Volunteer Voice: Some words I remember

Guest blog by Andrew MacDonald

Andrew with tree

Me with a tree, circa 2009

How in the world can I express what that time meant? It has been almost four years since I arrived at Sukadana, and my memories of it are still treasured and vivid: I can still recall many heartbreaks and joys from my time there. When I look back, I particularly recall certain things that were said to me -- words which, through the following years, would become symbols of my time in and around Gunung Palung. They are not direct quotations, of course (and my apologies to anyone who feels misrepresented!), -- nevertheless I want to share some of them with you, because I hope they will recall your own memories of why you loved your time with ASRI.

"The more Bahasa Indonesia you speak, the more useful you can be" -- Cam Webb.

I am an ecologist; I got involved with ASRI after meeting Cam during my Master's degree. I kept saying that I would love to come and see the rainforest and he told me to volunteer, if I was really serious. So, I started studying Indonesian. I remember these words because they told me to prepare for a challenge -- the enormous challenge of leaving your country to become an ethnic, religious and linguistic minority. I was young and had never left North America when I arrived in Pontianak and took a crowded boat down the Kapuas to Sukadana. In and around Gunung Palung I made many mistakes -- and embarrassed myself more than once! -- and learned many lessons that are still with me.

We talk a lot about the rewards of working with ASRI, but I think these come from facing a difficult challenge -- and language is one such difficulty. Most of the volunteers I recall were North Americans who spoke little Bahasa Indonesia. As we reflect on our own volunteer experiences and inform potential future volunteers we should recognize those challenges and embrace them. They are part of the profound encounter we have all shared.


A seedling (photo by Kinari Webb).

"Sometimes I tell a young doctor who has helped to save a patient, count this as a life you have saved. Andrew, count these four hectares of rainforest." -- Kinari Webb.

Kinari said this as she surveyed our nearly-completed rainforest restoration plot from atop a burned out stump. I just realized that including those words puts a lot of emphasis on my contribution, which wasn't my intention -- those four hectares were also the creation of Doni Anggoro (rainforest restoration coordinator at the time) and Kari Malen (now volunteer coordinator) and many other volunteers and, of course, the local people who supported the project and did much of the clearing and planting! But in that moment I was aware of my own contribution to a project in which I believed completely, whose progress I saw daily. The joy I felt at that moment has, in the four years since, become part of me. I suspect this is intrinsic to the ASRI volunteer experience: we volunteers arrive in Sukadana, work as part of a team (perhaps harbouring some doubt as to the importance of our role?) and then, maybe just as we are leaving, we discover -- or are told! -- that we have indeed made a unique contribution to something wonderful, beautiful, powerful. This conviction and satisfaction -- this joy -- becomes something we carry with us.

I think back to those four hectares often. I wonder if the Belian germinated well, which species survived and which didn't, whether the macaranga is now taller than me. The process of organizing and planting those four hectars was an profound experience for a young ecologist who had done lots of reading but spent very little time in actual rainforests. I hope to see them again someday.

"Experiences are like investments -- they increase in value with time" -- Ted Ulrich, A fellow volunteer.

I've been able to draw on my experience with ASRI in many ways. Working with ASRI staff and volunteers, I learned about rainforest ecology, ecological restoration, Indonesia, Islam. I learned to speak a new language, and learned so much about myself. I gained valuable experience with my first tropical rainforest. All those things have transferred to the rest of my life. I am writing to you now from a house in rural Brazil -- ecologically and socially about as different from Sukadana as possible -- but I believe that on some level my experiences at ASRI are valuable to me here, as they are in all parts of my life. My time at ASRI was a first taste of a way of life that I have come to treasure, and I count myself lucky to have an excellent seed from which to grow.

This has hardly been an exhaustive list of powerful words or interactions. Not just words, but also sounds and smells remind me of my time near Gunung Palung. Powerful things were said to me by local men and women as well, in English and in Indonesian, that I still treasure. But I do want to close by thinking about the power of words, the power of speech. We have an opportunity, as ASRI volunteers, to continue to speak about ASRI's work, to share our stories from Gunung Palung. Social media is one excellent way of sharing our words about ASRI:


And last but not least, you can give to help support that volunteer program, that we know and love, by clicking here.

Thank you for reading - wishing you the best from Brazil,

Selamat jalan,


About Andrew Macdonald

Andrew has volunteered at ASRI's reforestation sites multiple times and has been especially involved with Laman Satong. He is currently based in Vancouver, BC.


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