It began when I thought it was all over. My Go Abroad experience was certainly not what I had intended. My intention was to complete academic research on the ‘Comfort Women’ of South Korea. Unfortunately, my arrival to Seoul coincided with the outbreak of Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome. South Korea entered a phase of Red Alert: commuters donned face-masks, bustling high streets were emptied and I was told it was impossible for me to visit the Comfort Women after all.
I decided to make the best of things. Yes, this was an untimely turn of events. Nevertheless, nobody wants to risk being the research student who accidently infected elderly survivors of WW2 trauma. The University kindly allowed me to keep the fund given that I picked another project pronto. Now in Malaysia, I chose the best Google seemed to offer, the ECOTEER Perhentian Islands Teaching and Community Project.
I had never volunteered with a conservation project before, I didn’t know what to expect. The location of the scheme was no disappointment. I travelled to the Perhentian Islands from the mainland by boat. As we surged across aqua blue water towards an emerald landmass of jungle and golden sand, I decided that Google was definitely the search engine of choice.
I lived in basic accommodation within a local village. The project offered various volunteering opportunities that ranged from teaching after school clubs to supporting environmental campaigns. I went on beach cleans to collect data for waste management strategy. I helped create tourist awareness boards on protecting coral life. Full cultural assimilation was central to the program. Although I was a short-term volunteer I was encouraged to take language classes in Bahasa Malaysia, to attend Malay dinners in local dress and to cook local delicacies. It was a privilege to build friendships with the villagers and to celebrate Hari Raya. After being invited into countless homes to celebrate the New Year, I finished my first Muslim festival in a happy state of food coma and with memories of family.
One of the highlights was going on turtle patrol. Malaysia is home to four species of Marine turtles and nearly all of them are facing extinction. Humans have exacerbated the problem through pollution, coastal development and egg poaching. To ensure that no poachers disturbed the nesting turtles I worked on team with local government fisheries to safeguard a beach. As night fell and fireflies began to emerge, two nests of baby turtles hatched. It was incredibly special to witness tiny reptile heads borrowing out of the sand. They emerged perfectly formed, as if resurrecting from a sandy burial. They left as one black swarm: one hundred tiny turtles crawling to the sea by way of reflected moonlight. I felt like a proud mother.
The ECOTEER team
My Go Abroad experience gave me a new understanding of conservation practices. I have left Malaysia with a new love for the ocean, with new friendships across cultures and new eyes to see how we can live sustainably.