Unbrave Girl on Board: Life on a Malaysian Sail Boat

July 18, 2010

I have a new job!

I’m sure this will overjoy all my regular readers out there who have grown tired of my tales from the Malaysian rice farm where I just finished up a two-month volunteer gig — although I really don’t know how you could get tired of hearing about all my exploits in weeding rice paddies! Fascinating stuff, let me tell you!

Should you not be a regular reader of my blog, then I have two words for you: tsk, tsk! I just spent two months writing about weeding rice paddies for crying out loud! How could you not want to read this stuff (and subscribe to my RSS feed to make sure you get my latest news about weeding rice paddies as soon as I can crank it out!)?!

My new job is helping to build a traditional Malay-style sailing junk (for those of you new to nautical terms like myself, a junk is a kind of sail boat… and not just a word for trash… or the stuff you keep in your “trunk” should you be someone with a well-endowed “trunk”).

Scheduled to set sail at the end of this year, the boat is currently moored off of a tiny island off of the Eastern Coast of Malaysia. Seeing as its in the last throes of construction, it’s my job to help out with the finishing touches. This job requires me to not only work on the boat, but also to live on it.

Yes, it is rather alarming that anyone would allow me to help build their boat seeing as I don’t have any experience in building boats… or building anything for that matter.

In fact, it’s rather alarming that anyone would let me on their boat. You see, I have something of a penchant for tipping over water-bearing vessels.

I also know blessed little about boats and have spent a blessed little amount of time on boats (what with that whole boat-tipping-penchant thing). Up until two weeks ago, my only attempts at seafaring involved row boats (a bad idea), canoes (an even worse idea, considering a canoe’s innate instability and my innate ability to tip them over) and ferries (thankfully, not such a bad idea; mostly because it’s rather difficult to topple over a massive barge packed full of people and, often, cars — not that I haven’t tried!).

In fact, I can easily sum up my knowledge of boats prior to starting my boat-building gig this week in three easy points:

1. Boats float on water (Unless I’m on the boat — in which case, the boat has probably toppled over and is swiftly sinking to the bottom of the body of water it once used to float on).

2. Boats are pretty, and are lovely to look at and take pictures of. But, as with most things that are pretty (tigers, Mount Everest, Orlando Bloom), it’s best to stay away from them or you’ll just end up getting hurt (or having a restraining order slapped against you).

3. Boats have poop decks. I don’t know what a poop deck is, but it makes me giggle every time I say it… so I say it a lot (poop deck! poop deck! poop deck!).

Likewise, my knowledge of boat-building prior to this week was minimal. It can be summed up in one quick point:

1. Ummm, what? People make boats? I thought magic boat-making elves did that!

Luckily, I haven’t had to know very much about boats or boat-building for this job. (At least not yet… I’m sure they’re waiting until Week Two to entrust me with the important tasks of swabbing the deck or cleaning the bilge or shivering the timbers).

I haven’t even had to learn any fancy new seafaring terms. My main task this week has been sanding and varnishing the woodwork in one of the bathrooms. So, basically, the only technical terms I’ve been hearing have been “sand paper,” “varnish” and “You’re going to have to redo that.”

You may wonder why a girl like me with a proclaimed penchant for tipping boats over and absolutely no background knowledge about boats or boat-building would ever volunteer to both work and live on a boat.

I could blame the pretty pictures of the boat on the website for the boat-building project. I could blame years of watching television shows like “Trading Spaces” which made tasks like varnishing look easy and fun and capable of being completed within thirty seconds when set to zippy background music.

I could blame a newfound sense of “I can do anything!” after the last two months of working on an organic rice farm and the previous two months of living on my own in the middle of the Thai jungle.

Or I could blame you.

Yes, that’s right, it’s your fault that I’m swiftly killing off my brain cells by breathing in all those varnish fumes everyday (not to mention all the skin cells I’ve managed to sand away with all that sand paper).

You see, I thought working on a boat would make for some interesting blog entries for you, the regular reader of my blog (as for you, the non-regular reader of my blog, well, you already know my feelings about that).

I figured you might be bored of me whining about weeding rice paddies every week (Heck, even I was getting bored of me whining about weeding rice paddies every week… and I very rarely get bored of me whining!).

I figured you might want to read about a totally different experience — preferably a totally different experience that involves swashbuckling sailors and my yelling “Ahoy Matey” on regular occasion (Unfortunately, the last week has involved neither of these things, but, hopefully, Week Two will involve a lot more swashbuckling… as well as some shivering of the timbers!).

Hard as this may be to believe, it turns out that living and working on a Malaysian sail boat is quite similar to living and working on a Malaysian rice farm.

Sure, the setting is certainly different. On the rice farm, I was surrounded by one hundred acres of land — which included about fifty acres of rice paddy mud (every inch of which I got to know very, very personally). On the sail boat, I’m surrounded by water and a number of other boats (and not nearly enough swashbuckling sailors!).

Overall, though, there are a surprising amount of similarities between my old job and my new one…. and here are just a few:

Off the Beaten Track… And Up the River
Back in the good old days on the rice farm, it took quite some doing to reach what I would consider to be civilization (And, trust me, my definition of civilization has changed quite a bit these past few months… these days my only requirements for civilization include shops that sell chocolate and a place where I can access the Internet).

While living on the farm, I usually was able to coerce a rice farmer into giving me a lift into the nearest town. If that failed, I could always attempt to grab the public bus that would pass by the farm on an infrequent, unpredictable schedule that seemed to be dictated by the phases of the moon.

Not surprisingly, there aren’t too many rice farmers or public buses making their way past my current sailboat of residence.

The boat is moored off the coast of a tiny island in the Terrenagu River, not that far from Kuala Terrennagu, a city famous for its boat-building, batik-making and deep-fried fish sausages (You know, it’s funny… I like deep-fried. I like fish. I like sausages. But, for some reason, I have no desire to try all three of these things combined).

In order to get to the mainland, you have to hitch a ride on a dinghy (or, umm, swim). Due to my penchant for boat-tipping, I’m really not too fond of the dinghy (I’m even less fond of swimming, though, as it requires me to face my fears of spandex and ear bacteria).

Therefore, I usually spend most of my time on the boat.

In fact, I spend so much time on the boat that when I do manage to get myself to dry land, I still feel like I’m out at sea, which causes me to sway periodically… and every once in a while topple over (This can not be a good thing for someone who is already blessed with a shaky sense of balance and a natural talent for tipping over).

Sanding is the New Weeding
Seeing as I have no experience in rice farming or boat building, both my bosses on the farm and the boat have made a point of giving me tasks that I can reasonably complete given my lack of skills and lack of knowledge about things like growing cycles and boat architecture and any nautical terms aside from poop deck (poop deck! poop deck! poop deck!).

These tend to be rather tedious, menial tasks, that don’t run the risk of having me ruin an entire rice paddy worth of rice crops or render the boat incapable of floating on water.

They also tend to be tasks that don’t allow me any access to sharp objects or power tools (Which, really, is a blessing given my whole tipping-over-talent. Who knows what could happen should I tip over while brandishing a machete, a circular saw or one of those electric hoe thingies — they make those, right?!).

As I might have mentioned in a few previous blog posts (like, say, all of my blog posts for the last two months), I did a lot of weeding while on the rice farm.

In fact, I did so much weeding, that my right hand, which I used to pull up all the offending plants, was replaced by a cramped, arthritic claw. It became incapable of delicate tasks like tying shoelaces, holding a fork or, say, wielding a shovel.

On the boat, my primary jobs so far has been sanding (with sand paper, mind you, no electric sanders for this girl!) and varnishing.

Prior to my arrival on the boat, I was worried that I might actually have to use a saw and run the risk of chopping off a finger. I was relieved when I was handed a stack of sand paper and directed towards the bathroom’s woodwork, figuring my worries of hand-mutilation were behind me.

Since then, I’ve come to realize there are slower, more painful ways to lose a finger: namely, by sanding it off. After less than a full week of sanding, I’ve sanded off all the fingernails on my right hand. I also have a number of small sores on my fingers were I’ve managed to sand off my skin. I’m afraid that with another month of sanding ahead of me, all that will be remain of my right hand, when I leave, will be a bloody stump (a very smooth, freshly sanded, bloody stump, mind you!).

Work Epic
On the rice farm, most of the the workers worked ten to twelve-hour days, six or seven days a week. Being a volunteer, I wasn’t expected to work on the weekends, but should I make the mistake of showing my face around the farm on a Saturday, I was instantly entrusted with a task… usually something like washing dishes or peeling fruit or some other job that I was only barely able to complete given the clumsy claw that was my right hand.

On the boat, my boss pretty much works non-stop, all day, every day.

I have to admire his work ethic, but I also admire things like weekends off… and long leisurely lunches… and afternoon naps… and forgetting to go back to work after your long leisurely lunch and afternoon nap.

Of course, my boss doesn’t expect me to keep the same hours that he does, and he has told me many times that I can take a break whenever I feel like it. But I do find myself working pretty long hours. Yesterday, I even found myself working on a Saturday (A Saturday! Can you believe it? It’s like I’ve been transformed into one of those people that likes to work).

I’ve found it’s hard to slack off when surrounded by people who enjoy spending their Saturdays welding stainless steel pipes together (Not to worry, I wasn’t the one doing the welding… or the enjoying. I was the one glumly sanding and varnishing the bathroom door).

One thing that I learned from my stint on the rice farm (aside from the being able to identify a rice paddy weed) is that if you wish to get a little break from the daily grind (and the daily sanding off of your fingers) the best way to do it is to disappear.

Luckily the boat is moored at a swanky marina with a resort which has free wifi, a cafe, a gym, a women’s locker room, a number of lounges and even a pool (not that I would swim there due to my fear of spandex and ear bacteria… but it’s nice to sit by the pool and pretend like you’re one of those people who does crazy things… like swim). So should I need a break, I head to one of the many lounges to check my email or cozy up to a Diet Coke in the cafe (Heck, I may even get so desperate to escape work that I might even take up swimming!).

A Man’s World
Not surprisingly, rice farming and boat building are careers that tend to attract men.

Blame it on the, err, manpower required to do these jobs (or blame it on the fact that women just seem to know better… except for maybe this woman), but you find very few women hanging out in a rice paddy or varnishing the woodwork in a boat’s bathroom.

There were the occasional female volunteers on the farm and there are a couple other women on boats in the harbor, but, overall, I’m surrounded by men.

In fact, I’ve been surrounded by so many men over the past couple months, that I fear I’ve started to look like one.

My wardrobe of choice while at work is usually an oversized t-shirt and stained khakis. I would occasionally wear a skirt in the evenings while on the farm, but even this attempt at ladylike attire has been abandoned since moving to the boat (Just you try to get yourself in and out of a wobbly, little dinghy while wearing a skirt. I did this once last weekend which resulted in my having to hike up my skirt practically to my hips and shimmying my body over the inflated, rubber side of the dinghy until I flopped clumsily into the bottom of the vessel like a recently harpooned whale).

My current beauty regime consists of showering and applying deodorant.

Any feminine wiles I might have had have been covered by mud stains, sawdust and a thick coat of varnish (Which, granted, makes me very shiny… but not so much in a shiny happy way).

Should a swashbuckling sailor show up on my shores, I’m sure he’d mistake me for another sailor (or be blinded by the coat of clear gloss varnish which is covering my face).

All that being said, I like my new job. I really do. It’s interesting and the people have been very welcoming and nice to me (even if I have the varnishing skills of a six-year-old with ADHD). But every once in a while I’ll be inspecting the open sores on my hand due to all the sanding or trying to scrub some varnish off my face, and I wonder, “Why am I doing this?”

And then I remember… I’m doing this for you.

You’re welcome.