September 2013. Summer was turning to autumn and new adventures awaited just around the corner. I was 19 years old and had just graduated from high school and put a whole summer of hard work behind me in order to save money. I felt free. No obligations, no school to go back to, no musts. I was eager to spread my wings and leave my nest. But I was also afraid. Afraid of not knowing what was to come. Afraid of not having plans. Afraid of not making the most of my life. Afraid of failing. But I knew that I wanted to do something, that I had to do something. Something special, something different. I wanted to see the world and start exploring it. And luckily I had my cousin and friend, the same age as I, beside me. We were on the same page, and we found support in each other. We could do this.
But, we could do… what? We had no idea. At first we just knew we wanted to do something. We talked about it a lot and since we are both interested in animals and nature, and care about those two things, we soon agreed that we could work as volunteers and combine that with some backpacking in order to explore some as well.
Now the real hard work began. We spent hours in front of the computer looking for different opportunities. It was a jungle. There are so many companies and different ways of doing this sort of thing. Sometimes I was near to just giving up and not going at all. But in the end this hard work was worth it ten times over. Finally we found an organization that seemed good, responsible, reliable and not too expensive. We applied, we got accepted, and so in a few months time we were going to Malaysia and Borneo to care for orang-utans and the rainforest. That sounded so exciting, interesting and meaningful at the same time!
After some more preparation, like vaccines, documents, flight tickets, packing and so on, we hopped on the flight to another part of the world. The first stop was Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. There we worked on a zoo with other volunteers and with the amazing and dedicated team from the organization APE Malaysia. We were mainly responsible for the care of the orang-utans but also helped with the chimpanzees that lived next door. The work included cleaning the cages and the out-door space, feeding them and enrichment work, which is playing with them, making toys out of coco-nuts, gathering banana leafs for them, hiding fruits in all sorts of things and giving it to them, and much more. Only creativity sets the limits. It was amazing to be there, so close to these incredible animals that are cute, intelligent and very much like us humans. But it was also hard to see them spend too much time in their tiny cages of cement and knowing that when we were not there the zoo keepers did not have time to do everything we did and care for them the way they actually need. But we had to see it from the positive side, that we enriched their days and made their time as good as possible under the circumstances.
After two weeks of hard but rewarding work at the zoo we went to a small river-village deep within the rainforest of Borneo. Just being there, in that environment and seeing the nature (so many shades of green) was breath-taking. Here our task was to plant trees and do maintenance work in recently planted areas to make a corridor so that the wild orang-utans can move more freely and through this increase their chances of survival. Due to the palm oil industry rainforest is cut down in order to plant palm oil trees, and this threatens the life of orang-utans among many other species. We also helped with some projects in the village, to help them support themselves without hurting their surrounding environment. And every day we went on the river and saw this amazing wildlife. Birds, crocodiles, snakes, lizards, monkeys and more. But the most special feeling was seeing wild orang-utans in their natural habitat.
After two weeks in the jungle we spent another month backpacking Malaysia and Indonesia, a very different but wonderful experience as well, with a lot of very blue oceans and very nice beaches but also great people, beautiful nature and good food.
I cannot describe how glad and grateful I am for having done this trip. This was an experience of a lifetime and a trip of many firsts. It was my first long trip (for more than two weeks) and my first trip alone (although I had my cousin with me, but alone in the sense of being without parents or anyone looking after me in the same way). It was the first time I came really close to a different culture and different ways of life. It was the first time I used a machete. It was the first time I touched (or even saw, for real) an orang-utan. It was the first time I planted a tree. It was the first time I tasted this kind of food. It was the first time I surfed. It was the first time I danced on a boat all night. It was the first time I got sick and went to a hospital in a foreign country. I learned a lot, I met new people, new cultures, I tried things. It was not always easy, but it was always rewarding. And this has only made me want more. More travels, more knowledge, more experiences, more memories, more friends, more exploring. More of everything.