A Life-changing Co-op Experience in East Borneo

A Life-changing Co-op Experience in East Borneo

By: Hayati Indah Putri | SFU International Co-op Student
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In spring 2011, I was offered to work with an American-based non-governmental organization (NGO) in East Borneo as a translator. The person who offered me the position happened to be a co-founder of the NGO who was receiving Bahasa Indonesia lessons from me. It was hard to accept the job because it was an intensive internship and I had to spend quite a lot of money on the flight fare myself. 

I had a boyfriend here, and although most of my family members were in Indonesia, I would still be very far away from them and visiting them was just not possible. I knew that before I made my decision to accept the position. I was risking a lot of things, my (very unpredictable) social life, my relationship with a guy I was in love with, and, most of all, the money that I've earned while enduring my insensitive employer for more than a year at my part-time work. Moreover, the work location is not like Vancouver, it is an isolated village where many people in Indonesia claimed to be full of black magic and cannibalism. Yes, I was offered to work with foreign researchers in a place where Indigenous Dayak Indonesians live. And yes, the "savage" stereotype is still very much alive there. 

But I decided that the temptation to jump into something completely different from my life here is too much to resist. Maybe because my Chinese zodiac is Horse (I am kind of an avid believer), I was just unable to let go of my curiosity and my need for some adventure. I wanted to see what I am capable of. I wanted to see if I was able to fit myself into a life that I've never experienced before. I simply was dying to know what capacity I had within me. 

Why was I so curious? My life in Canada (and everywhere else) has been so good to me. Scratch that, it has been too good to me. I noticed that I was lazy, spoiled, and I would even put myself in a category of a hedonist. I was simply unhappy. I would hang out with my friends on a Saturday night, but I noticed when I came back home, there was still a pang of emptiness in me that made me suffer from insomnia. I felt that I don't want to be like this for the rest of my life. I need to be pro-active in figuring out what makes me happy. 

So, I decided to leave Canada and accept the job offer. I mean really, regrets only come from not doing something that you think you should do.

I don't feel like my experience there should be shared in details here. You can find me if you're really curious to know. But my life in Nehas Liah Bing with the Wehea people was just unforgettable. I know that I lived well because even if I slept early or late (like really late), I would still wake up in the morning at 7-8 AM. I didn't even have to force myself to wake up, unlike my habit in Canada where I find myself constantly giving myself 5 or 10 more minutes before I really get out of my bed. I just didn't want to miss a thing there. My body was also in sync with my mind, it naturally called myself to wake up exactly at 8 AM if you know what I mean. I thought "wow, my mind and body had never worked this well together."

I was a translator responsible for translating and transcribing interviews, casual conversations, text, government meetings. As well, I wrote articles for the organization to give stakeholders a gist of what is happening in East Kalimantan while I was there. I mainly stayed in the village to work with university students who were taking field school on Anthropology. I also just spent my days working with the local people, visiting people's houses, playing with people my age, playing with old grandmas, making playful jokes with old grandpas, and getting teased by younger kids. I was also very lucky to have the chance to work with an anthropologist who just wanted to learn from the people by getting involved. This was definitely one of the greatest parts about my job, and I am so thankful to her for this learning experience. 

The weather was so hot there, but people's warmth always managed to cool me down. I remember one of the women who claimed to be my mother said to me once, "you have to come back. You live with us. You'll never starve, and you'll never have trouble finding a place to lay your head on. We're here for you." 

While my Vancouver life was great, my time at East Borneo was entirely different. Other than with my own family, I never felt such selflessness of giving that I felt when I was with the Dayak Wehea people. 

Working internationally is an adventure and a very rewarding experience, and I pledged to go back, no matter how long it takes. Where else can I get four mothers and two fathers?

My advice for students who are thinking about working/volunteering abroad: Be bold, take the chances to learn outside. The opportunities in "developing countries" are very exciting, and chances are you'd be able to see how a great organization launches in the first place since the dynamic of business ventures are far more exciting there.

Beyond The Article

Visit the International Co-op and SFU International websites to see how International Travel can benefit you.

Posted on February 05, 2012