Parent Perspective - The Inside Scoop on Malaysia Week!

by Lynette MacDonald, mother of one current ISKL student and one alumni

It’s 2:45am on Sunday morning and the beginning of Malaysia Week 2019 for 25 sleep deprived, yet eager, Middle School students and their four camp leaders, of whom I am thrilled to once again be one. Malaysia Week is an outdoor interdisciplinary education experience that has been running at ISKL for 40-years. For one week every year 400 plus tween to early teen Middle School students (Grade 6-8) head off to remote corners of Malaysia to find out more about this beautiful country and, importantly, find out more about themselves as well. In inter-grade camps students hike, cycle, camp, kayak, cook and fend for themselves in ways that few have experienced before. As one mother of a Grade 6 son said to me after this year’s trip, “He came home feeling like he could do anything.”

For the past three years, I have been a Malaysia Week parent volunteer, lured by the cheeky glint in Malaysia Week supremo, Karen Palko’s, eye and her invitation to “give it a go”, at my first parent information evening in 2017. Now, I’m not a girl scout leader or PE teacher, but I love adventure and anything in the outdoors. Most of all, I love being part of something that takes children outside the classroom (and away from all technology!) for a whole school week and allows them to experience the wonders of nature and the power of teamwork. Malaysia Week is an amazing detox that sees those same kids burst into karaoke (of the no recorded music kind) on the bus, become obsessed with a word or card game, or just talk (not message) to the person next to them after a tough day of activities.

Lucky for me, my first Malaysia Week assignment was Survivor Island, accompanying Karen Palko herself. This is an awesome camp and, quite honestly, while most of the students were ready to pack up and leave, I would have happily stayed for a few more weeks. All the best elements of the survivor experience were included, and mercifully without any reality television cameras. There was a true air of expectation as we bussed to the jetty for our boat ride to Pulau Acheh, our own deserted island, and with good reason. The students knew they would be thrown off the boat, fully clothed with backpacks, and without goggles, and swim the 200m or so to shore. I took on the job of swimming ahead to guide them in, but I admit that even with a snorkel and mask, my heart took a leap as I jumped into the deep blue water. Without exception, these brave “survivors” made it to shore safely. That was just the beginning of the adventure.

Over four nights on the island, the students constructed rudimentary shelters, learnt how to collect the right kind of kindling and use a flint stone to light a fire, cooked all their own meals and slept in the open around a campfire. Brandon taught us all to whittle chopsticks and spoons, so at least we didn’t have to eat everything with just our fingers, how to use a Pahang and how to weave a fishing net. The students even had guard duty in the evening, with pairs on two-hour shifts throughout the night making sure the fire stayed lit, and that there were no unwanted guests. More than once, I woke to hear one of our guards enticing a sleepwalker back to sleep and, very amusingly, we also had a couple of nocturnal visits from a local wild boar baby. I can report that the best feeling ever is when you are woken at dawn by the sound of waves gently lapping on the sand of your secluded beach.

Our final night, on a kelong (fishing platform) between Pulau Acheh and the mainland provided the students and we salt-encrusted adults, with a much-anticipated treat – a freshwater “shower”. In fact, it was a bucket and scoop, but it might just as well have been the most opulent 5-star rain shower for the joy that fresh wash off gave, not to mention a night sleeping on a thin mattress, rather than bare sand. The wonderful thing about Malaysia Week, is that over their Middle School years, students get to try such different trips. It has been the same for me. In 2018, I joined the Discovery Divers on Pulau Tioman, for most of the students their very first experience of SCUBA diving. While considerably more comfortable than Survivor Island, this trip challenged the students as they learnt the skills and safety requirements of SCUBA. I must admit that, while I have done many “resort” dives around the world, I have never felt particularly comfortable under water, usually preferring to snorkel. However, with ISKL alumnus, Michael Grossman, aka SCUBA Mike, and his instructing team in charge, that changed even for me. Their focus on safety first and giving detailed and considered pre-dive briefings was the best instruction I have experienced, and I was more at home submerged than ever before. It felt particularly good knowing the students were in such professional hands and that they were getting an excellent introduction to the sport.
This year I joined the ranks of the no longer Middle School parents, as my youngest son entered High School. It was with a whoop of excitement, though, that I opened my school email a couple of months out from Malaysia Week, to see a message from Karen Palko. Great news! They needed me again. And with Malaysia Week 2019, I really hit gold with the Langkawi Wilderness Adventure. Other than the kids, the best thing about Malaysia Week is spending time with the teachers and volunteers who lead the trips. This year, our team consisted of teachers Anya Keithley and Nick Sprague, as well as ISKL Works Department staffer, Izyan Rezali. Anya and Nick led the trip last year and knew exactly what was in store. They also seem to know, and care sincerely for, every child in Middle School. They, along with “up for anything” Izyan, were inspirational co-leaders who, along with Karen Palko, really exemplify the ISKL spirit.

The Langkawi Wilderness Adventure is tough! We hiked in mid-30-degree heat, climbed high ropes, cycled and pitched tents – and that was just the first afternoon after a 7-hour bus ride and 90-minute ferry trip. Remember, our bus left in the middle of the night! Over the five days, we had three campsites, all of which we reached by pedal or kayak power. Students’ nerves were put to the test not only on the high ropes, but also abseiling an 80m rockface and swinging from the mast and walking the plank on the historic tall ship we were lucky to stay on for the final night. The support they gave each other to achieve these feats was inspiring. “You got this!” became a chorus often heard on this trip. Perhaps the most impressive achievement, though, came on day three, when we completed an 8-kilometer, 6-hour sea kayak from campsite two to campsite three. Not only did the students, some of whom had never kayaked before, do this, but when we arrived at the new campsite, they then had to pitch the tents, dig the toilet and cook dinner. The toasted marshmallows over the campfire that evening could not have been more deserved. Malaysia Week is one of the most-loved weeks on the Middle School calendar, and it’s one of mine as well. Here’s hoping I see that message from Karen Palko pop up on my email again next year.

Lynette MacDonald has been a parent at The International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL) since 2016.