In September of 2017, a colleague approached me to ask if I’d be interested in chaperoning a student trip to Malaysia at the end of June. Of course, I responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and embarked on a fourteen-day trip with two colleagues and 21 high school students from mid-June until early July- a great way to kick off the summer.
Working with Happy Family Homes Malaysia, my colleague has been running trips to Kota Kintabalu (or KK, as the locals call it) for the past 11 years. Basically, the kids come and assist with the locals in building two subsidized houses for families of low incomes. This year, we assistant two families- one in Tuaran and one in Inanam– both suburbs of KK. The most rewarding aspect for me was getting to know the two families on a personal level. Each day, they would provide us with a homemade, local meal to thank us for our services. When we weren’t working, we also got to taste local cuisines (mostly seafood and Asian food, of course) around Sabah.
The work our kids did (and to be honest, myself as well) included making mortar and laying bricks for eight days. I actually learned a lot about how the windows and doors and supports are created and found bricklaying to be an interesting process. It was also cool to get to know some of the kids in a different way, outside of a school setting.
The progress we made in 8 days…
We also challenged the locals to a soccer game…
Apart from our eight days of working and almost four days of air travel, we did get to have a few days of tourism. We spent a Sunday on a riverboat cruise searching for monkeys and fireflies (or lightning bugs), which, even for someone like me coming from the Midwest, was pretty spectacular, just because there were SO MANY of them at once! (For those of you whom do not come from the Midwest, we used to catch fireflies as kids in summer). Our second Sunday, we checked out the Gaya Street Market, which was just down the street from our hotel. My favorite day, however, was the last day, when we went to the island of Sapi. We spent the day swimming and snorkeling (and even better, there was no rain!) It was so amazing to actually see and swim alongside schools of tropical fish, in abundantly warm water! (What wasn’t cool, on the other hand, was seeing the plastic and litter floating in the water.) Finally, my colleague Ciaran and I also rented a jet ski- I got to drive one for the very first time ever!
On our layover on the way home, we had the opportunity to stop in Singapore for a five-hour tour! I thought Singapore was a fascinating, expensive, little-too-clean country, but I have decided to make it a point to spend more time there in the future.
I really, really loved Sabah and the island of Borneo. It’s not an easy place to get to, and I feel that it is still quite untouched by tourism, so it is a great place to experience authentic culture but also wildlife. The people we met and spent time with and learned from were a highlight for me, and I sincerely hope I will return in the future- I’ve made it a goal for myself to travel more in Asia in the upcoming years (can we say- large trip for my 30th!)