Behind this tall intimidating figure (to most Asians), lies a heart that warms all human souls.
He has been travelling around the world and, with lack of a better word, “faith” has brought him to our humble Biji-biji Factory in Klang.
In this short one month period that we were able to host him, he has made a lasting impact not just on Biji-biji Factory, but in our daily lives.
He sat down with us to talk about his origins, journey and travels around Malaysia, and his experience on what it was like working at Biji- biji Factory and how it changed his perspective, while spending his last remaining days in Malaysia.
Z: Introduction name, where are you from (something interesting about you)
N: My name is Nikolai, originally from Russia but I lived for a long time in Estonia before I started travelling. First I travelled to Europe, then I decided to go south and that's how I came to Malaysia. Most of the time I was volunteering somewhere because it’s a nice way to learn about the country and to get to know the country. When you’re just a tourist, you only see the touristic side of the country and when you volunteer you get to stay with the local people,work with the local people, eat together. That is how you get to know about the country. One of the places I wanted to stay was Kuala Lumpur and that is why I am here, and because it has an airport! I started from the north, spent 3 weeks in Langkawi, then and moved down to Penang, then Gopeng in Perak, and now in Kuala Lumpur. I'll be leaving the country from Kuala Lumpur Airport, so I thought it would be logical to get to the airport from Kuala Lumpur.
Z: Did you do any volunteer work when you were in Penang, Langkawi or Gopeng?
N: Yes of course! I volunteered in all the places I stayed. In Langkawi, I stayed on a charter boat, where they provide boats to be chartered for people who wants to experience sailing.
Z: Do you have any experience in sailing before?
N: No, and actually, I lived on the boat for 2 weeks. The boat captain and the owner had some organisation issue and needed to renew his license so actually we did not sail we were just about 1KM from the shore and we repair and maintain the boat. It was quite nice, but unfortunately no real sailing.
N: In Penang, I stayed at the Hare Krishna Temple which was a very nice place and very kind people (mostly an Indian community). Most of the time I would wash pots, sweep the floors and of course, I got to see how the temple works from the inside. I stayed in the temple complex which includes the temple itself, because no one stays in the temple. There are few buildings in the complex like the meeting hall, conference hall and classroom where they arrange their teachings. Then there's a special building where all the Monks and people who work at the temple live.
Z: How did you found out about this place?
N: On the "Work Away" site. All these places that I went I knew from Work Away. I have been doing it for 4 years and I find it very useful. Maybe they will reduce my annual fee for this advertisement.
Z: Oh, so that's how it works?
N: No no, that was a joke!
Z: What was your perception about Malaysia before you came here?
N: I did not have much perception, other than a lot of things are made in Malaysia! In Europe, I see it’s like the second to China. Things made in Malaysia are considered to have good quality in Europe. I know Kuala Lumpur is a big city, that's all I knew about Malaysia. In the plane, I read about Malaysia, but I did not read much because I prefer to have a personal experience and impression. I like the climate in Malaysia; it is very warm. I like the people here;they are open, friendly. People here smile back when you smile at them.
Z: Do you see this in most of the countries that you go?
N: It is different. Generally in the North, they are more reserved, but it does not mean they are bad people. They smile less, they are a bit more serious and maybe that is just how the climate influences the people, their character and their personality.
Z: Is it hard for you to get used to the warm weather?
N: No. Maybe because I did it gradually because the first two weeks I was here was on the boat which was about 1KM away from the shore and we had wind all the time surrounded by the refreshing sea, so it is not that hot on the boat. So I don't really feel it is too hot but it is warm of course.
Z: Any Funny/ Weird experience you encountered?
N: Not much actually, I did not have any problems for the past 3 months I've been here even I did not have any serious cultural differences. When you are not rude to the people, do not misbehave and everything will be ok. You treat people well, people will treat you well, that is how I look. Respect for respect, that works everywhere.
Z: You mentioned that the first phrase you learn in Malaysia was domestic flight in Malay. What was the next one phrase you’ve learned ?
N: The next one was, I asked a man on the plane "how do you say thank you in Malaysia?" That is how I learned "Terima Kasih". Then I started learning basic phrases but unfortunately, I can't learn much because everybody will try to speak english with me, so I don't have a lot of opportunities.
Z: What is it like in a day working in biji biji factory ? Walk me through the process
N: Usually I'll be getting up early, because I am just used to waking up early around 6 am, then I would do some physical exercises, sometimes a bit of yoga and meditation, because I need to clear my mind before starting the day.
Z: Are the projects you do here follows the schedule?
N: Yes and no, well if there is something that Biji-biji needs to be done, then we do it. Like when Biji-biji wants us to make a Christmas tree, we just stop doing everything else and just start making this Christmas tree. Otherwise, we will try to improve the facilities, minor repairing such as making the roof and stairs safer. We do what we can to make our life more a bit more safe and comfortable.
Z: Is there any favourite tools or machine?
N: Not really, and I just learned to weld, but what I like is the general approach by Biji-biji where if you need some skill, you just go and learn the skill, so this is very good, and a big advantage of Biji-biji. Here you can learn whatever skill you need, you have instructors, tools and the opportunity to learn it safely, in a safe environment so you will not get injured or injure anybody which is very important.
Z: Is there any machine that you would like to try and use?
N: I wanted to at least try and weld something, so I learned it today maybe I will have more opportunities these few day while I'm still here. Also, I wanted to learn gas cutting and gas welding so maybe there will be an opportunity, or maybe not, so maybe I will have to come here again. (laughs)
Z: What is the best part of working here, what makes Biji-biji so special?
N: The best part of working here in Biji-biji is the atmosphere, the environment the people here created, so the people are the best part because, people here know what they want to do so they make you think about what you want to do. It is important because it gets you out of the routine so instead of just living and following the flow, you start to think "what will I make if I have the opportunity”. This is not readily available in your head because when you were 5 years old, you have millions of ideas of what you want to make, but now you have to revive the child in yourself to think "if I were a magician what will I make".
Z: I like what you said when we were in the monthly meeting last week, about being a boy in a toy shop.
N: Yea! Because boys often like machines creaking and screaming and the welding’s hisses and the water jet machine going "woooo" while cutting, so it is really good.
Z: Is there any funny or special memories when you are in Biji-biji?
N: I don't know whether or not this is considered funny, it is like a state of mind, where you will always feel good here, because this is a place where dreams come true and you just have one dream after another and everyone seems to be always in a good mood here because they are doing what they want to do.
Z: What is the biggest challenge you had so far working here?
N: The biggest challenge is to understand what I want to do. I was not expecting this, which isn’t usual in a Work Away place, the people already know what they want and will tell you what to do. When I came here it was just like make whatever you think is good. My first week I spent helping people with their project, making the place clean and clear. I did not want to waste the resources doing unnecessary things. If I want to make something it should be something that Biji-biji needs, and to know what Biji-biji needs you need to understand what is going on first. So my first week I was just looking around and found out that there were unsafe stairs, roof. So first I decided to make a safer ladder .Then we thought we could use some exercise equipment so we put a pull-up bar there and the parallel bar where you can do some minor training. Now my friend is painting it nice and bright. Then we found that the kitchen may need a little bit of improvement. After all that we think that we can improve the roof and make like a lounge where people can stay and have party and just come to hang-out, talk and socialise. That is how it goes here, step-by-step and one thing follows another.
Z: Is it hard for you to find what do you want to do here?
N: Not now, but yes you need some time to understand what is going on, to look around and see what people do and the processes and what can be improved in the facilities. And when you understand the place, it is very easy to know what you need to do as you can see what the people need and stuff.
Z: Is there any upcoming or ongoing projects you want to share?
N: Yes, of course, we are hoping that when I leave, the work on the roof will continue where we will plant some plants that will grow hopefully some flowers to make the place look nice and smell nice and some berries so it could be eaten when we spend time there. We need some furniture, some tables for the roof, for some party or for evening socialising, where volunteer or guys from Biji-biji to rest. We also need to improve the kitchen a bit because now it is small and install some shelf and cupboards, need to repair the water system and we have to repair the toilets here which are not very convenient. Then we need to get some better lightings for the office and do some arrangements because now it is not very comfortable to work in right now. There are a lot of things that can be improved here, it is a nice place but it can be better!
Z: One month is a quite short period of time for all these projects.
N: Yes and no, actually when you know what to do you can do a lot. It is just that maybe you need some time to understand how things work here. Maybe this place will need a manager who would set the direction what has to be done and set priorities. But then it would be different here because now there is a complete freedom and I am not sure if that is what Biji-biji wants.
Z: Where is your next destination?
N: New Zealand, the first month I will be staying in a Yoga temple. There is a temple dedicated to Yoga, near Auckland. According to Work Away they have quite a nice place near the ocean. When I contacted them they said that they need help with cutting old and planting new trees so I think I will spend a good month with a chainsaw and doing Yoga at the same time. So I am very enthusiastic about this and I think I will enjoy it. Actually, after that, I do not know where I will go but the plan is to spend one month in Auckland, and then go south stay in a few place then go back up north to Auckland because I'm leaving from Auckland.
Z: How long are planning to travel?
N: I do not know, as long as I have my health and money, but actually I do not have any money, I try to earn some money along the way and I work through the internet, I earn a bit of money all the time, we will see, mainly it is my health is the limit, but I know for sure, in 2 years which is 2019, I have to be in Estonia because my passport will expire at the time. So at least one year and a half more.
Z: Are you going to be travelling just around Asia?
N: I don't know, I will see, I try not to look very far ahead because plans are almost never fulfilled.
Z: How do you decide where you want to go?
N: Through Work Away, and I'll just check where I go from where I am the a cheap price and have free Visa.
Z: Anything you want to tell the people and Biji-biji.
N: If it was my place, I would arrange Biji-biji a little bit differently, but it is your company, so do it your way.
Z: That is about it, thank you, and good luck on your travels.
N: Thank you very much.