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A Bite On The Toe Says Time To Go

One of the truly inexpensive ways to travel is with a group doing volunteer work of some type.

Several years ago, my wife, oldest son and I were able to travel to Sarawak, Malaysia on the island of Borneo. We went with a group of mostly high school students that was going to build a church.

My wife and I were going to provide medical treatment for the local people while the rest of the group worked on building the church.The cost for us was about $1300 apiece for airfare, bus, boat, room and board. That covered a two week trip. Try and get a trip anywhere for that and you will see what a bargain that is flying from the United States halfway around the world.

We arrived in Kuching early one morning and were taken to a mission to stay the first two nights and get a chance to acclimate to the different time zone and temperature. It was very hot and humid.

During those two days, we were able to tour the city, visiting the museums and shopping for souvenirs. We were also able to go to a cultural center where we could watch native craftsmen and dancers. They had some unique stringed instruments - like a cross between a guitar and a sitar.

The next morning we took off by bus before daybreak, riding about twelve hours through typical tropical vegetation and small farms. Whenever we stopped for a break, there were many large cicadas. The largest ones in Borneo are about the largest in the world, the size of a large mouse with about an 8 inch wingspan.

If you catch one, they sound like a frog croaking. Although I'm really not interested in partaking of them, I'm told they are good to eat.

When we finally got to Tatau, we got off the bus and took our things down to the river to get on a boat. At least that is what they called it. It was more like a large torpedo. Very narrow but large enough so that inside we could sit four across with an aisle in the middle.

Once we had loaded all our gear - which included a small cement mixer - we took off at an estimated thirty miles an hour. The river had enough twists and turns that I was totally disoriented by the time we arrived at our destination. During our time there, I was convinced that the sun rose in the west and went down in the east.

On the way, we passed a village that was the home of Nyla - the subject of the book "Nyla and the White Crocodile" which I had read as a child. As a young girl, a local witch doctor had told Nyla's (pronounced 'Neela') father - the cheif- that she must be sacrificed to a large white crocodile which had appeared in a creek next to their longhouse. The book describes her adventures.

One of our interpreters, a local pastor, was a nephew of Nyla and told us that later in life she had been killed by a crocodile. An ironic end to one of my childhood heroes.

When we finally arrived at our destination, there was a great commotion. We started hearing music and then a procession of dancers led us up to the longhouse. This was a very impressive structure of over one hundred houses built into a single long building and sharing a covered and enclosed front porch about twenty feet wide. The porch serves as both sidewalk and community meeting and play area.

We were welcomed with a party of dancing, music and food. After a long trip, we were then mercifully shown to our accommodations. Our family was given one of the houses for our use both to sleep in and to serve as a clinic during our stay.

We had brought our own cook and water filter, so we were not as worried about getting sick. Local dishes were interspersed with potatoes, bread and peanut butter. The potatoes were imported from China.

During our short stay, the youth worked hard and mostly finished a very nice cement block, metal roof church.

In the meantime, we were treating everything from head lice to leprosy. We were told that people had come as much as six hours by boat to get treatment from us.

One of the saddest things that we saw was a woman with severe burns on her back. It was the custom for women who had recently given birth to sit by a fire for the first 24 - 48 hours. This poor woman had fallen asleep and then leaned back against the burning hot bricks of the kitchen fire. We were told that this was a very common injury. Fortunately we had some good creams for her and treated her twice a day.

One of the problems that I had was with the toilets. Each house had a board behind it which went up at about a thirty degree angle to a small hut on posts. Inside was a small toilet. What you would do is take a small pail of water from the rain barrel beside the back door, climb up the plank and take care of business.

The roof of this little hut was only about 5 and a half feet from the floor. The hut was about three foot wide and three foot deep. I'm glad nobody was able to watch this 6 foot 3 inch man who after entering the hut had to squat down and do the hokey pokey to get turned around get the pants down, do the required actions and get dressed again.

We were told that these toilets were not only inconvenient (though much better than the squat pots - just a hole in the ground) but were dangerous. The year before, a pastor had lost his balance in one and fallen through the wall head first to the ground and breaking his neck.

We slept on air mattresses with mosquito nets covering us. While this gave us pretty good protection, it did not keep some rodent from biting my toe through the net two nights before we left. This happened about three in the morning. I made a pretty good commotion trying to scare it away and get a light so I could look around and make sure a Cobra was not following him.

After that, I was more than ready to go home.

On the way back, we boarded a bus that had a fairly loud engine knock.

We got on the bus about dusk. During the night, the knocking got worse and worse. Finally, about three in the morning, the driver stopped, stood up and said, "Scuse please, scuse please, change bus!" We got off and in another hour or so, another bus came to get us and take us back to Kuching. We later found out that for an additional $50 each we could have bought plane fair and skipped the bus ride altogether.

Despite the great memories of the trip, getting on a Malaysia Airlines plane with air conditioning and cold soda pop was a real pleasure.

We were able to go back to Sarawak to another village the next spring - but that is another story.

Submitted by:

Ron McCluskey

Our family has traveled all over the world on vacations and doing volunteer work. We have been to every continent except Antarctica and hope to go there some day. Find more about our experiences traveling at http://ilovetravelvacations.com




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