Lin Alexandra Mortensgaard (Denmark, AC 09-11)
In June I went far away from home. I went to Malaysia on a summer project to engage in community work and challenge myself. And it was a challenge! Now I am back, however the experiences I have gained by visiting Malaysia will stay with me forever.
On June 5th, 11 current Atlantic College students and two graduates met in a hostel on Borneo. A little confused by the heat and humidity we were welcomed by our Malaysian student partners from Twintech College Sarawak, who were to be our hosts for the three weeks. They were very inquisitive and enthusiastic and we felt welcome at once. We were showed to our dormitory – one big room full of bunk beds, all with light blue mattresses and spongy pillows and three huge ceiling fans were running full speed. We found a bed each, sat down on them, opened our suitcases and started packing for a one-week stay in a traditional Malaysian house, called a Longhouse, in the middle of the Bornean jungle.
We woke early to have breakfast before driving off to the Longhouse. After a very delicious typical Malaysian breakfast called Roti – a mix between omelet and naan bread with a tasty curry sauce to dip in – we set off for the Longhouse.
Three or four hours later we arrived at the little village in which we would be staying for the next week to experience the villagers way of living and their cultural traditions. Like at our arrival at Twintech the villagers were extremely welcoming and straight after arrival we were shown to the dining room where delicious chicken, vegetables, rice, fresh fruit and juice were waiting for us. After a wonderful lunch we were shown to our rooms. We lived with local families in their houses. The families were part of a home stay programme and had therefore opened their homes to complete strangers without speaking a word of English themselves. As soon as we stepped into the house they showed us to our beds and after that served refreshments for us. I slept close to the door on a mattress under a big mosquito net with posters of The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Sex Pistols, Nirvana etc. on the walls. Next to these western and very non-religious artists were embroideries of Jesus and the Virgin Marie. To me it seemed like a strange mix of something as contradictory as rock idols and religious symbols, but served as an easy way to learn something about the family, which would have been difficult otherwise seeing that I could not communicate with them. The rest of the house consisted of three other bedrooms, a combined kitchen and living room and two toilets with buckets for showering purposes.
Outside the chickens were running around whilst the villagers were relaxing in the shadow, swimming in the river or preparing dinner. In the beginning the villagers were quite curious about all those western looking teenagers walking around their village, but soon got used to our presence. Playing the ‘wah’ game in the river with our Malaysian student partners did not exactly help their curiosity, but probably made them realize that we were actually just normal students playing strange games and enjoying a swim in the river.
The following days began with the loud rooster wake-up call and went on with different activities and events. One day we were taken on a short walk to see sago trees being cut down, help carry them back to the village and learn how to process the sago from white soft material on a log, to a jelly-like transparent substance on a plate. That we did not enjoy eating the sago is no secret, however, we enjoyed the process and found it incredible to experience how a mechanism for the processing of the sago was set up in 15 minutes by our local ‘guides’. This mechanism was made of bamboo, string and one piece of plastic and was capable of lifting a bucket of water, squeezing juice out of the sago (with the help of our feet) and even had a space included for the starch of the sago juice to settle in.
During these days we also learned how to extract sugar from sugar cane, ventured into the art of catching fish (which we failed at), went snail hunting, learned how to make roofs out of bamboo leaves and went jungle trekking to a waterfall. We were also part of a cultural celebration where we got to wear traditional costumes, play on gamelan and learn traditional dances. We were served amazing food throughout the week and were constantly offered rice wine. The people of the Longhouse stay were more friendly and welcoming than I could ever have imagined. I think it would be difficult to find this kind of hospitality in Europe, which is a shame seeing that we learned so much about the villagers’ lifestyles and traditions in that one week.
After the week in the jungle we went back to the Twintech hostel to start the actual exchange programme the next day. During the next two weeks we were to do different voluntary work and experience the teaching and daily routine at Twintech College Sarawak.
We got up early to take the school bus to the college. There were many students and few places, but we managed to all get a seat and arrived at the college to have our breakfast in the canteen. Afterwards we went on at tour of the college and were introduced to different member of staff.
The teaching of the college was focused on management, math and business, but also offered English and Chinese classes. I found the teaching style quite different from the more interactive part that we are used to from Atlantic College. Some of the classes were very big while others consisted of four or five students. Girls and boys were not keen on sitting next to each other, which surprised me a bit. The teaching was conducted in English and Malay or rather the popular mixture Manglish. Unfortunately this made it difficult for us to follow some of the classes.
In the evenings we usually had a busy schedule. In the first week we went to a small school with 11 and 12 year-olds. We had to take a small boat across a river to get to the school. It was nice sailing back and forth because of the cool breeze which was a pleasant contrast to the very humid daylight weather. The school had two classrooms with approximately five Atlantic College ‘teachers’ in each. We taught the children Science, English and Math. Science in particular proved to be quite a challenge because we decided to teach the 12-year-olds with fundamental English skills about lunar eclipse. We happily asked some of the students to help us and allocated them with roles such as ‘moon’, ‘sun’ and ‘earth’. We made them turn around each other according to the real solar system and they seemed to understand most of it – or maybe they just nodded vigorously because they found the sight of five teenage girls running around trying to demonstrate solar eclipse hilarious.
In the weekend of the first week we went to Sarawak Cultural Village, which was very interesting. It had lots of different long houses from all over Sarawak and Sabah – some tall, some round and some very similar to the one we had lived in a week previously. Like small children we collected stamps in our ‘Cultural Village Passports’ every time we entered a new longhouse and ended the experience with a show of different dances from the respective areas of the Malaysian part of Borneo. I found this show very impressive – it included a man spinning on his stomach on a thick 2-3 meter tall wooden stick and another man bashing balloons with his blow dart.
On the next day we went to a wonderful beach close to the Cultural Village. We spent a few hours there swimming, tanning and having fun. Some of us saw a scorpion on the beach while others were burning in the sun, forgetting that the Malaysian sun is a little stronger than the European sun.
The next week we spent at Twintech, but we also taught classes in the evenings for a variety of age-groups. I taught 11/12 year-olds and 13/14 year-olds. We taught the same subjects as in the previous school, but found some of these classes a bit more frustrating at first because they were harder to control, however, eventually got their attention and had a really good time teaching them. They kept telling us how beautiful we were despite our sweaty faces and greasy hair caused by the Malaysian climate.
The last day we had experienced everything that we could have hoped for except one thing. We were on Borneo, but had not seen a single orangutan for whom the Island is so famous. We somehow managed to find a national park and a minibus to get there with and were very lucky because many orangutans showed up for the feeding ‘session’. These sessions were essential and happened twice a day to ensure that the orangutans got enough food. The park or jungle they lived in could not provide them with enough by itself and thus we got to see the orangutans before leaving Borneo.
After four weeks in Malaysia I flew home to my little country full of impressions and experiences. I was glad to be home, but would not have been without this journey. I learned a lot about Malaysia and the culture, but most of all I learned that a friendly and welcoming people makes the whole difference between a good and a bad experience when far away from home.
-United World Colleges Student Magazine-