Sunday, 17 September 2017

The warm embrace

I was on my way to resume life in Asia as I had just completed my studies up in Scotland. In my journey to find food, I found Bario, one much closer to home, Singapore. The jetlag that followed me through my travels into Bario quickly vanished as I was welcomed by the Twin Otter plane, with a sight I could never imagine… I could see the pilots! Also, the scenery through the window panel of dense forestry and countless hills, were beyond my wildest dream.

Boarding Twin Otter plane (15 seater)

The vast land of Borneo under our feet :)

During my time in Bario, I was tasked with carrying out data-collection of the cultivation of Bario rice under a collaborative project between WHEE and SEACON. It was a privilege to come close to the land and to work with a community. In a village that relies heavily on its rice income, where wet paddies filled the scenery far and beyond, it was indeed a refreshing sight.

There were some experiences that had made my stay special and I would like to mention some.

Hanging out with Malaysians, having a life time of fun
There are no borders in friendships and it is simple: have fun and enjoy the ride together. The laughters that filled the long house, the occasions when we braved through the storm especially during our first day when we trekked the Tree of Life trail and enjoying our little break times at the cafĂ© for some brain freeze. They were indeed special moments which forged a special bond and friendship throughout the trip and beyond. Although we may differ in background and ethnicity, everyone was genuine and supportive of one another. This made me ponder on the kind of society I hope to live in, one that enriches, invokes passion, supports, and embraces differences. I hope that this would steer towards elevating the community to be a better kind and a safe place to dream.

Frisbee session in the sawah, rice paddy field, thoroughly refreshing!

ABC (Bario Ice Kacang)

Time with Kelabit culture and attachment with Tepuq

I was assigned to Tepuq Bulan and Daud during my working days. My first encounter with them was filled with worry, that my little knowledge of Bahasa Melayu would restrict my communication. However, the worry dispelled after knowing that the language barrier wasn’t an issue and we broke into long conversations through the first night. They are great people and hearing their story on why they chose to retire in Bario because of their love for the land, amazed me. Furthermore, many other strong and resilient locals whom I met throughout the project, have special experiences with the land and still play active roles in caring and growing Bario.

On our final day, we celebrated the occasion with Cultural Night where the villagers were invited to a meal and while enjoying performances. As we did the Kelabit dance, we spurred one another with words of encouragement. The tepuqs' hands were always warm for an embrace and showered us with their love and care. Their warm receival of us, even though we are not related by any ties or relation, was precious. My heart felt so full that day I could hardly contain it all. It brings me back to a lesson from nature, that the land has always provided us with natural resources, yet it seems to be still in abundance afterwards. I was raised in a society which taught me to defend and accumulate things for a certain future. In that context, it is hard to see giving as a demonstration of strength. The amount of appreciation and effort that comes with giving become so apparent that they would last for eternity with a smile each day. This is a great empowerment for us and the community.

Wefie with Tepuq Bulan in the paddy field!

Cultural night in the long house

In closure, I would say that my WHEE experience ignited within me a new hope, that there is something to love and strive for. A better community through warm embrace and sincerity. Also, the preservation of cultural heritage (in this context, Kelabit) is important for us to remember valuable lessons from the past, to be wiser in our choices for the present and the future. Thank you Project WHEE for such a extra-ordinary experience in Malaysia, a country with vibrant diversity of many ethnics.

Signing off,
John Ng

Kau tau betapa ku sayang tepumu?

Walking behind my tepuq as we made our way slowly but surely towards the fields, through treacherous muddy buffalo trails with piles of poop and steep jungle tracks; all I could do was to try not to slip each time I took a step forward. It was undeniable that the locals here were super humans, taking these trails daily to the rice fields that provided for them year after year. However my heart sank each time I watched my 80 year old tepuq made that trip, and it sank a little more each time I walked away.

I never expected to bond with her as much as we did over the short five days that we had together. Our relationship started off like any new working partners, foreign and a little awkward. Neither of us were big talkers, that made day one in the fields silent with a tinge of apprehensiveness. I remember thinking “Data collection is going to be a bigger challenge than I thought, or any sort of communication even!”

Our entire relationship was placed on fast-forward, including the warming up to each other. Tepuq was not a person of many words, but what she lacked in words she made up a hundred foe in her actions. She brought way too much food to the fields, ensuring that I was never hungry, even giving me snacks to take back with me even though she knew that I was going straight to lunch right after. She brought boiled eggs each day, and something told me that she doesn’t usually boil eggs because the first time she brought them mine was half boiled and exploded all over me. She was embarrassed and apologizing for her cooking saying ‘Tepuq tidak pandai masak ini’, but I just smiled and slurped the whatever egg I could salvage from the bits of shell I had. The egg boiling improved over time as each day the egg was a little more solid, and on my final day the egg was perfectly hard boiled! She kept giving and giving and all I could do was accept it with a grateful heart. She would stop me from working every so often only to say ‘minum!’ which meant ‘drink’. She would make little comments about how I was not covered up enough from the scorching sun that proved to be a lot closer to us than usual for we were in the highlands. She kept saying ‘nanti balik ibu bapa tanya kenapa tanam padi jadi hitam?’, worrying that my parents would wonder why I was burnt from my work in the fields.

She would often comment on how I wasn’t allowed to spend more time with her, a mere 5 hours a day in comparison to the 8 hours she had with participants of the previous batches. After explaining to her the first time that we were on a completely different program and schedule, I came to realize that she was saying it out of affection more than actual questioning. This added to my weighted heart as I made my slow, slippery hike back to the village each day.  

She mentioned to me that she had told her husband who was working in Miri how she acquired a new ‘grandchild’ a.k.a me, who was following her around in the rice fields helping her with the planting. This was such a random thing to tell me but it warmed my heart through and through, for it was recognition of sorts from my stoic tepuq.

It was strange and interesting to see everyone grow more protective of their tepuqs, and it became almost competitive in a subtle game of what I like to call “my tepuq is better than yours”. It was sweet to observe the different dynamics between the each ‘tepuq’ and their ‘cucu’. You’re not just accepted into the community there, but you gain a new family.

Bario surprised me with lots of tears, pineapple and rice. Saying goodbye to my tepuq was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, as I did not expect to develop an emotional attachment to that degree. My heart breaks a little every time I think of my tepuq all alone in the fields, working slowly each day in silence.

Thank you Bario for Tepuq Supang, and thank you Tepuq, for sharing your Bario with me.

With love, Sigang

The Ultimate Kampung Workout

Have you ever thought, “I would love to join WHEE as a batch member, but I’m going to lose all my gains and my workout routine will never see the light of day while I’m there!” Well worry no further for there is a solution for you! Yes you! That 5 times a week gym rat who admires himself/herself in the mirror whilst lifting free weights, and gives him/herself an imaginary pat on the back for benching that 120! I’m talking to you!

Introducing the ultimate kampung workout….*drumroll*


Run agility drills and full body HIIT workouts right in your neighbourhood sawah! The knee high mud adds resistance like you wouldn’t believe, and the sticky slippery mud forces core and quad engagement just to stand up straight without falling over. It is the perfect strength and conditioning program!

Here are a few suggested workout programs that are perfect for the sawah:
  • Sawah frisbee
  • Sawah sprints
  • Sawah squats
  • Sawah squat jumps
  • Sawah rugby
  • Sawah wrestling
  • Sawah captain ball

Here are a few suggested recovery workouts/light cardio:
  • Climb Prayer mountain (full body workout, and if you want a real challenge, climb it bare footed)
  • Go jungle trekking with Uncle Julian (quads engagement with slight upper body)

  • Plant rice with your tepuqs (excellent for strengthening the lower back and quad)

  • Discover buffalo trails and try not to slip (excellent balance and core training)

  • Playing ‘the floor is lava’ at the salt lick (agility training)

  • Pick pineapples (Bicep workout)

  • Chase/terrorize ducks and chickens (The more arm flapping you do, the more you engage your rotator cuffs and your scapula)

  • Ngarang (fantastic core and lower body workout)

  • Giving your tepus massages (works your extensors and flexors)

  • Carrying pineapples and rice (basically free weights, literally and figuratively)

The possibilities are endless! And if you are feeling brave? Challenge Uncle Julian to a wrestling match in the sawah.

Ask any fitness expert and they will tell you that stretching is THE MOST important part of every workout. Well while you're stretching out those sore muscles, it is the perfect time to tend leech and bloodsucker bites! Talk about multi-tasking!

Another secret to good fitness and to being happy and content with life is SLEEP!

If you try out any combination of workouts presented above, we guarantee you will sleep soundly. Exhibit A:


Monday, 8 May 2017

Bario, a different type of ‘kampung’

What comes to your mind when the word ‘kampung’ (village) is mentioned? For me, my impression of a ‘kampung’ was based on my grandma’s house in Batu Pahat, Johor. There are water and electricity supplies, telecommunication and adequate road access. With the inevitable urbanization, shophouses, McDonald's, and 7-11 are set up nearby. What I understood from the word ‘kampung’ was a place with fewer cars, lower Internet speed, and lots of trees.

My time in Bario was really an eye-opener. It was my first time witnessing the abundance of the Borneo rainforests. I could see the transition in development through the topography. There are more shophouses and buildings erected in Miri. As the plane slowly approached inland, the terrain changed from flat land to mountains, and along with it the settlements and buildings decreased. I also witnessed the green lung in Borneo and the vast areas of rainforests was seriously no joke. 

The view from the MASwings plane on the way to Bario
Upon arriving in Bario, there was no highway, no tarred roads or road lines. There were just cemented road, and some of the roads were mud road approximately 3 meters wide. Although it appeared as if there was no strict enforcement of road regulations, all the road users, pedestrians and motorists alike, paid attention to each other and used the roads in a harmonious manner. 

One of the cement roads in Bario
Although the designs of each unit of the longhouse varied and do not follow a standard design, nevertheless the residents live in an orderly manner. They rely on each other if anything happens. I could also see the trust among the community members, something uncommon today.

Not to forget, there is a practice among the Bario community which is to wave at each other. I was assigned with Tepuq Lun Anid and her paddy field was walking distance from our homestay, I always walked to the paddy field with her in the mornings and back to our homestay alone during lunch break. Even during the times when I walked alone, the locals would always wave at me. Although they could have been greeting me out of courtesy or tradition, I enjoyed the feeling. It felt inclusive and I felt as though I was treated as another local from Bario. 

Daily walks with Tepuq to her paddy field
As I was tasked with collecting data and information on the paddy farming systems in Bario during my time in the Bario: Growing Food, Sustaining Culture project, I had to work with Tepuq in the paddy fields. I spent five days in the paddy field helping her to harvest the ripen paddy grains while carrying out my task. Working in the paddy field requires a lot of bending. However, every time when I looked up, I kept getting surprised by the landscape and scenery. The vast blue skies and clouds surrounding the mountains were like a gift from heaven. 

Tepuq Lun Anid’s paddy field, with her little hut!

A different type of ‘kampung’ has been added to my knowledge after spending time in Bario. Bario is unique; it shares some similarities with other villages yet the Kelabits preserve and maintain their culture in a good condition. One lesson to myself is to always minimalise my impact to a community. Regardless of being a tourist or a volunteer in a community, I believe we should preserve the authenticity of a community's culture. 

Monday, 17 April 2017

Bario and Me

“Should I go? Maybe I should stay home.”

One night before our Bario trip, I was battling with a very difficult decision - to go or not to go. I had gotten a bad throat infection (tonsillitis) three days before the trip and my condition was getting worse. I called Rhon (our mama boss) to get her advice - she encouraged me to go and gave assurance that there is a clinic available in Bario if I needed more medical attention and most importantly, the 10-day experience would be unforgettable.

So I went, and yes, Bario, was amazing.

In 10 days, I met so many new people, forged great friendships with my batchmates and the Tepuqs (respected elders), learnt about the Kelabit culture, understood the problems associated with traditional paddy farming and ultimately, experienced the village life in Bario which has changed my perspective towards life.

There are too many things to say and write about Bario. For this post, I’ll cover my five favorite memories and takeaways:

1. Mountains, Clouds, Land, Breeze - Nature’s Wonder
Bario evening scenary_.jpg
The evening sky on our first day in Bario

It was our first day in Bario and I was already blown away by the beauty of this place. Because I was not in my best condition, I had to opt out on many farming activities that my batchmates were doing and rest at the homestay. In other words, for a few days, I was spending my mornings and afternoons staring at the sky. Yup, just staring and staring and staring... Until someone shouts, “Jien Yue, we’re back!”.

BUT HEY, the view was absolutely breathtaking. I loved the alone time spent looking at God’s wonder - it gave me so much peace, helped me think about life from different perspectives. How nice it would be if I could wake up every morning to such a beautiful sight!

2. A Heart of Gratitude  
Living in the city, many times we take things for granted. Many of us do not even know where our food is produced or how difficult it is to grow them; we just eat. Sometimes we even complain that the food we have doesn't taste good and stop eating them.

What surprised me in Bario was how everyone in the village was grateful for the food placed on the table. I remember when we arrived, Tepuq Sinah Rang (our homestay host) had all of us hold hands to say grace, giving thanks to God for the food. A few days in, she taught us to sing the song - “Aku Mengucapkan Syukur” (in English it means “I Give Thanks”) it was really catchy and all of us sang it happily before most of our meals.

Blowing fire (1 of 1).jpg
Tepuq Sinah Rang roasting wild boar for dinner

The simple act of giving thanks before our food reminded me to always be appreciative and grateful of what we have - our food, our health, our family, our friends, our homes and our lives.

3. Fully Engaging in the Present  
There was no internet connection where we stayed; hence, my batchmates and I had to live without Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and WhatsApp for 10 days (difficult for a millennial). The beauty of disconnecting from technology was the bond formed while connecting with one another, face-to-face.

During our free time, all of us would sit down for hours talking, jamming, singing songs, exchanging experiences and lessons learnt on the field. It was amazing how much we have grown to be closer and comfortable with each other through the time spent together. We have also bonded immensely with the Tepuqs by working alongside them in their respective paddy fields and listening to their interesting life stories during meal times.

Having breakfast with Tepuqs on our second last day in Bario (Photo credits: Project WHEE)

There was so much happiness when we were fully engaged in conversations and jokes without distractions from technology. It dawned upon me that the key to happiness isn’t in wealth or material things; it is in having great relationships with people you care about through spending quality time together.

4. Always Better to Give than to Receive
In the business world, nothing comes free. When we give, we are taught to expect something in return. I came from a finance background and the concept of having good “return on investment” is a key requirement for any decisions - often times, helping someone comes with an ulterior motive. In Bario, people are so genuine with one another and there isn’t anything like this.

I was amazed by how the villagers helped one another in so many ways. For example, when someone in the long house catches a wild boar, the owner would share the meat so everyone gets a piece of the catch. When farming, they would help one another with planting or harvesting so the pace of getting things done is faster.

Receiving souvenirs from Tepuq Bulan Radu on cultural night (Photo credits: Project WHEE)

On our final night, we had a time of appreciation where us volunteers presented small tokens from KL to our respective Tepuqs. Instead, it was the Tepuqs who were blessing us generously with the fruits of their hard labour. We went home with bags of rice, salt, pineapples, pineapple jams, and a beautiful piece of Kelabit necklace known as “Kaboq”. They gave without reservations and Tepuq Bulan Radu told me she found great joy in doing so.

5. Love and be Loved
I remember during the introductory meet-and-greet session on our first night, Tepuq Sinah Rang gave a welcome speech saying how grateful she was to have nine of us from KL visiting and helping them with farming activities. She said, we aren’t just volunteers; we are like grandchildren sent from Heaven. Instantly, the Bario Asal (the long house we stayed in) community took us in like family and showered us with so much love and care.

With Tepuq Sinah Rang in her traditional Kelabit head gear

When Daniel, our Project Coordinator, told the Tepuqs I wasn’t in my best shape, instantly, Tepuq Bulan Radu took me to the clinic for a checkup - she made sure I had proper medical attention and was always hydrated. Tepuq Sinah Rang cooked porridge for me so my throat could heal faster and Tepuq Ratu made lemon water for me to make me feel better. They cared for me like their very own child and I was truly touched by their love.

A picture with the Tepuqs on cultural night (Photo credits: Project WHEE)

When we were leaving Bario, many tears were shed and I believe it is because of the bond formed through love over 10 days. There was a feeling of sadness leaving the place but a greater joy of getting to know these amazing, genuine and loving Tepuqs. When I hugged them goodbye, I know one day I’ll be back to visit again.  

Words could only express so much, the rest are left to be experienced personally. If you are thinking whether you should sign up for the upcoming project, do it! Trust me, you will gain so much more than you expect. Bario has left a mark on me and will always have a place in my heart.