Category Archives: Malaysia 2013/2014

Travel on a budget: short time volunteering

There are many ways of travelling and if you decide to hit the road on a budget you might be lucky enough to come back with more memories and life-changing experiences than those who stay in resorts and go to fancy bars. Before leaving for my trip in southeast asia I shared an article encouraging people to travel while they are young and have few responsabilities; among all the likes a friend commented “it’s easy to do it if you have a bank account with unlimited zeros like yours..“. After telling him my plan and some useful websites to travel cheap with locals and volunteer in organic farming he replied: “It’s disgusting, trusting people and sleeping on their sofas? Working someonelse’s land in exchange of food and accomodation? God bless alienation and the industrial revolution.” OK, it’s fun to be provocative to add some spice to the conversation but if this is your mindset, there is no need for you to read further.

Tips if you pre-arrange your volunteering/stage/internship:

1. Set your goal and what you want to achieve with your hosts beforehand.

2. Ask specific job description “A mix of lodge and farm work” is not good enough

3. Enquire on the size of the project, how many people work there

4. Be Ready to get dirty

Get dirty!
Get dirty!

So here you go, you are about to hit the road and you decide to couchsurf and volunteer. As far as my experience is concerned the more I tried to organize my volunteering the less I got out of it. Probably it’s because I don’t like spending time arranging and I’m good at taking things as they happen. My most rewarding volunteering experience was in Kenya where everything happened by coincidence and the most exciting one was helping a friend in a small scale project during summer (I haven’t told you about this yet).

So here is my story:

During my stay in Malaysia I volunteered for one week in what was meant to be an ‘organic farm’ and ‘permaculture‘  centre. A wonderful place on the Sigar Highlands where people live sustainably with the motto ‘for our childern children’s”. What was advertised on the WWOOFING website was only one part of the project that the owner did some years ago and is now up and running with no need of volunteers’ labor. Most of the work in fact had to be carried out on a one thousand acre forest-farm that grows vegetables in greenhouses using hydroponic , non-organic agriculture. The first few days were boring and felt like a waste of time. A Nepalese guy picked me up from Kampung Raja bus station and took me to the Moonriver Lodge where I met Lalitha, the person I was in touch with. She gave me my room keys and rushed away without giving me any sort of instructions. It was time to rest and when I left my room I wondered around in search of things to do. Nobody could speak English in the lodge and another Nepalese guy took me on top of a hill with his motorbike and left me in a greenhouse cleaning plastic pots with a bunch of Burmense kids that did not speak English either.

4.480 tomatoes in a greenhosue
4.480 tomatoes in a greenhosue

It was funny and awkward at the same time but I kind of liked it. The following day was pretty much the same, I worked for about 7 hours and all I got to do was cleaning pots and attaching small tomato plants to strings hanging from the top of the greenhouse. I started appreciating the job only when I realized what was going on around me and after witnessing the different stages of the growing process. I was impressed by the technology in use in the farm, hydroponics was applied in a simple and extremely cheap way and the whole project wasn’t profitable for the owners only but for the farmers too (not in the same way but hey…) The monthly wage of a farmer was about 1.200MR (£223) and most of it went to the families left behind in Nepal and Myanmar. 1200MR is not a lot compared to western standards but it’s a good income if you think that millions of ‘world poor’ live on less than a dollar a day and that neighboring Cambodians are getting killed by police officers because they are asking a rise in their monthly wage from $80 to $160.

Burmese Brothers
Burmese Brothers

The third day I started to understand how the initial project of sutainable living and permaculture evolved into this kind of farming. Firsthand I was very critical towards the owners (A Chinese couple that only turned up a couple of days and never talked to me) but lately I realized that I had the chance to spend some time in an established and successful project that was promoting development in the country and helping ethnic minorities and the families they left behind. One of the reasons why I like travelling is to see this kind of things and I would have never had the chance to experience it from within if I came to Moonriver Lodge  as a tourist.

Overall experience, not too bad. Not exactly what I expected but I learned a lot about what Malaysia made of ‘development’ in the past years and yet again I was proved that the country’s most successful enterprises are in the hands of the Chinese.

After a few days Tammy got back from Christmas holidays. She runs the lodge and deals with customers, a brilliant Malaysian woman, traveler, woofer, nature-savvy and freelance writer who worked for human rights NGOs. She apologized for not being around and told me that usually she looks after volunteers and the inconvenience of having me there alone shouldn’t have happened. I accept her apologies and on New year’s day she sent me for an amazing jungle trek with two Singaporean couples that were staying at the lodge. It was beautiful, challenging and I had the chance to stick my head in the biggest flower of the world known as Rafflesia. On NYE we had few beers that she smuggled in (no alcohol allowed in the lodge) and lot of avarage Chinese food from cans.

Rafflesia Flower
Rafflesia Flower

After a week couchsurfing, a week volunteering and about 4 days of relax in Georgetown still have 2MR (£0.37) in my pocket left from the 1.000MR (£186) that I withdrew on my arrival. Cheap and better than sunbathing in my opinion.

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A future-teller told me

 

It took me four bus transfers to reach Georgetown from Sigar Highlands. Long distance busses generally don’t reach the city centers and you have to make your way into town with local public transports and deal with incomprehensible schedules and destinations. I take the opportunity to hop off at Ipoh local bus station, after a 2 hours bus ride from Kampung Raja and to stroll around in search of the old town before continuing my journey to the island of Penang. After a week in the highlands’ forest with mild temperatures, refreshing rain-showers, mud and big clouds, it was hard to cope with the sultry weather and the scorching sun that hits you when you walk on cement in a tropical country. Ipoh is not particularly attractive but looks like an efficient city: streets are clean, the traffic runs smoothly with countdown traffic lights and the call for prayers echoes from the speakers of a huge, brilliant white mosque. I get into a café opposite the tourist information office and order a white coffee, a local specialty served with condensed milk and ice. I open the book that I carry with me, in search of short paragraph about Ipoh;

it is said that the most beautiful women and the richest Chinese in Malaysia come from Ipoh. Not longer than one hundred years ago, Ipoh was a big village. Its name came from a tree that was used by Malays to craft their poisonous arrows. Few years later the English colonized the country and they found out that the land was full of zinc metal. What happened next explains the history of Malaysia and its current problems. Labor force was needed to extract zinc; Malaysians were not particularly interested in working in mines, therefore the English decided to accept any migrant that could make it to the country. In 1879 there were 4.623 Malays in Ipoh, 982 Chinese and one English. In 1889 Malays were 10.291, the English 69 but the Chinese were 44.790. This is how Ipoh became an almost entirely Chinese city and some migrant families that made money with zinc metal, are now an incredible economic power with which the political power (Malaysians) have to deal.

Terzani wrote this in 1993 but today’s situation seems not only unchanged but spread throughout the country. My hosts in Kuala Lumpur and Kota Baru were Chinese,  the forest-farm where I worked and the guest house where I slept were owned by Chinese and Mr. Lan, the owner of Reggae Bar in Georgetown, is Chinese too. I was making my way home from a bar and caught by a moment of hesitation I accepted to sit with him for one more beer. Lan is fifty-something years old man with a psychedelic yellow Bob Marley t-shirt, hair piled high upon his head, two golden rings and round eyeglasses that make him look like an almond-eyed hippie. A very friendly person, just like every barman ought to be with customers. After the usual ritual questions, where are you from, how old are you, are you married, I ask him very seriously if he knew any future-teller in town and that I would like to consult him. He hesitates and asks me if I have a specific problem with my life. Not sure about what to say and eager to be taken seriously I try to recycle the prophecy that an astrology from Hong Kong foretold Terzani in 1976 and to begin my journey into the unknown world of the occult just like he did:

“A fortune-teller told me: ‘ Beware! You run a grave risk of dying in 1993. You mustn’t fly this year. Don’t fly, not even once.’” Lee  studied astrology for ten years, I wanted to test him and told him my date of birth. 23rd of January ’91. “Year of the Horse… Bullshit! You can fly as much as you want, whoever told you that is an idiot”. He makes some considerations about my future but felt like they were based on common sense rather than astrology: “Don’t do stupid things, don’t fight, don’t jump from cliffs. You can smoke, it won’t cause you cancer.” I lose interest and he is gets busy talking to other customers. I’m sitting on a big table with two girls from Canada, a Dutch guy and a German. The girls are English teachers in Seoul and travel around Asia in their time off. One of them went to Thailand and Cambodia and, as neatly as a teacher can be, writes on my diary the best earthbound itinerary. Secretly I hope that prophecy was made to me. I don’t have a return ticket and my mind unravels at the idea of travelling overland, I could go home by train, cross China and Russia on the trans-Siberian railway! For now, let’s stick to the present I tell to myself.

Half an hour later Lan comes back to me with a black folder with some random papers and a Chinese calendar. He starts jotting on a piece of paper with a black marker. He notes my date of birth and the eight elements and animals that correspond to it in two lines and four columns.

The future-teller
The future-teller

“Astrology aims at understanding how to obtain happiness in your life. Happiness is achieved through money and love. You are a water sign, weak water. Weak water can be a dripping, the water of a tap, a water spring, it can fill small containers easily and can be poured in small holes with precision. It’s the contrary of strong water, the ocean, the rainstorm. You were born in the year of the horse, an earth sign. You are a very strict with your choices, idealist, radical and essentialist. Once you make a choice there is no way to make you change your mind, you can be stubborn at times. If someone mistreats you and you decide not to forgive there is no way for that person to gain your trust again. You can be vindictive. Your are ‘hungry’ for elements of wood and fire, you can grow long hair and long beard and smoke does not harm you. You could work in a kitchen near the exhalation for example, and you won’t die in a fire. You have to abstain from element of metal and water. Beware of swimming, you could die drowning and don’t drink too much alcohol. Is not good for your body. Always try to keep slim. In the lines of animals there is a strong presence of a fire element. You will find a ‘small’ love in your twenties but don’t get married until you are 35. In that period of your life the fire element is absent and the marriage won’t work.” Lan indicates love with an upside down triangle. There are two big ones on my lifeline after 40, a small one in my young age and a crossed one before 40. What he calls marriage is actually living together, the stars don’t know bureaucracy. “If you wish to marry before your 35th birthday you should only do it under specific circumstances if you want your marriage to be successful it has to be: No same race marriage, Asian or African works better for you. Your wife shouldn’t be of your age, ideally twelve years younger or older. Don’t marry a ‘fresh’ woman, better if divorced of with living-together experience. Don’t marry a woman of the sign of the rat or of an element of earth. Fire is good for you, big fire even better.”

What to say, it’s easy enough to find some correspondences with my life. Especially in terms of love, I had relationships with same race women and didn’t work out very well. My actual girlfriend has Singhalese origins, a strong fire element but same age and ‘freshness’. Things are going pretty well between us, only distance makes us suffer at times.

The Canadian girl sitting next to me seems interested and wants to have a go. I buy Lan a beer to show some gratitude and tell the Canadian girl that she should do the same. I get back to my guesthouse at 3.20 in the morning, I jump in bed without taking a shower. Sticky and sweaty in fresh and clean linen, knowing that the day after I would have slept somewhere else.

Daily Life in Georgetown

A man and his motorbike
A man and his motorbike
Monnaliza
Monnaliza
Street Players
Street Players
Street vendor
Street vendor

 

 

 

 

 

Post-modernity and Couchsurfing in Malaysia

In the last year of my life I have become a slightly anti-social person. I haven’t enjoyed shopping, commercial music, clubbing, hanging out with friends and a regular social life as a necessary counterbalance for my working life. I didn’t have a working life at all and I was comfortable in my humble routine with few loyal friends, some good musicians and my girlfriend. My entertainment was music, which is a form of social interaction in a way, and ‘chatting’ was as scarce in digital life as it was in real the real world.

My Malaysian journey started in a very ‘socially active’ way and put myself out of my comfort zone. I decided to couchsurf to save some money and I found myself in a reality that I never expected to be part of.

My couch in Kuala Lumpur
Couch in Kuala Lumpur

My facebook wall is now full of pictures with ‘new friends’ and I attended events organised through social media groups with the specific aim of getting people together to know each other and chat. In Kuala Lumpur I went to a dinner with a bunch of people that call themselves the MWF, Media Writing Focus. A group of young professionals that keep in touch on facebook and on a whatsapp group and meet up on a regular basis in restaurants or bars. Some of them are also part of the Couchsurfing community that connects people in a similar way. CS in Kuala Lumpur is not only a way of getting travelers to know locals but a strong network that connects people within the city and allows them to take part in events and reunions. To my eyes this looks surreal and unfamiliar but incredibly impressive at the same time. It is the first time that I see the digital interaction become real, I guess it’s the same principle of online dating but friendship is at stake here instead of love. I prefer the traditional way whereby you meet a person first and lately you continue the interaction through the internet if both parties are willing to. Anyway, I am not in the position to judge.

Lunch on a Banana Leaf
Lunch on a Banana Leaf

One night, for instance, I crashed at a ‘pool side party’ in a wealthy area of KL. This was organised in a very rigorous way, everyone had to bring some food and dress up either in red or green to take part in games. The attendance had to be confirmed through facebook and everyone had to bring a present worth 5-10 Ringgit. I was wearing black, had no food nor present  and my name was not on the list. I didn’t give a shit because I was in the position of being an outsider but my couchsurfing host, Nick,  who had been invited by a friend and was not aware of this rules, was clearly embarrassed and isolated himself in a corner.  He is very active in the community and told me that he was feeling under pressure and in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t blame him, we decided to leave and went to drink a beer at the Reggae Bar.

Graffiti in KL
Graffiti in KL

This way of socializing is awkward to me but I am sure that some of the individuals that take part to this meetings can be very generous and nice. My host, Nick, for example was a great person. He took me around the city with his car for two days, showed me the best street food in town and welcomed me with incredibly generous hospitality. Still this was not where I wanted to go. KL is a big metropolis where different cultures Chinese, Indians, Malaysians, Europeans, Muslims, Christians and Buddhist seem to melt together under a bigger modern culture that incorporate them all. The culture of cars, smartphones, connectivity,  trips to the shopping mall listening commercial music, restaurants and fancy looking nightclubs. Something that left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. I left Europe in search of something exotic and strange and I have found myself in another version of my world where the similarities are far more than the differences. I can’t blame anyone for this, they have all the right to carry out this lifestyle but I start to think that modernity goes hand in hand with the homogenization of culture. Everywhere you’ll go in the world you’ll feel at home, spot the same kind of shops and lifestyle. Good or bad? I don’t know, but it’s hard for those like me who sometimes have the need to feel away from home.

Nick's Building in KL
Nick’s Building in KL

Attempting to run away from this I decided to cancel my trip to Langkawi Island –a touristic hub on the west coast of Malaysia- and accepted a couchsurfing request from a guy in KL who was travelling back to his home town in Kuala Krai, north east of the country on the border with Thailand. “Great visit to a small village”, was the subject of his message, “You will experience traditional culture” he promised me.

It was 50% true. Kuala Krai is a small village but I did not find the traditional culture I was looking for. A very interesting place indeed, I was fascinated by the story of his family. Up here live his grandpa and grandma, they look after his father who suffered of a stroke and lost his ability to move the right part of his body. He has an incredible will power and moves  independently carrying around his dead arm and leg. He picked us up from the airport in a brand new white Toyota with automatic gear and leather seats. During my stay I had the chance to see happening under my nose all I was sensing in KL and my facebook profile filled up with portraits of me with members of the family and friends.

Grandma and Grandpa are Chinese Bhuddist, don’t speak any English and have a little temple in the house with colorful lights. They are witnessing their culture being blown away by something they are not sure of. Do they like modernity? I don’t know. Grandpa, a very funny looking man with only one tooth in his mouth, has to sleep on a chair in the living room because he doesn’t like the air-conditioned that his grandson keeps on all night in the only room of the house with five sleeping surfaces.
My host here once told me “I have to respect my grandma, she is Buddhist. But I will remove this temple as soon as she dies. I am a Christian now and I converted my father.” In the house the traditional Chinese decorations are suffocated by the framed pictures of strangers from around the world that come here through couchsurfing and save money on hostels while travelling. A friend of mine once told me that couchsurfing is one of the byproducts of post-modernity. In the postmodern world life is fluid, there is no traditions or culture, anything is possible, anything can happen. You can be anyone.

Chinese Temple
Chinese Temple

All of this have been taking place under the name of ‘friendship’ but now I wonder, can this be real friendship of more a form of opportunism? All I know is that I have met someone who took me around with his car and forced me to listen to Rihanna and all of that lot for almost 4 hours a day with air-con straight on my neck. The best I could do was sleeping to numb my senses and forget those catchy songs “shine bright like a diamond!”. On the other hand he showed me the beautiful places of his childhood; the rainforest, the waterfall in Latarek, the border with Thailand and a serious amount of delicious food. I used to think that this was probably the only irremovable pillar of Malay culture but I had to reconsidered myself when I came to know that eating and using food as a form of entertainment and celebration is a result of the influence of the materialist Chinese culture that has spread across the country.

Ugly Buddha
Ugly Buddha

Few weeks ago I was talking to a friend and she told me that she loves cities with a great spirit, she was talking specifically about Istanbul but it was meant as a general statement. To me KL is just like London. It feels quite dry, with no soul. At the time of writing I am in the living room of the house near the Chinese temple. it’s Christmas and I am happy to be leaving this place soon. My head feels like exploding and I am glad I shared this experience with another couchsurfer from France. A brilliant guy, two years younger than me, biologist, dancer, painter and willing to discuss all of this.

Soon I will be in Ipoh after a 7 hours bus ride, from there I will catch another bus that will take me to Cameron Highlands. Some fresh air is about to come.
Merry Christmas.