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First month volunteering in Merapoh, Malaysia

*A story written by Bryan Hatton*

Last August I got married, and my wife and I decided that instead of the usual settling down we would go off working, travelling and volunteering together around the world. One month ago we arrived in Merapoh, a small village near Taman Negara in Malaysia and the base of one of Fuze-Ecoteer’s projects. We’re mostly teaching the Batek kids while we’re here and I’ll write more about that in a later blog, but we also get to do a bit of the trekking, caving and camping that the conservation volunteers who come for a week do. So it is for those prospective volunteers that I write this blog, if you are thinking about coming to Merapoh to volunteer on this project hopefully my experiences described here will let you know what it will be like and help you decide. But if you don’t have time to read it all the short answer is you should come, it’s pretty awesome here.

Back in February, we got on a bus in Kuala Lumpur with the instruction that Merapoh has no real bus stop but that there is a restaurant the bus will stop at for lunch. Stop it did and we got out to have some food while we waited for the Merapoh team to come pick us up. This restaurant provided us with our first culture shock. Normally a buffet lunch would be thing of great excitement for me but this one was a thing of confusion and slight fear; the food seemed to be mostly fish heads floating in a wide variety of different coloured sauces with no description, but they had whole dried fish as well! We managed to find something to eat that didn’t have a face and sat down for lunch a little concerned about what we were going to eat over the next few months.

To my delight the food has improved tremendously since that first meal in Merapoh and has become one of my favourite things about being here. Every Wednesday we wrap on our sarongs and we go to a Malay family’s house for dinner who put on a massive spread of delicious, spicy, traditional Malaysian dishes and no one seems to mind that I haven’t quite figured out how to eat rice with my hands without looking like an idiot and making a mess. At the night markets you can sit down at a restaurant and have a great meal or wander around and pick up a few different snacks, the chicken satay is my favourite. When we go camping we eat quite simply, we just ram a load of chicken, vegetables and rice into some bamboo tubes with lots of ginger, chillies and garlic and roast them over an open fire for a couple of hours before cutting them open with a machete and scooping out the tasty, tasty goodness. Then there’s roti, lovely, lovely roti.

So, going back to that first restaurant, we finished our meal and soon after the Fuze-Ecoteer team came to pick us up. Things started to look up, everybody seemed really nice and we knew we would enjoy spending the next few months working with them. There’s a core group of Ecoteer staff, staff and interns from other projects who some visit us for a while and of course volunteers coming and going so we’re an ever changing group and it’s nice to be meeting lots of different people who for one reason or another have decided to come to this little village to help conserve the rainforest and the animals that live in it.

We arrived at the house that we’d be living in for three months. This is not a four star hotel, it is a house right in the village that serves as a home and office for the Ecoteer staff and volunteers. You’ll get to stay in the room with air conditioning but us more hard-core long termers just get used to the heat. While we’re talking about things we’ve had to get used to, the house provided another significant culture shock. The toilet. I’ve spent only a little time in Asia prior to this trip and when confronted with a squat toilet before, to my shame, I had held it in until I had found a porcelain throne to which my sheltered western life had accustomed me. Here I’ve had no choice. When Tom, one of the Ecoteer staff was showing us around he casually said “it’s a squat toilet and here we don’t wipe, we wash” he gestured towards a large bucket of water with a large ladle in it. I tried to look calm, but inside my heart beat rose a little. After some online research and a couple of days of anxiety-induced constipation I finally gave it a go. It wasn’t that bad and actually gave me an odd sense of achievement and I’ve grown somewhat accustomed to it over the weeks. That being said I have recently discovered that Taman Negara national park has a ‘western style’ public toilet and I am very much looking forward to treating myself on our next visit.

Me beside a massive tree.

Me beside a massive tree.

We go to Taman Negara at least once a week for a swim. Yeah, we go swimming in a beautiful national park in the middle of a rainforest, it’s a real delight to cool off in its clear waters, lying back and looking up at the trees while listening to the sounds of the jungle. But most of our work is not done in the national park, it’s in the rainforest areas around it. I’ve said enough about food and toilets, the rainforest is what it’s all about, that’s why you would come here.

Our first experience of the rainforest here was on our second night when we went camping. This is something we do every Friday that there are volunteers here and is a major highlight of the week so I’ll write another blog about it later. For now I’ll just make the point that as we were packing for the camping trip I noticed that we did not pack any tents, I felt somewhat like we were being thrown in at the deep end and was nervously excited. Sleeping options tend to be either a hammock or a shelter skilfully made out of leaves by the Batek ladies who accompany us on the camping trips. The excitement of sleeping in the forest, relatively exposed, will be the thing you remember about this trip for the rest of your life. It is a little scary, but the Batek have been sleeping in this forest for generations and the Ecoteer staff know their stuff and look after the volunteers well. But the constant, low probability of there being large animals nearby is part of the fun, and exhilaration of being in the forest.

Now is probably the time to point out that if you are thinking of coming here to see large wild animals, think again. Wild boar seem to be the largest thing commonly seen and I haven’t even seen one of them yet. The jungle is thick, the animals are sadly sparse (that’s why we’re here) and we make a lot of noise and light camp fires so the chance of seeing them is slim, even a foot print or a scat from a big cat is a rare source of excitement. You will see lots of little living things though, don’t worry, they seem pretty friendly and are always fascinating. It was reassuring when we had the safety briefing at the start that the slide titled ‘Dangerous Insects’ only included bees and mosquitoes, we have those at home! I’ve had a few bites from flies and mosquitoes and a few more from leeches. Leeches will get you! But they’re only little things, they don’t hurt and aren’t known for transmitting infection, also they are easy to scrape off, if you want, or you can let them do their thing and wait for them to fall off. Think of it as giving a little back to the forest, a small price to pay for getting to spend time in this amazing environment.

I thought these were flowers until I saw one was walking along the branch, there's always something surprsing going on in the forest.

I thought these were flowers until I saw one was walking along the branch, there’s always something surprising going on in the forest.

So, if not to see big cuddly animals, what are the reasons to go camping and trekking in the forest? It’s hard to describe without sounding like, you know, one of those people who talk about how magical and wondrous the rainforest is. Put it like this, I am not a fit person, I don’t go hiking at home, I usually avoid any kind of exercise if I can. Also, I’m not used to heat, I’m from Northern Ireland! But towards the end of a three hour trek when I am tired, hot and covered in sweat I am loving it. I like nature, you probably like nature too if you’re thinking of coming here. Well, this place has loads of nature – it’s all around you, above you and below you. The calls of gibbons, beautiful flowers and butterflies, fascinating ants of all sizes going about their business, trees whose roots are as tall as I am, the occasional lizard popping up and looking at you curiously and the smell of green everywhere. Stepping in to the rainforest is immersing yourself in nature to an extent that is impossible anywhere else. That’s why you should come here, to experience that for yourself and because you will also be helping to preserve that experience for others.

Bryan Hatton