I teach my environmental science students that if you have a closet to keep your clothes in, a refrigerator to keep your food in, and a bed to sleep in, you are living better than the majority of people around the world. One of the things I was most nervous about when traveling to Borneo, Malaysia, this summer for a course on primate conservation was the fact that we would be doing a home stay for a portion of the course. While I have done a fair amount of international travel, doing a home stay in such a remote part of the world was well outside of my comfort zone.
When I first arrived in Malaysia, I already felt a bit out of sorts. Staying in the tropical rain forests of Borneo comes with its own set of challenges – crazy humidity, large insects, snakes – and when you throw in a stay with a new family who speaks a foreign language and eats unfamiliar food, I was overwhelmed. I ended up being pleasantly surprised by my home stay experience, as the family really went out of their way to make sure we had what we needed.
Even though most people in the village where we stayed slept on mattresses on the floor, we were put in a room with twin beds. Our home stay momma cooked us three meals a day, even bringing us lunch after we were out in the field doing coursework.
While our family didn’t have a car, they arranged rides for us to class each day, and sent extended family to pick us up at night. I even managed to enjoy our bucket showers at the end of the day. Living (somewhat) like the locals for a few nights really made me appreciate the convenience of many of the things I have access to at home, and also helped me to understand how little you really need to get by.
One of the best parts of doing the home stay was seeing the great value they placed on family and community.
It was impressive how this community has developed a home stay business as a way for families to earn money while conserving the local environment, and one of the things I loved about the home stay is that I felt I had a very different experience than I did staying in hotels in other parts of Malaysia. I don’t think the home stay is something I ever would have tried on my own, and I am grateful to have had the experience through my Earth Expeditions course.
During this trip, whenever I started to feel uneasy, I thought of a favorite quote from a book I read to prepare for my travels, “Land Below the Wind”, by Agnes Newton Keith. Agnes Keith spent several years living in what was then British North Borneo, with her husband, the conservator of forests. This quote reminded me what a privilege it is to have had the opportunity to visit such a unique part of the world, and to see an endangered species in the wild.
“Adventure for me has three stages. There is the first un-shackled interval before starting when my dreams are bounded by nothing, north, south, east, or west. There is the second interval when, footsore and insect-bitten, aching-backed and broken spirited, I wish that I had never come. And then comes the third interval – and in this interval I know that such adventures are the caviar of my existence compared to which other events in my life are Schwarzbrot. In this interval the fantastic, the unreal, the magnificent, and the unimaginable, which might have occurred only to other people, are occurring really to me. And then I know that it is right that such things must be paid for in discomfort, discouragement, and weariness; I know it is right that they are not free.”
-Agnes Newton Keith
Land Below the Wind