First there was 3 months of training outside Hilo Hawaii, with daily hours of Malay language and various other attempts to instill formal learning. It was fun: interesting and challenging, but not in any way difficult. Malaysia X was a pretty tight-knit group, though in some ways we were somewhat peripheral (or so it seems as I look back at the pictures of other members and have difficulty recalling much about most of them in any personal sense). Our first real friends in the group, Dave and Henrietta Crandall, left when they became pregnant; the experience would surely have been different for us if they had gone to Sarawak too. Other friends with whom we lost contact were Ken and Joan [now Sells] Humbert, Jim Sutherland, Dave Revier.
Malaysia X spent 3 months at Waiakea Uka, about 10 miles from Hilo on the big island of Hawaii. By mid-1965 Peace Corps training had become something of an industry: language teachers from the host country, technical training in skills someone imagined might be useful, propaganda sessions (the acronym was WACAS [World Affairs, Communism and Area Studies], pronounced "whack-ass" of course) to prepare us to understand political affairs we might encounter (U.S. presence in Viet Nam, etc. etc.). Of these it was the language teaching that was of any later significance. We were an odd assortment of married couples (to be trained to be 4-H organizers, although most of us were city folks), single women (medical technologists) and single men (to be "rural community development" workers). Visiting honchos and bigwigs would appear at odd intervals and announce one thing or another --after about a month we learned that we were bound for Sarawak (rather than Malaya or Sabah).
Training ended in September 1965, and we had 6 days of "leave" in Honolulu, which by then felt like a huge metropolis. And then to Malaysia, a week first in Kuala Lumpur (the national capital) where it was quite clear that Sarawak was viewed as a hardship post, far away and without civilized amenities. Such was not the case, but we were quite unprepared to discover that there was a small-scale war going on in Sarawak, part of Indonesia's 'Konfrontasi' against the allegedly neocolonial state of Malaysia. First thing we saw as the airplane landed at Kuching Airport was antiaircraft guns... But it developed that the war was pretty tame, and largely conducted by patrols of Commonwealth troops which occasionally skirmished on the border with Indonesian Kalimantan. Yes, the rural Chinese had been interned in New Villages to protect them against the Clandestine Communist Organization (CCO), but really disloyalty was only practised by a tiny minority.
Background on Sarawak I leave to another time and place, but it's important to know that Sarawak had been a Crown Colony from 1946 to 1963 (when it was joined into Malaysia, against the better judgement of quite a few Sarawakians), and that from 1841 to 1941 it had been the private property of the Rajahs Brooke --Sir James had been a British adventurer who happened into a power vacuum in 1841 and became the first Rajah; his nephew Charles carried on the work of pacification (ending piracy and headhunting, extending the rule of law to more river systems), and Rajah Charles' son Vyner continued in the same vein and made modest efforts at modernization in the 1920s and 1930s. The Brookes did not allow the sort of wholesale exploitation of plantations and export crops, and doled out parts of river systems to different sects for missionary activity. Somerset Maugham's "The Outstation" and "The Yellow Streak" are interesting versions of 1920s realities in Sarawak.
We escaped the
fate of being 4-H organizers by being assigned as
assistants to the Manager of Melugu Land Development Scheme, which was
one of a number of government experiments in resettlement of (formerly)
subsistence agriculturists from the traditional longhouse communities
into single-family houses in a new village, where they were to become
rubber-growing peasants. Many things about the plans for the Scheme were
unfortunate, and we and our boss had little control over them. He
(Apai Kumang --Arthur Thwaites)
was wonderful to work for: he'd been in Sarawak for many years, and had medical training as well as experience in rural development action. Our actual work was mostly concerned with laying out the new village, deciding where to direct bulldozers to put houselots, etc.
Our Peace Corps friends in the nearby district capital of Simanggang were teachers (Bob Frary and Ruth Sadowski) and PWD workers (Harvey Taub and Dave Revier), and by 6 months or so after arrival we hatched a plan to make a film about Bob and Ruth. Peace Corps paid for film and processing, and over a couple of months we shot and edited The PEMS Supervisor, which may have been the first film actually made in Sarawak. It was intended to be used in Peace Corps training for new Volunteers. Gerry Meuris, the Canadian supervisor of the PEMS (Primary English Medium Scheme) program, tells me that the film (which he has dubbed to videotape) still has charm.
We were uncomfortable with various aspects of the Melugu assignment, and prevailed upon Peace Corps to let us become film makers full time. We moved to Kuching, got a room in the home of a Malay family in Kampong #1, and had opportunities to travel fairly widely while we worked on several different training films for Agriculture and Education departments of the Sarawak government. None were glorious productions.
Looking back on the experience, it's clear that we got much more than we gave. We learned a couple of languages (Malay in training, Iban for the work at Melugu) but truth to tell we thought we were better at them than we actually were. Or rather, I thought I was better. The immersion in a completely novel milieu taught all sorts of lessons about varieties of ways of doing things, and certainly derailed us from any conviction that American ways were inherently superior.