Thirty-five years ago, Paula Smith was teaching at a school in Sarawak that could only be reached by a three-hour boat trip along the Sadong and Kerang Rivers. Life as the only European teacher had its challenges, she recalls.

Hari Guru or Teachers' Day was celebrated each year with a holiday, an evening concert in the school hall, and sports competitions such as netball. One team game involved throwing raw eggs. The fields were so flooded I discarded my jandals and risked hookworm, slipping and sliding in the mud around the goalposts. One teacher asked: "So how is Teachers' Day in New Zealand, Miss Paula?" Interesting that we have more awareness of International Teachers' Day so many years later.

Sarawak river Paula Smith

From coastal Kuching to Paula's school was a three-hour boat trip along a meandering Sarawak river.

Morning school for seniors started at 7.15am and ended at 12.30. Afternoon school for juniors was 12.30pm to about 5.30. Some staff lived in town but most had quarters at the school. The school was the state's biggest co-ed for boarders. Outside the student dorms, washing was hung and, during the wet season, lines of bright umbrellas.

Words for crimes were all in English and interspersed in Bahasa Malaysia announcements were words like: "hard core", "dating" and "escape class".

Classrooms had no walls and every night, students had to sit and do prep or homework supervised by the boarding teachers. At Puasa or fasting time for the Muslim students (about half the school), there was the clatter of queuing for breakfast before daybreak. It was a big challenge for the rest of us not to eat in the staffroom in front of our Muslim colleagues.

One evening after sunset we were invited to break the fast with them with water and a special type of fried cake. I stayed in a kampong (camp) with a staff member for Hari Raya, the week of celebration after Puasa, and was overwhelmed by the hospitality as we visited houses for food and sticky drinks. "Come to my house,” strangers would call.

Apart from a lot of sweet drinks, the other challenge was washing at the public tap and wriggling out of a wet sarong under a dry one, while being solemnly watched by a line of little kids who had probably never seen a European up close before. I was never as adept as locals who could jump up and down and dance in sarongs. I always relied on a well- placed knot!

Big people

Anne McCarthy, a friend and volunteer physio in Kuching, would sometimes stay. My colleague, Noni, commented; "My mother says for people as big as you are, you don't eat very much."

We were certainly aware of how big and, particularly at first, sweaty we were compared with the small, neat locals. Once in a lift full of men I was the tallest. Back in New Zealand I felt as though I was in a land of giants.

Visits to the toilet while staying with a student and her family were always adventurous. The toilet was a separate structure high off the ground. The whole family watched anxiously as I climbed the rickety steps clutching my bucket of water and toilet paper brought from home, as it was a Muslim family. You tried to hang on in the night rather than involve everyone in a full scale expedition! 

Food delights

I loved the food and learned to make kari ayam or chicken curry, once gathering ferns and bamboo shoots with a friend to cook and eat (ferns are a bit slimy for my taste). The green pancakes filled with fresh coconut, and pancakes with crushed peanuts and sugar from the school canteen were delicious.

Once a colleague who had shot a monkey invited me to help him eat it. I tasted it to be polite and tried not to think about what I was eating. It was tough and stringy and tasted of nothing much except smokiness.

Recently my son travelled through Malaysia on his long way home from four years in Japan and called to ask what he should see and eat in mainland Malaysia. I waxed lyrical about laksa, nasi ayam, gula melaka and murtabak as more memories of my two years there came back. He returned an expert on laksa, comparing styles!

I haven't been back since I was pregnant with my son 27 years ago, apart from a visit to Kuala Lumpur en route to India. One day, though, I will return.