It was a rainy afternoon as we drove into Kg Sorak Sumpong, Serian in the outskirts of Kuching. It took us about an hour and a half drive from Kuching to reach this Bidayuh village. We were the 10 volunteers and two Impian officials who were going to run a holiday education camp for the children of the village.
At first sight of the village, I was disappointed, having expected to be taken into the interiors of Sarawak and given an opportunity to live in longhouses. As it turned out this looked like one of the new villages often seen in West Malaysia.
It was soon apparent that due to some miscommunication, we were not expected at the village that week. However, this was quickly sorted out and we were placed with three host families. The only married couple in the group was given a bedroom to themselves in one home. This was considered very gracious of the host as there were 11 family members in that house.
Two of the guys were housed close to a pigsty and padi drying area. The rest of us were graciously given the living room and one bedroom in another house. Most of us slept on mats spread out on the floor.
For all my bravado of being able to live in longhouses and having to use pit latrines (as my son candidly remarked when he first heard of my trip), I was surprised at the relief I felt when I saw that the house had a sitting, flush toilet. The bathroom had a tank that ran the entire length of one wall brimming with fresh cool, mountain water. We were so impressed actually having been given far more than we had anticipated.
The first day, we were taken into Serian town, a twenty-minute drive from the village and treated to a sumptuous dinner of local fare. Besides a briefing earlier in the evening, nothing much else was done. We were left to settle into our new surroundings, bond with our host families and rest as many of us had left for Kuching very early in morning from West Malaysia.
The next morning, we were up early as we were expected to start preparations for the camp at 8.30am. We used scoops to bathe and had one yelling from the bathroom “I love this, I love this” as she delighted in the fresh cool water. It was hilarious and surprisingly no one wished for a water heater.
We then sat down for breakfast prepared by our host. There were noodles, fried rice and coffee and tea.
At our next briefing, the chores to be undertaken during the camp were delegated and we were paired to handle them. We were expecting some 60 students. Lessons for the camp were prepared and again we paired up for the English, Science and Maths lessons that were going to be conducted.
Diverse group with the same mission
Most of us were first time volunteers for this sort of camp and were not teachers either. Many were professionals however, in other fields. We had volunteers in their mid-twenties up to one who was over seventy. It was such a diverse group but all having the same mission.
Later, we were again taken into Serian town, this time to explore and have a taste of the ‘Teh si peng special’ a three-layered milk tea which is known as one of the hidden treasures of Kuching. There is a layer of melted palm sugar at the bottom, followed by milk and finally the tea on top.
The usual way is to mix it all up and drink it. But one decided to pull her straw through all three layers and have the best of different flavours in her mouth before swallowing the tea. I tried it this way too and must agree with her. Perhaps, that day a new trend of drinking teh si peng started.
We tried the famous and much-talked-about kolo mee. I must admit that I am not taken up with this noodle dish of Sarawak.
Next we had a taste of the Sunny Hill ice cream. It was operating under the management of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Sarawak and from whence the proceeds go towards the development and operation of the Ayer Manis Adventist school. Again the liquid palm sugar poured over the ice cream together with a generous amount of nuts was too much to resist.
We then drove on to a waterfall nearby. That was indeed a treat. The water was so clean and clear and we were tickled with little fish nibbling at our feet. Whilst some of us relished this natural spa, some others squirmed at the nibbles. Nonetheless, all who got into the water agreed that it was a great way to be spending time in Sarawak.
So far this was a dream holiday I felt, having no clue of the tough work that was to begin the next morning.
On Thursday morning, we were again up early to be at the multi-purpose hall to welcome the students who we would spend time with the following three days. Registration started and though the camp was meant for seven to 12 year olds, there were several who were six and up to 15 years of age. It was too difficult to turn away these eager faces and a decision was made to accept all who came. In the end, instead of 60, we had 90 young ones under our wings.
The program for the day started with an ice-breaker, the famous chicken dance. The children seemed to enjoy this. Then they sang the Sarawak state anthem with gusto but it was when the Negara-Ku was sung that I teared up. It was one of the very few occasions that I felt like crying when our national anthem was sung.
With all that is going on politically, it just came to mind that these innocent kids were being robbed of a wonderful country without them even being aware of it.
Times of bonding
The first day was English day and we had the children split up in five groups moving from station to station, learning a different lesson at each station. All went smoothly the first day and though it was really hot in the hall, we managed. We had breakfast and lunch with the kids and these were times of bonding, too. The food was prepared by volunteers from the womenfolk of the village.
After lunch, we continued with activities like story-telling, colouring and reading. Dance items in preparation for the cultural night were also discussed.
At 2 pm we dispersed. The volunteers stayed on for briefing and preparation for next day which was to be Science day. We then took a break and drove out to the Kg Panchor Dayak Hot Spring. I was not ready to dive in and was happy to soak my feet in the different pools with varying temperatures. A good end to a day of standing on one’s feet more than usual.
That night our host family had prepared a dinner like none any of us had had before. They decided that we should taste their indigenous fare and not only did we view it as a privilege, we felt honoured. So we sat down to a meal of two types of chicken of which one was stuffed into bamboo with ‘bunga kantan’ shoots and cooked on an open fire. There was fish roe seasoned and stuffed into bamboo and roasted, patin in tempoyak, sayur manis and kangkong.
There was also glutinous rice (pulut) cooked in bamboo that tasted very different from the lemang we get in West Malaysia. Now that was a feast.
That night, all the volunteers gathered in the house of my host family just to spend some time together and also to complete preparations for the next day’s lessons. In the midst of it all a large spider decided to pay us a call. The reactions of some of the volunteers were so hilarious and I still chuckle when I think of the incident.
It was so evident then, who was used to nature and who just spoke of nature. There is certainly no place for spiders in the lives of city folk it was apparent that night.
The next day, the science sessions were of great interest to the students. The simple experiments we allowed them to carry out, like the lava lamp, the neutralisation process using vinegar, soda bicarbonate and a balloon, the float and sink experiment, observation of insects and the skeleton song for body parts kept the students engrossed for hours.
The eagerness of the students to participate was not lost on the teaching volunteers who wished they could do more with these kids.
Dinner that Friday night was the last dinner with our hosts. Again the indigenous cuisine of ikan keli roasted on an open fire, some of the fish cooked in bamboo with tempoyak, unripe papaya shredded and seasoned, young tapioca shoots with the usual condiments of tempoyak, salted fish and bird’s eye chilies left us satiated and wishing for more kampong days.
Durian eating sessions
It was the durian season and throughout our six days there, we had several durian eating sessions thrown in between the other activities. I am sure that had resulted in extra kilograms being heaved onto the planes when we headed home.
The highlight of the camp was the cultural night held on the last night we spent at the village. We planned a few activities with the children and invited their parents. Impian Sarawak also wanted to present the villagers who had hosted us in their homes and cooked for us at the camp with mementoes.
We were truly touched by so many things done by the locals, that night. It was a surprise to meet Julian Tan Kok Ping, the DAP MP of Stampin, who had taken the time and made the effort to spend a few hours with us at the village that evening. It was much appreciated by both the volunteers and the villagers. Edward Luak, the local DAP representative, was with us not only on that night but was at the village almost every day to ensure we were alright.
At the start of the night we were asked to meet at the entrance of the village. Together with Julian, Edward and other important people of the village, we had to walk to the community hall, a distance of about 200 meters. Gongs were beaten and along the pathway, on both sides, lined up were our children from the camp, their parents and other villagers who shook our hands and said “Thank You”.
As we entered the hall, we were garlanded with beads by maidens all dressed up in traditional costumes. It felt surreal - this combination of music, handshakes, garlands! What have I done to deserve this? Was what was running through my mind at that time.
There was a feast laid out. There was a live band in attendance and we took part in a traditional dance of the Bidayuh. The band played on late into the night as the young and old danced with abandon. The night was light and joyous and seemed a grand affair - far grander than any send-off expected by the volunteers.
Impian is on the quiet doing a lot of commendable work both in West and East Malaysia. They run education camps, not that the kids will score As but to let them know that learning can be fun. They run medical camps to bring medical care to the interiors of Sabah and Sarawak. They build roads to make travel a little easier for the locals. They lay pipes so that homes may have the basic necessity of water met.
Impian is always looking for volunteers to help out in their projects. However, one must be mindful if you volunteer. The commitment must be sincere and one has to be prepared for any situation including but not limited to unhygienic conditions. Should a volunteer drop off mid-way, you have not only deprived another of the opportunity to serve but put the project at risk of failure.
For me personally, the whole episode was a great eye-opener. We take so much for granted and yet many of our brethren in Sarawak live with so little. I feel I gave so little yet received in abundance. The emotions evoked, the feelings unprecedented, the desire to do more are some of the handouts we volunteers took back. I am sure, just like me, the others will not forget our six days in Kg Sorak.
Finally, I would like to pen here my and my co-volunteers’ deep appreciation and gratitude to the camp leaders, Adrian Cheah and Cheryl Cheah, who were with us all the time and made sure that we were in want of nothing. Thank you and God Bless you for the good work that you and Impian are doing and at the same time you are making inroads into the hearts of the people irrespective of race and religion.