Hujan was the first word I learnt in Malaysia. It means rain, and I have seen more than my fair share of it. Since my blog of the 22nd May I have been travelling and exploring quite a lot, and here I am back in the kitchen in Merapoh at 10.57 on a Monday evening. The air is particularly hot and humid tonight, and at 7.00 this morning I woke to the sound of heavy rain beating on the tin roof next door. This roof sports a shiny new panel in amongst the old rusted ones, which marks the place where one of our interns nearly fell through it when they were clambering from one of our windows to the other, in an attempt to enter their room from the outside. This may sound like a crazy plan, but we live in a country where 12 year old boys ride motorbikes on main roads, angry drivers beep their horns if you stay within the speed limit, and there is no such word as ‘please’.
Another crazy aspect of Malaysia is of course the rain. You can always tell when it’s coming: the sky will darken and begin to flash ominously with lightning, and thunder will roll out in deep grumbles. Then the wind picks up and there is a rushing sound, and within seconds the deluge has arrived. I have only witnessed one full-on storm since I arrived in Merapoh, which went on for maybe 4 hours and put paid to a fair number of banana leaves. One advantage of these downpours is the soft breeze and welcome drop in temperature that accompany them, so we will often sit outside just before it rains to make the most of the pleasant atmosphere thus created.
Once the storm has passed, there is a strong smell of damp soil and vegetation in the air which feels very healthy to breathe in. And so it was in Tonggang, the village base of our project in Ipoh, where we were bathing in the river one afternoon and felt the familiar wind pick up. By the time we had scrambled up the precipitous slope towards the house, big fat heavy raindrops were falling all around us. To be honest this was extremely pleasant as the walk up from the river has you wishing there was another at the top to wash the sweat off in! It also meant that the children, who had been playing at our house earlier and followed us to the river despite instructions not to, had to go home, and we were able to get some peace at last. At each of our project bases, in Merapoh, Ipoh and the Perhentian Islands, it is of benefit to us to build up good relationships within the local community, and one of the ways we achieve this is through allowing houseroom to the local children who want a change of scene and somewhere safe to play. However at times this is a little trying as they are essentially rocking up to our houses each day regardless of whether we are working or taking a nap. They can also be extremely cheeky, and make me miss the Batek kids, who can be very well behaved and even encourage their friends to follow your instructions (on good days that is).
The reason for our being in Tonggang was for a team-building event with some delegates from a crane company. Whilst everyone seemed to have a good time playing darts, planting trees and eating food which some of the village women had prepared, I was not entirely sure what I was supposed to be doing for the day. This would not have mattered, except that at times I was required to direct people to certain places, not easy as it was my first time in Tonggang, and I was in unfamiliar territory having never done a teambuilding event before. It also meant that the interview I did to accompany the video of the event was decidedly improvised on my part. However a good time was had by all and it was nice to meet some of the people from the village. I should mention that when I say playing darts, I do not mean the usual beer fest it is in England, but rather practicing using a blow-pipe made by Patlong, the village elder, who will show you (several times) and with great pride the certificate he received for his champion blowpipe making, The rest of our time in Ipoh was very enjoyable. Myself and the Merapoh team had been joined by the Ipoh project manager and our project video-tographer. Together we spent a few days making the most of the stunning views from our hilltop house in Tonggang, which is sadly mostly oil palm as far as the eye can see, and of course the sweet swimming spot down in the river.
Once back in Merapoh, we received a surprise in the form of a guest, who was sent to us because he wanted to meet the Batek and live with them in the forest. Whilst we enjoyed having him with us, I was not altogether keen on taking him with us to the village as the Batek are already wary of ‘outsiders’. However, our guest decided to sweet-talk them with the assistance of several large smelly Durian, which the Batek people (and indeed most Malay people), love. One of the best moments was when a particularly elderly-looking Bidan (term for older Batek ladies) finished her piece and held the old Durian peel aloft until someone came and took it from her, before wandering off with the only smile I have ever seen on her face.
With the departure the following week of our team, who were leaving Merapoh on various errands, came a decision for me as to whether to go back to Ipoh for a scientific research meeting, or to the Perhentian Islands for a break. I chose the latter as I felt it was time for a morale boost. The Perhentian Islands were the first base of Fuze Ecoteer (the company I currently work for) and the community and conservation project there has been running for 6 years now. It is a classic island paradise with little bays and sandy beaches edged by crystal-clear water. Underneath this is a mass of coral and sea-grass, which I know because I accompanied the volunteers snorkelling one time. As luck would have it that was the time a large Green turtle decided to cruise underneath us so I got a great view of that! We also explored ‘shark point’, slightly nerve-wracking and I spent most of the time wondering when a shark would come looming out of the gloomy waters, but it never happened.
Following this escapade I returned to Merapoh and our little project here, where we are fully booked with a program of volunteers until August. During my stay at Perhentian the month of Ramadan started, and so everyone was in fasting mode. I am now attempting to join the masses a little by only eating breakfast and dinner; today wasn’t too bad, however I allowed myself some leniency in the form of water and other drinks. This semi-fast was gloriously broken today by Malay dinner at our neighbors’ house, who cooked us rice (of course), chicken, fish, Tomyum (soup) and mini aubergines. I was not completely dying of hunger at this point….We shall see how long that lasts!