Jessica Prestage - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

I wanted to see a new part of the world and experience a different culture. As I finished my year 13 exams in May 2016, I had four months free before uni, so I decided to use that time to travel and do something I would never have considered before.

Why did you choose Oyster Worldwide?

After Oyster gave a talk at my school, I looked at their conservation trips on the website. As I wanted to travel, but I've never been too keen on wandering around just taking photos, I wanted an interactive holiday, preferably one which involved volunteer work. I found the project in Borneo, which sounded amazing because of the location, animals, and set up.

Oyster has visited every one of their projects, so I was able to find out a lot of information before even booking anything. After having a chat with one of the staff members, I was set on going to Borneo to volunteer with sun bears, mainly because every aspect of it was new and different to England.

Girl testing a piece of wood

What was your favorite part about Borneo?

I stayed in a small hotel for the duration of the project, but each room was a separate wood lodge. I was staying in the volunteer section, so we had our own kitchen; this meant we didn't have to use the restaurant on site, but almost every night I went down to the restaurant to chat to the staff. They were so friendly and curious about England, so it was really fun getting to know them.

What made your experience abroad unique?

The fact that I went alone was fairly special. It was the first time I've ever travelled by myself, and it was the furthest I have ever gone. No one in England knows what sun bears are, so that made it more amazing. I learnt about the animals and conservation in Malaysia, and I made some great friends. Because I went alone, I had to engage with the permanent staff more; this was definitely a good thing, as I tend to be quite shy! This trip brought me out of my shell and definitely helped to prepare me for uni. I had a fantastic time getting to know all the staff, and the bears, and I would love to go back and see the progress that the bears have made.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

The volunteer coordinator for this project is from Borneo and he looks after all the volunteers. For the duration of the time I was there, he was always around if I needed help or advice. My first day volunteering I really struggled with the heat, several times. I had to sit down and chill for a while. When I was taking a break, everyone who walked past stopped and asked whether I was okay; all the staff were very caring and understanding. As I was the only non-Malaysian person on site, it became a joke that I felt it was so hot while they were wearing jumpers and woolly hats! All of the staff always made sure I was safe, happy, and well.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I had stayed out there for longer! I was at two projects for only two weeks each. I did struggle with homesickness near the end of the four weeks, but now that I'm back I know that I could have stayed for longer. Two weeks was only just enough time to get to know the staff and bears, and I had just made friends when I had to leave. Leaving the bears was very emotional, as I had gotten to know them all, all their different personalities, and I had become part of their journey.

Volunteers sawing bamboo

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

We always started on site at 8 a.m. by serving the bears breakfast. Once this was done, the keepers let the bears out into specific enclosures while we washed the food trays. Then we spent the morning cleaning the cages, which was more fun than it sounds as everyone chats while they're cleaning. This was when some of the most crazy conversations happened! Lunch was over the hottest part of the day, from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. When we came back after eating in the café across the road, we distributed fresh fruit and veg to all the bears, including the ones outside. This meant we had to walk around the enclosures and throw the food in. The rest of the afternoon was then spent creating enrichment for the bears, using a variety of materials like old hose pipes, bamboo, and tyres.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

I spent some evenings with the staff from the centre, going to the cinema and their houses. They made me feel very welcome as part of the team. I also spent time in the restaurant where I was staying, talking to the staff there. They were very friendly and always ready to chat; they knew my name after my second day there!

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

I loved the atmosphere of the hotel and the fact it wasn't a block building. It was a number of wooden cabins spread out with grass and stepping stones leading from one to the next. As the volunteer section was at the back, we had a beautiful view out over a small valley of rainforest. It was absolutely amazing waking up to hear birds that sound so different to English birds, to make breakfast whilst watching monkeys just tens metres away from me. Being part of that is an incredible feeling.

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

It is a long way from home, but it is definitely worth it. Don't overthink it, because once you're there, you will love the experience and not want to leave!

Now that you're home, how has your time in Malaysia impacted your life?

Definitely I am more confident, and I have already booked a trip for next year. It has inspired me to see more of the world and learn more about conservation in different parts of the world. Despite needing multiple injections, it is such a fantastic experience. The independence of travelling alone, meeting new people, and becoming part of a team. Although it is scary when you first get on the plane by yourself, once you're out there it's a great feeling knowing how far you've come and what you're going to be part of.

Would you recommend Oyster Worldwide to others? Why?

I would recommend the bear project as it is such a contrast to anything you could do in the UK, and the people are great. They really made me feel like a part of the team and that made me enjoy it so much more.