Yesterday, Kuala Lumpur sweated under an unforgivingly blazing sun with a temperature in the shade of 35°C or 95°F. I was comfortably seconded in my air-conditioned room when suddenly there was an electric power blackout in my neighbourhood. I tried carrying on working but the heat was so oppressive and I was sweating buckets. Finally I gave up, backed up my books and set off for a nearby shopping mall which was not affected by the blackout and beckoned with air conditioning and a Starbucks.
However on the way there, I passed a house that was undergoing major renovation and I was attracted by the sound of a wall being brought down by heavy blows from a sledgehammer. When I looked, I saw this worker wielding the sledgehammer, sweating in the merciless heat with the sun’s rays beating down on him. I was amazed that he was working under such terrible conditions but then I realised that he probably had no choice and that working under the hot noon sun was pretty much the norm for construction workers in Malaysia. It really made me appreciate the fact that I was privileged that I could do my work in air-conditioned comfort.
But that was not always the case. I had paid my dues too early in my working career. It brought to mind some of my worst or most difficult jobs.
Probably the job that was the most physically draining was when I had to do microbiological water quality testing in pioneer villages. Malaysia went through a period in the late 1970s and 1980s when large tracts of rain forest were cleared to create palm oil plantations. These were called FELDA schemes and consisted of large areas, often ten’s of kilometers wide. The people who were tasked to plant the recently cleared land were housed in pioneer villages and were clearly a hardy bunch.
These villages consisted of small two roomed wooden houses; each on a small piece of land and in the early days there was a dug well or a pump well providing water for up to 6 houses. My job was to collect water from these wells, carry out a number of microbiological tests (some on the site and some later in a field laboratory) and to carry out a survey with those that use that well water.
But these newly cleared forests were basically devoid of any vegetation or any form of shade. The sun would beat relentlessly down on the red laterite soil, baking the earth until it cracked. Negotiating the undulating landscape which was also crossed by deep ditches was very difficult in the unrelenting heat and lack of shade. Add to that, I had to carry about 20 kg of equipment and water samples from one well to another. Typically, I would visit 20 wells a day which was roughly equivalent of walking about 3-4 km a day in those conditions.
On the other hand, there was also no relief when it rained. While it was a relief not to have the sun beating down on us, movement was made even more difficult and sometimes dangerous because the rain makes the landscape into a quagmire of mud and slippery surfaces.
Part of the work also required me to carry out a visible survey of the pit toilets in the outhouses in the villages and suffice to say that many of these outhouses were in nauseatingly bad condition; worse if you had to actually use them.
Such was the nature of the work that I had to face three days of being baked or alternatively drowned in that barren landscape for up to 10 hours a day. Add to that about another 3 hours of work in makeshift field laboratories in the evening.
That was probably the most physically demanding job that I ever did. No doubt some of you, dear readers, have done far worse. Care to share?