Buckle in y’all…turtles, tampons, caning, Gods entering human bodies. This is a long one, but an important one.
Gabrielle and I drove seven hours to Setiu, Terengganu for an English camp. I was put at the rubber duck station with Alexa. Students had to feed rubber ducks down a tube of plastic bottles into a kitty pool and then fish them out using a broom with a long string and a hook taped to it.
After the camp we drove to Pasar Puteh to catch a ferry to the Perhentian islands. We got to the island and didn’t have anywhere to stay, but we were not worried. We made friends who offered us a room in their newly built chalet with mattresses on the floor for RM 10 / night (~$2.50 / night.) They even made us dinner, and were not creepy! A major bonus. We went on a jungle trek to another part of the island to meet our friends who with wide eyes said “come see the turtle!” We ran down the beach to see a gigantic turtle digging a hole for her eggs. Soon after we showed up a blonde Aussie wearing a bikini ran up to the turtle with a trash bin and got alarmingly close to it. I assumed she wanted to take a photo, but she ended up being a super cool conservationist. The plastic trash bin was used to catch the eggs, and she ran up to arrive before the poachers. The turtle was in a trance, digging and digging, and then resting, and then digging. Each egg can be sold for RM 200 to eat, turtles produce 100-200 eggs each time they lay, and 1 in 1,000 eggs survive. We watched that turtle for hours. It was mesmerizing to watch the turtle, and study the dynamics between the conservationists, the poachers (who eventually showed up), and the the tourists. After, everyone went dancing but I was not in the mood so I started the jungle trek back, alone, at 2am. I walked for a bit, then began to run. The sounds from the jungle terrified me. I was also afraid of drunk men. I went up and down hill after hill with my heart beating out of my chest. I ended up completely lost at an entirely new beach with no phone. I was freaking out. I managed to walk along the coast back to where we were. I pulled Lori from the crowd and told her what happened.
We woke up, ate roti, and got on a boat. For the first few hours we had an amazing time snorkeling. We saw clown fish, piranhas, giant clams, and many different types of fish and coral in calm, clear water. When we got to shark cove, the water was quite choppy and we began to feel sick. After swimming with sharks for a bit, I got back on the boat and started throwing up. I wish someone had taken a picture because it would have been quite a sight. Everyone was in really bad shape, strewn about the boat. To make matters worse, our boat was broken. We finally made it to shore and had some nasi with kari and collapsed into hammocks.
Back at school one teacher told me she was on her period, and experiencing a “really heavy flow”…sorry for the TMI, you don’t have to stop reading, I’m done. She pulled out a pad and said “what do you use?” I told her “I use tampons.” She said “really? but how they they work, do they leak? How do they not get lost inside of you? Are you not a virgin anymore because you use them? Do other people really use these too? Is this normal where you are from? Does it hurt?” I said “do you want to see one?” I pulled out a Cora tampon and a group of teachers formed around me ooing and ahhing at the tampon. I asked “do you want me to open it?” They nodded, eagerly. I opened it and they all took turns holding it and inspecting it from every angle. “Can you use this in the water?” they asked. I nodded. “Kak Da…you can use it in the water! The tahm – pohn!” More and more teachers came over. “Don’t show the students.” They warned me. I offered them tampons to use and they said they would take them home and practice using them. I brought about 10 boxes of tampons and a diva cup with me to Malaysia because tampons are absolutely nowhere to be found here. 7 months here and I still have not seen one sold.
I went to the bathroom and when I got back, there was a bag of baju kurungs on my desk from my desk mate. I got home and tried them on. They were too short, too tight, and they needed to be ironed. Regardless, I had to wear them to show my appreciation. Wearing wrinkly bajus is 100% unacceptable, so the next morning I brought a change of clothes so I could iron the baju. It became a whole thing, four teachers helped me get to the iron. When everything was set up and they left, I began to iron. The iron was on the baju for less than 2 seconds when I smelled burning. The iron melted the fabric and burned a hole in the garment. I took a deep breathe, turned off the iron, and put the baju on. I was careful to hide the burn, and no one noticed the giant hole.
I planned a spring roll challenge. The students were broken into teams, I brought the spring roll sheets and oil, and the students brought the ingredients for the filling. Every group brought hot dogs, American cheese, and mayonnaise, along with other ingredients. 24 students frying spring rolls with hot oil was actually a huge success!
The next day I helped with the morning physical education classes where we taught “basic gymnastics.” I went to the field and there were two wobbly wooden desks. Two students were chosen to sit at either side of the taller of the desks. They were told to hold onto the legs of the desk so they wouldn’t buckle. One-by-one, students ran and jumped onto the desk. If they were unsuccessful, they joined the end of the line. Students ran and stopped when they reached the desk, some ran through the desk, and several students fell on/off the desk. After, the taller desk was switched out for a shorter desk and a thin piece of wood with a spring on the bottom of it was placed in front of the desk. Students were to run and jump over the desk using the ‘trampoline’ for help. Few were successful, but the bell rang and the students quickly dispersed. I left early that day to drive to the airport.
The first night Camila, Gabs, and I stayed in a hostel in Kuching.
Gabs and I flew to Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo for the Rainforest World Music Festival. We saw bands from all over the world: Ireland, New Zealand, Russia, Vietnam, China, Mongolia, Jamaica, Morocco, Japan, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. We danced wildly, went to yoga sessions, painted batik, and entered into a divine flow. It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.
I loved the festival, but we slept in tents with no gear and the bathroom situation was rough. One night Sarah and I were dancing to the rasta band “Macka B” … one of my favorites, and met a former politician who wanted to be our sugar daddy. He continuously handed us beers and offered to fly us to his apartment in KL…creepy men!!!!! UGH.
At school, we started practicing for the play “A Night Out” with the lowest level form 2 class. This class used to be a total nightmare for me. The students would throw chairs and desks and spank and kick each other and sleep. I have come to realize that the students act out because they want attention, not because they are trying to be rude. This play has brought out their inner light. After school, we practice and hang out.
We had our site visit where people come check in on us. We talked a lot about how difficult it will be to come home. After they left Gabs came back from a walk in town and said “Clare, you have to come with me, we are going to have drinks with the richest men in town.” We went to the restaurant and waited. Slowly, big grey trucks began to arrive. The men got out with bags of ingredients with them: tofu, spinach, cashews we had to peel, giant apples from China, and fresh tea from China. They gave the ingredients to the waitress and ordered food but I couldn’t understand the Mandarin. We shook hands (the men were Chinese, not Malay, so cross gender touching was allowed), and drank beer. The food came out in waves, soup, river fish, vegetables etc. The men owned bird nest farms, rubber plantations, and fields and fields of palm oil. They were our local palm lords.
The next day we drove to Raub to prepare for Good Vibes festival, a two day music festival featuring several Western bands. The festival was very Western, with crazy fashion, boba milk pizza, a Stranger Things Netflix tent, and lots of Instagram-worthy back-drops. I was really excited to see some of the artists there. We did a lot of dancing, but I had an allergic reaction that only now is going away :/.
Midway through the festival, we went to a musang king durian farm owned by one of Sarah’s students’ family. We met them for noodles and ate near a large intersection where we witnessed a motorcycle accident between two men. One men got up and left, but the other man laid completely still on his side in the middle of the street. People would walk up to him, and then walk away. Someone placed umbrellas all around him to protect him from the sun. We sat for over thirty minutes and the ambulance still hadn’t arrived by the time we left. It was traumatic. We then got into the back of an open truck with railings and stood while the durian farm owner drove to her farm. We learned all about durian, and got to eat some. The durian was all to be exported to China.
The festival was a lot of fun, but I think I have discovered that music festivals like Good Vibes are not really my thing – too many people, and too much emphasis on what you are wearing/how you look/how drunk you are/who you are with. Or maybe that’s just me. We got to see Daniel Caesar, Sabrina Claudio, Mura Masa, Russ, Rae Sremmund, and YUNA (an awesome Malaysian artist)! (Among other performers that were also great!)
At Monday morning assembly the students were organized into how many exams they failed. Teachers went through each student, listing off which exams they failed. Photos were taken of each group of students to be made into a banner. I could tell the students felt humiliated. After school, I had play practice and then walked to my car and opened the door to find a dead bad on the floor near the passenger seat. My students were about to drive away when I called out to them to come help me. I showed them the bat and turned around to get something to pick it up with. I returned and the bat was gone. The students had picked it up with their hands and put it in a nearby trench. I told them to wash their hands but there is no soap at our school for students, and they had to get home so they left. Other students came over and I forced them to get ice cream with me while my car aired out. I swear bats are following me. Bats live in the ceiling of my house, (remember, the bat poop falling in my room), I sweep bat poop in my driveway every day. I see bats everywhere when I go for walks at night. I looked up bat symbolism and found that their presence signifies a major change in my life, and the death of some part of me that isn’t serving my higher calling. Sounds about right.
For Thursday’s assembly, I planned a spelling bee for the lower level classes. Mid spelling bee, the discipline teacher called students up to the front and brought them behind the stage we were standing on. He began to cane the students extremely hard. It was very loud, and difficult to ignore. The students participating in the spelling bee watched on, with their back to the student body, who began to strain their necks to try and watch the caning. I started to cry. Luckily, I was not reading the words. After the spelling bee I went to cry in the bathroom. I am tired of trying to ignore the caning, and the humiliation that the teachers cause the students. “It doesn’t work” I tell the teachers, “humiliation and physical abuse does not work…why why why.” This is the most difficult aspect of the grant for me. I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel on this one. Also – the discipline teacher now calls me darling, honey, sweetheart, Clarey. Students joke we are dating. I don’t sing anymore.
After school I had a speaking workshop where I brought Apam Balik, we learned the cup song, and watched Stranger Things.
I drove home, music blasting, windows open, still airing out the car. As I neared my town, I saw clouds of smoke. I slowed down to try to make sense of it. I figured there was some kind of fire. As I got closer I realized it was several huge, colorful sticks/poles of incense burning. I got home and walked back to the incense. One of the palm lords was there, and told me to come back at 8pm. I came back to a huge birthday celebration for Kuan Ti, a Chinese warrior god. I ate porridge and watched as gods entered human bodies, putting them into a trance. Their bodies began to convulse as the younger ones beat drums and striked gongs. There was an paper boat, and two massive dragons. There were cakes, and full pigs. There was a huge staircase. The stairs were made of knives. The gods walked up and down the stairs to show that nothing could hurt them, because the gods lived inside of them, and were protecting them. They would stop on a rung and show their feet to show that nothing could hurt them. The gods were very hyper. It was obvious there was something inside of them. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
The next day at school I only taught one class, where we played jeopardy. The categories were spelling, acronyms, antonyms, act it out, and pronunciation. I had them act out “I am one hundred years old.” It was very amusing. After school I went to a teacher’s home to use her oven to bake for the teachers at my school as a thank you for all the times they have treated me. It was good that I cooked in her home because her kitchen was halal. My friend Miss Tan, the Chinese counselor only birings fruit to potlucks because anything she would cook would be haram, or not halal because “she takes pork.”
That night was the finale of Kuan Ti’s birthday and I met Miss Tan there. We drank chicken broth and joined a parade with gods and the giant paper boat. We paraded all around our small town. Men from the community came up to me and started following me, trying to explain what was happening in broken English. One of them told me “I like to meet white people.” Actually. People kept thinking I was Gabrielle. The Gods entered the human bodies again and the Gods moved all around. They would stop and pray, bending their knees and moving their hands above their heads three times, sometimes holding incense (the most common way I have seen Buddhists pray), or a broom, or a stick. They had bloody scratches on their backs from praying with such vigor. Again, they were in a trance like state and went where they wanted to go, regardless of other people/objects in their way, stopping to pray at certain spots and clear out the bad energy. People would follow them with whistles, moving people out of the god’s way. After, there was a singing competition. One boy sang an ABBA song.
Yesterday, Saturday, we had school to make up for the fact that we have off Monday-Wednesday. The discipline teacher organized an ‘E-tournament’ for students to play Pub-G, free fire, and other games IDK it was DUMB. I stayed in the bilik guru doing work and eating the dark chocolate cake I brought that was a success! During a meeting I opened my email and I was hit with my flight home After school, I met up with students to eat durian and then they came over for 7 HOURS and to use my Netflix subscription. We watched an episode of “Evil Genius”, Hellboy 3, Hostel, and Bird Box. The movies were PAINFUL TO WATCH. They left and I walked into my room and swept out a giant cockroach. Tuesday I head to Port Dickson to stay in a covered wagon with other teachers for Family Day. It was that or a teepee…
More to come.
Love and peace,
ClareAbouts is not an official U.S. Department of State publication, and the views and information presented in this blog are entirely my own, and do not represent the Fulbright U.S. Student Program or the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Commission or Malaysia.