I just finished the first month of my internship in Borneo.
Life here is different. I wake up at 6:00am every morning to run because it gets too hot after that to work out at all. I haven’t found a gym I can go to, which drives me crazy. I still can’t get over how lucky I am to be able to take a boat 10 minutes from downtown to beautiful islands and hang out for the day. I eat entirely different foods. Pasta has been replaced by nasi goreng and kuey teow, salads with fish noodles. The food is delicious. Sometimes I eat fish noodles for multiple meals a day. I buy fresh fruit from the market all the time. Restaurants bring your cutlery in a mug of boiling water to sanitize them. I eat out for every meal in great local restaurants because it is affordable, but mostly because I have no gas for my stove. I have more energy than I’ve had in years. I read all the time and have the time and energy to go out and do things in the evenings and weekends. I find cockroaches in my apartment almost every day and always keep cockroach spray in my vicinity at home. I am grateful my apartment isn’t infested anymore, like when I first moved in. I now know cockroaches are part of the landscape in hotter countries – it’s just a big adjustment from a winter country like Canada. I have really noticed what privileges I took for granted in Canada, like turning on the tap to drink water when thirsty. Here I have to remember to buy clean water to drink. It’s very unsafe to go outside at night alone, especially downtown. The privilege of anonymity is a huge one too. People know me because no other people look foreign here (besides Olivia now). Sabrina was talking to people at the laundromat. Apparently, everyone in the neighbourhood knows me, and they refer to me as “blondie.” I love interacting with children who approach me, but I am not especially happy about unwanted attention from men. People take pictures of me while I’m in public all the time. I miss being able to walk around unseen and unnoticed. I also have never been exposed to animal death to this level before. I have seen some things that I don’t think I will ever be able to forget while just walking down the street here. I see death and suffering cats and dogs pretty frequently here. I never even recognized the privilege in my life in Canada to not be exposed to things like that. Despite how often I see it, it still takes me hours to get over it.
On the suggestion of Jannie, my boss at DAP Service Center, I booked my flight to arrive earlier than I planned to be able to attend Kaamatan. I have spent countless hours since I arrived at different Kaamatan events. It is the Kadazandusun (the most populous local Indigenous group) festival to celebrate the rice harvest. It traditionally begins at the start of May and concludes on May 31st with a large celebration on festival grounds. While each Kaamatan celebration is unique, they all share similar qualities. There is always an orchestra of gongs playing the same traditional songs. There is always a pageant in which the contestants walk across the stage slowly, wear elaborate, formal Kadazandusun, and recite some speech in Kadazan. It is like old-style beauty pageants in North America, where the contestants are judged on their beauty. There is dancing and singing, usually by kampung (village) members hosting the celebration. They have many tents where vendors sell all sorts of food and drinks. Kadazandusun food is always served, which is always many dishes with whole fish, a chicken curry, and sweet rice for dessert, wrapped in banana leaves. People in attendance often wear black clothing with colourful trimming, beads, coin belts, and necklaces wrapped around them.
People wearing traditional Kadazandusun dress at a Kampung’s Kaamatan
The main pageant on the 31st is a big deal in KK (Kota Kinabalu). I had many conversations with locals who urged me to attend. People would tell me that they go every year. The competitors are like local celebrities. I had never heard people scream as loud as they did when the fan favourites stepped out on stage. Many kampungs in the area host their own Kaamatan celebrations throughout June. They were smaller in fields. The pageant competitors in kampungs are often children, walking across the stage confused, looking offstage to adults for guidance, and forgetting what to say once they get to the microphone.
They have lots of different kinds of homemade alcohol that they serve at these festivals. I first tried rice wine, which is like sake, but sweeter and thicker, almost like sake syrup. While Robyn was visiting, we attended a Kaamatan early in the day. Since it was so hot, we both tried to politely decline the coconut moonshine they were offering us, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer. They poured a small glass each of us out of a large disposable plastic water bottle. It tasted like unsweetened grapefruit juice; I think my favourite out of the alcohols I have tried here. The next thing we knew, they insisted we finish the entire bottle. We drank several glasses and took the rest of the bottle to greet Olivia at the airport that day. These celebrations are full of joy and community. People are always kind and friendly, and I am constantly offered food and alcohol while in attendance. You can’t really decline someone when they offer you food or a drink; they will give it to you anyways.
One of the girls who works at DAP, Alison, was the person who helped me get settled in. She picked me up from the airport, helped me find my apartment, and I spent most of my time with her, especially during my first few weeks. She has been a fantastic friend and guide. We ran a charity 5k, for Indigenous language preservation together. She has introduced me to many kinds of food, like fish head curry, fish noodles, and calamansi juice. For my first few weeks, I was trying new things that I had never heard of every day. It took me weeks to know how and what to order at restaurants.
I have had some office days and many out in the community. Every week we do a mobile service during which we offer blood pressure and blood glucose checks for free. Wet set up a booth in the local street market. I really enjoy doing this. I get to talk to locals and learn and practice Bahasa Malay. People also often teach me words and phrases in Kadazan.
When Jannie goes to things like farm visits, she offers to bring me along. She took me on an overnight trip to Kundasang, a small town on the side of Mount Kinabalu. I spent around 16 hours in the car over two days and got to know her well. We ate wild boar and visited a mushroom farm and rice patties.
We just got back from our first trip with PACOS Trust. PACOS is an NGO focused on Indigenous rights, and it is run by Jannie’s sister, Anne. Alison, Olivia, Sabrina and I all went. They took us for a visit to a few Murut kampungs. We stayed overnight in Kalampun, a kampung about three hours away, in the home of the Community Learning Center (CLC) teacher, the local kindergarten. We followed women carrying machetes into the jungle to harvest bamboo shoots. Afterwards, we sat on the floor of the CLC, and a woman taught us how to weave rattan in style specific to their ethnic group, Murut. It was challenging, especially as we had no common language. I got pretty far into it to realize I had done it completely wrong. Their style of weaving is incredibly complex and beautiful, and I really gained an appreciation for the skill and knowledge weaving rattan takes. We interacted with the children at the CLC the next day, which was so much fun. One of the children could speak English and apparently had trouble speaking Malay. Hence, he had difficulty communicating with the other kids. We visited Dalit, a village one of our co-workers at DAP grew up in. We met her dad, who had a bird who spoke Murut. We harvested pineapples, which were the best ones I have ever had. I used a squat toilet for the first time, and Olivia, Sabrina, and I bathed in the river. It was an incredible experience, and I am looking forward to our future kampung trips with PACOS.
My time in Malaysia has been filled with new experiences, personal growth, and a deeper understanding of the local culture. I’ve embraced the challenges of living in a different environment, allowing me to appreciate life’s diversity and unique aspects outside my familiar surroundings. Life here is really different, and I am so grateful for it. I have never been able to experience living outside of the Western bubble I’ve been in my whole life. It is so interesting to see how different things are outside of it. I am incredibly grateful for my boss and colleagues’ time, effort and generosity in teaching me about culture, geography, and politics in Borneo through actual experience. It’s so much more valuable than book learning.