On a July night somewhere in the Borneo jungle, I share a twin size mattress with two girls. They guess they are around 16, but age doesn’t seem to matter here and neither does time, the day’s progression still guided by the sun’s movements detached from numbers. We can’t understand each other, me with my English speaking tongue, the girls, their indigenous Dusun. They do not attend school, and both will likely marry soon, having several children well before my own age. Without electricity, sunset calls them to bed, sunrise to wake. Before sleep, their expert hands peel garlic for the next day in swift, adept movements, tossing each clove into a large woven basket. I peek over my torchlit book to watch. They are silent, but glance occasionally at each other.
The kampung post-heavy rain, waiting to test the electricity.
We seem to have little in common besides our biological sex, the thread uniting us in the stilted wooden room, isolated from the men who severely outnumber us. When I wake in the middle of the night to the rain bursting through the seam of the window pane, it takes me awhile to remember where I am. As my eyes adjust, the girls are still. They breathe slowly and deeply, undisturbed by the storm outside. I feel surprised, almost intrusive, at the jarring intimacy of this moment. There is a strange vulnerability in sharing a bed with strangers, in waking up somewhere so distant from home, in a place so dark you can’t see your own outstretched hand. It felt so foreign- but comforting at the same time- to be near these women, so close I could feel El shiver and move nearer to me with every crisp draft. At dawn I wake up alone, cloaked with an extra blanket and El’s pillow beneath my head.
This was my first night volunteering with a local NGO that brings electricity to remote kampungs using hydroelectric technology; in this case, a fancy name for using a waterfall and handmade turbine to create all-natural and free light. A fellow teacher encouraged me to sign up for the project; alas, I arrived at the meeting point three hours from my home, only to realize said teacher would not be joining. This is the way it goes sometimes. I hopped in a 4×4 crammed with men anyway and caravanned five hours through thick jungle to the project site. As the only female volunteer, hyper aware of my vulnerability, I found myself gravitating towards the village women despite language and cultural barriers. An unspoken solidarity and sense of safety.
The Light Up Borneo NGO volunteer squad.
I’ve been thinking lately about vulnerability and the vast ways this concept has manifested itself to me throughout the year. My Borneo experience has forced me to be vulnerable in ways I couldn’t imagine before- to be unbelievably trusting of the people around me, to accept foods and invitations and friendships without questioning motives and implications. With this trust has come abounding new adventures and deep relationships, as well as a greater understanding of this place.
But this year has also forced me to protect my vulnerability, to shield it with a blanket of sorts; to be weary of those who offer help, to scan a room for threats, to instinctively know if I am being watched or stalked. I’ve also oftentimes had to bury roots of myself that have taken a long time to bloom- my liberal values, my positive body image, my feminist perspectives.
Carrying equipment through the Bornean jungles to a remote kampung.
The dichotomies have been confusing, but not in a stressful way, more of a way that has forced me to think and reflect on my own ideologies of this world- which to be honest, may be more jumbled than when I first arrived in Malaysia eight months ago. In El’s home I felt so many emotions- anger at the lack of opportunity for women to education and life beyond the village (if that’s what they desire), a realization of how little we need to lead fulfilling lives, a deep admiration for familial loyalty and respect within kampung culture.
I am learning that my journey here won’t be over when I leave the island, not by a long shot- but it will be part of a continuing evolution of who I am and who I decide to be.