Monday, 3 September 2018

The story of how my pants got dirty #Bonding

“WHEE-we got your back!”


Long story short. We had tonnes of puns in our batch.


The trip started off just like any other social programs I attended - awkward “ice-breaking” games - many of them. I was worried, because I was skipping classes to participate in this trip, thankfully which turned out to be an extraordinary journey for me.

Flying on a small twin-engine turboprop, short-haul regional airliner - Maswings, for the first time, I was amazed. The expanse of beautiful scenery outside and the seats inside in the layer of a window felt so thin, and I vowed to be wide awake for the whole hour to relish the nature, the subtle hue of greenery propped up elegantly in the silhouette of the mountains - up and down and up again (pardon my extensive description, it was too breathtaking!).


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Beutiful view!


As I landed on Bario, I was, for once more, doomed. No wifi, no carrier service. It was a complete rural area that I did not expect. However, my anxious heart was then again warmed by a cup of Milo served in the airport. It was a rainy day. As my batchmates and I sat together, holding our hot drinks, surrounding a fluffy dog and patting it continuously, I found to be very reassured with these people.



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Credits to Clovey. The rice was superb!



As I thought it was going to be all good and smooth, I was not so right until the day we went hiking. No clear trails, spiky roots, bloodsucking leeches, some flaming plants, quicksands and a venomous snake (which I did not even recognize until our guide alerted us). It was a tough path, even worse, it rained heavily that day. To be honest, it was really (really) challenging, not because I was not akin to climbing (I climbed table mountain before, and I climbed along waterfall before too) and I was well equipped, but the randomness in the path we took, the velocity of the climb and the weather that took the experience to another level - to a level that we had to take care each other and bond with each other. In brief, in that climb, I dropped in the mud three times (at least), three leech spots, and ten spikes still stuck on my palm.


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The moment as I was falling into the paddy field. John was holding me. 


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My pants and shoes after pulling out; there was a lot of cleaning to do. * cries *
That closes my prior experience and how we bonded together in the first few days. More to come!

Monday, 16 July 2018

Into The Jungle!

Like any other day, we started our morning with breakfast, and then we were off to our
respective Tepuq or Sinah’s paddy field to start work. On my third day, I was fortunate enough to
be able to do a kind of different activity with Tepuq Bulan, which was to collect Isip leaves.
Definitely a chance for me to go into the jungle and have that excitement of being surrounded by
trees!
Me and Tepuq on the way to her kebun. 

The jungle (or eventually, Tepuq’s farm) was located to the east of Arur Layun which took around

20 minutes of walking. Walking in Bario was never boring as my eyes were continuously fed with
beautiful paddy fields, majestic mountain ranges, and bountiful green trees, and each of my steps
had that love-hate relationship with the muddy road.
As we neared Tepuq’s farm area, the pathway became muddier, the sound of cicadas played as
the background song for the jungle, and the smell of earth permeated the air due to the rain the
night before. We then crossed Pa’ Merariu (Merariu river) to get to the site of Isip leaves. Every
time I passed by the rivers in Bario, I was so happy that there were still rivers that are alive. Back
in my kampung, the river flow is almost inexistent due to improper usage of land that caused the
river to be filled with sediment. The sediment later caused the river to become smaller to the
point that it didn’t look like a ‘true’ river with water gushing along. My friend once told me a
story about his friend who showed him a river somewhere in West Malaysia. He was surprised
upon seeing the condition of the river and said, “That’s not a river! That’s a longkang!”
Not long after the successful river crossing, we reached the Isip leaves’ site together with our
coordinator, Glo, who at some point along the way expressed her discontentment of not wearing
an appropriate outfit for this trip because she hadn’t expected the jungle to be that thick
(Sorry Glo!). All of the Isip trees had been cultivated by Tepuq’s mother a long time ago. I had
never expected the trees to be taller than me. Well, that was a first time for me! Tepuq quickly
put her things down and started to chop the Isip leaves. For every Isip leaf that she cut down, I
had to slice the excess stalk, choose the healthy-looking Isip leaves, and put it in one place. Of
course, Tepuq’s work was much neater than mine.

Holding up Isip leaves that we harvested.

Throughout the collecting of
Isip leaves, I asked Tepuq for an example of the local kuih here.
(Shout out to my mom who ‘encouraged’ me to ask such questions whenever I visit any kampung).
Tepuq answered, “Senape. Kamu pernah rasa? (Senape. Have you tried?)”. I nodded. I realized that
many, in fact all, of local Sarawak foods (even Sabah) don’t include any coconut milk or spices,
which makes these kuih much healthier and which also, in my opinion, leads to longevity in life.
However, I must say that I do miss the spices in food after a while.

Cutting the stalk of 'daun Isip'.

The work doesn’t end at collecting
Isip leaves. Tepuq then brings lanau shoots to be cultivated
in the area surrounding the Isip leaves. I like the way Tepuq has organized her farm. ‘Normal’
farms usually have neat rows of vegetables, but Tepuq’s style is that she lets her vegetables grow
around the existing plants, and she will mark the place that she cultivated using fallen branches
so that she will recognize it in her future visits. I think this has been part of the tradition or local
knowledge passed down to Tepuq from her ancestors, and this way of cultivating plants ensures
the sustainability of land use, foods, and livelihood of the locals as a whole as opposed to a
monoculture as in oil palm plantations. Besides Isip and lanau, Tepuq also has yam and cassava in
her farm. She owns three to four durian trees which sadly didn’t bear many fruit this time around.
There were also mango trees which just smelled so nice that it reminded me of some Thai foods
and Tarap fruit, a species of fruit similar to cempedak and nangka, also known as Kiran in Kelabit.    
We slowly marched out once Tepuq was done with her work and ready to go for lunch! Going
with Tepuq to collect Isip leaves was a valuable and precious experience, and I don’t think I could
ever get this chance back in my kampong. It was also an insightful moment for me as much of local
knowledge has become more ‘unknown’ that people have taken it for granted. Looking forward to
doing this the next time!  

Many Paddy

Time with my Sina was probably one of the defining moments of my time in Bario. I had been a little apprehensive at first. "What if she doesn't like me?". This was quickly put to rest when I met her for the first time. I was in the middle of deciding if I should shake her hand or wave when she just went in and gave me a big motherly hug. It was then I knew that things would be okay. With her came along a family which worked for her and their son Alan, who had become something of an 'anak buah' of hers, staying with her over the weekends etcetera. Before long she had named me Bungan, and I had become another of her many "anak buah"s. 

Rocking the farmer look.

On my second day in the paddy field, I made the fatal mistake of trying to motivate Alan to out down his phone by telling him I would race him at planting the paddy. Staring me dead in the eyes, he grudgingly put down his phone, stood up lazily and... let's just say he wiped th floor with me. If I had been any less dignified, I would have fallen backward, sprawled in the mud, panting, in view of my utter defeat. However, because I am the "older sister" here I settled for just panting and laughing. Though I am proud to say that by the last day I could sort of keep up with him on a cold day (he hated the cold. Picture below to prove a point). All the while, Sina watching us from the shed near the fields... probably also having a good laugh... she laughs a lot. 


A cake with many layers. He said it was really cold.


I think the liveliness of it all gave my Sina great joy. She was always smiling at the chatter and commotion that went on. She would tell me where the water came from, what she did, the kinds of paddy she grew, how the different kinds of paddy differed in their characteristics, her husbanf and children who she missed, and telling me how I had improved from my first day at the paddy field which I hope she is still not chuckling about to the other Tepuq's and WHEE kids past and present. Apparently she had found it so amusing she had hailed Tepuq Supang whose fields were next to hers and recounted the story to her amidst fits of laughter. 

She would also talk about God's work and the ministry she strove to do for the Lord. That passion she had for people, gospel, Bario, and everything around was evident in every word, and every movement she made. If I were to describe one particular moment with her which I would cherish the most, it would be the day we spent about 3 hours cleaning the fields. It was quieter than the other says what with Alan and the rest of his family having gone home for the week. It was just two of us in the paddy field. So she played some music as we worked. It was fun planting the paddy and rocket launching weeds to the sides of the paddy field in time to the music played. 

WHEE planting many paddy


Being the youngest among all the farmers who took part in this project, it struck me how much she talked about the paddy fields going to waste, and how she was trying to the best of her capacity to keep the many paddy fields around her alive. It was obvious that  the paddy fields which were either so long unused that the grounds no longer sucked your feet in, and those that were a breeding ground for weeds and rats deeply saddened her. Paddy fields were not meant to go unused. Too many stories, friendships, families, and dreams have been built on those sawah's. 

To sum things up, if anyone would ask me how I would remember her from our short time together, it would be how relaxed and motherly she is, and how passionate she is for people and for the things she loves -- her Many Paddy Fields. This is because it was her passion for it that made me realise exactly how important the growing of rice is for Bario. It is not only as a source of income, but a way of life; more than money, it is happiness; more than idealistically fighting for preservation of tradition, but the right to be proud of their identity. 

Clovey Lye

Redefining the Meaning of Farewell

View of Bario town from Bukit Korea


I have always had this question or thought dwelling in my head throughout my life: What’s the point of making
new connections or establishing new friendships in the first place if farewells are inevitable?
I have always tried to keep in touch with people whom I have crossed path with—people who have impacted
me deeply and whose spot can never be filled by another person. Every time the moment comes to bid
goodbye to a family member or a group of friends that I grew close to, my heart aches silently. We can argue
that now, with technology, we can always keep in touch easily, but things are never going to be the same once
separated by distance and priorities changes. Even by keeping in touch, the feeling of emptiness and longing
will always be there.


During my stay in Bario, I somehow managed to put together the pieces to answer this question that I’ve
always had in my mind. Farewell is indeed inevitable in every relationship, but it is just momentary sadness.
Crying silently when someone leaves doesn't mean you don't want that person in your life, because you know
that person is going to continue in a direction different from yours. Separation from each others lives is not
going to stop me from embracing the moment and relationship and being thankful and grateful that we crossed
paths. What matters most is the moment spent together and the presence of loved ones that should be
embraced wholeheartedly.


My batchmates on our way back from Kampung Arur Dalan


When my flight took off from Bario, many tears were shed, and I believe it is because of the bond formed
through love over the 10 days. There was a feeling of sadness while leaving the place, but it was overcome
by the greater joy of getting to know these amazing, genuine, and loving people that I met through this journey.
My heart was filled with gratitude from memories created, lessons learnt, and the connections I had formed
throughout the 10 days.


Bario has reframed my perspectives on gratitude and contentment. The simple act of giving thanks before our
food reminded me to always be grateful and contented and also to be appreciative of what we have - food,
health, family and friends, and most importantly, our lives.

It made me realize that the key to happiness isn’t about chasing material wealth; it is in having great
relationships with people you care about through spending quality time together, which is something difficult to
attain in a busy world, especially in the corporate world.

Words can hardly express how I feel exactly; the rest are to be experienced personally. I am so glad that I went
as a volunteer instead of as a tourist as I have gained so much more than I had expected. Bario has left a mark
on me and will always have a special place in my heart.

Aw Mei Yin

Thursday, 14 June 2018

A Letter to Mak & Abah: From Bario with Love

This is an imaginary letter to my parents about Bario. They have never been to interior Sarawak before including the highlands, and hopefully through this imaginary letter, I can dream that they will be interested to visit Bario someday!

Dear Mak & Abah,
Hope both of you are doing great! I’m perfectly fine and enjoying the remaining days here in Bario.
I have lot to share with the two of you, and while I’m free now, I’d better write to you before I
forget the things that I want to say.
If Mak & Abah are wondering how big the Bario airport is, it isn’t. It is cute, and it is just perfect
for Bario. And the plane? Just as cute as the airport. It is called Twin Otter, and only 18 people can
fit into it at one time. Oh, and don’t be surprised that almost all the people in the airport know
each other. If they feel like chatting, there are two caf├ęs running in the airport where they can sit
down, have a drink, and catch up. One is in the airport itself, and the other is situated in front of
the airport, and both served yummy Maggi Mee curry. Yes, you read it right.
The owner of the homestay picked up us at the airport, or else we would have had to walk.
Joking.
However, walking is a pretty normal mode of ‘transportation’ here in Bario unless you want to
save time and have the means to.



As we were on our way, we saw a stretch of paddy fields. This is one of my favorite views in Bario.
Somehow, when I saw the paddy, it felt ‘down-to-earth’ and heartwarming. It reminded me of your
memories that you have told me about, Mak, when you were young and you went into the paddy
fields back in the time when paddy fields still existed in kampung. I’m here to experience what you
have experienced, and it was an unforgettable moment!
I mentioned just now that the paddy fields were one of my favorite views in Bario. Another one is
the Tama Abu Range that serves as the backdrop of Bario. It is huge and looks majestic. However,
trust me when I say that it is going to take more than 10 hours to reach the top although locals
would suggest it will take around few hours. But let just stick to 10 hours, and I can already
imagine how exhausting it can be. I think I need to hit the gym first to get myself prepared before
reaching that level of hiking.
The Bario Asal Longhouse is the place at which we stayed. It is long indeed, hence the name!
Along the longhouse, you can see hearths or ‘tetel’, and each of them represents one family.

Hearth or ‘tetel’.

Our homestay is inside the longhouse, and it is called Sinah Rang Lemulun’s homestay. They
provide all three meals, and the chicken wings are the best! I wish Mak and Abah can taste it right
now!
The other side of the Bario Asal Longhouse, also known as the Tawa’.

This is the other side of the longhouse. It consists of no tetel, but on the wall, you can see pictures
of each family and their relatives. How awesome is that? I think it is a good way to remind them
about their kinship. They not only know their own nuclear family but also their extended family!
This is also an area where they hold special occasions or Irau they call it.
In Bario, there are a few ‘special’ products that many of those who visited would buy and bring
home, namely Adan rice (more commonly known as Bario rice), pineapples and its jam, and
natural salt. With Adan rice, we can cook it and eat it as usual, but here in Bario, they often make it
into Nuba Laya or mashed rice. The rice is cooked with plenty of water, almost as if we were
cooking porridge, but it’s not quite like porridge.
The sweetness of pineapples here can’t be compared to the pineapples that we usually buy in a
supermarket. They also make the pineapples into jam which was frequently served to us during
breakfast. This jam can be homemade or processed in the small factory that the kampung owns.
Salt in Bario is acquired naturally through spring water that is harvested through a well. It takes
hours to boil the salt water until the water evaporates, and the salt crystalizes and hardens. They
will package it into bamboo stems and allow it to sit by the fire until the water completely dried
out and the salt takes the form of the bamboo stem. Then, they remove it from the bamboo, wrap
it with leaves, and it is ready to be sold! It sounds easy peasy, but it requires a lot of time, and the
process of heating has to be repeated many times. However, that is what makes the salt in Bario
so special: the cost of time and the labor that is involved. Bario salt also has a higher iodine
content than regular sea salt!
Don’t worry, I will buy a bit of everything so that you can taste it all!
I wish I could tell you every single detail of the experience that I am having here in Bario and
about Bario itself, but let me save it for when I’m back at home! A little mystery and surprise never
hurt!

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Good Times


When I bought my flight ticket to Bario, I was both scared and excited. I was about to go to this
beautiful place, but I was also about to spend ten days with hardly any internet and live in a
completely different environment that I’ve never been exposed to (city boy represent).
I was freaking out a bit on the inside, but I somehow knew that this adventure was a work of faith
(also because I’m four years late).


We landed in Bario, and the first thing we did was to hop on the back of Uncle Julian’s Hilux.
On 3% phone battery, I recorded a short clip of us welcoming the Bario air and scent, which I love and
have come to miss so much since.


LOOK AT THAT VIEW.



Bario, from the moment I landed, felt calm, clean, and homely. Whether I was on the back of
Uncle’s four-wheel drive (or a kind stranger’s one) going everywhere, or walking to and from the
internet centre back to our fantastic homestay, it felt so good to be surrounded by tall hills, paddy
fields, and fresh clear air. This place, right off the bat, is magical in its own unique way with all that
it has.


What I truly love about Bario and all the Kelabits I’ve come to know, through actual conversations and
even through passing-by, was that each one of them was the nicest people I’ve ever known. Several
tepuqs (elders in Kelabit) would wave to me on my way to the paddy fields (where I was assigned to
work with the sweetest human ever, Tepuq Ribed), and everywhere I went, everyone I saw, had a
smile on their face, and I dare say everyone whom I met shook my hand. I loved everything about this
experience, and I am grateful to have been assigned to my Tepuq who, thankfully, was patient in
teaching me how to harvest and dry paddy. I won’t forget our tea break talks where I’ve come to
conclude that my Tepuq loves fizzy orange drinks.  


Gloria took this great candid shot of Tepuq Ribed and I at her paddy hut.


Going into this, I have to admit I was nervous of how I would work and live with the other WHEE
participants. We’re all so different, but truly, it was those differences that made us connect and
resonate with each other. I will forever remember our hikes(all three of them) and how we’d sink in
mud literally all the time, and our deep talks that were both inside and outside, during the afternoons
and night. I will remember us gathering for every meal, food piled up on Alex’s plate and the time I
cried leaving this place, in the tiny plane, looking out at the open space.  

Poor Rhon, legit sinking in mud. 


I would do this adventure all over again, because god knows how thankful I am of this experience.

I'm smiling on the outside but dying on the inside after our morning hike. 

Bario was filled with good times and I hope it isn’t long before I go back there and revisit them. It was
truly unforgettable and the best start to my year that I’ve ever had growing up.