Waking up at the surprisingly late time of 8:00am on the 6th September, Jessie and I packed our bags and made our way to Kota Kinabalu International Airport, our already pre-arranged meeting place with Jodie (our AVI Team Leader and already seasoned Borneo veteran), and Christina, our last member of the Borneo Trio, who was arriving today due to planning of her engagement party (she’s getting married to this really lovely gent named Roy).
We arrived at the airport to discover Christina’s flight had been cancelled and she was on the next available flight, arriving an hour later. Sitting around and eating Dunkin’ Donuts (cause Jessie and I are seriously cultural people), we finally ran into Jodie, and Rojeka, who would be managing us during our time with PACOS. When Christina finally arrived, jubilant but jetlagged, through the gates, we quickly left and were driven by Andrew, our bus driver and one of the nicest Malaysians around, on a twenty five minute drive to the small town of Kipovo, just outside of the main metropolitan area of KK, and close to the town of Donggongon.
Kipovo is situated at the start of the jungle, and the tranquil, mountainous terrain made for jaw-dropping drive-by scenery as we made our way to our homestay, a small green hut perched on the side of a valley. The first thing that greeted us was the sight of the amazing view from our balcony. This is something that we are never going to get tired of!
Our house is basic, with floorboards that you can through to the cold ground below, but was nevertheless very homely and welcoming. There are three rooms with creaky bunk beds that were clearly not designed for someone who is 6ft 3’, a basic kitchen and two bathrooms (and only one working toilet). No Television, barely any phone signal, a few working power plugs and no WIFI. We wanted adventure that was off the beaten track; this certainly wasn’t a bad place to start it.
Behind the house, a small eating space and kitchen welcomed us to our two amazing cooks, Doreen and Dana. They turned up, for breakfast and dinner, to teach us Dusun and Malay words and cook us some unbelievably delicious meals, always complimented by noodles or steamed rice. Outside of two lovely cleaners who put up with our sweaty laundry, there is also a ‘security’ guard, called Boy, who checked on our home every night and every morning.
Following our first night at our homestay in Kipovo, where we got the boring logistical paperwork stuff out of the way, we finally made our way to PACOS, the offices where we would be working for the next month.
The offices are located above a really gorgeous primary school, and it was always melts the heart to see loads of Malaysian children waving at you and giving you hi-fives every day you come into work. Certainly puts you in a good mood. We were introduced to Anne, the big boss who runs all the operations, Gordon, who focused on PACOS’s main community engagement support, and is also would be our interpreter for our field trip next week, and Didi, who was currently managing the movement that PACOS was taking in supporting indigenous communities against the building of a major dam in Kiduan (which is further inland). In addition, Rojeka also was on hand to show us round the offices, and also to the café downstairs, which served a multitude of local foods (usually with rice, but fried noodles are available on request).
The café is a great place to hang out, being surrounded by tropical plants and in the shade. Additionally, it also lead to an unbelievably beautiful community garden, which showcased PACOS’s attempts to trial new foods and growing methods. This garden included a fully functioning urban garden, showcasing multiple ways PACOS is encouraging people in the cities to have plants; vertical gardens, a herb garden (my Dad would be envious), a fully functioning rice paddy field (which was trialling new disease resistant rice, a new plants trialling area (where they were successfully growing fruit and veggies such as asparagus and cabbage, which is unbelievably difficult to grow in the tropical climate), a fully functioning compost heap and worm factory, and to top it off, a chicken coop complete with adorable little chicks running around everywhere. If there was anywhere to make you feel more inspired, this was it! This place was Christmas.
Oh, and they were also planning to plant bananas and pineapples too. Seriously, community gardens are the best. (Interestingly, they also had a palm oil tree in the garden, which I first looked on with distaste due to the sight of the never-ending company palm oil plantations, but I gradually softened too. The truth is, palm oil is something that can be beneficial to many communities, and many indigenous farmers do use it as a source of income and as a legitimate way for feeding your families. I’m definitely not against that... but company palm oil plantations that will eradicate nearly all of Borneo’s jungle in close to five years if it isn’t stopped soon??? No, not really a fan. There’s always two sides to every single aspect. That’s the blessing and the curse of development studies and anthropology. Rant over).
Following lunch on our first day, Jessie, Christina and I locked ourselves up in the PACOS meeting room and came up with a plan of how to approach our project. Now is probably a good time to tell you what we are actually doing (seeing as this was the first time we had a clear idea): We have been brought over to examine the impacts of an Earthquake, which took place of June 5th, 2015, on two indigenous villages (Kampung Kiau, which is the highest village in Sabah, located on the slopes of Mt. Kinabalu, which was close to the Earthquake’s epicentre, and Kampung Tambatuon, which is further down on the same river).
There has been plenty of work done on the geological and physical impacts of the Earthquake, but in typical anthropological disaster discourse, there has been next to nothing done on indigenous impacts. In light of the Malaysian Government actually beginning to start to engage with indigenous issues (they have a terrible history of disregarding indigenous ways of life), this report is seen by PACOS as an opportunity to primarily examine social impacts and stress the importance of indigenous peoples and their methods and beliefs… soooooo… no pressure or anything.
Eventually, following a few hours of planning and organising, we decided that our first week (this week) would be primarily focused on background information on the Earthquake, PACOS and traditional ways of life, with the second week us taking a field trip to the two villages, and the third week completing the report. This left us a few hours, which we took travelling to the local town of Donggongon and getting our bearings, and then coming back and skyping family and friends.
Following that, we arrived back at our homestay. Day one done! Or was it? Straight away Jessie got out some UFC workout videos, and began doing exercises on the front porch (Jessie does kickboxing, she could actually kick me in the face). Wanting to lose weight, I joined in. And working out in a tropical climate is an absolute bitch, lemme tell you that. And Christ, I was unfit! It’s amazing how unfit you get when all you do is uni work and forget about going to the gym.
Following our workout, we were welcomed by dinner from Doreen and Dana (and their ridiculously loud cat who literally meows for food all the bloody time! We later found out her name was Monkey, and she’s calling because she’s heavily pregnant. Actually, all the animals: cats, dogs, you name it; are heavily pregnant here, seeing as none of the stray animals are de-sexed). After playing a round of ‘Shithead’ (seriously good card game, get on it), we went to bed at the casual time of 7:30pm. 6:30am rise, 7:00am breakfast, and the new day begins again.
And so we got into a routine. It was like our first ever office job, except it just happened to be working for an amazing NGO in a tropical paradise. We’d get up, go to work, mess around and have a good time (whilst being really productive), come back, do another of Jessie’s workouts (Christina joined in, followed by Jodie, and then by a couple of the locals who were fascinated by what we were doing, doing push ups, lifting weights, and punching the air), have dinner, and get an early night.
The truth is that within this environment, we work well together. We completed the background information so quickly and efficiently that we’d have plenty of time to do other things like skype home and just have fun. Jessie and I are human geography students, and Christina is a social science student. We have all bases covered; Jessie primarily focuses on physical stuff, Christina examines social impacts predominantly, and I have a foot in both camps due to doing development studies. We work damn well together. Additionally, on top of use working well, we had some amazing resources at our disposal, being the people of PACOS, and even a fully qualified geologist coming in and giving us a lecture on the physical changes on Mt Kinabalu that occurred as a result of the Earthquake.
As the work came together, we also gelled well together too as friends (engaging in what we now call “Serious Borneo Banter”). We didn’t really know much about each other before this trip; but now we are here it’s taken no time at all for the banter to start flowing. It’s really fun to be part of something like this, and that is only half of why a trip like this is so amazing!
Some of the banter includes teasing Jessie about her inability to stay awake for an entire episode of Game of Thrones, Christina for that book that she hides on her bottom shelf and for her constant ability, despite claiming to be a first-timer, to beat us all at ‘Shithead’, and me for the fact that when I went for a run one day instead of working out to Jessie’s videos I ended up getting chased by a pack of dogs, which was something that later everyone in the PACOS office found out about. The fun never stops.
Christina and Jessie share a room, while I myself, being the only guy on the trip, has to make do by being in my own room. While this can sometimes be a little lonely, I have quickly struck up a friendship with Greg, (or Dr. Greg, as Christina calls him). Greg shares my room with me, paying rent in the form of eating loads of mosquitos at night, and chilling out on my windowsill during the day. He’s a damn cool dude and by far and away the friendliest gecko I’ve ever met.
One of the best parts of this trip is that during the weekends we get days off to go and explore wherever we like. For our first weekend Jessie and I introduced Christina to the ‘wonders’ of Kota Kinabalu. On our first day we travelled to the Shangri-La resort, about 45 minutes out of the city. This place was literally somewhere that James Bond would stay at, with manicured beaches that you could ride horses on, a golf course, a fancy swimming pool with kid sections and a slide, jet ski hiring, climbing walls… oh, and did I mention that they also casually had an orang-utan sanctuary too! This was the ultimate honeymoon destination (in case any of you reading this are looking for a romantic getaway and have a ridiculous amount of cash to burn).
So we spent the day here lying on a beach, and then came back to get afternoon massages and evening shopping, accidentally crashing a formal dinner at our hotel, and hitting up the night markets. Jessie and I even caught up with Theresa, who I flew over with, for an amazing night market dinner. Oh, what a hard time we were having! (And Sydney Swans lost to Fremantle that day too. Sorry Jessie, but it had to be said. Love the Dockers all the way).
We also got the chance to check out the indigenous history museum on our way back to our second week of work, and check out the cultural diversity of Borneo. Whilst taking down many notes, it really stuck us how diverse the culture is here. Borneo is a big place, with so much diversity, that while it is an exciting challenge to study, it is also a daunting one.
As the days have come closer and closer to us departing for this field trip on the 17th of September, it has become increasingly clear how daunting it is. We have the chance here to actually make a big difference to some people’s lives. This is not theoretical stuff that we’ve read and studied about a hundred times before in a academic journal in university. This is us making the journal. This is us going out and doing and physically being there.
Exciting? Yes. Daunting? Yes. Are we ready for it? I suppose we will have to find out. As I sit here writing this, it is the night on the 16th September. We’ve just finished packing for our field trip, had dinner (where Christina and Jessie cooked a really nice chocolate cake) and have all gone to bed. Earlier Jessie and I had a moment where we kind of pinched ourselves and went, ‘my god, we’re actually going tomorrow!’ And we are. This is actually happening.
This trip has already been such an eye-opener for myself already in so many ways (academically, personally, psychologically and more); that it may not be a foregone conclusion to think that we might see some really distressing things on this field trip. We are dealing with people who have had their lives turned upside down by this earthquake. This is their place; and everything important to them revolves around that place. They may be still traumatised, upset, angry… we don’t know.
But I already sense that this coming week on our field trip is going to be hard, not just in terms of cultural interaction, and the interviews and stories, but in being in the physical place where so much death and destruction happened. It goes beyond purely our academic aims and purposes that initially led all of us to here, and becomes so much more real. This is why we are here. To help these people in any way we can.
But I suppose I won’t really know until I’m there.