Why did I decide to become a biology student? Probably because I've always been interested in environmental protection, and ways of conserving our beautiful flora and fauna. But after four semesters of nasty lectures in physical chemistry, differential equations and drawing molecular structures, I had to remind myself of this. It was time for me to leave the library and put the lab coat away for a bit.
I started to search for serious, meaningful volunteering projects around the world, which was trickier than I expected. But after many a long night in front of Google, many a day making calls to Embassies and several painful vaccinations, I found myself at the airport, with a massive backpack on my shoulders that was so heavy it had me working against gravitational forces. . With wobbly knees and stomach churning, I kissed my boyfriend goodbye and boarded the plane. It was my first trip outside Europe, and my first trip solo.
36 hours later, I found myself in a wooden dormitory in the Indonesian jungle!
Cikananga is a small Indonesian village located in the hills of West Java. The next big city is Sukabumi about 100 km south of the national capital, Jakarta. The Cikananga Wildlife Centre is a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of wildlife and its habitat in Indonesia by supporting the government with law enforcement.
Lying under my mosquito net and listening to all kinds of sounds - barking dogs, chirping crickets and the Call to Prayer from the Imam of the mosque in next village I felt both nervous and excited about how tomorrow - my first day - would be. 24 hours later, my concerns had all vanished. The first sunbeams had touched my face whilst, in a group of volunteers, we were cutting up fruits for bears, cassowaries and other endangered species, together with other volunteers.
Because of illegal wildlife trade and habitat destruction, there is a steadily increasing number of confiscated and rescued animals which need a temporary home. It was our job to feed them up and rehabilitate them, before returning them to the wild.
I spent three wonderful weeks at Cikananga filled with joy, meaningful work and happiness. Every day I was supporting a different local animal keeper and because every keeper has his own field, I was able to see different aspects of the programme and work with primates as well as eagles.
In addition to the workout the station, the centre also runs awareness and education programs, and wildlife training for schools and the local citizens which is also an important factor in animals conservation. All of the people working for Cikananga give their best every day and over the years, a total of 3,750 animals have been rescued.
When not working, I was able to go on jungle tours to massive waterfalls, where I could see wild monkeys jumping about, then hike back through local caves. I loved talking to the people in the centre and walking out into their rice fields at sunset, before I eating local food cooked by the wife of one the keepers. I also had the chance to celebrate Indonesian National Day with the whole village at Cikananga - traditional food, music and rituals. I made friends not just as contacts in my phone but true friends - I am still in touch with some of them.
When my time in the camp ended, myself and a few fellow volunteers took the train to Jakarta. Back in civilisation, I enjoyed my first hot shower of three weeks. Then it was off to Yogyakarta, a quiet and clean city in central Java. I visited the impressive Prambanan Hindu temple complex and enjoyed the atmosphere, recharging my batteries before I left for Batu Karas, a small, sleepy fishing village for one of my favourite activities - surfing.
Citumang near Batu Karas is a lush, green valley with natural pools and caves, in which the river flows through. I also had the most delicious fish meal of my entire life there.
After five amazing weeks, I took a twelve-seater plane at a hidden jungle airport back to Jakarta before hunting out my passport once more. With my backpack even heavier, full of dirty laundry and amazing impression, I returned home. It was a trip that I'll never forget.
For more information about volunteering at the Java centre, take a look at their website at: http://www.cikanangawildlifecenter.com.