing. At the time, I was working in full time employment in a high stress job. I was loathe to completely volunteer vacation time. I was on the borderline of burnout.

But I was curious about what would happen if I did. What would it do for my worldview, if I were to give from that? Would it expand me, such that I became able to create more meaning for my life than that which is given to me by the conventional routes of job and family? 

True to form, I began thinking laterally. Was there a way I could give from my vacation time, yet not give it up at the same time? 

That was when I discovered this thing called the ‘voluntourism’. 

I thought about what kind of volunteering I might like to do. I thought about marine science, which was a field I had studied out of love, and never practiced. Sure, every so often I would try to find a way to get opportunity to do something of it at work, but it’s not an easy thing to make happen when that’s not your core job.

But, I could volunteer for it! 

However, once I made up my mind to do it, I ran once more against my single biggest travel obstacle

The intimidating sociality of volunteering for introverts and Aspies

Solo travel is easier. There, I said it. 

'Lessons from Volunteering in the Perhentian Islands' article on sustainable travel blog Teja on the Horizon | Introversion | Social awkwardness | Asperger traveller

There are a lot of travel blog articles about the perks of solo travel, how to manage it, and why people and women should give it a shot. Sure, I did not do a lot of solo travel until recently. But that’s mainly because culturally, it’s always been considered ‘unsafe’ – especially for a young woman. It’s not the normally done thing

But aside from that, as an introvert, it’s actually easier to go on holidays solo. Easier than vacationing with friends and family. (Independent travel is somewhat more intimidating). Barring a few really close friends with whom I’m completely comfortable, I often found I preferred some time apart from travel companions. The constant need to be tapped into the social demands, is a constant drain. 

So, going somewhere to join with a group of utter strangers from a wholly different background in every way, seemed an exorbitant social demand beyond my comprehension.

Yet this is what volunteering on holiday would mean. 

The two waters flow freely, yet there is a barrier between them.

I couldn’t even begin to imagine how I would manage that. This sort of thing has not usually turned out encouragingly, from past experience. I have trouble assimilating into groups when they’re my own people. I’m what you might call, ‘eccentric’. The unkind may say ‘weird’. How much worse is this going to be with people I have even less in common with – in race, origin, belief system, age group, and who knows what else? 

What would we even talk about? Why would they like me? Could I even relate to them? Could they possibly understand any of my thoughts? The workplace is easy, socially speaking. Working for a Dutch company, being straightforward is generally considered a plus. But in an informal setting, how could I possibly read social cues from a foreign culture, if I have trouble picking them up even from my own? 

But, I had made the decision to give. If I wanted to try out a voluntourism project, I will just have to suck it up. It may be good for me, to have to expand out of my comfort zone. And anyway, if it all went south, at least I could just focus on the project work itself, and keep to myself. 

Still, I could go easy on my first try, and see if there are projects close to home. There were a couple of marine projects based in the Perhentian Islands on the east coast, managed by a voluntourism company called Ecoteer. The project would actually be with an affiliated NGO rather than directly run by Ecoteer, but it seemed legitimate. 

Crucially, the location was within the fishing village. Surely, that must mean they would have some adaptations already to Malaysian social norms, just for the sake of the project? The one involving dive surveys sounded perfect; I could at the same time hone my newly acquired diving skills, I thought.

Volunteering in the Perhentian Islands

The Perhentian Islands are a pair of islands off the northeast coast of Malaysia. Gazetted as a Marine Park, they are among the better known Malaysian islands for the beauty of its coastlines, and the party atmosphere on Long Beach located on the smaller island, Perhentian Kecil. 

The latter reason grew from the longtime popularity of the island as a stop along the hippie backpacker trail along the peninsular east coast up to Thailand. While the tourism industry has diversified considerably in recent times, the old recognition has kept the Perhentians as one of the best known tourist destinations in Malaysia, especially for the independent traveller. 

This name recognition among foreign visitors made the Perhentian Islands Marine Park a clear choice to site voluntary conservation programs. Unsurprisingly, when I searched for programs in Malaysia, the top ranking options were located in Perhentian. 

Fisherman's jetty, Pulau Perhentian Besar | Perhentian Islands

Fisherman’s jetty, Pulau Perhentian Besar

Why a conservative environmentalist hesitated to join conservation volunteering

But the cultural separation extends to beyond concerns around interpersonal interaction that would trouble just introverts. Because volunteering programs tend to appeal to the liberal segments of Western/Westernised cultures (whereas volunteering and charity actually tends to be associated with conservative segments of Asian cultures), I noticed something in the program description that gave me pause.

The accommodation arrangement was described as ‘mixed dorm’. 

I’m personally not that much a stranger to some types of mixed accommodation. I shared a house in Wales during my Masters’ degree with some other students, some of whom were male. But in that arrangement, my room was to myself – there was no sharing.

Then also, when I trained with the navy reserves, depending on the type of shore expedition, we did set up camp that was sometimes mixed. But, as a platoon, we had a common set of values and expectations of discipline. The relationship between us was very fraternal – the men guarded the ladies as brothers would. Private space between genders was something that did not need to be questioned in a conservative group – you know without bringing it up, that it would somehow be assured to the best of everyone’s ability no matter what the limitations of the situation were. 

But I did not know how different this would be, with liberal foreigners. Would it be unusual and inconvenient to ask for gender-specific space? What would be the social ramifications of the living arrangement, if the disparity in values is too high? Could it be modest? And, is it even safe? 

Overwhelmingly, if the information provided does not answer these questions, a conservative Asian will not ask such potentially face-losing questions. He or she will simply quietly move on to other programs. 

You could always create new options

Like most Malays, I am fairly socially conservative. (And yes, I also independently travel, relate to diverse nations across the world, have close liberal friends, am a sustainability activist, and also an environmental scientist. None of these are ‘liberal things’. )

At the time, like most southeast Asians, push comes to shove I also responded to situations I did not know how to handle, with avoidance. It’s just easier to walk away, rather than broach deeply distressing and uncomfortable discussions. It’s the Asian way. 

But in my Blue Period, I could not turn back to the ways that I’ve always known. And if I did not create new options which were better than the options before me, who will do it? 

Still, I could not bring myself to directly ask. I was certain I couldn’t guess how to even begin the question, since it was a question that never needed to be clarified within my cultural background. So the riskiest choice I could manage at the time was simply not to walk away. Instead, I paid extra to be accommodated in a nearby guest house in the village.

Blue Temple ladies | Perhentian volunteering | Blue Templars | Blue Temple Conservation

In sarong. Ready for bertandang*

Risks in order to connect with others are worth taking. 

What would have happened had I trusted where I was led without reservation?

In this particular instance, I would have found that coincidentally the batch who would be volunteering with me in Perhentian Islands, were all female anyway.

I would have found that in any case, by the time I came, the volunteer’s house had separate rooms for men and women. The founders, Neil and Sabina (along with Dave, their indispensable, indefatigable intern from Australia), are actually fairly adapted to Malay village norms. 

It would have been completely comfortable after all.

Did I get a sign? The sign from the universe that should have assured me, that I needn’t have doubted? After being prepared through being led through a whole first part of the year of blue themed travels?

The name of the NGO that ran the project, was Blue Temple.

Yep, I even got a sign, and I still chickened out. I hedged my choice based on what would be more normal, instead of trust where I was pointed to.

It would take me a few more lessons like this in the year after, to trust the universe better. That indeed, the waves will part, and the fire will cool, when I’m directed by the universe to pass through.

Volunteering with Blue Temple Conservation in the Perhentian Islands

Blue Temple Conservation was a science-focused marine conservation NGO. They were based in the village, Kampung Pasir Hantu, for three years until (spoiler alert) they had to disband and return to the UK.** When I came, they were in their second year.

In terms of the actual volunteering project, I confess I did not achieve very much. I wasn’t there for long enough to really start doing anything useful. If you were to join the present-day successor program run by Perhentian Marine Research Station, I strongly recommend staying at least 2 weeks, if not more. 

But before I get to that, I need to describe the incredible couple who ran Blue Temple Conservation, and why, as someone representing the host nation, they are different from many other foreign conservationists working in developing countries. As in, good-different. 

Blue Temple Conservation base | village house in Kampung Pasir Hantu | Perhentian village house | Perhentian Islands

The Blue Temple House

The sustainability of community-based conservation

Neil and Sabina are two people who understand how critical local acceptance is to the success of conservation initiatives. They know it means being accepted as part of the village. They know this means abiding by the local social norms, they understand the power of learning the local language. More than that, they even understand that even if everything they do is perfect, you still need… time.

Especially in conservative communities, trust always requires the proof of time.

By this time I was already exposed to external stakeholder management dilemmas through environmental projects at work.

I have had to go through the pain of learning an entire worldview that was different from what I’m used to, because it mattered to effectively protect people. I have then had to explain this local context to even more foreign senior management over and over, persistently and doggedly over several years, because bridging that worldview gap is so hard. 

So you see, I know how hard it is, even with local help, to absorb another worldview. And I also know that a lot of people underestimate how much this matters in carrying out community building and conservation in countries not your own. The #1 obstacle is difficulty accepting that those communities are not like you, and they shouldn’t have to become like you

The unexpected millennials

So I was impressed to meet a couple of millennials – supposed to be the liberal #yolo generation, the selfie generation, the low attention span generation – who understood all this perfectly. They were realistic, patient, big picture-oriented, and consistent.

Petani Beach, Pulau Perhentian Kecil | Perhentian Islands

Petani Beach, towards Mira beach

Their house was the same village house as everyone else’s. They tried to learn Malay, and could manage a bit. They had actual local friends. Neil cooked like a local. They even had the local squat toilet, and even advocated it! They dressed close to how we do.

The intern that they had that year, a grave young man from Australia, was the same. And most unexpected of all – they were sober, even when they did not have to be. What this signals to the highly conservative village, is that not only did you show effort to personally fit into village life while in it, you are also not ‘a bad influence’ to their children even when outside of the village. I have never, before or since, seen that level of commitment and sacrifice for the sake of a conservation project. 

I packed light, and purposely did not bring a sejadah, a prayer mat. Dave offered me a choice from his own two mats. I chose his yoga mat – and had its use for my prayers throughout the project.

(Yes, a yoga mat. And OMG it is the most comfortable surface to pray on ever! Why is this not more of a thing?)

The tipping point when you genuinely become ‘local’.

You see, some foreigners like to claim they have gone native, yet still talk of local people. Neil and Sabi claim no such thing. Yet when they speak about the village, they talk nearly as if villagers of Pasir Hantu were their own villagers. They’re not ‘the local people’, they’re just ‘people’.

This is the sign of assimilation that cannot be faked. It is not put on to be shown off on social media, or your off-grid peer group. Your knowledge of the local people is not detached, academic, ‘othered’. It has become part of you.

I was with the right people. We quickly became friends.

And, in keeping with the journey of my Blue Period, I came away with key growth lessons that made possible the new choices of the coming year.

Lesson 1: Where to make friends and influence people

I had never made friends that quickly before. But then, I’d never gone on a volunteer project before.

It wasn’t just the friendships with Neil and Sabi. It was, in the end, easy with the other volunteers as well. I confess I was baffled. This was not supposed to go easy. Never in my life has being social been as uneventful and painless. I knew I was still very reserved then, compared to now. Yet I could manage to sustain conversations with them, long after there should be awkward silences.

I’m not sure how to explain that. Maybe people I get along with gravitate to things like this. Maybe I’m not socially challenged – perhaps it just looked that way all my life, because people I would relate to just happens not to be the same people I’m mostly around. 

And just maybe, if I simply moved myself to the right places, in fact I might find that I’m not bad at making friends after all.

Blue Temple diving volunteers | Perhentian volunteering | Blue Templars | Blue Temple Conservation

Blue Temple ladies on a dive

Lesson 2: The prodigal daughter returns

The other baffling thing about this trip, was being accepted by the villagers.

I get it. I’m weird. Growing up, I’ve been made well aware of it. I don’t think like my peers do, I don’t react to the same things, or even in the same way. I read different things, I say different things, and I would do strange things. (That last one is actually a real expression of censure in the traditional Malay worldview: “tak dibuat orang” which basically translates to “it’s just not done”). Not on purpose to be rebellious – it is just that my default responses are not the same as everyone else’s default responses.

All this made me one of your ‘socially awkward’ people. My bachelor’s degree in a local university was particularly challenging, as the campus atmosphere was very ‘normative’, and authoritarian about it. Fortunately there was the equestrian club – I was a near-permanent fixture there. It seemed that all the campus misfits tended to gravitate to the equestrian club.

Obviously, I would attract notice in the village. Someone Malay, but walking about with the ‘Ecoteer foreigners’. People stopped me to ask me what I was doing. But they were not hostile. They were simply astonished at this never-before-seen combination. The elderly neighbour across the street even approved of me, and invited me to have tea on his porch. He and his wife spoke of the romance of Perhentian, of his old job with the Fisheries Department, the challenges of conservation in the Marine Park.

I can’t explain this either. Was it that something changed in me in my metamorphosis that I come across differently now to people? Was it that it allowed me to see these overtures which might have always been there, but I could not see before? 

Maybe, I need not fear being shut out anymore, for being different. Could I belong? Could this be… home?

Lesson 3: The woman in the mirror

Regarding making friends, I mentioned it was easy with basically everyone at the Blue Temple. But it took a bit longer with some than others.

Some people’s initial response to me, is coolness. I’m used to that. More often than not, I would have a feeling of defensiveness and dislike as a protective response. And that would be that. We move on. 

Blue Temple volunteers | Perhentian volunteering | Blue Templars | Blue Temple Conservation

The Blue Templars (and mascot, D-a)

But, for the first time in my life, I was in a place where I felt able to ignore it and persist, rather than move away. And I found out what would happen if I did that.

I found that the people who feel abrasive to me on first meeting are the same people that turn out to have more things in common with me. They warm, with time, and then this fact becomes discovered. This has played out multiple times since.

It makes sense, actually, upon reflection. After all, even my friends tell me that I myself come across as reserved, sometimes abrasive, on first impressions. It stands to reason that others with a similar outlook as mine, similar life journey, or struggles, would come across the same way.

Perhaps now I am strong enough to do what my friends had done, in my own case. Strong enough to push past that initial reaction, and give them a chance to become a friend.

My Perhentian Islands volunteering experience

I actually did not get to do any of the survey dives. I was not there for long enough, and Neil didn’t trust that I would be a good enough diver not to be a risk to the corals. (He was justified. However, he did later make me into one who could be.)

We did however, do other things, like beach cleanups and watching for turtles landing on the beach to nest at Tiga Ruang.

No turtles came up the night J–y and I watched, though. Instead, the hatching eggs were attacked by fire ants on our watch. We had a dramatic episode of trying to rescue as many hatchlings as possible before they were too stressed by the stings to have energy left to swim.

I watched a couple eaten by baby reef sharks, who sidled close to shore, as the tiny turtles flippered their way across the beach to the water. Nature is red in tooth and claw.

I hope some of them made it out to the open sea to grow up.

The unexpected invitation to join the Blue Temple

Although I was not there for very long, there was indeed something about the Perhentian Islands that made it easy to want to stay. And the Blue Temple gave me a reason to come back.

Pretty much the first thing I said to Neil, when he met me at the village jetty, was to tell him that the Malay translation of the Gandhi quote painted on the beam – clearly as part of a community project – is terrible. And then thereafter, just because I was there, I kept translating stuff for them or correcting errors.

I learned that a key impediment to furthering the Blue Temple conservation plans is the language barrier. Neil or Sabi weren’t bad, considering the length of time they had spent on the island, and Dave was reasonably good. But there’s a difference between daily, simple communication, and more complex, persuasive communication. Especially when you need to formally communicate with Marine Park authorities.

One evening I shared that I was looking – and making space in my life – for different things to do than just my job. Then one day Sabina came up to me and asked if I would return the following year.

They wanted me to be in charge of Blue Temple communications.

Purple anemones | village house reef | Kampung Pasir Hantu | Pulau Perhentian Kecil

Purple anemones off the village beach

The beginning of the end of my Blue Period

If you had asked my workplace, I would be the last person anyone (including me) would name for a role where I am in charge of external communications. I would laugh and shrug it off as preposterous, even as recently as the previous year.

So I was stunned.

But… it was a new thing. And wasn’t I meant to make new decisions? Perhaps, this village is somewhere I might build a belonging, over time. A mooring. Something that has been missing in my life. It was worth a go.

I said yes.

 

Are you also an introvert, a conservative, or an Asian, considering a volunteering holiday? I hope you can benefit from my experience! 

'Lessons from Volunteering in the Perhentian Islands' article on sustainable travel blog Teja on the Horizon | Introversion | Social awkwardness | Asperger traveller

Notes:

*bertandang = Malay word describing popping over to someone’s place, usually a neighbour.

** Today the work of the Blue Temple is inherited by the Perhentian Marine Research Station.

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18 Responses

  1. Sounds like you had such an amazing experience in Perhentians! One of my good friends is there this week and said it’s the nicest place she’s ever been – you lucky thing volunteering there!! Great to see you made some new friendships and had an overall great experience.
    Kristie – you.theworld.wandering

  2. neha says:

    It was really nice going through your honest thoughts. I very much want to volunteer while I travel. But haven’t really tried it yet. Neither been in this kind of situation before. But your post will come helpful for me in future

    • Teja says:

      Definitely try it at least once! It takes you out of yourself, and maybe also out of your comfort zone. But pick a good place that really does try to make a sincere difference.

  3. Penny says:

    Safety has always been a major concern of mine. Being an introvert usually means that I am scared to interact. I’m glad that you found that you had a lot of female company. I’m sure that must have bolstered your confidence a lot. Me… I’m just lucky that I travel with Shawn. The problem does not arise as much as it does with single travelers.

    • Teja says:

      I think it’s actually very common among Asians, this feeling. Which is why I’m trying to see if I can push a bit against that fear, and look behind the curtain, so to speak. I think introverts, we overthink and overprepare for social situations because it’s so draining when you are in a dilemma in real time and have no exit strategy :p

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