Born and bred in Sabah, I never really had much reason or opportunity to question what sort of image Sabah presented to the outside world (which includes other states in Malaysia) until I went to university in Kuala Lumpur. And, of course, when I began working as a teacher.
My first inkling of how 'scary' Sabah can be to outsiders came during my third year in university. I had coursemates who quickly got married ... it was the first time I had ever heard of 'nikah gantung'. Apparently, they could get married but it was a sort of 'marriage on hold' (if such a thing exists..). What mattered was that they could get a marriage certificate that would help 'save' them from the jungles of Sabah and Sarawak.
Then, during the briefing I attended to receive my first posting, I found myself sitting next to a teacher who was posted to a school in the interior. When she asked if the school she had been posted to was far, the officer in charge gave a large guffaw and said that she'd only need to spend three hours on the buffalo. I wonder if he realized that we didn't laugh. Till today, I am still not sure whether he was serious or not.
However, bearing in mind that there ARE a few schools in Sabah which require survivor-style effort to reach, the majority are still not that remote. In most cases, there are roads or rivers that offer hope of reaching the schools. Heh heh.
I confess that my first posting was to La Salle Secondary School, five minutes from the airport, eight minutes to the city and nary a buffalo in sight. But even then, there are people who are unsure of just how 'city' the school is. I remember walking to the staffroom after one of my classes, to find suitcases and various boxes at the entrance. I knew five teachers were expected. But when I saw a table fan (!) with the MAS cargo label still hanging from it, I couldn't help but ask the teacher why she carried it all the way. She told me that her mother was worried there would be no electricity in Sabah. But then, I asked gently, what use would the table fan be if there were no electricity in Sabah? Hmmm.
So I haven't experienced any privations in the course of my work as a teacher. The most terrible experiences I have had involved walking to schools, laptop slung over my left shoulder and blazer over my right shoulder while trying to make sure I didn't step too close to the edge of the cliff or hill. There was some mud involved and slight heart palpitation... but it was a temporary thing as I was only visiting the schools in the course of my work as an ICT officer.
Yet another time during my years with La Salle, I saw a teacher lug in a bag of rice with the suitcases. I didn't bother to ask why. Perhaps family members were worried there would be nothing to eat in Sabah. Or perhaps it may be a DIFFERENT alien type of rice... oh, horrors!
And there was one instance when I noticed a teacher looking at the currency in my hands. I could only suppose that she was trying to see if we used the same. I feel that this is a reasonable assumption as my own mother has been asked where she changed her currency (she was attending a course in Penang.)
I always LOVED mentioning supermarkets to the newly-arrived... if only to see the abject relief on their faces.
And as recently as 2002, an ex-student of mine now working as an English teacher reported having to slog through knee-deep mud when her car broke down on the way to town. She had been posted to the Kalabakan area. She also said that she and her housemates bought generator electricity, which came and went as capriciously as a flibbertigibbet's mind. Well, at least she had a road. And a generator.
To be fair, I'd noticed how documentaries and stories about Sabah tended to focus on orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, verdant rainforest, marine wildlife, dive sites and the such. Can hardly blame people for thinking that that was all one would be able to find in Sabah. One West Malaysian teacher defended himself by saying that when he looked for information about Sabah (before departing for Kota Kinabalu), all he could find were nature coffee table books and history opuses that had great descriptions of headhunters. Armed with such knowledge, he probably fortified himself with a bagful of prayers and running shoes. Ha ha... just joking. Don't get mad, X... you know who you are.
But on the whole, the teachers who were sent to the interior of Sabah have been quite open-minded and right-thinking about their travails. Susan used to tell me that on the last leg of her journey to her school, she'd begin with a white tee and blue jeans and ended up all red in colour (including her hair and skin!), thanks to the red clay dust of the logging track. Susan's lot in life has improved considerably... now she only needs to board a boat for a 15-minute ride to SMK Pulau Gaya, just off the Kota Kinabalu harbour. She no longer 'changes colour'... unless you count her bright yellow life jacket.
However, the tales I am telling belong to the early nineties. I think things are much better now, thanks to the Internet. There are enough pictures of Sabah's supermarkets and roads to gladden the most fearful heart.
But then again... just five years ago, my dad did give a lift to a UMS freshie and her father (they had just arrived from West Malaysia). When my dad drove into the parking lot of a supermarket, he noted the looks of relief on their faces. It seems that a supermarket is proof positive of an acceptable level of civilisation.
That said, it is also very common for people to fall in love with Sabah and they never leave... even after their tenure is over...:)
Maybe I should post a few pictures of Kota Kinabalu City here... as I do get a few visits from people who search for 'teacher sabah work'.