Saturday, April 26, 2008

Volunteering Continued: Borneo

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo (Mar. 3 - Mar. 21)

Searching for volunteer positions in Australia also led to searching for volunteer positions in Borneo. A quick google search took me to the Borneo Marine Research Institute's (BMRI) website and a few minutes later I had emailed the director. My idea of volunteering was to help with some research projects and scuba dive for free. After emailing back and forth for a couple weeks with the director, my idea of a simple volunteer project rapidly developed into a project requiring a proposal and a letter of reference. Ok, so maybe my stay in Borneo was going to be a little more work than play...I could handle that, right?

First days are always overwhelming. I arrived in Kota Kinabalu on Monday morning. A few days before arriving I had booked accommodation and arranged airport transportation. When I walked out of the airport, Vincent, the owner of the guesthouse, was waiting for me. A very nice guy, but I quickly learned that he was also quite the alcoholic. 10:30AM and Vincent drove me to the guesthouse with an ice cold beer secured between his legs. I had promised the marine institute that I would come by after lunch. Next problem: I had no idea where the Institute was nor how to get there. Vincent quickly solved that problem and offered to personally take me to the Univerisity of Malaysia Sabah campus after he had picked up a few more guests from the airport. I'm sure he continued to drink beers as he made his afternoon pick-ups. And then just as he promised he took me to the University, with a fresh stash of 2 beers. I know it was dumb to have ridden with him. But it was free and I didn't know where I was going.

When I arrived at BMRI, Siti, the receptionist, was waiting for me. I thanked Vincent and jumped out of the car. Siti took me to meet with the director. Despite the fact that I had to write a proposal for my volunteer project, I quickly learned that my project had nothing to do with what I wrote. Actually, after meeting with the director I had no clue what I was going to be doing for the next 18 days. Something about developing marine ecotourism to help conserve Sabah's natural heritage....? After such a fruitful meeting, Siti escorted me to my new office. Can you believe that?? The Institute had given me an office, a desk, a computer, and had even printed my full name, "Elizabeth Lindsay Podowski," on the door! Sweet, I had an office to sit in and surf the web all day because I still had no idea what my project was.

Later that afternoon, I met Dr. Mabel. Her office was directly across from mine, and she quickly became my main resource and closest friend. After talking with her for a little bit, I developed a basic understanding of my volunteer project: to propose marine ecotourism and public outreach initiatives that would highlight the current research at the institute. Enough progress for the day. Siti drove me home that evening enabling me to avoid drunken Vincent's services

Those first couple of days I really questioned whether or not I had made the right choice in committing myself to volunteering for the entire length of my stay in Borneo. Did I really want to sit behind a desk all day when I could be scuba diving, climbing Mt. Kinabalu, visiting the orangutan rehabilitation center, or jungle trekking?

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