Volunteering in Malaysia: Lessons from 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 perhaps also the party atmosphere on Long Beach located on the smaller island, Perhentian Kecil.
It was also the next harbour, along my Blue Period journey. In a single year I have passed through the confusion of the newborn, unexpectedly brought home, bid it goodbye, and learned a different way to be, to push through fear. I guess the universe thought it was time to put that to the test.
This story recounts the growth and worries of a Muslim Asian Gen X fledgling volunteer, going into unfamiliar territory.
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 jettison a great number of hoarded items, mainly via Freecycle KL. Upon the acquisition of a Kindle, this bookworm 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.
Through this process, the universe was helping me let go of this notion, this expectation – by making me release the things that represented it. It was holding me back from the life I was really supposed to live.
It was interesting what this did to my relationship with things. I ended up only having those things I loved, yet it no longer distressed me to lose them. It changed the way I looked at things. I was made free.
So I reflected still further.
Did I still have something I loved, out of which I had not given away? Not being particularly materialistic, aside from money and tangible goods, what else of my possessions did I love?
Then it struck me that there was something left… Time. I had my free time.
So here’s the thing. I was loathe to actually volunteer vacation time. Could I give up vacation time and not give it up at the same time?
I thought about what kind of volunteering I might like to do. I thought about marine science, which was a field I had studied, and never used. 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 happen when that’s not your core job.
But, I could volunteer for it! And that was how I discovered voluntourism.
The intimidating sociality of volunteering
Solo travel is easier. There, I said it.
There are a lot of travel blog articles about the perks of solo travel, how to manage it, and why people should give it a shot. I did not do a lot of solo travel until recently, but 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.
Barring a few really close friends, I often found I needed time apart from travel companions. Additionally, I have vanishingly few friends and family who travel the same way as I would like to.
Going somewhere, or meeting up, with a group of relative strangers was a thing beyond my comprehension.
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. What would we talk about? Why would they like me? Could I even relate to them? 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?
But, I had made the decision to give. If I wanted to do it through a voluntourism project, I will just have to suck it up.
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. The projects are based from the village itself. Surely, that must mean some adaptation to Malaysian social norms? The one involving dive surveys sounded perfect; I could at the same time hone my newly acquired diving skills, I thought.
So I made enquiries with Ecoteer. The project would actually be with an affiliated NGO rather than directly by Ecoteer, but it sounded safe enough.
I hesitate again.
I noticed something that gave me pause. The accommodation arrangement was described as ‘mixed dorm’. It was not entirely clear what that meant – in terms of privacy expectations. Responses were not too clear to be fully reassuring.
I’m not a stranger to mixed accommodation. I shared a house in Wales during my Masters’ degree with some other students, some of whom were male. But I rented a room 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, 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.
I did not know how different this would be, with foreigners. Perhentian is also on the backpacking trail for its party beach. What kind of foreigners would be drawn to volunteer here? What would be the social ramifications of this living arrangement, if the disparity in values is too high? Could it be modest? And, is it even safe?
Considering that the only time I found it easy to share sleeping quarters with people I’d just met was after having been tortured together in basic training for a while, the prospect of even this upcoming volunteering trip was much more intimidating for me than you probably could understand. Unless you’re also a shy introvert, or an Aspie.
Still learning to trust the universe.
Reader, I chickened out on the accommodation.
Like most Malays I am quite conservative. And 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 on potentially conflicting privacy expectations. It’s the Asian way.
The riskiest choice I could manage at the time was not to walk away. I paid extra to be accommodated in a guest house in the village.
It turned out I needn’t have worried.
What would have happened had I trusted completely?
I would have found that coincidentally the batch of volunteers that would be with me, were all female anyway.
I would have found that in any case, by the time I came, this volunteer house had separate rooms for men and women. The founders, Neil and Sabina, are actually fairly adapted to village norms. Along with Dave, their indispensable, indefatigable intern from Australia.
It would have been completely comfortable after all.
The name of this NGO, was Blue Temple.
Yes, I even got a sign, and I still chickened out. I chose based on what would be more normal, instead of what I was pointed to. It took me a few more lessons like this, in the year after, to trust the universe better. That the waves will part, and the fire will cool, when I’m pointed to pass through.
Perhentian volunteering: Blue Temple Conservation
Blue Temple Conservation was a science-focused marine conservation NGO. They were in the village, Kampung Pasir Hantu, for three years until (spoiler alert) they had to disband and return to the UK.** When I came, it was in its second year.
In terms of the actual volunteering program, I confess I did not achieve very much. I wasn’t there for long enough to really start doing anything useful.
But instead, in keeping with the journey of my Blue Period, I came away with key lessons that made possible the new choices of the coming year.
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, the power of learning the language – and that even if everything they do is perfect, you still need… time. Trust needs 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 entire worldviews – me, the socially challenged person in my own land – because it mattered to protect people in theirs. I have then had to explain this local context to foreign senior management over and over, in multiple different ways, persistently and doggedly over several years, because bridging that worldview gap is so hard. Partly because you have to start by making them aware that there is in fact a gap, and that they in fact do not understand.
So you see, I know how hard it is – even with local help – to absorb another worldview. And I also knew that a lot of people underestimate how much this matters in carrying out community building and conservation in foreign countries.
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 this perfectly. They were realistic, patient, big picture-oriented, and consistent.
Their house was the same village house as everyone else. They tried to learn Malay, and could manage a bit. They had local friends. Neil cooked like a local. They even had the local squat toilet – and 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.
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. [Point 1: Yes, a yoga mat. And OMG it is the most comfortable surface to pray on ever! Why is this not more of a thing? and Point 2: This is how you build bridges. Not by being rigidly closed-off. Grace recognises and accepts grace from others. And BTW, only one of these two things is a name of God.]
Anyway some foreigners might 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. 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.
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 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 looks that way, because people I relate to happens not to be the people I’m mostly around, but this is so for most other people. So they look better at it than I do.
Maybe, just maybe, if I removed myself to the right places, in fact I may find that I’m not bad at making friends after all.
Lesson 2: The prodigal daughter
The other baffling thing about this trip, was being accepted by 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 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 my way.
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 conservative in the authoritarian sense. Fortunately there was the equestrian club. I was a near-permanent fixture. It seemed that all the campus misfits tended to gravitate there.
Obviously I would attract notice in the village. Someone Malay, but walking with the “Ecoteer” foreign voluntourists. People stopped me to ask what I was doing. But they were not hostile. The elderly neighbour across the street 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 were always there but I could not see before? Does it matter?
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
Related to the topic of 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.
But, for the first time in my life, I was in a place where I could ignore it, and persist, rather than move away. And so I found out what would happen then.
I found that the people who feel abrasive to me on first meeting – yet this is the only thing that turned me off from them – it is these that turn out to have more things in common with me. They warm, with time, and then this fact becomes discovered. This 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, or life journey, or struggles, would come across as I am said to.
Perhaps now I am strong enough to do what my friends had done, in my own case. Push past that initial reaction, and give them a chance to become a friend.
My Perhentian volunteering
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 that could be.)
We did however, do other things, like the 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 in the hatchery were attacked by fire ants. 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 baffling proposal
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, and because I have this compulsion to be helpful, I just kept translating stuff for them, or correcting errors. I had shared that I was looking – and making space in my life – for different things to do.
I learned that a key impediment to furthering the Blue Temple plans is the language barrier. They weren’t bad, and Dave was reasonably good. But there’s a difference between daily, simple communication, and more complex, persuasive communication. Especially with Marine Park authorities.
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 communications.
The beginning of the end of my Blue Period
If you had asked my workplace, I was 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, even as recently as the year previous.
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.
*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.