Initially it had already been pretty obvious which module I would choose for the EXCEL programme: Chek Jawa’s nature walk, of course! I had not expected, however, the twist on having to lead public guests around Chek Jawa, must less inform them on the panorama that we would see. I had thought that it would merely be an informational trip for myself, which, in many ways, it was still, but part of the lessons I picked up were indeed from being able to help the general public learn for themselves as well!
In preparation for the on-the-job training (OJT), Mr Loh helped me to understand what exactly we were expected to do on the trip i.e. guide guests through the nature conservatory, a brief history of the place (though it was not very brief; Chek Jawa, although small, is a little hideaway that’s gone through quite a lot of twists and turns! The very tenacity of the reserve is also part of the mystique that draws the public to itself in the first place) as well as giving me a short summary on the wildlife we would have to find there.
This was, admittedly, a bit of a culture shock for me as, being a non-Biology student, I found myself having to memorize quite a bit of scientific information for the first time in a whole year; the more intimidating thing was having to regurgitate all that information to aid guests in understanding the area, but not doing so in such a way that I sounded like I had eaten a textbook! However, it was a stimulating process due to the fact that I have always been interested in wildlife, and the fact that you CAN find such jewels of nature in a cosmopolitan city like Singapore made me sit up and take better notice!
First Field Trip
The first field trip I had allowed me to test out some of my newfound knowledge on our guests, which included a family with children that were, to my utter shock, so much more informed about biological life than I was! My first fellow guide and trainer was Mr Loh himself, so I had no qualms about letting him take the lead in walking everyone through the area. One of the most important skills I learnt that day that is commonly underestimated in our world was the skill of LISTENING. Really, listening allows you to tune in into the natural world so easily. During both the field trip and the OJT trip, there were many instances in which all we had to do for the wildlife to come to life around us was simply to stand stock still for several moments, and voila! Mudskippers, tree climbing crabs, and weaver ants galore!
Mudskippers that have the best camouflage skills of any animal I’ve ever seen, in my opinion, at least!
A tree climbing crab, with his (not too big) claw!
Also, listening helped me with regards to the non-naturalistic world as well! Because I was in the same group as another trainer, Pei Yan, before I joined Mr Loh’s group, I had managed to pick up certain useful snippets to bring to my new audience! When Mr Loh tried to explain the significance of the name Chek Jawa, I cheerfully interjected, “It means Uncle Jawa, or uncle from Java! Chek means uncle, anyway.” Then, holding the suspense a little longer before releasing it, I grinned and said, “Nah, I’m not smart, I just over heard the other group before I came over.” A round of laughter greeted my cheeky admission, but I’m sure we all grew to understand just how powerful listening is in helping us to form connections between what we see and what we’ve learnt about the world!
Through the first field trip I was also able to forge meaningful connections with the general public, whether it was through simply looking out for their welfare like I would have looked after the welfare of my House as Captain, or whether it was joining the children in their search for new creatures in the environment around us, or whether it was talking to the adults and appreciating their foresight in bringing their children to Chek Jawa to ruminate on Mother Nature as opposed to letting them sit at home, playing computer games, or going to the arcade or some such technologically inclined pastime. The first field trip allowed me to fully reflect on my role as a councilor in school, and whether what I did both in and out of school were different – would I care for the general public any less than I did my House, or the general student body? I’m glad to say that I didn’t think so, but the next OJT trip helped to deepen said conviction.
This trip, which I remembered fairly better, was more stressful than I thought it’d be! Mainly because this time, I would be doing guiding for real, beside true guides who would be able to pick on whether the information I was giving to my audience was accurate or not. I was so afraid that it wouldn’t be! My fellow guide and trainer was Ivan, one of Mr Loh’s buddies, and I was dumbfounded at the sheer amount of information that he was feeding our guests. He was like an encyclopedia on legs! Which was why I found the skill of listening so invaluable once again – having been through Chek Jawa before, I thought I knew all there was worth knowing about the place, but foolish I was deeply mistaken! This time, I was one with the excited, spellbound guests as we listened to Ivan tell us about durian trees and fruit bats, about monitor lizards and their many “impostors” and cotton-leaf bugs and their “parties” and kingfishers with their bright plumage, as well as hawks with their razor eyesight and reflexes! I picked up nearly twice the amount of information than I had on the first trip!
Furthermore, I thought we were rather lucky on the second trip than on the first – this time, we got to see quite a number of more-than-interesting creatures in the flesh, such as the hornbill (which we missed the previous time) as well as two monitor lizards, toads, and even weaver ants at work! (The nest was right above my head and I hadn’t even noticed!) The hornbill was very much a stroke of luck; we were just turning to leave the hornbill’s nest when all of a sudden, a ‘klaklaklaklak’ sounded and we turned back to see a magnificent male hornbill investigating the perch for his mate! Such sightings of hornbills are rare because they prefer solitude and quiet places where humans will not disturb them, and it was a great privilege to be able to witness one at work.
Also, the trip was a good chance for me to put my improvisational skills to the test! Many a time I stumbled when it came to remembering specific figures or facts for my designated OJT parts, so I gave educated guesses to my audience on the spot – Ivan did not interrupt during these times so I assumed they weren’t that inaccurate or too far off the mark! Also, I found myself guiding parts of the trip that WEREN’T part of my OJT, such as when we passed the seagrass meadows and I found myself asking the audience, “What animals do you think feed on seagrass?” It was supposed to be Ivan’s job, but he was content to let me take over for some of these periods, which I found extremely encouraging, because it does take courage and quite a bit of faith to venture into such murky territory, especially when you are an ex-biologist who has not touched any Bio material in ages. I was grateful for Ivan’s guidance and gentle prompting when it was needed! And also, I was grateful for being able to improvise on the fly n order to making my guiding interesting to the public, such as when I started off my section on killer litter by saying, “All right folks, let’s take a look over here at this endangered species of jellyfish.” I pointed into the shallow water by the boardwalk and the guests laughed when they saw that it was a red plastic bag! It was an engaging hook to draw my audience into the magic of Chek Jawa and I was so inspired by the whole experience of it all!
Finally, being able to see the smiles on the faces of my tour audience really was the best part of the package. It was an unbelievable motivational boost when one of the elder women in the group, a lady that reminded me of my grandmother, turned to me when we were about to dismiss the group and said, “Thank you so much for guiding us, Wenxin.” She even remembered my name! I didn’t expect her to because I was simply tagging along for the ride as well, as Ivan had done most of the talking, but it made me realize that I had made a small difference in her life on a sunny Saturday at Chek Jawa, and that the difference had been significant enough that she would thank me for it. It really instilled in me the importance of my work as a councilor, and the obligation I had to the student body, especially my House, who knew me much better than these strangers did, and to whom I owed so much more: of my duty, my allegiance and my every single effort.