A whole month? Already? Huh?
And it continues to pass.

I landed in Kota Kinabalu after backpacking in Europe for a month. I missed my flight from Singapore on June 17th (thanks AirFrance) and stayed in the airport’s hotel (don’t tell my dad – he thinks I was budgeting and stayed in a hostel). It’s wild how a bath feels like a luxury (it was a luxury hotel). After landing in KK, being greeted with rice wine by the happy faces of Pascale and Robyn, and explaining to Alison that, yes, I do only have a backpack worth of clothing for six months, we were off to Kaamatan. At Kaamatan, we danced, drank, and I even competed in a tug-of-war competition even though I’m an unwed woman (we lost).

I am so beyond lucky to be here with Pascale. In her first couple weeks here, she found us an apartment, got me bed sheets and hangers, and got settled into life at the office, which helped beyond measure to get me integrated into work life. Thanks, Pascale! Settling into life in a new place (there has to be a better way of describing living in Asia as a Westerner than “new”) is daunting and exciting and complex and so so so much fun. We’re the luckiest kids in the world.

Life in Sabah is carbs, heat (sweat), monsoon rains, and sweet, sweet fruit. We were asked to join PACOS on a village trip to Kalampun and Dalit during our second week. We drove three hours on the windiest, steepest road I’ve ever experienced (thank god for gravol) and were immediately introduced to life in the village. We ate a distant cousin of jackfruit, harvested bamboo shoots, coconuts, and pineapples and settled in after a river bath and homemade rice wine. An Indigenous teacher taught us how to weave ratan in their traditional style (I failed miserably, but the teachers were nice about it). I ate a very spicey pepper growing near the Community Learning Centre, and on our second day, we met the children and learned about their programs. Kids in these communities are learning three languages, Kadazan, Malay, and basic English, to prepare them for primary school.

I was lucky enough to arrive at the tail end of the Kaamatan celebrations and visit four kampungs. At Kaamatan, we ate, drank, and participated in traditional dances (Sabrina and I even sang some Celene Dion). Kaamatan was a crazy fabulous introduction to local life and culture – from food to pageants to listening to Jannie speak and sing. I won 50 ringgit in a dance competition and vowed never to attempt Celene Dion again. I feel so lucky to be invited to these spaces.

At the start of my 3rd week here, Jannie invited me to her home for a foot massage, where we chatted, laughed about mushrooms, and walked through her garden. She took me to a birthday party for her sister and niece, where I met more of her family, and then attended a traditional Kadazan wedding. She taught me about the three rights of passage in Kadazan culture (birth, marriage, and death). She explained that colonial infiltration meant a loss of traditional knowledge regarding these ceremonies – especially funerals. Jannie’s sister (number 6 of 13 siblings), Helen, had many wise words for a brooding 22-year-old intern – “struggling isn’t a journey; it’s a test; how do you do well on a test? You prepare!” Word up, Helen.

Work-life so far consists of office days developing proposals for waste management and water conservation programs. Every Wednesday, we run a mobile service initiative where we take blood pressure and test glucose levels for community members, and every Friday, we meet as a team to discuss project progress and develop action plans for future projects. We are currently developing a business proposal for a compost cooperative! We’re hoping to secure land near a fruit and vegetable market to build a composting area where members of the cooperative can turn fruit and veg scraps into marketable soil. Pascale and I have also developed a program called “Save Water, Reduce Waste,” which is a community event that will be held on June 29th, 2023. The program aims to raise community awareness about the importance of waste management, organic waste composting, water conservation, and upcycling/recycling. We have set up informative talks, practical demonstrations, and interactive activities to empower participants with knowledge and skills to make sustainable choices in their daily lives.

I’m a whole month in, and I can’t believe it. I’ve met many unique and inspiring women (especially at PACOS), made two amazing friends in Sabrina and Pascale, and found a community at my yoga studio, where I’ve been practicing three days a week. Settling into a routine has been a saving grace in all the chaos of living abroad. I’m so beyond happy to be here.