Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Some days just suck. Welcome to the Philippines.

I was cranky and pissed off. My start in Manila was not good. In fact, it was horrible. I had it all planned out, and the universe decided to shit all over my plans and make me remember that travel isn't always rainbows and unicorns. Sometimes, it can really suck.

I had ended on such a high note in Borneo. The beautiful forest, rewarding volunteer work, wonderful people, delicious food. I spent my last evening with my Kota Kinabalu Couchsurfing hostess, who took me and some other members of KOPEL out to dinner. She dropped me off to the airport where I waited for my 2 am flight. I thought I would get some sleep at the airport, but, alas, that was not the case. Hard benches and bright, fluorescent lighting were the first to throw a wrench at my plans.

I arrived at the Manila airport just after 4 am. The plane ride had been turbulent and bumpy, and I was not able to drift to sleep. In my confused, tired state, I wandered through the airport like a zombie. I was swooped up by a taxi driver almost immediately. After visiting an ATM, the driver quoted me a price of 1700 pesos and I did some quick math and figured that was on point. I stepped into the van, it wreaked of fish. I almost vomited from the smell. This guy must transfer food for the market in his down time. Ugh.

After a couple moments, I realized that my sleep-deprived brain had miscalculated the exchange rate. Instead of a taxi that should have cost me $4-5 dollars, I was paying $40. I was pissed off at the driver now, but had paid a station at the airport and knew there was nothing I could do. I was looking forward to getting to my bed for the night, errr, morning.

I had arranged to stay with another Couchsurfing hostess. She seemed fantastic and we had exchanged several emails already. She had provided some detailed advice on places to go during my trip, left me her address and phone number, and told me the door would be unlocked so I could come in and go right to sleep. I would be meeting my partner and a friend the next evening, but had found a cheap flight so decided to come explore the city with a local before ending my solo travels.

We arrived at the house; the gate was locked. I could see the back screen door open. There were razor wires on the fence. The taxi driver had left, and I looked around exasperated. I was so tired, I thought of sitting down right next to the gate and falling asleep. Had I written the wrong house number down? I tried banging on the gate. A dog barked. Here I am about to wake up the entire neighborhood.

The taxi driver had gotten turned around and drove back past, he slowed and checked if everything was OK. I explained that I could not get in, and he let me use his phone. After countless, stalker-style repeat phone calls, I gave up. I asked the driver if he knew of a decent hotel for very cheap. I had already spent more money on the taxi then I had planned to spend for the day. He told me there was a place nearby for about 500 pesos, safe and clean. Great, take me there.

We bumped off, away from the nice neighborhood of Makati, and into the ghetto slums somewhere near the airport. Watching the trash lined streets and homeless people digging through garbage, I arrived at the hotel. It was almost 6am at this point. The hotel itself looked like the nicest building in the neighborhood, so I walked in, ready to crash on any bed that fell within my line of site. I went up to the desk and found that instead of 500 pesos, it was 7,999. I was so mad.  And tired.  And mad. I was not going back outside of the building. Traveling alone, in the dark, white female with all of my belongings in this neighborhood. No way, my luck was not on point to risk that decision today. Too tired and pissed to give any more fucks, I forked out the cash and went to my room. I was fuming. I had spent triple the amount that I had saved by booking a red-eye flight and did not feel safe walking outside. I bolted the door and double checked my lock. I crawled into bed furious, emotionally drained and physically exhausted. I closed my eyes and sighed as I tried to force myself into a much needed rest. Well.....No such luck. Have you ever been so tired that you just couldn't sleep? Yeah.....

Only three hours in, and I was already ready to get the fuck out of Manila.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Environmental Ed, Planting trees and Exploring; Volunteering in Borneo part 3

My mouth looked like a botched plastic surgery. A collagen injection gone horribly wrong. Having naturally thin lips, my giant, luscious lips made me look like an entirely different person. I initally assumed that the stinging and tingling sensation I had felt had been a result of some deet washing into my mouth with the sweat that had constantly streamed down my face. I was wrong. A rash spread across my face from my lips. It was my first evening outside of the village; I was traveling alone in Sandakan.

My visit to Sandakan was hardly worth noting. The city was dirty and boring. I walked around a bit, but now I know why so many call this place the ghetto of Borneo. There was trash lining every street, and it seemed that every building and road was in the middle of a construction project. I spent most of my time enjoying the small luxuries that were provided by my hotel; hot, running water, cold beer, a real bed, and unlimited access to internet. I had told my host family in Mengaris that I had booked a night at a hotel with a swimming pool and they had looked at me like I was a millionaire. I did feel like a million bucks after soaking in a bathtub while surfing the internet and drinking a shitty beer.

After getting my pampering fix, I headed out to stay in Sepilok, and instantly felt the relief that
comes with fresh air and being surrounded by forest. I visited the orangutan sanctuary. It was nothing spectacular, but I was happy to see some semi-wild orangutans. Twice a day the center leaves out food, and many of the Orangutans that have been released after rehabilitation come back to get food. I got to see two younger males and a mother with a baby come in to grub down on papayas, mangoes and bananas. It felt incredibly touristy as I stood there with a crowd of people snapping away pictures. The sanctuary is surrounded by fancy resorts, a sunbear rehabilitation center and a rain forest discovery center. Since I like to steer clear of tourist activities, I opted out of visiting the other centers and was happy I choose to stay at a place that was a 20 minute walk away instead of smack dab in the middle of white-person-ville. I was the only guest, and I preferred it that way.

I was ready to hop back into the volunteer action with MESCOT, but my ride never showed up. I sat around waiting for them all day and finally got an email that evening that they would not be coming. I looked into bus options but had already missed the last bus going that direction, so I had to stay another night. KOPEL said they would pick me up the following day around mid-day. I made the best of it and went on a run through the trees. It was a welcome relief from my traffic infested bridge runs in Mengaris. A group of conservation students came from the UK and I enjoyed chatting with them and their professors. The next day my “mid-day” ride finally came around 5pm and we took off, bumping down the highway.

The rash on my face had stopped spreading, but it was tender and my lips were still quite large. I had looked online and checked with my aunt, a nurse in the states, and sure enough, I was having an allergic reaction to the doxycycline I was taking as an anti-malaria medication. We stopped at the hospital on the way back to the village. I was surprised at how great Malaysian hospitals were. As a foreigner, I was charged 65 ringgit (locals pay 1 ringgit), waited less then 30 minutes, and my fee included a new malaria medication, calamine lotion, vitamin c pills and a medication to help reduce my rash and itching. Once again, I found myself a little sick to my stomach that yet another country has better options for healthcare then the United States. I asked the locals about it and they said at most, they would pay about 5 ringgit for serious medical treatment (aprox $1.50) that would require surgery or the like.

setting up for environmental ed course
I quickly settled back into village life at my third home-stay and continued my volunteer work for another couple of weeks. The first weekend back, I was asked to help with an environmental education course for the local youth, a new program. Sixteen teenage boys and a few girls showed up. Even though I understood very little of the actual course material, as it was taught in Malay, I was excited to see how interested the youth in the area was in conservation techniques.

We introduced the youth to the importance of rainforest eco-systems and had them do several activities looking at the impacts of palm-oil and development on their local forest. 

Setting up camera traps
 We took off in a boat that afternoon to have a sleep-over at the eco camp. In the evening, we showed them different strategies for monitoring local wildlife. We broke off into small groups and let each group choose a location to set up a camera trap. Afterwards we went on a hike and collected wild jungle veggies for dinner. A few of the kids in my group new which plants to eat already, and it made me very happy to see some young amateur botanist foragers, knowing how few kids in the states would be able to find food in their own backyards. After dark, we all geared up with headlamps and leech socks and headed off for a night walk in the jungle. It was by far my favorite part of the program. Lots of critters were out and about in the night; birds sleeping in the branches, insects crawling about, lizards and frogs galore. The kids once again surprised me with their keen spotting eyes.

We continued the program the next day and had a demonstration on how to test water quality. Any of
The kids testing water quality
the youth that were interested, could come back for subsequent training's and get a part time job through KOPEL to monitor water quality. In fact, the second in command for the program was a 16 year old boy who had done just that. We visited a few of the tree planting sites and showed the kids the orangutan bridge along one of the tributaries. The program ended with the kids each making posters and creating a presentation on the importance of forest conservation with an idea for a research project they may be able to do. All in all, I thought it was very successful, even though I hardly understood anything that they said.

Our entire environmental education group
Clearing invasives around newly planted trees
While I was helping out with the EE program, a miraculous thing occurred. WHITE PEOPLE came to the village. In a swarm. A group with 20 some gap year students came to “volunteer.” I was very excited to have some people to talk to. They had their own program, and I quickly realized that they were not really there to get work done, but more for the show of it. They had paid some exorbitant amount to a program that catered to their every need and they worked a few hours each day. One girl in particular I found incredibly rude as she showed no respect to the local traditions. One day, I helped them at a tree-planting site and she showed up in a bikini top and short shorts. I could tell the local village guys were uncomfortable, but no one mentioned that she should be more covered. She complained about the difficulty of the work and spent most of her time smoking and resting. She threw here cigarette butts on the ground, smashed them down with her feet and walked off. Ugh... I was so disappointed. While not everyone was so rude, I was pretty disheartened to not be able to share my experience with them on a deeper level.

Me and Taing getting dirty planting trees

Me and Lucy hugging trees
All was not lost, a few days before the end of my stay, another actual volunteer showed up. Lucy. I laughed when she introduced herself. The villagers had been calling me Lucy or Leesy or Lisa for the past few weeks, so I guess they would either be completely confused, or just keep up the same nicknames. Lucy and I hit it off pretty well and we both seemed to be there to get work done and enjoy nature. We spent our first couple of days together with Taing, hiking up the large hillside across the river searching for seeds and working together planting them in the nursery.

The night before the gappers left, the village put on a cultural performance; Lucy and I were invited to come along and watch. Our host families provided us with traditional Malaysian clothing and we went off to watch the show in ultra long shirts and skirts. It felt strange having most every body part covered up and then having a low cut slit in the front of my shirt; my cleavage was in full effect and it was probably the most boobage I had shown for my whole visit. It is still so strange to me what is culturally acceptable. The group, naturally, showed up over an hour late to the show, so it was delayed. They were all in traditional clothing as well, and most of the girls had a full face of make-up on. The show was fun, very similar to the dance performance I had seen in Sarawak, but on a smaller level. Taing gave a martial arts demonstration which was nice because it was so different.
Getting my dance on!
At the end of the show, everyone was forced on stage to dance. We created a large circle and spun around in different directions, the leader screaming out large “whhhheeeelp” every time we needed to change direction. Faster and faster, I was being pulled in various directions, stepping on and being run into by those on either side of me.

I knew my time was coming to an end in Mengaris, and I was getting very sad at the thought of leaving. I had grown so attached to the villagers, and felt genuinely welcome and at home their. I asked the volunteer coordinator if I could have a “play day” for my last day instead of working. Naturally, I still wanted Taing to be my guide since he was my favorite. Jai gave his permission, and allowed us to take a boat upstream about an hour to visit Supu camp. Lucy got to join us.

We woke up early and took off on our expedition. Supu camp is a more primitive camp then eco-camp, with mostly hammock and tents for sleeping accommodation. Rangers take shifts sleeping there to monitor the cave nearby. Swifts nested in the cave, and swift bird-nest was a delicacy that fetched a high price, which had led to over harvest and depletion of the bird population. We found the rangers doing some repairs on the Supu camp structure.

Entering the cave
Getting up to the cave was about an hour hike, on steep terrain. The leeches in this area were much worse then anywhere I had worked before, I pulled at least ten off of my socks, arms and legs before getting to the cave. The jungle was pristine and beautiful. After sweating a few liters, we made it to the cool retreat of the cave. It was one of the largest caverns I had ever been into. 

 Immediately, I heard the echo of the swift birds and a strong vibration coming from within. We donned our headlamps and walked in. We took a turn to our left and walked down a large “hall.” Bats by the thousands came flying out towards us. I shown my light on the ceilings and walls and watched them drop from their hanging posts, some coming uncomfortably close to my face. We snapped away pictures and found an old coffin at the end of the hall. The remains had been removed by some archeologists and had been dated back to over 1000 years ago. We made our way back down the hall and towards the swift bird side of the cave. As I got closer and closer, I could feel the sound and vibration feel my entire body. Their collective wing-beats were so strong it was overwhelming. I stood in the darkness and just felt them for a few minutes.

Lucy and I in the bat cave

Saying my goodbyes to Borneo <3
After visiting the cave, Taing took us, up and up, to climb on top of the limestone cave. We free climbed over the jagged rocks higher and higher. Finally making it to the top, we were rewarded with a stunning view of the jungle below. Watching the river snake its way through the forest, above the canopy, I felt incredibly free. I made Lucy and Taing both yell at the top of our lungs to the forest. We took selfies and drank in water and the views.  

Posing at the top of the world

On the way back to Supu camp, we stopped along the base of some limestone walls to enjoy our lunch, and then took off through the forest. About 20 minutes later, I realized that Taing had no idea where we were. We were lost. The trail had been pretty unapparent to me for our entire hike, but I realized as he ducked his head around trees, and traced his fingers along some imaginary route, that we had been off the so-called trail for quite some time. We trouced around in circles for a while. 15 minutes. 30 minutes. I asked Lucy if she was worried. She wasn't. I made short videos of our “lost in Borneo” adventure. Is this a trail? no. Is this a trail? no. I laughed. I was secretly hoping we would be lost forever and that this was not really my last day in this beautiful rain forest. I assumed that if we were really lost, Taing would be able to build us a house and find us food. Is this a trail? no. Secretely I wished I could stay lost in the Borneo forest forever.....  One can dream, right?  About two hours later, we circled back to where we had eaten lunch. We found a trail. The right trail? Yes. Bummer. :) We made it back to Supu camp, drenched in sweat and smiles.

View of the cave we had just climbed.
I removed my socks and started rubbing my sore legs. I was spent. Taing got up and indicated that we were not done. I refilled my two liter water bottle and we started back up another steep slope. Using roots as stairs, we crawled up-slope as my legs screamed. We reached another beautiful vista and Taing pointed out the top of the cave that we had climbed before.
We followed a ridge line for a while and proceeded to climb up again. I was finally getting my legs broken in when we reached another large cliff wall. Tree roots reached hundreds of feet down from the top of the cliff into the soil, and it was hard to tell what was growing up and what was reaching down.
Alligator carving with coffins in the background
The remains of a few children
Along the bottom was a pile of coffins, lined up. KOPEL had found this sacred burial site a few years ago. The coffins had intricate designs carved into them, patterns and animals. There was a large hole in the wall above. A small coffin remained. It was full of bones from children. Yes. Human bones, still present. They buried about five children in the coffin. We enjoyed the serenity of the place and pondered about what the ancient tribes thought about this place.

Roots meet the ground, trees meet the sky, sacred burial ground in Borneo

Nature's recliner, Borneo rain forest
We trekked back down the hill, stopping for a rest in nature's recliner.  Vines woven together held us up.  We made it back to Supu camp and were greeted with hot tea and time to rest our sore legs. Dusk was coming and we had to get back on the boat, so we said our goodbyes. I begged Taing to let me jump in the river, just for a moment, a splash, but he strictly forbade me. I was so hot and sweaty, and that water looked so refreshing. I begged.  He refused.  I tried my best sad, pouty-lip.  He did not budge. A couple minutes after hopping on the boat, I was reminded as to why we were not allowed in; a huge crocodile sat hidden in some mud along the river bank. I was sure looking forward to being in a place where I could swim.

My final cruise down the Kinabatangan River
We cruised down the river, and I watched the monkeys, lizards and birds at sunset on the Kinabatangan River for the last time. A bittersweet goodbye, I am going to really miss my beautiful Borneo.

Until we meet again, Selamat tinggal, - Sayang

A Borneo Sunset to say goodbye

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Life in Mengaris Village; Volunteering in Borneo, part 2

Life moves slower here.  Any sort of schedule is a rough one, being late is an expectation.  The crumbling paved road that starts on the bustling highway finds it end somewhere below the waterline in the Kinabatangan River.  The road may be the only one in town, but it is alive, flowing faster then the river at times.  Brighly painted houses floating on stilts line each side of the unnamed road, with hues of blue, yellow, orange and red.  They are simple; tin roofed, and uneven wood planks.  They all appear half finished with dark, happy faces peering out.  Every one has a deck or patio with flower pots pouring bright colors and greenery out of them. Colorful patterns decorate the clothing lines, weaving around the homes and between yards.  At any one time you can look down the street and see children chasing soccer balls, chickens strutting with baby chicks in tow, goats grazing, cats stretching up their backs into the sunshine and dogs sneaking around skittishly.  There are no fences around the homes, for no one needs to contain anything.  No one needs to keep anything out.  The people, even the children, and the animals are free to move as they please.  The community is one large extended family.  Walking a few hundred meters from one end to the other, one hears jolly "hello's" coming from all angles.  Little girls with muddy hands and faces persist if your response is slow, and they follow you until the greeting is returned.

Rainy day in Mengaris
The lady who runs the fruit stand can be found sleeping among the miniature bunches of bananas and fresh mango's on her humble wooden stand. Five times a day, a beautifully haunting song fills the air from the mosque sitting near the river; the Muslim call to prayer. Inside, the homes are simple. Uneven wood floors are covered with brightly patterned linoleum, which exposes holes and cracks where you can see the wet ground far below. There is no hot water here; you can see the large blue tubs perched beside the homes, collecting fresh rainwater with each storm.  Electricity came to the village in 1997, and now electrical outlets are placed haphazardly with exposed wires running along the walls.  Handcrafted, brightly colored fabrics are molded around doorways and windows.  Fake flowers are pinned to the walls.  Some of the homes have furniture, others do not.  Why would they need a couch when one can just sit on the floor.

Goats do the yard maintenance
I am the only volunteer in the village;, the only white person in the village; with my pale skin and blue hair, just recently shaved into a mohawk, I stand out. Just a bit.  I am not going to lie, on my first day here I felt utterly alone. Isolated. I woed to myself wondering how I would even make it to the next day, let alone 3 weeks in this place.  I was in the heart of Borneo, my dream, but I felt very out of place. Just what had I gotten myself into anyways?

Trying to learn Malay in my new room
My first host family seemed not to know what to do with me. Guling and his wife could not speak more then a couple of words of English. I could see the dismay in my host mothers face when my coordinator explained to her that I would only be eating veggies and rice, no meat, and yes that meant no eggs or fish either.  Guling was a short,stocky man that worked for KOPEL and in the nearby oil palm plantations.  His wife wore a different intricately patterned wrap skirt everyday. She had made her clothing in the lower level of the home; she was the main seamstress for the village and you could tell that she had a fine hand for it. She showed the years on her face in a warm way that made me think she had smiled her entire life. I would later find this to be true. Guling showed me my room. I had the most luxurious room in the house. It was a small room with two beds, each with a mosquito net of their own. It felt strange to be the only one not sleeping on the floor, but I was thankful for a little bit of western comfort.  A towel and traditional garb had been set out for me, I had a fan, a light and 1 extra plug in to charge what I needed too. I set my things down on the floor next to one of the beds.

Typical shower, 3 weeks with this!
We walked down a creaking wood step to the open air, tin roofed toilet area. Guling opened the off kilter plastic door that resembled one on a port a potty. As he opened it to show me the simple squat toilet, he looked sad and said to me, “sorry” A bucket in a large tub of water sat next to the toilet and he simply waved his had over it suggesting that I use that to flush, or clean myself after, I was not totally clear. I did not see any paper to wipe with, so I assumed I had walked into a "wipe left, shake right" type of situation. I had heard of that before. I have dealt with more rustic toilet situations, but I have never had an extended stay without the luxury of wiping with soft, absorbent paper.  A hardwood wall and another jenky plastic door led to the next room where a spiket and another bucket sat on the floor. Clothes lay haphazardly about, some in buckets, some hanging up to dry. “Shower, sorry,” Guling said to me. He looked utterly ashamed. I tried to tell him it was fine, but wondered if the look on my face indicated otherwise. I was not upset, but I was totally confused about how to use the facilities. The strangeness of my welcoming committee did not help in that manner. I did not want to insult anyone, and I was happy to have a place to clean myself. I knew the water came from a rainwater catchment system in the large blue bin outside and that it was refreshed almost everyday right from the sky. I threw a big smile on my face and assured him everything was fine.

I tried to ask a couple of questions, but Guling and his wife just shook their heads and smiled at me. I realized that they had no clue what I was saying. I tried to point out the drum-set that lay in the corner and asked if they played. More smiling and head shaking. After unpacking my things and setting up my room, I had no idea what to do with myself. The discomfort of the situation would normally had resulted in me watching smut television or perusing the internet for hours; however, there is no internet in the homes. I stayed in my room for a while, writing and considering my options. Thinking of ways to get out of the commitment I had made. A few children peeked their heads in my door. When I would turn towards them, they ran away screaming and laughing. For the next fifteen minutes or so, we spent the time playing peek a boo, until their parents came and shooed them away. I decided to go out and try to make conversation again. Guling called his son-in-law Mana, who prefers to be called, “Man, just Man” He spoke more English. We had a brief conversation about the musical instruments and he explained his father is an excellent singer, pointing to the shelf of dusty trophies in the corner. Instead of a gold athlete poised in some generic position, a microphone set atop each one. I asked Man if I could do something to help around the house. He told me no, that I should rest or walk around the village. Having had enough rest, I walked outside.

My mood improved almost instantly as I wandered up and down the street, examining my surroundings, finding new greetings with each step. I returned to my homestay later as the sky grew dark. Man suggested I watch the women cook my dinner for me, but as soon as I walked down the stairs asking if I could help, I was handed a tray and told to take it upstairs to the table. After a second round of this, a seat was pulled out for me. I waited for the family to join me, but only one of the daughters, Suhana, sat with me. I inquired about the others and was relieved to have someone actually understand me. Her English was not excellent, but we could make some conversation. She told me the rest of the family would eat later. I had a large plate of rice and two, very delicious veggie dishes presented in tiny bowls of beautiful china with blue, red and gold floral decorations gracing the edges. Suhana shared some of my food while Man and her children ate in their bedroom off of the side of the dining area. Her son, Dennis came out and stole a couple slices of apple that had been laid out for my dessert.

Once I had declared that I was full, Suhana told me to go rest. I resisted releasing a frustrating sign.  Rest. Again. Just how much rest did this family think I needed anyway? I went to my room and arranged, rearranged and straightened my things as much as possible. I found my book and read until I couldn't read anymore. I was not tired. I had slept almost the entire bus ride from Kota Kinabalu, a five and a half hour journey to the village. Forcing myself to lie down, I ended up asleep around 730.

My dreams were vivid. I generally do not remember my dreams, but something about Borneo, or maybe it was the anti-malaria medicine, had triggered my dreams.  I have had surreal and wildly outlandish dreams every night since I arrived here a few weeks ago.  I awoke every couple of hours that first night, looking at my clock to see if it was a reasonable hour to awake. 12am. Fuck. More dreaming. 3 am. I heard the rain bouncing off the tin roof.  5 am. More vivid, lucid dreams, nightmarish almost. 6am. Finally! I got up and put on some modest clothes that I could get dirty in.   

The next morning EVERYTHING changed. I walked about the empty house, hearing children laughing behind closed doors. I sat on the front step, looking out at the clouds clearing from the rain forest canopy across the river. It was beautiful here. The air was fresh from the night before, I breathed it in and felt an ease grow within myself. Around 730, my breakfast came in the form of doughnuts and hot chocolate. I did not have the heart to explain what vegan meant again. I forced a small amount down, knowing full well that my stomach would tell me all about it later. I tried to lie and say that I am not a big breakfast person.  I think they got the hint, as I was not served those things again. I walked off to the KOPEL office to see what my first day of work would bring.

Smiles abound

I learned all about the MESCOT initiative and began my volunteer work.  My heart was flooded with joy over being a part of something that was making such a big difference in the community and for the forest.  Those feelings of isolation have never returned, and I have felt more welcome and integrated into the village every day.  It must have been first day jitters, a longing for home, or something of the sort.  I have completely fallen in love with the way of life and the people here.

I spent another 3 nights at Guling's house.  Not much changed, the family did their thing, and I did mine, but I did not feel alone.  I was exhausted from the work and my evening runs, so I did not mind the peace.  The rest of the village was so incredibly welcoming that my distant host family did not affect my mood.  I ended up staying with four different families in the village during my 3 weeks there.  It was great to see the differences between them and get a true idea of local life.

Dinner at the Zainel's
My second homestay was across the street with Guling's cousin, the Zainel family.  My host mother welcomed me in broken English and constant laughter.  She was a very jovial lady.  He husband was thin and talkative.  He had several scars across his chest which appeared to have been made with a machete.  The Zainel's had two young boys living at home, and an older daughter who lived in Sandakan during the week to attend high school, about 2 hours away. The youngest boy was obsessed with taking pictures, so I would let him take off with my waterproof and shockproof camera while he snapped away.  Every morning, I would spend twenty minutes or so erasing blurry photos, pictures of cartoons from the tv, and strange compilations he had created on the panoramic setting.  I was always being pleasantly surprised at the few gems he captured. In the evenings, the family sat watching the TV together and made an effort to get to know me. Mrs. Zainel made a special hot sauce from scratch.  Once I told her that I enjoyed spicy foods, I definitely got it!  Every meal she doused in the sauce.  While lunch and dinner always tasted the same due to the overwhelmingly strong flavor of it, I was happy to have it.  The home was very similar to Guling's home, but smaller.  The family slept in one room on the floor, while I had my own room with a bed.  The shower did not have a spicket, but instead a large ceramic pot from which to scoop my shower out of.  It was built out on a deck with three walls, opening to the palm trees in the back.  The toilet was inside of the home, and toilet paper was still no where to be found.

Almost every evening, I ran laps across the bridge. Back and forth, back and forth. It was a battlefield out there, with traffic speeding by, constant honking, and various obstacles to avoid; rubbish, cement from the road, tire shavings.  Every day made for a different course, or so I told myself to make it seem less mundane.  There was a beautiful view of the village, the river and the forested hills in the distance.  If I focused my eyes away from the traffic, it was almost like being on a trail, at least until a car came by and splashed me with some foul-smelling water.  Suhana from my first homestay joined me occasionally, as did many of the other villagers.  I dubbed us the bridge club.  They became expectant of me, waiting outside of their homes for me to run by, and then following suit.  What an encouraging way to get me running!  We would sometimes stop together at either end, doing push-ups, squats and lunges or sit ups.  Every night I ran back through the village and stretched my sore calves on the boat dock overlooking the beautiful Kinabatangan River while I did my yoga.

After several days of hearing "hello" echo through the village towards me every morning, I grew a little tired of the greeting, so I started responding with "Good Morning."  The simple change made some return with a confused look on their face, but after a day or so I started getting the greeting back.  The best part was, they would yell "good morning, volunteer" to me during any time of day.  In the evening as I ran across the bridge, some boys below would shout good morning to me and I would just smile, never feeling the need to correct them.

After working for nine days straight, I took off for a little break in nearby Sandakan to visit the city, and enjoy the Orangutan Sanctuary in Sepliok.  Both were refreshing, but I was surprised at how much I missed the village and the work.  I remember chatting with my partner, Brian about how anxious I was to get back.  "I'm over this," I told him.  He asked, "Relaxing??"  "Absolutely, I need to get back to work, I came here with a mission!!"  Seriously, who needs to lounge when you can trounce around the forest all day helping to save the rainforest????

When I returned, I was placed in my third, and FAVORITE homestay.  Surayah and Derek had two little girls.  They welcomed me with open arms.  My first night, Derek proclaimed, "We may be from different parts of the world, you may be Christian (Actually, I'm not, but I did not correct him), and I may be Muslim, I am dark and you are light, but we are ONE.  We are the SAME.  My home is yours and you are welcome here."  My heart almost burst at his sincerity.  It was the first time I felt truly welcome and a part of the family.  Our evenings were spent on the porch together while Derek told me about the local folklore and Malaysian traditions. I learned tales of how the proboscis monkeys came, and why the hills were shaped the way they were.  We talked about the village flooding and being swept away.  The family asked me many questions about the US.  I was their first visitor from the country.  They offered to wash my clothing, took me to the local markets and made me a part of their every day life.  Their twelve year old daughter went on runs with me, smiling and staring at me the whole way.  She taught me games, braided my hair and asked me to help her with her English homework.  When I left her home, I gave her my address and told her to write me so she could continue to practice.  She did not get the concept of a pen pal at first, but after asking her teacher the next day about it, she proclaimed that she was excited to write me. I hope that she does.

Surayah's kitchen,  cooking with a view
Surayah's food was nothing short of amazing.  Every meal was completely different, she put a lot of effort so that I "wouldn't get bored eating JUST veggies."  I wondered how she did not get bored eating rice for every meal, but just smiled and told her I never get bored with just vegetables.  The entire family ate dinner with me each night, they went vegan for 5 days (well, at breakfast and dinner anyways....)  Surayah's meals were one of the highlights of my stay; fried bananas, spicy noodles, soy glazed eggplant, toasted coconut spiced fern fronds, peanut vinaigrette cucumber salad, heart of palm and bean curd, various veggies in spicy sauces, vegan pasties filled with coconut or banana.  I was in food heaven.  She constantly poured more food on my plate saying, "Don't shy... You shy, you die."  I would never die here of starvation, in fact I probably ate enough for a couple of people every day.  I stole several of her recipes and she showed me how to cook in traditional Malaysian ways, so I will be sharing some of the deliciousness with those back home.  Before we eat each meal, we wash our hands with a teapot over a basin and then proceed to eat with our right hand.  It was difficult at first to get the hang of eating saucy veggies and rice with my fingers, but I eventually got the hang of it and only make a little bit of a mess of myself.

How to lock a door in Mengaris Village

Like all of the homes I stayed in, Surayah and Derek's home was simple and decorated with ornate plaques in Arabic, fake flowers, and patterned floors.  The shower was a large blue basin of water and a smaller gray handled bucket to scoop with.  I've become accustom to the cold, refreshing drenches after a long sweaty run.  The toilet was again a squat toilet, and Surayah was the first home to offer me toilet paper (so thoughtful!).  Used paper was placed in a plastic sack, and I used the water scoop to flush my waste down.  I wondered where the human waste was washed to, though I never investigated, feeling that was one mystery mystery was one better left unsolved.

The community fort
Many of the locals had a lot of trouble pronouncing my name.  I got Lucy, Leesy, Lisa, Lassie, etc. Some just call me volunteer.  After a week or so, I was given a Malaysian nickname, Sayang.  It means kind one, dear, or honey.  Its a term of endearment, and even though it is normally reserved for one's spouse or child, I took it with pride. I started re-introducing myself to others as Sayang, and I got smiles and laughs.  Sometimes in the evenings, I wander around with my camera, taking photos.  The children are complete HAMS.  They run up to me, posing and grabbing at my pants.  Wanting to do photoshoots and then look at all of my pictures.  We spin and throw grass at each other, and they show me the secret fort they built in a small corner of one of the fields.

Fun with grass.  This is how I feel every day here.

Currently, I am staying at my last homestay.  A complete 360 from my other small family homes, this home has four generations living in one giant connected house. Mysterious hallways connect doorways to unseen rooms, I think I have yet to see the entire place, and do not anticipate that I ever will.  Fifteen children run constantly through the halls, and forty people in total now live with me.  It is a bustling and boisterous place, full of curious smiling faces. There is never a shortage of conversation or things to do.  I will never begin to remember the names of all that are here.  We eat our dinner sitting on the living room floor, while children spin and scream around us.  The food is simple compared to Surayah's, but delicious all the same.  I have only been here a few hours, and I already feel a part of this family too.

I am getting ready to leave this wonderful village in just a few days, and my heart is breaking over the thought.  To think of how I felt that first night seems so ridiculous now. I knew the work would be rewarding, but I never expected the community to steal me away like this.  I will miss this place and these people dearly.  I feel I have experienced a slice of local life and I have fallen in love with it.  While I am looking forward to a long, hot shower originating from a magical fountain from above my head, I must admit, I am a bit nervous to return to society. I just may have gone a bit feral out in this magical Borneo rain forest.  So now, I am left wondering, does this mean I have to start using silverware again?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Saving the Rainforest: Volunteering in Borneo, part 1

I heard crashing to my right. My heart jumped. I imagined the biggest and most dangerous of creatures just beyond my view. Branches were snapping and water was spashing. We were deep in the jungle at that point; we had been hiking for about an hour through swampy rainforest with a machete guiding our path. I did not know if Taing, one of my guides, did not stir at the sound because he was deaf, or because he was unconcerned. Mr. Arbor was old, so maybe his hearing was bad. As the sound got closer, it seemed to be all around us. Finally Mr. Arbor put his arm out, indicating that we should stop. I was ready to scale a tree and get out of the way of any stampeeding elephants or boars headed our way. Suddenly, leaves were raining down on me and branches were snaping from above and splashing into the water around us. Taing took my hand and dragged me to the left pointing and “speaking” in the hand motions and moans that are his way of communicating. He has never learned to talk, as he had been deaf since he was a child. He pointed up. It took me a moment too see what he was showing me, but once I did, I was awestruck. Proboscis monkeys were flying from limb to limb above, all around us. I watched them take the death defying leaps from branch to branch, tree to tree. I felt a big sense of relief that we were not being charged by elephants. If monkeys make this much commotion, I can only imagine what the elephants sound like when they are out and about in the forest. I watched and then listened to them go as boistersly as they came and continued on. We had work to do.

It was only my second day volunteering for KOPEL as a part of the the MESCOT initiative, but I was completely in love with the work. Even though the work was physically hard, it was mentally refreshing. It was like a dream had been realized. I, me, Lacy, was helping to save the rainforest. KOPEL has worked on reforestation projects on the lower Kinabatangan River in Borneo since 1997 and had already planted over 300,000 trees on reclaimed palm oil land, illegally logged forest and burnt sections of the forest reserve.

5 year old replanted forest
They not only worked on restoring the rainforest for wildlife habitat, but they also provided revenue to a community who had once relied on illegal logging for income. Thwarting the problem from two angles, what a strategy. In addition to the replanting, they also have a comprehensive management plan, to make sure the trees they plant continue to thrive. They work to clean out invasive Salvinia molesta, an invasive aquatic plant from South America, from the ox-bow lakes in the reserve, build orangutang bridges over tributaries, and monitor swift bird nests (an expensive delicasy) from overharvest. They also have a homestay program, which I am participating in, where anyone can come and stay with a local family and see how life truly is in Mengaris village where the KOPEL office is located. They also built and operate the only eco-camp on a national forest reserve in Borneo and provide eco-friendly activities for tourists to come and enjoy the wildlife and beauty of the area.


Working in the MESCOT nursery
My first day on the job had been spent at the tree nursery, which was very fitting since I had spent my childhood working at my parents nursery. I had not even told the volunteer coordinaters this fact. I moved plants around all day and became instant friends with the plant guru, Taing.

Although Taing is deaf, I seem to be able to communicate with him better then anyone else in the village. It must be all those years of explaining things with his hands. While many of the people in the village speak English, they are not fluent and I often have trouble understanding the way they pronunciate words or select their phases. KOPEL collects all of their seeds and seedlings from the forest, nutures them until they are ready, and then re-plants them in areas that have been deforested, aiming to maintain a continuous, healthy forest corridor for wildlife to pass through. I was very happy to be a part of the process from beginning to end. Mr. Arbor was an older gentleman who worked in he nursery and at seed collection. He spoke English fairly well, he often had me take breaks when it rained too hard, or he thought I had been working too hard. He would tell me about his culture, show me photos and ask me questions about the US.

Monsoon Runners Club!
My evenings are spent running back and forth over the bridge with the local boys, who either run in the afternoons or play soccer. Each lap over the bridge is 1km, so it is a great place to enjoy the river view, breath in some exhaust fumes from the busy road near the village, and count kilometers. I have set a goal to run a 30k by the end of my 30th year, so now is as good as any time to start training. After running for a couple of nights, my local host sister asked me if I would like to go to the gym with her. She meant the bridge of course, so we took turns running over the bridge and doing various exercises at each end.

Taing with seedlings
My second day on the job sent me down the Kinatabangan River and deep into the jungle with Taing and Mr. Arbor for seed collection. It was this time when I first encountered the magestic proboscis monkeys, with noses protruding from their faces like a character straight out of a Dr. Suess story. I wonder if Dr. Suess ever saw one? The whos faces look exactly like the females, upturned noses and all. We bushwhacked through the jungle until Taing or Mr. Arbor excitedly noticed a big tree, and we would scour the ground around it for large spiked seeds and placed them in a plastic bag. After a few hours of this, we returned to the eco-camp. We generally took 2 hour lunches, which allowed for us to eat and to take a nap.
I was napping near the lake on the deck of the eco camp and I awoke to a strange sound. As I rubbed my eyes open I noticed not 10 feet from me a 3 foot long monitor lizard grazing its tounge towards me. Jumping up with a squeel, the men working at the camp all got a hearty laugh out of the ordeal. The lizard slowly sauntered back to the water, and as I calmed, I laughed and enjoyed the encounter. After lunch, we found a patch of seedlings growing beneath a large tree with butressed roots. Taing demonstrated what size we wanted and that I should select only straight specimen. A few hours later, we had collected well over 3000 seedlings, wrapped them up and headed upstream back to camp. I was elated.

Freshly planted reclaimed palm oil land
The following day, Jai, the volunteer coordinator spent the morning with me showing me the various sites where they had done plantings over the years. It was great to see the progression of each plot. He described the various silviculture treatments that they used and talked about thinning and maintenance on the plots. We ended visited a new planting site; a section of old palm oil plantation that had overstepped their boundaries by planting right up to the river site. After many lawsuits, the land was given back to the reserve, and MESCOT was in the process of planting it again during my visit. They wanted to maintain a solid cooridor along the river for wildlife to move through, and to help keep erosion at bay.

Travelling down tributaries, looking for seed trees
I spent the next few days with Mr. Arbor and Taing splitting my time between planting the seeds and seedlings we collected, and returning to the forest to find more specimen. Each day took us to a new location, travelling down tributaries off the main Kinabatangan River made for excellent wildlife viewing. Mr. Arbor sat on the bow of the boat and used his machete to clear brush so our boat could make it through the narrow canals.

collecting fresh fern shoots for dinner

Occasionally, we would pop out into another ox-bow lake. One day we had collected enough seedlings fairly early, so Taing stopped at a spot he knew to show me how to collect fiddle heads. We spent a while shoulder deep in ferns, picking the fresh shoots so that my host mother could cook them up for me for dinner that evening.

After work that day, Taing took me on an evening river cruise and helped me spot wildlife to take some pictures of. The monkeys head towards river to rest at night and the banks were teaming with life. I saw three species of monkeys, but have yet to spot the elusive orangutang. Kingfishers with bright colors, storkes, crocodiles, monitor lizards, hawks and hornbills were all around.   There is SO much wildlife around the Kinabatangan that I won't post them all here.  You can look forward to a Borneo fauna photo blog to be posted soon.

Sunset on the Kinabatangan River, Sabah Borneo

Typical stilted home in Mengaris Village, Sabah Borneo
In the village, I live with a local family who provides me three meals a day. I was surprised to see how much effort they put into accomadating my vegan diet. Pretty much every meal was rice and some veggies cooked in a spicey soy-chili sauce and fresh fruit. For breakfast, I generally get mangotan, a noodle dish with soy, chili and oil with some onion and garlic. My first host family was large, and only one them spoke English, so communication was rather difficult and I did not spend much time with them. The young woman, Sahana, and I ate every meal together and talked as much as we were able.

My warm hearted host mother

I moved to my second host family after four nights and was ecstatic to be welcomed with a full family who spoke (at least some) English, the Zainel family. The mother was warm and chatty, and although her communication wasnt always easy, she made a huge effort to teach me words in Malay. She had two sons living at home, and they were always after my camera to take photos and see what animals I had got photos of that day.

The KOPEL eco-camp
During my sixth day working, I was sent off to the eco-camp with a young guy, Jef. We spent all day circling the camp on various trails, working to maintain them. Maintenance basically is just machete-ing the hell out of all the vines and plants in the way of the trail. Half of the time I could not even tell there was a trail, but I was glad Jef seemed to know where we were going. By the end of the day my right arm was sore and tight from all the swinging, but it felt good to get a hearty workout in, and see all the trails around the camp. I was feeling super motivated after the work, and hit 11 laps on the bridge, running about 12K.

As I sit here writing this, I am enjoying a windy afternoon sitting next to the river. I spent my morning and yesterday with Taing again, working in the nursery and collecting another type of seed and some seedlings. Bushwacking in the forest searching for things has got to be my favorite job here so far. After working 8 days straight, I have decided to take a couple of days off to explore a nearby city, Sandakan. I plan to visit Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitaion Center, and see if I can make my way to a beach somewhere before returning to Mengaris Village for another couple weeks of work. My second couchsurfing host, from Kota Kinabalu, ended up being a proffessor at the University of Malaysia, and she is doing river quality work on the Kinabatangan so she is giving me a ride to the city on her way back home from doing some weekend research with KOPEL.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Couchsurfing in Kuching; Living with Headhunters in Borneo

“That's how you get kidnapped,” my partner told me with discern in his voice. I guess he had a right to be worried, but I was feeling adventurous. My first accommodation in Malaysia would be with a complete stranger that I had met on the internet. A friend of mine had inspired me, she had hosted numerous couchsurfers and they had all been fun. I always seek out opportunities to see a place through the eyes of the local, so I was ready to jump on the couchsurfing bandwagon.

First Malay Meal
My first Couchsurfing Host and I in Kuching

Erin, my Borneo hostess, picked me up at the airport; I felt comfortable with her immediately. We clicked like we had been friends for ages. She took me to a restaurant with loads of veggie options.  My first Malay food was amazing.  Spicy fake chicken with noodles and a seaweed soup.  All of this food for about $3.  I was glad to be somewhere that was friendly on my wallet, and my stomach.
Just one of the many Cat statues.  Hitler Cat??
We drove off into town and she showed me her city. Kuching means Cat in Malay, so the town has gone completely crazy with cat things. A giant cat museum (which I did not explore), cat figurines, and large cat statues in the center of many of the roundabouts in town. Naturally, there are cats running rampant in the streets, at your feet in restaurants If you are one of those crazy cat people, this just may be the town for you.

Some of the remnant flooding in Kuching
For the entire week prior to my arrival, it had been raining non-stop and many of the nearby villages had been flooded; many were stranded, crocodiles had escaped the breeding farm and were travelling down ditches eluding those trying to recapture them, and some houses had been completely destroyed. I was lucky as the waters had receded significantly the day before I came. 
We walked around Kuching and Erin told me about the different buildings I saw. I examined the local wares.
Masks of Borneo
As we walked along the waterfront, we found a small boat and paid 1 ringget to cross to the small village on the opposite side of the Sarawak River.

Beautiful Kuching from the Sarawak River
Many cake patterns to choose from
We first stopped into a cake shop where the traditional styles of cakes are displayed. They are quite amazing. Each cake is different, with different flavors and intricate patterns made with various colors of dough. Erin explained that the average cake took over 40 hours to make and that it was a very difficult trade to learn.
Traditional cooking style
We then walked to a small restaurant that served Sarawakian food. Outside, greens were cooked in large bamboo containers and a sweet smell permeated the air.
 We walked in and sat on the floor at a low table. She had me try a layered tea and we ordered a delicious dish of wild fern fronds. In the states, the springtime Maidenhair fern fronds are one of my favorite things to forage for and cook, so this was a delight for me. 

As we sat for dinner, a torrential downpour came and we heard it pelting on the roof. I had forgotten my jacket and she her umbrella, so I grabbed a plastic sack from the restaurant and placed it on my head as we ran back towards the river.
 We sat under a large covering, watching the boats and the rain. Welcome to the rainforest. The rain kept coming harder and harder, Erin grew worried that the boats may not cross if the water became torrid. We waited for a moment that the rain seemed not as hard and ran back to the boat dock.

Once back over, we found a shopping mall and each purchased a cheesy one time use poncho. We galavanted back through the streets, jumping in puddles and proclaiming, “ Poncho Club!!!” I had a blast and was completely drenched once we reached the car, despite the poncho protecting me. She drove me back to her house so I could shower and meet her family.

Erin's family is from the Bidayuh tribe. Thats right, one of the Borneo headhunting groups. Her mother's side was from the lowlands and her father's line were warriors from the mountains. Although her father did not live in the time where they beheaded people, her grandfather did. Her grandfather was a great warrior and he had numerous skulls from those he had killed. She said the skulls would be passed down to her brothers in time. Her grandmother was a midwife and wore a baby skull around her neck that would be given to Erin as she had choosen a path in nursing.

Her family lived in very modern and nice accomadations, and I was given my own room. They were welcoming and curious. I found that very few US citizens make it to Borneo, and they were very curious to learn about me and where I lived. After a brief visit, we got ourselves ready to go out for the evening. It was ladies night at the bars, and Erin brought me to meet her friends.

The Nigerian modeling my jacket
Erin loved meeting people from all over the world, and hung out with a diverse group of people. There were several people from various countries in Africa, a fijian, the local Malaysian and now me, the American. We drank cheap beer from a single glass as the Fijian directed us to all share one cup and yell “Takie” when we needed another. We requested music from the DJ and danced about the table. At one point, someone found my bright pink marmot rain jacket and his eyes filled with curiousity. He picked it up and put it on, laughing hysterically.
 He had never seen such fabric before; the locals are strickly umbrella users. Ponchos are used by tourists, but he thought this was very nice. I showed him the armpit zips and he almost keeled over in laughter. At this point the others had noticed and they began taking turns wrapping my jacket around their necks, modelling it like a scarf. I had no idea my jacket could be such an amusement.


Parking, Asian Style
At one point we decided to go to another place, so we hopped in a car. I quickly learned that Malaysians park however they want. After circling the block once without finding a proper place, we stopped at a stop sign, turned off the car and got out. I was a bit confused, but Erin laughed and just said, “Asian style.” I had one of my new friends pose for a photo with the car and we went inside to enjoy more music. We stayed until the bar closed and the rest of the group invited us to after hours activites. Knowing that we had adventures planned, we headed home and got some rest.

The expansive market
Tying up Durian for me to try
The next day, Erin and her mother took me to the market so we could buy some veggies so that they could cook me a traditional Bidayah meal. We also purchased several fruits for me to try. I was amazed at the number of fruits I had never seen. I tried to help prepare the meal, but they insisted I sit and try some various foods while they served me. After having a breakfast of spicy and sweet fruits, yam cakes and fried bananas, lunch was immediately served. I enjoy the style of eating that I have since found common in Malaysia. Instead of filling a plate with what you think you will eat, everyone is given a plate of rice and then picks very small amounts of food from each bowl in the center of the table. This continues until each person is full. For lunch I had a different version of the wild fern dish, a sweet greens and squash dish, and some fried squash. Everything was amazing. We had a large spikey fruit for dessert that was sweet with a pithy texture.

Erin swept me away in the car and took me to the Sarawak Cultural Village, about an hour's drive away.
The Sarawak Cultural Village
One of the many longhouses at the village
Walking along a bamboo bridge.
It was beautiful; a living museam that exhibited each of the different tribes of Sarawak; Bidayuh, Iban, Penan, Orang Ulu, Melanau, Malays and Chinese. Most of the tribes lived in Longhouses, placed high on stilts. We walked about the traditional housing while people dressed in traditional garb played music, worked on crafts, and told us about each tribe.
I enjoyed the experience thoroughly, even though it may have been set up for tourists. There were not too many people their that day. At the end, a dance performance was given in a large theater and each tribe presented a different traditional dance. I was mesmerized.
A warrior picks up a solid wood bowl with his teeth.  About 50lbs!  Impressive
Look at me stealing the show!
Each tribe's performance was unique and special. At the end of the show, they invited some to come on stage and learn some steps. Naturally, I jumped at the chance and found myself front and center looking like a complete fool. I had the biggest shit-eating grin on my face as I bumbled about.

We left the village and walked across the street to enjoy the beach and look out at the islands and a half sunken ship. Salt water sprayed us and I took in everything. Borneo was still such a fantasy for me. My heart was full and I was so grateful and elated to be here.

The west coast of Borneo

We went back to Kuching and explored Chinatown. I found myself drawn into yet another temple and we eventually made it to a delicious Indian food restaurant for dinner. I got to use my first squat toliet at the center where the food was. I picked up a few trinkets on our way back to the car. Before going home, she took me to a place for a traditional Thai massage.

A thai woman beat the crap out of me with her elbows and hands as she craweled on the table. She pulled my feet up and walked along my thighs and butt, pulled my arms back while I flung up off the table, and forced my body into contorted positions while she forced my muscles to release. I felt rejuvenated and sore. It took about 2 days to recover from, but it was worth all the pain.

The next morning, we visited the crocodile farm to watch them jump out of the water as they were fed. They were magnificent.  I was surprised at the height they could reach.  If anything, it only feed my fear of crocodiles even more. 

Leapin Lizards!  Croc farm, Sarawak Borneo

Two fight for it!

 I did enjoy seeing them, but my heart sank a little for some of the other creatures they had caged at the center. I always feel torn at places where they keep animals in captivity. I love seeing them, but do believe they truly need to be left in the wild. We walked along some jungle paths enjoying the various croc habitats before heading out. 

Erin took me to the airport and we hugged goodbye. It was hard to believe that our visit was so short and we had connected so quickly. But I was on a mission, I had some trees to plant in Sabah. I had set up another Couchsurfing host in Kota Kinabalu that evening and would be on a bus first thing the next morning to the Batu Puteh community in Mengaris village where I planned to stay and volunteer on rainforest conservation projects for the next few weeks.