(21 votes, average: 3.05 out of 5)
Thanks for your vote!
Voting on this contest has closed. Thanks to all who voted!
By Mary J. Breen
Assignment: teaching high school English and Science as a CUSO* volunteer
Destination: Binatang, Sarawak, Malaysia
Dates: September 1966 – July 1968
Qualifications: university degree, good intentions, and a desire to see the world. At least that’s all I thought was needed. And since I had a recently-acquired B.Sc., starry-eyed good intentions, and no interest in a nine-to-five job if the alternative was travelling, I thought I was good to go. Never mind that I had no teaching experience. Never mind that I had no knowledge of Malay or Iban or any Chinese dialect or Islam or global politics or cultural imperialism or a million other things. At least I knew one thing: in Southeast Asia, you must never cause anyone to lose face.
Our journey began in Vancouver on board the Prime Minister’s luxurious private plane which stopped for overnights in Honolulu and Guam before reaching Singapore. From there we flew to Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, in order to board an old steamer. I imagined The African Queen, but our ship was larger with panelled staterooms and stewards who served us a dinner of rice, vegetables, dried fish, and cups of very sweet tea. Finally we were on our way to the mouth of the mighty—and muddy—Rejang River; a huge red and orange tropical sunset on one side and coastal kampongs just like in National Geographic on the other. Finally I was entering real Borneo, land of headhunters, orangutans, crocodile-infested rivers, and the oldest rain forest in the world.
I awoke to find we had docked. From my berth, I watched packs of sinewy men run up and down the gangplank doubled-over under the weight of boxes and bags. Then one of my CUSO friends came to my room to tell me he’d heard that my village was the next stop, just an hour away. Soon there was another knock, and a man in a white shirt and dark pants came in. He said something I didn’t understand, and without my glasses, I assumed he was a steward. I just lay there chatting with my friend, waiting for the man to do whatever and leave. He just stood there, silent and waiting, until finally he came over to my berth—right at head level—and spoke again.
This time I understood him: “I am your principal.”
I grabbed the blanket and pulled it up to my chin. Here was my new principal for my new job, for my new life, and not only had I completely ignored him; I had met him while lying around barely dressed chatting with a man in his pajamas! I had managed to make all three of us lose face on my very first day.
I found my bags, said a quick goodbye to the others, and drove off with him in his little car. Neither of us then or ever mentioned my colossal blunder. The narrow roads were the colour of a broken red brick. We passed a few little farms with rubber gardens beyond, but most of the road was enclosed with olive-green trees that he called “jungle.” This was the jungle I’d come so far to see? Ancient and impenetrable, maybe, but where were the tangled vines, the swinging monkeys, the hornbills, the orchids, the pitcher plants? To my inexperienced eye, these dusty, monotonous trees seemed no more exotic than northern Ontario bush. Only later, on journeys with my students, did I learn how wrong I was and what a spectacular thing a jungle is.
Suddenly, we turned off past a small stone gate. “Here we are,” he said. “Here” was a large clearing with several low wooden buildings scattered about—classrooms, a lab, an office, a dining hall, a mosque, teachers’ houses, and student hostels. Only one thing seemed definitely amiss: the classrooms had no sidewalls, and the jungle was right across the road. I asked, as casually as I could, which creatures I was likely to encounter in these wide-open rooms, and I was very relieved to hear that I could only expect mosquitoes, snakes, cicadas, bats, and, rarely, scorpions. The monkeys, orangutans, wild boar, and crocodiles would apparently be staying deep in the jungle. And that’s exactly what they did.
And so, after a rather shaky start, I began two years of heat and monsoons, loneliness, lasting friendships, frustrations, challenges, rewards, and hard work. I wouldn’t have missed this trip for the world.
* CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas) is similar to the US Peace Corps.