I’m recently back from a life-changing trip to S-East Asia, specifically Kuala Lumpur and Brunei. The whole thing was eye-opening, inspiring, and not the end of the story. (Watch this space.) There was a real hunger to know about adolescence, the teenage brain and the reading brain. I’m blogging about the trip in three parts:
1. Brunei (school events about the teenage brain)
2. Kuala Lumpur (the Cooler Lumpur #Word festival and Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, including my lecture on Reading and the Brain, and an incredible panel on censorship)
3. My planned return trip to S-E Asia – why, what, when and how, and how schools in the region can be involved. Both the teenage brain stuff (and teenage stress) and my “reading and the brain” lecture are apparently highly relevant to educational issues in Asia right now.
However, before we get to Brunei, I have to tell you about the landing at Kuala Lumpur airport. There we were, almost touching ground, treetops passing the window, scary jungle (well, palm trees) to each side, just waiting for the bump that would tell us we were safely down, when suddenly we weren’t. The planes engines were screaming and we were heading up again, steeply. The cabin steward came on fairly quickly, saying, “Well, as you can see, the pilot aborted the landing. I don’t know why yet but I’m sure he’ll tell us in a moment.” Silence throughout the plane, and macho comments along the lines of “Well, this is interesting.”
“Interesting” was not the word I was using to myself.
Anyway, the pilot did indeed tell us why he had aborted the landing at the last moment.
He had spotted a PLANE ON THE RUNWAY.
I did not enjoy the next twenty minutes spent in the crowded airways above KL – we’d been told there’d be a delay because of congestion. I don’t like the idea of flying around at a few hundred miles an hour in crowded skies, tbh.
Anyway, of course, we landed safely, eventually, in glorious clear sunshine. And three days later, when the Indonesian smoke/smog/haze hit KL and reduced visibility dramatically, I couldn’t help thinking… Anyway, less of that. Let’s talk about Brunei!
PART ONE: Brunei
Confession time: I didn’t know where Brunei was when I agreed to go there. I thought it was an oil state in the Middle East, tbh. But it’s ON BORNEO! *crazy goggle-eyes* So, not desert but jungle. With snakes. How exotic is that? So, I’ve now done three school talks on the island of Borneo. That will have to go on my CV.
Actually, I didn’t see a snake, but I did see two huge crocodiles in the mangrove swamp where I was travelling in a very small boat. Also, many proboscis monkeys sitting in trees and looking like humans, two huge monitor lizards, one of which started crawling down the tree towards us, and kingfishers and egrets and lizards. But no snakes. I am not complaining.
I was staying with an old friend, Hilary, who teaches maths at the Jerudong International School (JIS), and her husband. They and the teaching staff, particularly Karli Downey, the librarian who had organised the whole thing brilliantly and impeccably, looked after me very kindly and with every attention to detail.
JIS is amazing. It didn’t look like any school I’d ever been in:
The school canteen is open air – what looks like glass on the right is actually nothing:
Imagine that in Scotland.
The auditorium where I did my school talks was MASSIVE:
I had a DRESSING-ROOM! Where, wonderfully, I was often allowed just to relax on my own. With food.
The downside was the early start: we had to be at school just after 7am. Ugh! Mind you, more ugh for the pupils with their adolescent sleep needs.
I did two events in the massive auditorium, one for Years 7 and 8 and one for Years 9 and 10, both on the brain and teenage brain. The pupils, a wide mix of nationalities, religions and cultures, were absolutely wonderful and delightful. JIS makes a big effort to promote critical thinking (which is seen as lacking in Asian educational systems and is one of the things the schools out there want me back to talk about) and this was evident in the quality of the questions.
One of the lovely things was how the pupils clapped each other. So, each time someone asked an intriguing question (pretty much all of them), the whole audience clapped. Teachers were fully involved, often asking questions themselves.
It was such a positive experience, and I heard that the next day there were lots of follow-up exercises and pupils had been reflecting on what they’d learnt and how they could use it.
After a tour of the school, I went with Hilary for lunch. In a rather special location. Look! A former palace, built by the more-than-slightly-rich Prince Jefri for his friends, and now a club and hotel, the Empire.
Except, we had lunch not inside but outside…:
We ate a pineapple full of delicious savoury rice and drank water melon juice:
And then I went for a paddle in the absurdly warm South China Sea:
And we walked briefly (too hot for anything longer) on the deserted beach:
Not many times you can say that that’s how you unwound after school talks!
Then, back to Hilary’s to relax (because of course walking in the South China Sea and sitting on a deserted beach is not relaxing – oh no) and change before my evening event, a talk to parents and staff about adolescence and the teenage brain.
Now, I’d been worrying a little about this because I was aware I’d be talking to people from different cultures, who might not respond warmly to what I, a Westerner, had to say. Also, what about the alcohol issues, in a country where alcohol is not available to buy? Brunei is a strict Muslim country and my views and experiences might not be welcome. And Karli was hoping that the turn out would do justice to the effort, both mine and hers.
We needn’t have worried. We got the biggest turnout they’d ever had for an external event and the audience, which was predominantly local or at least Asian, was wonderful, warm, easy to entertain, seemingly fascinated, receptive and positive. All books were sold! I now have a return invitation and some interesting ideas to pin that invitation on. This is partly what I’ll be talking about in Part 3.
Then, somewhat euphoric because this was the last event of the whole trip, back to Hilary’s for a delicious meal, cooked by her husband and eaten on the balcony, overlooking the jungle. It included mackerel that he’d smoked that day and a gorgeous chicken curry.
Next morning, we got up early for a private boat trip – me, Hilary, a boatman and his son, in a small boat on a journey through mangrove swamps.
Here’s the evidence. I wish I’d had a proper picture of the crocodiles – I have one still and one video, but to be honest you’d have to take my word for it that you can see the beasts. Thing is, when I was *that* close to a croc, photography was not foremost in my mind.
When one of the crocs, which had been heading towards us, disappeared under water, I joked that it was under the boat, whereupon the boatman splashed the water behind me and made us all scream. Ha, ha, very ha.
Below is a proboscis monkey sitting in a tree. I have an amazing video of them flying through trees but it’s too complic to upload. I have a rubbish small camera, btw. And I was in a wobbly boat. And there was the constant thought of crocodiles. And water snakes.
Below are two monitor lizards lying on the big branch in the middle. One has its head up; the other one, on the biggest bit of branch to its right, is lying with its legs draped round the branch.
I love these twisty mangrove roots. I also wanted to show you how close we got to them, in view of the fact that we’d just seen our first croc a minute before… These are close enough to touch. In fact, we were quite often touching the roots and banks with the boat or our hands. I was trying not to think about snakes and crocodiles. The boatman’s favourite trick was to shout “Anaconda!” Hilarious. Not.
On the way back, we visited and walked around an amazing water village, with hospitals, schools, a mosque and shops, all on stilts above the water. There were animals in cages (not so good, but there wasn’t an alternative, as there were no fences) and no sign of anything to stop children falling off the walkways.
And then, back to the airport for a very long journey home. *sobs a little* Oh, taking in a small mosque on the way…
I can’t get over how lucky I was to be able to make this trip. I was lucky enough to have the Malaysia bit (which I’ll be telling you about next) but to be able to add on the fascinating country of Brunei and to meet parents and teenagers from another continent from my own was inspiring and wonderful. The whole thing took an enormous amount of time, energy and effort, from me and from the school, but it was very worthwhile.
It exceeded not only my expectations, but also my hopes.
Next post: Malaysia, with canapés, executive lounges, cookies, overspilling workshops, The Haze, Twin Towers, delivering a lecture in a restaurant and being on a censorship panel with an unbelievable line-up.