When I moved to Malaysia last July, I was heading into unknown territory. I knew there were forests full of critters I had only read about in books. I was chompin' at the bit to get out and see the rainforest, the hornbills, the tigers and monkeys I could only imagine in my mind. Although I was excited, I was also afraid. I wasn't sure how to go about exploring the foreign country I was preparing to call home. I could imagine myself lost in some vast jungle, my food supplies dwindling, my water long gone and fatigue stalking me at every corner. Days later, I would stumble into a small village only to discover that I couldn't communicate. I couldn't ask for food or water and the villagers would laugh at my stupidity. Even worse, I imagined a local guide that would take me out into the boondocks and drop me off after he had taken all my money!
Fortunately, my roommate from the University of Georgia was Malaysian. I was staying with her until I could get a job and an apartment of my own. She told me about the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS). She said they routinely offered guided trips to their members. She said I should join MNS and go on their next trip- 'Marine Ecology for Dummies' off the West Coast. Within a week I was a member and signed up to go.
Since I wasn't working yet I had a lot of free time. I knew from my experience at Sandy Creek Nature Center that volunteers are hardly ever turned down. I promptly volunteered my labor to help set up camp on a small island named Pulau Lalang just offshore from Kuala Selangor. The next Thursday, we headed to the coast, stuffed our gear and ourselves into a rented fishing boat and cast off. A few hours later we were ashore and setting up tents, a latrine and a make shift kitchen. It only took a few hours and we had the rest of the afternoon to scope out the corals. They were magnificent!
We saw brain coral, staghorn coral, mushroom coral and numerous other types of extreme hues and tones. Swimming in and amongst the corals were sergeant major fish, cleaner wrasse, parrot fish, scorpion fish, razor fish and unidentifiable fish of seemingly infinite variety. Anemones played host to clownfish of several different shades of orange as they swam in and out of the poisonous tentacles unharmed. Several jellyfish swam by and, luckily, I saw them before I felt them! The intertidal zone held starfish, sea cucumbers and crabs of many varieties. I was astounded!
The next morning we had salted duck eggs and rice porridge for breakfast. Most of my companions were Chinese and it was a typical breakfast for them, but for me it was a shock to the system. No pancakes or grits!
All told, about 25 folks showed up for the camping and snorkeling foray around noon the next day. We did introductions and I won't even pretend to remember their names, much less how to spell them. Let's suffice to say there were no 'Georges, Bills or Sues!' Soon afterwards we had a 'class' to learn about the coral reef ecology and some of the critters we might see lurking in the shadows of the reef. It was very informative and helped me to later identify some of the fish we saw.
During the course of the weekend we got to know each other a little better and they asked me where I was working and the kind of talk you generate with strangers. I mentioned I had just come from Georgia, USA, not Russia (as most people in Asia would think if you only said Georgia), and I had been a naturalist at a nature center where we raised sea turtles and used them for education. They were excited to hear more and asked me to speak to the group about what we did and how we did it. (Sea Turtles found in Malaysia include the Hawksbill, Leatherback, Green and Olive Ridley, but not the Loggerhead we find here.)
I couldn't believe it. I had only been in the country for a month and here I was addressing the members of a National Organization about a conservation issue and environmental education! It was great. They were really interested to compare what they were doing in Malaysia to what I had done in the United States.
When the weekend ended, I had seen hundreds of fish of several species. I had never heard of many of them and had never seen any of them outside of books and TV specials. I was elated and had accomplished my goal of learning more about my new home. I had even managed to not get lost, stumble into an unknown village with scant supply of food and water and die of stupidity! I even managed to make a few new friends! Not bad for US$30 for a 4 day trip!
Nowadays, I know a great deal about the language, my new home and the Malaysian Nature Society.
MNS was founded in 1940 and has 13 branches (1 for each state). I belong to the 'Selangor Branch' in Kuala Lumpur, which also happens to be the National Headquarters. MNS recently opened a new 'Urban Nature Center' with a very short trail, library, conference-room, gift-shop and bird watching station. They have many employees, which mainly focus on research and a few which focus on education. But like almost all NGO's (Non-Government Offices) they are short on funding and resources. Everyone I have met really loves their job and has a passion for promoting awareness of the environment and conservation issues in Malaysia.
As of June, I met with the Branch Chairwoman, Angela Hijjas, and discussed the possibility of training volunteer trail guides (I have a little bit of experience doing this from SCNC!) She was elated, so in August I will write a short manual and field guide for the Urban Nature Center and begin training our high school seniors to lead hikes. It will benefit our students, since they are required to do community service as part of their degree, and it will benefit MNS since they'll get free trail guides. I'm psyched to get it going.
How did I end up doing all this? I stumbled into it. But I did so intentionally!
To learn more about the Malaysian Nature Society checkout: www.mns.org.my and for some general information about the ecology of S.E. Asia checkout: www.ecologyasia.com.
Questions or comments? Write to Kenny at: firstname.lastname@example.org. "SCNC" is 'Sandy Creek Nature Center' in Athens, Georgia (USA).