Tag Archives: Malaysia

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