Two warnings to start out on this blog, the first is that this blog will basically be a long rant about our time at the Fuze Ecoteer Rain forest conservation project. It will be very negative, so if you are not interested in the details, just take from this blog that I would not recommend this project if you are planning to do any volunteering and leave it at that. This being the case there are also not many photos given you tend not to take photos of bad experiences.
The second warning is that there is one fairly graphic photo that I intend to include in this blog which really is where the ugly part of the name comes into it. If you are squeamish then when I start talking about leech bites maybe skip past the photo.
I would like to start this by describing our accommodation, it should be noted that this was not the worst accommodation that we have stayed in during our trip (that goes to Hong Kong) and had the accommodation been the worst part of this experience we could have easily put up with it, however it helps to give the background.
Fuze Ecoteer have a house in Merapoh, it is situated above a garage which was apparently a shop but seemed to be more of a praying centre for the local women (no problems so far, just setting the scene), after going up the stairs we had to take our shoes off before entering the house proper, which is fairly standard in a lot of Asia.
Inside the house there was a communal room with a garden table, garden chairs and a bench that was falling to pieces, at the far end of the room was a kitchen area which basically consisted of a sink, some work areas and a hob.
The volunteer dorm had a door onto this communal area, there were two sets of bunk beds in the room as well as a double bed. We were told that only the two bottom bunk beds were taken already and so we immediately went for the top bunks. As I put my stuff on one of the bunks however I notices that flakes of paint and plaster from the ceiling (which was flaking all over the place were in that bed. We didn’t want to go on the double bed as we felt like it would be a bit odd with both of us in the double bed when there were other people in the room also. However we were basically pressured into sleeping there by the other people in the room who insisted that they had cleaned the sheets especially etc. Eventually we gave in, myself more readily than my husband having seen the dirt on the top bunk and took what was essentially a double mattress on top of a plank of wood. There was also a hole in the plank of wood that the whole mattress would sink into whenever you put any weight on it.
There was air conditioning and a fan in the volunteers room as well as a sign asking that these together with the lights be switched off when leaving, which we always did. There was one person in the volunteer room, who was actually a marketing intern for the company who insisted on leaving them on after she left and also turning everything off over night, including the fan which made nights insufferably hot. She would also turn the lights on when coming to bed no matter how late it was and who was already in the beds trying to sleep.
The project leader had her own room, as did one of her interns. The other intern was in another communal room which while we were there he was sharing with a photographer/videographer for the project and a researcher who was not connected with the project at all. There was a balcony attached to that room which was basically used for drying washing and people who smoked.
There was one toilet, and while this was not the first or last squat toilet we had on our travels it was probably the weirdest. Firstly it had instructions on how to wash yourself using the bucket after a number two and secondly it was a squat on a raised platform. As you went in there was a step that was about the height of a chair, you had to step up onto it to then squat at the toilet, this made things interesting when you were trying to balance on the ledge half asleep for your morning business. There was also no sink in the loo so you had to use the kitchen sink to wash your hands.
On the other side of the kitchen from the toilet was the shower. The shower room itself was fairly large and filled with spiders, there was also a washing machine in the room which used the same water source as the shower and drained into the room. The shower itself used only cold water, which together with the heat and the infrequent air conditioning in the volunteer room lead to my husband catching a cold.
There was also a roof terrace, but I didn’t really spend much time up there because it was either too hot or raining and some of the other people in the house thought it was a great idea to have a camp fire up there.
After dumping our stuff and having some lunch (blue rice which was nice, if a little spicy) we had an introductory talk, which set the tone for the week as our project leader who was giving the talk kept bursting out with immature giggling and self-doubt.
This is probably a good point at which to discuss the other people who were staying at the house with us, not all of them bad, but it fits in this blog better than the other. It will possibly also give some insight into our time there by telling you that we were the oldest ones there by a fair stretch, including those running the project. Firstly there was our project leader who as I mentioned prone to immature giggling, she was also filled with self-doubt which is not necessarily the quality you want in a leader, but could be explained by being a muslin woman brought up in a the patriarchal Malaysian society.
There were two interns on the project one of whom was Chinese Malay, she mostly kept to herself but she was very practical and helpful to us during our time there. The other intern was actually from the UK, he was always up for a laugh but did spend a lot of time teasing the project leader which I didn’t think helped her confidence. He had also managed to hit himself in the foot with a machete the week before we arrived and so wasn’t able to do most of the activities with us in case his wound got infected.
There was one other volunteer the week that we were there, she had already been there for two weeks, so she knew the score with most of the activities. She was a seventeen year old from France who was having her first big holiday experience and to her absolutely everything was “so cute” or “the best” or “I love it”. I also suspect she had enjoyed being the queen bee the week before we arrived as she had had two other kids from Saudi Arabia who were 16 drinking in her every word.
There were two other Fuze Ecoteer employees in the house who were not directly related to this particular project. Firstly there was a photographer/videographer who was one of the most laid back people I have met in my life. He just got on with taking photos and videos to use for marketing the company. On the subject of marketing there was also a marketing intern who was doing a certain amount of time at each Fuze Ecoteer site, I have mentioned her already as she was staying in our dorm room, she seemed to basically spend her days at the internet centre or on her bed in the dorm “working”.
Finally there was a guy staying in the house who was nothing to do with the project, but there to collect samples from monkeys, however as his guide was away he actually spent the majority of the week with us and gave us probably the most information and the best insight into the rain forest of all the people in the house.
After the introduction another standard for the week was set where we were told that later we would be going to play football with the Batek children, but not really told when and just left to ourselves with nothing really to do and everyone else in the house seemed to disappear. We had a lot of down time during this week and the internet was very poor and there was no one around to talk to. I think this is one of the things that contributed most highly to the bad.
Eventually we were given very little warning of leaving to go to the Batek village. As I think I mentioned previously the Batek are actually the indigenous people of the Malaysian rainforest. The Malays themselves are not native to this area and there has been a long history of persecuting the Batek people, trying to forcibly convert them to Islam and the trying to put an end to their nomadic lifestyle. It was also explained to us that the Batek are very shy and that they don’t believe in education, so much so that the older generation don’t even seem interested in teaching the younger generation about how to survive in the rainforest.
We pulled up to the Batek village and the first thing that happened was three very enthusiastic dogs came bounding up to the truck which the other volunteer was very happy about as these were basically her adopted fur babies, however it was not such a good experience if you are afraid of dogs, which I am. They seemed to basically leave the Batek alone but associated people coming into the village with attention.
One of the dogs which the other volunteer was particularly fond of had a wound on his leg, I am afraid to say that this wound only got worse until on our last visit to the Batek village where the dog did not appear at all.
The village itself was obviously very basic, but it was also covered with rubbish everywhere. We were left on our own while the project leader went to see if the Batek kids wanted to play football.
We made our way down to the pitch and the whole thing was very confusing as we seemed to start off with teams of boys against girls, but people kept swapping sides and arriving and disappearing. I am not only talking about the kids, our project leader disappeared at one point as did the other volunteer to go and play with the “mini Bidan” (the Bidan is what the wise old women of the village are called, so basically she went off to play with the little girls).
I don’t really enjoy playing football anyway and in over 30+ degree Celsius heat with massive humidity, where the kids are really good and fast anyway it was even less fun. I ended up basically sitting down and watching, except every time I sat down the dogs decided that meant I wanted to play again.
We did this activity twice during the week and the first time the weather had been very dry and the younger boys decided to through dust bombs around, but the second time it was wet and we got mud pelted at us by the same boys. Those boys also appeared wet and naked at one point behind the goals.
The football was still probably the best experience we had with the Batek kids as our other experience was in the classroom. As I mentioned before the Batek do not value education and usually they don’t take the volunteers to the Batek class, however, because the other volunteer had been there for the previous two weeks we were brought along.
The first class was actually not so bad, one of the interns and the volunteer had a fun science experiment of does it float or sink and while the children were slightly chaotic they did interact and they enjoyed painting afterwards. The second class however the children were refusing to come into the classroom, they claimed that there were too many people and basically picked out myself, my husband and one of the interns which they said they were scared of, they certainly hadn’t seemed scared of us during football or the other classroom sessions. I offered that we could just leave, but we were told to basically sit with our backs to them, quietly and pretend not to be paying attention. We were basically paying to be given a time out in a classroom!
The next activity we did, I had actually thought of as one of the most important activities we would do during this week, unfortunately it was the worst, was trekking the rain forest. We were supposedly looking for tiger traps while deterring poachers by being a presence there, but it was basically just a trek.
We were told that we would be crossing a river at some point so to wear shoes that could get wet and although both my husband and I had waterproof shoes they wouldn’t be so helpful in a river. On the other side we didn’t want to only bring sandals as we knew there was a risk of leeches, so we brought our sandals with us for the river crossing (leeches in Malaysia are in the foliage not in bodies of water as I found when one landed on my hat!). What we hadn’t been told was that the water crossing was basically immediately or we could have been wearing our sandals and changed into our boots after we crossed, but as it was they had to wait for us to change both ways after we had only just set off.
We had a Batek guide who was in front and then we were meant to always have one person from the project first after the guide and one at the very back of the group. Unfortunately the person who had been given the back of the group was the marketing intern and she kept going in front of us and not checking that we were just behind, so we had a few scary moments when we were seemingly on our own because we (or I really) couldn’t keep up.
I have decided since in the time since this week that basically rain forests or jungles are not my favoured terrain. This was my second experience in this kind of environment and you would have thought I should have learned from the Amazon many years before, but I think that time dulled the memory, plus there were no leeches in the Amazon.
I enjoy hiking but trekking in the rain forest is a completely different experience, first of all there are very few views. The foliage is so dense that you can’t see very far in any direction unless there is a river clearing a path, so rivers are the only source of views, we didn’t come to any clearings or breaks in the trees and even when we went up some hills there was no way to see down them. The second reason is again due to the density of the foliage and the trekking route we were taking, the leaves and branches were so close around the path that it felt really rather claustrophobic (and I don’t usually get claustrophobic). As there are so many poisonous and venomous things in the rain forests we had been told to avoid touching vegetation however that is rather difficult when it is encroaching on you from all sides. Also due to the high proportion of things that can kill you we were told to take extra care where we put our feet, or our hands for balance, which made the experience mentally draining as well as physically as you are always on the alert.
Add to that above the 30 odd degree heat and the extremely high humidity and you have a perfect recipe for environments I do not enjoy being in. So I was having a pretty miserable time, even before the leeches!
This is the point where it may be sensible to skip ahead if you are squeamish, which believe me I am, as I am about to go into a bit more detail on our encounter with leeches.
Before our trip, I knew leeches only from films and history books where they were used as a medicine, depicted as large black slug like creatures which live in the water (I believe these are European leeches). The Malaysian equivalent are just as nasty but quite different. They start off as small brown things which look similar to earth worms except they crawl on their two ends almost like a caterpillar, as they suck blood they do get darker and swell in size, however they do not reach the same sizes as those depicted in film. The Malaysian leeches also do not live in water although they do like damp surroundings and are more likely to be around after heavy rain fall. These leeches live in the foliage waiting for an unsuspecting person or animal to brush past so they can latch on and have their fill. I have seen them on the ground and it can look really weird when they are standing on one end sniffing you out and then they start coming in your direction relentlessly, it is also practically impossible to kill them.
As I briefly mentioned earlier my first encounter with a leech was seeing something moving around on the brim of my hat. I asked my husband what it was (I was afraid to touch an unknown quantity in case it was going to sting me or something) and he thought it was a caterpillar, but we were jovially informed by the marketing intern that it was a leech so my husband just flicked it off, imagine if it had made it onto my face!
We had been told before the trek that tucking your trousers into your socks would help keep the leeches out as the majority were near the ground, what they didn’t tell us was that they could get through even fairly tightly woven socks. We were told after we got back (and therefore too late) that if you wear two pairs of socks they can’t get through. As we progressed we noticed a few on my husband’s shoes and some of the others having some and they were dealt with, even one that was biting my husband through his sock. Through all this I was helping but also feeling like somehow I was getting away with it.
What I didn’t realise was that a whole load of them had made their way through my sock and were sitting under it and therefore hidden munching away on me. There are two types of leeches in the Malaysian jungle and while one (with a round nose I believe) bites painlessly, the other (with a pointed nose) is quite the opposite. I felt a sharp pain and after readjusting my shoe several times I decided to look under my sock the sight that greeted me still makes me feel sick to my stomach to think about, not one but three leeches all clustered together, some fat and some thin but all very much attached, slimy and discussing, there were also two or three more when I turned my ankle to look at the other side and when I looked at my other the ankle it was the same story.
I am not going to lie, at this point I totally freaked out.
Pulling a leech off can cause it to vomit all the blood it has consumed (not necessarily only your own) back into you, and as my husband likes to remind me blood is the most hazardous fluids, which as a chemical engineer I am not convinced of but I know it can contain a whole load of nasty things in it. The options therefore are to allow the leech to have its fill at which point it will drop off, scrape it off or pinch the skin around the area causing too much blood flow so the leech will effectively gag and let go (I never saw this latter one work by the way).
I couldn’t stand the idea of letting them be, especially since they were inside my socks and if they just let go they would still be inside my socks until they got hungry again, so I started trying to scrape them off using my finger nail, this worked OK for some but not others, and once it was on your fingernail you had to try to get rid of it before it attached itself to your finger. I was making such a fuss because there were so many of them that our project leader came back to where I was and gave me a stick which our guide had cut into a wedge and said I could use that to scrape them off. This worked much better and I got most of them off, although the stick quickly turned red. There were one or two that caused me more trouble and wouldn’t let go, but with a lot of persistence I got rid of them.
The worst thing about leeches is that they use an anticoagulant so their bites continue to bleed for a long while and even though for the rest of the hike I kept a better vigil for them I got a few more bites and just when I was reaching the end of my tether again we came to a river. This signified two things, we had reached our lunch stop and there would be no leeches.
We waded out to the centre of the river where there were some rocks and sat on there to eat our lunch, I dangled my sore ankles in the river, because even the painless bites become painful with socks rubbing on open wounds. Unfortunately I had no appetite and could manage less than half of my lunch, those of you who know me know that this is unusual for me as I usually enjoy food a bit too much, but I still felt sick to my stomach from my leech encounter. I was thinking if this was lunch it was probably around the half way point of the trek and I was not looking forward to the prospect of facing all the trekking we had done again. I found out only after lunch that we were only about ten minutes away from the pick up truck so the ordeal was practically over.
When we got back to the house I counted seventeen leech bites around my ankles, I had the most of all the group, my husband only had six. I hadn’t been in a state of mind to take a photograph of the leeches, but I did take this photo on my return.
I am happy to report that we used the double sock method for the remaining time and I did not get another single bite, although unfortunately my husband was bitten once on the stomach and one on the back of the ankle when he neglected to tuck his trousers into his socks.
Enough about leeches. Our final disappointing activity was what they called a day camp. Basically it was described to us as a day where we trekked with the Bidan to a campsite in the jungle where we would get to learn from them various techniques of surviving in the jungle such as constructing a shelter and cooking our meals in bamboo. Sounds great right? I really believe it would have been if it was as described.
What actually happened was that we trekked with the food we would be cooking into the jungle, put a ground sheet down, and started to gather fire wood before it started to rain. While we were busy putting our rain jackets on the Bidan quickly made themselves a shelter out of branches and leaves where they basically sat for the rest of our time with them.
We were told two different locations for the fire wood and eventually after we got it all together my husband started to split it with a machete. I was kind of looking for a job to do at this point and basically being ignored (setting the tone for the rest of the time) so my husband started showing me how to use the machete to split the wood, which is harder than it sounds. Clearly I wasn’t doing a good enough job at it as while I was halfway through chopping our project leader asked for the machettee I was using and went off with it.
Basically everyone who had already done this activity were getting on with what needed to be done without bothering to get my husband and I involved at all. My husband started to construct a fire which, given his father was a scout leader (and his farther before him) and he still helps out with the scouts occasionally, he is fairly proficient at. However once it was lit, he was told there was too much fire and he spread it out. Later on they decided there wasn’t enough fire and started to build it up again.
The fire was lit using rubber, which when I heard this I thought it was going to be some kind of interesting technique, but it turned out to be using a lighter to set a bit of rubber inner tube on fire and then putting it in the wood. Also not the greenest of fire starting techniques.
While all this fire action had been happening, others had been creating a rather ramshackle support for a kettle to go above the fire, not in anyway consulting those of us who used to be engineers/scouts, or even letting us help when we tried, leading the whole thing to be slightly leaning to one side.
Next someone else (who again had done this before) was sent off in search of bamboo and told to prepare it to go on the fire. I got told to wash some leaves for the rice, finally a job to do, though a rather easy one. I checked with our project leader before washing them that I had the correct leaves, and then I went to wash them in the river. I then stood around like an idiot holding these leaves while others in the group who knew exactly how to prepared chicken, vegetables and rice to put in the bamboo. When the rice was ready to go into the bamboo, the project leader asked for the leaves to wrap the rice in, I went to give her the leaves but one of the interns pushed in front of me with different leaves at which point I was told the leaves I had washed were the wrong ones.
I must admit I lost interest at this point, and as there was not much for me to do I decided to sit and have lunch. That is right, we weren’t even eating what was going to be cooked, we found out in the morning as we left that we would be taking packed lunches with us and that the food we were cooking were for the Bidan and their families. All the while the Bidan were keeping to themselves under the shelter they had created and not even interacting with us.
So I sat on a log and ate my packed lunch. Although the photographer decided to choose that moment to set up the camera trap that he had brought with him to try to capture any tigers that might be trying to cross the log I was sitting on so I had to move. My husband managed to get involved with that, but when I tried to help the other volunteer trumped me by being incredibly tall. So I had another thing to sit and watch, although it was rather funny when the photographer pretended to be a tiger.
They finished cooking the food and we got a small taste of it (it basically tasted like boiled chicken, veg and rice) before packing it into tupperware and carrying it back to the Batek village for the Bidan.
So ended our day camp experience, and probably a good place to finish this long and rant filled blog. I will finish by just saying that I did not enjoy my week with Fuze Ecoteer and I would not recommend the experience to anyone.