After returning home from my first trip to Southeast Asia, I was asked to share my story for a local magazine called “Panele”. Here is a brief recap of why I embarked on the journey and what I experienced abroad. The article was published in 2016, and while many things may not surprise me as much now, it is still fascinating to revisit my initial impressions and thoughts.
The original article was written in Lithuanian by Viktorija Zapalskyte.
Adventure of my life
A couple of years ago, Evelina Gasiūnaitė from Lithuania led a typical life. She graduated from school, studied Management at a Business school, found a job, and tried to navigate her way into the adult world. However, as her employment contract came to an end, she realized that traveling and seeking adventure held much more appeal to her than leading a quiet life in Vilnius. She discovered a volunteering program, packed her bags, and set off for Malaysia, where she taught English to local children. Evelina has recently returned to Lithuania, and I had the privilege of being the first person to interview her about her journey. I asked her what had changed in Vilnius. “Electronic bus tickets and Euros,” she laughed, “nothing else.” However, our conversation mostly revolved around Southeast Asia, where Evelina had the most extraordinary adventure of her life.
Freedom to do what you want
The story of why Evelina went to Malaysia began with the statement, “I didn’t have any commitments.” She was living with her parents, her employment contract had just expired, and she had no loans or anything else tying her down at home. Her decision to travel was driven by a strong desire to grow, learn, improve her English language skills, and expand her knowledge of the world. Initially, her plan was to spend a couple of months, or perhaps half a year, abroad. However, in reality, Evelina only saw her family and friends again after two years. Why? Precautions. She didn’t want to alarm her parents by declaring that they wouldn’t see her for a year or more, so she mentioned a much shorter period of time. But after a couple of months of volunteering in Malaysia, the organization SOLS 24/7 offered her a contract and a bonus if she stayed for a year. This motivated her to extend her stay. Teaching in Malaysia for a year was not the end of her journey. After completing her teaching commitment, Evelina packed her backpack once again. However, this time, it was for solo travel. She ventured to Singapore, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, traveling until she simply grew tired. Who knows, perhaps even black Lithuanian bread will bore her someday?
Cockroach on the pillow – normal
The first challenge arose when she began dreaming about volunteering. After submitting the application to the organization, she had to go through the selection process and a 1.5-hour long interview with representatives of the organization. The conversation took a wrong turn, and Evelina started hoping, “I began to wish that everything would end as soon as possible. I realized that I would not be accepted,” the girl shared her memories. However, her courage, persistence, and strong desire impressed the representatives. Later, she had a second tough interview, and then she started packing her bags for Malaysia. “When I arrived in Kuala Lumpur, I had a month of training before the actual work. During that time, aside from learning teaching methods, I also got used to cockroaches on a pillow and rats in my room. Once, a rat even got into my cupboard and destroyed all my cosmetics and medication, as it somehow managed to make a hole in the cupboard. I had no problems with the food there, which was quite strange. On the other hand, we had three meals a day, all consisting of rice: rice porridge in the morning, rice with chicken for lunch, and rice with fish for dinner. After all, it’s hard to get food poisoning from rice. However, the insects there are quite dangerous, as I experienced myself.”
Death in the eyes
After training in Kuala Lumpur, Evelina was sent to work on Borneo Island, and that’s when the real adventure began. On one occasion, an insect stung Evelina, causing her to suffer an allergic shock. She wasn’t sure which insect had bitten her arm, but she suspected it was a spider. Despite being allergic to bee stings, Evelina remained calm. “I noticed redness around the bite, but didn’t experience any other symptoms, so I didn’t think much of it. Looking back, I realize it was a mistake. My head started spinning, breathing became difficult, and I probably started thinking irrationally because I decided not to tell anyone and simply lay down. Before that, I took some allergy medication and hoped everything would be fine. However, after a while, I started experiencing excruciating pain, trembling in bed, and even lost consciousness a few times. Now, I think if someone had recorded it all, the footage could have been used in the film ‘The Exorcist’ (laughs). Well, after a few hours, I started feeling much better. The next day, I went to see a doctor who said I was very lucky to still be alive.”
Challenges with rats and insects didn’t end there. In Malaysia, the monsoon season lasts for six months, and locals are accustomed to heavy rains and floods. However, as a foreigner from Lithuania, Evelina had a different perspective, especially when the water level reached the school’s electrical sockets and dirty water, with rats and floating garbage, flooded the classrooms. What were the students doing during this time? They were making paper boats, constructing rafts, and swimming around the school. Over time, Evelina adapted to the heavy rains. “Anyway, after going through all of this, I feel stronger. I’ve stopped worrying about problems like flooding. So what? You can’t stop it. It’s much better to fold a paper boat and have some fun.”
PRAYERS for every RELIGION
In short, I worked with students who were dropouts or had never attended school. Some struggled to meet the requirements of a traditional school, while others couldn’t afford education or had to work in rice fields to support their families. The school provided free education, welcoming students from all over Sabah, Malaysia. It was not a typical school, as we focused on teaching the basics of essential subjects. Since the students couldn’t follow a regular curriculum, we aimed to equip them with fundamental knowledge and boost their confidence. We taught them basic English for communication and conducted motivation classes to inspire them not to give up, encouraging them to be good individuals and make the most out of life.
The school was a boarding school, meaning both teachers and students lived on the premises. We spent not only class time together but also our free time. We all had to wake up at six a.m., which might seem early, but it served as a form of discipline. Before joining the school, the students could do whatever they wanted, like watching TV or playing with their phones, without any control. Without discipline, it would have been challenging to teach them and get them to listen to the teachers. In the morning, we started with cleaning the school, where everyone had their designated tasks or areas to clean. This was followed by morning physical exercises and prayers before classes.
The organization itself did not focus on any specific religion, but in Southeast Asia, Christianity and Islam are strongly followed by the majority. When meeting a new person, it’s common to ask three questions: their name, age, and religion. Religion holds great importance, and we conducted prayers twice a day for fifteen minutes. During the prayers, we would sit in a circle and sing prayers from all religions, including the “Our Father.” After prayers, we would proceed with the classes. Until noon, the students had three English lessons, followed by a lunch break, computer class, and motivation lessons. We finished at four p.m., allowing an hour of relaxation before evening prayers and dinner. Afterward, we enjoyed evening entertainment such as karaoke, dancing, or movie nights. The students would go to sleep at ten p.m., while the teachers would have their meeting to discuss the day and plan for the next. The teaching year passed by quickly for me in this manner.
We built a house!
In the place where Evelina lived and worked, there were a hundred students and several teachers. The question arises, how did they all fit in? Evelina explained that initially, they lived in a reasonably spacious building, but this arrangement didn’t last long. When the lease ended, the owner chose not to renew it, leaving the students and teachers in need of a new location. It was a challenge to find a suitable place for a hundred children, but fortunately, an NGO extended a helping hand. They provided a plot of land that had previously been used as a training center.
However, the existing infrastructure on the land wasn’t sufficient to accommodate everyone, so they took on the task of building a new school themselves. Evelina described how they would cut bamboo from the nearby jungle, dry it, and use it to construct walls and other elements of the building. They worked diligently for a few weeks, and Evelina even mentioned that she built her own room entirely with her own hands.
The impression from Evelina’s description was that the house they built wasn’t very sturdy, lacking typical concrete walls and resembling more of a shed. The walls had gaps through which anything, including scorpions, could easily enter. Evelina was taught how to deal with scorpions by grabbing a broom, immobilizing the scorpion by holding its head, and then cutting off its tail. She mentioned other challenges they faced as well, such as the water system not being designed for such a large number of people. Each morning, they had to pour a bucket of water to use for the entire day. Taking a shower or washing their hair required them to conserve water and manage with just one bucket.
Accepting any transport
After a year of working in Malaysia, Evelina had the opportunity to explore a significant part of Borneo. The students she worked with often invited her to visit their villages for the weekends. It made them proud to bring a foreigner to their village and showcase their English communication skills, which meant a lot to them. As the project at the school came to an end, Evelina made a plan to visit a different country every month. She packed her bag and embarked on her journey.
Her first destination was Sri Lanka, followed by Indonesia, a vast country where she could have easily spent a year and still not see it all. She then continued to Cambodia and Laos, finding these countries to be quite similar, which led to a bit of boredom. In search of something more interesting and different, Evelina decided to hitchhike from Cambodia to Thailand without using any public transportation. She counted that she traveled with 25 different vehicles, including motorcycles, pickup trucks, cars, and lorries, all of which stopped for her. She didn’t find it scary and actually felt safer there than in Lithuania. She enjoyed meeting the locals and wanted to experience something unique.
Evelina had done some research beforehand and knew that hitchhiking in Laos was considered safe. She was excited to begin her journey and found that most people traveled with pickup trucks, making it easy for her to jump in and continue her journey. If a vehicle turned in a direction she didn’t want to go, she would simply tap on the side of the car, get out, and continue with another vehicle, following her GPS.
“It was a time filled with adventure and new challenges,” Evelina recalled. Upon returning to Lithuania, she felt a disconnect with her friends who were leading what she called a “normal life” with families, good jobs, and apartments. She, on the other hand, came back just as she had left, but with a bag full of priceless experiences that she would never forget. Evelina viewed travel as the best school of life and encouraged others to give it a try, asking, “Because why not?”